Beauvoir, Simone de: Title Commentary

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The Second Sex
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
The Woman Destroyed

The Second Sex


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In her early writings, de Beauvoir believed the decision for freedom could be a matter of individual choice—"a radical conversion." One needed only to come to the understanding of the falseness of one's life and make the leap. After World War II, and in the years of the Cold War, de Beauvoir modified her vision to include a more concrete notion of social forces. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, and again in The Second Sex, she developed the ideas of oppression, on the one hand, and of liberation, on the other. Transcendence is the move of the individual projecting him or herself toward freedom. But when "transcendence is condemned to fall uselessly back upon itself because it is cut off from its goals," this "is what defines a situation of oppression." For the oppressed, no act of radical conversion is possible, since others cut them off from their freedom. Thus the oppressed has "only one solution: to deny the harmony of that mankind from which an attempt is made to exclude him, to prove that he is a man and that he is free by revolting against the tyrants." This social act toward freedom is liberation.

Ascher, Carol. An excerpt from Simone de Beauvoir … A Life of Freedom. Boston: Beacon Press, 1981.

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SOURCE: Okely, Judith. "Rereading The Second Sex." In Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical Reader, edited by Elizabeth Fallaize, pp. 20-28. New York: Routledge, 1998.

In the following essay, originally published in 1986, Okely considers how elements of The Second Sex have withstood the passage of time and how the book furthers development of feminist thought.

Though de Beauvoir's study now reads differently both for her past and her new readers, the earlier reading cannot be easily jettisoned. The book is part of some women's personal history and part of the history of feminism. This double reading, then and now, is the rationale for my selection of certain themes for a critical discussion.

De Beauvoir's central section on mythology proved startling and evocative to a young woman like myself in the early 1960s. Today, thanks partly to anthropology and to feminists' interrogation of the subject and greater awareness of race and class, it is easier to recognise that de Beauvoir's generalisations fit neither all cultures nor all women. Women readers whose experience in no way approximated that of de Beauvoir were undoubtedly sceptical long ago. From the myths, I have selected for critical discussion those concerned with the female body and sexuality: matters which women now feel freer to talk and write about. De Beauvoir's examination of five male authors stands better the test of time. She initiated a way of looking at 'great' literature from a woman's perspective and there is now a serious body of work in feminist literary criticism. I have also recreated some of my past enthusiasm and mixed response to her text.

In the last decade, a number of women have been concerned to consolidate a theoretical approach to feminism. While the attempt to find the 'origins' or 'first cause' of women's subordination has been largely abandoned, greater emphasis is now placed on explanations for women's continuing subordination and the conditions that could change it. As part of this enterprise, feminists have re-examined Marx and Freud. De Beauvoir's interpretation of these two theorists therefore requires comment. Her extensive debate with biological explanations is of continuing and crucial relevance since the resurgence of sociobiologism in the last decade. The implications of the biological difference between males and females have provoked debates both within feminism and outside it. Considerable space is therefore devoted to various biological explanations and a closer reading of de Beauvoir's text.

My general comments on Volume II of The Second Sex invite the reader to place her detailed ethnography of women's lives in a specific context. From this volume, I have selected de Beauvoir's discussion of early childhood which contrasts with her more generalised comments on psychoanalysis and social influences in Volume I. Inevitably the record here of a re-reading has to be selective and cannot do justice to de Beauvoir's enterprise of encyclopaedic proportions.1

In Volume II de Beauvoir does not make use of statistical or in-depth social science studies of women; the latter appeared in strength only from the late 1960s. Instead she draws on the representation of women's experience in psychoanalysts' case studies and literature, especially those written by women. Parshley [the American translator] has tended to retain the evidence from the former and cut the latter. The other major source is personal observation and experience. Insights into the young girl were drawn both from her own past and from many years of teaching in girls' lycées. De Beauvoir sometimes gives examples of friends and acquaintances to back up her argument, making use of the 'continual interest' which she and Sartre had had for many years in 'all sorts of people; my memory provided me with an abundance of material' (FC, p. 196). Her autobiographies in fact reveal how restricted her acquaintance was with people outside café society and the bourgeoisie.

De Beauvoir has in part done an anthropological village study of specific women, but without the anthropological theory and focus. Her village is largely mid-century Paris and the women studied, including herself, are mainly middle class. There are almost no references to working-class urban women and only rare glimpses of the rural, peasant women who still made up the majority of French women at that time. There is just one striking discussion of the burden of the peasant woman in post-war France in the history section (SS, p. 165). Despite this hidden subjectivity, her observations and her recourse to historical, literary and psychoanalytical documentation raise questions beyond the local study. A paradoxical strength is the hidden use of herself as a case study, and it was one to which many of her women readers intuitively responded. Although in the text she never uses the word 'I' in a personal example, we can, when we examine her autobiography written nearly ten years later, see the link between her own experience and some of her generalised statements about the girl and woman.

Myths and Ideology

The discussion of the myths which surround 'woman' is the core to Volume I. As with her treatment of other aspects, its strength lies in its focused description rather than in any convincing explanation or first cause of women's subordination. Some later feminists have read the section only for an explanation of women's subordination and thus missed its cumulative impact.2

Whether or not she has been misread and simplified, ideas from this section are frequently referred to by feminists and others. De Beauvoir's words hold the imagination by pointing to powerful symbols of 'the feminine' and either explicitly or implicitly challenge their truth. Her description is not neutral, but accompanied by a mocking value judgement. Certain repetitive themes in different ideologies about women are systematically collected together, but de Beauvoir is most convincing in the treatment of western culture. Her description reminds the reader of a long tradition of the 'earth mother' and the 'eternal feminine' which, she argues, while purporting to be laudatory towards woman, is thoroughly dehumanising. The myths which present woman as a powerful symbol mask her effective powerlessness. De Beauvoir's women readers could learn that western myths which were so often said to be complimentary to themselves were only mystifications; that is, they served to mask the truth of women's objective subordination and oppression.

The opening pages try to link the myths of the feminine to existentialist concepts which de Beauvoir has refined by introducing a gender difference. 'Man' needs 'Others' to affirm his existence and to break away from immanence. He engages in projects to achieve transcendence. The female is used by the male as this 'Other' and she remains the object; she never becomes the subject. De Beauvoir does not convincingly explain why woman never becomes the subject, she merely asserts this, yet she described a painful truth of her time.

There are oblique references to Hegel's 'master-slave dialectic', although she does not always bother to name him. She develops Hegel's ideas by contrasting the position of the slave with that of woman. Whereas in Hegel's view the slave is able also to see himself as subject or 'essential' in his struggle with the master, de Beauvoir asserts that woman is in a worse position because she does not see herself as subject and cannot, like the slave, ever see the master (man) as inessential. Whereas the slave can supersede the master, apparently woman cannot supersede man by the same means. In de Beauvoir's view, woman cannot reach the necessary consciousness for emancipation. It is this use of Hegel which later feminist theorists have teased out of de Beauvoir's text in their analysis of her underlying theoretical position.3 If woman is deprived even of the potential victory attained by a slave, then it seems that de Beauvoir's message is that woman can never win freedom for herself, except perhaps by some independent change in society and the 'master' male.

If indeed de Beauvoir's Hegelian theory is taken as the major if not sole message of The Second Sex, then it would seem that all she is saying is that woman's subordinate state is fixed. But few of de Beauvoir's readers were aware of such embedded theoretical implications. Today it is certainly important to make explicit de Beauvoir's theoretical underpinnings; however, it should not be concluded that these were the key contributions to a past feminist reading of The Second Sex.

In contrast to de Beauvoir's preceding examination of biology, psychology, economics and history, the section on myths explores a process whereby women's subordination is continually reaffirmed or 'overdetermined' through ideology. Whether or not de Beauvoir is offering these ideas about women as causes or consequences of women's subordination, she should be credited for pointing to recurrent aspects of the myth of woman, especially in European culture. De Beauvoir sharpened scepticism in her reader.

That woman is the 'Other' is devastatingly stated:

Since women do not present themselves as subject, they have no virile myth in which their prospects are reflected; they have neither religion nor poetry which belongs to themselves in their own right. It is still through the dreams of men that they dream. It is the gods fabricated by males which they adore.

(DS I, p. 235)

The representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from the point of view which is theirs and which they confuse with the absolute truth (DS I, p. 236).

Whereas de Beauvoir's comments on much of European Christian ideology are fairly systematic, her tendency towards generalisations is very misleading when she strays into cultures in another time and space. De Beauvoir selects from social anthropology cross-cultural examples which confirm her argument and avoids reference to the many available counter-examples. To be fair, she does attempt some broad distinctions between Islam, Graeco-Roman culture and Christianity. But otherwise, random cases are plucked from India, Egypt and Oceania, with only occasional counterexamples.

Indeed, the text oscillates between a defiant angry declaration that woman is always 'Other' and a subdued acknowledgement that this view of women may be eclipsed by the presence of some non-female idols in the course of history (DS I, p. 234). For example, under dictatorships, oman may no longer be a privileged object, and in the 'authentic democratic society' advocated by Marx, de Beauvoir observes there is no place for 'the Other'. This recognition of broad differences is modified when she notes that Nazi soldiers held to the cult of female virginity and that communist writers like Aragon created a special place for woman. De Beauvoir hopes that the myth of woman will one day be extinguished: 'the more that women affirm themselves as human beings, the more the wondrous quality of the Other will die in them. But today it still exists in the heart of all men' (DS I, p. 235; my emphasis). This last sentence reveals her continuing need to conclude with a pan-cultural generalisation.

While she is ambivalent as to whether woman as 'Other' is a universal, she states that 'the Other' is itself ambiguous. It is evil, but 'being necessary for good' it returns to good. Woman embodies 'no fixed concept' (DS I, p. 236). In this way, de Beauvoir can explain the apparently conflicting fantasies which women are believed to embody for men. One of these myths is the association of woman with nature. There is a double aspect to this. Nature can be seen as mind, will and transcendence as well as matter, passivity and immanence. On the one hand nature is mind, on the other it is flesh. As evidence for the latter view of nature de Beauvoir looks back to the classical Greek scholars (for example Aristotle), who asserted that only the male is the true creator, while female fertility is merely passive; that is, that woman is the passive earth while man is the seed.

De Beauvoir's examination of classical European writers was helpful to both western and non-western women in exposing the mystification of 'woman' in a long-standing tradition. It was harder for de Beauvoir to look beyond the traditions of her own culture, especially when she had to rely on less accessible sources for a view of nature elsewhere. She offered some examples from India which compare the earth to a mother, but random selections do not prove the universality of any such principle; moreover, her example from Islamic texts where woman is called a field or grapevine (DS I, p. 238) is an image from agriculture not wild nature. The two are certainly not the same.

Despite these errors, de Beauvoir systematically outlines a dominant European tradition which, since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, sees nature as inferior to culture.4 Her suggestions about women and nature have stimulated anthropologists to think about the association.5 De Beauvoir's link between women and nature is not as absolute as some of her successors have tried to make it.6 More recently, anthropologists have given examples from other cultures which challenge any pan-cultural generalisation.7 For example, Olivia Harris has argued that Indians of the Bolivian Highlands equate the married couple with 'culture' and unmarried persons with 'nature'; the nature-culture opposition is thus not linked simplistically to a gender opposition.8

As elsewhere, de Beauvoir proceeds through the stages of a woman's life. Here, they are examined in the light of external ideology rather than of a woman's concrete experience. Women as a group may comply with and internalise these beliefs as if they were 'natural'. Whereas de Beauvoir tries to suggest that much of the ideology is universal, it was in fact her revelation that this was mere belief, mere myth, which was so powerful to her early readers. Insofar as western women were indoctrinated to believe that they might represent 'mother earth', the 'eternal feminine', erotic temptress or virgin purity, de Beauvoir dismantled these images. Some of us could recognise apparently individual fantasies about ourselves as part of an overarching tradition made outside us, not born with us; the fantasies were historical, not fixed. The problem for us was how to throw them off. Non-western women, by contrast, gained a novel critical perspective on western ideology which was seen even more as one to reject.

In searching for the basis for certain ideas and myths of woman, de Beauvoir seizes upon woman's capacity to gestate. Her approach is rooted in the European Cartesian tradition which separates mind from body. Man apparently would like to be a pure Idea, absolute Spirit, but his fate is to be trapped in the 'chaotic shadows of the maternal belly … it is woman who imprisons him in the mud of the earth' (DS I, p. 239). De Beauvoir compares the womb to 'quivering jelly which evokes the soft viscosity of carrion' (DS I, p. 239). 'Wherever life is in the making—germination, fermentation—it arouses disgust … the slimy embryo begins the cycle that is completed in the putrefaction of death' (SS, p. 178). These extraordinary references to viscosity and slime echo Sartre's extensive discussion of viscous substance both in Nausea (1938) and in Being and Nothingness (1943) and some of his own personal disgust with aspects of the sexual body (see Adieux, 1981).

In aiming to deconstruct the myth of the feminine, de Beauvoir thus naively reproduces her male partner's and lover's ideas about the female body, while possibly deceiving herself that these are objective and fixed philosophical truths. As in her discussion of biology, she is on dubious ground in suggesting that bodily parts inevitably arouse the same feelings (of disgust) in all individuals and all cultures. She is implying it is 'natural' to look at 'nature' in a specific way. In fact she reveals the extent to which she has inter-nalised both the views of her own culture and the extreme reactions of Sartre.

Her problematic assertions are compounded when she makes unsubstantiated generalisations about primitive people's attitudes to childbirth. In her text such people are an undifferentiated lump and she repeats a clichéd belief that their attitudes to childbirth are always surrounded by the most severe taboos. It is interesting to be informed that childbirth in a number of different societies is subject to elaborate ritual; the danger comes when de Beauvoir implies either that taboos vary according to an evolutionary 'progress' or that attitudes to birth are unvaried. De Beauvoir asserts that all the ancient codes demand purification rites from women in confinement, and that gestation always inspires a 'spontaneous repulsion' (DS I, p. 240).

De Beauvoir thus falls into the trap of suggesting that gestation is naturally and universally disgusting. Her evidence about so-called primitives is suspect, first because even 'taboos' do not necessarily reflect disgust, and second because a people's cultural treatment of childbirth is linked to differences in descent, marriage and kinship systems and control over offspring. De Beauvoir's assertion that disgust at gestation is spontaneous speaks more of herself and her own time. Today I can criticise de Beauvoir for her suspect generalisation about humanity's spontaneous psychological reactions to the physicality of childbirth, but some twenty years ago I underlined it.

De Beauvoir makes similar sweeping statements about menstruation. She maintains that in all civilisations woman inspires in man the horror of his own carnal 'contingence'—she reminds him of his mortality. This, according to de Beauvoir, is confirmed by an assertion that everywhere before puberty the young girl is without taboo. It is only after her first menstruation that she becomes impure and is then surrounded by taboos. De Beauvoir then offers a random collection of menstrual 'taboos' from Leviticus, Egypt, India, nineteenth-century Britain and France to support this suspect generalisation.

In the 1950s and 1960s this made interesting reading, but it is perilously close to an old-fashioned type of anthropology, exemplified in Frazer's The Golden Bough, in which customs are lumped together for their superficial similarity, although in fact they are meaningless when torn from their different contexts. By contrast, a few detailed examples of menstrual taboos in specific cultures are more informative for placing them in context. De Beauvoir does indeed give three such extended examples, but these are excluded by Parshley (DS I, pp. 243-6).

In de Beauvoir's view, the taboos associated with menstruation 'express the horror which man feels for feminine fertility' (DS I, p. 247). This emphasis on 'horror' is little different from the now discredited view that primitive people's rituals are merely a response to 'fear'. Today, after a wider anthropological reading on these menstrual 'issues' across cultures, I can criticise de Beauvoir's explanation, but I have also to recognise that in 1961 I underlined that single sentence above. Both female writer and reader identified with a myth that woman's body and blood inspired horror and believed it as fact, not fiction. Thus neither de Beauvoir nor the female reader escaped the myths of her own culture.

The myths associated with virginity and the drama of defloration are also discussed by de Beauvoir in terms of psychological fear. Sometimes, de Beauvoir vaguely suggests that customs surrounding defloration have 'mystical' causes, as if this were sufficient explanation. De Beauvoir is at the mercy of outdated European explanations for ritual, partly because any systematic study of rituals associated with women had to await a feminist anthropology.

In recent decades, anthropologists have looked at rituals associated with menstruation, virginity, defloration, pregnancy and childbirth and the connections between a group's specific control over women's sexuality or fertility and the material context. In some societies menstruation will be merely a private event and without ritual taboo. In some cases childbirth and the arrival of a new member to the group will be publicly significant and so marked by ritual elaboration or specific taboos.9

De Beauvoir's discussion of the control of women's sexuality and reproduction cross-culturally is in places thoroughly misleading, but in its time it told us about some of the strongest taboos in a specific Judaeo-Christian culture, if not class. In 1961 I underlined in painful recognition her psychological explanation as to the relative importance of virginity:

Depending whether man feels crushed by the forces which encircle him or whether he proudly believes himself capable of annexing them, he either refuses or demands that his wife be handed over as a virgin.

(DS I, p. 250)

In the 1980s the western bourgeois demand for a virgin wife has all but disintegrated, and not because the male has miraculously overcome some innate mystical fear. Changes in attitudes towards female virginity coincide with changes in attitudes to sexuality and marriage and even advances in the technology of birth control. In the early 1960s, as a virgin, I could not see that the bourgeois cult of virginity depended only on the social and historical context. In those days, de Beauvoir's critical discussion of virginity had maximum impact precisely because she mistakenly argued that it was widely valued in a variety of cultures. Today, we may be more concerned to point to the many counter-examples in order to argue, as she intended, for alternative freedoms. There is a demand for specific case studies rather than broad and inaccurate generalisations.

Inevitably the author's own culture was the most closely observed. It is therefore not surprising that de Beauvoir should suggest that the most disturbing image of woman as 'the Other' is found in Christianity: 'It is in her that are embodied the temptations of the earth, sex and the devil' (DS I, p. 270). In the margin I exclaimed 'et on m'a fait Chrétienne!' ('And they made me a Christian woman!'). De Beauvoir, the former Catholic, suggests that all Christian literature intensifies 'the disgust which man can feel for woman' (DS I, p. 270), and her examples from modern male writers show the continuing tradition. Again, as elsewhere, she presumed this disgust to be universal and innate. Thus she had not fully freed herself of her own indoctrination into Christianity when she asserted that its ingredients were general to all societies. But for the reader of the 1950s and early 1960s, de Beauvoir's selection of western traditions, when juxtaposed with a splatter of historical and cross-cultural examples, had a powerful effect. Dominant western beliefs were exposed as of no greater truth than other beliefs and customs.

References and notes

FC Force of Circumstance, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1965.

SS The Second Sex, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1972.

DS I/ DS II Le Deuxième Sexe, vol. I/vol. II, Paris, Gallimard, 1949 (Okely's translations).

  1. See also Okely, 'Sexuality and Biology in The Second Sex ', paper given to the Social Anthropology Inter-Collegiate Seminar, London University, 1984.
  2. See for example M. Barrett, Women's Oppression Today, London, Verso, 1980.
  3. For example C. Craig, 'Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex in the light of the Hegelian Master-Slave Dialectic and Sartrean Existentialism', PhD, University of Edinburgh, 1979.
  4. See J. and M. Bloch, 'Women and the Dialectics of Nature in Eighteenth-century Thought' in C. McCormack and M. Strathern (eds), Nature, Culture and Gender, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1980.
  5. See E. Ardener, 'Belief and the Problem of Women', in E. Ardener (ed.), Perceiving Women, London, Dent, 1975.
  6. For example S. Ortener, 'Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?', in M. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere (eds), Woman, Culture and Society, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1974.
  7. McCormack and Strathern, Nature, Culture and Gender.
  8. O. Harris, 'Complementarity and Conflict: An Andean View of Women and Men', in J. La Fontaine (ed.), Sex and Age as Principles of Social Differentiation, London, Academic Press, 1978; and 'The Power of Signs: Gender, Culture and the Wild in the Bolivian Andes', in McCormack and Strathern, Nature, Culture and Gender.
  9. See J. La Fontaine, 'Ritualisation of Women's Life Crises in Bugisu', in The Interpretation of Ritual, London, Tavistock, 1972. See also J. Okely, The Traveller Gypsies, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter


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The Woman Destroyed


SOURCE: Fallaize, Elizabeth. "Resisting Romance: Simone de Beauvoir, The Woman Destroyed and the Romance Script." In Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives, edited by Margaret Atack and Phil Powrie, pp. 15-25. Manchester, Eng.: Manchester University Press, 1990.

In the following essay, Fallaize examines elements of popular romantic fiction in The Woman Destroyed and the possibility of demythologizing romantic ritualism for Beauvoir.

The feminist credentials of Simone de Beauvoir's fictional texts are sometimes assumed to be guaranteed by the fact that their author also produced The Second Sex, and indeed Beauvoir's fiction is most usually read against her essays (or Sartre's). However, more recently, there has been a tendency to judge the fiction—and to find it wanting in some respects—against the conventions of the romance plot.1 It is indeed difficult to deny that elements of the romance plot are easily discernible in Beauvoir's early fiction: heterosexual couple formation plays a large part in the narrative, and within this couple the woman tends to be in what Rachel Blau Duplessis has called romantic thraldom (by which she means a totally defining love between apparent unequals—the lover has the power of conferring a sense of identity and purpose upon the loved one) to the often strongly gendered man.2

In the early fictional texts, published in the forties and fifties, the central women characters are on the whole rewarded by getting their man when they take the right turning after an initial period of bad faith—thus Françoise of She Came to Stay (1943) destroys the rival woman and is rewarded with the love and attention of both the central male characters; Hélène of The Blood of Others (1945) valorises love above all else and comes to merit the hero's love when she adopts his quest as her own; the central preoccupation of Anne of The Mandarins (1954) is her choice between two men. In more general terms it is quite clear that, despite the strong warnings she gives in The Second Sex about the dangers of love for women, Beauvoir herself valued love and the couple very highly. In the first volume of her autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, she describes her anguish and fury as an adolescent at reading a novel in which a man and a woman 'made for each other' decide to sacrifice the possibility of a relationship in the interests of a cause: 'True love, from the moment it burst into passionate life, was irreplaceable (…). Daniel's career, the cause, and so on were all abstract things. I found it absurd and criminal that they should put them before love, happiness, life'.3 Forty years later, in Force of Circumstance, she begins her summing-up of her life: 'There has been one undoubted success in my life: my relationship with Sartre'.4 It is of course important to distinguish between placing a high value on love within the heterosexual couple on the one hand, and all the baggage of the romance ritual on the other, but maintaining the distinction between the two can be a slippery route.

However, the kind of observation which can be made of the extent to which the ideology of romance permeates Beauvoir's earlier fictional texts appears more difficult to make when we turn to her last two fictional texts, Les Belles Images (1966) and The Woman Destroyed (1968), written more than a decade after her earlier fiction and in a period of rapid transformation of the social roles of women. The thrust of both these texts is essentially a demystifying one, and though in Les Belles Images, Beauvoir's main attack is centred on the ideology of the technocratic bourgeoisie, the text also carries out a brutal dismantling of the ideology of the couple: the heroine finds that her husband and her lover are interchangeable and a whole series of romantic gestures and images—such as the sending of flowers, the gift of an expensive necklace, the romantic image of the handsome and elegant couple driving away in their Ferrari—are shown to be not just conventional and ritualistic but to conceal a materialism, a self-interest and even a violence sufficient to deter the most determined romantic heroine. The deconstruction of the romantic and the technocratic go hand in hand when the richest and most powerful male character of the text announces that he is to marry the daughter of his ex-mistress: 'No-one can rule their heart', he explains in self-satisfied justification.5

Nevertheless it is possible to ask whether this attack is really mounted on romantic ideology itself, or whether, on the contrary, it is not the characters' failure to meaningfully enact the amorous ritual which may be intended to signal the aridity and inhumanity of the bourgeoisie.6 And this kind of doubt persists with "The Woman Destroyed", the final story in the cycle of three short stories also entitled The Woman Destroyed, in which the problem of the romance plot becomes particularly acute. Before turning to the story itself, however, it is worth examining more closely the nature of the romance against which I propose to read the story. Blau Duplessis defines the romance plot as one which 'muffles the female character, represses female quest, valorises heterosexual ties, puts individuals into couples as a sign of their success. It evokes an aura around the couple itself and constructs couples based on an extreme of sexual difference'. Blau Duplessis accepts that 'narrative is a version of, or a special expression of, ideology: representations by which we construct and accept values and institutions'. But it does not appear that she gives an overwhelming force to this ideology since she assumes that women writers critical of androcentric culture can revise and restructure the romance plot, thus signalling 'a dissent from social norms as well as narrative forms'.7

In contrast to this position, Michelle Coquillat in her recent study of the romandegare (popular romance) in France stresses heavily the ideological function of the romance plot, emphasising the way in which it renders 'natural' values which are actually socially determined and describing the romandegare and its central code, romantic love, as a 'prodigious instrument' in our culture's persuasion process that to be real women we must seek our lives in love of our hero and in domesticity.8 And Coquillat does not confine her conclusions to the more popular versions of literature: though the code can be perceived to be operating in its grossest form in the roman de gare, it is also to be discovered, she argues, albeit in more sophisticated wrappings, in the more elite reaches of literature.



My behavior conformed to the morality implicit in my environment; but with one important exception; I insisted that men should be subject to the same laws as women. Aunt Germaine had complained to my parents, in veiled terms, that Jacques knew too much about life. My father, the majority of writers, and the universal concensus of opinion encouraged young men to sow their wild oats. When the time came, they would marry a young woman of their own social class; but meanwhile it was quite in order for them to amuse themselves with girls from the lowest ranks of society—women of easy virtue, young milliners' assistants, sewing maids, shop girls. This custom made me feel sick. It had been driven into me that the lower classes have no morals: the misconduct of a laundrywoman or a flower girl therefore seemed to me to be so natural that it didn't even shock me; I felt a certain sympathy for those poor young women whom novelists endowed with such touching virtues. Yet their love was always doomed from the start; one day or another, according to his whim or convenience, their lover would throw them over for a well-bred young lady. I was a democrat and a romantic; I found it revolting that, just because he was a man and had money, he should be authorized to play around with a girl's heart. On the other hand, I was up in arms in defense of the pure-hearted fiancée with whom I identified myself. I saw no reason why my future partner in life should permit himself liberties which I wouldn't allow myself. Our love would only be inevitable and complete if he saved himself for me as I had saved myself for him. Moreover, our sexual life, and that of the whole world, should be in its very essence a serious affair; otherwise I should be forced to change my own attitude, and as I was at the moment unable to do so, I should have been thrown into the greatest confusion. Therefore, despite public opinion, I persisted in my view that both sexes should observe the same rules of chastity and continence.

Beauvoir, Simone de. An excerpt from Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Translated by James Kirkup, p. 176. Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1959.

The code that Coquillat discovers at work in the Harlequin series, in the novels of Guy des Cars, of Delly and other popular romance writers does in fact have much in common with Blau Duplessis's definition of the romance plot, despite the fact that Coquillat's model is based on reading 'popular' literature and Blau Duplessis's on 'higher' forms. However, both these studies focus on the separately published novel, and in the case of "The Woman Destroyed", an even more relevant intertext is that of women's magazine fiction, since the first publication of "The Woman Destroyed" was as serialised extracts in the prestigious French women's magazine Elle. Serialised over five issues, from 19 October to 16 November 1967, the text was accompanied by a series of illustrations of the story by Simone de Beauvoir's sister, Hélène de Beauvoir, and by large photographs of the author herself.9 Both are important in making the story conform to the genre of women's magazine fiction since a series of illustrations of the heroine of the story are virtually de rigueur.

Jean Emelina has analysed other conventions of the women's magazine short story in France: like the roman de gare, the point of view of the narrative is that of a central female protagonist with whom the reader is encouraged to identify, and is usually a first-person account. There are various sub-genres, but in the 'true confession' type the tone is highly personal and intimate, revealing the connection between the story and the problems page of which the story is in some ways the prolongation. The setting is usually contemporary, the experience recounted always revolves around love and its problems, and there may be a considerable emphasis on the family (noticeably more so than in the English equivalent). The problems raised are always dealt with strictly on an individual level, as in most popular fiction, and not viewed as being related to any social, class or gender base—again, a feature of the roman de gare strongly emphasised by Coquillat.10

Turning now then to the story of "The Woman Destroyed", we can begin by identifying the features it shares with the women's magazine story in particular, and with romantic fiction in general. One of the most basic features of the women's magazine story is that it must be seen to be about women and for women, and this is much more true of all three stories of The Woman Destroyed than of any other of Simone de Beauvoir's fictional texts. In the case of the particular story with which we are concerned here, the central figure is Monique, a woman in her forties whose total energies in life are devoted to her husband and her children. Her diary constitutes the narrative and provides the woman-centred focus and confessional tone of the romance script. The central focus on the complications of love, also essential to the genre, is revealed as early as the sixth entry of the diary, where we find recorded the event which is to form the central crisis of the story: Monique's husband Maurice reveals that he is having an affair with another woman. The presence of the rival woman, virtually a sine qua non in Delly,11 is used here as the stimulus to provoke Monique into examining her life with Maurice, past and present, and into trying out a number of remedies designed to win back her husband. Most of the remedies are more or less explicitly culled from reading agony and advice columns—after all, Monique's situation of being abandoned by her husband at forty when the children have left home constitutes a stock situation of such pages.

'This evening [writes Monique in her diary] I am going out with Maurice. The advice of Isabelle and of Miss Lonelihearts column—to get your husband back, be cheerful and elegant and go out with him, just the two of you.'12 Advice also emerges from the female community, since Monique discusses her situation with a number of other women acquaintances. These other women are kept very shadowy, in keeping with another convention of the romance script, which is that the woman is always basically alone; other women are understood to be potential rivals rather than sources of support. From the women emerges a body of generalisations about men, of the kind: 'In Maurice, like most men, just beneath the surface slumbers an adolescent lacking in self-assurance'13 and 'Men choose the easiest solution: it's easier to stay with your wife than to launch out into a new life'.14 What these infantilising generalisations do is to compensate for the women's actual lack of power over men, and to construct in their attempts to guess at Maurice's likely motivations and behaviour a Maurice who is above all a man, above all, in other words, a member of another species. Maurice becomes the unknowable 'other' whose behaviour and remarks Monique must spend hours trying to decode. Here we have an almost pathological—and highly unexistential—construction of sexual difference, again an element crucial to the romantic code.15

On the basis of these suppositions about men and about the ground rules of the battle for men, Monique adopts what she calls the 'smile tactic'. Faced for example with the request that Maurice be allowed to spend the whole night out when he sees the other woman, Monique swallows hard and writes in her diary: 'No confrontations. If I ruin this affair for him it will look even more attractive to him from a distance, he'll feel he's missed out on something. If I let him go through with it properly he'll soon get tired of it. That's what Isabelle says'.16 Bolstering herself with her tactic, Monique increasingly positions herself as a women's magazine reader, feeling optimistic the day that her stars tell her Sagittarians will be lucky in love this week and sending off examples of the handwriting of all three of them to be analysed—interestingly the results are made to be accurate, so that the text supports a belief in graphology, though Monique then has to lose her faith in it at this point in order to be able to avoid facing up to what the results tell her.

Monique's tactic, however, is not allowed to succeed, and in a reversal of the happy end of the genre, she is left alone at the end of the story without her husband. As she writes her diary, she begins to see that she has spent years constructing a mythology of the perfect couple, the perfect wife and mother, the perfect husband, and has refused all other perceptions. She comes, in a half-conscious kind of way, to blame herself for engineering a pregnancy in order to press Maurice into marriage and in order to give up a career in medicine which she found too demanding. She blames herself for having been too stifling as a mother, and Maurice accuses her of moulding one daughter into an exact replica of herself and forcing the other daughter to flee to the US to escape her attentions. In one sense the message of the text is clear and uncompromising—by making a career out of marriage and motherhood, Monique has made a mess of her life and possibly that of others.

So far so good—it is clear that Beauvoir's intention is to exploit the conventions of the romance to make them express different meanings, and to offer a salutary warning to the woman reader. However, as Beauvoir writes in the last volume of her autobiography All Said and Done, it is dangerous to ask the reader to read between the lines.17 We have already seen how closely the story mimics the genre. The ending does leave Monique on her own, but it also leaves her still in thraldom to the handsome Maurice, despite the lies he has told and the way in which he has used Monique as a domestic support (and in fact he has to be left looking like a nice sort of chap in order to allow the reader to focus on Monique's mistakes). Monique is thus left at the end of the story as the loser of the eternal female battle for the man. She does not feel that this particular man was not worth having. On the contrary, what she has learned is that her weapons in the battle were the wrong ones, and that her rival—who is a successful lawyer and takes care to follow Maurice's own career with eager interest—is using the right ones. Monique loses and her rival wins—the man remains the prize.

Even more problematically, perhaps, the use of the diary form and the individual confessional style of the narrative means that the text echoes the assumption of all romantic fiction, which is that Monique's situation is an individual matter. It is not absolutely impossible to squeeze out some social elements from the story, but we are a long way here from Les Belles Images, in which Simone de Beauvoir so strongly stresses the social forces contributing to the creation of the subject. In Les Belles Images the characters are seen to be constituted by the discourse of their group; in "The Woman Destroyed" Monique is clearly held responsible for her refusal to go beyond the vocabulary of the romantic cliché, her insistence that phrases such as 'Two and two make four' and 'I love you, I love only you' have the same status.

The rules of romantic fiction, which Beauvoir tried to bend to her own purposes, turn out then to be insidiously recuperative. But the structures of the story are not the only thing working against Beauvoir's subversive enterprise. There is also the question of the readers. In All Said and Done Beauvoir describes how 'writers, students and teachers' wrote to her 'having fully appreciated my meaning', but after the serialisation in Elle she received shoals of a different kind of letter:

I was overwhelmed with letters from women destroyed, half-destroyed or in the act of being destroyed. They identified themselves with the heroine; they attributed all possible virtues to her and they were astonished that she should remain attached to a man so unworthy of her. Their partiality made it evident that as far as their husbands, their rivals and they themselves were concerned, they shared Monique's blindness. Their reactions were based upon an immense incomprehension.18

But to be surprised by the reaction of the Elle readers is to fail to recognise the elements which the story has in common with the conventions of romance fiction, and to dismiss the implications of publishing in Elle. It is of course true that to publish in Elle was not at all the same thing as to publish in the more populist presse du coeur type of women's magazine like Confidences and Intimité. Evelyne Sullerot, in her study of French women's magazines carried out in the early 1960s, identifies Elle readers as having a level of education well above average, coming overwhelmingly from the middle classes and living almost exclusively in Paris or large towns. As a consequence, Elle readers of the sixties were far less conservative than the less well-educated, more rural and Catholic readers of the populist press, and Elle, which knew its readership well, was far more able to overstep limits and question conventions. It was the first French women's magazine to deal with issues of sexuality and contraception before even the advent of the sixties, and it had a highly distinctive agony column, reigned over by Marcelle Ségal. Her style was not the sympathetic, rather saccharine tone adopted by many of her peers in this period but was frequently abrasive and ironic, designed to shake her readers out of the somewhat narcissistic torpor into which many of her correspondents seemed sunk.19

However, despite this relatively energetic tone and the encouragement which Elle gave its readers to extend their interests outside the home, the Elle readership could not read Beauvoir's texts in the way that the 'writers, students and teachers' to whom Simone de Beauvoir refers in All Said and Done read it. Publishing in Elle meant entering the mass market—Sullerot estimates Elle's readership in the 1960s as in the order of three million women, the majority of whom were unlikely to have read any of Beauvoir's earlier fiction. What they would have had experience of, however, was the magazine fiction genre in which she appeared to be writing, and they clearly read it according to the conventions of the genre, identifying with the heroine whose comfortable middle-class Parisian lifestyle reflected the readers' own, and recognising the how-to-win-a-husband-back vocabulary which Monique clings to. This reading is encouraged by Elle's presentation of the text as 'an analysis of what happens in the mind, in the heart of a woman when the man she loves, and whom she trusts, deceives her'. The adultery of Maurice, understandable or even desirable perhaps in St Germain circles, was likely to be perceived primarily as a threat to domestic stability by the readers of a magazine which, for all its avant-garde reputation, devoted a considerable number of its pages to the domestic arts. The 1975 new law on divorce, replacing the 1889 Naquet law, was still more than six years in the future, and even the realist Marcelle Ségal advised her readers to stick with domestic fidelity and avoid breaking up the home.20 The reaction of the Elle readers demonstrates that reading habits and expectations are not to be changed by a single text. When taken together with the other doubts about the text expressed by readers perfectly aware of Beauvoir's intentions, the difficulties of subverting a highly established and ideological script become evident.21 However, the reaction of the Elle readership was not the only consequence for Beauvoir of the serialisation. In discussing the quality or rather lack of quality of the fiction published in magazines like Elle and Marie-Claire, relative to the quality of their other articles, Evelyne Sullerot points to the extreme reluctance of writers to sign work appearing in women's magazines, because of the damage to the author's literary reputation likely to ensue.22 The reception of 'The Woman Destroyed' was heavily marked by its appearance in Elle. Bernard Pivot, at that time still a humble columnist for the Figaro Littéraire, wrote the book off as a 'shop-girls' romance with pink bows on it' on the strength of a single installment.23 Jacqueline Piatier in Le Monde was equally exultant to be able to damn the story as women's romance. Her review ends with the following line, in which she underlines the gulf between what she takes to be the philosophical pretensions of Simone de Beauvoir and the concerns of the story: 'Can it be that when philosophers start solving problems instead of posing them that they begin producing agony columns?'24 No other fictional text by Beauvoir met with such a dismissive response on publication as The Woman Destroyed, despite the fact that the book quickly became a best-seller. It seems that Beauvoir may have underestimated the dangers of writing between the lines, especially when the lines are those of the romance script.

Most analysts of romantic fiction point to its ideological force, though opinions vary about the actual impact of this force on readers, just as, to look at the issue in a wider scope, commentators on ideology generally are divided about the extent to which it can be resisted. Janice Radway, for example, argues that despite its constant reworking of structures which confine women, romantic fiction can have an integrative and enabling effect on women's lives. Lennard Davis equally urges us to become resisting readers but is more inclined to the view that the novel is a form which 'by and large, is one that fundamentally resists change'.25 Thus, even if we posit resisting readers, we are still left with the problem of the extent to which it is possible for the writer to subvert the conventions of such a strongly established genre.

To what extent can the writer carry out a demystifying task and become a critic of ideology, while attempting to work within the formal structures of that ideology? Is Beauvoir herself not bound by the very values which she perceives as destroying women? The demands of Beauvoir's own deeply-seated attachment to the value of the couple, the formal and ideological constraints of the genre and the habits of the readership seem, in the case of "The Woman Destroyed", to have all weighed in the balance against this particular attempt to resist romance. Optimism about the scope for revising the romance plot and criticism of a writer on the grounds that she has apparently failed to rewrite the script have to be viewed in the context of these formidable odds.


  1. See for example the chapter on relations between male and female characters in Mary Evans, Simone de Beauvoir: A Feminist Mandarin (London: Tavistock, 1985).
  2. Rachel Blau Duplessis, Writing Beyond the Ending. Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), p. 5.
  3. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, trans. James Kirkup (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), pp. 142-3.
  4. Force of Circumstance, trans. Richard Howard (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), p. 659.
  5. Les Belles Images, trans. Patrick O'Brian (Harmonds-worth: Penguin, 1983), p. 81; translation adapted.
  6. n an article entitled 'What Love Is and Isn't' published in English in the American magazine McCalls only the year before the publication of Les Belles Images, Beauvoir stressed what she describes as the revolutionary and liberating force of love and suggests that it is doubtful whether a person too much in harmony with society could experience love. From this perspective, the characters of Les Belles Images are clearly too other-directed and too anxious to conform to social pressures to allow themselves to experience a potentially revolutionary force. The article is reprinted in Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier, Les Ecrits de Simone de Beauvoir (Paris: Gallimard, 1979), pp. 413-21.
  7. lau Duplesis, Writing Beyond, p. 20.
  8. ichelle Coquillat, Romans d'amour (Paris: Odile Jacob, 1989), pp. 10-12.
  9. he photographs of Simone de Beauvoir are in fact much more prominent than the illustrations, an indication of the extent to which Elle was keen to promote the fact that it was publishing 'the greatest French woman writer of our day'. During the latter part of the sixties, circulation figures for women's magazines fell rapidly; Bonvoisin and Maignien attribute this fall in part to the radical changes taking place in French society affecting women's roles which magazines were unable to keep pace with. Perhaps Elle saw the publication of Beauvoir in its pages as a useful tactic at this stage, despite the conservative reaction of readers to earlier extracts from The Prime of Life. See Evelyne Sullerot, La Presse féminine (Paris: Armand Colin, 1963), p. 138; S-M. Bonvoisin and M. Maignien, La Presse féminine (Paris: Armand Colin, 1986), pp. 26-7.
  10. Jean Emelina, 'La Nouvelle dans la presse du cœur: étude à partir d'un exemple', in Hommage à Pierre Nardin (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1977), pp. 291-303. I am grateful to Béatrice Damamme-Gilbert for drawing this article to my attention.
  11. Coquillat, Romans d'amour, p. 34.
  12. The Woman Destroyed, trans. Patrick O'Brian (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), p. 117. All subsequent references are to this edition.
  13. Ibid., p. 118; translation adapted.
  14. Ibid., p. 165; translation adapted.
  15. See Anne Barr Snitow, 'Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different' in Anne Snitow, Christine Stansell, Sharon Thompson (eds.), Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983).
  16. Woman Destroyed, pp. 121-2; translation adapted.
  17. Beauvoir goes on in this paragraph to construct her imaginary reader as a detective: 'I hoped that people would read the books as a detective-story; here and there I scattered clues that would allow the reader to find the key to the mystery—but only if he tracked Monique down as one tracks down the guilty character', All Said and Done, trans. Patrick O'Brian (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), p. 140. Subsequent references are to this edition. However, as Toril Moi points out, it is in fact Monique who actually becomes the detective in her frenzied quest for reliable knowledge. See Toril Moi, Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 80.
  18. Ibid., p. 142.
  19. See Sullerot, Presse féminine, pp. 193-5, and Bonvoisin and Maignien, Presse féminine, pp. 28-9.
  20. A letter from 'Jacky' in the issue of 19 October in which serialisation of 'The Woman Destroyed' was begun, urges the reader to enjoy her lover on a temporary basis while hanging on to her husband. Marcelle Ségal replies: 'No, Jacky, this is not possible. My profession has its obligations, so does marriage, begging your pardon'.
  21. See Toril Moi's excellent analysis of the rhetorical effects undermining authorial intentions in the story in Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir, cited above.
  22. Sullerot, Presse féminine, p. 129.
  23. See Beauvoir, All Said and Done, p. 142.
  24. Jacqueline Piatier, Le Monde (des livres), 24 janvier 1968, pp. I-II.
  25. See Lennard J. Davis, Resisting Novels: Ideology and Fiction (London: Methuen, 1987), p. 227. Davis is particularly sceptical about the possibility of subverting romance fiction: 'It is unlikely that this major genre can have any radical political effect, crippled as it is by the weight of tradition and the demands of the audience' (p. 234).

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