Beauvoir, Simone de (1908–1986)
Beauvoir, Simone de (1908–1986)
French novelist, memoir writer, essayist, pioneer of modern feminism, and intellectual companion of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre for 51 years. Name variations: nickname le Castor (the Beaver). Born Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir in Paris, France, on January 9, 1908; died in Paris on April 14, 1986; daughter of Georges Bertrand de Beauvoir and Françoise Brasseur; degrees from the Sorbonne and École Normale Superièure, 1929; never married; no children.
Met Jean-Paul Sartre (1929); death of Elizabeth Le Coin (1929); taught in lycées (1931–43); published L'Invitée (August 1943); published The Blood of Others (September 1945); published Vol. I of The Second Sex (October 1949); published first volume of memoirs (September 1958); met Sylvie Le Bon (later her adopted daughter, November 1960); served as president of "Choisir" (To Choose, June 1972); served as president of the League of Women's Rights (January 1974); death of Jean-Paul Sartre (April 15, 1980).
"I was not a child, I was me," Simone de Beauvoir wrote in the first volume of her memoirs, and she remained a fiercely independent "me" all her life. A member of the French intellectual elite, de Beauvoir has been characterized as opinionated, self-centered, inelegant, indomitable, humorless, and bisexual. She viewed marriage, motherhood, and "bourgeois" values with disdain and "detested all animals." To her, literature was more important than life, and her goal was to become a famous writer, thereby achieving an earthly immortality.
Born into a well-to-do bourgeois family in the Montparnasse area of Paris, Simone recalled that her parents were ever "present, but not too close" to her and her younger sister Hélène ("Poupette"). Her stage-struck father made a satisfactory living as a lawyer; a non-believer, he married a convent-educated, devout Catholic girl from a wealthy provincial banking family. Even as a child, Simone was aware of the contrasting lifestyles of men and women. Her father had a profession and an active life outside of the family, while her mother's world was limited to the "drudgery" of household chores. However, Beauvoir recalled that she was loved and catered to, spoiled and flattered for her unique qualities, "a gay little girl" who flew into "fits of rage" over minor annoyances. Georges and Françoise de Beauvoir encouraged the natural talents of their daughters—Simone loved books and writing, and Hélène was artistic. Summers spent at the country estates of various Beauvoir relatives introduced Simone to the beauty of nature and the rejuvenating effects of long walks and of solitude.
At age five, she was enrolled in a private Catholic girls' school, Cours Désir, in Paris. For the first time in her life, Simone experienced a separate existence, a separate identity, life outside her narrow family environment. By the age of seven, she had written two short stories and begun to "teach" her sister and her dolls. Beauvoir had decided on the future course of her life from which she never deviated: she would be a teacher and a writer. If she resented being classed and treated as a child, she never regretted being a girl since "the boys I knew were in no way remarkable." Being a female and surrounded by girls of her own "superior class," as she described it, Simone was a self-satisfied child. But no human relationships prepared her for the deep friendship she developed with her classmate, Elizabeth Le Coin ("Zaza"), at age 10. Simone and Zaza established a close intellectual bond. Cynical, intelligent, and more mature than Simone, Zaza became her idol. Void of girlish frivolities, they curiously refrained from affectionate displays, addressing one another using the formal vous. Zaza died in 1929, and for the rest of her life Simone tried, unsuccessfully, to immortalize her dear friend in her fiction.
The "gay little girl," who had been so obedient and wanted to please adults, grew into an unattractive and rebellious adolescent. Dressed in drab, ill-fitting, cast-off clothes from her cousins, Beauvoir delighted in reading forbidden books and retreating into sullen silences or expressing unorthodox opinions on literature and politics to annoy her parents. And at age 14, she lost her faith in God. The formerly pious believer who thought of becoming a nun decided that "He no longer intervened in my life and I concluded … that He had ceased to exist for me." Simone later admitted this left a void in her life, a "silence," and an obsessive fear of death. For two years, she kept her secret until she told her sister who admitted that she, too, no longer believed.
A brilliant student, Beauvoir received her baccalauréat degree from the Cours Désir at age 17. Her father's neglect of his legal profession had reduced the family to "genteel poverty," and he bluntly informed Simone that she could not expect a dowry so probably would remain unmarried. But this plain, dowdy young woman had already made up her mind to become a teacher and a "famous" writer. "I always looked upon marriage with disfavour," she wrote, motherhood was a form of "servitude," and babies "a great nuisance." Her goal was to earn a doctorate in philosophy, a seemingly unrealistic aspiration for a woman in France in the 1920s. Since her mother refused to allow her to attend the Sorbonne, afraid she would lose her faith, Beauvoir enrolled at first in the Institut Catholique and Institut Sainte-Marie.
At age 21, she had earned a degree from the Sorbonne (the license-ès-lettres) and the prestigious agrégation in philosophy from the elite École Normale Superièure, the youngest agregée de philosophie in France. Beauvoir was respected
by her fellow students and for the first time in her life she developed solid friendships with male students who treated her as an intellectual equal. The independent, professional life she had sought was now a reality, but she still hoped to find someone to love. Socially timid, and a virgin, Beauvoir valued the platonic friendship of intellectuals such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and René Maheu who gave her the nickname Castor (Beaver). A life of books and study was soon embellished with "real life" experiences. A female friend took Simone in hand and convinced her to improve her appearance; certainly intelligence and femininity were not antithetical. Her education had not changed her into a man but had determined her to fulfill "my destiny as a woman."
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I flattered myself that I combined 'a woman's heart and a man's brain'… I considered myself to be unique—the One and Only.
—Simone de Beauvoir
Beauvoir longed to meet the ideal man: "The day when a man would dominate me by his intelligence, his culture and his authority, I will be in love." She met this man, a fellow student at the École Normale, in 1929: Jean-Paul Sartre had won first place in their degree exams (she placed second, 1/50 of a point behind him). "For a man to be my equal, he had to be a little bit superior to me," she noted, and Sartre met her criterion. A philosopher and future founder of Existentialism, Sartre was 5'2" tall, had a squint, only 10% vision in one eye, and an insatiable sexual appetite. But Beauvoir had found her "superior" companion, and they remained inseparable until he died 51 years later. The nucleus of the Beauvoir-Sartre "Family" had been launched. Sartre was candid about his sexual promiscuity and continued to see his present mistress. Beauvoir accepted his self-styled polygamy as she did all of his faults and failings. Never the Great Lovers, as the press depicted them, they always lived in separate residences and referred to each other as vous, not as a concession to societal convention but from choice. Sartre was a vital, essential part of her life. Scorning marriage, this unusual couple agreed to a two-year contract, pledging absolute honesty in their relations, accepting the equality of the partnership, and allowing "contingent" (supplementary) love affairs.
Beauvoir did not completely subordinate her life to Sartre's, but editing his writing and attending to his every need precluded her working on her own literary career. Despite Sartre being, and remaining, emotionally adolescent, he and Simone were amazingly alike. Neither had an interest in world affairs; self-interest dominated their lives, and theories and abstractions rather than action and involvement characterized their lives until middle age. Beauvoir could have been assigned to teach in a lycée, but she was hesitant to leave Paris. However, when Sartre left to teach in Le Havre, she took a position in Marseille. Alone for the first time in her life, she realized that she needed "to make her own life, to make herself." Thus began her itinerant, peripatetic life, moving from one furnished hotel room to another, feeling no desire for a "home." Hers would be a life of the mind, not the confining, smothering conventionality of middle-class materialism which restricted one's independence. She enjoyed her freedom, but she needed to write which "would justify my existence … [and] I would serve humanity." Her literary efforts were meager, however, and she did not attempt to publish them.
In 1932, Simone moved to a lycée in Rouen, closer to Sartre and to Paris. Soon she longed to escape the stifling bourgeois atmosphere of the town and school, to be in Paris, and to write. The future appeared unpromising; Sartre had gone to Berlin to study, teaching was a "constraint … a role imposed on her," and she was a failure as a writer. Oblivious to the threat of fascism in Europe, the worldwide depression, and war in China, her novels, like herself, ignored the outside world. Based solely on her own limited experiences and circle of friends, her novels lacked depth and engaging plots. Beauvoir admired writers like Hemingway and Dos Passos who had lived, had acted, but self-absorption restricted her view of the world and human diversity. Thus, her characters and plots were often flat and unconvincing. Literature was more important than life, Beauvoir believed, and a paucity of experience is evident in her prose.
Simone's primary concerns revolved around her floundering career as a novelist and Sartre's continuous involvement with a succession of women. Their lives became still more complicated after Sartre returned to Le Havre from Berlin—the couple was replaced by a "trio." Sartre had volunteered to take part in a medical experiment conducted by a physician friend. After taking mescaline, he suffered from nightmares, hallucinations, and visions; unable to devote herself to nursing him, Simone persuaded a former student, Olga Kosakievicz , to care for him. Beauvoir had befriended Olga whom she and Sartre regarded as an "authentic" person, one "incapable of any dishonesty and reacting only through emotion." Not surprisingly, the emotionally immature Sartre fell in love with this indolent, dependent young woman. She became Sartre's lover and the first addition to their reinvented Family, a permanent member until Sartre's death. Olga served as the model for one of Simone's characters in L'Invitée (She Came to Stay, 1943), a common feature of Beauvoir's novels in which, according to Margaret Crosland , "she invented very little."
When Simone was assigned to a lycée in Paris in 1936, she again chose to live in a cheap furnished hotel room; Olga moved to Paris, to the same hotel. Shortly, Olga's sister Wanda joined them and became Sartre's mistress after he began teaching in Paris the following year. These "contingent" affairs never interfered with the annual holidays Beauvoir and Sartre had shared from the beginning of their relationship. But in 1938, Sartre informed Simone that he could not accompany her on her usual marathon walking tour because his numerous love-sexual affairs required all his attention. However, their mutual friend, Jacques-Laurent Bost, joined Simone; she seduced him and their liaison provided the love interest in L'Invitée. Beauvoir attracted both men and women; Olga had loved her before becoming Sartre's mistress, and in 1938 and 1939, two more former students made their way to Simone's hotel room to consummate their affections. Bianca Bienenfeld claims, in her own book, that Beauvoir encouraged her to have sex with Sartre, a "three-cornered love affair." The Family was enlarged again with the arrival of Nathalie Sorokine who became Simone's lover. Without feeling the need to justify her sex life, Beauvoir stated in a 1982 interview, "every woman is a bit … homosexual. Quite simply, because women are more desirable than men."
All these complex relationships were interrupted when Sartre and Bost were mobilized as the French prepared for war with Nazi Germany. Beauvoir did nothing to help the war effort, but she shouldered the responsibility for supporting their extended Family and sending Sartre whatever he needed in the way of books and writing materials. While the French army waited for the German assault, Sartre concentrated on his writing which Simone continued to edit and comment on. Their daily letters reflect their slender interests—themselves and their Family. Simone was absorbed in dealing with her bisexuality and her femininity, "the way I am of my sex and not of it." In a journal, kept during the war years, she wrote, "I feel I'm a complete woman. I'd like to know what sort of woman." Her noted study of women, The Second Sex, deals with these issues. In May 1940, the Germans invaded France; Beauvoir fled Paris on June 10, but returned to the German-occupied city on the 28th. "I was bored," she explained. Paris was her home, and she could not function, or create, deprived of its vitality. She resumed teaching and her daily routine of writing in the Left Bank cafés Le Dôme and Le Flore. Sartre had been taken prisoner on June 21 but was released the following March. Neither he nor Beauvoir would ever comment on his release. Had he made a deal with his German captors?
Beauvoir and Sartre not only survived the Occupation unscathed, but their careers flourished. Simone tried to discourage Sartre from getting involved with the French Resistance movement. In fact, Sartre's comedic attempt to form his own resistance group, "Socialism and Liberty," failed because no one trusted him. He was brilliant but naive and immature, and his group folded after only a few months. Beauvoir was relieved. She and Sartre did contribute articles to Albert Camus' underground paper Combat, but were not actively involved with his Resistance activities. In 1942, Simone suddenly found herself without an income. She was dismissed from her teaching position, charged with corrupting a minor by Sorokine's mother. She was now free to devote herself to writing, and the publication of L'Invitée finally brought the fame she had craved. This novel about women is not a feminist tract, but it appealed to women more than men which delighted the author. A year later, Pyrrhus and Cineas appeared, a series of essays on human relationships and endeavors, personal responsibility, and the non-existence of God. Simone enjoyed her long-awaited celebrity and gained further recognition with the publication of The Blood of Others in 1945 and All Men are Mortal in 1946.
Beauvoir had come to realize one must live before one could write, and her life during the Occupation was richer and more varied than ever before. To supplement her income, she wrote historical sketches for the Vichy government-owned radio and was severely criticized for associating with this collaborationist government. During the war years, Simone became increasingly aware that "there was a feminine condition," that women lived as "relative beings." In L'Invitée, she wrote that women must be "authentic": "You must be a person, you must choose your own existence, you alone are responsible for it." Simone de Beauvoir had done just that; financially independent, sexually liberated, and living a self-prescribed lifestyle, she considered herself an "authentic" woman. Before the war ended, Beauvoir and Sartre established and edited an influential journal, Les Temps Modernes (Modern Times), a vehicle for disseminating existentialist and eventually feminist thought.
On a lecture tour of the United States in 1947, Beauvoir began to consider writing a book on women. She viewed the U.S. as a male-dominated society and American women as "dependent and relative." The genesis of The Second Sex is seen in her question, "Why is woman the Other?" Her previous self-absorption, her search for the meaning of her own womanhood, slowly expanded into looking at the feminine condition in general. While in America, Beauvoir experienced her first passionate love affair with the American writer Nelson Algren. It confused and delighted her, but she refused to marry and live with him in Chicago. Paris, Sartre, her Family, her work, her contempt for the institution of marriage and her fear of becoming "dependent and relative" outweighed her love for Algren. With the publication of Volume I of The Second Sex two years later, Simone began a lifelong involvement with feminist issues. Over 200,000 copies of the book sold in a week. French men generally reacted negatively, and the Catholic Church banned the book. Undeterred, the second volume which began, "One is not born, but rather becomes a woman," caused an even greater sensation.
Intellectually tied to Sartre, Beauvoir led an independent life of her own—a public persona and a new "contingent" affair with Claude Lanzmann—but she never repudiated their contract. Her investigation on how one becomes a woman, how she became a woman, is the theme of her four volumes of memoirs, the first published in 1958, the last in 1972. Happy and involved with outside interests, she finally acquired an apartment, a home, and traveled to the U.S. several times, also to China, Cuba, Brazil, and almost all the states of Europe. Internationally recognized, Beauvoir received the prestigious Goncourt Prize for The Mandarins in 1954. And rather late in life, she and Sartre developed an interest in politics; they were openly antipathetic to the government of Charles de Gaulle and in favor of Algerian independence, unpopular sentiments in France in the 1950s. Consequently, she and Sartre received death threats which caused them only momentary concern. Women's issues now occupied her thoughts. Birth control and abortion (both illegal in France) were essential, she maintained, for women to achieve true liberation. She signed the Manifesto of the 343, declaring her solidarity with women who had had abortions (she never had one). As president of Choisir (To Choose), she promoted contraception, and as president of the League of Women's Rights, she worked to end sex discrimination in France. She and Sartre were involved in writing for and editing left-wing newspapers and the journal they founded in 1944.
But sharing a happy old age with Sartre, as she had envisioned, eluded her. Excessive drinking and dependence on stimulants had undermined his health. He was going blind and becoming immobile and incontinent. However, his propensity for adolescent love affairs continued unabated. Amazingly, Simone accepted his promiscuous behavior and ardently defended his philosophical works with honesty and determination. But when he adopted one of his mistresses in 1965 without consulting her, Simone was not pleased. During their annual summer holiday in Rome, she began to tape their conversations and to keep a journal chronicling Sartre's physical deterioration. These provided the material for her published tribute to him after his death. Beauvoir was only vaguely aware that an intellectual gulf was separating her from her companion. Always fearful of growing old, or growing up, Sartre revised or recanted some of his earlier philosophical ideas, trying to appeal to a more youthful audience. Existentialism and "Castor" were relegated to his past. Such cruel comments wounded her, though she still lived an active, satisfying life of her own. Involved with feminist groups and revitalizing love affairs with younger men, she, too, was in touch with the younger generation. In 1960, a former student, Sylvie Le Bon , contacted Beauvoir in Paris. They became close friends, and Simone eventually adopted her.
Sartre died on April 15, 1980, and Beauvoir mourned her partner of 51 years. The publication of Adieux—Farewell to Sartre in 1981 provided the necessary catharsis for her to resume a "single" life. Two years later, she published Sartre's letters but refused to include her own which she said were "nobody's business." Beauvoir had not published a novel since The Woman Destroyed in 1968, a banal reiteration of the theme of women having to make their own lives. However, her four volumes of memoirs had been well-received and enhanced her literary reputation. She was gratified to see the election of a Socialist president of France in 1981 and accepted the post of honorary chair of the Commission on Women and Culture offered by President François Mitterand. By the mid-1980s, Beauvoir's health deteriorated due to drinking, and in March 1986 she underwent surgery for liver damage. She died on April 14, 1986, just eight hours short of the sixth anniversary of Sartre's death, and from the same ailments. Simone was buried next to Sartre in the cemetery of Mont-parnasse, the district of Paris where she was born, raised, and lived most of her life.
In The Second Sex, Beauvoir asks how women can attain full humanity. Her own life provided the model—she lived as a Woman, not as an "Other." She knew from the time she was a child "with the mind of a man" that she wanted to be an intellectual, a famous writer who "would burn like a flame in millions of hearts." Unconventional, aloof, obstinate, and determined, Simone de Beauvoir achieved all her goals and inspired other women in the quest for their humanity.
Bair, Deirdre. Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography. NY: Summit Books, 1990.
Crosland, Margaret. Simone de Beauvoir: The Woman and Her Work. London: Heinemann, 1992.
Winegarten, Renée. Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical View. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1988.
Asher, Carole. Simone de Beauvoir: A Life of Freedom. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1981.
Evans, Mary. Simone de Beauvoir: A Feminist Mandarin. London: Tavistock, 1985.
Francis, Claude, and Fernande Gontier. Simone de Beauvoir. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1987.
Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah