Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter Analysis
The first book of de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is the most creative and expressionistic of the four. Her approach to the earliest part of her life is in the spirit of William Wordsworth’s epigram to his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” here expressed as “The Child is the mother of the Woman.” Since the realm of childhood is often almost an infinite distance from an adult’s consciousness, and since de Beauvoir always speaks in the voice of a mature adult, the child who preceded the woman might be especially elusive and difficult to recapture. To close the distance, de Beauvoir projects her adult voice from the start—serious and erudite, with no concessions to the limits of a child’s thought patterns or linguistic limitations—but uses it to convey emotional urgency, a total preoccupation with the self, and a wild willfulness which suggests the operations of the child’s mind. The motto for this book might be Paul Gaugin’s comment, “There is salvation only in extremes,” for the young de Beauvoir is characterized by “impetuous vitality and a lack of all moderation.” In the opening pages, she is presented in terms of her responses to phenomena that initially developed her senses, all of her reactions framed as versions of an absolute, permitting no alternative visions or possibilities. If she does not like a certain food, she vomits. If she is forbidden to peel a plum, she runs howling down the boulevard. If she is denied the gratification of an impulse, she rages and sulks. As disturbing as they appear, these visceral outbursts are actually the basis for the beginning of the most important aspect of de Beauvoir’s sense of her self, her discovery of the mind. She locates her earliest sense of her mental development in the wave of energy produced by frustrations and disappointments. To cope with these explosive outbursts, she begins to think about them—first in terms of the action itself, then in a primitive analysis of the nature of the action—and while there is no way for the young child to curb her instincts, she begins to acquire the means for a transformation that will reduce her discomfort.
This transformation is accomplished through an expansion of awareness. “Suddenly the future existed,” she says, establishing time as a concept, removing the child from the trap of a perpetual present. She begins to discriminate among various foods, so that the senses serve rather than rule, an anticipation of the adult’s prerogative of selection. While enjoying the sensual nature of the countryside, she becomes aware of the sources of her enjoyment in the landscape, thus adding the analytic to the instinctive. When stories are read to her, she imagines herself as one of the characters, assuming semilegendary proportions as a result of her connection with the significance of the printed word. Gradually, while retaining the physical immediacy of the child’s world, she alters her points of reference so that the mind moves into prominence as a measure of reality, and events become occasions for thought as well as feeling. The connection between words and things follows directly, as de Beauvoir learns to read rapidly, driven by a curiosity about the “riches found in books” as well as an incipient interest in language itself.
In this book, de Beauvoir also begins to consider her parents’ lives and character, but at first they are seen without fault, wrapped in an unquestioning love. Their dominance is accepted, and de Beauvoir traces the beginning of her intellectual life to her admiration of her father, the beginning of her spiritual life to her adoration of her mother, accepting the complete separation of those spheres without question. This is the only area, however, in which she accepts the conventional nature of things without considering alternatives. Even in her preteen years, she has a tremendous consciousness of shaping her own destiny so that reading leads to writing, which permits a shaping rather than an accepting of reality; dolls become not merely toys but “doubles,” which open alternative visions of existence; goals begin to edge into her immediate plans, with teaching a possible vocation so that she can “form minds and mould character,” a reflection of her desires for herself at this time.
Book 2 confronts the contradictions that have been gradually developing in her life. To this point, approximately age ten, she has been the “dutiful daughter” of the title, and while her sense of duty remains, the focus is shifted from a blind duty to her parents and the life they have prepared for her to a sense of duty to her self and her own fate. The original French word in the title, rangee, also means “patterned” or “arranged.” As the innocence of childhood gives way before the intrusion of...
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Masterplots II: Women’s Literature Series Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter Analysis
In this first volume of her autobiography, Beauvoir intends to depict the genesis of her vocation as a writer and to establish, in the re-creation of her childhood and adolescence, a coherent basis for understanding the woman she will be throughout her life. Critics have objected that such a recovery of the past, from the standpoint of a fifty-year-old woman, is necessarily flawed, since it is impossible not to interpret the past in the light of one’s later beliefs and convictions. The problem is an epistemological one that is inherent, to a certain extent, in all autobiography: how to know, accurately, a past self. Beauvoir solves the problem by evoking her younger self as the necessary foundation of her older self and by implying the coherent persistence of a unified, indestructible self. She depicts this self as a figure of great strength and determination. A network of images evoking giantlike appetites and endeavors underlies the autobiographical narrative. Like a giant, the young Simone wants to conquer and devour the world—in her case, a world of books, knowledge, and experience. Her vigor and her vitality are impetuous and immoderate, and they explain her need to escape from the narrow confines of her milieu. A certain ruthlessness is inseparable from her relentless drive toward freedom and self-expression, and conflicts necessarily arise with the warm, protective figures of the past: family, teachers, friends. The drive is, however, both motivated and justified by a strong sense of vocation: Very early on, Beauvoir decides that she wants to be an author—that is, someone who is endowed with autonomy, authority, and uniqueness. She wants to become a writer because she admires writers above all and is “convinced of their supremacy.”
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Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is not only a vivid self-portrait but also a critical evaluation of French society during a period of transition. In the process of becoming the woman who could work for artistic and social freedom, de Beauvoir emphasizes her mental maturation, offering not only a very detailed and systematic description of the development of her mind but also an analytic explanation of her relationship to the basic propositions of the most brilliant French theoretical savants. Her friends were the precursors of Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and the like, and her autobiographical writing is crucial to an understanding of the mind-forged power of the Left Bank activists who set the agenda for philosophical discourse until at least the 1960’s.
In addition, Simone de Beauvoir’s memoir places the foundations for the visionary feminist thinking of her middle years. The Second Sex was not only revolutionary in its examination of women in Western society but also a book which, as Carole Ascher points out, “made it all right” for a woman “to be an intellectual.” Judith Okely describes it as a rare example of a female chronicle of apprenticeship that shares common themes of choice and struggle with such familiar male autobiographical novels as D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913), James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934). “If the autobiography is sufficiently probing,” Okely maintains, “it demands that the reader probe her own past.” For readers of both sexes, the universality of individual experience expressed with singular eloquence remains as de Beauvoir’s essential literary legacy.