Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces The Prime of Life Analysis

De Beauvoir’s importance and interest derive from several sources. Because she was a feminist, her life serves as a model of how to avoid the pitfalls described so well in Le Deuxieme Sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1953). As a prizewinning novelist, she reveals the evolution of a writer and the way life is transformed into art. Even though Sartre published a brief autobiography, Les Mots (1963; The Words, 1964), and some of his diaries have appeared posthumously, de Beauvoir’s account of her relationship with a leading proponent of existentialism must concern anyone seeking to understand contemporary French philosophy. Finally, even in her attempt to remove herself from the historical currents of her age, she represents the French intellectuals of the Left during the 1930’s; thus her life becomes a microcosm of the world in which she moved. Though these different strands are interwoven to create the pattern of her narrative, one may examine them individually to gain a clearer understanding of the woman and her book.

At the end of the first section of The Prime of Life, de Beauvoir concedes that “when certain critics read this autobiography they will point out, triumphantly, that it flatly contradicts my thesis in The Second Sex.” More precisely, The Prime of Life shows how a woman may escape the curse of dependence that de Beauvoir believes blights the lives of the vast majority of women. Early in the book she makes two important decisions. Sartre has been offered a post in Le Havre, she a job in Marseille, hundreds of miles from her beloved Paris. She thus faces separation from the person and place that mean the most to her. Sartre proposes that they marry so that they can remain together at a school close to the capital. Acknowledging her opposition to matrimony, Sartre nevertheless argues that it is “stupid to martyr oneself for a principle.”

She instantly rejects his solution, both for herself and for Sartre. Marriage would increase her responsibilities, and Sartre would have to surrender even more freedom than she. They have agreed to a relationship that binds neither; marriage would destroy that existence. She observes that had she wanted children, she would have decided differently, but children, like marriage, would interfere “with the way of life upon which I was embarking.” In Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter she is shocked when a friend declares that being a mother is just as important as being a writer. Having found her vocation, which she likens to a religious calling, she refuses to surrender to society’s expectations. In refusing to marry she is not martyring herself to principle but rather avoiding martyrdom.

Yet rejecting marriage does not in itself guarantee her independence. Her victory is not complete until she decides to accept the post in Marseille. Standing on the stairs of the railway station of that city, cut off from all familiar faces and surroundings, she feels exhilarated rather than depressed, for now she is truly on her own. Alone in a new region, she uses her freedom to explore the countryside, refusing to allow her gender to restrict her movement. She demonstrates great physical strength as she climbs mountains (in Greece, Sartre was unable to keep up with her pace), rejecting warnings that such solitary ramblings were unsafe. As she writes, “I had no intention of making my life a bore with precautions of this sort.”

Her autobiography is thus not a contradiction of The Second Sex but an alternative to it. The Prime of Life shows that the price of personal freedom is eternal vigilance, that only through the assertion of will and intelligence can a woman escape dependence—but she can do it.

The rigorous hikes across the French countryside are important to de Beauvoir as a writer as well as a woman. When she was a child she wanted to visit every place in the world, and that desire for travel never left her. She is constantly going places or planning a trip somewhere, for she wants to miss nothing. That same impulse takes her to films, plays, and nightclubs. Andre Gide once commented that the...

(The entire section is 1710 words.)