Critical Context

In his Essais (1580-1595; Essayes, 1603), Michel Eyquem de Montaigne wrote, “I am eager to make myself known.” The self that de Beauvoir reveals is one with a great capacity and desire for happiness, one who pursues that goal and attains it. The movement of The Prime of Life is comic, tracing de Beauvoir’s odyssey from isolation to commitment. It is also a work suffused with hope. Sartre’s existentialism concentrates on the problem of confronting evil in a world that does not allow for redemption from the divine. De Beauvoir shares Sartre’s philosophy but emphasizes another aspect, the working out of one’s salvation in a godless universe. Though she would probably not find the comparison flattering, her autobiography retells John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678-1684) in a modern idiom, with intelligence as grace, freedom as the New Jerusalem, and herself as the secular pilgrim seeking that shining but elusive end.

What she might observe of all of her other works she may say with Montaigne here: “I am myself the matter of my book.” Yet her discretion (or reserve) makes the autobiography less revealing than her novels. Anyone wishing to trace the development of her fiction must read the memoirs, but anyone seeking to understand the author must turn to the fiction. She Came to Stay, for example, describes a menage a trois that parallels the experience of de Beauvoir, Sartre, and one of their students. In The Prime of Life, de Beauvoir confesses to some irritation with Sartre’s infatuation. In She Came to Stay, de Beauvoir’s surrogate, Francoise, reacts more strongly: She murders the character based on Olga. Clearly, the feelings that de Beauvoir conceals in her autobiography surface in the novels.

Nevertheless, the memoirs capture what Henry James urged all writers to record, “the look of things, the look that conveys their meaning, . . . the colour, the relief, the expression, the surface, the substance of the human spectacle.” The fiction is psychological, the autobiography realistic, but both exhibit the same qualities of mind that make de Beauvoir an important figure in twentieth century life and letters.