Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The first volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, Memoires d’une jeune fille rangee (1958; Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, 1959), traces her successful revolt against French Catholicism and bourgeois idealism. Significantly, this second installment begins with this observation: “The most intoxicating aspect of my return to Paris in September, 1929, was the freedom I now possessed.” The Prime of Life describes how de Beauvoir guarded and used that freedom for the succeeding fifteen years.

Her life during this period, like the historical events that impinge upon her despite her best efforts to escape their effects, divides into two parts, and so does the book. The first, and longer, section treats her experiences during the 1930’s, as she establishes her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre and gropes her way toward becoming a writer. For her this is a decade of splendid isolation and introspection, brought to a jarring end by the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II.

Quoting diary entries to help portray the years between 1939 and the liberation of Paris in 1944, de Beauvoir in the second part traces her growing realization that the personal freedom she treasures must not be pursued, indeed cannot be maintained, without concern for others. During the war years she matures into the engaged intellectual that she remained until her death. As she becomes more conscious of the relevance of world...

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The Prime of Life Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Beyond Simone de Beauvoir’s now-classic study of the subordinate role that women have played throughout history, Le Deuxième Sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1952), her self-exploratory series of autobiographies may well constitute her most lasting achievement. The initial volume, Memoires d’une jeune fille rangée (1958; Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, 1959), describes her first twenty-one years and focuses on her steady but painful movement away from her parents’ rigid, petit bourgeois values. The second installment, The Prime of Life, spans the fullness of her years, from the summer of 1929 to the liberation of Paris in August, 1944. It begins on a note of relief at her emancipation from her family and closes on an even higher note of joy at France’s deliverance from the Germans. Beauvoir’s subsequent memoirs include La Force des choses (1963; The Force of Circumstance, 1965), Une Mort très douce (1964; A Very Easy Death, 1966), and Tout Compte fait (1972; All Said and Done, 1974). Her book on Jean-Paul Sartre’s declining years, La Cérémonie des adieux (1981; Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, 1984), is also deeply self-revealing.

In July, 1929, Beauvoir was a philosophy student at France’s most distinguished university, the École Normal Supérieure. Studying for her comprehensive orals, she was invited to join a small circle of male fellow-students who were also preparing for them; one of them was the intellectually dazzling Sartre. By the fall, they had begun a friendship and companionship that was to become a lifelong union. They agreed that, while theirs was an “essential” love, it should not be allowed to degenerate into constraint or mere habit; nor should their partnership prevent them from experiencing “contingent” liaisons with others. Moreover, they promised neither to lie to each other nor to conceal anything from each other. They considered theirs an enduring alliance “of the mind, the imagination and the...

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The Prime of Life Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Simone de Beauvoir occupies a deservedly central place in the history of feminism. In The Second Sex, she uses existential notions of people’s need to establish their freedom in a purposeless, absurd universe to encourage women no longer to resign themselves to the role of the weaker and inferior person in relation to a man. In much of her fiction, such as the novel Les Mandarins (1954; The Mandarins, 1956), she describes women whose dependency on men has hobbled their ability to construct satisfying lives for themselves. As much as any writer, she is responsible for inspiring women’s movements throughout the world.

In The Prime of Life, however, Beauvoir’s influence on women’s issues, and hence women’s literature, is a mixed one. She frequently asserts her claim that highly charged emotional relationships are amenable to rational control, that people can rigidly compartmentalize their emotional and intellectual needs. Yet her autobiography testifies otherwise. She admits that “. . . my body had its own whims, and I was powerless to control them; their violence overrode all my defenses.” Her sexual appetites, she discovers, “were greater than I wanted them to be” and greater than she cared to avow to Sartre, despite their pact of absolute candor with each other. “By driving me to such secrecy my body became a stumbling block rather than a bond of union between us.” Yet she provides the reader with...

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The Prime of Life Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Brée, Germaine. Women Writers in France. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1973. Professor Bree, a leading authority on contemporary French literature, discusses Beauvoir’s writings with sensitive understanding.

Leighton, Jean. Simone de Beauvoir on Woman. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1975. This is a luminous interpretation of feminism in Beauvoir’s work.

Marks, Elaine, ed. Critical Essays on Simone de Beauvoir. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. An assemblage of nearly thirty articles, essays, and reviews by such scholars and critics as Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Rene Girard, Francis Jeanson, and Terry Keefe.

Marks, Elaine. Simone de Beauvoir: Encounters with Death. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1973. By far the leading book-length interpretation of Beauvoir’s career, this work is both learned and lucidly written.

Winegarten, Renée. Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical View. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Winegarten’s study is compact, incisive, and often sharply skeptical of Beauvoir’s behavior, such as her slow awakening to political responsibility. A ten-page chronology of Beauvoir’s life is included.