Simone de Beauvoir Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: De Beauvoir cut across traditional academic fields to produce important works of literature, criticism, and philosophy, while her political activism made her a “pioneer” of the late twentieth century women’s movement as well as a leading figure in the human rights, peace, and social reform movements.

Early Life

Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris on January 9, 1908, the eldest of two daughters of Georges Bertrand and Françoise Brasseur de Beauvoir. Although her family was descended from the aristocracy, it teetered precariously on the brink of financial solvency, maintaining the status of upper-middle-class gentility with difficulty. De Beauvoir had a relatively happy childhood, which she described graphically in the first volume of her autobiography, Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (1958; Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, 1959). She especially treasured the summers that she spent at her grandfather’s rambling estate at Meyrignac in Limousin, where she developed what would become lifelong passions for reading and hiking. In 1913, de Beauvoir was enrolled at the private school Cours Désir.

In her autobiography, de Beauvoir depicted herself as a precocious young girl chafing at the restraints placed upon her both by society and by other persons’ wills. The personal and ideological problems in her parents’ marriage, created primarily by tension between her mother’s religious piety and her father’s cynical agnosticism, led de Beauvoir to conclude that intellectual and spiritual life were mutually exclusive. This enabled her to reject both the Catholic religion and the social role of “dutiful daughter” imposed upon her by her parents. As de Beauvoir entered her second decade, she developed an attraction for her cousin Jacques Laiguillon. Although she had strong feelings for him, she was afraid that their love would trap her into becoming a bourgeois wife, a role that she rejected as completely as she had the life of a “dutiful daughter.”

In 1928, after completing her undergraduate education, she began working at the École Normale Supérieure on her agrégation de philosophie, a difficult postgraduate examination for teaching positions at lycées and universities in France. The next year, she met Jean-Paul Sartre, a fellow philosophy student. For the first time in her life de Beauvoir found a soul mate who was her intellectual equal, a man with whom she knew she always would be compatible. In 1929, they passed the agrégation and began a liaison that would last a lifetime. During the same year, however, her happiness was marred by the death of her closest childhood friend, Elizabeth “Zaza” Mabille; this event marked both the end of the first volume of de Beauvoir’s memoirs and her childhood.

Life’s Work

Except for her work, the most important thing in de Beauvoir’s life was her relationship with Sartre. Because neither of them wanted children, they rejected the notion of traditional marriage in favor of a bond that they called an “essential” love, which was to be permanent but which would not exclude what they deemed “contingent” love affairs. In 1931, Sartre did suggest that they marry, but de Beauvoir refused this proposal, arguing that they were not being true to their own principles.

In 1931, de Beauvoir was appointed to teach in a lycée in Marseilles. The next year she transferred to Rouen, where she was reprimanded by lycée authorities for questioning women’s traditional role in society. Sartre, also in Rouen, met Olga Kosakievicz, a former pupil of de Beauvoir, with whom he fell in love. They experimented with a trio, which failed primarily because of de Beauvoir’s jealousy; the incident furnished her with the plot for her first novel, L’Invitée (1943; She Came to Stay, 1949). In 1936, she was transferred to Paris, where Sartre was able to join her the following year.

Despite ominous clouds on the French political scene, in the prewar era de Beauvoir and Sartre remained oblivious to the world around them, burying themselves in their work, their friends, and each other. The outbreak of World War II in 1939, however, marks an important watershed in de Beauvoir’s life. Sartre’s induction into the army brought de Beauvoir face to face with social and political reality. They jointly adopted the philosophy of personal commitment, realizing that they had a responsibility to humanity as well as to themselves. During the German invasion of France in June, 1940, Sartre was taken prisoner, and de Beauvoir, like many other Parisians, fled the capital only to return when the reality of defeat and German occupation became obvious. On April 1, 1941, Sartre was released and returned to Paris. Although de Beauvoir and Sartre worked on the fringes of the French Resistance, they were not active participants in it.

During the war, both de Beauvoir and Sartre abandoned their teaching careers in order to concentrate on writing. Her first novel, She Came to Stay, was an immediate success, and from 1943 on both she and Sartre were established as major new talents on the French intellectual horizon. In 1945, de Beauvoir, Sartre, and others founded the journal Les Temps modernes as a vehicle for independent left-wing intellectual viewpoints. The same year, the novel that she had written during the war, Le Sang des autres (1945; The Blood of Others, 1948), was published to almost universal critical acclaim as the quintessential Existentialist novel of the Resistance.

Her philosophical treatise, Pour une morale de l’ambiguïté (The Ethics of Ambiguity, 1948), a secular breviary of Existentialist ethics, was published in 1947, the year de Beauvoir first journeyed to...

(The entire section is 2409 words.)

Simone de Beauvoir Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Simone de Beauvoir (boh-vwahr) was one of the most provocative and controversial women of the twentieth century. Her father, a lawyer and amateur actor, was extremely skeptical toward religion, but her mother, who submitted to her husband in most matters, proved to be dictatorial in her relationships with her two daughters and was zealously religious; it was she who insisted that her children receive a strict Catholic upbringing.

The most striking characteristic of de Beauvoir’s life and work is a quest for freedom. Her childhood and adolescence, as seen in the memoirs, constantly reflect her attempts to break out of the narrow social constraints of her middle-class environment. Following a rather restrictive parochial education, de Beauvoir completed her baccalauréat in mathematics and philosophy and then continued her studies at the Institut Sainte-Marie, the Institut Catholique, and the Sorbonne. Although her decision to become a teacher caused considerable friction in her family, de Beauvoir began her postgraduate studies at the École Normale Supérieure and the Sorbonne. In 1929, she met Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom she formed a fruitful relationship that spanned the next fifty-one years and ended only with Sartre’s death in 1980. She passed her agrégation in philosophy in 1929, ranking second only to Sartre (who was taking the test for the second time). At the age of twenty-one, she was the youngest to have passed this examination in France.

Although de Beauvoir’s first completed work was repeatedly rejected by publishers, her novel She Came to Stay was an immediate success when it appeared in 1943. She made an unsuccessful attempt to write for the theater with Les Bouches inutiles (useless mouths), then returned to fiction with The Blood of Others in 1945, followed in 1946 by the much less popular All Men Are Mortal. Her next major work, The Second Sex, which appeared in 1949, catapulted her into both fame and notoriety. Although she did not declare her solidarity with the feminist movement until 1972, The Second Sex firmly established de Beauvoir as a model and inspiration for women in all parts of the...

(The entire section is 905 words.)

Simone de Beauvoir Biography (Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: De Beauvoir cut across traditional academic fields to produce important works of literature, criticism, and philosophy. Her political activism made her a pioneer of the late twentieth century women’s movement as well as a leading figure in human rights, peace, and social reform efforts.

Early Life

Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris on January 9, 1908, the eldest of two daughters of Georges Bertrand and Françoise Brasseur de Beauvoir. Although her family was descended from the aristocracy, it teetered precariously on the brink of financial solvency, maintaining the status of upper-middle-class gentility with difficulty. De Beauvoir had a relatively happy...

(The entire section is 2412 words.)

Simone de Beauvoir Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Simone Lucie-Ernestine-Marie-Bertrand de Beauvoir was born in Paris on January 9, 1908. Her father, Georges de Beauvoir, came from a wealthy family and was a lawyer by profession. A religious skeptic, he was openly contemptuous of the bourgeoisie and encouraged his daughter in intellectual pursuits. In contrast, her mother, Françoise, came from a provincial town, received her education in convents, and was a devout Catholic. Under her mother’s supervision, the young de Beauvoir was educated at a conservative Catholic school for girls, the Cours Désir.

In Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter—which covers the years from 1908 to 1929—de Beauvoir describes her early piety, her subsequent disenchantment with...

(The entire section is 511 words.)

Simone de Beauvoir Biography (Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Author Profile

Like Jean-Paul Sartre, her partner in philosophy and in life, Beauvoir maintained the existentialist point of view that the individual is free from every principle of authority save that which he or she consciously chooses, and that he or she is ineluctably free in a meaningless existence to determine the meaning, or essence, that his or her life is to have. She insisted that one’s individual existence is authentic to the extent that it is defined by oneself in relation to, but never as prescribed by, others (or the Other).

The Ethics of Ambiguity

According to Beauvoir, the difference between absurdity and ambiguity, as ethical directions, is that absurdity denies the...

(The entire section is 1409 words.)

Simone de Beauvoir Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111228244-Beauvoir.jpgSimone de Beauvoir. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Simone de Beauvoir (duh boh-VWAHR) was born to an illustrious family that fell on financial hard times, with her father failing in a succession of business ventures. She grew up an awkward, bookish, and compulsively diligent adolescent. As a young woman she rebelled against both her mother’s devoutly Catholic faith and bourgeois morality in general. At the Sorbonne she became a star student in philosophy and literature. Attending lectures at the École Normale Supérieure, she met Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom she formed a relationship that lasted until his death in 1980.

De Beauvoir and Sartre became not only lovers but also firm friends and literary, philosophic, and political partners. They initially decided on a...

(The entire section is 766 words.)

Simone de Beauvoir Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

As great as Simone de Beauvoir’s writing is, her life was her prime achievement. Apart from the importance of The Second Sex, her documentary and philosophical writings have no lasting value and her fiction is unimaginative, limited by its direct confinement to her own milieu. De Beauvoir’s memoirs, however, are a permanent addition to the literature of autobiography. They have considerable value as accounts of the intellectual, artistic, social, and political life of her time. They have even greater value, however, as establishing her personal myth as a woman who took bold risks to find a path for the free and full use of her life.

(The entire section is 108 words.)