Study Guide

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir Essay - Beauvoir, Simone de (Short Story Criticism)

Beauvoir, Simone de (Short Story Criticism)

Introduction

Simone de Beauvoir 1908-1986

(Full name Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie de Beauvoir) French philosopher, novelist, autobiographer, nonfiction writer, short story writer, editor, and dramatist.

Simone de Beauvoir is a highly acclaimed twentieth century writer who is recognized as an important contributor to the French intellectual movement known as existentialism, which sought to explain human existence and the individual's situation in a purposeless, absurd universe. In her influential study Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex), she utilized existentialist concepts concerning personal freedom and the relationship of the self to others to examine the status of women throughout history. Beauvoir posited that traditionally a woman must assume the role of the "other," or the inessential being, in relation to a man, the essential being, and analyzed this inferior position of women from biological, psychological, and social perspectives. In addition to her philosophical studies, Beauvoir wrote distinguished autobiographical and fictional works, including two short fiction collections in which she explored the spiritual and emotional state of women in contemporary Western society.

Biographical Information

Born in Paris to middle-class parents, Beauvoir was raised a Roman Catholic. In early adolescence, however, she perceived certain hypocrisies and fallacies of bourgeois morality and rebelled against her class, privately disavowing her belief in God. Following her undergraduate studies at the Institut Catholique and the Institut Sainte-Marie, Beauvoir attended the Sorbonne in 1928, where she specialized in literature and philosophy, and later audited classes at the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure. In 1929 she met fellow student Jean-Paul Sartre. Finding that they were intellectual equals, each of whom desired a lasting relationship free of conventional restraints, she and Sartre agreed to a shared life outside the institution of marriage.

After graduating from the Sorbonne, Beauvoir taught in Marseilles, Rouen, and Paris. She and Sartre settled in Paris in the late 1930s and became prominent figures amid the intellectual society of the Left Bank, associating with such writers and thinkers as Albert Camus, André Malraux, Raymond Queneau, and Michel Leiris. In 1944 Beauvoir resigned from teaching and, together with Sartre, founded the leftist journal Les temps modernes. During the 1950s Beauvoir engaged in numerous social causes and attempted to live out the committed existence that she espoused in her writings by protesting the French-Algerian War, documenting French military atrocities in Les temps modernes, and signing a public manifesto against the war. Beauvoir maintained her involvement in social issues during the 1960s and, in particular, supported the radical student uprisings of 1968. Although she joined the Mouvement de la Libération des Femmes in 1970 to participate in demonstrations supporting legalized abortion, Beauvoir did not declare herself a feminist until 1972, after which time she began writing a column on sexism in Les temps modernes and became president of the French League for Women's Rights. Beauvoir continued to promote various social movements, especially those concerning women, until her death in 1986.

Major Works

Though published in 1979, Beauvoir's collection of short stories Quand prime le spirituel (When Things of the Spirit Come First) was written between 1935 and 1937. Her first fictional work, When Things of the Spirit Come First was rejected for publication upon completion and set aside until late in her career. Each of the five stories in the collection bears the name of a woman: "Marcelle," "Chantal," "Lisa," "Anne," and "Marguerite." Largely autobiographical, they reveal Beauvoir's aversion toward established religion and bourgeois society. In "Chantai," for example, a provincial school teacher who professes emancipated views attempts to discourage a pregnant student from having an abortion. The young woman featured in "Anne" is an obedient daughter in a wealthy family who, tempted to follow her instincts, suffers from a mental breakdown and sudden death. Beauvoir's second collection, La femme rompue (The Woman Destroyed), is the author's last published work of fiction. Like Beauvoir's stories, each of the three novellas in this collection presents the narrative of a single woman. However, this collection characterizes middle-aged women whose dependencies on men have crippled their abilities to create positive identities and construct autonomous lives. Beauvoir incorporated in both collections existential concepts regarding personal freedom, or individual guidance by choice alone; responsibility, or accepting the consequences of one's choices; bad faith, or denying one's freedom by shifting responsibility to an outside source; and the role of the other, or the relation of the inessential being to an essential being.

Critical Reception

Despite their tremendous popularity in France and abroad, early reviews of Beauvoir's short fiction collections were dismissive. Her stories were attacked for their idealism, while her later novellas were considered unduly negative in their view of society and in their treatment of relationships between men and women. Both collections were found technically flawed, particularly the novellas, which were more experimental in form than the stories; the title novella of The Woman Destroyed reads as a diary and the novella Monologue adopts the stream of consciousness technique made popular by James Joyce, though unsuccessfully by most accounts. Recent criticism of Beauvoir's short fiction has been more forgiving; while acknowledging technical problems in Beauvoir's stories and novellas, scholars have also pointed to the honesty, directness, and overall aesthetic value of Beauvoir's short fiction. The novellas of The Woman Destroyed, in particular, have drawn critical regard for their feminist and existential themes, especially the theme of self-delusion. Moreover, because the two collections mark the beginning and end of Beauvoir's published fiction, they are valued as significant for providing greater understanding of her overall literary achievement.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

La femme rompue [The Woman Destroyed] (novellas) 1968

Quand prime le spirituel [When Things of the Spirit Come First: Five Early Tales] 1979

Other Major Works

L'invitée [She Came to Stay] (novel) 1943

Pyrrhus et Cinéas (philosophy) 1944

Les bouches inutiles [Who Shall Die?] (drama) 1945

Le sang des autres [The Blood of Others] (novel) 1946

Tous les hommes sont mortels [All Men Are Mortal] (novel) 1946

Pour une morale de l'ambiguité [The Ethics of Ambiguity] (philosophy) 1947

L'Amérique au jour le jour [America Day by Day] (nonfiction) 1948

L'existentialisme et la sagesse des nations (philosophy) 1948

Le deuxième sexe. 2 vols. [The Second Sex] (nonfiction) 1949

Les mandarins [The Mandarins] (novel) 1954

Fait-il bruler Sade? [Must We Burn Sade?] (criticism) 1955

La longue marche: Essai sur la Chine [The Long March] (nonfiction) 1957

Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée [Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter] (autobiography) 1958

La force de l'âge [The Prime of Life] (autobiography) 1960

La force des choses [Force of Circumstance] (autobiography) 1963

Une mort très douce [A Very Easy Death] (reminiscences) 1963

Les belles images (novel) 1966

L'âge de discrétion (novel) 1967

La vieillesse [The Coming of Age] (nonfiction) 1970

Tout compte fait [All Said and Done] (autobiography) 1972

La céremonie des adieux: Suivi de entretiens avec Jean Paul Sartre [Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre] (reminiscences) 1981

Criticism

Gillian Tindall (review date 1969)

SOURCE: "A Shared Predicament," in New Statesman, Vol. 77, January 10, 1969, p. 51.

[In the following review of Beauvoir's collection The Woman Destroyed, Tindall argues that the women protagonists featured in the three novellas suffer from a "human condition" rather than "exclusively feminine misfortunes. "]

At 55 Simone de Beauvoir wrote in the third volume of her autobiography: To grow older is to define oneself. . . . I have written certain books, not written others'. She puts the same thought into the mind of the 60-year-old teacher in the first of her three new stories: 'All in all my literary work will remain what it is: I've seen my limits.' The...

(The entire section is 1018 words.)

Glendy Culligan (review date 1969)

SOURCE: "Suffering Sisterhood," in Saturday Review, Vol. LII, No. 8, February 22, 1969, pp. 45, 79.

[In the following assessment of the collection The Woman Destroyed, Culligan briefly comments on the theme of suffering in the novellas.]

Truer words were never written than those on the jacket of Simone de Beauvoir's new book. This trio of novellas is indeed "a masterpiece of feminine suffering," although it should be understood that the operative words are the ultimate and penultimate units of the phrase.

To some readers, of course, the achievement may be more liability than asset. Because the erudite historian of "the second sex" is...

(The entire section is 791 words.)

Evan S. Connell, Jr. (review date 1969)

SOURCE: A review of The Woman Destroyed, in The New York Times Book Review, February 23, 1969, p. 4.

[Below, Connell finds the novellas of The Woman Destroyed highly credible, purporting that they should not be read as fiction but rather as "extensions of the author."]

Two long stories and a short novel on the menace of middle age. The only unsatisfactory thing about them is that they are not fiction. Simone de Beauvoir writes with perception, grace and intelligence on the subject of aging women very much as she wrote about all women in The Second Sex. She belongs to that estimable line of classically articulate Europeans; she is a pleasure to...

(The entire section is 764 words.)

David Littlejohn (review date 1969)

SOURCE: "More on the Second Sex," in New Republic, Vol. 160, No. 10, March 8, 1969, pp. 27-8.

[In the following review, Littlejohn notes both the merits and flaws of the novellas in Beauvoir 's The Woman Destroyed.]

Two of the three narrative portraits that make up Simone de Beauvoir's latest book are unpleasant and unpersuasive; the third is a quite beautiful success. All three are variations on a theme of the woman of middle or later age (43, 44, 60) who suddenly finds herself thrown on her own resources (a lifetime's delusions, the defensive fictions of pride), resources that turn out to be wretchedly inadequate for the job of supporting her through the desert...

(The entire section is 825 words.)

Perry D. Westbrook (review date 1970)

SOURCE: A review of The Woman Destroyed, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. VII, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 337-39.

[Here, Westbrook examines Beauvoir's novellas as existential works.]

Simone de Beauvoir's The Woman Destroyed (La Femme Rompue), currently a best-seller in France, consists of three nouvelles each of which reveals the inner struggle of a woman undergoing spiritual or emotional collapse. Told with high artistry, each tale employs a different variation of the first-person narrative point of view. The first, The Age of Discretion; a story of a woman scholar-author, is told with a skill worthy of a James or of a...

(The entire section is 1249 words.)

Terry Keefe (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Simone de Beauvoir's 'La Femme Rompue': Studies in Self-deception," in Essays in French Literature, No. 13, November, 1976, pp. 77-97.

[In the following essay, Keefe details how Beauvoir played with the theme of self-deception in each of the novellas in The Woman Destroyed.]

In the latest volume of her autobiography, Tout compte fait,>1 Simone de Beauvoir observes that in both of the works of fiction that she published during the nineteen-sixties her intention was to do something that she had not previously attempted in her novels, namely to 'faire parler le silence',2 or to 'demander au public de lire entre les...

(The entire section is 9536 words.)

Catharine Savage Brosman (review date 1981)

SOURCE: A review of When Things of the Spirit Come First, in The French Review, Vol. LIV, No. 6, May, 1981, p. 890.

[In the following assessment of When Things of the Spirit Come First, the critic finds Beauvoir's stories immature but significant for the light they shed on "both the difficulties of the young writer and her eventual achievement"]

The information on the cover, which indicates that this is the author's first book and that it is a novel, is somewhat misleading on two counts. In La Force de l'âge, summarizing her early literary attempts, she writes, "J'avais écrit deux longs romans dont les premiers chapitres tenaient à peu près...

(The entire section is 692 words.)

Simone de Beauvoir (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Preface to When Things of the Spirit Come First, translated by Patrick O'Brian, Pantheon Books, 1982, pp. 5-7.

[In the following preface to When Things of the Spirit Come First, Beauvoir briefly describes her motives for each of the tales in the collection.]

When I started this book, a little before I was thirty, I already had the beginnings and the rough drafts of several novels behind me. In these I had given outward expression to various phantasms; they had almost no relationship to my personal life. Not one of them was finished. After thinking about the matter for a year I made up my mind to write something completely different: this time I should...

(The entire section is 821 words.)

Gabriele Annan (review date 1982)

SOURCE: "Her Thirties Values Now Seem as Ready-Made as Any Other," in The Listener, July 29, 1982, p. 24.

[In the following review of When Things of the Spirit Come First, Annan discusses how the stories reflect Beauvoir's values.]

These five linked stories about five young women make a French version of The Group, class of 1927 or thereabouts. If they had not been waiting over 40 years for publication one might think that Madame de Beauvoir was consciously and quite legitimately treading in Mary McCarthy's footsteps. Unfortunately, her book is not nearly so entertaining as its American counterpart. It is no use expecting humour from Madame de Beauvoir,...

(The entire section is 982 words.)

Anne Duchêne (review date 1982)

SOURCE: A review of When Things of the Spirit Come First, in The Times Literary Supplement, July 30, 1982, p. 814.

[In her laudatory estimation of Beauvoir's stories, Duchêne observes Beauvoir's attack of bourgeois society in the collection.]

Simone de Beauvoir has always been a very economical writer as well as a prolix one, and used all her experience twice: once as material for her lengthy memoirs, and again as material for her usually lengthy fictions. With these "five early tales", written in the mid-1930s, in her own late twenties (the original title, La Primauté du Spirituel, was "ironically borrowed" from Maritain; the present...

(The entire section is 721 words.)

Carol Ascher (review date 1982)

SOURCE: "Lisa & Marcelle & Anne & Chantai," in The Nation, Vol. 235, No. 10, October 2, 1982, pp. 314-15.

[Below, Ascher comments on the existentialist elements connecting Beauvoir's stories.]

In 1937, shortly before she turned 30, Simone de Beauvoir began a group of loosely linked short stories set in the restrictive, bourgeois, Catholic, largely female Parisian environment of her childhood and youth. She borrowed her title from Jacques Maritain's metaphysical essays, Primauté du spirituel (The ascendancy of the spirit)—"somewhat ironically," as she said, since she had come to despise all spirituality for placing a web over reality and crushing...

(The entire section is 998 words.)

Deirdre Bair (review date 1982)

SOURCE: "A Conversion to the Real World," in The New York Times Book Review, November 7, 1982, pp. 12, 44-5.

[In the following review of When Things of the Spirit Come First, Bair briefly outlines the merits, flaws, and overall significance of Beauvoir's stories.]

These stories, written during the years 1935-37, when Miss de Beauvoir was between the ages of 27 and 29, appear at an appropriate time. An exploration of her entire canon and its impact is long overdue and particularly timely today, when many of the spheres of intellectual thought and political activism in which she played a seminal role are undergoing major shifts: for example, the feminist movement,...

(The entire section is 1338 words.)

Terry Keefe (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Quand prime le spirituel," in Simone de Beauvoir: A Study of Her Writings, Harrap, 1983, pp. 140-60.

[In the following excerpt, Keefe studies characterization in Beauvoir's stories.]

On a number of occasions in the early nineteen-thirties Beauvoir began writing novels, but she abandoned each of her attempts before producing anything that she might submit to a publisher. In 1935, however, she embarked upon a series of five interlinked stories, the unifying theme of which was 'la profusion de crimes, minuscules ou énormes, que couvrent les mystifications spiritualistes' (FA, 256). The collection was ironically entitled La Primauté du spirituel. She...

(The entire section is 2824 words.)

Elizabeth Fallaize (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "The Short Story Cycles: When Things of the Spirit Come First and The Woman Destroyed," in The Novels of Simone de Beauvoir, Routledge, 1988, pp. 143-74.

[In the essay below, Fallaize compares Beauvoir's two short fiction collections to demonstrate her narrative development.]

To read Simone de Beauvoir's two short story cycles together is to span the whole breadth of her published fiction, since When Things of the Spirit Come First was written in 1935-37, before any of her published novels, and The Woman Destroyed came last, written in 1967-68 after all the novels. Opening and closing Beauvoir's fictional production in...

(The entire section is 13717 words.)

Lucy Stone McNeece (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "La Langue brisée: Identity and Difference in de Beauvoir's La Femme rompue," in French Forum, Vol. 15, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 73-92.

[In the following essay, McNeece identifies the role language plays in the sufferings of Beauvoir's women protagonists in the collection The Woman Destroyed.]

Simone de Beauvoir's death in 1986 refocused attention on one of France's most admired yet controversial figures. Long identified as Jean-Paul Sartre's amenuensis, and thus intellectually bound to existential humanism, de Beauvoir eventually came to occupy a very particular ideological space in French culture. Rarely has an individual—woman or...

(The entire section is 8312 words.)