Beauvoir, Simone de (Short Story Criticism)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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 limitations imposed by ageing seem to have preoccupied her much in recent years. In view of the way that in all her writing, not just in her memoirs, she candidly invites the reader to participate in her personal journey through life, it seems appropriate to ask at this point: 'Well—what has her work been? How do we classify her, basically? And does this latest book fit the picture?'
To many readers Simone de Beauvoir is primarily the feminist author of The Second Sex. This large, non-fiction work has never enjoyed in England either the vogue or the notoriety that it met with in France, partly because it has less universal application outside France than its author perhaps supposed; but there are nevertheless quite a lot...
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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 notoriously free from levity, ironic intention seems unlikely, although the insensitivity of each narrator to her human environment verges on caricature. The first suspects her husband of indifference and her son of betraying her values, but after a prolonged siege of self-pity she grudgingly accepts these erosions. The second has passed the point of no return in bitchy self-indulgence. Having exhausted several husbands and driven a daughter to suicide, she reiterates her crazed complaint: "They are killing me the bastards." More moderate in tone, the final voice echoes banalities found in advice-to-the-love-lorn columns. Like so many outraged wives, Monique holds love to be an inalienable right, hence never understands its loss.
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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 read, and for anyone who happens to be interested in women she is instructive. But the heroines breathe collectively, not individually. They are amorphous. They are extensions of Mme. de Beauvoir rather than themselves. Once this is accepted, there is not much to quibble about.
The least of the three must be The Monologue. The time is New Year's Eve; a woman of 43 is alone in her apartment listening to the noise of a party and to the gaiety in the street. A Joycean soliloquy informs us of her past and present—of Dédé, Tristan, Marietta, and others, none of whom is substantial. The one surprising thing about this story is the punctuation. Perhaps afraid of confounding readers who have difficulty with Joyce,...
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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 ahead. All these women—the intellectual, the bourgeoise, the shrew—prove in the end desperately dependent on their men; their stories could serve as a kind of illustrative appendix to The Second Sex.
But the fictional case study—the confined, carefully crafted analysis-through-narrative of a single person or a single problem that the French call a récit—depends centrally on the success, the appropriateness and tact of the author's technical means. There are defects, I think, in the very imaginative conceptions behind the second and third stories in this book; but it is primarily due to simple errors of craft that they collapse and come to nothing.
The Monologue pretends to...
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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 Flaubert. Concurrently with her account of her present actions and despair, the protagonist divulges bit by bit the relevant facts of her past and the conditions of her family relationships. The total effect, conveyed with exceptional economy of incident and detail, is one of harrowing crisis. The second story, Monologue, which is the shortest of the three, is a stream-of-consciousness narrative about a lower-class virago as she consecrates a New Year's Eve to lonely and hateful reverie about the men in her earlier life, her children, and humanity in general. The final story, the title piece, makes use of the hoary but, as it turns out, still serviceable device of a diary to record the step-by-step disintegration of the personality of...
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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 lignes'.3 She also indicates, however, that whereas in Les Belles Images her principal aim was to portray the 'société technocratique' which she lives in but strongly disapproves of, La Femme rompue arose directly of her desire to illustrate the dilemmas and the mental state of certain married women. Part of her interest in these women centres on the fact that many of them are less than honest or truthful in their appraisal and description of their situation. Indeed, a major theme common to the three stories of La Femme rompue is that of self-deception, and it is for this reason that the reader is called upon to read between the lines in each case. Without systematically pursuing the question of the literary...
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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 debout mais qui dégénéraient ensuite en un informe fatras. Je résolus cette fois de composer des récits assez brefs et de les mener d'un bout à l'autre avec rigueur" (p. 229). These five récits, composed between 1935 and 1937, she grouped under the ironic title, borrowed from Maritain, "Primauté du spirituel," modified for the present publication. The volume is, therefore, neither her first novel nor a novel but rather long stories concerning different characters, among whom there are ties of family or friendship and who thus move in the same milieu: "Entre les personnages de mes diverses nouvelles, j'établis des liens plus ou moins lâches mais chacun formait un tout complet" (p. 230). The texts are not arranged in...
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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 speak about the world I knew, and I should expose some of its defects. A few years before this I had discovered the harm done by the religiosity that was in the air I breathed during my childhood and early youth. Several of my friends had never broken away from it: willingly or unwillingly they had undergone the dangerous influence of that kind of spiritual life. I decided to tell their stories and also to deal with my own conversion to the real world. I linked the characters of these five tales, but the connection was loose and each tale was a self-sufficing entity.
In "Lisa" I described the withering away of a girl whose shy attempts at living were crushed by the mysticism and the intrigues of the pious institution in...
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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, though in fact she does produce one joke: one of the girls has a series of passes made at her in cinemas, bars and shops without ever realising what is going on. That is the advantage of a Christian upbringing,' she later concludes; 'I might have let myself be raped without thinking there was any harm in it.'
A Christian upbringing is what the book is all about, or rather against: all five stories are cautionary tales showing what damage it can do to body and soul. Anne, the most attractive of the girls, is torn between love for Pascal and love for her mother, who wants her to stop seeing him. This second love is reinforced by Anne's religious training which has conditioned her to obedience. The result is a somewhat...
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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 translations, by Patrick O'Brian, are very happy ones) she takes economy one stage further, by discussing them, in a Preface, in the same words as she used when describing them in the second volume of her memoirs, La Force de l'Age, in 1960. Thus increasing for initiates the sense, welcome or irritating, that they relate to Holy Writ.
Certainly, they all relate very directly to that body of experience on which her writings have conferred something like mythological significance. In the 1960 memoirs she described (a bit more fully than in this 1981 Preface) how they were written when she abandoned two rather high-flown attempts on the novel and decided instead to concentrate on her own experience, the better to convey her...
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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 life. The collection was not published in France until 1979, under the altered title Quand prime le spirituel, and it has taken three years more to cross the Atlantic.
The stories were written while she and Sartre were teaching philosophy in lycées in Paris; and lycée life from the point of view of teacher as well as student is central to these tales. On the other hand, de Beauvoir had already removed herself morally and politically from the world she was describing—which may account for her harshness toward the heroines in some of these stories. Already, while teaching in the provinces, she and Sartre had been involved in a long and difficult triangle with one of de Beauvoir's students (the basis of...
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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, which is clearly seeking redefinition and new impetus.
Simone de Beauvoir is generally regarded as one of the leading feminist theoreticians and intellectuals of our time. Her fiction has had both critical and commercial success in many languages, and her nonfiction has thoroughly documented her beliefs as a political activist. Her influence has been felt in areas ranging from philosophical inquiry to pacifism. Her conceptualization of the status of women in The Second Sex preceded every other contemporary work on the subject of women and 33 years after its publication still powerfully affects the international women's movement. Her relationship of more than 50 years with the late Jean-Paul Sartre placed her at the...
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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 herself was in revolt against the spiritualism that had oppressed her for so long and wished to express her disgust 'à travers l'histoire de jeunes femmes que je connaissais et qui en avaient été les victimes plus ou moins consentantes' (QPS, vii). Beauvoir completed the work in 1937, but by the time it had been turned down by both Gallimard and Grasset she had other projects in hand and was content enough to forget it. It was finally published under the modified title Quand prime le spirituel in 1979, when she decided that it was not without its qualities and shed a certain light on her other writings.
The first story, 'Marcelle', sketches the childhood, adolescence and early aspirations of the heroine, then...
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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 this way, and separated by more than 30 years, the broadly similar form of the two works offers a unique opportunity to consider developments in Beauvoir's use of narrative strategies.
When Beauvoir wrote The Woman Destroyed, her first collection of short stories lay in the back of a drawer, a fate to which Beauvoir had firmly consigned the manuscript in 1938 after it had been turned down by both Gallimard and Grasset.1 It was not until 1979, 11 years after the publication of The Woman Destroyed, that Beauvoir eventually published When Things of the Spirit Come First. It is perhaps therefore hardly surprising that Beauvoir did not consciously think back to her first...
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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 man—elicited such extremes of feeling and opinion. But rarely has anyone embodied so completely the diverse faces of a society in transition as has she. It has been said that de Beauvoir represented all sides of the deep-seated conflicts that erupted in 1968. Having inaugurated a pragmatic feminist outlook in 1949 with Le Deuxième Sexe, a work in many ways ahead of its time, de Beauvoir became a symbol of reaction during the political and theoretical explosion of the sixties and seventies. Despite her expression of solidarity with the increasingly separatist feminist movement in France, de Beauvoir was both mocked and denigrated as much as she had been revered. She was seen as a product of an earlier generation that was rooted in post-war...
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Durham, Carolyn A. "Patterns of Influence: Simone de Beauvoir and Marie Cardinal." The French Review 60, No. 3 (February 1987): 341-48.
Examines the influence of Beauvoir's collection La femme rompue on Marie Cardinal's Une vie pour deux.
Fallaize, Elizabeth. "Resisting romance: Simone de Beauvoir, The Woman Destroyed and the Romance Script." Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives, edited by Margaret Atack and Phil Powrie, pp. 15-25. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990.
Identifies problems with the romance plot of Beauvoir's novella The Woman Destroyed.
Keefe, Terry. "Commitment, re-commitment and puzzlement: Aspects of the Cold War in the Fiction of Simone de Beauvoir." French Cultural Studies VIII (February 1997): 127-36.
Discusses the political content of Beauvoir's posthumously published story "Malentendu à Moscou," which is set in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Moi, Toril. "Intentions and Effects: Rhetoric and Identification in Simone de Beauvoir's 'The Woman Destroyed'." In Feminist Theory & Simone de Beauvoir, pp. 61-93. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.
Accounts for the discrepancy between popular...
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