Beauvoir, Simone de (Feminism in Literature)
One of the most prominent writers of her generation, Beauvoir was a member of the French left-wing intellectual circle associated with existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. She became identified as a leading feminist theorist with the publication of Le deuxième sexe (1949; The Second Sex), her comprehensive study of the secondary status of women throughout history. Additionally, in her autobiographies, fiction, and criticism, she addressed women's social, economic, and political status as well as the existential meaning of womanhood.
Born in Paris to middle-class parents, Beauvoir was raised a Roman Catholic. In early adolescence, however, she perceived hypocrisies and fallacies in 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, and together they prepared for the agrégation examination in philosophy. Finding that they were intellectual equals, each of whom desired a lasting relationship free of conventional restraints, Beauvoir and Sartre agreed to a shared life outside the institution of marriage and also mutually consented to "contingent relationships." 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. During World War II, Beauvoir and Sartre organized a resistance group to oppose Nazi occupation of France. Beauvoir spent most of her time during the war years writing. In 1944 she 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 (MLF) in 1970 to participate in demonstrations supporting legalized abortion, Beauvoir did not declare herself a feminist until 1972, after which 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.
Beauvoir's major theoretical study, The Second Sex, is often said to be the first full-length socio-philosophical examination of the status of women in society. In this work Beauvoir incorporated existentialist concepts concerning 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 an inessential being to an essential being. Positing that men have achieved the favorable status of transcendence while women have assumed that of immanence, Beauvoir proposed assimilation into the male universe as a means of achieving gender equality. Further, she called the existence of essentially feminine and maternal traits a myth and presented the female body in extremely negative terms, highlighting ways in which a woman's freedom is inhibited by her sexuality and fertility. Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée (1958; Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter), is Beauvoir's account of her early years, particularly her intellectual development as a young woman in bourgeois Paris. In this work Beauvoir applied many of the theories she had set forth in The Second Sex to her personal experiences, namely her realization that the myths of her childhood did not apply to her burgeoning adult life. In her fiction Beauvoir often portrayed women who depended on the men in their lives for happiness and were disappointed with the results. Her collection of novellas, La femme rompue (1967; The Woman Destroyed), characterized women whose dependencies on men have crippled their abilities to create positive identities and construct autonomous lives.
From the time of its publication, when it provoked the ire of both conservative and liberal critics, The Second Sex has dominated discussion of Beauvoir's theoretical position. Despite the initially negative reaction of critics to the work, it has attained widespread recognition and has proved vastly influential. Today The Second Sex is generally regarded as fundamental to the development of the women's movement of the 1960s as well as to the discipline of feminist studies. With the rise in the 1970s of new French feminists extolling feminine physical and psychological differences, The Second Sex was dismissed as out of date, and many feminists disparaged Beauvoir as a Sartrean revisionist, condemning her adoption of a masculine identity. More recently, critics have begun to reassess her importance as a pioneering thinker who established the groundwork for the study and liberation of women in modern Western society. Representing this position, Ellen Willis (see Further Reading) wrote: "Nearly four decades after it was first published in France, despite all the commentary the feminist movement has produced in the meantime, dated and parochial as it is in many respects, The Second Sex remains the most cogent and thorough book of feminist theory yet written."
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 mortel [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 [The Second Sex] 2 vols. (nonfiction) 1949
Les mandarins (novel) 1954
Fait-il bruler Sade? [Must We Burn de 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
Tout compte fait (autobiography) 1960
La force des choses (autobiography) 1963
Une mort très douce [A Very Easy Death] (memoir) 1964
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SOURCE: Beauvoir, Simone de. “The Independent Woman.” In The Second Sex, translated by H. M. Parshley, pp. 713-32. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
In the following excerpt from The Second Sex, originally published in 1952, Beauvoir discusses the difficulties of achieving independence for modern women.
According to French law, obedience is no longer included among the duties of a wife, and each woman citizen has the right to vote; but these civil liberties remain theoretical as long as they are unaccompanied by economic freedom. A woman supported by a man—wife or courtesan—is not emancipated from the male because she has a ballot in her hand; if custom imposes less constraint upon her than formerly, the negative freedom implied has not profoundly modified her situation; she remains bound in her condition of vassalage. It is through gainful employment that woman has traversed most of the distance that separated her from the male; and nothing else can guarantee her liberty in practice. Once she ceases to be a parasite, the system based on her dependence crumbles; between her and the universe there is no longer any need for a masculine mediator.
The curse that is upon woman as vassal consists, as we have seen, in the fact that she is not permitted to do anything; so she persists in the vain pursuit of her true being through...
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SOURCE: Baruch, Elaine Hoffman. "The Female Body and the Male Mind: Reconsidering Simone de Beauvoir." Dissent, no. 1 (summer 1987): 351-58.
In the following essay, Baruch analyzes Beauvoir's feminist philosophy in the context of contemporary feminist theory, much of which opposes many of Beauvoir's suppositions.
Forty years ago Simone de Beauvoir sat in front of a blank sheet of paper at the Café des Deux Magots, on the Boulevard St. Germain in Paris, wanting to write about herself:
I realized that the first question to come up was: What has it meant to me to be a woman. At first I thought I could dispose of that pretty quickly. I had never had any feeling of inferiority, no one had ever said to me: "You think that way because you're a woman"; my femininity had never been irksome to me in any way. "For me," I said to Sartre, "you might almost say it just hasn't counted." "All the same, you weren't brought up in the same way as a boy would have been; you should look into it further!"
And so her book The Second Sex was born. It was, in a sense, Jean-Paul Sartre's baby. But when published in France, it was viewed as illegitimate. The public was not pleased by Beauvoir's discovery that "this world was a masculine world," and that her "childhood had been...
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SOURCE: Yanay, Niza. "Authenticity of Self-Expression: Reinterpretation of Female Independence through the Writings of Simone de Beauvoir." Women's Studies 17 (1990): 219-33.
In the following essay, Yanay uses the work of Beauvoir to examine the psychological notions of dependence and independence in women.
This paper aims to reopen discussion of the meaning of "dependence" and "independence" as they reflect the experiences of women. This desire to reexamine and revise accepted concepts and terms in light of principles of female experience is prompted by the work of feminist scholars, who have suggested the adoption of a new language with which to conceptualize accepted values.
Psychology treats the concept of "dependency" as a tendency to rely on and seek attention, care, or help from close others. Thus, dependence is often equated with affiliation (McClain, 1978) or with the need for affection, reassurance and approval (Heathers, 1955). Along these same lines, the concept of "autonomy" or "independence" is often associated with self-reliance and needing no one else—accomplishing things on the basis of one's own efforts in response to one's own interests and in an attempt to reach self-fulfillment.
This conception of autonomy has only recently been challenged by feminist scholars who explore...
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JO-ANN P. FUCHS (ESSAY DATE SUMMER 1980)
SOURCE: Fuchs, Jo-Ann P. “Female Eroticism in The Second Sex.” Feminist Studies 6, no. 2 (summer 1980): 304-13.
In the following essay, Fuchs finds Beauvoir’s notions about female eroticism in The Second Sex self-contradictory and sets out to correct the contradiction for contemporary feminists.
In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir presents in scattered form her own analysis of eroticism. It is an analysis which is at base existentialist and phenomenological, making use of the work of other contemporary French thinkers, and adding to this her own unique vision and sensitivity about woman’s condition. The analysis was necessary, as she said more than once,1 yet it remained unfinished. My contention is that de Beauvoir’s analysis unfortunately turned upon an internal contradiction that she did not see and that we need to understand so that our own thinking can transcend the contradiction we inherit from her, when we read The Second Sex.
For de Beauvoir, eroticism is that dimension of human existence that has to do with the sexual, but always insofar as it denotes a situation and a lived experience, not a collection of genital facts. “The body is not a thing, it is a...
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ALEX HUGHES (ESSAY DATE APRIL 1994)
SOURCE: Hughes, Alex. “Murdering the Mother: Simone de Beauvoir’s Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée.” French Studies 48, no. 2 (April 1994): 174-83.
In the following essay, Hughes discusses the theme of matricide in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.
In her provocative essay ‘Death Sentences: Writing Couples and Ideology’, Alice Jardine suggests that Beauvoir’s Une mort très douce and her Cérémonie des adieux emblematize ‘the poetics of an ideology that insists upon killing the mother’.1 Jardine’s argument is that in these texts, the maternal body is dissected, exorcized and purified through language, so that Beauvoir may continue to write and may simultaneously preserve the integrity of a disembodied textual realm in which she is definitively shielded from the snares of the maternal/material. It is easy to see how Jardine’s thesis is applicable to Une mort très douce, since this text charts the (shocking) physical disintegration of Beauvoir’s mother Françoise; however, Jardine’s perception of La Cérémonie des adieux, Beauvoir’s farewell to Sartre, as a ‘matricidal’ work is unexpected, to say the least. Jardine justifies her reading of Beauvoir’s last autobiographical volume as an assault upon the...
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ELIZABETH FALLAIZE (ESSAY DATE 1990)
SOURCE: Fallaize, Elizabeth. "Resisting Romance: Simone de Beauvoir, The Woman Destroyed and the Romance Script." In Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives, edited by Margaret Atack and Phil Powrie, pp. 15-25. Manchester, Eng.: Manchester University Press, 1990.
In the following essay, Fallaize examines elements of popular romantic fiction in The Woman Destroyed and the possibility of demythologizing romantic ritualism for Beauvoir.
The feminist credentials of Simone de Beauvoir's fictional texts are sometimes assumed to be guaranteed by the fact that their author also produced The Second Sex, and indeed Beauvoir's fiction is most usually read against her essays (or Sartre's). However, more recently, there has been a tendency to judge the fiction—and to find it wanting in some respects—against the conventions of the romance plot.1 It is indeed difficult to deny that elements of the romance plot are easily discernible in Beauvoir's early fiction: heterosexual couple formation plays a large part in the narrative, and within this couple the woman tends to be in what Rachel Blau Duplessis has called romantic thraldom (by which she means a totally defining love between apparent unequals—the lover has the power of...
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Bennett, Joy Gabriella Hochmann. Simone de Beauvoir: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1988, 474 p.
Comprehensive annotated bibliography of secondary sources published between 1940 and 1986 in English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish.
Appignanesi, Lisa. Simone de Beauvoir New York: Penguin Books, 1988, 169 p.
Traces Beauvoir's life and development as a writer.
Ascher, Carol. Simone de Beauvoir: A Life of Freedom. Boston, Mass.: Beacon, 1981, 254 p.
Biographical and critical study of Beauvoir's life and works, intended as "a mixture of the personal and the analytical."
Bair, Deirdre. Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography New York: Summit Books, 1990, 718 p.
Fullbrook, Kate and Edward Fullbrook. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre: The Remaking of a Twentieth-Century Legend. Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire: Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1993, 214 p.
Biographical account focusing on Beauvoir's experiences with Sartre.
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