What are the themes in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir?

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Awakening into a Sense of Self

Memoirs of A Dutiful Daughter portrays a young de Beauvoir’s journey through childhood and adolescence, paying particular attention to the process by which she comes to conceive of her “Self” as distinct from the identity of young bourgeois woman which she is expected to...

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Awakening into a Sense of Self

Memoirs of A Dutiful Daughter portrays a young de Beauvoir’s journey through childhood and adolescence, paying particular attention to the process by which she comes to conceive of her “Self” as distinct from the identity of young bourgeois woman which she is expected to occupy. From an early age, de Beauvoir’s intellectual curiosity is evident in the enthusiasm with which she consumes literature of all sorts, while her emotional capacity is demonstrated by her love of nature and art and her constant internal speculations as to the potentiality of life.

Initially a contented child, de Beauvoir is shown, by a series of realizations, to become more and more self-conscious and consequently more and more resentful of how she is perceived by others. An early example that de Beauvoir gives of such a realization comes when out walking with her aunt. Beauvoir recalls feeling “a sharp sense of superiority" when it struck her that, however her aunt saw her, she was not privy to the truth of de Beauvoir as a person, her essence as an individual.

In her style of writing, which alternates between the dry and conventional prose of a diary entry and the emotive and provocative expressions more characteristic of a novel, de Beauvoir mirrors her own alternation as a child and young woman between the constrained and conservative existence characterized by her parents and the rich and varied inner life to which she ultimately awakens.

Relationships Shaping Personal Development

While, as a work of autobiography, Memoirs of A Dutiful Daughter is first and foremost concerned with de Beauvoir’s development as a person, her nature is such that she depends on her observations of others in order to inform and direct her own development. An early indication of this sociability is her memories of watching the Parisians passing her window, all the while wondering where they are going, what they are doing, and what their aspirations are. One of the more influential relationships she details is her friendship with “Zaza,” a figure who ultimately comes to suffer the fate that Beauvoir set out to avoid. de Beauvoir implies that her friend failed to develop a sense of her own intellectual identity, as she had, and was therefore overrun by the demands that society placed on her as a dutiful woman.

Beauvoir comments on two love affairs that she experienced during her formative years, the first with her cousin Jacques and the second with the philosopher Sartre. Her musings as to these romantic relationships reveal that her ideas about gender equality were, at this early stage of her life, not as developed as they would appear in her later works, such as The Second Sex. While she feels men and women should be held to the same moral standards, and longs for a man who might function as her “brother and equal,” she also seems to desire a man capable of overmatching her in an intellectual sense, believing that an intellectual superior will inspire her to greater intellectual heights. Initially, she thinks she has found the right partner in the figure of Jacques, who symbolically provides her with books that her parents have forbidden her to read. However, Jacques ultimately proves inferior to her:while he possesses a keen intellect, he lacks motivation to shape the society in which he lives. When she meets Sartre at the Sorbonne however, he is more to her taste, since while she feels she can converse with him as an equal, she also sees in him an intellect greater than her own.

Traditional Concepts of Femininity and Masculinity

Beauvoir’s conceptions of masculinity and femininity are not fully developed during this text, which culminates with her turning twenty-one. While she is determined throughout the text to be “a woman” and thinks proudly of herself as a woman, this pride is founded on certain conceptions of gender that were perhaps too implicit to her society for her to question. When she recalls her satisfaction with having “a woman’s heart and a man’s brain,” she affirms stereotypical understandings of men as naturally intellectual and women as naturally emotional.

In her rejection of the spiritual and emotional virtues represented by her mother and her embrace of the more “masculine” pursuit of learning and self-realization represented by her father, she can be said to turn her back on what it traditionally meant to be a woman. Similarly, her rejection of Jacques, whose lack of ambition and passivity in his view of the status quo suggests an almost feminine nature, she indicates a distaste for the femininity she claims to accept. The kind of woman she is proud to be is not clearly defined in this text, though it is to a greater extent in some of her later works.

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