Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 515
This long, intricate novel, for which de Beauvoir received the prestigious Goncourt Prize in 1954, was her favorite. The book is part autobiography, part social and political history, and part love story. It is in many respects autobiographical, with the psychiatrist Anne Dubreuilh standing in for de Beauvoir. Anne has...
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This long, intricate novel, for which de Beauvoir received the prestigious Goncourt Prize in 1954, was her favorite. The book is part autobiography, part social and political history, and part love story. It is in many respects autobiographical, with the psychiatrist Anne Dubreuilh standing in for de Beauvoir. Anne has been married for twenty years to an older man, Robert (Sartre), an author who has assumed the role of a good, dependable friend. Anne also has a passionate affair with an American writer, Lewis Brogan (Nelson Algren). She has a troubled relationship with an adult daughter, Nadine, a composite of two of Sartre’s young mistresses. Then there are the journalist Henri Perron (Albert Camus) and a dislikably truculent writer, Scriassine (Arthur Koestler).
The novel’s complicated plot covers a wide range of personal and ideological issues and is too dense with events for a detailed summary. It begins by dramatizing the rapturous joy with which French intellectuals welcomed the liberation of Paris in 1944. Robert, Henri, and Anne soon become conscious of the political complexities of the postwar situation, and their ardent hopes of a better world are shattered in the next six years. Friendships that flourished during the German Occupation founder on ideological and personal recriminations as the Cold War begins to dominate European politics. Perron, editor of a liberal newspaper, hopes to remain unattached to any political party. Yet Robert Dubreuilh has founded an existentialist-revolutionary party and seeks the support of Perron’s paper for his organization.
As the clear-cut choices of wartime give way to the ambiguous options of peacetime, several of the leading personages are drawn into dilemmas in which a simple ethic of right or wrong no longer holds valid. Perron, for example, perjures himself in court to save a woman of whom he is enamored from being exposed as the former mistress of a Nazi officer—even though Perron is a Resistance hero. Robert Dubreuilh and Perron hold long conversations during which the formerly close friends find themselves increasingly polarized (as Sartre and Camus did), separated by Perron’s militant anti-Stalinism and Dubreuilh’s adherence to left-wing solidarity. Political power eludes these friends as they find themselves on the edge of social events instead of at their hub. Clearly the title, The Mandarins, can only be taken ironically.
Interwoven into the work’s stories are several liaisons, of which the one between Anne Dubreuilh and Lewis Brogan is the most important. Based on the de Beauvoir-Algren attachment, it is not factually rendered. After Anne’s affair with Lewis ends, she falls into deep depression and almost commits suicide. Through Anne’s travails de Beauvoir seeks to depict a woman’s problems of personal responsibility—to her husband, daughter, lover, profession, and self. These problems translate the intellectual and political difficulties of the male characters into emotional terms.
The novel falls short of its grand design because de Beauvoir lacks sufficient imaginative intensity and command of dialogue, tone, and style to enable her to transform her ideas into convincing art. Yet her high intelligence and breadth of historical perspective deserve praise.