Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1963

The first book of de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is the most creative and expressionistic of the four. Her approach to the earliest part of her life is in the spirit of William Wordsworth’s epigram to his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” here expressed as “The Child is the...

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The first book of de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is the most creative and expressionistic of the four. Her approach to the earliest part of her life is in the spirit of William Wordsworth’s epigram to his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” here expressed as “The Child is the mother of the Woman.” Since the realm of childhood is often almost an infinite distance from an adult’s consciousness, and since de Beauvoir always speaks in the voice of a mature adult, the child who preceded the woman might be especially elusive and difficult to recapture. To close the distance, de Beauvoir projects her adult voice from the start—serious and erudite, with no concessions to the limits of a child’s thought patterns or linguistic limitations—but uses it to convey emotional urgency, a total preoccupation with the self, and a wild willfulness which suggests the operations of the child’s mind. The motto for this book might be Paul Gaugin’s comment, “There is salvation only in extremes,” for the young de Beauvoir is characterized by “impetuous vitality and a lack of all moderation.” In the opening pages, she is presented in terms of her responses to phenomena that initially developed her senses, all of her reactions framed as versions of an absolute, permitting no alternative visions or possibilities. If she does not like a certain food, she vomits. If she is forbidden to peel a plum, she runs howling down the boulevard. If she is denied the gratification of an impulse, she rages and sulks. As disturbing as they appear, these visceral outbursts are actually the basis for the beginning of the most important aspect of de Beauvoir’s sense of her self, her discovery of the mind. She locates her earliest sense of her mental development in the wave of energy produced by frustrations and disappointments. To cope with these explosive outbursts, she begins to think about them—first in terms of the action itself, then in a primitive analysis of the nature of the action—and while there is no way for the young child to curb her instincts, she begins to acquire the means for a transformation that will reduce her discomfort.

This transformation is accomplished through an expansion of awareness. “Suddenly the future existed,” she says, establishing time as a concept, removing the child from the trap of a perpetual present. She begins to discriminate among various foods, so that the senses serve rather than rule, an anticipation of the adult’s prerogative of selection. While enjoying the sensual nature of the countryside, she becomes aware of the sources of her enjoyment in the landscape, thus adding the analytic to the instinctive. When stories are read to her, she imagines herself as one of the characters, assuming semilegendary proportions as a result of her connection with the significance of the printed word. Gradually, while retaining the physical immediacy of the child’s world, she alters her points of reference so that the mind moves into prominence as a measure of reality, and events become occasions for thought as well as feeling. The connection between words and things follows directly, as de Beauvoir learns to read rapidly, driven by a curiosity about the “riches found in books” as well as an incipient interest in language itself.

In this book, de Beauvoir also begins to consider her parents’ lives and character, but at first they are seen without fault, wrapped in an unquestioning love. Their dominance is accepted, and de Beauvoir traces the beginning of her intellectual life to her admiration of her father, the beginning of her spiritual life to her adoration of her mother, accepting the complete separation of those spheres without question. This is the only area, however, in which she accepts the conventional nature of things without considering alternatives. Even in her preteen years, she has a tremendous consciousness of shaping her own destiny so that reading leads to writing, which permits a shaping rather than an accepting of reality; dolls become not merely toys but “doubles,” which open alternative visions of existence; goals begin to edge into her immediate plans, with teaching a possible vocation so that she can “form minds and mould character,” a reflection of her desires for herself at this time.

Book 2 confronts the contradictions that have been gradually developing in her life. To this point, approximately age ten, she has been the “dutiful daughter” of the title, and while her sense of duty remains, the focus is shifted from a blind duty to her parents and the life they have prepared for her to a sense of duty to her self and her own fate. The original French word in the title, rangee, also means “patterned” or “arranged.” As the innocence of childhood gives way before the intrusion of all the questions a brilliant, precocious, and highly inquisitive young girl might pose, the entire fabric of the society that her parents uphold begins to unravel. Although the events of World War I had already begun to change the world irrevocably, the de Beauvoirs were still living in the smug, self-assured contentment of the last decades of the nineteenth century, falsely secure in the illusion that their way of life was permanent. Their eldest daughter, however, had already begun to question some of the sacred assumptions of her parents’ generation. For her, Catholicism provided no real explanation of the nature of the universe, and most rules of social conduct seemed designed to ratify hypocrisy—a major sin for one who believed in seeking the absolute truth.

The narrative progression of book 2 is from certainty to doubt as de Beauvoir adds personal experience to the continual development of her powers of analytic ability. The consequence is a feeling of displacement at childhood’s end as adults still rule but with their authority no longer quite legitimate. Her questions extended directly into the world of adult decisions and when she did not receive satisfactory answers, the anxiety of uncertainty clouded her vision. As a compensation, she had begun to develop an intense friendship with Elizabeth Mabille (known as “Zaza”) and an increasing dependence on the inspiration of literature. Her plan to study literature and then teach at the lycee was a disturbing and unconventional choice for a proper girl, and her confidence in the correctness of her decision was instinctive, not rational.

As subsequent events demonstrated, her decision was correct, but her confidence was immediately shaken by the circumstances that she faced. Still essentially under the control of her parents, she describes her situation at the beginning of book 3 as a kind of prison, and through the course of the book, she relates her attempts to escape into the freedom of her own life. The narrative pattern here is a systematic examination of possibility, beginning with an inclination toward public service, an idea that develops from an inspiring lecture delivered by a socialist speaker. Another possibility involves her first feelings of love as she begins to talk earnestly with her older cousin Jacques Laiguillon, a suave, sensitive young man she recalls as “the hero of my youth.” Her discussions with Jacques lead her to her first acquaintance with modern art and literature, renewing her interest in being a writer by underscoring the relevance of literature to modern life. To activate this interest, she begins the diary which forms the basis for her autobiographical writing—a reflective, analytic, almost fiercely observant record of her life which enhances the mental skills she has been developing by concentrating impulsive thought into language. The diary also gives her the opportunity to begin to formulate the feminist philosophy which she presented in Le Deuxieme Sexe in 1949 (The Second Sex, 1953). “What went on in one’s body should be one’s own concern” is typical of the entries on this subject. The diary solidifies her strong sense of individualism by acting as a kind of supportive “friend” prior to her actual contact with people who would share her ideas and outlook.

Another possibility for escape was the Sorbonne, where she began to assemble a cultural context within which to locate her own ideas. In examining the stance of the artist as outsider, particularly the poems of men such as Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud, her own attempts to break away from the conventions of her parents’ world gained validity.

None of these possibilities enabled her to move beyond the prison which held her between the “paradise of childhood” and “the world of men,” however, and she continued to see her life primarily in terms of potentiality, with no immediate means for activating that energy. Her frustration drove her toward the nihilism of intellectual despair, but she was always carried back from this state by exultations of pure being in response to the variety of the world. Her consciousness of existence was shifting from the inner life of the extraordinary child to the outward inclination of a young woman reaching for direction. Her sense of enclosure is reflected in a narrative pattern of repetition with small variations within a circumscribed perimeter. In attempting to break out, she spends nights in bars and saloons, but in a curiously innocent way, still far too much her parents’ “dutiful daughter” to abandon her ingrained precepts. Finally, near the end of the book, she mentions some of her fellow students, people destined for international celebrity, such as Simone Weil, Jean-Paul Sartre, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, and the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This is a foreshadowing of her imminent escape from “the labyrinth of the last three years” into the future.

Book 4 marks the emergence of Simone de Beauvoir, the young woman who is on the threshold of a life of engagement, emerging from a prison of uncertainty and parental suppression. Her preparation for her exams provides a focus for the energy that she has been scattering in many directions, and she passes them easily. Her continuing success in her studies helps her to formulate a self-image of an independent woman who has rejected the constraints of bourgeois norms. The excitement of living in the fabled Paris of the 1920’s, with all the arts exploding in new directions, draws her into full participation in the world.

The final pages of the memoir follow de Beauvoir through the conclusion of two old friendships and the inception of a grand new one, signifying the end of her youth and the beginning of her adult years. Her break with her cousin Jacques and the tragic story of his decline, and the sudden death of her best friend, Zaza, which she attributes to a mental collapse brought on by parental demands, are symbolic of the ending of an era. The promise of a new age is heralded by Sartre’s invitation, “I’m going to take you under my wing,” and although his attitude seems paternalistic, she never presents herself in a subordinate role in their relationship, even while expressing her admiration for Sartre’s intellect and character. Instead, she relates her feelings as she is captured by an absolute sense of love akin to other absolute states of being which she had known at the beginning of the memoir. As before, her individuality is not diminished by her commitment. The love she feels for Sartre is a justification for all of her struggles with modes of existence promoted by lesser people. In the lyric language she reserves for moments of special truth, de Beauvoir calls Sartre:the double in whom I found all my burning aspiration raised to the pitch of incandescence. I should always be able to share everything with him. When I left him at the beginning of August, I knew that he would never go out of my life again.

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