Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter Analysis
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...
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