Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter

by Simone de Beauvoir
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Last Updated on August 23, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520

Memoirs of A Dutiful Daughter is an autobiographical work in which Simone de Beauvoir details her formative years, focusing in particular on her awakening to herself as an individual in the context of conservative repression. The text starts, as autobiographies traditionally do, with an account of the author’s birth, which is very idealistic, complete with flowers and smiling onlookers. Born into an affluent Parisian family, the young de Beauvoir is well loved and even spoiled, but she is not altogether happy. From early on she has a sense of her own capabilities and begins to recognize the ways in which her society is designed to keep her from reaching her potential. de Beauvoir has Catholic virtues instilled in her by her mother and is made to attend Cours Desir, one of the leading Catholic girl’s schools in Paris, where she meets Zaza, who will act as her close friend and her foil during the course of her childhood and adolescence.

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Simone’s passion for reading, which was initially welcomed by her parents, soon becomes threatening to them. They ban certain books from her, but she obtains them with the help of her cousin Jacques and reads them in secret. de Beauvoir’s emotional state declines when she becomes a teenager as a result of poor self-image. She perceives herself as unattractive and thus considers herself a disappointment to her father and the conservative society he represents, where women were measured by virtue of their attractiveness. She grows disillusioned with Catholicism, seeing its emphasis on ritual as a waste of her time, and finds a new faith in her own intellect. She abandons previous ambitions to become a nun with this newfound disdain for the church. She promises herself that she will not become the kind of wife society expects her to become and will instead become a writer and a teacher. She enrolls at Institute de Sainte-Marie, where a mentor named Garric helps her clarify and solidify her writing ambitions for the future.

de Beauvoir’s depression continues, however, and she develops a skepticism that goes right to the heart of life itself. She comes to believe that nothing, not even existing, has any purpose. She becomes involved with a group of students at the Ecole Normale and even attends some of their classes. Here she meets Sartre, her future friend and lover and an influential thinker in his own right. Zaza, meanwhile, having been prevented from marrying for love by her society’s conventions, has agreed to marry a man for whom she has no affection. Perhaps in part due to the emotional strain of her situation, Zaza dies, an event that has a profound impact on de Beauvoir. It is as if Zaza has undergone the very fate that de Beauvoir had done all she could to avoid. Jacques’s future is no better than Zaza’s. He spends a number of years in an empty marriage, living an unremarkable life before dying at forty-six. These important people met untimely ends to unsatisfying lives, tragically proving de Beauvoir's skepticism about the insidious effect of societal norms.

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