Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 725
In this first volume of her autobiography, Beauvoir intends to depict the genesis of her vocation as a writer and to establish, in the re-creation of her childhood and adolescence, a coherent basis for understanding the woman she will be throughout her life. Critics have objected that such a recovery of the past, from the standpoint of a fifty-year-old woman, is necessarily flawed, since it is impossible not to interpret the past in the light of one’s later beliefs and convictions. The problem is an epistemological one that is inherent, to a certain extent, in all autobiography: how to know, accurately, a past self. Beauvoir solves the problem by evoking her younger self as the necessary foundation of her older self and by implying the coherent persistence of a unified, indestructible self. She depicts this self as a figure of great strength and determination. A network of images evoking giantlike appetites and endeavors underlies the autobiographical narrative. Like a giant, the young Simone wants to conquer and devour the world—in her case, a world of books, knowledge, and experience. Her vigor and her vitality are impetuous and immoderate, and they explain her need to escape from the narrow confines of her milieu. A certain ruthlessness is inseparable from her relentless drive toward freedom and self-expression, and conflicts necessarily arise with the warm, protective figures of the past: family, teachers, friends. The drive is, however, both motivated and justified by a strong sense of vocation: Very early on, Beauvoir decides that she wants to be an author—that is, someone who is endowed with autonomy, authority, and uniqueness. She wants to become a writer because she admires writers above all and is “convinced of their supremacy.”
The voice adopted by Beauvoir to depict her younger self is sometimes an ironic one; she sees the child Simone as being influenced by the prejudices and the snobberies of her milieu. More often, however, the voice is one of sympathy and compassion as Beauvoir paints the insights of the young Simone, her struggles, efforts, and aspirations, her difficulties and her yearnings, not as the slightly ridiculous antics of an overambitious child, but as the necessary travails of giving birth to an independent girl and woman. Similarly, when she speaks of those who surround her, the authorial voice is in turn imbued with a profound irony when she addresses the pretensions, the pettiness, and the mediocrity of her milieu and with sympathy when she remembers the innocent joys, occupations, and affections of her protected childhood.
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter also offers an interesting perspective on Beauvoir’s convictions and theories concerning women’s roles and destinies as she had expressed and analyzed them in Le Deuxième sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1953). While that treatise is informed by the existentialist philosophy proposed by Jean-Paul Sartre, it also reflects some of the realities of women’s lives that Beauvoir had observed as a child and as a young woman. Female figures of oppression and suppression are to be found throughout the Memoirs, and, although Beauvoir never presents herself as a victim, as a conquered being, she makes it clear that she has suffered from her father’s treatment of her: He appreciates her intelligence and her accomplishments, but he also wants her to be a conventionally alluring girl, destined for a traditional “good marriage.” His expectations, as well as those of her mother, who wants her to be a pious person above all, make her believe that “I was an object, not a woman,” and one may see here the origin in her own experience of what she theorizes in The Second Sex in existentialist terms as the reification of women in a bourgeois society. Her hatred for her class, her dislike of the family structure, her mistrust of motherhood, her deep conviction that women’s economic independence is crucial for their freedom, all repeatedly expressed in The Second Sex, spring from her own experiences as recalled in the Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.
Finally, the book offers an instructive view of life in France during the period between the two world wars. Many of the intellectual, literary, sociopolitical and economic realities of the time are either evoked or suggested, and they provide the reader with a vivid context for an understanding of the young Beauvoir and her contemporaries.
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