Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is not only a vivid self-portrait but also a critical evaluation of French society during a period of transition. In the process of becoming the woman who could work for artistic and social freedom, de Beauvoir emphasizes her mental maturation, offering not only a very detailed and systematic description of the development of her mind but also an analytic explanation of her relationship to the basic propositions of the most brilliant French theoretical savants. Her friends were the precursors of Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and the like, and her autobiographical writing is crucial to an understanding of the mind-forged power of the Left Bank activists who set the agenda for philosophical discourse until at least the 1960’s.
In addition, Simone de Beauvoir’s memoir places the foundations for the visionary feminist thinking of her middle years. The Second Sex was not only revolutionary in its examination of women in Western society but also a book which, as Carole Ascher points out, “made it all right” for a woman “to be an intellectual.” Judith Okely describes it as a rare example of a female chronicle of apprenticeship that shares common themes of choice and struggle with such familiar male autobiographical novels as D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913), James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934). “If the autobiography is sufficiently probing,” Okely maintains, “it demands that the reader probe her own past.” For readers of both sexes, the universality of individual experience expressed with singular eloquence remains as de Beauvoir’s essential literary legacy.