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From 1956 to 1958, Simone de Beauvoir composed the first of a series of autobiographical volumes that covered the course of her life. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter dealt with her childhood and youth to the age of twenty-one; it was followed by La Force de l’age in 1960 (The Prime of Life, 1962), which dealt with her life from 1929 to 1944, La Force des choses in 1963 (Force of Circumstance, 1964), which brought her life up to the date of publication, and a final volume, a summary, Tout compte fait (1972; All Said and Done, 1974), which differed from the previous three in that it was organized thematically rather than chronologically. These autobiographical writings are among de Beauvoir’s finest achievements. Her reconstructions of her life, even after consultations with cautious friends, retain a “disarming candor” that has led some critics to describe her as a modern Montaigne. Like the sixteenth century philosopher, she is a writer whose ability to combine introspective analysis with philosophical consideration has enabled her to produce “a truthful account of a life that could, and should, help others” (as Konrad Bieber claims) to understand themselves as well as some of the dominant social and political movements of the twentieth century.

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Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter reaches as much as fifty years back in time from the moment of its production. To compose the work, de Beauvoir was directed by a diary which she had begun as a young girl, fortified by a prodigious memory for detail which she combined with careful historical research, and guided by one of her most basic principles, the idea that one must be ruthlessly accurate, keenly analytic, and as dispassionate as possible about the self. In the first volume of her memoirs, she relates how her most esteemed faculty, her mind, was formed, and how her distinct sensibility developed. The course she charts is from a comfortable, sheltered Catholic childhood in the early days of the twentieth century, la belle epoque of peace and serenity (which was actually a continuation of nineteenth century norms and assumptions), toward the emergence of a young woman who was intellectually self-confident, ready for pioneer political activity, committed to a life of writing, and disdainful of most social institutions and conventions.

The volume is divided into four books, the first an attempt to recapture the instinctive and impulsive young child’s responses and reactions to the world, the second devoted to an understanding of the psychology of her parents and their world, the third tracing the uncertainty and doubt she felt as she began to reject the protective, pampered life for which her family had prepared her, and the fourth, in which she reaches adulthood and begins to share the intellectual and artistic life of some of the most influential people of the twentieth century. The structure of the book is like an ever-widening spiral from the compact realm of the self-centered child to the amorphous universe of the questioning adult. Through this pattern, an event is often analyzed and considered for all of its ramifications, then temporarily put aside, and later recollected in a larger, still-relevant context. The central themes of the work—individual growth and personal freedom, the responsibility of the artist to her work and of a person to her society, the flow of historical change, the nature of love and its relationship to a productive life—are all developed from an intensely personal perspective. The severe tone of de Beauvoir’s voice is never modified in order to charm the reader. The intensity of the writing matches the intensity of the mind of the author, and the evocative power of de Beauvoir’s prose has an appeal that derives from directness, honesty, and an uncompromising confidence in the reader’s ability to match the writer’s seriousness. This voice risked the condemnation of antagonist commentators, but succeeded in drawing responses such as Judith Okely’s avowal, “She was our mother, our sister and something of ourselves.”

Form and Content

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Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is the first and best-known volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s four-volume autobiography, and as such it covers her life from birth to age twenty-one. The title, in English as in French, resonates with irony: What the reader will find in the book is the opposite of a portrait of a docile, traditional, family-oriented girl; instead Beauvoir depicts the story of her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood as a gradual rebellion against and finally a total rejection of her conventional family and her conservative milieu, in favor of a life of autonomy, study, and literary creativity.

Chronologically organized, and interspersed with portraits of the important people at different stages of her life, the book begins with Beauvoir’s birth and her early upbringing in an upper-middle-class Catholic Parisian family. Hers is a happy, cosseted childhood, but even as a preadolescent, the girl begins to question many of the certainties of her familial milieu, as well as the dictates of her class and religion. When she reaches adolescence, with all of its turmoil and upheavals, she grows increasingly critical of her society, and she ends up breaking away from its stifling limitations, by shedding her belief in God and by taking refuge in what will become the enduring components of her existence: study, reading, and writing. She sees the latter as a way to fulfill herself and to formulate and impose her own vision and values. When she becomes a philosophy student at the Sorbonne and meets her fellow-student Jean-Paul Sartre, she is living the life she imagined, while, in sad contrast, her friend Zaza succumbs and dies in the struggle against what Beauvoir calls “the revolting fate that had lain ahead of us . . .”—that is, the traditional life of a dutiful daughter of the bourgeoisie.

In the preface to the second volume of her autobiography, Beauvoir justifies her autobiographical project by saying that readers want to know why and how a particular author comes to writing. By 1958, when the Memoirs were published, Beauvoir was an established, even a notorious writer, especially since the publication of The Second Sex in 1949, a book that launched post-World War II feminism onto not only the French but also the international scene. She had a large readership, especially among women, and it is for them that she intends her memoirs. She constructs a paradigm of a typically female trajectory and of a recognizable female experience: the upbringing in an environment perceived to be increasingly alienating; the yearning for and the eventual discovery of other, more challenging, more enlivening possibilities; the struggle to escape from intellectual and emotional imprisonment and to gain self-realization and personal freedom. The issues Beauvoir had to confront when growing up remain of concern to women: issues of independence, of access to self-fulfillment, and of relationships with others, both hostile and supportive. Women readers may thus find in these memoirs ways of understanding and interpreting their own lives.

Context

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The Second Sex, Beauvoir’s pioneering work on the female condition, had been a resounding success in France and elsewhere, and readers found in the Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter many of the same ideas, now embodied in women of flesh and blood. What had been abstract issues are here embedded in a lived experience, told by an urgent and daring voice, the voice of a “real” woman rather than that of an erudite but distant scholar. The impact of The Second Sex, especially on American feminists, has thus been prolonged and reinforced in the autobiographical work, since the memoirs seem to offer a case study of female liberation. In that sense, the memoirs go beyond The Second Sex, which tends to describe women primarily as caught in states of passivity and inferiority.

Women readers have reacted to Beauvoir’s openness about her early years with enthusiasm, interest, and emulation, since Beauvoir’s book seems to have opened the way for many self-writings by women. Of course, there exist earlier autobiographies by women authors, but hers is one of the first to demonstrate the possibility of deliberately seizing control of one’s future and the direction of one’s existence. The Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter are an enactment of one woman’s persistent striving toward goals of self-determination and creativity, and as such they offer an encouraging example to women setting out to attain similar goals.

Although Beauvoir’s autobiographical enterprise has been criticized for remaining within the parameters of the male autobiographical tradition, going back in France to the eighteenth century Jean-Jacques Rousseau, scholars have recognized that, by evoking the fears and hopes of her young self, Beauvoir shows that a female autobiography—and therefore a woman’s life—may be a story not of defeat and submission, but of accomplishments and triumphs.

The subsequent volumes of Beauvoir’s autobiography, all of which reveal the pervading and dominant presence and force of Beauvoir’s personality, offer amply documented insights into her adult life and into the political, social, and intellectual evolution of post-World War II France, but none has quite the same absorbing urgency, stemming from Beauvoir’s description of her own hard-won genesis as a writer and a free person, as this first volume.

Bibliography

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Bair, Deirdre. Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography. New York: Summit Books, 1990. An informative biography based on extensive interviews with Simone de Beauvoir and with many of her contemporaries. Carefully documented, with great attention to detail, the book offers an indispensable background and a comprehensive context for a reading of Beauvoir’s work. Excellent notes, a useful index, and sixteen pages of photographs.

Brosman, Catharine Savage. Simone de Beauvoir Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1991. An introduction to Simone de Beauvoir’s thought and an assessment of her lasting contributions to philosophy and literature. The book is an update of Konrad Bieber’s Simone de Beauvoir (1979) in the light of more recent work done on Beauvoir. A selected bibliography concentrates on studies published since 1975.

Cottrell, Robert D. Simone de Beauvoir. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1975. Starting with a chapter on Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, this concise work examines Beauvoir’s philosophical and ethical positions and their evolution in the context of her writing career. A bibliography of the earlier work done on Beauvoir is included.

Hewitt, Leah D. Autobiographical Tightropes. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. This book has a chapter on Beauvoir’s autobiography as a problematic female autobiography, and juxtaposes it with the autobiographical writings of Nathalie Sarraute, Marguerite Duras, Monique Wittig, and Maryse Condé.

Marks, Elaine. Critical Essays on Simone de Beauvoir. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. Twenty-seven essays on Beauvoir, some by French authors (translated into English) and others by well-known American writers and scholars such as Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Kate Millett, Gerda Lerner, and Alice Jardin, discuss various aspects of Beauvoir’s life, work, and influence.

Patterson, Yolanda Astarita. Simone de Beauvoir and the Demystification of Motherhood. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989. In her introduction, Patterson considers American and French views of motherhood and then goes on to explore the treatment of the theme in Beauvoir’s works as well as Beauvoir’s presentation of her own mother. Includes interviews with Beauvoir and her sister Hélène. Has a good bibliography and a useful index.

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