Form and Content
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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,863 words.)