Form and Content
Originally published in France in two successive volumes, The Second Sex was conceived as one comprehensive study but its two parts—book 1 and book 2— differ somewhat in format. The historical approach and presentation of established data in book 1 permit the author to conclude each essay with a brief summary and an evaluation of stated facts. The more subjective and speculative nature of book 2, which contains Simone de Beauvoir’s observations of women of her own generation, must remain without such summaries. Instead, book 2 offers a final chapter fully devoted to recapitulating salient points about the status of women at the time of its writing. Apart from this final chapter, simply titled “Conclusion,” de Beauvoir’s study consists of twenty-five essays, arranged to be read in sequence but, at the same time, independent of one another, with only occasional references to previously mentioned material. An index follows the actual text of this substantial collection.
Book 1 of the study is divided into three parts with eleven essays and bears the subtitle “Facts and Myths.” It examines women’s bodies, souls, and economic status in terms of biology, psychoanalysis, and historical materialism. It also presents the reader with an overview of women in history, from primitive societies through classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, the French Revolution, and modern times. A final discussion is devoted to women and myths in general, as well as to the specific myths of women in the works of D.H. Lawrence and four French authors—Henry de Montherlant, Paul Claudel, Andre Breton, and Stendhal.
Book 2 (divided into four parts and comprising fifteen essays) is subtitled “Woman’s Life Today” and presents a study of the status of contemporary women and its basis in recent tradition. It is concerned with women known to a French, Catholic, upper-middle-class author of the late 1940’s, when French women had just received the right to vote and French morality was largely determined by the teachings of the Roman Catholic church.
De Beauvoir perceives the course of a woman’s life in essentially two stages: the formative years (childhood, adolescence, sexual initiation, with a separate chapter on lesbianism) and the years of confinement within the permanent situation or condition reserved by traditional society for the mature woman (marriage, motherhood, prostitution, life after menopause). The final section of the study deals with the question of justification for women’s acceptance of the tyranny of established traditions (narcissism, love, religious experience), and, in a brief essay, the relatively rare case of independent women who managed to defy tradition and establish themselves as writers or artists is considered.
Educated in the French classical tradition, de Beauvoir shows her erudition by providing her readers with a seemingly endless supply of examples from and references to many sources spanning more than two thousand years of Western civilization. Her friend and lifelong companion, the philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre, is one of her favorite authors, along with the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, some psychoanalysts (such as Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler), and several French and Anglo-American writers of fiction.
The Second Sex
Beauvoir rejects the Aristotelian position that women, because of their biological characteristics, must play a limited role in society. She further rejects Freudian psychology’s position that woman’s natural state is passive while man’s is active because of the physical characteristics of the genitalia. She posits that women are limited primarily by the conditioning imposed on them by a male-dominated society, not by any biologic weakness or inferiority. Because the behavior of human beings is based in large part on rationality and choice, instead of on instinct, Beauvoir suggests that human behavior is not fixed and immutable but should be...
(The entire section is 6,571 words.)