Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2409
Article abstract: De Beauvoir cut across traditional academic fields to produce important works of literature, criticism, and philosophy, while her political activism made her a “pioneer” of the late twentieth century women’s movement as well as a leading figure in the human rights, peace, and social reform movements.
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Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris on January 9, 1908, the eldest of two daughters of Georges Bertrand and Françoise Brasseur de Beauvoir. Although her family was descended from the aristocracy, it teetered precariously on the brink of financial solvency, maintaining the status of upper-middle-class gentility with difficulty. De Beauvoir had a relatively happy childhood, which she described graphically in the first volume of her autobiography, Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (1958; Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, 1959). She especially treasured the summers that she spent at her grandfather’s rambling estate at Meyrignac in Limousin, where she developed what would become lifelong passions for reading and hiking. In 1913, de Beauvoir was enrolled at the private school Cours Désir.
In her autobiography, de Beauvoir depicted herself as a precocious young girl chafing at the restraints placed upon her both by society and by other persons’ wills. The personal and ideological problems in her parents’ marriage, created primarily by tension between her mother’s religious piety and her father’s cynical agnosticism, led de Beauvoir to conclude that intellectual and spiritual life were mutually exclusive. This enabled her to reject both the Catholic religion and the social role of “dutiful daughter” imposed upon her by her parents. As de Beauvoir entered her second decade, she developed an attraction for her cousin Jacques Laiguillon. Although she had strong feelings for him, she was afraid that their love would trap her into becoming a bourgeois wife, a role that she rejected as completely as she had the life of a “dutiful daughter.”
In 1928, after completing her undergraduate education, she began working at the École Normale Supérieure on her agrégation de philosophie, a difficult postgraduate examination for teaching positions at lycées and universities in France. The next year, she met Jean-Paul Sartre, a fellow philosophy student. For the first time in her life de Beauvoir found a soul mate who was her intellectual equal, a man with whom she knew she always would be compatible. In 1929, they passed the agrégation and began a liaison that would last a lifetime. During the same year, however, her happiness was marred by the death of her closest childhood friend, Elizabeth “Zaza” Mabille; this event marked both the end of the first volume of de Beauvoir’s memoirs and her childhood.
Except for her work, the most important thing in de Beauvoir’s life was her relationship with Sartre. Because neither of them wanted children, they rejected the notion of traditional marriage in favor of a bond that they called an “essential” love, which was to be permanent but which would not exclude what they deemed “contingent” love affairs. In 1931, Sartre did suggest that they marry, but de Beauvoir refused this proposal, arguing that they were not being true to their own principles.
In 1931, de Beauvoir was appointed to teach in a lycée in Marseilles. The next year she transferred to Rouen, where she was reprimanded by lycée authorities for questioning women’s traditional role in society. Sartre, also in Rouen, met Olga Kosakievicz, a former pupil of de Beauvoir, with whom he fell in love. They experimented with a trio, which failed primarily because of de Beauvoir’s jealousy; the incident furnished her with the plot for her first novel, L’Invitée (1943; She Came to Stay, 1949). In 1936, she was transferred to Paris, where Sartre was able to join her the following year.
Despite ominous clouds on the French political scene, in the prewar era de Beauvoir and Sartre remained oblivious to the world around them, burying themselves in their work, their friends, and each other. The outbreak of World War II in 1939, however, marks an important watershed in de Beauvoir’s life. Sartre’s induction into the army brought de Beauvoir face to face with social and political reality. They jointly adopted the philosophy of personal commitment, realizing that they had a responsibility to humanity as well as to themselves. During the German invasion of France in June, 1940, Sartre was taken prisoner, and de Beauvoir, like many other Parisians, fled the capital only to return when the reality of defeat and German occupation became obvious. On April 1, 1941, Sartre was released and returned to Paris. Although de Beauvoir and Sartre worked on the fringes of the French Resistance, they were not active participants in it.
During the war, both de Beauvoir and Sartre abandoned their teaching careers in order to concentrate on writing. Her first novel, She Came to Stay, was an immediate success, and from 1943 on both she and Sartre were established as major new talents on the French intellectual horizon. In 1945, de Beauvoir, Sartre, and others founded the journal Les Temps modernes as a vehicle for independent left-wing intellectual viewpoints. The same year, the novel that she had written during the war, Le Sang des autres (1945; The Blood of Others, 1948), was published to almost universal critical acclaim as the quintessential Existentialist novel of the Resistance.
Her philosophical treatise, Pour une morale de l’ambiguïté (The Ethics of Ambiguity, 1948), a secular breviary of Existentialist ethics, was published in 1947, the year de Beauvoir first journeyed to the United States. There she met novelist Nelson Algren and began her first serious “contingent” love affair. Her four-year relationship with Algren resulted in a proposal of marriage, which she rejected both because of her commitment to Sartre and because of her disinclination to leave France. After several transatlantic visits, the affair ended in bitterness when de Beauvoir used their relationship as a basis for her novel Les Mandarins (1954; The Mandarins, 1956), which won the prestigious Prix de Goncourt for literature in 1954.
Throughout her life, de Beauvoir, an avid traveler, visited most of the world’s exciting venues, recording her thoughts and storing her memories for use in her writing. In the fall of 1949, her most famous book, Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex, 1953), was published. This massive work discusses the role and condition of women throughout history from biological, psychological, historical, sociological, and philosophical perspectives. Two of its most important tenets—the concept that man has defined himself as the essential being, the subject, who has consigned woman to the subordinate position of object or “Other,” and the idea that there is no such thing as “feminine nature,” that one is not born a woman but becomes one through social conditioning—served as an important basis for the resurrection of the women’s liberation movement in the mid-twentieth century.
In 1952, de Beavoir began her second “contingent” liaison, this time with Claude Lanzmann, an able filmmaker and journalist seventeen years her junior. This affair, which ended in 1958, was to be the last important romantic interlude in her “essential” love relationship with Sartre.
Two important changes occurred in de Beauvoir’s life during the last half of the 1950’s. First, her political views hardened and grew more bitter as the culpability of the French army in the torture of Algerians became increasingly obvious and the world moved closer to the brink of nuclear war. De Beauvoir’s commitment to political activism intensified at this time, and she embarked on a series of public demonstrations against Charles de Gaulle, French torture in Algeria, nuclear war, and social injustice. The second major change was in de Beauvoir’s writing. She all but abandoned fiction for several years in order to begin the first of what would become a four-volume autobiography and a variety of other nonfiction works. She would not return to the novel form until the publication of Les Belles Images (1966; English translation, 1969), which was followed in 1968 by her last major work of fiction, La Femme rompue (1967; The Woman Destroyed, 1968). These two volumes are shorter than her four earlier novels but, like them, follow in a long tradition of French women writers who have focused their work on women’s lives and ambitions.
In 1967, de Beauvoir again increased her commitment to political activism, raising the issue of women’s rights in Israel and taking part in Bertrand Russell’s Tribunal of War Crimes, which met in Copenhagen to investigate American involvement in the Vietnamese war. The following May, she and Sartre became active supporters of the revolutionary students at the Sorbonne. During this phase of her politically active life, de Beauvoir was preparing La Viellese (1970; The Coming of Age, 1972), a lengthy but critically acclaimed study of aging that attacked modern society’s indifference to the problems of the elderly.
In 1969, de Beauvoir was elected to the consultative committee of the Bibliothèque Nationale (national library) as a “man of letters.” Soon thereafter she became actively involved in the women’s movement, joining a series of demonstrations led by the Mouvement de la Libération des Femmes in 1970. The next year she signed the “Manifesto of 343,” French women who publicly admitted to having had illegal abortions. Soon after the publication of the manifesto, de Beauvoir publicly declared herself to be a militant feminist, explaining that she had eschewed the reformist, legalistic feminism of the past but eagerly embraced the radical movement of the 1970’s. In 1972, she joined street demonstrations protesting “crimes against women” and the next year began a feminist column in Les Temps Modernes. She renewed this feminist commitment by becoming president of the Ligue des Droits des Femmes (French league of the rights of women) in 1974, the same year in which she was selected to receive the Jerusalem Prize for writers who have promoted the freedom of the individual.
On April 15, 1980, the lifelong “essential” love of de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre ended with the latter’s death. The following year, de Beauvoir published La Cérémonie des adieux (1981; Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, 1984), a sober narrative that recorded Sartre’s mental and physical decline with a brutal honesty that seemed to her to be the final tribute she could pay to him. Although de Beauvoir wrote no major literary works after Sartre’s death, she remained politically active. She died of pneumonia in a Paris hospital on April 14, 1986, and was entombed with Sartre’s ashes in the Montparnasse Cemetery. More than five thousand people attended the funeral to which women’s organizations throughout the world sent floral tributes.
Simone de Beauvoir lived her adult life in such a way that it illustrated the most important tenets of Existentialist ethics, especially the concepts of social responsibility and commitment. Her development from a politically indifferent young woman to a socially committed adult and, finally, to a mature woman militant in the causes of women’s liberation and human rights is chronicled in the four volumes of her autobiography. While de Beauvoir’s Existentialist views are presented somewhat didactically in her nonfiction and philosophical essays, in her novels they are infused with nuances of ambiguity and expressed in less strident prose. She used literature to present the real world to her readers by stripping away the insulating layers of hypocrisy that she believed bourgeois society installs to obscure truth. In this way, she believed, words could be enlisted as a weapon to help obliterate selfishness and indifference in the modern world.
In the post-World War II era, de Beauvoir became one of the most visible and influential left-wing advocates of social justice, peaceful coexistence, and women’s liberation. Because her life and work supported her belief in sexual and social equality, de Beauvoir contributed immeasurably by word and by example to elevating the consciousness of men and women as well as improving the quality of their lives. She is one of the most important writers of the twentieth century because of both the literature that she created and the legacy of social and political commitment that she provided.
Beauvoir, Simone de. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Translated by James Kirkup. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1959.
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Prime of Life. Translated by Peter Green. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1962.
Beauvoir, Simone de. Force of Circumstance. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1964.
Beauvoir, Simone de. All Said and Done. Translated by Patrick O’Brian. New York: Putnam, 1974. The best source for Simone de Beauvoir’s life and works is her massive four-volume autobiography. The memoirs not only describe the events of de Beauvoir’s life but also evoke both its mood and spirit.
Bennett, Joy, and Gabriella Hochmann. Simone de Beauvoir: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1988. An excellent and comprehensive bibliographical source for works written in French, English, German, Italian, and Spanish about de Beauvoir’s life and literature.
Bieber, Konrad. Simone de Beauvoir. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Combines a lengthy analysis of her autobiography with studies of her literary works and a short biography of her life. Bieber’s work is well balanced, thoughtful, and impartial. Contains a short annotated bibliography.
Cottrell, Robert D. Simone de Beauvoir. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1975. A good, brief literary biography of de Beauvoir that concentrates on a thematic analysis of her literary works. Cottrell is relatively critical of de Beauvoir’s writing style.
Madsen, Axel. Hearts and Minds: The Common Journey of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: William Morrow, 1977. A provocative double biography that emphasizes the emotional, philosophical, political, and literary connection between de Beauvoir and Sartre. Madsen has some surprising and unorthodox views on the works and lives of his subjects.
Marks, Elaine. Simone de Beauvoir: Encounters with Death. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1973. Perhaps the best single work on de Beauvoir’s literary contribution. In addition to a brilliant and perceptive study of death in de Beauvoir’s literary and autobiographical works, Marks analyzes the themes and philosophy that permeate her literary canon.
Okely, Judith. Simone de Beauvoir. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. A somewhat partisan treatment of de Beauvoir that concentrates heavily upon The Second Sex and de Beauvoir’s feminism. Contains an excellent chronology.
Whitmarsh, Anne. Simone de Beauvoir and the Limits of Commitment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981. Studies the life and works of de Beauvoir in the light of her political convictions and her relationship with Sartre. Although Whitmarsh considers de Beauvoir smug and egotistical, her work is quite informative, especially about the first half of de Beauvoir’s life.