Simone de Beauvoir Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 entire section is 2409 words.)