Simone de Beauvoir Critical Essays

Simone de Beauvoir Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Simone de Beauvoir’s novels are grounded in her training as a philosopher and in her sociological and feminist concerns. She Came to Stay, The Blood of Others, All Men Are Mortal, and The Mandarins all revolve around the questions of freedom and responsibility and try to define the proper relationship between the individual and society. Her characters search for authenticity as they attempt to shape the world around them. Their education is sentimental as well as intellectual and political. While most of her heroes accommodate themselves successfully to reality, the same may not be said of her heroines. In the later novels, The Mandarins and Les Belles Images, her female characters, who are successful by worldly standards, suffer a series of psychological crises. As they undertake what the feminist critic Carol Christ has called spiritual quests, they often face suicide and madness. The existentialist enterprise of engagement, or commitment with a view of defining the self through action, seems more possible for the men in her novels than for the women. Jean Leighton has observed the absence of positive heroines in de Beauvoir’s work: Woman seems condemned to passivity while man’s fate is one of transcendence. Arguments from The Second Sex and from de Beauvoir’s philosophical essays echo in the novels. The tension between the author’s philosophical ideas and their potential realization by the women characters is clearly visible in her fiction.

She Came to Stay

De Beauvoir’s first novel, She Came to Stay, is an imaginative transposition of her relationship with Olga Kosakiewicz. In 1933, de Beauvoir and Sartre had befriended Kosakiewicz, one of de Beauvoir’s students. They had attempted a ménage à trois; She Came to Stay is the story of its failure.

The heroine of the novel, Françoise Miquel, is a young writer who has lived with Pierre Labrousse, a talented actor and director, for eight years. They feel that their relationship is ideal because it allows them both a great deal of freedom. Françoise befriends Xavière, a young woman disenchanted with provincial life, and invites her to Paris, where she will help Xavière find work. Once in Paris, Xavière makes demands on the couple and is openly contemptuous of their values. Pierre becomes obsessed with Xavière; Françoise, trying to rise above the jealousy and insecurity she feels, struggles to keep the trio together. Out of resentment, Françoise has an affaire with Gerbert, Xavière’s suitor. The novel ends as Xavière recognizes Françoise’s duplicity; Xavière has now become the critical Other. Unable to live in her presence, Françoise turns on the gas and murders her.

She Came to Stay is a meditation on the Hegelian problem of the existence of the Other. The novel plays out the psychological effects of jealousy and questions the extent to which coexistence is possible. Critics such as Hazel Barnes and Carol Ascher have noted the close ties between de Beauvoir’s first novel and Sartre’s L’Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956), published in the same year. Both texts deal with the central existentialist theme of letting others absorb one’s freedom.

Despite Françoise’s apparent independence, she needs Pierre to approve her actions and give them direction. Françoise’s self-deception and the inauthenticity of her life anticipate de Beauvoir’s analysis of l’amoureuse, the woman in love, in The Second Sex. Confronted with a rival, Françoise becomes aware that her self-assurance and detachment are illusory. Her growth as a character occurs as she sheds the unexamined rational premises she holds about herself and her relationship with Pierre. The gap between the intellect and the emotions continues to widen until it reaches a crisis in the murder of Xavière. Françoise is finally forced to confront her long-concealed hatred. In spite of its often stylized dialogue, She Came to Stay is a lucid, finely executed study of love and jealousy and one of de Beauvoir’s finest novels.

The Blood of Others

Although de Beauvoir was later to consider her second novel overly didactic, The Blood of Others is one of the best novels written about the French Resistance. The book opens with the thoughts of Jean Blomart as he keeps vigil over his mistress Hélène, who is dying from a wound received during a mission. The novel proceeds by flashback and alternates between the stories of Jean, a Resistance hero, and his companion Hélène. The son of a wealthy bourgeois family, Jean is plagued by feelings of guilt over his comfortable situation. He takes a job as a worker and tries to lead a life of uninvolvement. His attempted detachment is based on his belief that he can thus avoid contributing to the unhappiness of others. Passive at the outbreak of the war, he is finally drafted. Upon his return to Paris, he realizes that his detachment is actually a form of irresponsibility. He organizes a resistance group and becomes its leader. As he watches the dying Hélène, he questions whether he has the right to control the lives of his comrades. Although he is doomed to act in ignorance of the consequences of his decisions, he decides that he nevertheless has an obligation to act. The novel ends with Hélène’s death and Jean’s renewed commitment to the Resistance.

If The Blood of Others is the story of Jean’s engagement, it is also the story of Hélène’s political awakening. Like him, she is politically indifferent until a young Jewish friend is in danger of deportation. She then turns to Jean and becomes an active member of his group. In contrast with most of de Beauvoir’s women, Hélène is one who, in her political commitment, manages to define herself through her actions rather than through her emotional attachments.

The Blood of Others presages the discussion of individual freedom in The Ethics of Ambiguity. In both the novel and the philosophical essay, the problem of the Other is interfaced with the question of social responsibility. With its emphasis on the denial of freedom during the Nazi occupation of France, the novel underscores the necessity of political action to ensure individual freedoms. The closed space of the love triangle in She Came to Stay is replaced by the larger obligations of the individual to a historical moment. The Blood of Others conveys the problematic quality of ethical decisions; as Robert Cottrell has noted, it evokes “the sense of being entrapped, of submitting to existence rather than fashioning it.” Nevertheless, The Blood of Others is a more optimistic book than She Came to Stay in its portrayal of the individual working toward a larger social good.

All Men Are Mortal

Individual actions are seen against a series of historical backdrops in All Men Are Mortal. The novel traces the life of Count Fosca, an Italian nobleman who is endowed with immortality. At the request of Régine, a successful young actress, he recounts his varied careers through seven centuries. A counselor to Maximilian of Germany and then to Charles V of Spain, he discovers the Mississippi, founds the first French university, and becomes an activist in the French Revolution....

(The entire section is 3043 words.)