Simone de Beauvoir World Literature Analysis
France has a long tradition of women writers, such as Madame de La Fayette, Madame de Staël, George Sand, Colette, and Marguerite Duras. Simone de Beauvoir’s work is perhaps most like that of Staël and Sand in terms of her preference for a large readership among her contemporaries and of her admission to the literary canon. De Beauvoir considered herself not to be a woman writer but a writer who happened to be a woman. She never sought to develop a particularly feminine language and was more influenced byÉmile Zola and Ernest Hemingway than by Colette or Virginia Woolf. Indeed, she defined herself largely by her differences from bourgeois women: She insisted on not becoming a wife, mother, homemaker, or follower of fashion.
Yet de Beauvoir wrote on, and did political work for, women’s issues. She showed that a woman could perform with distinction in the areas of philosophy and political theory, fields traditionally dominated by men. She insisted that women should become linked to their work, just as men always had been. In her fiction, from L’Invitée (1943; She Came to Stay, 1949) through Les Belles images (1966; English translation, 1968), she dramatized situations in which women deny their freedom to be their authentic selves, using their sex as an excuse and distorting their sense of themselves in relation to husbands and lovers. While Les Belles Images and La Femme rompue (1967; The Woman Destroyed, 1969) have female protagonists, her early work includes central characters of both sexes, and in her long and ambitious novel The Mandarins, the four most important characters are three men and one woman.
In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir used existential notions of people’s need to establish their freedom in a purposeless, absurd universe to encourage women to resign themselves no longer to the role of the weaker and inferior person in relation to a man. She sought to show that false myths concerning women’s nature had been created by both men and women. This book has acquired landmark status, inspiring women’s movements throughout the world and making de Beauvoir one of the symbolic leaders of contemporary feminism. In this book and in many other essays and interviews, she tirelessly addressed issues of concern to women, advocating equality with men and total sexual freedom. When she visited Egypt in 1967, de Beauvoir criticized the Egyptian government’s failure to put into practice the sexual equality decreed by its constitution. When in Israel, she noted that Israeli women had equal responsibilities during the nation’s wars but were largely relegated to lower-paying, menial jobs in peacetime. She did not hesitate to incur displeasure among her compatriots by hailing the humiliating French defeat by the North Vietnamese at Dien Bien Phu, which ended France’s role as a power in Indochina.
She asserted over and over again that her goal was to strip away the hypocrisies, prejudices, lies, and mystifications that prevented people from perceiving the truth. She sought to contribute to the intellectual and ethical elevation of humanity.
The Second Sex
First published: Le Deuxième Sexe, 1949 (English translation, 1953)
Type of work: Treatise
In a massive treatise, de Beauvoir describes women’s historic victimization and advances feminist theories to establish women’s equality with men.
The text is divided into two parts. In part 1, the more academic section, de Beauvoir discusses instances of women being oppressed throughout history, from early nomadic societies until the surprisingly late grant of suffrage in France in 1947. She draws impressively from a wide range of disciplines, including biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, literature, and, of course, history. She attempts to assess women’s biological and historical circumstances and the myths by which these have been explained, denied, or distorted. She recognizes that men have been able to maintain dominant roles in virtually all cultures because women have resigned themselves to, instead of rebelling against, their assigned subordinate status.
The Second Sex has two major premises. First, that man, considering himself as the essential being, or subject, has treated woman as the unessential being, or object. The second, more controversial premise, is that much of woman’s psychological self is socially constructed, with very few physiologically rooted feminine qualities or values. De Beauvoir denies the existence of a feminine temperament or nature—to her, all notions of femininity are artificial concepts. In one of her most telling aphorisms she declares, “One is not born a woman; rather, one becomes one.”
De Beauvoir derives her chief postulates from Sartre’s philosophic work, L’Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1947). In...
(The entire section is 2035 words.)