Simone de Beauvoir 1908-1986
(Full name Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie de Beauvoir) French philosopher, novelist, autobiographer, nonfiction writer, short story writer, editor, and dramatist.
Simone de Beauvoir is a highly acclaimed twentieth century writer who is recognized as an important contributor to the French intellectual movement known as existentialism, which sought to explain human existence and the individual's situation in a purposeless, absurd universe. In her influential study Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex), she utilized existentialist concepts concerning personal freedom and the relationship of the self to others to examine the status of women throughout history. Beauvoir posited that traditionally a woman must assume the role of the "other," or the inessential being, in relation to a man, the essential being, and analyzed this inferior position of women from biological, psychological, and social perspectives. In addition to her philosophical studies, Beauvoir wrote distinguished autobiographical and fictional works, including two short fiction collections in which she explored the spiritual and emotional state of women in contemporary Western society.
Born in Paris to middle-class parents, Beauvoir was raised a Roman Catholic. In early adolescence, however, she perceived certain hypocrisies and fallacies of bourgeois morality and rebelled against her class, privately disavowing her belief in God. Following her undergraduate studies at the Institut Catholique and the Institut Sainte-Marie, Beauvoir attended the Sorbonne in 1928, where she specialized in literature and philosophy, and later audited classes at the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure. In 1929 she met fellow student Jean-Paul Sartre. Finding that they were intellectual equals, each of whom desired a lasting relationship free of conventional restraints, she and Sartre agreed to a shared life outside the institution of marriage.
After graduating from the Sorbonne, Beauvoir taught in Marseilles, Rouen, and Paris. She and Sartre settled in Paris in the late 1930s and became prominent figures amid the intellectual society of the Left Bank, associating with such writers and thinkers as Albert Camus, André Malraux, Raymond Queneau, and Michel Leiris. In 1944 Beauvoir resigned from teaching and, together with Sartre, founded the leftist journal Les temps modernes. During the 1950s Beauvoir engaged in numerous social causes and attempted to live out the committed existence that she espoused in her writings by protesting the French-Algerian War, documenting French military atrocities in Les temps modernes, and signing a public manifesto against the war. Beauvoir maintained her involvement in social issues during the 1960s and, in particular, supported the radical student uprisings of 1968. Although she joined the Mouvement de la Libération des Femmes in 1970 to participate in demonstrations supporting legalized abortion, Beauvoir did not declare herself a feminist until 1972, after which time she began writing a column on sexism in Les temps modernes and became president of the French League for Women's Rights. Beauvoir continued to promote various social movements, especially those concerning women, until her death in 1986.
Though published in 1979, Beauvoir's collection of short stories Quand prime le spirituel (When Things of the Spirit Come First) was written between 1935 and 1937. Her first fictional work, When Things of the Spirit Come First was rejected for publication upon completion and set aside until late in her career. Each of the five stories in the collection bears the name of a woman: "Marcelle," "Chantal," "Lisa," "Anne," and "Marguerite." Largely autobiographical, they reveal Beauvoir's aversion toward established religion and bourgeois society. In "Chantai," for example, a provincial school teacher who professes emancipated views attempts to discourage a pregnant student from having an abortion. The young woman featured in "Anne" is an obedient daughter in a wealthy family who, tempted to follow her instincts, suffers from a mental breakdown and sudden death. Beauvoir's second collection, La femme rompue (The Woman Destroyed), is the author's last published work of fiction. Like Beauvoir's stories, each of the three novellas in this collection presents the narrative of a single woman. However, this collection characterizes middle-aged women whose dependencies on men have crippled their abilities to create positive identities and construct autonomous lives. Beauvoir incorporated in both collections existential concepts regarding personal freedom, or individual guidance by choice alone; responsibility, or accepting the consequences of one's choices; bad faith, or denying one's freedom by shifting responsibility to an outside source; and the role of the other, or the relation of the inessential being to an essential being.
Despite their tremendous popularity in France and abroad, early reviews of Beauvoir's short fiction collections were dismissive. Her stories were attacked for their idealism, while her later novellas were considered unduly negative in their view of society and in their treatment of relationships between men and women. Both collections were found technically flawed, particularly the novellas, which were more experimental in form than the stories; the title novella of The Woman Destroyed reads as a diary and the novella Monologue adopts the stream of consciousness technique made popular by James Joyce, though unsuccessfully by most accounts. Recent criticism of Beauvoir's short fiction has been more forgiving; while acknowledging technical problems in Beauvoir's stories and novellas, scholars have also pointed to the honesty, directness, and overall aesthetic value of Beauvoir's short fiction. The novellas of The Woman Destroyed, in particular, have drawn critical regard for their feminist and existential themes, especially the theme of self-delusion. Moreover, because the two collections mark the beginning and end of Beauvoir's published fiction, they are valued as significant for providing greater understanding of her overall literary achievement.