Simone de Beauvoir Beauvoir, Simone de (Feminism in Literature) - Essay


(Feminism in Literature)

One of the most prominent writers of her generation, Beauvoir was a member of the French left-wing intellectual circle associated with existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. She became identified as a leading feminist theorist with the publication of Le deuxième sexe (1949; The Second Sex), her comprehensive study of the secondary status of women throughout history. Additionally, in her autobiographies, fiction, and criticism, she addressed women's social, economic, and political status as well as the existential meaning of womanhood.


Born in Paris to middle-class parents, Beauvoir was raised a Roman Catholic. In early adolescence, however, she perceived hypocrisies and fallacies in 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, and together they prepared for the agrégation examination in philosophy. Finding that they were intellectual equals, each of whom desired a lasting relationship free of conventional restraints, Beauvoir and Sartre agreed to a shared life outside the institution of marriage and also mutually consented to "contingent relationships." 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. During World War II, Beauvoir and Sartre organized a resistance group to oppose Nazi occupation of France. Beauvoir spent most of her time during the war years writing. In 1944 she 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 (MLF) in 1970 to participate in demonstrations supporting legalized abortion, Beauvoir did not declare herself a feminist until 1972, after which 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.


Beauvoir's major theoretical study, The Second Sex, is often said to be the first full-length socio-philosophical examination of the status of women in society. In this work Beauvoir incorporated existentialist concepts concerning 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 an inessential being to an essential being. Positing that men have achieved the favorable status of transcendence while women have assumed that of immanence, Beauvoir proposed assimilation into the male universe as a means of achieving gender equality. Further, she called the existence of essentially feminine and maternal traits a myth and presented the female body in extremely negative terms, highlighting ways in which a woman's freedom is inhibited by her sexuality and fertility. Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée (1958; Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter), is Beauvoir's account of her early years, particularly her intellectual development as a young woman in bourgeois Paris. In this work Beauvoir applied many of the theories she had set forth in The Second Sex to her personal experiences, namely her realization that the myths of her childhood did not apply to her burgeoning adult life. In her fiction Beauvoir often portrayed women who depended on the men in their lives for happiness and were disappointed with the results. Her collection of novellas, La femme rompue (1967; The Woman Destroyed), characterized women whose dependencies on men have crippled their abilities to create positive identities and construct autonomous lives.


From the time of its publication, when it provoked the ire of both conservative and liberal critics, The Second Sex has dominated discussion of Beauvoir's theoretical position. Despite the initially negative reaction of critics to the work, it has attained widespread recognition and has proved vastly influential. Today The Second Sex is generally regarded as fundamental to the development of the women's movement of the 1960s as well as to the discipline of feminist studies. With the rise in the 1970s of new French feminists extolling feminine physical and psychological differences, The Second Sex was dismissed as out of date, and many feminists disparaged Beauvoir as a Sartrean revisionist, condemning her adoption of a masculine identity. More recently, critics have begun to reassess her importance as a pioneering thinker who established the groundwork for the study and liberation of women in modern Western society. Representing this position, Ellen Willis (see Further Reading) wrote: "Nearly four decades after it was first published in France, despite all the commentary the feminist movement has produced in the meantime, dated and parochial as it is in many respects, The Second Sex remains the most cogent and thorough book of feminist theory yet written."

Principal Works

(Feminism in Literature)

L'invitée [She Came to Stay] (novel) 1943

Pyrrhus et Cinéas (philosophy) 1944

Les bouches inutiles [Who Shall Die?] (drama) 1945

Le sang des autres [The Blood of Others] (novel) 1946

Tous les hommes sont mortel [All Men Are Mortal] (novel) 1946

Pour une morale de l'ambiguité [The Ethics of Ambiguity] (philosophy) 1947

L'Amérique au jour le jour [America Day by Day] (nonfiction) 1948

L'existentialisme et la sagesse des nations (philosophy) 1948

Le deuxième sexe [The Second Sex] 2 vols. (nonfiction) 1949

Les mandarins (novel) 1954

Fait-il bruler Sade? [Must We Burn de Sade?] (criticism) 1955

La longue marche: Essai sur la Chine [The Long March] (nonfiction) 1957

Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée [Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter] (autobiography) 1958

La force de l'âge [The Prime of Life] (autobiography) 1960

Tout compte fait (autobiography) 1960

La force des choses (autobiography) 1963

Une mort très douce [A Very Easy Death] (memoir) 1964

Les belles images (novel) 1966

L'âge de discrétion (novel) 1967

La femme rompue [The Woman Destroyed] (novellas) 1967

La vieillesse [The Coming of Age; also published as Old Age] (nonfiction) 1970

Tout compte fait [All Said and Done; also published as All Accounting Made] (autobiography) 1972

Quand prime le spirituel [When Things of the Spirit Come First: Five Early Tales] (short stories) 1979

Le céremonie des adieux: Suivi de entretiens avec Jean-Paul Sartre [Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre] (memoir) 1981

A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelson Algren (letters) 1998

Primary Sources

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Beauvoir, Simone de. “The Independent Woman.” In The Second Sex, translated by H. M. Parshley, pp. 713-32. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

In the following excerpt from The Second Sex, originally published in 1952, Beauvoir discusses the difficulties of achieving independence for modern women.

According to French law, obedience is no longer included among the duties of a wife, and each woman citizen has the right to vote; but these civil liberties remain theoretical as long as they are unaccompanied by economic freedom. A woman supported by a man—wife or courtesan—is not emancipated from the male because she has a ballot in her hand; if custom imposes less constraint upon her than formerly, the negative freedom implied has not profoundly modified her situation; she remains bound in her condition of vassalage. It is through gainful employment that woman has traversed most of the distance that separated her from the male; and nothing else can guarantee her liberty in practice. Once she ceases to be a parasite, the system based on her dependence crumbles; between her and the universe there is no longer any need for a masculine mediator.

The curse that is upon woman as vassal consists, as we have seen, in the fact that she is not permitted to do anything; so she persists in the vain pursuit of her true being through narcissism, love, or religion. When she is productive, active, she regains her transcendence; in her projects she concretely affirms her status as subject; in connection with the aims she pursues, with the money and the rights she takes possession of, she makes trial of and senses her responsibility. Many women are aware of these advantages, even among those in very modest positions. I heard a charwoman declare, while scrubbing the stone floor of a hotel lobby: ‘I never asked anybody for anything; I succeeded all by myself.’ She was as proud of her self-sufficiency as a Rockefeller. It is not to be supposed, however, that the mere combination of the right to vote and a job constitutes a complete emancipation: working, today, is not liberty. Only in a socialist world would woman by the one attain the other. The majority of workers are exploited today. On the other hand, the social structure has not been much modified by the changes in woman’s condition; this world, always belonging to men, still retains the form they have given it.

We must not lose sight of those facts which make the question of woman’s labor a complex one. An important and thoughtful woman recently made a study of the women in the Renault factories; she states that they would prefer to stay in the home rather than work in the factory. There is no doubt that they get economic independence only as members of a class which is economically oppressed; and, on the other hand, their jobs at the factory do not relieve them of housekeeping burdens.1 If they had been asked to choose between forty hours of work a week in the factory and forty hours of work a week in the home, they would doubtless have furnished quite different answers. And perhaps they would cheerfully accept both jobs, if as factory workers they were to be integrated in a world that would be theirs, in the development of which they would joyfully and proudly share. At the present time, peasants apart,2 the majority of women do not escape from the traditional feminine world; they get from neither society nor their husbands the assistance they would need to become in concrete fact the equals of the men. Only those women who have a political faith, who take militant action in the unions, who have confidence in their future, can give ethical meaning to thankless daily labor. But lacking leisure, inheriting a traditional submissiveness, women are naturally just beginning to develop a political and social sense. And not getting in exchange for their work the moral and social benefits they might rightfully count on, they naturally submit to its constraints without enthusiasm.

It is quite understandable, also, that the milliner’s apprentice, the shopgirl, the secretary, will not care to renounce the advantages of masculine support. I have already pointed out that the existence of a privileged caste, which she can join by merely surrendering her body, is an almost irresistible temptation to the young woman; she is fated for gallantry by the fact that her wages are minimal while the standard of living expected of her by society is very high. If she is content to get along on her wages, she is only a pariah: ill lodged, ill dressed, she will be denied all amusement and even love. Virtuous people preach asceticism to her, and, indeed, her dietary regime is often as austere as that of a Carmelite. Unfortunately, not everyone can take God as a lover: she has to please men if she is to succeed in her life as a woman. She will therefore accept assistance, and this is what her employer cynically counts on in giving her starvation wages. This aid will sometimes allow her to improve her situation and achieve a real independence; in other cases, however, she will give up her work and become a kept woman. She often retains both sources of income and each serves more or less as an escape from the other; but she is really in double servitude: to job and to protector. For the married woman her wages represent only pin money as a rule; for the girl who ‘makes something on the side’ it is the masculine contribution that seems extra; but neither of them gains complete independence through her own efforts.

There are, however, a fairly large number of privileged women who find in their professions a means of economic and social autonomy. These come to mind when one considers woman’s possibilities and her future. This is the reason why it is especially interesting to make a close study of their situation, even though they constitute as yet only a minority; they continue to be a subject of debate between feminists and antifeminists. The latter assert that the emancipated women of today succeed in doing nothing of importance in the world and that furthermore they have difficulty in achieving their own inner equilibrium. The former exaggerate the results obtained by professional women and are blind to their inner confusion. There is no good reason, as a matter of fact, to say they are on the wrong road; and still it is certain that they are not tranquilly installed in their new realm: as yet they are only halfway there. The woman who is economically emancipated from man is not for all that in a moral, social, and psychological situation identical with that of man. The way she carries on her profession and her devotion to it depend on the context supplied by the total pattern of her life. For when she begins her adult life she does not have behind her the same past as does a boy; she is not viewed by society in the same way; the universe presents itself to her in a different perspective. The fact of being a woman today poses peculiar problems for an independent human individual.

The advantage man enjoys, which makes itself felt from his childhood, is that his vocation as a human being in no way runs counter to his destiny as a male. Through the identification of phallus and transcendence, it turns out that his social and spiritual successes endow him with a virile prestige. He is not divided. Whereas it is required of woman that in order to realize her femininity she must make herself object and prey, which is to say that she must renounce her claims as sovereign subject. It is this conflict that especially marks the situation of the emancipated woman. She refuses to confine herself to her role as female, because she will not accept mutilation; but it would also be a mutilation to repudiate her sex. Man is a human being with sexuality; woman is a complete individual, equal to the male, only if she too is a human being with sexuality. To renounce her femininity is to renounce a part of her humanity. Misogynists have often reproached intellectual women for ‘neglecting themselves’; but they have also preached this doctrine to them: if you wish to be our equals, stop using make-up and nail-polish.

This piece of advice is nonsensical. Precisely because the concept of femininity is artificially shaped by custom and fashion, it is imposed upon each woman from without; she can be transformed gradually so that her canons of propriety approach those adopted by the males: at the seashore—and often elsewhere—trousers have become feminine.3 That changes nothing fundamental in the matter: the individual is still not free to do as she pleases in shaping the concept of femininity. The woman who does not conform devaluates herself sexually and hence socially, since sexual values are an integral feature of society. One does not acquire virile attributes by rejecting feminine attributes; even the transvestite fails to make a man of herself—she is a travesty. As we have seen, homosexuality constitutes a specific attitude: neutrality is impossible. There is no negative attitude that does not imply a positive counterpart. The adolescent girl often thinks that she can simply scorn convention; but even there she is engaged in public agitation; she is creating a new situation entailing consequences she must assume. When one fails to adhere to an accepted code, one becomes an insurgent. A woman who dresses in an outlandish manner lies when she affirms with an air of simplicity that she dresses to suit herself, nothing more. She knows perfectly well that to suit herself is to be outlandish.

Inversely, a woman who does not wish to appear eccentric will conform to the usual rules. It is injudicious to take a defiant attitude unless it is connected with positively effective action: it consumes more time and energy than it saves. A woman who has no wish to shock or to devaluate herself socially should live out her feminine situation in a feminine manner; and very often, for that matter, her professional success demands it. But whereas conformity is quite natural for a man—custom being based on his needs as an independent and active individual—it will be necessary for the woman who also is subject, activity, to insinuate herself into a world that has doomed her to passivity. This is made more burdensome because women confined to the feminine sphere have grossly magnified its importance: they have made dressing and housekeeping difficult arts. Man hardly has to take thought of his clothes, for they are convenient, suitable to his active life, not necessarily elegant; they are scarcely a part of his personality. More, nobody expects him to take care of them himself: some kindly disposed or hired female relieves him of this bother.

Woman, on the contrary, knows that when she is looked at she is not considered apart from her appearance: she is judged, respected, desired, by and through her toilette. Her clothes were originally intended to consign her to impotence, and they have remained unserviceable, easily ruined: stockings get runs, shoes get down at the heel, light-colored blouses and frocks get soiled, pleats get unpleated. But she will have to make most of the repairs herself; other women will not come benevolently to her assistance and she will hesitate to add to her budget for work she could do herself: permanents, setting hair, make-up materials, new dresses, cost enough already. When they come in after the day’s work, students and secretaries always have a stocking with a run to be fixed, a blouse to wash, a skirt to press. A woman who makes a good income will spare herself this drudgery, but she will have to maintain a more complicated elegance; she will lose time in shopping, in having fittings, and the rest. Tradition also requires even the single woman to give some attention to her lodgings. An official assigned to a new city will easily find accommodations at a hotel; but a woman in the same position will want to settle down in a place of her own. She will have to keep it scrupulously neat, for people would not excuse a negligence on her part which they would find quite natural in a man.

It is not regard for the opinion of others alone that leads her to give time and care to her appearance and her housekeeping. She wants to retain her womanliness for her own satisfaction. She can regard herself with approval throughout her present and past only in combining the life she has made for herself with the destiny that her mother, her childhood games, and her adolescent fantasies prepared for her. She has entertained narcissistic dreams; to the male’s phallic pride she still opposes her cult of self; she wants to be seen, to be attractive. Her mother and her older sisters have inculcated the liking for a nest: a home, an ‘interior,’ of her own! That has always been basic in her dreams of independence; she has no intention of discarding them when she has found liberty by other roads. And to the degree in which she still feels insecure in the masculine universe, she tends to retain the need for a retreat, symbolical of that interior refuge she has been accustomed to seeking within herself. Obedient to the feminine tradition, she will wax her floors, and she will do her own cooking instead of going to eat at a restaurant as a man would in her place. She wants to live at once like a man and like a woman, and in that way she multiplies her tasks and adds to her fatigue.

If she intends to remain fully feminine, it is implied that she also intends to meet the other sex with the odds as favorable as possible. Her most difficult problems are going to be posed in the field of sex. In order to be a complete individual, on an equality with man, woman must have access to the masculine world as does the male to the feminine world, she must have access to the other; but the demands of the other are not symmetrical in the two symmetrical cases. Once attained, fame and fortune, appearing like immanent qualities, may increase woman’s sexual attractiveness; but the fact that she is a being of independent activity wars against her femininity, and this she is aware of. The independent woman—and above all the intellectual, who thinks about her situation—will suffer, as a female,from an inferiority complex; she lacks leisure for such minute beauty care as that of the coquette whose sole aim in life is to be seductive; follow the specialists’ advice as she may, she will never be more than an amateur in the domain of elegance. Feminine charm demands that transcendence, degraded into immanence, appear no longer as anything more than a subtle quivering of the flesh; it is necessary to be spontaneously offered prey.

But the intellectual knows that she is offering herself, she knows that she is a conscious being, a subject; one can hardly dull one’s glance and change one’s eyes into sky-blue pools at will; one does not infallibly stop the surge of a body that is straining toward the world and change it into a statue animated by vague tremors. The intellectual woman will try all the more zealously because she fears failure; but her conscious zeal is still an activity and it misses its goal. She makes mistakes like those induced by the menopause: she tries to deny her brain just as the woman who is growing older tries to deny her age; she dresses like a girl, she overloads herself with flowers, furbelows, fancy materials; she affects childish tricks of surprised amazement. She romps, she babbles, she pretends flippancy, heedlessness, sprightliness.

But in all this she resembles those actors who fail to feel the emotion that would relax certain muscles and so by an effort of will contract the opposing ones, forcing down their eyes or the corners of their mouths instead of letting them fall. Thus in imitating abandon the intellectual woman becomes tense. She realizes this, and it irritates her; over her blankly naïve face, there suddenly passes a flash of all too sharp intelligence; lips soft with promise suddenly tighten. If she has trouble in pleasing, it is because she is not, like her slavish little sisters, pure will to please; the desire to seduce, lively as it may be, has not penetrated to the marrow of her bones. As soon as she feels awkward, she becomes vexed at her abjectness; she wants to take her revenge by playing the game with masculine weapons: she talks instead of listening, she displays subtle thoughts, strange emotions; she contradicts the man instead of agreeing with him, she tries to get the best of him. Mme de Staël won some resounding victories: she was almost irresistible. But the challenging attitude, very common among American women, for example, irritates men more often than it conquers them; and there are some men, besides, who bring it upon themselves by their own defiant air. If they would be willing to love an equal instead of a slave—as, it must be added, do those among them who are at once free from arrogance and without an inferiority complex— women would not be as haunted as they are by concern for their femininity; they would gain in naturalness, in simplicity, and they would find themselves women again without taking so much pains, since, after all, that is what they are.

The fact is that men are beginning to resign themselves to the new status of woman; and she, not feeling condemned in advance, has begun to feel more at ease. Today the woman who works is less neglectful of her femininity than formerly, and she does not lose her sexual attractiveness. This success, though already indicating progress toward equilibrium, is not yet complete; it continues to be more difficult for a woman than for a man to establish the relations with the other sex that she desires. Her erotic and affectional life encounters numerous difficulties. In this matter the unemancipated woman is in no way privileged: sexually and affectionally most wives and courtesans are deeply frustrated. If the difficulties are more evident in the case of the independent woman, it is because she has chosen battle rather than resignation. All the problems of life find a silent solution in death; a woman who is busy with living is therefore more at variance with herself than is she who buries her will and her desires; but the former will not take the latter as a standard. She considers herself at a disadvantage only in comparison with man.

A woman who expends her energy, who has responsibilities, who knows how harsh is the struggle against the world’s opposition, needs— like the male—not only to satisfy her physical desires but also to enjoy the relaxation and diversion provided by agreeable sexual adventures. Now, there are still many social circles in which her freedom in this matter is not concretely recognized; if she exercises it, she risks compromising her reputation, her career; at the least a burdensome hypocrisy is demanded of her. The more solidly she establishes her position in society, the more ready people will be to close their eyes; but in provincial districts especially, she is watched with narrow severity, as a rule. Even under the most favorable circumstances— where fear of public opinion is negligible—her situation in this respect is not equivalent to man’s. The differences depend both on traditional attitudes and on the special nature of feminine eroticism.

Man has easy access to fugitive embraces that are at the worst sufficient to calm his flesh and keep him in good spirits. There have been women—not many—prepared to demand that brothels for females be provided; in a novel entitled Le Numéro 17 a woman proposed the establishment of houses where women could resort for ‘sexual appeasement’ through the services of ‘taxi-boys.’4 It appears that an establishment of this kind formerly existed in San Francisco; the customers were prostitutes, who were highly amused to pay instead of being paid. Their pimps had the place closed. Apart from the fact that this solution is chimerical and...

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Elaine Hoffman Baruch (Essay Date Summer 1987)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Baruch, Elaine Hoffman. "The Female Body and the Male Mind: Reconsidering Simone de Beauvoir." Dissent, no. 1 (summer 1987): 351-58.

In the following essay, Baruch analyzes Beauvoir's feminist philosophy in the context of contemporary feminist theory, much of which opposes many of Beauvoir's suppositions.

Forty years ago Simone de Beauvoir sat in front of a blank sheet of paper at the Café des Deux Magots, on the Boulevard St. Germain in Paris, wanting to write about herself:

I realized that the first question to come up was: What has it meant to me...

(The entire section is 5808 words.)

Niza Yanay (Essay Date 1990)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Yanay, Niza. "Authenticity of Self-Expression: Reinterpretation of Female Independence through the Writings of Simone de Beauvoir." Women's Studies 17 (1990): 219-33.

In the following essay, Yanay uses the work of Beauvoir to examine the psychological notions of dependence and independence in women.

This paper aims to reopen discussion of the meaning of "dependence" and "independence" as they reflect the experiences of women. This desire to reexamine and revise accepted concepts and terms in light of principles of female experience is prompted by the work of feminist scholars, who have...

(The entire section is 5560 words.)

The Second Sex

(Feminism in Literature)


SOURCE: Fuchs, Jo-Ann P. “Female Eroticism in The Second Sex.Feminist Studies 6, no. 2 (summer 1980): 304-13.

In the following essay, Fuchs finds Beauvoir’s notions about female eroticism in The Second Sex self-contradictory and sets out to correct the contradiction for contemporary feminists.

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir presents in scattered form her own analysis of eroticism. It is an analysis which is at base existentialist and phenomenological, making use of the work of other contemporary French thinkers, and adding to...

(The entire section is 8442 words.)

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter

(Feminism in Literature)


SOURCE: Hughes, Alex. “Murdering the Mother: Simone de Beauvoir’s Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée.French Studies 48, no. 2 (April 1994): 174-83.

In the following essay, Hughes discusses the theme of matricide in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.

In her provocative essay ‘Death Sentences: Writing Couples and Ideology’, Alice Jardine suggests that Beauvoir’s Une mort très douce and her Cérémonie des adieux emblematize ‘the poetics of an ideology that insists upon killing the mother’.1 Jardine’s...

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The Woman Destroyed

(Feminism in Literature)


SOURCE: Fallaize, Elizabeth. "Resisting Romance: Simone de Beauvoir, The Woman Destroyed and the Romance Script." In Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives, edited by Margaret Atack and Phil Powrie, pp. 15-25. Manchester, Eng.: Manchester University Press, 1990.

In the following essay, Fallaize examines elements of popular romantic fiction in The Woman Destroyed and the possibility of demythologizing romantic ritualism for Beauvoir.

The feminist credentials of Simone de Beauvoir's fictional texts are...

(The entire section is 5003 words.)

Further Reading

(Feminism in Literature)


Bennett, Joy Gabriella Hochmann. Simone de Beauvoir: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1988, 474 p.

Comprehensive annotated bibliography of secondary sources published between 1940 and 1986 in English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish.


Appignanesi, Lisa. Simone de Beauvoir New York: Penguin Books, 1988, 169 p.

Traces Beauvoir's life and development as a writer.

Ascher, Carol. Simone de Beauvoir: A Life of Freedom. Boston, Mass.: Beacon,...

(The entire section is 1212 words.)