Simone de Beauvoir Beauvoir, Simone de (Vol. 4) - Essay

Beauvoir, Simone de (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Beauvoir, Simone de 1908–

Simone de Beauvoir is a French existentialist philosopher, novelist, essayist, and autobiographer. Although her fiction is usually considered artistically masterful, it is most often studied as the exegesis of her philosophical thought. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

The main reason why Simone de Beauvoir's feminism deserves very careful attention is because Le Deuxième Sexe may frequently be misunderstood by opponents and supporters…. [One] misunderstanding is to consider her feminism as an isolated aspect, rather than to see her views in Le Deuxième Sexe as a central feature of her fiction and thought; in this way, the immediate problems, both social and political, which are posed in Le Deuxième Sexe, can be conveniently overlooked….

A brief examination of Le Deuxième Sexe is, however, bound to be a dangerous undertaking, for there are immediately two risks: that of obscuring the essential unity of her work, visible in the close resemblances between novels, essays and autobiography; and that of over-simplification…. It will be seen that, for Simone de Beauvoir, woman has currently two unsatisfactory functions: she is both object and image. Once man has branded her with the stigma of otherness ("altérité"), she has been throughout history a mere object in a male society; thereafter, when the object is obliged to incarnate man's dream, she becomes an image. This representational function accounts for the inauthentic attitude which Simone de Beauvoir calls woman's "être-pour-les-hommes," which will, at least in part, explain … the frequent references to mirrors and looking-glasses in her novels and autobiography as well as in Le Deuxième Sexe.

[In] Le Deuxième Sexe, and in her further remarks on womankind in U.S.A. and China, Simone de Beauvoir decides to take upon herself the function of looking-glass and thus reveal to the less privileged members of her sex the imperfections of Woman the Object and of Woman the Image…. To avoid any accusation of hypersensitivity, let us agree that Simone de Beauvoir is probably right about the male; but let us also suggest that the converse weighting of the argument in favour of women raises a reasonable doubt about the just or unjust methods of argumentation elsewhere in the book. It may be that Simone de Beauvoir's mirror gives only a distorted image to suit her own theories, outlook and aims. [An] examination of her feminism will reveal flaws which arise from the intrusion into the feminism of her three other preoccupations … the existential, the autobiographical and the political….

In every novel which Simone de Beauvoir has written, man is shown as the controller of society in every sphere…. The clearest and, in many ways, fairest demonstration which she gives of this state and of the difficulties facing Woman the Object and Woman the Image is to be found in Les Belles Images….

Simone de Beauvoir's frequent references to mirrors in novels, essays and autobiography are far from being mere imitations of a literary device which can be traced from the legend of Narcissus to the works of Cocteau and Sartre. In her work mirrors are mentioned for a variety of reasons, which range from the creation of an interesting visual effect to the symbolical illustration of her philosophy; and an examination of these will not only [describe] the unfair image which she believes man to have created, but will, at the same time, illustrate how her personal preoccupations are apparent even in the relatively minor stylistic devices which she uses….

It is … possible to relate this frequent use of mirrors not only to her philosophical but also to her feminist views, for the heroines who observe themselves are trying to find some meaning in their own lives, trying to achieve a proper identity: and the usual conclusion is that they have been duped, reduced to an empty image….

For Simone de Beauvoir, woman is denied a true individuality, she is torn between the traditional cultural heritage of a man-made society and the desire of every human being to transcend the immanence. Woman is constantly seeking her true identity and it is this fruitless search which explains the frequent use of mirrors in Simone de Beauvoir's novels…. She claims that the mirror or mirror substitute is woman's normal solution in a society which has refused her adequate education and economic opportunity…. Thus the mirror in which Woman the Image gazes to find or to lose herself gives little comfort; reflections show up the inevitable emptiness of life, the inevitable emptiness of death. Woman the slave and the idol, woman the Object and the Image is denied a true existence…. Les Belles Images is also a commentary upon the illusory nature and emptiness of which these characters are the product….

[Les Belles Images] presents many of the feminine problems and responses mentioned in Le Deuxième Sexe and, at the same time, it reveals the existentialist, autobiographical and political preoccupations which mark all Simone de Beauvoir's works.

C. B. Radford, "Simone de Beauvoir: Feminism's Friend or Foe?," in Nottingham French Studies, October, 1967, pp. 87-102.

Only a confirmed and utterly prejudiced misogynist would condemn every one of [the] proposals [in Le Deuxième Sexe]: only Simone de Beauvoir would advocate all of them in the particular way which she has chosen. The vehement and aggressive style and the extreme nature of many of her views show a personal flair and an outspokenness which are rare in any other feminist writer. In fact, far more than the theories, it is the personal flavour which is the distinctive element of her feminism…. More important at present, is the need to consider the way in which Simone de Beauvoir's views are, like man's, a distortion of woman….

It is significant that in every novel the women are freed from many of the major problems which face women in real life…. In the lives of these heroines there are few social responsibilities; they escape from the difficulties of mediocrity; and most of Simone de Beauvoir's wives contrive to have a lover without marital disapproval or discovery. In this way her novels can only be seen as reflecting a reduced part of the feminist problem.

There is a danger that Le Deuxième Sexe has been influenced by the same narrowness of personal experience and outlook. A footnote which is frequently overlooked emphasizes the reality of this danger and suggests that, however far Simone de Beauvoir may delve into history and myth, however wide the range of countries from which she chooses examples to fan her anger, her primary concern is with Western Woman…. Le Deuxième Sexe, in spite of its length and the comprehensive nature suggested by the title, may have a narrower scope than appears at first sight. If then it can be shown that Simone de Beauvoir's own interpretations of the feminine situation have been attributed in some cases to an excessively large proportion of her sex, it will be clear that Le Deuxième Sexe is at times of limited value to the broad movement of feminism….

It would, of course, be extravagant to suppose that Simone de Beauvoir has consciously tried to shape the whole of the female sex to some preconceived pattern closely resembling her own choice: such a suggestion would immediately be contradicted by the spirit of existentialism and her aim to bring women to a state of authentic liberty. It would be harder to refute the suggestion that, just as novels and Le Deuxième Sexe at times reveal a narrowness of personal experience even in someone as inquisitive and energetic as Simone de Beauvoir, so the individual problems of the writer herself may assume an exaggerated importance in her discussions of femininity. Suspicions that Le Deuxième Sexe presents an image which is distorted by autobiographical influences may be strengthened by a brief glance at three facets of the essay: the bourgeois element, the interpretation of myths, and lastly, a comparison between what she says is generally true and what she shows is personally true, the distinction being particularly noticeable when she discusses such subjects as death, maternity, family, shame and guilt.

The likelihood that Le Deuxième Sexe, beneath the comprehensive title, is primarily a middle-class document has already been mentioned. Some justification for this could be made, as it is within the range of middle-class women that a number of difficulties of purely social origin are most acutely experienced. On the other hand, some of Simone de Beauvoir's remarks about working-class women suggest, by traces of fantasy and sentimentality, that the author may be far happier when dealing with the class to which she has always belonged. Her description of adolescence is evidently made from a middle class viewpoint. An illustration of this can be seen in her account of the young girl's attitude towards nature…. Regrettably, not every girl has the opportunity to immerse herself in the beauty of natural surroundings; nor is the opportunity always enjoyed in quite the way which Simone de Beauvoir suggests. The description which is presented as common to all girls has instead the familiar ring of Simone de Beauvoir's own exuberant delight when she escaped to Meyrignac as a girl, when she went on a bicycling holiday with Sartre, when she wanders through French or Algerian countryside….

Simone de Beauvoir is hardly original in seeing the link between feminism and socialism, nor in advocating educational reform and economic independence…. The originality of her contribution would therefore be limited to providing a link, whose importance would depend upon the breadth of her concerns and upon the modernizing of certain themes…. There can be no doubt that criticisms of her methods of argumentation, style, factual accuracy and the absence of a clearly defined route may, however valid, encourage the positive features of her work to be ignored.

C. B. Radford, "Simone de Beauvoir: Feminism's Friend or Foe?," in Nottingham French Studies, May, 1968, pp. 39-53.

Since the appearance of Le Deuxième Sexe, in such works as Les Mandarins, La Force des Choses, and Une Mort très Douce, her readers have seen Mme. de Beauvoir increasingly concerned with another "destiny". [In] La Vieillesse [in America, The Coming of Age], she has kept a promise made in La Force des Choses and given us a work on a topic that some of her readers have considered to be her particular obsession. Even more than in her book on women [The Second Sex], Simone de Beauvoir is concerned in La Vieillesse with the political economy of her problem. Perhaps this book will also come to be seen as the tocsin of some new liberation movement, this time of the old. But La Vieillesse bears the stamp of the deepened interest in limitations that has characterized French Existentialism since the early 1950s…. The givens and limitations of old age are much more compelling and depressing than those of femininity, and in La Vieillesse Mme. de Beauvoir is given a tougher run for her money: wrinkles, senility, physical decay and—most important of all—the gradual disappearance for the aged of the future that had made sense of the existentialist "projet", all serve to mock the freedom of the aged "pour-soi". In this respect La Vieillesse reveals a new dimension of that concern of Phenomenology and Existentialism with the human body. It treats a feature of the body not found in the work of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty: the body in decline.

Simone de Beauvoir does not wish to be accused of having slighted the facts of old age, and much of her book bears witness to a wide reading in the literature of science, medicine, anthropology, and history on the topic of aging…. [The] anti-scientific tone that some readers have detected in Existentialism is nowhere in evidence. If such a "new" respect for science does exist in La Vieillesse it may well represent the fifteen-years debate in France between adherents of Sartrean Existentialism and those of the Structuralism associated with Claude Lévi-Strauss….

[Much] of this book … reveals, at the level of one "vécu", that of Simone de Beauvoir, how the difficulty of growing old can come to haunt one of the privileged. For La Vieillesse allows us to glimpse how she has lived her own growing old—the sense of "déja vu", the deaths of friends….

They were wrong, those who saw in Existentialism only a modern form of despair. They had ignored the incredible optimism that found in the project a means for attaining real values in a world bounded by "non-sens". Although it is written in the glum style characteristic of Simone de Beauvoir, La Vieillesse maintains much of the spirit of that optimism. But in old age one Existentialist, at least, has found a tougher opponent than in other forms of determinism, and the horns of optimism have been drawn in ever so slightly….

T. H. Adamowski, "Death, Old Age, and Femininity," in The Dalhousie Review, Autumn, 1970, pp. 394-401.

Like the children who clap for Tinkerbell, you have to believe in Simone de Beauvoir if you are going to take on [All Said and Done]. She is a very serious person and she expects to be taken very seriously. You have to remember exactly what she said about feminism in 1949 and be interested in how her views have altered; you have to know who were the friends of her youth and care what has happened to them since; you must recall what other people said about her and Sartre in the past, and mind if they were wrong. This is the fourth volume of her autobiography…. But it is really more like the last volume in a set of collected works, the one with notes, addenda, errata and so on, which no one would think of reading from cover to cover.

Simone de Beauvoir refuses 'to have the notion of "a work of art" attached to [her] autobiography…. [That] is a consumer term and to me it is shocking that it should be applied to the works of a creative writer.' This puritanically anti-capitalist attitude may be one of the reasons why her book has such an unlovely shape: after a couple of introductory chapters, the contents of her life are grouped under headings such as friends; books; travel; films; music; dreams; progressive causes—lists follow. Sometimes what she says is marvellous (for instance—unexpectedly, in view of her austerity—about Oscar Wilde); but sometimes it is so perfunctory and pedestrian that only a PhD student of her work could be expected to read on.

She has always been interested in time, in how people experience it and what it does to them: but, instead of a Temps Retrouvé, her account of what has happened to her friends reads like a Christmas news letter from across the Atlantic….

When she published the preceding volume the critics accused her of pessimism because she told the truth; and the truth, especially about old age, was horrible. She argues that, on the contrary, she is an optimist: 'It is because I reject lies and running away that I am accused of pessimism; but this rejection implies hope—the hope that truth may be of use.'…

In her third volume she grumbled that middle-class women liked her first, Memoirs of a dutiful daughter, for the wrong reason. 'They enjoyed the accuracy with which I had depicted a milieu they recognised, but without being at all interested in the effort I had made to escape from it.' Well, middle-class or not, I wish there were a few more milieux in this volume. And, anyway, it was not just the milieux: the book was a wonderful account of what it is like to be young and thoughtful. Simone de Beauvoir can write so well, but she seems to think it frivolous to do so.

She can be petty and mildly paranoid about literary squabbles and political disagreements. She has little sense of humour, though some of her tales of the progressive conferences and marches that she and Sartre attended with tireless assiduity are full of involuntary comedy….

It is a comedy of insensitivity, but the book is full of reflections and analyses which are quite the opposite.

Gabriele Annan, "Serious Lady," in The Listener, June 6, 1974, pp. 740-41.

Simone de Beauvoir's fourth (one can not with her predict any finality) autobiographical volume, All Said And Done,… offers us ten years (1962–72) not so much of experience realised (although this is exceptionally packed with incident) as an imaginative and intellectual transmutation of such experience. It is a deeply serious, wholly absorbing, and marvellously stimulating testimony which gives a complete feeling of maturity and confidence in the autobiographer who comes through with tremendous honesty and admirable lucidity and precision. Whatever reservations one may previously have had for one jocularly known as La Grande Sartreuse, are here thrown out. This is a splendid person, who had looked at herself, her friends and the world they share with an instinctive respect for truth, having, herself, in her own right, as Simone de Beauvoir, brought her best to a peak of creative achievement in this most contemporary document de nos temps…. One is full of admiration and respect for the wholeness of Simone de Beauvoir's world, meaning her total capacity to take it all in, to accept it, to learn it yet again, and assimilate its new findings as being part of any one person's natural capacity and experience.

Kay Dick, "La Bonne Bouche," in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), June 8, 1974, p. 708.

A portrait one might call "The French Intellectual in Majesty" belongs in every reader's imaginary museum. Your intellectual sits enthroned; a few of the saved cluster like cherubim overhead, while the naughty ones who would not listen to Reason writhe beneath his left foot. He wears a decipherable political label, though nothing else may be clear. He has left an account of a doomed world in which he apparently intended to be the sole survivor; he has also provided us with sublimely inaccurate and humorless descriptions of places and societies he was unable to fathom, for the simple reason that he was indifferent to them in the first place. In ["All Said and Done"] the [fourth] volume of her autobiography Simone de Beauvoir lives up to the set criteria….

Her books have never been warm; this one is bloodless…. Her reports read like prim diaries, or, unforgivably, like tacked-together newspaper cuttings. There is an absence of vitality, of generosity, even of intellectual coherence…. The book abounds in misconceptions, in outright mistakes, in pointless exposition…. [We] are given one trifling fact after the other, in a style that has the dazed, ruminative rhythm of a French schoolgirl chewing gum at a concert in time to Bach….

Gradually we wonder if the book was not after all written as a conscientious account of 10 years of the late 20th century for a civilization still to come, or for a civilization cut off from the world we take for granted; if it was not planned, in fact, for people who do not know how to read. If so, then it should not be judged as an ordinary autobiography. [In 1973] Simone de Beauvoir wrote to Le Monde protesting the refusal of Syria to give out information about Israeli prisoners. Because the plea ran counter to her known political views, the letter was treated as a news item and boxed on page two…. I mention it only because her letter had more grace, point, purpose and feeling than the entire 463 pages of "All Said and Done."

Mavis Gallant, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 21, 1974, p. 4.

[Simone de Beauvoir] is sometimes a long-winded and humorless writer, and tutorial in a ponderous way. The first volume of her autobiography or a novel like Les Mandarins (1954) had more vivacity and direction than [All Said and Done], and one has to say that artists become diffuse when they become commentators. They generalize where they were once sharp and actual. But her confidence, her sanguine and energetic concern for the human condition are still bold. She is firm in her feminism and keeps her head about it. She fights back against the merely conventional notion that the minds of atheists are bleak and despairing because they do not believe in the afterlife; she is warm in her belief in the value of happiness and truth-telling; she has always been the enemy of stagnant "serenity": the incurious are, for her, the self-starved. She … willingly examines with detachment the differences she sees between the self of today and the self of twenty years ago. The energy, the genetic tonnage of vitality remains, but there is, she says, a loss of the sense of the future….

The book does lack intimacy; but intimacy is impossible when one is writing about one's immediate past, except to occasional artists. The author has hardened too much into seeing people "in the light."

There are some interesting comments on reading—but these seem rather like republished reviews…. I prefer those pages in this long book when we get some sight of the woman inside the views. I cannot believe that she is all social conscience, all teacher, all self-management.

V. S. Pritchett, "Simone Says," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), August 8, 1974, p. 24.

[All Said and Done] is the fourth volume of Simone de Beauvoir's autobiography; it is presented as being the last, but who knows?…

[It] has to be admitted … that All Said and Done is a much duller book than the previous volumes, perhaps because it does not really take us much beyond the stage reached in volume three. Simone de Beauvoir abandons the chronological sequence of narrative she had followed up till then to concentrate more on themes, and this she sees as an advantage. But she may have made the change unconsciously, because for the time being experience is not impinging upon her in any new way. Like most famous people, she is no doubt cushioned off from reality by her own celebrity and the part she has played; the role or the persona gets in the way of freshness of impression, without her being aware of this…. It is true that most people become more general and predictable as they grow older, because collective forces erode the gem of originality they started with. But this should happen less to existentialists than to others, since existentialism preaches the novelty of every fresh moment. Strangely enough, De Beauvoir frequently sounds quite bourgeois in her complacency, although anti-bourgeoisism is her staple attitude. Is this an effect of age or of an intellectual flaw?

She certainly remains a true Absurdist, because the book opens with a meditation on the basic bewilderment of the conscious mind faced with the mysterious fact that it belongs to this particular individual with this particular identity. So far so good. But the crucial problem for De Beauvoir, as for Sartre, remains the relationship between the Absurd and commitment, since their Absurdism is so much more subtle than the fluctuating dogmatism of their commitment. If the Absurd runs through everything, why does De Beauvoir remain so boringly leftist, when leftism has so often proved inadequate and its validity is far from self-evident? Once could accuse both Sartre and herself of being guilty of antibourgeois bad faith. Perhaps they have formed too close a mutual admiration society; perhaps their marriage of true minds was, in a sense, its own impediment. At any rate, there is something wrong, because volume four fails to show any deepening of perception or widening of perspective. But we can always look forward with existentialist hope to volume five.

John Weightman, "Don't Be Absurd," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), August 18, 1974, p. 1.

My disappointment with Simone de Beauvoir's … All Said and Done is very great. She is, of course, a serious writer who has usually written important and serious things (The Coming of Age, The Second Sex, etc.) but who now has very little new left to say…. She has always been a writer who writes too much and in this respect the new book does not disappoint us. Her interminable description of the geriatrical story of Sartre's mother's life illustrates both her indiscriminate inclusion of detail and her curious sense that everything of interest to her will be of interest to us, including all the stops on every journey, every opinion of films and plays she has seen, every book she wishes to discuss.

The interesting part of this book comes in the final seven … pages. Here she reexamines her important feminist views with an eye to changing some of her opinions in The Second Sex. The last paragraphs on her atheism are cogent and convincing. When she writes this way no one speaks more forcefully than does Beauvoir. But for the rest, it is long-winded, self-congratulatory, repetitious and pompous.

Doris Grumbach, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), September 7, 1974, pp. 28, 30.