Simone de Beauvoir Beauvoir, Simone de (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Beauvoir, Simone de 1908–

French novelist, essayist, playwright, autobiographer, and proponent of existentialist philosophy, Beauvoir was a long-time associate of Jean-Paul Sartre. In her novels Beauvoir is concerned with explicating her philosophy, as in, for example, The Mandarins, which explores the problem of commitment and action among French intellectuals following the Second World War. She is the author of the immensely influential The Second Sex. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

D. J. Enright

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Scandalized by the neglect into which [the Marquis de Sade] has fallen, yet repudiating the obvious topsy-turvy whereby he has been deified, [Mme de Beauvoir asks in her The Marquis de Sade] that he be regarded as a man and a writer. Yet it is not as author nor as sexual pervert that he interests her, but by his efforts to justify his perversions, to 'erect his tastes into principles'. 'He dreamed of an ideal society from which his special tastes would not exclude him.'…

Mme de Beauvoir tells us that 'eroticism appears in Sade as a mode of communication, the only valid one' between persons. Since she then admits that 'every time we side with a child whose throat has been slit by a sex-maniac, we take a stand against him', it is possible that she is using the word 'communication' in some highly paradoxical sense reserved to philosophically-trained intellectuals. For the rest of us, Sade's message on this point might seem to come to, F … you, Jack (or Jill), I'm all right….

For Mme de Beauvoir, Sade's value, his contemporary importance, lies in the fact that 'he chose cruelty rather than indifference'. His sincerity encourages her to hail him as 'a great moralist'. The aptest comment is M. de Bressac's casual remark to his servant, which I quote from memory: 'Now, Joseph, you b … Justine, and then we shall feed her to the dogs.' Mme de Beauvoir shares one of her protégé's characteristics: humourlessness….

'Must we burn Sade?' asks Mme de Beauvoir. Now that you mention it, why not? He teaches us little about human nature which we couldn't gather from a few minutes of honest introspection. But maybe we can learn something more useful from Mme de Beauvoir's solemn excogitations, something about our scornful reluctance to face the realities of our selves and of others' selves, and our preferred contemplation of modish dummies, those highbrow status symbols, ourselves as heroic monsters or grand victims, our inflation or reduction of ourselves and others to ingeniously explicated strip-cartoons, as unreal as the wicked Juliette and as empty of life as the virtuous Justine.

D. J. Enright, "Books in General: 'Le Marquis de Sade'," in New Statesman (© 1963 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXV, No. 1662, January 18, 1963, p. 82.

Nadine Gordimer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Entertained, appalled (once or twice), irritated (occasionally), enthralled (often), amused (in places where this was not the author's intention), moved and, above all, compelled to stay with her to the last page, I stand back from [Force of Circumstance] and, for me, this life gives purchase most clearly in three aspects and in this order: the experience of being French during the Algerian war; the position of the Leftist outside the Communist Party; woman as intellectual. Here is Simone de Beauvoir.

Being female was a precondition, yet, in order of importance, I put it third in the forces that have shaped her life because she has dealt with it, in the particular context of that life, successfully—even triumphantly—and in this last volume [of Simone de Beauvoir's three-volume autobiography] it crops up more in the light of reflection on these triumphs than in the glare of battle enjoined. (p. 73)

[Simone de Beauvoir] has constantly been accused of wearing [Sartre's] opinions. She gives quite a lot of space to refuting this. If, as she seems to think, the allegation comes from the old anti-feminist guard, why grant it so much attention? They have long since lost the power to 'draw' her when they touch upon other aspects of her life. If, on the other hand, she is accused without prejudice, as an intellectual, of being unduly under the influence of the thought of another, and one takes her refutation in this context, fair enough. We can accept that we cannot know the extent to which these two very...

(The entire section is 636 words.)

V. S. Pritchett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In this short, painful and honest book [A Very Easy Death], Simone de Beauvoir describes the death of her mother from cancer, in some clinical detail, and the changing emotions the daughters felt. She also attempts, as a rationalist—who saw with surprise her conventionally pious mother indifferent to the consolations of religion—to think again about a subject that none of us now cares to think about….

It was what is called 'an easy death'; but the death in her mother's face was joined to the violent spirit of rebellion: 'she asserted the value of each instant.' The sight made Simone de Beauvoir hate the clichés by which we defend ourselves against old age and dying. She saw 'the reassuring curtain of everyday triviality' ripped away. Her conclusion was that if we must yield, we cannot be acquiescent:

There is no such thing as a natural death, nothing that happens to a man is ever natural, since his presence calls the world into question. All men must die; but for every man his death is an accident and, even if he knows and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation.

The literature of resignation is generally more eloquent than Simone de Beauvoir's book is, but her honesty and her observation of feeling and circumstance have their own value, they arrest the evasions of the contemporary conscience.

V. S. Pritchett, "Unholy Dying," in New Statesman (© 1966 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 71, No. 1831, April 15, 1966, p. 540.

Erica Harth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[One] of the principal questions of Les Mandarins is whether or not literature is possible for the politically committed writer. (pp. 177-78)

[It] was Simone de Beauvoir who discovered alienation as the specific anguish of the French writer during the years of the Algerian Revolution. As the number of massacres and tortures mounted in the mid-fifties, she was to experience for the first time the sense of being an exile in one's own land…. (p. 178)

The question of what possibilities are open to the writer … before the advent of a society in permanent revolution, is … explored by Simone de Beauvoir in Les Mandarins. Reflecting the increasing sense of loss and isolation felt by the intellectual left as the post-war years slipped into the Cold War era, her novel strikes a note of cynicism…. Perhaps the most somber moment of the book occurs when the two writers, Henri and Dubreuilh, confront together the decay of their own intellectual and political integrity in the face of a morally bankrupt society. Henri's surprising confession to Dubreuilh of the false testimony he bore in favor of his girlfriend, who had indulged in sexual fraternization with a German during the war, and Dubreuilh's even more surprising casual acceptance of it leave the reader with a shocked hopelessness: if a society reaches a certain degree of political sloth and corruption, there may no longer exist a "real" much less a "virtual" public, and the writer may indeed have no role to play at all. (p. 179)

We find in Les Mandarins … a whole spectrum of attitudes toward literature. On one end is Dubreuilh, with his desire to replace literature by politics, whose world had fallen apart at the Liberation, when the political and intellectual realms began to diverge. Not knowing how to deal with the new situation, he has decided that any book he would write would be either "harmful" or "insignificant." On the other end we find the irremediably bourgeois Lambert, who,...

(The entire section is 829 words.)

IrèNe M. PagèS

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Les Belles Images, "The Pretty Pictures": the title is ironic. It tells us that Simone de Beauvoir intends her novel to be a criticism of idealism. Less obviously, it refers to a Sartrian conception of the image which we need to understand if we are to grasp the full significance of the novel. The "pretty pictures" from which it takes its title refer not to the mental images of classical psychology but to an "attitude of absence" or a flight from everyday existence. The narrative technique used in this novel seems particularly adapted to its subject, which is the séparation made by the narrator's consciousness between the real and the imaginary. The language plays on metaphors dealing with various forms of pictures: posters, reflections in mirrors, television screens, photographs, films, kaleidoscopes, frescoes. More interesting still is the fact that not only is the narrator's own speech such as to disintegrate the "pretty pictures" which, in her immediate surroundings, take the place of reality, but it also makes what is real insubstantial, it brings about a désubstantification of the real.

In this book it is no longer a question, as in the earlier novels of Simone de Beauvoir, Les Mandarins, for example, of bringing a heroine to an awareness of the emptiness of her existence and of her separation from the apparently justified existence of others. On the contrary, now it is in the lives of her relatives that the narrator and leading character, Laurence, has to discover emptiness and unauthenticity. More exactly, she is led to realize the "unreality" of the reality around her. This demands of her a sense of the true and the false, a sense which cannot come to her from any rational evidence.

By giving her protagonist a profession which deals in illusion and the bending of the truth, Simone de Beauvoir has solved the problem she has set herself: she makes her heroine a publicity editor in an advertising firm. As a slogan-writer, Laurence at least knows what is meant by deception and falsehood…. [By] making her heroine professionally concerned with the pursuit of the false, the author has instilled in her a need for the true, a need which exists in all of us, but which is usually only latent. Thus, what is particular about Laurence is that she feels in a more continuous and intense way what most human beings feel only in rare moments of awareness.

Everything in the novel derives from Laurence's inner experience. She comes to perceive what is "unreal" in the way other people talk and behave around her only because she senses the existence of a reality from which she herself is cut off. The few signs which she perceives of this reality make her aware of it. In existentialist terms, the existence and the monologue of Laurence are filled with an "absent presence". Still, if everything in Les Belles Images starts from an inner experience and is summed up by it, nevertheless everything takes place through events and through characters, and a background of historical reality is woven into the novel by means of dialogue. But the literary interest of the book obviously lies in Laurence's inner crisis rather than in the portrayal of the background against which this drama takes place. It is a drama of moral significance, and Simone de Beauvoir has chosen for it a narrative technique—extended monologue—that is perfectly adapted to her purpose. (pp. 133-34)

It is the function of Laurence's monologue to reflect on the words and behaviour of others, and then to strip these words and this behaviour of the meaning they have in the existence of others. Laurence has been assigned a unique experience: that of emptying existence—not her own, exclusively, but also the common existence in which she takes part—of its so-called reality, and, on the other hand, to live in another reality quite remote from her immediate surroundings. (p. 134)

Laurence takes refuge in that distant reality represented for her by the poster of a starving child of the Third World, by reports read in the papers...

(The entire section is 1693 words.)