Simone de Beauvoir 1908–1986
French philosopher, nonfiction writer, novelist, autobiographer, short story writer, essayist, and playwright.
The following entry presents an overview of Beauvoir's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 4, 8, 14, 31, 44, 50, and 71.
Among the most prominent French intellectuals of the twentieth century, Simone de Beauvoir is recognized as a pioneering feminist thinker and leading proponent of existentialist philosophy. Her groundbreaking sociological treatise La deuxième sexe (1949; The Second Sex), in which she delineates the historical and cultural structures of patriarchy, is often credited with establishing the theoretical underpinnings of modern feminist scholarship. Along with philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, her lifetime companion, and Albert Camus, Beauvoir helped define and popularize the principles of existentialism in her novels and nonfiction works such as Pour une morale de l'ambiguité (1947; The Ethics of Ambiguity) and later writings on aging and death. Her best known novels, including the award-winning Les mandarins (1954; The Mandarins), are noted for their lively portrayal of Parisian social and intellectual milieus of the 1930s and 1940s. Eschewing marriage and motherhood, Beauvoir served as a living model of female liberation and artistic commitment. Her observations concerning the social construction of female inferiority and the primacy of self-determination are central to her series of autobiographic volumes, including Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée (1958; Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter), regarded as an important personal testament to the plight of women in a male-dominated world.
Born Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir in Paris, France, Beauvoir was raised by her watchful Catholic mother and agnostic father, a lawyer, in an upper-middle-class home. The pleasant security of Beauvoir's childhood ended, however, with the outbreak of the First World War, during which the family fortune dissipated. A precocious student and zealous reader of forbidden books, Beauvoir received a strict, limited education at a Catholic school for girls. As an adolescent she struggled against the strictures of religion and social expectations that discouraged intellectual pursuits among women. The 1929 death of her best friend Elizabeth (Zaza) Mabille, whose manipulative parents refused to allow her to marry a fellow student, later marked a turning point in Beauvoir's hostility toward bourgeois institutions. Defying her parents' wishes. Beauvoir announced her ambition to teach and enrolled at the Instit Saint-Marie in 1925, where she studied philosophy and literature. Continuing her education at the Sorbonne, she received the agrégation de philosophie in 1929. While at the Sorbonne. Beauvoir met Jean-Paul Sartre, an intellectual equal and intimate whose existentialist philosophy influenced much of her own thought and writing. Dismissing conventional morality in favor of principles of honesty and freedom, Beauvoir and Sartre never married, although they maintained a lifelong open relationship that permitted "contingent" loves. After receiving her degree, graduating second only to Sartre, Beauvoir taught at several French lycées from 1931 to 1943 while writing fiction and associating with Left Bank intellectual circles habituated by Camus, André Malraux, Raymond Queneau, and Michel Leiris. Beauvoir's previously unpublished short stories from this period are contained in Quand prime le spirituel (1979; When Things of the Spirit Come First). Though notably apolitical during the 1930s, she and Sartre became involved in the French Resistance while living under Nazi Occupation in Paris during the Second World War. Beauvoir also published her first book, the novel L'invitée (1943; She Came to Stay), and the philosophical tract Pyrrhus et Cinéas (1944), during the war. In 1945 Beauvoir and Sartre founded Les Temps modernes , a literary...
(The entire section is 51,855 words.)