Simone de Beauvoir De Beauvoir, Simone (Vol. 31) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Simone de Beauvoir 1908–

French novelist, nonfiction writer, autobiographer, dramatist, short story writer, and editor.

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 is known as both a chronicler of that milieu and a literary explicator of the existentialist philosophy. She also 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. Interest in her long-time relationship with Sartre and the controversies elicited by The Second Sex have often eclipsed recognition of Beauvoir's fiction. Yet she gained favorable attention for her first novel, L'invitée (1943; She Came to Stay), and her novel Les mandarins (1954; The Mandarins) received the Prix Goncourt.

Beauvoir was born in Paris to middle-class parents. Early in her life she rebelled against the restrictions of her family, her class, and her Catholic education, as well as the social disadvantages of her gender. A brilliant student, she earned her degree in 1929 at the Sorbonne, where she also met Sartre, her companion until his death in 1980. Beauvoir taught philosophy until She Came to Stay was published, at which time she stopped teaching in order to concentrate on writing.

Beauvoir's life and development are revealed in her several volumes of autobiographical writings. Beginning with Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée (1958; Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter) and continuing through La cérémonie des adieux (1980; Adieux), these memoirs also provide insight into the social, political, and intellectual climate of the Second World War era. La force de l'age (1960; The Prime of Life) is particularly valuable for explaining the development of the existentialist movement and demonstrates the continuing dialogue Beauvoir maintained with Sartre.

The first of her novels of ideas, She Came to Stay, poses existentialist questions of choice and consciousness. Another novel, Le sang des autres (1944; The Blood of Others), is set in France during World War II and focuses on the issue of responsibility in a godless world. The Mandarins is celebrated as a roman à clef of French existentialists and their associates. Other writings include the nonfiction L'Amérique au jour le jour (1948; America Day by Day) and La longue marche (1957; The Long March), based respectively on Beauvoir's travels in America in 1947 and her tour of Communist China after the war.

In addition to documenting the persons and events of her generation, Beauvoir also sought to explain existentialism in several philosophical essays. The most important of these essays is Pour une morale de l'ambigüité (1947; The Ethics of Ambiguity). Here she offers an affirmative view of life based on commitment and free choice which complements Sartre's Being and Nothingness.

Critics have often concerned themselves with what they perceive as two central ironies in Beauvoir's feminism: her apparent reliance on a man—Sartre—for ideas and insights, and a noticeable bias against women in her writings. In regard to the former, it has been pointed out that mutual influence is unavoidable in any lifelong relationship; in this instance, Sartre's originality as a philosopher and Beauvoir's ability to synthesize, to document, and to apply complex ideas clearly and accessibly represent different roles. As for the latter irony, several critics have argued that in both her fiction and her nonfiction Beauvoir's depiction of women reveals her anger at their circumstances, not their inherent inferiority.

The publication and recent translation of five early stories collected in Quand prime le spirituel (1979; When Things of the Spirit Come First) has provided fresh perspectives on Beauvoir, resulting in new appreciation for her lifelong dedication to her art as a means of expressing and recording her development in relation to her era.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 8, 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Jean Leighton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The somber thesis of The Second Sex that it is a malediction to be a woman finds substantial support in [Simone de Beauvoir's] novels inasmuch as the feminine characters are preponderantly unhappy, divided and neurotic creatures. Though they do not consciously reflect on their fate and submission qua woman, most are nonetheless conspicuously marked by a flaw; one suspects that their suffering derives in part from their initial misfortune of being female. The pessimism of The Second Sex is thus reinforced in the novels. However, The Second Sex also contains the optimistic and even Utopian idea that woman's subjection and role as the passive, "inessential" being has arbitrarily been imposed by the dominant male culture. If woman could become economically independent and as committed to her work as man she might escape the curse of immanence, passivity, and relative "being." "One is not born a woman, one becomes one" expresses Simone de Beauvoir's radical conception that the unhappiness of woman is rooted in culture and not biology. Woman is thus in principle capable of transcending her inferiority, which is man-made. The Second Sex appears in that perspective as an exhortation to women to rise from their passivity and indifference and break the chains which enslave them.

The "ideal" of The Second Sex is this future emancipated woman, but the vast documentation of the book produces a very negative and uninspiring picture of woman as she has been and actually is. Woman has been sadly impaired by her role as wife, mother, amoureuse, etc. As a result, and ideal theory notwithstanding, by and large the pessimistic element of woman's malediction and inferiority to man dominates the work. This "objective" description does not have to obtain for fictional works. It is there that the ideal woman could be found. Indeed,… two of Simone de Beauvoir's fictional heroines, Françoise in L'Invitée and Anne in Les Mandarins, both modeled on Simone de Beauvoir herself, represent in some measure the emancipated woman. They both have careers that make them economically independent of men and they are also "sympathetic" heroines. They have generosity of spirit, intelligence, some strength, and a grandeur of character that quite sets them apart from the mournful array of The Second Sex females whose pettiness, self-pity, passivity, resentment and subtle domination through feminine martyrdom produce such an unsavory impression of women in general. They are also infinitely more prepossessing as human beings than the other "sad" feminine characters of the novels. And yet neither Anne nor Françoise is really an "emancipated" woman, for both suffer from some inexplicable weakness which makes them unable to assert themselves with the full vigor of an authentic, liberated personality. Françoise has an almost pathological dependence on Pierre, while Anne not only is an "amoureuse" whose life is almost ruined by the unhappy end of a love affair, but she succumbs to despair in middle age and contemplates suicide. Both Anne and Françoise for some mysterious reason regard their work as subsidiary and relegate it to a minor role even though it must consume large quantities of time and energy conveniently ignored by the conventions of novel writing.

Possibly the key to Simone de Beauvoir's ambiguous feelings can be discerned in Françoise and Anne, who express her own emotional difficulties. Like Françoise with Pierre, Simone de Beauvoir was exceedingly dependent on the opinions of Sartre; the autobiography continually documents this…. Similarly, Anne's love affair (though treated with sympathy and approval she is "une amoureuse" who lets her love life dominate her life) is autobiographical, and her despair in face of the onslaught of desolate middle age is exactly recapitulated in La Force des Choses with its chilling finale of "la femme flouée"—an avowal that significantly undermines the entire hopeful thesis of The Second Sex. (pp. 208-10)

[One] must conclude that her identification of emancipation with serene independence and strength is perhaps not altogether valid. Simone de Beauvoir suffered from the same weaknesses as her heroines; in the novels these weaknesses are not seen as necessarily reprehensible where they emerge as part of the imponderable complexity...

(The entire section is 1789 words.)

Lawrence L. Langer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Simone de Beauvoir's A Very Easy Death does not qualify as the "ultimate revelation" [that is, a completely honest presentation of another's dying and one's own response to that experience, but it comes close] … to a confrontation with the inappropriate death of a loved one, in this instance her mother. But even in this narrative, disclosure is balanced by unconscious suppression, as we witness how a sensitive literary intelligence (when writing from her own point of view) has difficulty exploring all the implications of mortality. One is tempted to conclude that art alone liberates the imagination to probe the darkest corners of the arena where man contends with the experience of dying—his own and others'....

(The entire section is 1127 words.)

Naomi Greene

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

While all the ambivalences in [Simone de Beauvoir's] work may not be attributable to Sartre, so much of her argument is based on Sartrean concepts, so many of the very words and metaphors—particularly those describing female sexuality and existence—she chooses recall his, that it is impossible not to sense his influence throughout The Second Sex. After all, no one, least of all de Beauvoir herself, would deny that what could be considered the central concept of The Second Sex—the idea that woman is seen as the "other" both by individual men and by society as a whole—comes from the Sartrean dialectic enounced in Being and Nothingness. According to Sartre, the individual ego, in perpetual...

(The entire section is 2823 words.)

SiâN Reynolds

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


[One] realizes how little one knows about Beauvoir from any source other than herself. Few authors can in their lifetime have so firmly controlled the material on which the secondary industry is based.

A further example of this is the publication [in 1979] … of Quand prime le spirituel, which Gallimard and Grasset turned down in the 1930s, and which Beauvoir decided was worth rescuing from a dusty drawer…. [This] loosely-linked collection of five novellas shows almost all the five heroines living through some conflict between their Catholic upbringing and their adolescent or repressed sexuality in the unsettling Paris of the twenties and thirties. The...

(The entire section is 407 words.)

Catherine Savage Brosman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The information on the cover [of Quand prime le spirituel], which indicates that this is the author's first book and that it is a novel, is somewhat misleading on two counts…. The volume is … neither her first novel nor a novel but rather long stories concerning different characters, among whom there are ties of family or friendship and who thus move in the same milieu…. The texts are not arranged in order of composition but rather according to the chronology of the characters' relationships….

One must recognize, as the author does now, that the work is immature for several reasons, some of which she notes in her Preface: absence of fleshed-out male characters, awkward social...

(The entire section is 418 words.)

Carol Ascher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Here is] what strikes me in Simone de Beauvoir, what makes her worth reading and thinking about time after time. Her conflicts are central—for women, for men, for our age—personally as well as politically. Throughout her books there is a tension between being alone, solitary, an individual, and being a part of a friendship, a love, a political group, the world. The issue here is one's ultimate aloneness, but also one's inability as a human being to do anything that is not a social act…. There is an essential ambiguity, which we all share, between our real freedom to remake our world, with the responsibility that this implies, and the constraints which at all moments impinge against us. De Beauvoir felt both...

(The entire section is 3041 words.)

Carol Ascher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[When de Beauvoir wrote the stories now published as When Things of The Spirit Come First: Five Early Tales, she] had already removed herself morally and politically from the world she was describing—which may account for her harshness toward the heroines in some of these stories. Already, while teaching in the provinces, she and Sartre had been involved in a long and difficult triangle with one of de Beauvoir's students (the basis of L'invitée, her first published novel, translated into English as She Came to Stay). They had also been pulled into politics by the Spanish Civil War.

The common theme of these five stories … is the existentialist tragedy of placing essence...

(The entire section is 342 words.)

Deirdre Bair

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The five stories in ["When Things of The Spirit Come First: Five Early Tales"] were written after Miss de Beauvoir had abandoned several complete and partly complete early writings that were never offered for publication because of what she called "shoddy romanticism."…

She had already decided that fiction should be her means of expression and to this end began experimenting with short texts that fictionalized her own experiences as well as those of other women. In the five stories …, she wrote about five different approaches along as many different paths toward the discovery of the same personal truths….

Although the five stories are independent entities, the leading...

(The entire section is 669 words.)

Carol Sternhell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A beacon, a symbol, the author of feminism's most important theoretical text, a great lover, a militant at 76—Simone de Beauvoir seems beyond criticism, creator of one of the most examined lives ever lived. She has had what she wanted, Sartre and writing, writing and Sartre; "I have never met anyone," she says in her memoirs, "in the whole course of my life, who was so well equipped for happiness as I was, or who labored so stubbornly to achieve it." Why then have I always felt so ambivalent, so uneasy, reading her autobiography? Why is this latest installment, Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, so disturbing?…

If I've learned anything in feminism's last decade, it's that nobody's emotional...

(The entire section is 852 words.)

Lorna Sage

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre] is a deliberate affront to conventional notions of privacy and dignity. It's an exact, stoical account of Sartre's disintegration during his last 10 years, and in writing it Simone de Beauvoir is testifying, with a kind of obstinate scrupulosity, to their shared freedom from all such conventional decencies as would—for example—keep a great man's image 'intact.'

'Honesty suited us,' she said in a 1973 interview—as though too much truth might be damaging in less extraordinary lives. And there's something of the same pride in the writing here. Sartre's dying, you are meant to feel, is watchable because he had himself unfolded the possibilities of his...

(The entire section is 305 words.)

Adrianne Blue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The ruthlessness with which Simone de Beauvoir documents Sartre's deterioration is, at first, appalling. The puddle of piss he leaves on a chair is recorded. So is the dribble on his shirt. Nothing is shameful to de Beauvoir if it is true: the ugliest, the least dignified truth is beauty.

The staccato rat-a-tat of the years of Sartre's faltering final decade, 1970–1980, shatters our and the 19th-century's obsession with immutable Grecian urns, with adolescent 'perfection', with euphemism. This book is an extraordinary achievement, precisely the right encomium for a man whose passion was mind….

Neither [de Beauvoir nor Sartre] ever shies from truth, even when the terse, almost...

(The entire section is 216 words.)

Hazel E. Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Ceremony of Farewells] is an account of the decade preceding Sartre's death. The title is itself a recollection of a poignant moment, as Beauvoir explains: "'Then this is the ceremony of farewells!' Sartre said to me as we were leaving each other for a month at the beginning of one summer. I had a presentiment of the meaning these words would one day assume. The ceremony lasted ten years. It is these ten years that I recount in this book." The record is annalistic, the same kind of detailed year-by-year account of events and her reactions to them that Beauvoir employed in the first three volumes of her autobiography. But there her stated intention was to keep herself as the center of focus and to speak of...

(The entire section is 1559 words.)