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

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Introduction

(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.

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(The entire section is 14,179 words.)