When Things of the Spirit Come First

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

In her preface to When Things of the Spirit Come First, a book of five stories written in the 1930’s but first published in 1979 as Quand prime le spirituel, Simone de Beauvoir writes of the obvious immaturity of the work and of her interest in seeing it published when viewed at a distance of forty years. Those familiar with her writing will benefit from Beauvoir’s interest and recognize the major themes of her more mature works foreshadowed here. In particular, her treatment of the “place” of women in these early stories anticipates her pioneering feminist work Le Deuxième sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1953).

At the time the stories were written, Beauvoir already had written several unfinished novels with which she was dissatisfied. She finally identified the problem as one of content: she had been writing about people and events which were in no way connected to her life. In the stories collected here, she began to write about her own experience, about real people whom she had known; indeed, in her preface, Beauvoir describes each of the real persons on whom the fictional characters are based.

Each of the five stories carries as its title a woman’s name: “Marcelle,” “Chantal,” “Lisa,” “Anne,” and “Marguerite.” While each story effectively stands alone, the stories together form a much more interesting character study. Tracing the relationships of the five women and introducing male characters and other peripheral characters, Beauvoir employs multiple points of view which allow each character to define herself or to be defined through implication.

Beauvoir taught at the lycée in Marseilles for one year, during which time she became acquainted with Marcelle, a young poet. In the stories, Marcelle is the sister of Marguerite (Beauvoir’s fictional counterpart) and Pascal. She is a “dreamy, precocious little girl” who likes to cry, to “let the sadness and the night flow into her.” She becomes both excited and perturbed by stories of women who are dominated by their men, who sometimes even are mistreated physically. Marcelle marries Denis Charval, a scoundrel to whom she subjugates herself and who finally leaves her. Left alone in a state of limbo, Marcelle rejects everyday pleasures while awaiting some undefined happiness. Ultimately, she concludes that she is destined to suffer: this is her vocation as a self-styled “woman of genius.”

The central figure of the second story is Chantal, a character based on a teaching colleague of Beauvoir in Rouen. Chantal is a woman who lives in “bad faith,” a Sartrean concept to which Beauvoir gave a feminist inflection in The Second Sex, defining it as the condition of limited growth which results when women are forced to accommodate themselves to a man-centered world. Chantal desperately tries to present herself to the world as a glamorous, open-minded woman, rather than an ordinary woman in an ordinary profession. She figures prominently in Anne’s story, in which she assumes certain responsibilities for Anne’s future, allowing Anne to use her as a crutch. Chantal, however, lives fully in her imagination, by pretense enhancing each situation in which she finds herself. Chantal is pleased to know that Anne’s mother dislikes her, for she relishes her role as a drifter, one responsible for exposing the sheltered to the harsh realities of life.

The character of Anne is based on Zaza, a close friend of Beauvoir about whom she wrote in the first volume of her memoirs, Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (1958; Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, 1959). Anne is all that the Existentialists rejected. Instead of asserting her will, she makes a “total submission...

(The entire section is 1535 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Library Journal. CVII, September 1, 1982, p. 1674.

Listener. CVIII, July 29, 1982, p. 24.

Nation. CCXXV, October 2, 1982, p. 314.

New Age. VIII, October, 1982, p. 67.

The New Republic. CLXXXVII, September 20, 1982, p. 40.

New Statesman. CIV, August 6, 1982, p. 23.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, November 7, 1982, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, July 16, 1982, p. 62.

Times Literary Supplement. July 30, 1982, p. 814.