When Things of the Spirit Come First

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1535

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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 to the divine will,” a course which Chantal describes as “a cover for laziness and cowardice.” Anne is in love with Pascal, a Mersault-like character who resists any personal attachment and denies Anne security because of his own need to be totally sincere. Anne’s mother forbids the relationship because of Pascal’s lack of commitment, and Anne is unable to defy her mother. Even though Anne realizes the extent to which her mother’s views are dictated by “middle class prudence,” she clings to her mother, saying she cannot hurt and disappoint her. Anne’s feelings toward her mother, however, are ambiguous and, in the end, dishonest. Only once does Anne assert herself—by cutting her foot with an axe to avoid an unpleasant visit—but her aggressiveness is only temporary. Her will is finally paralyzed, and she dies, still trapped in an ambiguous state. At her funeral, Chantal remarks how cruel it is that “Anne should have been destroyed before she fully existed.”

Lisa, a character based on one of Beauvoir’s fellow students in a Catholic school, experiences an awakening of her sexuality, which has hitherto been stifled by the piousness of her school and family environment. Lisa is in love with Pascal, but she feels guilty because she knows that Anne is also in love with him. Pascal does not reciprocate Lisa’s feelings and is, in fact, unaware that she loves him. Lisa lies to her superior in order to leave the school and meet Marguerite, Pascal’s sister, who Lisa thinks will help her get closer to Pascal. When Marguerite does not respond as Lisa had hoped, Lisa becomes resentful and returns to the school. While waiting at a bus stop, hoping to see Pascal, Lisa is accosted by a woman who accuses her of being her husband’s mistress. Lisa attempts to enhance her mundane life by relating this incident to her schoolmates Hélène and Thérèse and is disappointed to learn that her schoolmates have experienced similar incidents. Left with her unresolved sexuality, Lisa takes refuge in being “a soul among souls.”

The final story in the collection, “Marguerite,” is a satirical look at Beauvoir’s own early life; it is the first sentence of this story which gives the volume its title: “In my family it was always held that the things of the spirit come first.” Beauvoir describes her portrayal of Marguerite as one of her “own childhood at the Cours Désir and my own adolescent religious crisis.” After rejecting religion, Marguerite “falls into the pitfall of the ’wonderful,’” a condition resulting from her infatuation with Denis Charval. In God’s place, she sets up Denis, and under his influence, she maintains an equally worshipful state of being. When she finally realizes that Denis is going to return to her sister Marcelle, Marguerite must face the fact that she has been living her life with Denis at the center. She wakes several times that night in a state of distress over how she will live her life the next day. Following this break, she experiences the same emptiness she felt when she renounced God, but by positive action, she finds that in the space once occupied by God, and then by Denis, she has created herself. Marguerite recognizes the futility in her relationship with her friends. She finally is able to realize that “Marcelle and Chantal and Pascal will die without ever having known or loved anything real and . . . I do not want to be like them.”

Although Beauvoir has stated that she is not as concerned with style and technique as she is with meaning, the success of these stories rests heavily on her craft. In two of the stories, “Chantal” and “Anne,” Beauvoir makes effective use of point of view. In the former, she employs first-person point of view in the form of a diary and personal reflection and then shifts to the point of view of another character. This device links Chantal, the principal character, with the character who most closely resembles the hidden side of her personality. Another interesting and effective use of shifting point of view can be seen in “Anne.” The story begins with a four-page prayer by Anne’s mother, switches to an omniscient point of view, shifts to Chantal, then to Pascal, and finally returns to omniscience.

A further extension of this device occurs in the change of point of view from one story to another, allowing the reader to see each character through many eyes. For example, one episode involving Denis Charval in “Marcelle” is repeated in “Marguerite,” enabling the reader to observe the situation from the individual point of view of four characters: Marcelle, Denis, Marguerite, and Mme. Drouffe. This technique creates rounded characters who are alive even when representing an idea. Not only does Beauvoir add richness to her characters through this device, but she also provides unity in the collection of individual stories.

This meshing of characters throughout the collection further allows Beauvoir to embody principles of the philosophy which informs her more didactic works, particularly concerning the relationship of the self to others. The women of these five stories, with the exception of Marguerite, are condemned to live in “bad faith,” evading the decisive act of will demanded by Existentialism.

It is clear that this collection is a “beginner’s piece of work,” as Beauvoir describes it in her preface, yet for those who have wanted to read Beauvoir but found the encounter difficult, When Things of the Spirit Come First is a good place to begin.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 48

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