*Beauvoir, Simone de
Beauvoir, Simone de
Simone de Beauvoir was a prominent French existentialist writer who worked alongside such notables as Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Albert Camus. Among the hallmarks of existentialism, and hence of her thought, are an emphasis on radical freedom and its commensurate responsibility, a rejection of the traditional idealistic assumptions about the importance of rationality and universality in favor of an emphasis upon the non-rational and the individual, and a sensitivity to style of expression. The existentialists wrote in a variety of different styles: novels, plays, short stories, as well as essays. Often their essays were more expository than analytic in style, and were occasionally lyrical.
Yet, at her best, Beauvoir is not quite like any of her fellow existentialists. Her unique voice emerged while she directed her thought to the problems affecting her. Sartre, her collaborator and intimate companion for over 50 years, said of her work in an interview in 1965: “I don’t pay compliments and I say things simply. She seems to me a very good writer. She has achieved something which has manifested itself particularly since The Mandarins. It’s apparent in the memoirs and in her book A Very Peaceful Death, which I consider the best thing she’s written. What she has achieved is immediate communication with the public” (Madeleine Gobeil, “Sartre Talks of Beauvoir: An Interview with Madeleine Gobeil,” in Marks, 1987). Sartre went on to describe how this immediacy had been achieved through a proper balance of intellectual and emotional reflection: “She has the right relationship with herself. That’s what’s meant by seeing oneself in perspective.
It’s not only a matter of literature, it’s a matter of life.”
Another hallmark of existentialism is the engagement of the author within his or her situation, referred to as “situated” or “committed” literature, in which writing both reflects the situation the author and readers are in and addresses itself to change and revolution rather than settling for the safe accuracy of benign description. This style of writing was meant to emerge spontaneously from a way of living. Unfortunately, this attempt was not always successful. The literary critic Edmund Wilson once said of Sartre—this surely applies to much other existentialist writing—that this style came off as contrived and self-conscious rather than as effective realism:“…a virtuosity of realism and a rhetoric of moral passion which make you feel not merely that the fiction is a dramatic heightening of life but that the literary fantasy takes place on a plane which does not have any real connection with the actual human experience which it is intending to represent” (Edmund Wilson, “Jean-Paul Sartre, the Novelist and the Existentialist,” New Yorker, 2 August 1947). However, Beauvoir’s essays became more and more effective— more situated and committed—as she found her voice.
Beauvoir enjoyed success with her novels, such as L’Invitée (1943; She Came to Stay), Le Sang des autres (1945; The Blood of Others), and Les Mandarins (1954; The Mandarins). While her initial fame as a novelist was well deserved, it has been eclipsed by the attention resulting from her essays concerning ethics, the social status of women, sexuality, politics, aging, and death. Through her own style of committed literature, she chronicled the myriad social changes of postwar Europe.
Her essay on ethics, Pour une morale de l’ambiguïté (1947; The Ethics of Ambiguity), was an attempt to develop an ethics from existentialism. Some have seen her account as the first step in moving away from the overly individuated world view characteristic of early existentialism toward the socially oriented approach existentialists would later adopt.
She is often seen as a pioneer of contemporary feminist writing. With her classic Le Deuxième Sexe (1949; The Second Sex), a style emerged which was unique among her existentialist cohorts as she began a tradition which describes the human predicament “in a different voice.” While subscribing to both existentialism and Marxism, neither existentialism’s theoretical emphasis on freedom and authenticity nor Marxism’s emphasis on class conflict was sufficient to account for woman’s plight as a second-class citizen in a male-dominated world. Indeed, she foresaw an important threat within the promise of both these schools of thought: they must not be allowed to reduce the issues of woman’s suffering into generic existential, social, or economic terms.
Beauvoir offers outstanding accounts of death throughout her career, describing the death of her friend Elizabeth Mabille (“Zaza”), the death of her mother, and finally the death of Sartre. In these works we see in excruciating detail how one comes to live in a world limned with death. The latter two deaths receive book-length analyses in Une mort très douce (1964; A Very Easy Death) and La Cérémonie des adieux (1982; Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre). Her account of aging and growing old in La Vieillesse (1970; The Coming of Age) provides a situated account of another topic our society has tended to avoid: aging is something which will happen to most of us, yet we tend to live as if it should not be discussed. Beauvoir effectively illustrates the social problems of relegating the elderly to the margins of society.
Beauvoir’s four volumes of autobiographical reflections offer a valuable inside look into the world of a woman coming to recognize her own outstanding abilities, as well as the personal longitudinal account of aging, sexuality, her relationship with Sartre, her friendships, and the changing intellectual, political, and public scenes in France and elsewhere. These volumes offer a genuine and often courageous personal account from the perspective of a woman engaged in a lifelong struggle to speak, write, and live in a way best described as honest and free.
Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie de Beauvoir. Born 9 January 1908 in Paris. Studied at the Cours Désir, Paris, 1913–25, baccalauréat; Institut Sainte-Marie, Neuilly-sur-Seine, and Institut Catholique, Paris, 1925–26; the Sorbonne, Paris, 1926–28; École Normale Supérieure, Paris, 1928–29, agrégation in philosophy, 1929. Began a lifelong relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, 1929. Taught at lycées in Paris, Marseilles, and Rouen, 1929–43.
Founding editor, with Sartre, Les Temps Modernes (Modern times), from 1945. Lectured in the United States, 1947; liaison with the writer Nelson Algren, 1947–51; lived with the writer Claude Lanzmann, 1952–58. Cofounder and president, Choisir (Choose) feminist group, 1972, and president, League of Women’s Rights, 1974. Awards: Goncourt Prize, 1954; Jerusalem Prize, 1975; Austrian State Prize for European Literature, 1978; honorary degree from Cambridge University. Died in Paris, 14 April 1986.
Essays and Related Prose
Pyrrhus et Cinéas, 1944
Pour une morale de l’ambiguïté, 1947; as The Ethics of Ambiguity, translated by Bernard Frechtman, 1948
L’Existentialisme et la sagesse des nations, 1948
L’Amérique au jour le jour, 1948; as America Day by Day, translated by Patrick Dudley, 1952
Le Deuxième Sexe: Les Faits et les mythes and L’Expérience vécue, 2 vols., 1949; as The Second Sex, edited and translated by H.M. Parshley, 1953; vol. 1 as A History of Sex, 1961; vol. 2 as Nature of the Second Sex, 1963
Privilèges, 1955; one essay as Must We Burn de Sade?, translated by Annette Michelson, 1953
La Longue Marche: Essai sur la Chine, 1957; as The Long March, translated by Austryn Wainhouse, 1958
Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (autobiography), 1958; as Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, translated by James Kirkup, 1959
La Force de l’âge, 1960; as The Prime of Life, translated by Peter Green, 1962
Djamila Boupacha, with Gisèle Halimi, 1962; as Djamila Boupacha, translated by Peter Green, 1962
La Force des choses, 1963; as Force of Circumstance, translated by Richard Howard, 1965
Une mort très douce, 1964; as A Very Easy Death, translated by Patrick O’Brian, 1966
La Vieillesse, 1970; as The Coming of Age, and as Old Age, translated by Patrick O’Brian, 1972
Toute compte fait, 1972; as All Said and Done, translated by Patrick O’Brian, 1974
La Cérémonie des adieux, 1982; as Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, translated by Patrick O’Brian, 1984
Other writings: four novels (L’Invitée [She Came to Stay], 1943; Le Sang des autres [The Blood of Others], 1945; Tous les hommes sont mortels [All Men Are Mortal], 1946;
Les Mandarins [The Mandarins], 1954; Les Belles Images, 1966), short stories, two plays, biography, and memoirs.
Bennett, Joy, and Gabriella Hochmann, Simone de Beauvoir: An Annotated Bibliography
(criticism on Beauvoir), New York: Garland, 1988
Francis, Claude, and Fernande Gontier, Les Écrits de Simone de Beauvoir, Paris: Gallimard, 1979
Barnes, Hazel E., The Literature of Possibility, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1959
Marks, Elaine, editor, Critical Essays on Simone de Beauvoir, Boston: Hall, 1987
Oakley, Judith, Simone de Beauvoir, New York: Pantheon, 1986
Schwarzer, Alice, After The Second Sex: Conversations with Simone de Beauvoir, New York: Pantheon, 1984
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