Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Simone de Beauvoir

jrizzo's picture

Jessica Rizzo

November 21, 2007

Critical Fem. Studies


                Any study of the written works of Simone de Beauvoir would yield the conclusion that the author of The Second Sex was perhaps the most significant leader, example, and emblem of the feminist cause in the twentieth century.  Though arguably the most controversial as well, her impact cannot be underestimated.  Despite the fact that her prolific output of fiction, drama, memoir, essays, social and political critique could keep any scholar busy indefinitely, hers was a life that was in itself too interesting to be exiled from the realm of an inquiry into her feminism.  It is often great fun to explore the biography of such a figure, to extricate which plotlines in novels or thought lines in essays were lifted from the author’s life (In de Beauvoir’s case, nearly all).  To nosily uncover the glamorous and the sordid details brings to life the fascinating presence that can otherwise hide behind an impenetrable wall of words.  In Simone de Beauvoir’s case, however, the life emerges, a text as worthy of study as the “work.” 

                De Beauvoir was not ignorant of this.  Although she was in her fifties before she deemed her lifelong self-scrutiny in its unadulterated form something worthy of the world’s gaze and began writing her memoirs, she had a particular approach to writing that drove her from her first attempt to write a book at the age of seven through her lifetime.  De Beauvoir wrote, be it fiction or non-fiction, in an attempt to understand herself.  She wrote novels to disentangle her complicated feelings regarding the various love triangles she partook of over the years.  She wrote A Very Easy Death to straighten out her reactions to her mother’s death.   By and large, The Second Sex was a ferocious effort to understand her status as a woman in the world.  It certainly started out that way.  De Beauvoir wrote that the project originated, “almost by chance.  Wanting to talk about myself, I became aware that to do so I should first have to describe the condition of woman in general.”  In one interview she said, “One day I wanted to explain myself to myself.  I began to reflect all about myself and it struck me with a sort of surprise that the first thing I had to say was ‘I am a woman.’” The desire for deeper self knowledge is hardly unique among writers’ inspirations, but Simone de Beauvoir’s case is of special interest for several reasons.  First, she was far more aware and honest about her endeavors than most writers.  Second, depending on the angle, her life looked either like the perfect illustration of the kind of existence her writings called for, or like a perfect contradiction.  Third, an examination of her life and work reveals that for her, “understanding herself” often meant analyzing the ways in which she was different, generally far ahead of the times, and looking back to investigate why the French, or womankind, or humanity had not yet caught up with her. 

                Many critics of The Second Sex criticize Simone de Beauvoir for assuming the huge responsibility for writing about women without being one.  That is, they assert that de Beauvoir did not live the life of an ordinary woman, and they are absolutely right.  Some further contend that this separation undermines her authority on the subject, while others believe that the distance was what allowed her to write with the necessary amount of objectivity.  The reactions of women worldwide who felt such personal resonance with the essay that they imagined de Beauvoir must have been listening at their bedroom doors seems to suggest that the latter opinion is the truer.  Still, the remarkable degree to which she could remain objective is something that is often questioned, but very difficult to fully understand.  Simone de Beauvoir grew up in the most ordinary of families.  Everyone around her took it for granted that the greatest success to which she could aspire was the acquisition of a suitable husband.  De Beauvoir, the devout little Catholic, who attended a girls’ lycée that mandated homemaking courses which instructed young women in the art of being “docile, placid, and agreeable at all times, “ grew up to be the atheistic, “high priestess of existentialism” who advocated free love, and denounced the “slavery of marriage.”  It is extraordinary to see how this woman was able to more or less ignore her traditional, sexist, bourgeois upbringing and become the radical figure she was.  De Beauvoir would be the first to emphasize that no individual exists in a vacuum, independent of the society and culture into which they are born, but if ever one did, at least with regard to personal development, it was de Beauvoir. 

                In Deirdre Bair’s biography, Simone’s childhood is described in detail.  She was the oldest of two daughters, a beautiful child, high-spirited, precocious, intelligent, and infinitely more interesting to her father, Georges, than the younger, less curious and nimble-minded Hélène.  There are few clues to the mystery of her rejection of the bonds of traditional femininity in her upbringing.  George knew that she was a terribly clever child, and when she was still young he was more than happy to supply her with books (censored first of course by Francine de Beauvoir, the morality police), and engage with her in serious conversation about ideas.  Still, this brief burst of encouragement, which died off when her father realized she had reached marriageable age, scarcely seems an adequate explanation for the radical presumption that caused de Beauvoir to throw herself into higher education and academic competition with men, let alone the lifestyle and work of her later years.  Simone was deeply wounded when her father abruptly severed their nurturing relationship, rejecting her for not morphing gracefully into a lovely, passive bride-to-be when it would have been most convenient for her to do so. 

                Her ambition, sneered at by those she loved most, and by society as a whole, seemed to drive her forward regardless.  Where it came from is a mystery.  Simone simply saw herself as one of the boys.  When she was still very young, family members deemed her, “the girl with the man’s brain.”  She was the center of attention in her family, dictating her wishes and making them come true with temper tantrums.  She flat out refused to help her mother and sister with housework, an outrageous demand that Georges always validated by explaining that the girl had to study.  By the time her father was no longer on her side, everyone had become accustomed to this fact of life, and no one would ever have dared asked Simone de Beauvoir to take out the garbage.  The seemingly spontaneously generated and wholly independent strength of her will explains why she would later feel such an affinity for Sartre’s Existentialism.  The existentialist philosophy charges individual human beings with the responsibility for creating the meaning and essence of their lives as persons, a burden many consider too heavy to bear.  De Beauvoir, long before she met Sartre was living the life of the perfect existentialist. 

                One thing which no doubt made it so difficult for her to accept some of the later difference feminists was that all of her self-worth was tied to her proficiency for achievement in the male sphere.  That was feminism for her, being able to participate in the same philosophical conversation, and at the same level as minds like Sartre.  She scarcely noticed what an extraordinary accomplishment it was for her, a woman, to study philosophy at the Sorbonne and become the youngest person ever to pass the agrégacion, a competitive civil service examination.  As a young adult, she was almost entirely disconnected from her identity as a woman, at least in the professional and academic circles that were the center of her life. 

                Simone de Beauvoir’s relationship  with Jean-Paul Sartre has long been the most troubling piece of her personal life for feminists who would otherwise have no qualms about accepting her as their unquestioned queen.  Simone met Sartre in 1929, and they began to work together when she was twenty-one and he was twenty-three.  Initially, their shared work consisted of helping one another study for the upcoming agrégacion, each attacking the other’s thesis with hypothetical questions so that they would be better prepared to defend themselves against a jury of examiners.  Sartre was immediately impressed by her intellect, in addition to finding her physically attractive, and had even gone out of his way to arrange an introduction through a mutual friend.  Simone described her initial impression, “I was intelligent, certainly, but Sartre was a genius.”  Both of them went on to pass the agrégacion with flying colors.  After what was reportedly an extremely difficult decision, the committee decided to award Sartre first place and Simone de Beauvoir second.  Here it was, in the very beginning, where the undeniable imbalance in their relationship began.  Simone did not need a collection of important philosophy professors to tell her that Sartre was more brilliant than she.  She subordinated herself from the start.  When the two of them began writing and publishing, regardless of whether Simone was working on an independent project, her first priority was always to read, edit, and comment on his original work.  Sartre would read look at her work if he had the time.  Assessments offered by agrégacion committee members provide some interesting information that may help explain the shape their relationship naturally took.  “If Sartre already showed great intelligence and a solid, if at times inexact, culture, everybody agreed that, of the two, she was the real philosopher,” recalled a M. Maurice de Gandillac who remembered de Beavoir as “rigorous, demanding, precise, very technical.”  From the start, he was the creative one, the original one, and she was the one with the sharper, clearer head for logical argument.  He did not have to espouse this, ask her to make critiquing his work a priority.  She had no illusions about how she measured up against his intellect, and she gave her time and energy to him and his writing freely. 

                This dynamic situated the couple perfectly for an evolution into the cultural icon they would later become.  Sartre published Being and Nothingness in 1943, and within the decade had earned himself the title, “Father of Existentialism.”  Simone de Beauvoir was known long afterwards, even to herself, as Sartre’s greatest disciple.  One article in The New Yorker dubbed her “The High Priestess of Existentialism,” but even when she was a high priestess, she was only a priestess serving the divine entity that was Sartre.  This arrangement has outraged feminists who would have found in de Beauvoir a less complicated, more perfect heroine and role model had she lived an entirely independent life, regarding herself as second to no one.

                Aside from Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir’s life more or less matched up with that of “The Independent Woman” she describes in the last section of The Second Sex, “Towards Liberation.”  She always lived off of her own income, earned by teaching philosophy, or from her writing.  She never allowed herself to be enslaved by that contemptible bourgeois institution that is marriage, opting rather for a succession of lovers with whom she could sever ties immediately if she so chose, some affairs lasting decades, others only a night.  She was well-versed in the ways of birth-control of the time and never had to see her life crippled by the acquisition of a child.    The trouble is, for Simone, there was no “aside from Sartre,” and she would be the first to fly into a rage if anyone tried to erase his enormous presence from her life.  The two of them seem at once to be perfectly lucid when discussing their highly unusual relationship, and completely deluded.  “What is unique between Simone de Beauvoir and me is the equality of our relationship,” Sartre once said.  All her life, Simone held dear to her the dream of the “writing couple,” the perfect contingent relationship, a working professional partnership, but also one of absolute intimacy and honesty.  In many respects, she and Sartre were actually able to achieve this.  Their relationship lasted fifty years, remaining the central focus of both of their lives long after the sexual passion had dissipated.  Only his death in 1980 was able to separate them, and even after he was gone, she devoted herself to the memory of her great love, writing Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, and publishing his letters. 

                Simone believed that she was Sartre’s intellectual inferior, and that his work was more important than hers, but this was not a conclusion she automatically drew because she was a woman.  In her mind, the only acceptable thing to do with one’s life was to devote oneself to the greatest work possible, and Sartre’s work was greater, more important than her own.  This is a very mature, very unselfish view, but one cannot help but wonder about the accuracy of her appraisal.  Certainly, if we today compare Sartre’s prolific output, with the comparatively few original works Simone de Beauvoir produced in her lifetime, Sartre wins the numbers game.  Still, he most definitely would not have been able to accomplish all he did without her help, and she most definitely would have been able to accomplish more had she not devoted most of her life to editing for him.  It is difficult to ignore the fact that professionally, they fell into the traditional male-dominant relationship, especially given other imbalances in their personal lives such as the number of outside lovers he had, compared to her, and how much he took in the relationship where she gave. 


Works Consulted:

Bair, Deirdre. Simone de Beauvoir. New York: Summit Books, 1990.Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. New York: Alfred Knopf Inc., 1952.Tong, Rosemarie. Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction. Boulder: Westview Press, 1998.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. New York: Washington Square Press, 1956


Anne Dalke's picture

performing the part yourself?

I agree with Barbara '57, jrizzo: your essay is a real pleasure to read: clear, organized, well-written.

So the question is (of course! existentially!): having done such a nice job so far--where to go from here? You've given a great account of the "text" that was deBeavoir's life, and of its relation to her writing; of her relation with Sartre, and the relation of that to her own work. And you've exposed some of the paradoxes and tensions in all those dynamics, as well as in how she is viewed by many feminists today.

My only real questions, so far, have to do with your description of the "mystery of her rejection of the bonds of traditional femininity" and the "mystery" of where her ambition came from. You describe her "spontaneously generated and wholly independent strength of will"; I wonder how unusual such choices were, for her time period. Are your claims based on presumptions that acceptance is the norm, and rejection its aberration? How random was the development of who deBeavoir became? How determined by her genes and circumstances? Where does rebellion come from, and independent thinking? What are its sources? Can it be taught?

And--most importantly--how now will you work from this account (based on a power of reading, by the way--thank you!) into a paper that makes a claim of your own, and develops an argument? Do you want to claim de Beauvoir for the feminist canon? As foremother of us all? Do you want to put her into conversation with someone like Woolf or Sartre? Do you want to write her into a play, and perform the part yourself?

Can't wait to find out!


gammyflink's picture

  Jessica,    It is a

  Jessica,    It is a joy to read your paper!  It is clear, organized, and well written.  The Second Sex was probably the only feminist book I read at Bryn Mawr.  In the 50's we didn't have courses about feminism nor did we really discuss it much.  I know that's hard for you to believe, and hard for me also based on who I am now.  I recall loving the book, literally breathing in a new world of "aha moments". 


It interests me when you say she saw herself "as one of the boys".  I was considered a tomboy and I have discovered that most feminists in my age cohort also carried this label.  Of course we wanted to be boys.  They were the ones who got to do all the good stuff!  I even insisted that my family call me Bobby instead of Barbara.


It disturbs me when feminists are so critical because  another feminist isn't all they want her to be.  It's important to recognize the time period and how different the world was then.  Because some of Simone's choices were influenced by patriarchy doesn't make her less of a feminist.  I do wish people weren't so judgmental.


I will look forward to reading your final project.  Best of luck!

   Barbara  '57