Authors: Simone de Beauvoir

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

French philosopher and author

January 9, 1908

Paris, France

April 14, 1986

Paris, France

Biography

Simone de Beauvoir (boh-vwahr) was one of the most provocative and controversial women of the twentieth century. Her father, a lawyer and amateur actor, was extremely skeptical toward religion, but her mother, who submitted to her husband in most matters, proved to be dictatorial in her relationships with her two daughters and was zealously religious; it was she who insisted that her children receive a strict Catholic upbringing.

The most striking characteristic of de Beauvoir’s life and work is a quest for freedom. Her childhood and adolescence, as seen in the memoirs, constantly reflect her attempts to break out of the narrow social constraints of her middle-class environment. Following a rather restrictive parochial education, de Beauvoir completed her baccalauréat in mathematics and philosophy and then continued her studies at the Institut Sainte-Marie, the Institut Catholique, and the Sorbonne. Although her decision to become a teacher caused considerable friction in her family, de Beauvoir began her postgraduate studies at the École Normale Supérieure and the Sorbonne. In 1929, she met Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom she formed a fruitful relationship that spanned the next fifty-one years and ended only with Sartre’s death in 1980. She passed her agrégation in philosophy in 1929, ranking second only to Sartre (who was taking the test for the second time). At the age of twenty-one, she was the youngest to have passed this examination in France.

Simone de Beauvoir

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Although de Beauvoir’s first completed work was repeatedly rejected by publishers, her novel She Came to Stay was an immediate success when it appeared in 1943. She made an unsuccessful attempt to write for the theater with Les Bouches inutiles (useless mouths), then returned to fiction with The Blood of Others in 1945, followed in 1946 by the much less popular All Men Are Mortal. Her next major work, The Second Sex, which appeared in 1949, catapulted her into both fame and notoriety. Although she did not declare her solidarity with the feminist movement until 1972, The Second Sex firmly established de Beauvoir as a model and inspiration for women in all parts of the world. The Mandarins, which proved de Beauvoir’s most successful novel, was published in 1954. Building on the theoretical foundation provided by The Second Sex, she began writing her memoirs in an attempt to give literary expression to her experience as a woman. The first volume, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, came out in 1958, followed by The Prime of Life in 1960, Force of Circumstance in 1963, and All Said and Done in 1972. De Beauvoir’s last major social critique, The Coming of Age, a study of old age that in many ways parallels the structure of The Second Sex, was published in 1970.

Underlying all de Beauvoir’s works is the powerful concept of existential freedom and personal choice, a principle illustrated with particular force in the first two volumes of the memoirs, in which de Beauvoir describes her struggles to find herself as an individual and to establish her own life. In a similar way, Jean Blomart in The Blood of Others agonizes over his political involvement and the effect it has on those around him. The existential undertones of the works penetrate the highly complex personalities of the characters themselves, as for example Chantal’s self-deception and bad faith in When Things of the Spirit Come First. The same inauthenticity extends to the characters in Les Belles Images who refuse to see the misery in the world that surrounds them.

A second major theme in de Beauvoir’s work is women—women’s place in the world and the complex of relationships between women and men. De Beauvoir’s memoirs were written specifically to illustrate her experience as a woman, while The Second Sex was one of the first attempts by a woman to evaluate the female situation systematically and critically. In addition, de Beauvoir’s fiction illustrates well both the fulfillment that can be gained in a relationship and the oppression and deception that can result from inauthentic relationships.

The third theme inherent in de Beauvoir’s writing concerns intellectuals and their place in society and politics. The memoirs illustrate de Beauvoir’s own development from a passive and isolated individual to one who is socially and politically engaged. Particularly after World War II, she boldly and openly wrote against injustice, whether it was the oppression of women, the mistreatment of the aged, or the torture of Algerian nationals during their struggle for independence from France. An awareness of social conditions and an implicit challenge to personal engagement speak from the pages of her fictional works, both in the debate of actual political and moral questions in works such as The Mandarins and The Blood of Others and in the denunciation of social deceit in Les Belles Images. The extended description of nations and cultures in de Beauvoir’s memoirs and travel sketches also do much to illustrate the social problems of the world, from racism and intellectual defeatism in the United States to poverty and disease in South America.

Simone de Beauvoir’s position in the literary and intellectual world of the twentieth century is above all that of a woman who speaks not only for women but also for others who have been deprived of their dignity. De Beauvoir’s life and her authorship remain a provocation to her readers, for she battled illusion and self-deception and in her work challenges each individual to be honest and to live authentically.

Author Works Long Fiction: L’Invitée, 1943 (She Came to Stay, 1949) Le Sang des autres, 1945 (The Blood of Others, 1948) Tous les hommes sont mortels, 1946 (All Men Are Mortal, 1955) Les Mandarins, 1954 (The Mandarins, 1956) Les Belles Images, 1966 (English translation, 1968) Short Fiction: La Femme rompue, 1967 (The Woman Destroyed, 1968) Quand prime le spirituel, 1979 (When Things of the Spirit Come First: Five Early Tales, 1982) Drama: Les Bouches inutiles, pb. 1945 (Who Shall Die?, 1983) Nonfiction: Pyrrhus et Cinéas, 1944 Pour une morale de l’ambiguïté, 1947 (The Ethics of Ambiguity, 1948) L’Amérique au jour le jour, 1948 (travel sketch; America Day by Day, 1953) L’Existentialisme et la sagesse des nations, 1948 Le Deuxième Sexe, 1949 (The Second Sex, 1953) Privilèges, 1955 (partial translation “Must We Burn Sade?,” 1953) La Longue Marche, 1957 (travel sketch; The Long March, 1958) Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée, 1958 (4 volumes; Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, 1959) La Force de l’âge, 1960 (memoir; The Prime of Life, 1962) Djamila Boupacha, 1962 (with Gisèle Halimi; Djamila Boupacha, the Story of the Torture of a Young Algerian Girl Which Shocked Liberal French Opinion, 1962) La Force des choses, 1963 (memoir; Force of Circumstance, 1964) Une Mort très douce, 1964 (A Very Easy Death, 1966) La Vieillesse, 1970 (The Coming of Age, 1972) Tout compte fait, 1972 (memoir; All Said and Done, 1974) Simone de Beauvoir; ou, Le souci de différence, 1972 (Chantal Moubachir, editor) La Cérémonie des adieux, 1981 (Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, 1984) Lettres à Sartre, 1990 (2 volumes; Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, editor; Letters to Sartre, 1992) Lettres à Nelson Algren: Un amour transatlantique, 1947-1964, 1997 (Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, editor; A Transatlantic Love Affair, 1998) Correspondance croisée: 1937–1940, (with Jacques Laurent Bost), 2004 Diary of a Philosophy Student, 2006– (Barbara Klaw, et al., editors) Cahiers de jeunesse: 1926–1930, 2008 (Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, editor) Wartime Diary, 2012 (Anne Deing Cordero, translator; Margaret A. Simons and Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, editors) Edited Text: Lettres au Castor et à quelques autres, 1983 (2 volumes; volume 1, Witness to My Life: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1926–1939, 1992; volume 2, Quiet Moments in a War: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1940–1963, 1993) Bibliography Appignansei, Lisa. Simone de Beauvoir. London: Penguin Books, 1988. Provides a significant appraisal of de Beauvoir’s concept of the independent woman. Aptly explicates de Beauvoir’s existentialist ethics and her suppositions of woman’s subjectivity. Bair, Deirdre. Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography. New York: Summit Books, 1990. This work, which some critics have termed the definitive study of de Beauvoir, covers her philosophical life and her inquiry into the nature of woman. It also focuses on her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre. Berghoffen, Debra B. The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Gendered Phenomenologies, Erotic Generosities. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Berghoffen takes note of de Beauvoir’s differences from Jean-Paul Sartre and details the philosophical eroticism in The Second Sex and other books as well as de Beauvoir’s ethics of the erotic. Bieber, Konrad. Simone de Beauvoir. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Contains only one chapter on the fiction; the rest of the book pertains to de Beauvoir’s essays, memoirs, and other autobiographical writing. Includes a chronology and an annotated bibliography. Brown, Catherine Savage. Simone de Beauvoir Revisited. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991. Contains chapters on de Beauvoir’s life, on her role as a woman writer, and on her early fiction and drama, later fiction, philosophical and political studies, and memoirs. Aims to present a focused study and criticizes the emphasis on anecdotal reports and biography in other works on de Beauvoir. Card, Claudia, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Collection of essays focuses on de Beauvior’s philosophy, including an analysis of the philosophy in her fiction. Includes a chronology, introductory overview, bibliography, and index. Evans, Mary. Simone de Beauvoir: A Feminist Mandarin. New York: Tavistock, 1985. Although devoted mainly to nonfiction, this study does explore the autobiographical roots of de Beauvoir’s novels. Fallaize, Elizabeth. The Novels of Simone de Beauvoir. New York: Routledge, 1988. Contains separate chapters on She Came to Stay, The Blood of Others, All Men Are Mortal, The Mandarins, and Les Belles Images. Includes an introduction, biographical notes, and a bibliography. Francis, Claude, and Fernande Gontier. Simone de Beauvoir: A Life, a Love Story. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. A lively, well-documented biography for general readers. Fulbrook, Kate, and Edward Fulbrook. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre: The Remaking of a Twentieth-Century Legend. New York: Basic Books, 1994. This work revises previous interpretations of the relationship, relying on new documents (letters and memoirs) that show how the two fashioned their legend. Marso, Lori Jo, and Patricia Moynagh. Simone de Beauvoir’s Political Thinking. Illinois, 2006. The first collection of essays devoted to the political views of Beauvoir. Moi, Toril. Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997. Two chapters in this study are of particular interest regarding de Beauvoir’s fiction. Chapter 3 recounts the hostile reception of de Beauvoir’s work by those in France and elsewhere who did not believe that de Beauvoir, as a woman, had the intellectual strength and integrity of male philosophers, and chapter 4 examines She Came to Stay. Rowley, Hazel. Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Chronicles the relationship between de Beauvoir and Sartre, offering insights into their commitment to each other, their writing, their politics, and their philosophical legacy. Sandford, Stella. How to Read Beauvoir. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007. Provides an introductory overview to de Beauvior’s philosophy. Cites excerpts from de Beauvoir’s books to explain her examination of identity, gender, sexuality, old age, and other topics. Simons, Margaret A., ed. Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995. Collection contains essays on The Second Sex, de Beauvoir’s relationship with Sartre, The Mandarins, and the author’s views on the Algerian war. Includes bibliography and index. Whitmarsh, Anne. Simone de Beauvoir and the Limits of Commitment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981. Contains succinct discussions of de Beauvoir’s long fiction, including a section summarizing her fictional works. Biographical notes and bibliography add to this volume’s usefulness.

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