Last reviewed: June 2017
French philosopher and author
January 9, 1908
April 14, 1986
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
Simone de Beauvoir
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.