The Mandarins

Author: Simone de Beauvoir
Title: The Mandarins
Publish Date: 1954
Genre: Philosophical Fiction
Page Length: 762 pages


The Mandarins, written by Simone de Beauvoir in 1954, is a philosophical fiction novel that delves into the lives of intellectuals after World War II. Set in post-war France, the book explores themes of existentialism, political turmoil, and the struggle for personal and collective identity.

Part I: Anne Detourna

The story begins with Anne Detourna, a successful writer, and her lover, Henri Perron. Anne is torn between her affection for Perron and her duty as a mother to her two children. As a prominent figure in the intellectual and political circles of Paris, Anne is confronted by the challenges of balancing her personal desires with her responsibilities.

Part II: Henri Perron

The focus then shifts to Henri Perron, Anne’s lover, a former resistance fighter during the war. Henri is deeply affected by the trauma he experienced and struggles with symptoms of PTSD. His relationship with Anne becomes strained as he battles his inner demons and searches for meaning in his life. Henri’s interactions with other characters, including Nadine and Boris, highlight the complexities of individual identity in post-war France.

Part III: Nadine Saccard

Nadine Saccard, a close friend of Anne and Henri, represents the disillusionment and struggle of post-war France. As a former member of the French Resistance, Nadine grapples with personal regrets and political uncertainties. Her affair with American writer Lewis Brogan offers her a brief moment of escape, but ultimately exposes the difficulties of maintaining genuine connections in a fragmented society.

Part IV: Lewis Brogan

Lewis Brogan, an American writer and friend of Anne, serves as an outsider’s perspective on the struggles of French intellectuals. He falls in love with Nadine, but their relationship becomes a casualty of cultural differences and political tensions. Lewis provides insights into the challenges faced by intellectuals trying to find their place in society during a time of great uncertainty and ideological conflict.

Part V: Boris Vildrac

Boris Vildrac, an enigmatic character and Anne’s former lover, represents the clash between personal desires and political commitments. Boris struggles with his role as a communist, torn between his love for Anne and his dedication to the party. His internal conflicts underscore the ethical dilemmas faced by intellectuals, raising questions about personal sacrifice and the role of ideology in shaping individual lives.

Part VI: Anne Barrault

In this section, the focus returns to Anne, now divorced from Henri Perron and married to Robert Barrault. Anne’s identity continues to evolve as she navigates her relationships with various characters, including a young journalist named Gisèle. Anne’s interactions with Gisèle, who brings fresh ideas and perspectives, symbolize the generational and ideological shifts taking place in post-war France.

Throughout The Mandarins, de Beauvoir explores themes of existentialism, feminism, and the search for self-identity, all against the backdrop of a society grappling with the aftermath of war and political uncertainty. The characters’ personal struggles mirror the broader tensions felt in post-war France, as intellectuals grapple with their responsibility to society and their own desires for individual fulfillment.

The novel also provides a vivid portrayal of the intellectual and political climate of the time, with references to real-life events and figures such as the Algerian War and Jean-Paul Sartre. It offers an in-depth exploration of existentialist philosophy, questioning the nature of personal freedom, authenticity, and the consequences of choice.

The Mandarins is a significant work not only for its literary merits but also for its historical and intellectual context. It sheds light on the challenges faced by intellectuals in post-war France and offers timeless reflections on the pursuit of personal values, political engagement, and the complexities of human relationships. As an influential contribution to existential literature, the novel continues to inspire critical analysis and debate surrounding the nature of personal and collective existence.