Simone de Beauvoir
January 9, 1908 – April 14, 1986
For most Americans who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s hearing the term, “the Beaver” hearkens back to nostalgic memories of childhood and the pop culture TV sitcom, Leave it to Beaver, with its message of good ol’ ‘merican family values. But during that same time period, a far more important ‘Beaver,’ was giving birth to French feminism and providing a more accessible interpretation of French existential philosophy. Working alongside other famous existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone De Beauvoir was also a proud atheist. She was known as ‘Castor,’ meaning “beaver” in French which became her lifelong nickname because of the resemblance of her surname to “beaver.”
Simone Lucie-Ernestine-Marie-Bertrand de Beauvoir. was born in Paris, France, on January 9, 1908 to Georges Bertrand de Beauvoir and Françoise, née Brasseur, the eldest of two daughters in what she characterized as a conventional family from the Parisian ‘bourgeoisie.’ In the first volume of her autobiography (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter) she depicted herself as a girl with a strong commitment to the patriarchal values of her family, religion, and country. She was a precocious and intellectually curious child from the beginning, which naturally fed her inclination to question the opposing influences of her parents: Her father, an atheistic (some say agnostic) artistically repressed man, had a taste for literature and theater and would have become an actor had it not been for family pressure to do something appropriate to their aristocratic sensibilities. So he took up law, but resented it. Despite his artistic passions he remained staunchly conservative and his aristocratic proclivities drew him to the extreme right. (His noble ties, incidentally, account for the ‘de’ in her name). Perhaps as part catharsis for his professional frustrations, as well as genuine fatherly love, he nourished his daughter’s intellectual zeal and development by providing her with carefully edited selections from the great works of literature.
In contrast, her somewhat awkward socially inexperienced mother was a devoutly Catholic woman determined to to raise her daughters according to her bourgeois religious principles. This became a source of serious conflict between her and her daughter. Many have said that it was these clashing views within and between her parents that provided the inspiration for Beauvoir’s intellectualism, rejection of collective values and lifelong philosophical inquiry.
Her father’s interest in her intellectual development carried through until her adolescence when her future professional career, (made a necessity by the loss of her dowry), became a symbol for him of his own failure. Aware that he was unable to provide a dowry for his daughters, George’s relationship with his intellectually astute eldest became conflicted by both pride and disappointment at her prospects. Beauvoir, on the other hand, always wanted to be a writer and a teacher, rather than a mother and a wife and pursued her studies with vigor.
The two formative peer-relationships of her childhood and adolescence were her sister Hélène (whom she called Poupette), and her friend Zaza. She was devoted to Poupette from the beginning, and they remained friends for life. It was through teaching and influencing Poupette that she first discovered and cultivated her taste for her profession as writer and teacher. It was the tragic life and death of Zaza that formed part of the subject matter for her first serious novel, which Beauvoir did not publish till much later in life. Zaza’s friendship and death haunted Beauvoir and she often spoke of the intense impact her friend had on her and her critique of the rigidity of bourgeois attitudes towards women.
Beauvoir, Atheism, and Religion
Beauvoir held a deep religious sensibility as young girl, largely due to her mother’s influence. But at the age of fourteen, she had a crisis of faith, which she described in the first volume of her autobiography. Her belief had been gradually eroding over time, (she was becoming more and more interested in nature), but one evening delivered the final blow. At Meyrignac, while reading the forbidden Balzac, she realized just how much she loved the world: she felt strongly that earthly joys were not to be given up (as her religion demanded) but instead, should be appreciated. She also believed that religion supplied many with reasons to evade truth. This way of thinking changed Simone de Beauvoir for life. From then on, she lived passionately and for the moment. In giving up religion, she had given up the idea of living for eternity. She also developed a deep sense of aloneness, without a ‘witness’ or a god to talk to.
In the words of the precocious fourteen-year old Simone de Beauvoir:
“I no longer believe in God,” I told myself, with no great surprise. That was proof: if I had believed in Him, I should not have allowed myself to offend Him so light-heartedly. I had always thought that the world was a small price to pay for eternity; but it was worth more than that, because I loved the world, and it was suddenly God whose price was small: from now on His name would have to be a cover for nothing more than a mirage. For a long time now the concept I had had of Him had been purified and refined, sublimated to the point where He no longer had any countenance divine, any concrete link with the earth or therefore any being. His perfection cancelled out His reality. That is why I felt so little surprise when I became aware of His absence in heaven and in my heart. I was not denying Him in order to rid myself of a troublesome person: on the contrary, I realized that He was playing no further part in my life and so I concluded that he had ceased to exist for me.”
At the same time, Simone de Beauvoir emphasized that her Catholic faith played a large part in shaping her vision of the world. Her social consciousness, the infinite worth of the individual, women as well as men for example, she attributes to her Catholic faith:
My Catholic upbringing had taught me never to look upon any individual, however lowly, as of no account: everyone had the right to bring to fulfillment what I called their eternal essence. My path was clearly marked: I had to perfect, enrich, and express myself in a work of art that would help others to live.
Her rejection of religion led to her decision to pursue and teach philosophy.
After passing the baccalauréat exams in mathematics and philosophy, she studied mathematics at the Institut Catholique and literature/languages at the Institut Sainte-Marie, then philosophy at the Sorbonne. In 1929, while at the Sorbonne, Beauvoir gave a presentation on Leibniz and was thereafter pursued by Jean-Paul Sartre. It is a common misconception that Beauvoir studied at the Ecole Normale. She was, however, well acquainted with the school and its curriculum, thanks to Sartre and others within their philosophic circle.
In 1929, Beauvoir also became the youngest person ever to obtain the agrégation in philosophy. Sartre was first that year, but she was a close second. Sartre had failed the exam the previous year, much to the surprise of his colleagues.
She Came to Stay and The Mandarins
In 1943, Beauvoir published She Came to Stay, a fictionalized chronicle of her and Sartre’s relationship with Olga Kosakiewicz and Wanda Kosakiewicz. Olga was one of her students in the Rouen secondary school where she taught during the early 30s. She grew fond of Olga. Sartre tried to pursue Olga but she denied him; he began a relationship with her sister Wanda instead. Sartre supported Olga for years till she met and married her husband, Beauvoir’s lover Jacques-Laurent Bost. At Sartre’s death, he still supported Wanda. In the novel, Olga and Wanda are made into one character with whom fictionalized versions of Beauvoir and Sartre have a ménage &#agrave;? trois. The novel also delves into Beauvoir and Sartre’s complex relationship and how it was affected by the ménage &#agrave;? trois.
Beauvoir’s novel She Came to Stay was followed by many others, including The Mandarins, which won her the prestigious Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary prize. The Mandarins is set just after the end of World War II, whereas The Second Sex is set just before the dawn of that war. The Mandarins depicted Sartre, Nelson Algren, and many philosophers in Sartre and Beauvoir’s intimate circle.
In 1944 Beauvoir wrote Pyrrhus et Cinéas, a discussion of an existential ethics, which inspired her to write more on the subject. This book, Pour Une Morale de L’ambiguïté (The Ethics of Ambiguity, 1947) is perhaps the most accessible point of entry into French existentialism. Its simplicity keeps it understandable, in contrast to the obtuse nature of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. The ambiguity about which Beauvoir writes clears up some inconsistencies that many, Sartre included, have found in major existential works such as Being and Nothingness.
Sexuality, Existential Feminism, and The Second Sex was originally published as a two-volume book in France. These works were very quickly published in America as The Second Sex due to the quick translation by Howard Parshley, as prompted by Blanche Knopf, wife of publisher Alfred A. Knopf.
In her own way, Beauvoir anticipated the sexually charged feminism of Erica Jong and Germaine Greer. Algren, no paragon of primness himself, was outraged by the frank way Beauvoir later described her American sexual experiences in The Mandarins (dedicated to Algren and on whose character Lewis Brogan is based) and in her autobiographies, venting his outrage when reviewing American translations of her work. Much bearing on this episode in Beauvoir’s life, including her love letters to Algren, entered the public domain only after her death.
In the essay Woman: Myth and Reality, Beauvoir argued that men had made women the “Other” in society by putting a false aura of “mystery” around them. And she argued that men used this as an excuse not to understand women or their problems and not to help them and to subjugate them. She argued that this stereotyping was always done in societies by the group higher in the hierarchy to the group lower in the hierarchy so that the lower group became the “other” and had a false aura of mystery around it. And she said that this also happened with other things such as race, class, and religion. But she said that it was nowhere more true than with sex in which men stereotyped women and used it as an excuse to organize society into a patriarchy.
Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, published in French in 1949, sets out a feminist existentialism which prescribes a moral revolution. As an existentialist, Beauvoir accepts the precept that existence precedes essence; hence one is not born a woman, but becomes one. Her analysis focuses on the concept of The Other. It is the (social) construction of Woman as the quintessential Other that Beauvoir identifies as fundamental to women’s oppression.
Beauvoir argues that women have historically been considered deviant, abnormal. She submits that even Mary Wollstonecraft considered men to be the ideal toward which women should aspire. Beauvoir says that this attitude has limited women’s success by maintaining the perception that they are a deviation from the normal, and are outsiders attempting to emulate “normality”. For feminism to move forward, this assumption must be set aside.
Beauvoir asserted that women are as capable of choice as men, and thus can choose to elevate themselves, moving beyond the ‘immanence’ to which they were previously resigned and reaching ‘transcendence’, a position in which one takes responsibility for oneself and the world, where one chooses one’s freedom.
A critical essay, “Le Malentendu du Deuxième Sexe,” was written by Suzanne Lilar in 1969.
Les Temps Modernes
At the end of World War II, Beauvoir and Sartre edited Les Temps Modernes, a political journal Sartre founded along with Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others. Beauvoir used Les Temps Modernes to promote her own work and explore her ideas on a small scale before fashioning essays and books. Beauvoir remained an editor until her death.
Beauvoir wrote popular travel diaries about her travels in the United States and China, and published essays and fiction rigorously, especially throughout the 1950s and 1960s. She published several volumes of short stories, including The Woman Destroyed, which, like some of her other later work, deals with aging.
In 1979 she published When Things of the Spirit Come First, a set of short stories centered around and based upon important women to her earlier years. The stories were written well before the novel She Came to Stay, but Beauvoir did not think they were worthy of publication until about forty years later.
Sartre and Merleau-Ponty had a longstanding feud, which led Merleau-Ponty to no longer work with Les Temps Modernes. Beauvoir sided with Sartre and ceased to associate with Merleau-Ponty. In Beauvoir’s later years, she hosted the journal’s editorial meetings in her flat and contributed more than Sartre, who she often had to force to offer his opinions.
Beauvoir also notably wrote a five-volume autobiography, consisting of: Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter; The Prime of Life; After the War; Hard Times; and All Said and Done. After the War and Hard Times are two parts of a volume called The Force of Circumstance; these two parts are typically published separately.
In the 1970s Beauvoir became active in France’s women’s liberation movement. She signed the Manifesto of the 343 in 1971, a list of famous women who claimed, mostly falsely, to have had an abortion. Beauvoir had not actually had an abortion. Signers were diverse as Catherine Deneuve, Delphine Seyrig, and Beauvoir’s sister Poupette. In 1974, abortion was legalized in France.
Her 1970 novel The Coming of Age is a very rare instance of an intellectual meditation on the decline and solitude all humans experience if they do not die before about age 60. In 1981 she wrote La Cérémonie Des Adieux (A Farewell to Sartre), a painful account of Sartre’s last years. In the opening of Adieux, Beauvoir notes that it is the only major published work of hers Sartre did not read before its publication. She and Sartre always read one another’s work.
After Sartre died, Beauvoir published his letters to her with edits to spare the feelings of some people in their circle who were still living. After Beauvoir’s death, Sartre’s adopted daughter and literary heir Arlette Elkaïm would not let many of Sartre’s letters be published in unedited form. Most of Sartre’s letters available today have Beauvoir’s edits, which include a few omissions but mostly the use of pseudonyms. Beauvoir’s adopted daughter and literary heir Sylvie Le Bon, quite unlike Elkaïm, published Beauvoir’s unedited letters to both Sartre and Algren.
Death and afterwards
Beauvoir died April 14, 1986, of pneumonia. She is buried next to Sartre at the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris. Since her death, her reputation has grown, not only because she is seen as the mother of post-1968 feminism, especially in academia, but also because of a growing awareness of her as a major French thinker, existentialist philosopher and otherwise.
There is much contemporary discussion about the influences of Beauvoir and Sartre on one another. She is seen as having influenced Sartre’s masterpiece, Being and Nothingness, while also having written much on philosophy that is independent of Sartrean existentialism. Some scholars have explored the influences of her earlier philosophical essays and treatises upon Sartre’s later thought. She is studied by many respected academics both within and outside of philosophy circles, including Margaret A. Simmons and Sally Scholtz. Beauvoir’s life has also inspired numerous biographies.
In 2006, the architect Dietmar Feichtinger designed a sophisticated footbridge across the Seine, which was named after Beauvoir. The bridge features feminine curves and leads to the new Bibliothèque nationale de France.
- She Came to Stay, (1943)
- Pyrrhus et Cinéas, (1944)
- The Blood of Others, (1945)
- Who Shall Die?, (1945)
- All Men are Mortal, (1946)
- The Ethics of Ambiguity, (1947)
- The Second Sex, (1949)
- America Day by Day, (1954)
- The Mandarins, (1954)
- Must We Burn Sade?, (1955)
- The Long March, (1957)
- Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, (1958)
- The Prime of Life, (1960)
- A Very Easy Death, (1964)
- Les Belles Images, (1966)
- The Woman Destroyed, (1967)
- The Coming of Age, (1970)
- All Said and Done, (1972)
- When Things of the Spirit Come First, (1979)
- Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, (1981)
- Letters to Sartre, (1990)
- A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelson Algren, (1998)
*Portions of article from Wikipedia