Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)

Teacher, philosopher, political activist, and writer; autobiographer, essayist, journalist, novelist, and playwright; atheist, existentialist, and feminist, Simone de Beauvoir is one of the best-known French writers and thinkers of the twentieth century. The number of languages into which many of her books have been translated and the attention she received in the media during the last fifteen years of her life suggest that she may be the best-known woman writer of all times.


She was born in Paris in 1908 into an upper-middle-class but impoverished family whose religious and social values she rejected at an early age. Her father, Georges Bertrand de Beauvoir, a lawyer from a respectable, upper-middle-class family, had little personal ambition and preferred to spend his time and limited resources pursuing the pleasures of the age, especially amateur theatricals and the racetrack. Her mother, Françoise Brasseur de Beauvoir, came from a hardworking family that had been prosperous until the family bank failed in 1909. There was considerable conflict in the Beauvoir marriage, which the straitened circumstances only increased. Yet Beauvoir's childhood, as she described it retrospectively in Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée (1958; translated as Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter , 1959), was a happy one. In spite of the personal and ideological tensions between her parents, Beauvoir and her younger sister, Hélène de Beauvoir, called Poupette, who became a painter, developed a passion for living and an insatiable curiosity about the world. Beauvoir attributed her becoming an intellectual to the discrepancy between her mother's piety and her father's disbelief coupled with his admiration for certain French writers.

Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée traces her development from an adored baby in love with her mother to a child who began at an early age to rebel against the order imposed by her mother, particularly in religious matters. In this work, one follows Beauvoir as she becomes an avid reader of fiction, a devotee of Louisa May Alcott and George Eliot, and a precocious writer. She wrote her first story, "Les Malheurs de Marguerite" (The Misfortunes of Marguerite), at the age of eight. It was a patriotic story about a young and heroic Alsatian orphan who attempted to cross over into France with her brothers and sisters.

Beauvoir portrays herself as a dutiful daughter and a brilliant student, first at the Catholic Cours Désir, then at the Sorbonne. At the age of nine she met Elisabeth Mabille (Zaza), who was to inspire the first significant passion of her life outside the family circle. Their friendship lasted until Zaza's death in 1929. Her death was due perhaps to meningitis but occurred after she had fallen in love with a fellow student and realized that her parents would never approve of her marriage to him or to anyone else whom they had not selected. She died, according to Beauvoir's interpretation, a victim of Monsieur and Madame Mabille's Catholic prejudices and their convictions about appropriate behavior for young Catholic women from good families. This death, the first of many that Beauvoir was to report on both clinically and dramatically, seems to have reinforced her sense of writing as a mission, the obligation to communicate with her readers by revealing the discrepancies between ideological constructs and the ambiguities of human existence. It also seems to have reinforced her hostile attitude toward the bourgeoisie and toward marriage and motherhood as institutions.

This same year, 1929, she met Jean-Paul Sartre, a student at the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure, who was preparing, as she was, for the agrégation de philosophie. They studied for the examination together and also spent considerable time with a group of friends, all witty and brilliant; it was this group who gave her her nick-name Castor (French for beaver). Sartre and she remained intimate friends and intellectual companions from that initial collaboration until his death in 1980. They were lovers but not monogamous by any means. Once, she said, they briefly considered marriage--when there was some possibility that Sartre would go to Japan in the 1930s. But when that eventuality did not materialize and she realized that they did not want to have children, they resolved to maintain their free union, which would not exclude what they called "contingent" loves, some of which became important in their lives.

Having successfully passed the examination, placing second (to Sartre's first place), Beauvoir taught philosophy in French lycées at Marseilles, Rouen, and Paris from 1931 to 1943. In the 1930s her life was essentially that of a provincial professor with intellectual leanings, a wide circle of friends and acquaintances (some of them writers) and a somewhat bohemian life-style. She and Sartre were antiestablishment and prosocialist but played no political roles until after World War II. It was then that she became one of the outspoken atheistic, left-wing intellectuals who exerted a strong influence on the beliefs and opinions of readers both in France and abroad.

When Sartre was called for military service in September 1939 after war was declared, Beauvoir and he were separated for weeks on end for the first time since they had met. His voluminous correspondence, Lettres au Castor et à quelques autres (Letters to Castor and a Few Others, 1983), which dates chiefly from the early war years, is a record of her life as well as his because he discusses with her in detail what she writes about her life in Paris. Against the regulations she managed to visit him at his post in eastern France. The separation was prolonged during the months, beginning in June 1940, that Sartre spent as a prisoner of war. When he returned in 1941, they resumed their life together as intellectuals in Paris. They were, however, determined to become more involved in public life, especially politically. Both abandoned their teaching to devote themselves to writing and often to political activism.

Beauvoir's biography from that time on is the story of her writing, her contacts with other writers and people from the theater and the graphic arts, and her personal relationships. Her devotion to Sartre and sense of their common intellectual life did not waver. However, both had important love affairs with others. During a trip to the United States in 1947 she fell in love with the writer Nelson Algren. Their liaison proved difficult, doubtless partly because of the distance that separated them most of the time. After several transatlantic visits it ended in 1950. Some two years later she began a relationship with the writer and filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, many years her junior; it lasted during most of the 1950s. Neither of these liaisons seems to have threatened Sartre, although Beauvoir had been apprehensive when Sartre's affair with an American resident seemed to be assuming a great deal of importance for him, and she probably suffered also from his attachment to other women, including Olga Kosakievicz, with whom she and Sartre had formed a "trio" in the late 1930s, and Arlette Elkaïm, his last such companion. Throughout their decades together, Sartre and Beauvoir engaged in common causes, such as protests against the war in Algeria, and supported each other's undertakings. They also traveled widely together. She was one of those who furnished companionship to him in his last years and helped take care of him. Their dialogue is recorded partially in La Cérémonie des adieux, suivi de Entretiens avec Jean-Paul Sartre (1981; translated as Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre , 1984), which consists of her account of his last months and lengthy recorded conversations between them.

To observe that Beauvoir's philosophical and aesthetic ideas as well as her literary production parallel those of Sartre and owe a great deal to them is not to deprecate her, for they developed their thought together to a considerable extent. It would be impossible to understand her fiction, drama, and other writings without reference to such basic concepts of Sartrean existentialism as freedom, commitment, bad faith, and the role of the Other, some of which appear in her own philosophical work, Pour une morale de l'ambiguïté (1947; translated as The Ethics of Ambiguity , 1948). Although she less frequently uses a technical philosophical vocabulary, Beauvoir agrees with Sartre that human beings are free, without a God to give meaning or purpose to their lives, and in a world without preordained values. This freedom leads to anguish, because human beings must rely wholly on themselves and are thus responsible for everything that happens to them, including their own failures; circumstances and situations are givens, but the individual is entirely responsible for dealing with them and making something of the freedom they possess to act within them. To work toward the creation of values, especially those that enhance freedom in political and social terms, is to commit oneself to an authentic human enterprise. To deny freedom, to fall back on historical or ethical or religious givens or to blame the circumstances is to act in bad faith.

The existence of other human beings, or what in existentialist terminology is called the Other, poses a special problem, since the freedom of others seems to pose limits to one's own. This dilemma is central to Beauvoir's writing. The reaction to the Other is often sadistic--the desire to harm or remove this rival, both a threat and a mirror for the self. Or it can be masochistic--the assumption of inferiority in front of the Other. Such reactions are inauthentic and are a variety of bad faith. A genuinely free human relationship, as Sartre and Beauvoir were to understand it later, especially as he expounded it in his Critique de la raison dialectique (1960; partially translated as Critique of Dialectical Reason, 1961), would not be a subject-object or masterslave relationship but a true community achieved through common action in view of a common goal in the world.

The details and the main events of Beauvoir's life, as she selected and interpreted them, are recorded in her four lengthy volumes of memoirs: Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée was followed in 1960 by La Force de l'âge (translated as The Prime of Life , 1962), in 1963 by La Force des choses (translated as Force of Circumstance , 1965), and in 1972 by Tout compte fait (translated as All Said and Done , 1974). These volumes are invaluable documents for following the development of her career as a writer: why and when she began to work on her novels and nonfictional texts; the importance of her diary and of her conversations with Sartre; what she was reading at different periods in her life; the impact of the sociopolitical scene on her writing; the relationship among her love affairs, her friendships, and her productivity; an account of how her published books were received by the critics and by the general public. Although some schools of critical thought that have denounced the intentional fallacy would hold that statements of intention such as those Beauvoir makes concerning her writing are beside the point or invalid, her own aesthetics, which emphasizes a literature of ideas if not the roman à thèse, holds that fiction is shaped by the writer's purpose and related to that purpose; one cannot ignore, therefore, what she indicates about the genesis and her own understanding of her works.

Since 1973, when Beauvoir publicly declared herself to be a feminist and joined feminist groups in Paris, lending her name to journals, organizations, public meetings, and petitions, her novels have tended to receive less critical attention than her nonfiction. Le Deuxième Sexe (1949; translated as The Second Sex , 1953), La Vieillesse (1970; translated as Old Age , 1970), and her book on the death of her mother, Une Mort très douce (1964; translated as A Very Easy Death , 1966), along with her memoirs, became the focus of scholarly and public attention. The emphasis was on Beauvoir's pronouncements about women and the elderly and how these pronouncements corresponded to the ways in which she lived her life: her relationship with Sartre; her decision not to marry or to have children; her attitudes toward homosexuality and lesbianism; her attitudes toward psychoanalysis and poststructuralism. An interest in Beauvoir as a feminist thinker and writer seems to have obliterated any concern for Beauvoir as an existentialist thinker who wrote novels. If the novels were examined, it was with the avowed purpose of analyzing the ways in which female characters were represented. It is also true that since the late 1960s the traditional novel, with its claims to present the human world through characters and story, has fallen into disrepute within the ruling intellectual communities in Paris. The lack of interest in Beauvoir's novels is, thus, doubly, a sign of the times.

But Beauvoir is, first and foremost, a novelist. The case could be made that the memoirs and the texts on the death of her mother and the death of Sartre are novels. At the very least they are narratives in which the autobiographical and the fictional are constantly intertwined. In a similar vein all her novels and short stories contain autobiographical elements. Beauvoir's narratives subvert boundaries and make the distinction between the case history and the invented story clearly ambiguous.

In the essay "Littérature et métaphysique" (Literature and Metaphysics), published in Les Temps Modernes in April 1946 and included in the volume L'Existentialisme et la sagesse des nations (Existentialism and Ordinary Wisdom, 1948), Beauvoir makes explicit the importance of the novel as a privileged form that allows the writer "d'évoquer dans sa vérité complète, singulière, temporelle, le jaillissement originel de l'existence" (to evoke in its complete, unique, and temporal truth, the original bursting forth of existence). For Beauvoir the novel has the power of making metaphysical experiences concrete, of allowing the reader to communicate with a subjectivity in a manner that no other literary genre can provide. Nineteen years after "Littérature et métaphysique," in her contribution to the volume Que peut la littérature? (What Can Literature Do?, 1965), she again makes explicit her conception of literature. She insists on the notion that literature is an activity undertaken by human beings for human beings with the goal of unveiling the world for them. But in order for this unveiling to take place, there must be identification between the reader and the writer. The reader must enter into a world that becomes his or her own. The ultimate mission of the literary work is "nous rendre transparents les uns aux autres dans ce qu'elle a de plus opaque" (to make us transparent to each other through what is most opaque in the literary work). What has not changed in the period that separates the two texts is that for Beauvoir literature, and particularly the novel, is a unique means of communication with transforming powers; the novel produces effects. Language for Beauvoir has an important referential dimension. It is not a closed system referring only to itself. Nor is it primarily symptomatic of the unconscious. It does not create barriers; it removes them.

Between her first novel, L'Invitée (1943; translated as She Came to Stay, 1949), and the novella collection La Femme rompue. L'Age de discrétion. Monologue (1968; translated as The Woman Destroyed, 1969), Beauvoir's fictional writing comprises four novels: Le Sang des autres (1945; translated as The Blood of Others, 1948), Tous les hommes sont mortels (1946; translated as All Men Are Mortal, 1956), Les Mandarins (1954; translated as The Mandarins, 1956), and Les Belles Images (1966; translated as Les Belles Images , 1968). The fiction illustrates in concrete terms the major themes of her philosophical essays. But whereas the essays tend to have a positive, authoritarian tone, the fiction is suffused with ambiguity. Whereas the themes of commitment and solidarity seem to emerge triumphant in the essays, in the fiction anguish at the absurdity of the mortal predicament of human beings seems to dominate.

Written between 1943 and 1968 Beauvoir's major fiction presents a detailed tableau of a Parisian artistic and intellectual milieu before, during, and after World War II. The situations in which the characters find themselves are historically recognizable, and the problems raised by these situations are the very problems passionately discussed by French intellectuals of the period. Each of Beauvoir's fictional works focuses on relationships between characters who are obliged to make weighty decisions that involve themselves and others: questions of life and death, of psychic pain and loss, of the continuity or the decline of a human community.

L'Invitée was published during the war. This work, whose original title was "Légitime Défense," was begun in the fall of 1937 and completed during the summer of 1941. In La Force de l'âge Beauvoir describes her struggles with the craft of fiction, her inability to find a subject that she could successfully treat. La Force de l'âge also provides the autobiographical elements that gave rise to her desire to write this particular novel: the triangular relationship in which she, Sartre, and Olga were involved. She discusses the difficulties of shaping autobiographical material, the influence of John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway on her choice of novelistic techniques, and the criticism she received from Sartre, who was always her first reader, as she was his.

L'Invitée is, on one level, the story of an impossible ménage à trois that ends with one of the characters, Françoise, killing another character, the other, younger woman, Xavière. More important, it is a relentless description of how the familiar becomes strange, how the appearances of an ordered universe are brutally unmasked. The epigraph from Hegel, "Chaque conscience poursuit la mort de l'autre" (Each consciousness pursues the death of the other), underlines the fundamental impossibility of reciprocity in human relationships. In this novel the statement made in the epigraph is carried out in the plot.

The setting for L'Invitée is Paris in 1938-1939. Pierre Labrousse, an actor and director, and Françoise Miquel, a writer, have been lovers and coworkers for ten years. They pride themselves on having created a perfect love. They are not married, and the question of marriage is never raised between them. The social problems that agitate bourgeois society have little meaning in the milieu in which Françoise and Pierre live. The problems that they face are metaphysical rather than social in nature.

In the first part of L'Invitée the presence of Xavière, whom Françoise and Pierre have invited to come to Paris, begins to undermine the structure and the quality of their lives. Françoise becomes jealous of Xavière, and Pierre begins to question his work and his life. Xavière has the power to make people uneasy. She does not work, and she scorns any form of routine. The closer Pierre moves toward Xavière, the more morbid Françoise becomes. Finally, she falls ill and enters the hospital. During her illness Françoise becomes the stranger, the other.

The second part of the novel opens with Françoise's release from the hospital, the establishment of the trio, and the pressing menace of war. Slowly, but surely, Xavière begins to destroy everything that surrounds her. Her hatred and jealousy of Françoise and Pierre as a couple increase, and the more Xavière asserts herself, the stronger Françoise's revolt becomes: "à travers la jouissance maniaque de Xavière, à travers sa haine et sa jalousie, le scandale éclatait, aussi monstrueux, aussi définitif que la mort; en face de Françoise, et cependant sans elle, quelque chose existait comme une condamnation sans recours: libre, absolue, irréductible, une conscience étrangère se dressait" (through Xavière's maniacal pleasure, through her hatred and her jealousy, the scandal erupted, as monstrous, as definitive as death; facing Françoise and yet without Françoise, something existed like a condemnation without appeal: free, absolute, irreducible, an alien consciousness rose up). Françoise has felt both physically and psychically the presence of the other, and her own existence is threatened by this presence. The only thing that she can do is to get rid of it.

When the war breaks out Pierre is mobilized and Françoise and Xavière take an apartment together in Paris. Xavière, like the war, continues to represent an enemy presence, a scandalous presence that Françoise can no longer bear. Xavière constructs an image of Françoise as a jealous, hypocritical woman who erroneously believes herself to be loved by her young lover Gerbert and by Pierre. When she tries to impose this image on Françoise, Françoise kills her. There is in the character of Françoise, along with her annoying nobility and her ambiguous sensuality, a profound inhumanity.

It would be difficult not to make a comparison between L'Invitée and Sartre's playHuis-clos (No Exit) written in 1944. In both texts there are three main characters, two women and a man. Although the two situations represented are different, the fundamental theme is the same: hell is the way in which others would have us see ourselves.

The most significant technical aspect of the novel is the point of view. During most of the novel the reader is given Françoise's point of view and is a witness to the way in which the world is felt and perceived by her. Two other characters, Elisabeth, Françoise's sister-in-law, and Gerbert, provide an outsider's point of view on the main action of the novel.

L'Invitée is an impressive first novel. It succeeds in conveying to the reader both a sense of place in time, Paris in the year preceding World War II, and the combined psychological and philosophical anguish of a triangular amorous configuration. L'Invitée was a success with readers and critics. In La Force de l'âge Beauvoir enumerates the reviews and unabashedly comments on her pleasure at being taken seriously as a novelist. During the first six months following publication the novel sold twenty-two-thousand copies. Since 1943 it has been translated into ten languages.

Le Sang des autres , written during the German occupation, deals with specific problems raised by the pre-World War II period and by the Occupation. The theme, however, has more than political ramifications. To what extent is one responsible for the lives of others? This problem haunts Jean Blomart in his personal as well as in his political life. The quotation from Dostoyevski that is used as an epigraph proposes an overwhelming answer: "Chacun est responsable de tout devant tous" (Each human being is responsible for everything to everyone).

Le Sang des autres is divided into thirteen chapters and composed of a series of flashbacks. Seven chapters are narrated by Jean, an active member of the Resistance, who broke with his bourgeois milieu before the war and became a member of the Communist party. He recounts these experiences: the death of Louise's baby (Louise was his family's impoverished maid); the death of Jacques, a friend's brother, for which he feels responsible; and his subsequent involvement in trade union movements followed by Resistance activity after the defeat of France. The other chapters are told from the point of view of Hélène Bertrand, whom he has loved and who is now dying. Anxious to determine the degree of his responsibility, he delves into his past and relives relevant scenes of his life from his childhood to the present. In all the situations he remembers the same desperate question forms: what is his responsibility for the death of Hélène, whom he has sent on a mission, and for the death of Jacques, whom he had convinced to work for the revolutionary cause?

Before World War II Hélène was a girl interested only in her own happiness. When the war breaks out and Jean goes into the army she wants him to come back to Paris. He refuses to accept an assignment that would keep him away from the front. France is conquered and Hélène dances with the Germans, but she discovers that she cannot bring herself to accept the offer of a rich German to take her to Berlin. This marks a change in her attitude toward the situation in France. Its tragedy is revealed to her when she attempts to hide a Jewish friend. Similarly, at the Place de la Contrescarpe she sees a mother running after a bus that is carrying her child away. When the mother cries out the child's name, Hélène is suddenly overcome by the same feeling that had seized Jean when Louise's baby died: she feels responsible, as Jean had. She contacts Jean, who is now head of a group of Resistance fighters. During the brief period in which Hélène works with Jean in carrying out anti-German activities, she comes to know the joys of love and fraternity. She is mortally wounded in the course of a mission, but before she dies she absolves Jean of any responsibility for her death. Like Françoise Miquel, Hélène has chosen for herself. The moral that Jean draws from this death is that fighting for freedom is worth the weight of crime and remorse.

Le Sang des autres resolves to a certain extent the problems of responsibility and action, but it must be noted that the characters cannot find an equilibrium in times of peace. It is only in a time of crisis, faced with extreme situations, when good and evil have acceptable meanings, that Jean and Hélène succeed in living a moral life. In Les Mandarins one finds similar characters living in the postwar period when the equilibrium furnished by the values created during the Occupation no longer exists.

Le Sang des autres was well received by the critics in 1945. It was the first French novel to speak openly about the Resistance movement. From 1945 to 1947 it had thirty-two printings, and it has been translated into twelve languages. In La Force des choses Beauvoir is critical of this novel, as she is of a play that she wrote in 1945, Les Bouches inutiles (translated as Who Shall Die?, 1983). She insists that in both works the characters are reduced to ethical attitudes, and that as a result both the novel and the play suffer from didacticism and idealism.

Tous les hommes sont mortels is dedicated to Sartre. The novel demonstrates that the meaning of a human life depends on the condition of mortality. Fosca, an immortal, finds it impossible to live in his own time. A mortal can be committed to the point of death; he engages his freedom in a cause, thereby creating a value, and, if need be, his death authenticates his commitment. For an immortal such commitment has no meaning. An immortal is, moreover, incapable of understanding joy and anguish since they are the inevitable accompaniment of the mortality that defines the human predicament.

Against the background of a vast historical panorama that extends from the thirteenth century to the twentieth, the novel relates the adventures of Prince Fosca. The five parts of the novel follow the five stages of his career. Tyrant of the Italian city of Carmona, Fosca drinks, despite the pleas of his wife, an elixir offered to him by a beggar. He falls asleep for forty days, and when he awakes he is immortal. Fosca then attempts to direct the fate of others, to make himself necessary as an agent of destiny. He fails on both the historical and the personal planes. By making himself immortal, he has removed himself irremediably from the world of men. He can no longer understand them.

For two hundred years, beginning in the early fourteenth century, Fosca fights for Carmona. When he sees that his dream of uniting the world, his dream of the absolute, is not possible in Italy, he joins first the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and then his successor Charles V, whose faithful counselor he becomes. He advises the emperor on political and social issues, such as the nascent Reformation and the rise in prices because of the influx of gold. He would like to create a world of justice, stability, and peace, but this goal is impossible. Fosca next goes to the New World with the Spanish and later meets Carlier, an explorer (who resembles Jacques Cartier). He returns to Europe in the eighteenth century and, since France was at that time the center of Europe, it is in France that the reader finds him. He works to found an academy of science, and he remarries. In the fifth part of the novel, Fosca is still in France. It is the period of the July revolution of 1830. Fosca becomes a worker-revolutionary; he is put into prison and freed after the revolution of 1848. He goes to sleep for sixty years, and when he awakens he is put into a home for the insane. This terminal point of his story is the beginning of the novel, which opens in the contemporary world and proceeds by flashbacks, as he tells his story to Régine, a member of a Parisian acting company performing in Rouen. One of the stars of the troupe, she is haunted by dreams of fame and immortality. Dreams are transformed into reality as she finds herself face to face with an immortal. The story of Fosca's life reveals the difficulties inherent in being immortal in a mortal world: no adventure, no cause can really be his own. Régine understands his terrible solitude, the horror of being immortal. But the anguish of her own mortality has not been dissipated by his story.

Tous les hommes sont mortels glorifies the greatness of mortal men. Martin Luther is the best example of this glorification. At the moment when Fosca dreams of uniting the world, Luther arrives on the world stage. Fosca, at the Diet of Worms, understands that Luther is his most formidable enemy. Luther incarnates for Fosca human pride; he represents the man who obeys only his conscience, the part of man that the immortal Fosca cannot make submit to his will. Luther represents a committed individual, l'homme engagé. Fosca, immortal, is by definition a man who cannot be committed. He will always be alive; in other words, he will never be en situation, or in those situations in which existentialists see human responsibility dramatized. Fosca exhibits the sense of the absurd and the deadly ennui that permeate the image of human beings in the literature of the 1930s and the 1940s in France. For Beauvoir commitment is a means of escaping from the absurdity of the human predicament.

Although Tous les hommes sont mortels was translated into eleven languages, it was not well received in France. It has quite consistently had negative reviews. It is, nonetheless, Beauvoir's most audacious attempt to dramatize the ambiguous metaphysical situation in which human beings find themselves.

Les Mandarins won the Prix Goncourt for the outstanding French novel of 1954. It has been translated into fifteen languages. In this work once again the author portrays a milieu composed of French intellectuals, this time during the period immediately following the Liberation of Paris. Beauvoir attempts to expose the political, intellectual, and personal problems that beset a small group at the center of this intellectual world and which are to be taken as representative of many of the choices facing intellectuals and activists in the immediate postwar period. Interwoven with these dramas are several love affairs, of which the most important takes place between Anne Dubreuil, a psychoanalyst, and Lewis Brogan, an American writer, who is clearly based on Nelson Algren. (Algren was not pleased with Beauvoir's transposition of their affair.) Although Beauvoir insists in La Force des choses that Les Mandarins is not a roman à clef, it is impossible not to see reflected also in the novel the relationships between Albert Camus and his wife, Francine Faure Camus, both of whom Sartre and Beauvoir saw frequently in the postwar years. Further parallels can be distinguished between certain characters and other well-known intellectuals, such as Arthur Koestler.

Anne Dubreuil and Henri Perron, a writer and journalist who resembles Camus in many respects, are the two central figures in the novel. Beauvoir indicates in La Force des choses that they are the same character, or rather that they represent a double projection of their creator. Anne, although an intellectual, lives to a considerable degree for her husband and daughter; she often expresses the feminine point of view. Henri and the other male characters are more involved in politics. But what both Anne and Henri have in common is the personal quest for happiness in the midst of collective struggles. Through Anne the reader meets her husband, Robert, their daughter Nadine, and Lewis Brogan. Through Henri Perron, Paule and a middle-class milieu and Josette and a theatrical milieu are introduced. The other characters in the novel, Lambert, Vincent, Scriassine, and Lenoir, are writers, journalists, and political figures.

Henri Perron and Robert Dubreuil find themselves in a difficult situation after the Liberation. During the war they found a meaning to their lives through the Resistance movement. The war and particularly the Occupation provided them with a code of ethics, based on the obvious priority of liberating France; but with the end of hostilities this moral code no longer seems operative. Ideologically, they find themselves squeezed between the political right and left, between the United States and the Soviet Union. By not choosing either of these two alternatives, they feel condemned to inaction. As a solution they attempt to do the impossible: to create a noncommunist leftist party composed of workers and intellectuals.

Robert's political party works with the communists on most issues but refuses to adhere to the party dogma. Henri meanwhile directs a leftwing paper, L'Espoir. But on certain issues, such as revelations about Soviet labor camps, they do not agree, Robert wishing to avoid any revelations that would jeopardize the standing of the socialist movement and bring grist to the mill of the Americans (Sartre's position frequently), Henri insisting that a journalist must do everything in his power to campaign against the camps. Their disagreement ends in a rupture. The Mandarins no longer agree among themselves, and unity and solidarity become increasingly difficult to maintain. The men who are associated with Robert and Henri before and after this rupture represent almost all the political attitudes of the period: Vincent is a terrorist; Scriassine hates the Soviet Union; Lenoir belongs to the Communist Party; Lambert is revolted by politics; Trarieux is an opportunist.

Anne Dubreuil, whom the reader follows in her melancholy, in her daily preoccupations, and in her love affair with Lewis Brogan, is the character whose point of view is most frequently presented. Often she speaks in the first person, thus creating moments of stasis and meditation within the structure of the novel. Anne is also the figure with whom the novel ends. When her love affair with Brogan is over she feels that she has had her last chance for personal happiness, and she decides to kill herself. But the voices of her family, of those who would have to live her death, call her back to life. "Qui sait? Peut-être un jour seraije de nouveau heureuse. Qui sait?" (Who knows? Perhaps one day I will be happy again. Who knows? The question marks stand for the fundamental ambiguity of the entire novel.

Although Paris is the geographical center of the action, the novel records several voyages: Nadine and Henri go to Portugal; Anne, Robert, and Henri take a bicycle trip in France; Anne makes three trips to the United States. These travels remove the characters from the agitation of Paris and shed considerable light on the depth of their human and political commitments.

Les Mandarins is composed of numerous juxtaposed scenes which are almost entirely in the form of dialogue. The Mandarins speak a great deal and almost always about the same problems. The reader may have the impression of reading a conversation already read. These conversations and discussions, many of which reappear in La Force des choses, are a further indication of the extent to which Beauvoir drew much of her fiction directly from her own experience.

In 1954 the novel was well received by the communist and by the "bourgeois" press. Both groups sensed in the novel a severe critique of the other. In the first month after publication Les Mandarins sold forty thousand copies. Sales soared after Beauvoir won the Goncourt prize, and, as she notes with pleasure in La Force des choses, with fame came an enormous number of letters from her readers.

In Beauvoir's first four novels the characters are not explained in terms of traditional psychological motivation. When one encounters Xavière and Hélène, one knows nothing of their childhoods or of their families. They appear en situation, and their actions, their ways of doing or not doing, define them. These characters are determined neither by heredity nor by childhood experiences. To the contrary, they are free at each moment of their existences to choose themselves. But they must recognize that they are free. Rather than a psychological and relative explanation of their acts, Beauvoir gives them an existential dimension. One of the best examples of this is in L'Invitée. A novelist working within the tradition of the psychological novel might have analyzed the uneasiness aroused in Françoise by the presence of Xavière in terms of jealousy or latent homosexuality. However, Xavière represents for Françoise neither a desired child nor an unexamined pre-Oedipal attachment to her mother; she represents the Other.

The danger of this perspective, Beauvoir herself notes in her memoirs, is that the characters tend to become abstractions. This is indeed what often happens in her novels. Only Xavière and Hélène manage to escape from and transcend the author's grid. These two young women, so different from each other, are the most successful of Beauvoir's fictional creations. Xavière's "non serviam" and Hélène's "serviam" are equally convincing.

There is a strong link among the characters who appear in Beauvoir's first four novels. Indeed, from novel to novel the same men and women, particularly the same couple, reappear under different names. Like other novelists Beauvoir has her own stock characters who play similar roles from novel to novel. The milieu in which the characters are situated is always the same: a group of Parisian intellectuals, artists, and revolutionaries living in Paris on the Left Bank. With the exception of Tous les hommes sont mortels these early novels are set in the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s.

The couple whom one meets in L'Invitée reappears in other novels. Françoise is the neither young nor middle-aged woman, between thirty and forty, beautiful but without knowing it, intellectual, and attached to a man with whom she rarely or never sleeps. Françoise is Régine of Tous les hommes sont mortels and Anne of Les Mandarins . For those readers who are familiar with Beauvoir's memoirs, Françoise-Régine-Anne is a transparently transposed version of the narrator-character Simone de Beauvoir. Pierre reappears even more frequently. He is Jean in Le Sang des autres, Fosca in Tous les hommes sont mortels , and Robert in Les Mandarins. He is represented as intellectual and perhaps impotent. We are told that Pierre has mistresses. But in the 418 pages of L'Invitée he remains chaste. Anne and Robert in Les Mandarins no longer sleep together. Robert, it is stated, is too old. Jean sleeps with Hélène but without enthusiasm and primarily to make her happy. Fosca, the immortal, is rarely sexually aroused. In her novels Beauvoir has created a couple that maintains an exemplary equilibrium in the absence of sexual passion.

Still another character who is present in each of the novels is the unloved woman: Elisabeth in L'Invitée, who is in love with Claude; Marianne in Tous les hommes sont mortels, who is in love with Fosca; Hélène in Le Sang des autres, who is in love with Jean; and Paule in Les Mandarins, who is in love with Henri. Unlike Françoise-Régine-Anne, Elisabeth-Marianne-Hélène-Paule would abdicate her freedom to possess the man she loves. She represents, in Beauvoir's fictional world, those members of the second sex who accept the image imposed on them by society. They are each portrayed as acting in bad faith because they try to deny their freedom to do otherwise. They can be related to the figures of the narcissist, the woman in love, and the mystic described in the second of the two volumes that make up Le Deuxième Sexe, and they prefigure the unmitigated tale of woe recited by the hysterical narrator of "Monologue" in La Femme rompue.

Finally, there are the girls: Xavière, Béatrice, Hélène, and Nadine. These young women emerging from adolescence are the most complex of Beauvoir's characters. Both sensual and revolted by overt manifestations of sexuality, they succeed in upsetting the lives of those adults with whom they come into contact. They are charming, ambiguous, disquieting, and subversive. It seems clear that the model for Xavière, like the model for Sartre's Ivich in L'Age de raison (1945; translated as The Age of Reason, 1947), is Olga Kosakievicz, who plays such a prominent role in the lives of Beauvoir and Sartre in La Force de l'âge, and who had been Beauvoir's pupil in Rouen. She was, according to an arrangement with her parents, to take a philosophy degree under Beauvoir's tutelage, but the course of studies was soon abandoned, and she pursued, in Rouen and later in Paris, a life of utter indolence, marked by temper tantrums alternating with euphoria. Beauvoir was her protector; Sartre was in love with her. The experiment of the trio finally failed, under pressures from within and from without; Olga fell in love with someone else, and Sartre began to take an interest in her younger sister, Wanda. But the relationship had been important to all three and is reflected in the works of both Beauvoir and Sartre.

There is an evolution in Beauvoir's first four novels. In all of them Beauvoir is primarily interested in human beings en situation with other human beings. The individual is never alone in Beauvoir's fictional world. The problem of the Other, of the relationships between characters, is a fundamental theme of her writing. In L'Invitée the problem is explored in relation to a trio; in Le Sang des autres the problem is developed with relation to a larger human community during a war. In Tous les hommes sont mortels Fosca is the other for all mortals, and all mortals are the other for Fosca. In trying to direct their lives, Fosca realizes that they are the center of their own worlds.

With Les Mandarins a significant change is perceptible. What was in Beauvoir's novels a metaphysical experience carefully rendered concrete has become a projection of the confusion of the intellectuals in the postwar period. The problem of the other still exists in the domain of love relationships in Les Mandarins. But historical events have invaded daily life with such force that they have shattered the emphasis on metaphysical theories and made them appear obsolete.

During the years between 1954 and the publication of her last two fictional works, Les Belles Images in 1966 and La Femme rompue in 1967, Beauvoir wrote and published the first three volumes of her memoirs and Une Mort très douce. Her last two volumes of fiction differ from the four preceding ones. They are shorter in length-one novel of 250 pages and three short narratives-and they are less ambitious in scope. The protagonists of Les Belles Images and La Femme rompue are all lonely women, complicitous victims in a society that uses women for its own ends and discards them after a certain age.

Les Belles Images was one of the most successful of Beauvoir's novels. It was on the best-seller list in France for twelve weeks and sold, during that time, about 120,000 copies. It has been translated into eighteen languages. In the fourth volume of her memoirs, Tout compte fait, Beauvoir explains her intentions. She was attempting to reproduce the "discours" (discourse) of an affluent group of Parisians in the "société technocratique" (technocratic society) of the 1960s. Unlike the milieus described in the four earlier novels, the world represented in Les Belles Images is one to which Beauvoir is hostile. Aside from the protagonist Laurence's ten-year-old daughter, Catherine, Catherine's Jewish friend, Brigitte, and, to a lesser degree, Laurence, there are no characters in the novel for whom the narrator displays any sympathy.

Laurence works for an advertising company and is a producer of belles images (advertisements and, by extension, false material values). She is so afraid of relapsing into her nervous breakdown of five years before that she plays the game of covering up, that is, of creating images or appearances and trying to believe in them: she plays it with her husband, her lover, her divorced parents, and her children. The reader feels that the novel has been constructed as a demonstration in which the characters act out certain attitudes of their class: Laurence's father is nostalgic for old, lost values and is incapable of living in the present; her husband, Jean-Charles, thinks only of the technological wonders of the future; Laurence's mother, Dominique, is a successful career woman terrified of the social stigma of being a woman without a man. All the characters have their own discourse and their individual set of belles images. These belles images mask what in Beauvoir's fictional universe constitutes the human condition: metaphysical anguish, psychological malaise, and social and political injustice.

Laurence's own facade is shattered by the questions of her daughter about human existence and human suffering. Laurence is unable to cope with her daughter, and the social group in which she lives refuses to confront such questions. The only possible solution offered is psychotherapy, as if concern over the meaning of life and the poverty and hunger of a considerable part of the planet could only be a neurotic symptom. Laurence's final refusal to continue to send her daughter to a psychiatrist and her insistence that Catherine be allowed to spend her vacation with Brigitte are, within the context of this novel, positive political gestures. They represent a momentary, if precarious, victory.

La Femme rompue is a collection of three short narratives: "L'Age de discrétion," "Monologue," and "La Femme rompue." Like most of Beauvoir's fictional works, La Femme rompue was commercially successful and was translated into numerous languages. The critics, however, were as severe in their judgment of this volume as they had been of Les Belles Images. Feminist critics were particularly offended by the portrayal of women who seemed to conform to and reproduce the worst stereotypes of feminine dependency, bad faith, narcissism, and failure.

The protagonists of the three narratives are all women of a similar age, wives and mothers, whose lives, and the belles images they have constructed in order to control them, have been shattered. There are, however, important differences in the attitudes of the three women, differences that relate to their milieu and their lucidity. The narrator in "L'Age de discrétion" is a wife, a mother, and a writer. She is a member of the left-wing bourgeois intelligentsia who, at the age of sixty, has alienated her husband and her son and feels she can no longer write. Her husband, André, is also having difficulties adjusting to growing old. He is a scientist who can no longer keep up with his field. Their son Philippe abandons their left-wing political principles, agrees to work for the conservative government, and plans to marry a woman whose family can help him further his career. André accepts Philippe's decision and refuses to break with him, whereas the narrator rejects her son. "L'Age de discrétion" is about the difficulties of aging in a world whose values have radically changed. But a visit to André's octogenarian mother, a militant member of the Communist party who lives in the south of France, and the occasion to spend some time alone with her husband away from Paris soften the narrator's intransigence. This is the only one of the three narratives in which dialogue between husband and wife is reestablished at the end.

The narrator of "Monologue" is a woman of forty-three, alone in her apartment on New Year's eve. The narrator rants and raves about her life, accusing others of being responsible for her misfortunes, wallowing in bad faith, and returning over and over again to the suicide of her daughter, Sylvie. The monologue suggests that she feels responsible for her daughter's death. She deals with this feeling by refusing to accept it and by seeking verbal vengeance on other members of her absent family. The narrator of "Monologue" is a prime example of bad faith.

In the third narrative, "La Femme rompue," the narrator, Monique, discovers that her husband, a successful Parisian doctor, is having an affair with another woman. The banal scenario of infidelity in middle-aged couples is faithfully followed. Monique has devoted herself exclusively to her husband, has not had a career of her own, and has not been particularly involved in her husband's work. The woman for whom he will leave her is a lawyer with a life of her own. Monique's diary reveals her double role as victim and accomplice and suggests once again that dependency, as opposed to autonomy and reciprocity, leads inevitably to bad faith.

Except for Quand prime le spirituel (1979; translated as When Things of the Spirit Come First , 1982), five early stories dealing with female characters (some of whom are clearly based on herself and Zaza), La Femme rompue is Beauvoir's last published work of fiction. Nonfictional narratives dominate her last period: La Vieillesse, Tout compte fait, and La Cérémonie des adieux.

La Cérémonie des adieux was reviewed with praise and with dismay by the critics, praise for the sobriety of tone maintained throughout the text and dismay at the exposure of Sartre's physical and mental decrepitude. In La Cérémonie des adieux the narrator, Beauvoir herself, returns to many of the themes that were developed in La Femme rompue, but the bad faith of the female protagonists has been replaced in this text by a poignant and sustained lucidity. The interviews between Sartre and Beauvoir that conclude this volume, done in 1974, are a rich source of information on both of them and a touching reflection of their mutual devotion.

Simone de Beauvoir, as a writer and a thinker, belongs to a double tradition: to the group of French existentialists who lived and wrote in Paris in the 1940s and 1950s and to the longer tradition of French women writers who, from Christine de Pizan to Colette, have produced works of literature at whose center one finds woman as the subject of discourse. With the death of Beauvoir and the distance from the living woman that death inevitably brings, it may be easier for critics to read her work in a multiplicity of contexts and to recognize her novels and her existentialist perspective as having a relevance equal to her essays, her memoirs, and her feminism.


From: Marks, Elaine. "Simone de Beauvoir (9 January 1908-14 April 1986)." French Novelists, 1930-1960, edited by Catharine Savage Brosman, vol. 72, Gale, 1988, pp. 42-57. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 72.


  • Further Reading
    • Claude Francis, and Fernande Gontier, Les Ecrits de Simone de Beauvoir (Paris: Gallimard, 1979).
    • Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier, Simone de Beauvoir (Paris: Perrin, 1985); translated by Lisa Nesselson as Simone de Beauvoir: A Life ... A Love Story (New York: St. Martin's, 1987).
    • Arc: Simone de Beauvoir et la lutte des femmes, special issue on Beauvoir, no. 61 (1975).
    • Daniel Armogathe, "Le Deuxième Sexe." Simone de Beauvoir: Analyse Critique (Paris: Hatier, 1977).
    • Carol Ascher, Simone de Beauvoir: A Life of Freedom (Boston: Beacon, 1981).
    • Jean-Raymond Audet, Simone de Beauvoir face à la mort (Lausanne: Age d'homme, 1979).
    • Hazel E. Barnes, The Literature of Possibility (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1959).
    • Christian Louis van der Berghe, Dictionnaire des idées: Simone de Beauvoir (Paris & The Hague: Mouton, 1966).
    • Konrad Bieber, Simone de Beauvoir (Boston: Twayne, 1979).
    • Claire Cayron, La Nature chez Simone de Beauvoir (Paris: Gallimard, 1973).
    • Robert D. Cottrell, Simone de Beauvoir (New York: Ungar, 1975).
    • Madeleine Descubes, Connaître Simone de Beauvoir (Paris: Editions Resma, 1974).
    • Mary Evans, Simone de Beauvoir: A Feminist Mandarin (London: Tavistock, 1985).
    • Claude Francis, ed., Simone de Beauvoir et le cours du monde (Paris: Klincksieck, 1978).
    • Donald Hatcher, Understanding "The Second Sex" (New York, Bern & Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1984).
    • Francis Jeanson, Simone de Beauvoir ou l'entreprise de vivre (Paris: Seuil, 1966).
    • Terry Keefe, Simone de Beauvoir: A Study of Her Writings (Totowa, N. J.: Barnes & Noble, 1983).
    • Jean Leighton, Simone de Beauvoir on Woman (Rutherford, N. J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1975).
    • Axel Madsen, Hearts and Minds: The Common Journey of Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre (New York: Morrow, 1977).
    • Elaine Marks, Simone de Beauvoir: Encounters with Death (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1973).
    • Marks, ed., Critical Essays on Simone de Beauvoir (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987).
    • Chantal Moubachir, Simone de Beauvoir (Paris: Seghers, 1972).
    • Judith Okley, Simone de Beauvoir (New York: Pantheon, 1986).
    • Alice Schwarzer, Simone de Beauvoir Today: Conversations 1972-1982, translated by Marianne Howarth (London: Chatto & Windus, 1984); also published as After The Second Sex (New York: Pantheon, 1984).
    • Simone de Beauvoir. Un film de Josée Dayan et Malka Ribowska (Paris: Gallimard, 1979).
    • Simone de Beauvoir Society Newsletter, edited by Yolanda Paterson (Menlo Park, Cal.: Simone de Beauvoir Society, 1983-).
    • Simone de Beauvoir Studies, edited by Paterson (Menlo Park, Cal.: Simone de Beauvoir Society, 1983-).
    • Anne Whitmarsh, Simone de Beauvoir and the Limits of Commitment (London & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981).
    • Yale French Studies: Simone de Beauvoir; Witness to a Century, special issue on Beauvoir, edited by Hélène V. Wenzel, no. 72 (1987).
    • Jacques J. Zéphir, Le Néo-féminisme de Simone de Beauvoir (Paris: Denoël/Gonthier, 1982).