Title: Simone (Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand) de Beauvoir
Known As: Beauvoir, Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de; le Castor; de Beauvoir, Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand; Beauvoir, Simone de
  French Writer (1908 - 1986)
Author(s): Anne Mcclintock
Source: European Writers: The Twentieth Century. Ed. George Stade. Vol. 12. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990. From Scribner Writers Series.
Document Type: Biography, Critical essay

Man, my friend, you willingly make fun of women's
writings because they can't help being autobiographical.
On whom then were you relying to
paint women for you . . .? On yourself?
(Colette , Break of Day)


Simone de Beauvoir's life was by all accounts a scandal. Her writing is doubly scandalous, since it is the stubborn celebration of a singular female life. She was born in Paris on 9 January 1908 into a family safely ensconced in the comforts of the imperial Belle époque. At the age of seventeen, after a secret apprenticeship in revolt nurtured by forbidden books, she chose to disobey paternal and class decree by becoming a teacher. At a stroke she reneged on her destiny · the "maternal slumber" of bourgeois wife and mother · and crossed at once into what her father and her class regarded as "the enemy territory of the intellectuals" (Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée [Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter], 1958).

"Dutiful daughter" of the French bourgeoisie, she dedicated her life and art to denouncing passionately the "splendid expectations" that had illuminated her childhood. When World War II burst over her, she inherited history in its most terrible form. From then on, her life and work as a writer, teacher, and intellectual bore witness to virtually every major turbulence of twentieth-century Europe: the Spanish Civil War, the Occupation and Resistance, the rise and defeat of Fascism, the bloody dismantling of French imperialism, the heyday and demise of the French intellectual Left, and the resurgence of French feminism. Her great literary output · five novels, a play, the monumental polemic Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex, 1949), her essays, short stories, travel writing and journalism, the radical treatise La vieillesse (Old Age, 1970), the vast autobiography · would amount to an impassioned and sustained refutation of the alluring promises of bourgeois culture, the delusion of "a happy life in a happy world" for all. In 1963 de Beauvoir gave an intimation of how deep ran her sense of betrayal: "Turning an incredulous gaze towards that young and credulous girl, I realise with stupor how much I was cheated" (La force des choses [Force of Circumstance]).

It is thus not difficult to fathom the "festival of obscenity" that greeted the publication in 1949 of The Second Sex. Flung into the ravaged world of postwar France, it was a hugely erudite, radical, and eloquent rebuttal of the "false certainties" over which the war had raged: the male management of the world, international capitalism, the middle-class family, maternity, and marriage. De Beauvoir was accused, as a result, of every infamy; frigid, priapic, neurotic, she had trampled underfoot everything that was good and beautiful in the world. The Right detested her; the Left lacerated her with contempt. She was blacklisted by Rome. Rumor had it that she danced naked on the rooftops of Rouen. Male friends threw her book across the room. Her open liaison with Jean-Paul Sartre became the subject of public notoriety and vilification.

Yet her revolt also had its paradoxical side. De Beauvoir often denied, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, that her femininity had ever been a hindrance: "No, far from suffering from my femininity, I have . . . accumulated the advantages of both sexes" (Force of Circumstance). Certainly, her special position was that she was both an intellectual and a woman. As Mary Evans points out, she thus escaped the two fates of most of the women of the world: poverty and motherhood. De Beauvoir declared with that same "fearless sincerity" she so exalted in life and art: "I have not shared in the common lot of humanity: oppression, exploitation, extreme poverty. I am privileged" (Toute compte fait [All Said and Done, 1972]). No doubt the paradox of privileged revolt · a paradox that engaged not only the course of her own life, but also the political fate of an entire generation of intellectuals · arose from the conditions of her time. But for her the paradox had a special urgency: it was the paradox of being both a writer and a woman. Understanding this paradox, and thereby the limits of freedom and responsibility drawn within it, became the single preoccupation of her life.

Some time must therefore be spent on the meaning of these special conditions, for she consecrated her life to the search for their meaning. To answer the apparently naive question: "Being a woman, French, a writer . . . what does it mean?" one would, as she herself knew, "first have to know the historical meaning of the moment in which I am actually living" (All Said and Done). Finding the uncertain and obscure answer to this question became the "grand project" that enflamed her life and all her writings. One might call this project the scandal of identity.

Why should the identity of a female writer be a scandal? In the false, autumnal calm before the outbreak of World War II, at the age of thirty, de Beauvoir had started her first novel, L'Invitée (She Came to Stay, 1943). Her literary output until then comprised a slim bundle of short stories. Discussing the fate of this new work, Sartre had suggested with sudden vehemence, "Why don't you put yourself into your writing?" (La force de l'âge [The Prime of Life, 1960]). De Beauvoir recalled receiving the suggestion with the force of a blow to the head: "I'd never dare do that. . . . It seemed to me that from the moment I began to nourish literature with the stuff of my own personality, it would become something as serious as happiness or death." Furthermore, we learn from her autobiography that for some time crime had been featuring insistently in de Beauvoir's dreams and fantasies. In these dreams she found herself standing on trial before a crowded courtroom, perpetrator of an unmentionable deed for which she alone was responsible: "I saw myself in the dock, facing judge, prosecutor, jury, and a crowd of spectators, bearing the consequences of an act which I recognized as my own handiwork, and bearing it alone." The dream played out the obscure and perilous intuition that the crime for which she stood accused was nothing other than female independence:

 Ever since Sartre and I had met, I had shuffled off
 responsibility for justifying my existence on to
 him. I felt that this was an immoral attitude, but
 I could not envisage any practical way of changing
 it. The only solution would have been to accomplish
 some deed for which I alone, and no
 one else, must bear the consequences. . . . Nothing
 in fact, short of an aggravated crime could
 bring me true independence.
 (The Prime of Life)

The dream unveiled the insurrectionary cast of a female identity fashioned apart from the sanction of men. Female autonomy is seen as an unpardonable condition that carries the stigma of a crime and erupts with the force of an insurrection. The discovery that the handiwork of autonomy was itself a deed tantamount to murder subsequently entered She Came to Stay as its founding theme and became, in metaphysical clothing, the stuff of much of her early fiction and philosophical thought.

Nevertheless, the fact that de Beauvoir could commit the "aggravated crime" of female independence on paper relieved her for a long time of the necessity of doing so in life. By choosing to be an intellectual she escaped the social fate decreed by class and birth, her mother's "dull, grey kind of existence." The solitary role of intellectual safeguarded her personal autonomy. As she declared, "Writing guaranteed my moral autonomy; in the solitude of risks taken, of decisions to be made, I made my freedom much more real than by accommodating myself to any money-making practice." In so doing she escaped for a long time the imperative of a more arduous and dangerous revolt: "For me, my books were a real fulfilment, and as such they freed me from the necessity to affirm myself in any other way" (Force of Circumstance). Nevertheless, de Beauvoir's great power and distinction are that by exploring with the utmost seriousness, integrity, and passion what it meant to be a female writer in her time, she drove the possibilities of her life beyond its limits and left us with an exemplary testimony of the conditions of the female life.

What is at stake, then, in all de Beauvoir's writing is not simply the scandal of female identity · "How does a woman adjust herself to her womanly state" · but also how she represents it. Here one comes directly upon the autobiographical nature of so much of de Beauvoir's writing. One of the first things to notice about her work is that it is a sustained circling around the creation of a female persona: Simone de Beauvoir. Most of her writing is in some form or other a radical project of self-justification: "I wanted to realise myself in books that . . . would be existing objects for others, but objects haunted by a presence · my presence. . . . Above all I wanted my contemporaries to hear and understand me" (All Said and Done). "I wanted to be widely read in my lifetime, to be understood, to be loved" (Force of Circumstance). This desire to haunt the memory of her contemporaries inspired her fiction with no less urgency. As she said of Les mandarins (The Mandarins, 1954), "I wanted it to contain all of me · myself in relation to life, to death, to my times, to writing, to love, to friendship, to travel."

Any autobiography, as George Gusdorf has said, is not so much the vivid and truthful portrait of a life as it is a work of "personal justification." This is part of what de Beauvoir meant when she announced that art was "a means of protecting my life." As she herself so well knew, "a man would never get the notion of writing a book on the peculiar situation of the human male. But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say: 'I am a woman'; on this truth must be based all further discussion" (The Second Sex). More than this, a woman who lives a life that flies in the face of convention and authority is already a scandal. To justify that life in public (to publish: publicare simulacrum · to erect a statue in a public place) is, as Nancy Miller has remarked, "to reinscribe the original violation." The autobiography of an exceptional woman is therefore a double scandal; it is to stand defiant in the dock.

For precisely this reason de Beauvoir wanted to be the one to "rummage through my past. . . . So long as it is I who paints my own portrait, nothing daunts me." As with Colette, the urgency that enflamed her art, "a passion, a madness," came from the knowledge that if she left the painting of her portrait to any other, her life would "trickle into the sand," and nothing would remain of her childhood self except "a pinch of ashes."

Autobiography as a form scarcely exists before the seventeenth century. It is commonly accepted that its rise has something to do with the historical discovery of the self-conscious individual during the Renaissance. Estelle Jelinek has also pointed out that "autobiography must share with the novel the distinction of being one of the first literary genres shaped with the active participation of women." Nevertheless, there are a number of clear differences between autobiographies written by women and those written by men. Women's autobiographies do not flourish at the high points of male history · revolutions and battles and national upheavals and so on. They wax according to the climactic changes of another history. Male autobiographies are also characteristically embellished and gracefully shaped into chronologically elegant wholes. Female autobiographies are typically fragmentary, irregular, anecdotal, and oblique, eloquent of the ingenuity and effort taken in negotiating a female life past the magisterial forms of male selfhood. As a result de Beauvoir always chafed against the elegant restraints and mannered symmetries of fictional form, for these turned art into a collector's item, "a statue dying of boredom in a villa garden." Events in an autobiography, on the other hand, "retain all the gratuitousness, the unpredictability, and the often preposterous complications that marked their original occurrence" (Force of Circumstance).

At the same time de Beauvoir was temperamentally and politically averse to the idea of autobiography as the heroics of an inner life, the unfolding saga of a single mind. If she wanted to voice the originality of her own experience, it was only to the extent that it was also illuminated by the incandescence of her epoch. As she insisted, "The background, tragic or serene, against which my experiences are drawn gives them their true meaning and constitutes their unity" (Force of Circumstance). She was impatient of the "pointless and in any case impossible undertaking" of building up a single portrait of herself. "What I should like to do above all is provide myself an idea of my place, my locus in the world" (All Said and Done). For this reason it is necessary to spend some time on the difficult, unruly, and elusive conditions that gave her life its meaning. To write her autobiography and keep faith with her deep commitment to veracity, de Beauvoir ransacked libraries, newspapers, diaries, letters, and memoirs, and conferred lengthily with friends and with Sartre. Yet she well knew that autobiography involves a "welter of caprice," whimsical omission, and crafted evasions, governed overall by the contrivances of artistic convention. Autobiographies are, as she put it, "fictions of selfhood." It is therefore well to bear in mind that one is dealing not only with the portrait of a real life, but with a fiction of selfhood · what Colette called a fabulation of "rearranged fragments."


On her return from China in 1956, at the age of forty-eight, de Beauvoir set out to write the story of her childhood. This story swelled to four fat volumes, some 2,200 pages in all, engaging more than sixty years of her life, and was some sixteen years in the writing. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, the evocative first volume of her autobiography, covers the years 1908-1929, from her birth to the death of her beloved friend Zaza.

Daughter of Françoise and George de Beauvoir, a disappointed Catholic woman from a rich Verdun banking family and a well-off Parisian attorney, de Beauvoir faced a predictable future: "It was laid down what this child's state should be · French, bourgeois and Catholic; only its sex was unforeseen" (All Said and Done). She was raised in Paris in the "big village" that stretched from the Lion de Belfort to the rue Jacob, and from the boulevard Saint-Germain to the boulevard Raspail. Except for some years as a teacher in Marseilles and Rouen, and despite an insatiable appetite for travel, she always lived in more or less the same district in Paris.

Her childhood was the perfectly commonplace story of a girl born to an upper bourgeois French family of the years before the war. A "madly gay little girl," de Beauvoir had until the age of eleven "virtually no problems." Safely cushioned in the red velvets and silk drapes of her boulevard Raspail apartment, she indulged to her heart's content her fierce yearning for happiness, becoming apprenticed thereby, as was only fitting, to the bourgeois promise of individual happiness that was to enchant her for so long. In the Memoirs de Beauvoir discharges a debt: more than anything else it was to the "calm gaze" of the young female maidservant Louise that she owed the sense of "unalterable security" which was her class birthright until the outbreak of war. From the comforting security of this gaze sprang the "vital optimism" and unswerving will to happiness that de Beauvoir felt was her own peculiar gift: "I have never met anyone, in the whole of my life, who was so well equipped for happiness as I was, or who labored so stubbornly to achieve it" (The Prime of Life).

To Louise's calm gaze was added another comforting dimension: a whole race of supernatural beings bent over her from a Catholic heaven their "myriad benevolent eyes." A more mundane race of aunts and uncles in ostrich plumes and panamas played "the role of a kindly mirror," their flattering solicitude safeguarding de Beauvoir's illusion of standing in the privileged center of the world. Only the "black looks" of her unswervingly pious mother were capable of troubling these early years. She had difficulty distinguishing her mother's look from the eye of God.

Mirrors, eyes, and glances flash everywhere in de Beauvoir's writing, and the power of the gaze to shape identity figures powerfully in her existentialism and feminism. The crystalline certainties of class, religion, and family that graced her childhood with their special radiance, only to become the dark figures of her betrayal, were unveiled within what can be called the metaphysical tradition of the gaze. As she wrote, "A child receives its image and even its very being from others. . . . It perceives itself as something that is seen" (The Second Sex). The intellectual tradition of the gaze reaches back to G. W. F. Hegel and has been taken up in recent times by Sartre, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and a certain tradition of feminism. But it is de Beauvoir's special distinction in The Second Sex to have been the first to flesh out the geometry of the gaze and transform the idealist Hegelian ontology of self and other, frozen in faceless combat, into a politics of seeing and being seen, governed by socially consecrated rituals of dominance and submission and violently scored by history and gender.

By all accounts de Beauvoir inherited something of her early talent for impersonation from her father. Her paternal grandfather had enjoyed a sizable fortune and a 500-acre estate, but had chosen instead to take up an administrative post in the Town Hall in Paris. As a consequence his son, de Beauvoir's father, grew up lodged comfortably, if somewhat ambiguously, "halfway between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, between the landed gentry and the office clerk," and came to feel himself "neither completely integrated with society nor burdened with any serious responsibility." Attracted by the stability of the legal profession and eventually joining a law firm, his first passion remained the theater. Possessing the name but not the means to swim with the aristocracy, he contented himself with a theatrical impersonation of their manner of living.

In all other respects de Beauvoir's father was "a true representative of his period and his class." Fiercely patriotic, anti-Dreyfus, and anti-Republican, respecting but not believing in the church, his only religion was nationalism and his only private morality "the cult of the family." Epicurean, pagan, and vital, his neglect of his daughters' spiritual well-being stood in direct contrast to his wife's strict supervision. Françoise de Beauvoir, made bitterly resentful as a child by the whalebone collars and narrow spaces of her female upbringing, was diffident in society but passionately overbearing with her daughters, Simone and Poupette, in private. Her convent morality seeped into every recess of their life. From her de Beauvoir inherited the ethical fervor that infuses her early thought, her hunger for the absolute, her passion for travel, her faith in and enormous capacity for work, her dogmatism, and the lessons in self-abnegation that were to mark her early relation to her body.

As a consequence de Beauvoir lived out in her childhood the cultural contradictions of her period. To her father she was "simply a mind"; it was his duty to give his daughter the education that would be a discreet adornment to her role as wife and mother. Her body and her spiritual education were in the sole charge of her mother. Thus her being fell into two: "I grew accustomed to the idea that my intellectual life · embodied by my father · and my spiritual life · expressed by my mother · were two radically heterogeneous fields of experience which had absolutely nothing in common" (Memoirs).

This division had a profound effect on de Beauvoir's future. Her desire to be an intellectual was not a whimsical determination but rather the outcome of the jostling forces of her world. Her cultural inheritance was rife with contradictions: "My father's individual and pagan ethical standards were in complete contrast to the rigidly moral conventionalism of my mother's teaching." Suspended as she was between the aristocratic skepticism of her father and the bourgeois sobriety of her mother, her attempt to make sense of these ambiguities turned de Beauvoir's inner life into "a kind of endless disputation" and became, as she claims, the main reason she became an intellectual.

In 1914 her parents became the victims of calamity. As was the fashion of their class, her family spent their summers in the ancient province of Limousin on her grandfather's estate. Not only did the expansive property of Meyrignac give de Beauvoir material grounds for her mystical yearning for the infinite, but it was there among the water lilies and the peacocks, at the age of six, that she heard the news that war had been declared. The war did little to cloud her small horizon, but by the end of it her father's Russian stocks had plummeted, and the family plunged with them into the newly poor.

Her father's legal career finished, the family in near poverty, they moved to the rue de Varennes. De Beauvoir lost Louise, her plush red and black apartment, space, and solitude: "I didn't even have a desk to put my things in. . . . I found it painful to never be on my own." She had in effect fallen into a different class. It was at this time that books came to play a more and more vital role in her life.

In 1913 de Beauvoir had been sent to a private Catholic school with the beguiling name of Le Cours Desir. There she was fed the "ersatz concoction" that was her allotted fare as a girl, and there she learned to hide her intellect "as though it was a deformity." Crimped and curtailed, hers was the typical inferior training of a caste firmly destined to live in exclusion within its own culture. Her education was in every respect a limitation, differing markedly from that enjoyed by, say, a Sartre or an André Gide .

The act of reading is therefore central to the Memoirs, as it is to any autobiography. The autobiographer, in what amounts to a ritual gesture, conjures up the reader, in order that the reader may in turn conjure the autobiographer's self into being: without this collaboration the voluble "I" would fall silent. But above and beyond this, reading played a peculiarly poignant role in de Beauvoir's childhood: she began to feel most urgently the ambiguity and uncertainty of her sexual identity.

Reading was from the outset linked to transgression. In the very first remembered action of the Memoirs she had crept under her father's desk in "the awful sanctum" of his black-pearwood study: a willful self-insertion into the seat of cultural and paternal power, and thus a small mimicry of the act of female autobiography itself. For de Beauvoir reading was a solemn rite promising a sorcerer's power and autonomy, and relief from the galling tedium of domesticity; it was also the punishing reminder of an exclusion that she could barely begin to comprehend.

"Impassable barriers," for example, prohibited her entry into the library in the rue Saint-Placide. Her books were carefully disfigured by her mother's censoring hand, and her reading was constantly and strictly circumscribed: "You must not . . . you must not touch books that are not meant for you" (Memoirs). This ban she recalls shuddering through her body with the same punitive and obscure jolt she had received when she had stuck her finger into the black hole of an electric socket. On both occasions she had been sitting in her father's black armchair. Here reading, transgression, and a forbidden eroticism merge in a scene that played itself out again and again in her adolescence. The overdetermined metaphor of forbidden holes, the furtive and secret touchings, the barred entry into places of obscure pleasure and power, disobedience answered by a swift and annihilating punishment · these profoundly colored her view of books as the place of a secret, libidinous insurrection. For this reason she always saw the act of female writing, and therefore the intellectual life, as a sexual and political revolt in itself.

At the same time de Beauvoir had inherited from her parents a "deep reverence for books." This was a cultural value typical of her father's background, but it had become raised to a family fetish by their loss of social face. For M. de Beauvoir the elite of the earth were those who had "intelligence, culture, and a sound education," but this was strictly an upper-middle-class prerogative. As Sartre has pointed out, the generation of writers before the war could not support themselves by literature alone. Gide had property, Proust independent means; Claudel was in the diplomatic service. In short, they had deep loyalties to the state; they were, as Sartre says, "integrated into the bourgeoisie."

Contemptuous of the kind of material wealth and success that took effort, M. de Beauvoir consoled himself for his social dishonor by an exaggerated attachment to culture. Nevertheless, it was indecorous for a woman to have too much of that magical ingredient which distinguished his class from all others. As de Beauvoir grew older and began to make her ungainly entry into puberty, she found it more and more difficult to play the role of "dutiful daughter," particularly with respect to curtailing the precocious mind of which her father was alternately proud and resentful. If, for de Beauvoir, identity is shaped by the male gaze, it did not help matters that her father, like her culture, had double vision. As she entered puberty, with all the reluctance a Catholic upbringing could induce, she came to live in her father's eyes as the vivid emblem of his failure. Without a dowry, she would never marry; she would have to work for a living. His attitude to de Beauvoir became more and more acrimonious, and her sense of his withdrawal plunged her into despair. The recriminating gaze of the "sovereign judge" began to hold all kinds of dangers for her.

If her father's pride had once been her "man's mind," it was a mind now discovered to inhabit a very female body, and she could not help but regard the "silent upheaval" of her importunate body as the culprit and cause of his disgust. Her femininity itself became a blemish and a malady: "I thought of myself in relation to my father as a purely spiritual being: I was horrified at the thought that he suddenly considered me a mere organism. I felt as if I could never hold up my head again" (Memoirs).

Her body became an embarrassment. She regarded the delirious and obscure desires that shook her with much the same "sickening curiosity" that forbidden books had formerly elicited. Shamed by the displeasure of the male eye, she directed the full arsenal of her lessons in Catholic self-abnegation to her body's defeat. She began to develop phobias. Clearly the paroxysms of dizziness, nausea, and anemia she began to suffer served as a hysterical protest against the incomprehensible paradoxes of her situation. Her horror at the "tyranny of the flesh" was more than anything else a fierce resistance to the social denigration of the female body. Her later rejection of maternity and marriage · which brought a great deal of fire on her head · was the most extreme revolt she could envisage against the imposed ignominy of her female situation. In an era with no legal contraceptives and no legal abortion, this revolt was the only recourse she had to protecting the autonomy she glimpsed in the vocation of writer.

One may note here an important discrepancy in the Memoirs. She often made the brave announcement: "I felt no disappointment at being a girl." Yet she could also recall: "My father's attitude towards the 'fairer sex' wounded me deeply." And again, later: "If he had continued to interest himself in me . . . I should certainly not have felt rejected, thrust out and betrayed." Her peculiarly willful blindness to the hobbling restraints of her femininity constituted a protest of its own and remained a defining feature of her identity until she wrote The Second Sex.

Her cousin Jacques, notable otherwise only as her first adolescent love, awakened her fully to the existing plenitude of her cultural heritage and at the same time to the baffling fact that she was exiled from this plenitude:

 He knew a host of poets and writers of whom I
 knew nothing at all, the distant clamor of a world
 that was closed to me used to come into the house
 with him: how I longed to explore that world!
 Papa would say with pride: "Simone has a man's
 brain, she thinks like a man; she is a man." And
 yet he treated me like a girl. Jacques and his
 friends read real books and were abreast of all
 current politics, they lived out in the open; I was
 confined to the nursery.

How far removed from this passionate resentment is Sartre's memory (in Qu'est-ce que la littérature? [What Is Literature?, 1948]) of his confident childhood accession to the patrimony of books:

 We were used to literature long before beginning
 our first novel. To us it seemed natural for books
 to grow in a civilized society, like trees in a garden.
 It is because we loved Racine and Verlaine
 too much that when we were fourteen years old,
 we discovered, during the evening study period or
 in the great court of the lycée, our vocation as
 a writer.

For de Beauvoir books became the occasion of a secret revolt and a double life. She began to trespass clandestinely on the "forbidden territory" of male culture; curling up in her father's leather armchair, she dipped "quite freely into all the books in the bookcase."

It was also fitting that her primordial act of disobedience · the unseating of God · should engage the three most tortuously entangled forces in her life: sex, books, and religion. Sitting under a tree devouring forbidden apples and reading "in a book by Balzac · also forbidden · the strange idyll of a young man and a panther," she decided that she was too attached to sensual joys to be able to live any longer under "the eye of God." She summarily emptied heaven of its occupants and inherited at once the "haunting anxiety about death" which never left her, and which she struggled unremittingly to conquer in her fiction. Death as the absence of God, a kind of spectral, ever-present black electric socket, never ceased threatening to suck her being into the void.

I have spent some time on de Beauvoir's relation to books, since her early experience of reading as a libidinous insurrection deeply marked not only her choice of career and her motivation to write, but also much of her fictional and philosophical thought about the nature of desire, freedom, and limitation.

De Beauvoir thus fell between two stools: books, she was constantly reminded, were the only precious things; yet, as a female, she could touch but not possess them. She was faced with two options: either to take blind refuge under the wing of authority and submit, or to rebel.

In 1925, in violation of paternal and class decree, she chose to become a teacher, betraying herself at once, as far as her father and the scandalized matrons at Le Cours Desir were concerned, to be "a traitor to her class." If writers elicited her father's ardent approval, intellectuals were a "dangerous sect" bent on peddling incendiary ideas about socialism, equality, and democracy. Moreover, it was decidedly indecorous for a woman of her station, however reduced, to enter the professions. Thus the first watershed of de Beauvoir's identity was marked by the resolute denial of her femininity as difference. Instead she placed all her hope in riding with the renegade class of the intellectuals. At roughly the same time she began to write. She was seventeen.


 I am an intellectual, I take words and the truth to
 be of value.
 (The Prime of Life)

In 1925 de Beauvoir took her baccalauréat and enrolled at the Institut Saint-Marie at Neuilly, where she studied literature and philosophy under R. Garric. Garric was a spellbinding Catholic socialist and founder of the Équipes Sociales, an experiment to unite students and the working class. He offered de Beauvoir her first glimpse of working-class life, but despite a delirious crush on him, this encounter did little to cure her itch for the metaphysical: she did not identify with the working-class youths she met, and she was still nurturing exalted dreams of the inner life. Nevertheless, her brief exposure to this radical environment had one decisive effect: she made the brutal discovery that the class values she held most precious (progress, eternal peace, universalism) were being betrayed by the very class which exalted them. The bourgeois promise of universal humanity and happiness was a lie: universalism cloaked a niggardly class interest and a narrow materialism that excluded most of humanity, including herself.

These years were marked by a sense of exile that could only be compensated for by dreams of lonely defiance. She took refuge in the solace of a radical individualism, in a rationalistic sell-sufficiency that she believed would distinguish her from her hated class but that was, in fact, a direct cultural inheritance: "I existed only through myself and for myself." She decided to "be a soul; a pure, disembodied spirit. . . . I found escape in the clouds." Her solitude bred a dogged pride that flowed directly into her aspirations to write. Her path was marked. The lofty vocation of the genius would assuage her loneliness: "I felt I should already be trying to communicate the experience of solitude. . . . In April I wrote the first pages of a novel" (Memoirs).

The main force of her fierce repudiation of family and class, and her turn to writing as a refuge, came from this deeply felt sense of exile, a dark leitmotif coursing through the latter half of the Memoirs: "I am alone. One is always alone. I shall always be alone. . . . I'm not like other people. . . . I was 'outside life.' . . . Loneliness continued to lower my spirits. . . . I felt shut out. . . . I shall always be ostracised," and so on. She had interrupted the Catholic hosts in their consoling progress across the heavens and had swept them away; henceforth she would be a pariah, an outcast. Her anxious accession to adolescence had doubly exiled her from her body and from her father. Her secret trespass on forbidden books left her morally alienated from her mother and, indeed, from the entire moral climate of her childhood. The niggardly habits of her society refused her entry into the world of men. There was only one recourse: "I felt myself an exile, whose one remedy against solitude lay in self-expression."

The act of writing became a radical project of self-creation and self-justification. On the other hand, it was also clearly a plea for social legitimacy: "above all I wanted my contemporaries to hear and understand me." Writing was, into the bargain, the sole path that a few women had trodden before her. Literature would be her calling, because there she glimpsed the shimmering promise of autonomy. Already, it is clear, the project was scored with contradictions. The lonely vocation of the genius immured de Beauvoir from the dangers of the world. Yet what she wanted above all was social recognition: "I wanted to be loved." Her desire to write expressed a stubborn will to impress herself on the public memory and insinuate herself into the records of the scribes. But in this way she fell at once into the quandary of seeking recognition, even confirmation, of her very identity in the eyes of the established order she had vowed to despise. She could win authenticity only if she fled the world, but the flight would have meaning only if it was remarked and approved by the world. Driving through these contradictions, de Beauvoir came to represent the fundamental social difficulty of writing in her period, a general difficulty, but one deeply complicated for women.

De Beauvoir's early, steadfast individualism left its unmistakable mark on her thinking for a very long time. But hers was not a singular unease. If the fact that she was female was the first cause of her alienation, she also inherited a particular literary crisis that was part of a more general social crisis deepening at just the time she started to write. The discovery she soon made · that to write about herself meant more than anything else giving "an idea of my place, my locus in the world" · permits one to ask the question Raymond Williams asked of George Orwell : What did it mean, in that particular generation, to be a writer?

De Beauvoir, like Orwell, began to write in a period of literary crisis, at a time when the act of writing, the legitimacy of representation itself, was in serious trouble. Earlier writers of the fin-de-siècle avant-garde, like Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, out of key with the general social and political climate of their period, had run amok among the canons of literary and social authority, flinging the relics of tradition into violent, unholy patterns. The rage for modernity, the "shock of the new," had discredited any appeal to the ancestral shibboleths of order and proportion, harmony, beauty, and perfection. As Williams points out, the antagonistic relation between artist and society had reached its first climax throughout most of Europe in the 1880's and 1890's, and had by the 1920's become more embattled and more polarized. For the stolid middle class, the successful writer was one who made money: in violent reaction to this and to their slow disinheritance from cultural authority, a postwar generation of artists came to define themselves in terms of their distance from society. As Williams describes it, "The 'writer,' the true writer, had no commercial aims, but also at root, no social function and by derivation, no social content. He just 'wrote.' And then as a self-defined recognizable figure, he lived 'outside' society · unconventional, the 'artist.' "Paris became the spiritual home for these artistic exiles and emigrés, the self-styled pariahs and bohemians, the peddlers of decadence, the dilettantes, aesthetes, and voyeurs of derangement who plied their wares in the smoky cafés and bars of the 1920's.

It was to these "disciples of disquiet" that de Beauvoir became drawn in her years at the École Normale and the Sorbonne (1927-1929). She read feverishly, intoxicated by the possibility that her loneliness was not a personal affliction, but the mark of an exalted breed of thinkers, who could, with Gide, shout: "Family, I hate you! Your dead homes and shut doors." These conspirators in cultural unease also wanted to set a bonfire in the family house, to murder their father the landlord, their brother the cardinal, and their cousin the imperial colonel. Her cousin Jacques had already introduced her to "the poetry of the bars," and de Beauvoir began to haunt them with deliberate intent, indulging in drinking bouts, aping the dress and manners of the prostitutes, and from time to time knocking off people's hats or breaking a glass or two. She delighted in the excesses of the avant-garde, "the outrageous jokes of pure negation . . . the systematic derangement of the senses, suicidal despair." At the same time, as she admits in the Memoirs with a self-irony colored with nostalgia, "since they had no intention of overturning society, they contented themselves with studying the states of their precious souls in the minutest detail." Nevertheless, the bar, like the café, became emblematic in her fiction of her fixation with the dark, liminal places that lay on the threshold of social respectability and social alienation. Characteristically, her imagination was always pitched at the places of the shadowy commerce between self and other, crime and authority, desire and law.

De Beauvoir was an extravagantly talented academic. She subjected herself to a taxing regimen of reading, and began to grope her way through Descartes , Spinoza, Kant, Bergson, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, accepting with exhilaration, as she did for the rest of her life, Gide's challenge "assumer le plus possible d'humanite," to take voracious possession of the immense emporium of created things. During this time her political ideas remained hazy and her sense of history muddled. The "incomprehensible uproar" of world affairs held small attraction for her. All forms of conformity and obscurantism elicited her untempered scorn. Temperament and the happenstances of her life inclined her to the Left: "One thing I knew. I detested the extreme right"; but it was a political Manichaeism that had little form or content and was in many ways a quasi-religious relic of her Catholic morality. Her vehement denunciations of society remained very much a rebellion of the mind, and she continued to exalt metaphysics and morals over the humdrum of social matters.

De Beauvoir was initiated during this period into the elite triumvirate of Sartre and his friends André Herbaud and Paul Nizan, three exceptional philosophy students who had formed a tight coterie. The sheer virtuosity of de Beauvoir's mind attracted their attention, and they gradually opened their ranks to her. This was a momentous event for her. Not only did she quickly form with Sartre the relationship she called the one "unquestioned success of my life," but she had for the first time found a community of intellectuals. The cost was that for a long time she could not admit that her femininity set her apart from them in the world's eyes, for then she would have had to grant that having been "expelled from the paradise of childhood, [she] had not yet been admitted into the world of men."

De Beauvoir called these years before the war her "golden age." By her own account she and Sartre lived like "elves" in the enchanted circle of their own company. Consciously repudiating the "discreet trafficking in betrayal" of middle-class monogamy, they contracted an open relationship in which each was free to have deep and lasting liaisons with others, founded on a scrupulous honesty. Their loathing of bourgeois society was their first premise: they had, they believed, jettisoned every craven evasion of family, class, and tradition. Society, they were confident, "could change only as a result of a sudden cataclysmic upheaval on a global scale," and capitalism was already being "shaken by a crisis of the utmost gravity." They were all for revolution and the overthrow of the ruling class, but they remained resolutely dubious of both Marxism and socialism, which, they felt, demanded the surrender of autonomy and of individual judgment.

In The Prime of Life, the second volume of her autobiography, covering the years 1929-1944, de Beauvoir lashes herself and Sartre with characteristically inclement honesty for the airy insouciance with which they prided themselves on their "radical freedom." Their circumstances as young petit-bourgeois intellectuals gave them a great deal of independence, leisure, and license. This specifically privileged social circumstance they confused with an ontological "sovereign freedom," which they identified as the fundamental condition of all human existence; those who genuflected to circumstance were morally complicit with the forces that trammeled them. They believed themselves, on the other hand, to "consist of pure reason and pure will" and raised the idea of freedom to a ghostly fetish that served as a spectral image of their disembodied role as intellectuals.

As de Beauvoir later attested, their notions of radical individual freedom served simply to conceal and protect their interests as members of an intellectual caste: "We fondly supposed that we were representative of mankind as a whole; arid thus, all unknown to ourselves, we demonstrated our identity with the very privileged class that we thought to repudiate" (The Prime of Life). Bathed in the radiance of their own magic circle, they were deaf and blind to the insistent tramp of history. The fascists were massing, the world was on the move, but they remained spectators.

All the elements that flowed into de Beauvoir's aspirations to write and gave shape to the aesthetic form they would take were now in place. The relics of her Catholicism, her hankering for the infinite, her sense of exclusion as a female, her ambiguous class inheritance, her contact with sympathetic artistic movements · all conspired in a flight into aestheticism. But this was really an aesthetics of escape. De Beauvoir longed for an art of "inhuman purity," a cold, entranced art: faceless statues, Landscapes bare of human figures, oceans caught in the immobility of a pure moment, men turned into salt, public squares scorched with the fire of death · the aesthetics of absence she would question and abandon in her second novel, Le sang des autres (The Blood of Others, 1945). She wanted "literature to get away from common humanity" and was drawn as a result to "hermetic poems, surrealist films, abstract art, illuminated manuscripts and ancient tapestries, African masks." Completed works of great beauty broke free of humanity: "dumb, inscrutable, like huge abandoned totems: in them alone I made contact with some vital, absolute element." Reading Katherine Mansfield , she consoled herself that she, too, was a romantic personification of Mansfield's "solitary woman."

The logic of this asocial stance was, nevertheless, a social logic, and began to reveal itself as just that as the darkening cataclysm of war descended on the world. As Williams put it:

 The "aesthetic attitude towards life" was a displaced
 consciousness relating to one of many
 possible artistic decisions, but above all related
 to a version of society: not an artistic consciousness
 but a disguised social consciousness in
 which the real connections and involvements
 with others could be plausibly overlooked and
 then in effect ratified: a definition of "being a
 writer" that excluded social experience and social

But de Beauvoir's writing moved, in fact, in quite the opposite direction. What happened was the intervention of a historical crisis of such magnitude that it fundamentally discredited an entire way of thinking about literature and became thereby an example of what Orwell, living in Paris at the time, called "the invasion of literature by politics," the dramatic shift from the aestheticism of the 1920's to the socially committed writing of the 1930's.

In 1931 de Beauvoir was appointed to a teaching post in Marseilles, and Sartre received a similar position in Le Havre. In 1932 she moved to Rouen to teach literature at a lycée for girls. During these years she began to write in earnest, beginning and abandoning two novels, both of which evoked the memory of a "beloved face." The Memoirs were originally composed, we know, in order to lay two ghosts to rest: de Beauvoir's childhood self and the pale yellow face and black, brittle hair of her dead friend Zaza. Zaza · Elizabeth Mabille · was murdered, as far as de Beauvoir was concerned, by a class · the "monstrous alliance" of upper-middle-class families, with their Sunday-afternoon tea parties and croquet, the sham decor of their sobriety, their lethal decorum, and, most unforgivably, their disfiguring of the female life.

De Beauvoir had met Zaza at the age often as a fellow student at Le Cours Desir. Zaza's fire and temerity, her talent for cocking a snook at every propriety while playing the cool role of dutiful daughter, her easy mastery of ideas, books, and social graces, plunged de Beauvoir into the ignominy and delirium of an inadmissible passion. It was an (assiduously repressed) homoerotic love that lay outside the city of language as de Beauvoir knew it, a "flood of feeling that had no place in any code." She and Zaza quickly became conspirators in defiance against the suffocating tedium of domesticity, secreting themselves in M. Mabille's study to discuss forbidden ideas and books. The "tribal rites" of arranged marriage, the bartering of female bodies to cement familial prestige and property, elicited their particular loathing and fear, a fear much more pressing in Zaza's case. De Beauvoir planned to work for a living; in Zaza's class "a woman had to get married or become a nun." Zaza's mother, by all accounts a "perfect specimen of a right-minded bourgeois upbringing," hailed from "a dynasty of militant Catholics" and spent most of her waking hours in the commerce of arranging marriages. Her amiability cloaked an unrelenting fealty to Catholic propriety; as time went by and de Beauvoir began her studies, she came to recognize Zaza's friend, not inaccurately, as the enemy within, an ungracious, sell-righteous, and stubborn-minded little atheist who planned to be an intellectual and work for a living.

Zaza differed from de Beauvoir in that her background was virtually airtight: it lacked the vivid contradictions that had pushed de Beauvoir's early attempts at understanding to the point of exhaustion and revolt. Zaza had been taught by a Catholic upbringing that brooked no argument to kneel before suffering as her natural female condition. In any event, the forces ranged against her were too strong: her beloved mother, bent on marrying her profitably, refused to countenance Zaza's love for de Beauvoir's friend "Herbaud," who for various family reasons could not immediately propose marriage, and Zaza after months of a deadly struggle to escape, surrendered to the impossibility of her situation, contracted brain fever, and died.

De Beauvoir never forgave the bourgeoisie for Zaza's death or herself for not being able to save her. The unacceptable fact of Zaza's death became the theme in all de Beauvoir's early attempts to write. In her first fictional false starts she stalks restlessly around it, again in Quand prime le spirituel (When Things of the Spirit Come First, 1979), in La femme rompue (The Woman Destroyed, 1967), and in Les belles images (1966). Her autobiography breaks chronology in the final volume, returning obsessively to begin again the process of understanding. It was, by her own account, only when her political thinking had matured to the point where she could finally root Zaza's death in its full social context that the ghost would return to haunt her no more. This long attempt to account for the death of a friend involved in the process the dismantling of some of the more revered shibboleths of Western culture, the elaboration of an alternative ideology, and the writing of the first classic account of the social meaning of the female condition.

During the 1930's de Beauvoir struggled to find her literary feet. She produced two derivative novels that eventually, by her own account, degenerated into a mere hodgepodge and a bundle of short stories, When Things of the Spirit Come First, which borrowed its title, ironically, from Jacques Maritain and much of its tone, "a certain concealed irony," from John Dos Passos . The book, written over the years 1935-1937, though published only in 1979, is neither a novel nor independent stories, but a collection that orbits around the central ambition of unveiling the "multitude of crimes, both petty and great" which hide behind the "spiritual hocus-pocus" of bourgeois Catholicism.

Each story is concerned with a central female protagonist who falls victim in a different way to the intrigues, mortifications, and lethal charades of religion. The protagonist of the fourth story, Anne, is the first of a number of concealed Zazas who make their progress through de Beauvoir's fiction. Her murder in this virtually autobiographical tale serves as a vivid exemplum of all the themes that fascinated de Beauvoir: death, the scandal of otherness, the despised bourgeoisie, the conflict between crime and desire, freedom and responsibility, and the overwhelming question of how a woman comes to lead her life. Zaza's death became an exaggerated symptom of the difficulties besetting de Beauvoir's own life and inaugurated the twin obsessions round which almost all her writing revolved: the "black enlightenment" of death and "the mirage of the Other."

Indeed, it may be said that the nub around which all de Beauvoir's fiction turns, melding her political, metaphysical, and aesthetic concerns, is the paradox of death, the problem that "life contains two main truths that we must face simultaneously, and between which there is no choice · the joy of being, the horror of being no more." Almost all her novels are in some sense a "stratagem against death." Her first novel, She Came to Stay, ends with a murder, committed a moment before the collective debauch in death of World War II. Her second novel, The Blood of Others, set during the French Resistance, "attempted to show death laying siege in vain to the fullness of life." Her third novel, Tous les hommes sont mortels (All Men Are Mortal, 1946), was envisaged as a kind of "protracted wandering around the central theme of death," and much the same can be said of her nonfictional requiem to her mother, Une mort très douce (A Very Easy Death, 1964), and her exploration of old age, La vieillesse (Old Age.)

Many of of her novels open from an aboriginal darkness: the deathbed of a woman, a concierge's dead baby, a theater full of blackness. All her writing is in some sense a refusal of this void, a defiance in the face of all the evidence of the black electric socket, the metro rail, Louise's dead baby, Zaza's yellow face. Paradoxically, her writing springs in turn from this void; in defiance of the void it finds its meaning, an ambiguity she pursued tenaciously in her existentialism. Death exemplified in this way, more than anything else, the metaphysical ambiguity to which de Beauvoir was disposed.

This metaphysical ambiguity, that "all absences are contradicted by the immutable plenitude of the world," is one of the main themes of All Men Are Mortal. Fosca, a fifteenth-century Italian prince, bound by an elixir to immortality and condemned to witness to infinity the farcical repetition of wars, crises, and revolutions across the centuries, discovers that death gives life its savor and its import; without it there would be no stubborn "projects" to surpass it, no will to transcendence, and hence no human value. This is also one of the chief arguments in Pyrrhus et Cinéas, her first existentialist tract, written in 1943. Death serves as a kind of metaphysical syntactic structure, a dark invisibility on which depends the living tenses of past and future: without this differentiation time would be an unbroken monotone and would in effect cease to exist. It is in this sense that she asserts: "Our death is inside us, but not like the stone in the fruit, like the meaning of our life . . ." (Force of Circumstance).

De Beauvoir was in many respects breathing the tragic sigh of agnosticism of her generation. Having toppled God from the altar of the Absolute, death now designated a void that had all the "splendor of the plenitude of grace." Death was not simply an absence; it was a negative manifestation of God. This was almost necessarily so, considering the epoch, for the historical death of God was still too fresh for it to be felt in any other way. Her fascination with death was in part a historical response to the climate of anguish in a disenchanted world. War had exposed the visceral nakedness and organic vulnerability of the human body. Death, like sexuality, was a reminder of the body's animality, proof against all the immortal urges and lucid ambitions of the mind. A "secret and appalling organic disorder," death had the power to flagrantly flout the ideal of rational individual autonomy that de Beauvoir clung to so tenaciously.

Elaine Marks has, therefore, pointed correctly to a recurrent, almost ritualistic moment in de Beauvoir's fiction: a divertissement, an abrupt turning away from the evidence of death into a sunlit garden. The significant image is the old jacket, which occurs first in the unpublished recit of the childhood of Françoise Miquel, again in Memoirs, and again in She Came to Stay. In each variation a child stands alone in her mother's room, hemmed in by furniture that is suddenly felt to have a threatening opacity: "thick and heavy and secret; under the bookcase and under the marble console there lurked an ominous shadow" (She Came to Stay). The child's anxious gaze lights on an old jacket flung over a chair, enclosed about an enigmatic stillness. Emblematic of the ancient, black root of the chestnut tree in Sartre's Nausea (1938), the jacket remains stubbornly itself and utterly strange. Imprisoned in this mute indifference, the jacket neither emits nor admits any consoling word, rebutting thereby the ancient wisdom that the world is the word made flesh, and, by condemning the child to a radical silence, yields dire intimations of her own extinction. Turning in fright, the child dashes downstairs and out into a sunlit garden.

But the flight into the garden, as Elaine Marks notes, is not a "significant evasion." De Beauvoir brilliantly argued in Faut-il bruler Sade? (Must We Burn Sade?, 1953) that death, like sexuality, is not a biological matter. It is a social fact. If death exudes in some sense the vertiginous quality of nothingness, it is more importantly for de Beauvoir a material presence. In her novels and in her nonfiction, death's force is felt as a material and a social force. It is felt tangibly in the body: it is an odor; it is fluid and viscous; it is the blackish stuff vomited up by Uncle Gaston; it is Hélène's red blood on cotton wool. It is an organic fate, "the utter rottenness hidden in the womb of all human destiny," but more than anything else this organic secretion that leaks into the world smelling of the void insinuates itself into human lives in a social form and a social shape.

In The Blood of Others, written during the war and hailed as the first Resistance novel, the odor of death is indistinguishable from the odor of social guilt. For Jean Blomart, son of a wealthy industrialist, the smell of guilt seeps up through the floorboards from the dark printing workshops below, sousing the whole house, the blue velvet upholstery, the shining copper, the summer flowers. At the age of eight, like de Beauvoir, he had learned of the death of their servant Louise's baby and had inherited at once the "original curse" of the guilt of being consolable, of surviving another's death, the "sin of being another being." Shunning his class future, Blomart enters a factory and joins the Communist party. Events entrap him in responsibility for the deaths of a friend and of a lover, yet he decides in the end that no one can escape being tainted by social injustice and that the only moral recourse is to act · the same morganatic gift of responsibility bequeathed to de Beauvoir by the war.

In the same way that Michel Foucault challenged the traditional view of sexuality as a spontaneous upwelling within the body, replacing it with the idea of sexuality as produced by society, a creation of unstable social institutions and discourses that give it historical shape within practices of confinement, exclusion, and domination, so does de Beauvoir unfold within her fiction the idea that death is not an anonymous scandal, but rather a social and institutional force that polices garrets, workshops, and hospitals, an instrument for managing poverty, social difference, and political power. This is not to deny that death and sexuality are bodily matters, but rather to insist that they are never experienced in naked organic form. They are always social scripts, carved on the body in different ways in different historical times.

Encounters with death in de Beauvoir's novels are therefore always encounters with social reality, and death is made meaningful in collective action, revolt, and resistance · hence the sustained importance in her work of the fête as a collective, celebratory defiance. Death in itself is not a scandal. Only when humans deny other humans the right to exist does it become a social outrage. Clarice, in de Beauvoir's only play, Les bouches inutiles (Useless Mouths, 1945), vows to kill herself rather than be returned to slavery: "They have not allowed me to live. But they will not steal my death from me."

De Beauvoir's prolonged combat with death finds its double in the theme that recurs in every plot line she sketched out: the "mirage of the other." The phantasmagoric other has haunted philosophy ever since the seventeenth century, when, as Hegel pointed out, Western thought began the long attempt to reinterpret history in terms of the individual subject. In Western philosophy the Cartesian Cogito became a kind of Kaspar Hauser, found standing alone in the marketplace, without origin or social history, heir without parents to the reshaping of history. But at the same time as the individual stepped into history as a cultural idea, the other stepped out with it, an unbidden Frankenstein's monster that would shadow the luminous progress of the individual self well into the twentieth century.

As a philosopher trained in the French academy, de Beauvoir was heiress to the powerful legacy of Cartesian dualism. In addition, at much the same time that she discovered Hegel, the problem of the other presented itself to her in personal terms, in the figure of a former student of hers, Olga Kosakiewicz. Chafing with ennui in the provinces, de Beauvoir and Sartre had drawn Olga into their magic circle, both seduced by the iridescent glamour the much younger woman cast over their lives. Capricious, moody, generous, in constant revolt against every social arrangement, Olga thumbed her nose at convention and propriety and became for them the passionate incarnation of the cult of youth and rebellion. She served for them as "Rimbaud, Antigone, every enfant terrible that ever lived, a dark angel judging us from her diamond-bright heaven." Passionately attached to both de Beauvoir and Sartre, Olga turned their magic circle into an intolerable triangle, and de Beauvoir, "led [in] a terrible dance by this quietly infernal machine we had set in motion," discovered for herself the "curse of the other." She readily interpreted her dilemma within the ideology of the other that she had inherited. "The curse of the other" entered She Came to Stay as its founding theme.

In 1936 de Beauvoir was appointed, as was Sartre, to a lycée · he to Lyons, she to Paris. There, in the autumn before the war, she began She Came to Stay. Though she claims she discovered Hegel when she was well into the novel, it opens with the Hegelian epigraph "Each consciousness seeks the death of the other." For Hegel consciousness emerges only in opposition to another sell. The self comes to consciousness only when it sees itself reflected in the eyes of another self-consciousness. The paradox of consciousness is that this alien being is immediately experienced as being outside the self, unknowable and malign. The primal relation between self and other is thus one of inescapable hostility and estrangement. As each self sees the alien other standing before it, it struggles to manifest the sovereignty of its own will by the subjection of the other. So the tragic paradox of consciousness is that it is founded on a life-and-death struggle between two beings, each trying to escape the sorrowful state of self-estrangement by the subjugation of the other, the very being on whom its own consciousness depends.

She Came to Stay opens at night with Françoise, a writer, cupped in the rosy light of her theater office. Enfolding this luminous center is the darkened theater, inhuman and black. As Françoise steps out into the office, objects spring to life, materializing before the conjuring glance of her eye: "when she was not there, the smell of dust, the half-light, the forlorn solitude, all this did not exist for anyone; it did not exist at all." This scene captures in miniature the grandiose illusion of individual autonomy · Françoise's fantasy of being her own cause and her own end, and philosophy's long dream that the rational, individual mind might illuminate at a glance the entire world. When Xaviere Pages intrudes into Françoise's long-standing relationship with her lover, Pierre, this crystal illusion shivers into pieces. Passionate, elusive, and unfathomable, Xaviere occasions for Françoise the shattering and unacceptable discovery of the other, the opacity of another being spellbound in the solitude of its own self. Xaviere becomes a "living question mark," an intolerable affront to Françoise's fierce will to autonomy: "Other people could not only steal the world from her, but also invade her personality and bewitch it." Expelled from her sovereign position at the center of the world, Françoise's answer to the ethical problem of coexistence is to defend herself against the invasion of the other in the most violently decisive way. At the end of the novel she turns on the gas in Xaviere's room, murdering her while she sleeps. Released at the same time from her bondage to Pierre, Françoise becomes the triumphant possessor of her own autonomy: "It was her own will which was being fulfilled. Now nothing separated her from herself. At last she had chosen. She had chosen herself."

Through Françoise, de Beauvoir was exploring the virtually demonic urge to devour the world that had bewitched her from her childhood, the will to imperialism of the human consciousness that she explores in social terms in The Second Sex. With the murder of Xaviere, de Beauvoir unfolds, though at this stage uncritically, the murderous and fatal logic of radical individualism. The barbaric simplicity of the metaphysics of individual freedom, as de Beauvoir later attests, reveals as its dark underbelly a vision of primordial conflict.

With the outbreak of war in 1939, de Beauvoir's life was invaded by a much more brutal and tragic intruder: "Suddenly History burst over me, and I dissolved into fragments. I woke to find myself scattered over the four corners of the globe." She made the radical discovery of solidarity and dependence on others. If until then her thought had been "riddled with bourgeois idealism and aestheticism," the spring of 1939 "marked a watershed. . . . I renounced my individualistic, anti-humanist way of life. I learned the value of solidarity. . . . I now came to know that in the very marrow of my being I was bound up with my contemporaries."

Sartre had been mobilized in 1939 and taken prisoner of war in Lorraine in 1940. With Sartre snatched away from her, her life in turmoil, she learned for the first time what it was to live "under the domination of events." She now embarked on what she called "the moral period of my literary career." Her immediate postwar writings were thus more than anything a response to one inescapable lesson of the war: "the ghastly uncertainty of our moral state." Nevertheless, she could not jettison her individualism overnight; first she had to pass through existentialism, which can in many respects be seen as a last-ditch attempt to save the individual in a historical context.

Existentialism is a philosophy of crisis. Violently born into the political cradle of the French Resistance, it rapidly became, in Mark Poster's phrase, the "continental sensation" of the postwar 1940's and 1950's. Although de Beauvoir and Sartre originally protested the use of Gabriel Marcel's label to describe their work, existentialism was fully inaugurated in 1943 with the publication of Sartre's L'être et le néant (Being and Nothingness). This huge, often impenetrably difficult work was at first reluctantly received but came to enjoy a phenomenal success, traveling rapidly from the corridors of philosophy into every nook and cranny of the cafés and nightclubs of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where a mélange of discontented and iconoclastic artists and poets maudits flirted with fashionable versions of nausea, futility, and disenchantment.

The austerity and discipline of existential atheism, its combatant refusal of every traditional solace, and its loyalty to freedom and authenticity caught the mood of a bereft world. Fascism had triumphed and stalled, France had felt the German boot on its soil, and western civilization had been ransacked by its own fascist offspring and was in disarray. French culture cast about for a faith that could help it make sense of its world.

The existentialist climate for consciousness was as a result anxiety and introspection, negativity and frustration. Nevertheless, both de Beauvoir and Sartre always denied, against their critics, that existentialism was a doctrine of despair. They protested that it offered instead a sturdy and vital anxiety which did, indeed, snatch away every traditional strut, but replaced these with the challenge to accept full responsibility for living in a world without appeal. Still, between the years 1945 and 1950 existentialism faced a barrage of Marxist denunciation. Henri Le Febvre condemned it as a "neurosis of interiority," a pathological narcissism that arose from the morbid symptoms of petit-bourgeois anxiety. Existentialism was accused of fostering as a result a morose decadence and an infantile regression to anxious abandonment. The Right, in turn, viewed Sartre as the poet maudit of the sewers, peddling a godless credo of nothingness and futility.

Existentialism had, in fact, begun for Sartre during the war as an attempt to reconcile the German idealist tradition · and his freedom of intellectual judgment · with the political lessons of solidarity and commitment he had learned as a prisoner of war. The central tenor of all his writing in the 1950's and 1960's is the attempt to fuse into a livable doctrine a system that would unite the intelligentsia and the working class in an alliance against the old ruling classes of the world. His appointed role was that of mediator: "Coming from the middle-class, we tried to bridge the gap between the intellectual petite-bourgeoisie and the Communist intellectuals." Later he defined the writer's role in much the same way: "The writer is, par excellence, a mediator and his commitment is to mediation."

The original tenet of existentialism is freedom. Over the years de Beauvoir and Sartre both constantly revised their formulations of freedom and eventually abandoned altogether the notion of absolute freedom · in 1977 Sartre confessed the absurdity of such an illusion and wondered how he could ever have entertained it. But freedom nevertheless remains the founding principle of their thought. For both of them God had been emptied from the world. The roar of meaning the Greeks had heard in a torrential sky was a nostalgia for unity without foundation. Humanity no longer lived in a place in which stones and blossoms spoke of God. For de Beauvoir and Sartre the appetite for religious transcendence became an illusion as remote as a lost paradise; and having faded, it exposed the unending task of creating meaning from the ordinary heroics of human effort. In the early formulation of existentialism, humans are flung at birth into the paradox of an inescapable freedom; or as the famous slogan has it, "Man is condemned to be free." For de Beauvoir, as for Sartre, humans are nothing other than what they make of themselves. As Blomart chides Hélène in The Blood of Others, "I think that where you go wrong is that you imagine that your reasons for being ought to fall on you, ready-made from heaven, whereas you have to find them."

From this radical assertion of freedom sprang the ethics of authenticity through action: "From the point of view of freedom, all situations could be salvaged if one assumed them as a project" (Force of Circumstance). As Blomart says: "We only exist if we act." Any evasion of authenticity · the lucid defiance of things as they are · smells of the sin of mauvais foi, of bad faith against the réalité humaine of freedom. Hélè ne's attempt in The Blood of Others to use "the infinity of the future as an alibi" to escape from the intolerable present is just such an evasion.

Existentialism thus contains within it a political agenda and an ethics of action. As de Beauvoir puts it in Force of Circumstance, the third volume of her autobiography, "Existentialism was a definition of humanity through action; if it condemned one to anxiety it did so only in so far as it obliged one to accept responsibility. The hope it denied one was the idle reliance on anything other than oneself; it was an appeal to the human will." The ethics of authenticity entails in turn the politics of engagement, the moral obligation to intervene directly in changing the world. Moreover, the refusal to act politically is itself a political action. Freedom is authentic only if it is engagé, pitted against the unacceptable conditions of the present.

The abiding dilemma of existentialism now begins to make itself felt. Sartre defines existentialism as a philosophy according to which "existence precedes and perpetually creates the essence." But this apparently radical rejection of "natural humanity" still cloaks a faith in human essences. In existentialism the absurd adventure of freedom plays itself out more as a state of mind than anything to do with prisons, armies, asylums, or factories. The human being is willy-nilly identified with freedom and the politics of engagement, but this is strictly an affair of the individual and of individual will. For Sartre responsibility is "total responsibility in total solitude." As he defines it, "The basic idea of existentialism is that even in the most crushing situations, the most difficult circumstances, man is free. Man is never powerless except when he is persuaded that he is, and the responsibility of man is immense because he becomes what he decides to be." Existentialism was still haunted by its idealistic origins.

The plantation slave, the harem chattel, and the tyrant possess in these terms an identical potential for freedom, and hence the same moral culpability for resignation. Into the bargain, each choice is random and without prior foundation, a hazardous leap into the future. At the same time, the radical severance from history cripples any attempt to explain the tenacity of certain systems of power and authority; why, for example, some groups rather than others control the pathways of freedom. As a result, despite its radical promise and its exhilarating appeal to action, early Sartrean morality remains what Mary Evans calls "the morality of the free market."

De Beauvoir shed the ethic of absolute freedom more rapidly than Sartre; yet Sartre's actual political involvement was much in advance of hers. She admitted much earlier that Sartrean freedom is the abstract fantasy of intellectuals privileged to be able to intervene only sporadically in history. It might be said that the great arc of de Beauvoir's thinking describes a veering away from this Sartrean vision to a much more somber recognition of the dense historical limits to freedom. Out of this recognition evolved a persistently more radical view of social relations, perhaps best articulated in the words of her friend Colette Audry: "Relations with the . . . are transcended; they become relations with others."

There is no doubt that de Beauvoir's vision was initially more optimistic than Sartre's. Pour une morale de l'ambiguitè (The Ethics of Ambiguity), first published in 1947 in Les temps modernes, a journal that Sartre and de Beauvoir founded, was undertaken to defend existentialism against the charges that it was a "sterile anguish." Sartre had insisted on the "abortive aspect of the human adventure"; as Anne Whitmarsh points out, it is "the positive, optimistic side of his philosophy, well hidden and often ignored, which she attempts to explore" (Simone de Beauvoir). For de Beauvoir existentialism defined itself as "a philosophy of ambiguity." The fundamental condition of being is lack-of-being, the frustration of potential: humanity is manqué from the start. But each person can "deny the lack as lack and confirm itself as a positive existence."

The example de Beauvoir gives is suggestive, for it captures her old affliction of loneliness, identified here as a metaphysical frustration before the "otherness" of a landscape: "I should like this sky, this quiet water to think themselves within me, that it might be I whom they express in flesh and bone, and I remain at a distance." The stubborn will to appropriate the landscape unfolds the lust for transcendence that sets humans apart, even in opposition, to nature: "I cannot appropriate the snowfield where I slide. It remains foreign, forbidden, but I take delight in this very effort toward an impossible possession. I experience it as a triumph, not as a defeat" (The Ethics of Ambiguity).

De Beauvoir sets herself deliberately at odds with Hegel, who sought to reconcile all ambiguity in a final flowering of reason, but here she acquiesces at the same time in a specifically Hegelian tradition of defining the very ground of identity in terms of violence, appropriation, conflict, and possession, a metaphysics of violence she does not fully abandon even in The Second Sex. She later repudiated The Ethics of Ambiguity as her least satisfying book: "Of all my books, it is the one that irritates me the most today. . . . I was in error when I thought I could define a morality independent of a social context." As she puts it in a different context, at the very moment she was rejecting the language of her class, she was still using their language to do so: "The fact remains that on the whole I went to a great deal of trouble to present inaccurately a problem to which I then offered a solution quite as hollow as the Kantian maxims." "Why," she asks, "did I write concrete liberty instead of bread?" (Force of Circumstance).

In May 1946 de Beauvoir had finished The Ethics of Ambiguity and was casting about for a new subject. The Blood of Others had been very well received, All Men Are Mortal less so. Her play Les bouches inutiles strode rather baldly around the existential problem of whether the male council of a besieged town, Vauxcelles, should expell all the "useless mouths" · the women, the elderly, children, and the infirm · to die in the gullies beyond the town. It had a brief and disappointing season, and she never again tried her hand at drama. Now what she wanted above all was to write about herself. But this meant first of all answering the question that had been plaguing her for so long and to which she had turned a stolidly deaf ear: "What has it meant to me to be a woman?"

For nearly forty years de Beauvoir had pretended that being female made no difference: she was an intellectual and that was that. One might say therefore that the first forging of her adult identity was a negative one: a refusal of family, class, and the specifically female fate that had dragged Zaza down. She had fashioned her adult identity in deliberate opposition by becoming an intellectual. As an intellectual she could staunch her acutely feminine sense of exile by taking refuge, not as a woman, but as an individual within the tradition of radical individualism: "Just as previously I had refused to be labelled 'a child,' now I did not think of myself as a 'woman.' I was me." For quite a while, it worked: "Since I was twenty-one, I have never been lonely."

Yet through all her novels and writings there courses a very deep problem: that other identity, that other self, which was her, whether she liked it or not, and which remained an obscure and nagging obsession until she herself wrote about it, for the simple reason that her culture was not going to do it for her. So that the very choice she had made to be an intellectual ("writing would reconcile everything") inexorably returned her to the riddle of feminine identity from which it had originally promised a refuge.

One of the reasons she balked so long at the obvious was that it meant abandoning the morality of individualism which embued her entire life and bound her to Sartre. It meant accepting the intolerable and tragic fact that in the world's eyes being a woman was not the same as being an individual. Her position in the collective "we" of her relation to Sartre had in any case been presenting her for some time with a dilemma that arose out of the very individualism which buoyed her up. How could she define herself in relation to others within a philosophy that defined the other as the thief and enemy of selfhood and that, moreover, excluded her as a woman from its privileges? Specifically, how could she express fealty to a man without entering into vassalage: "Is there any possible reconciliation between fidelity and freedom? And if so, at what price. . . . To accept a secondary status in life, that of a mere ancillary being, would have been to degrade my own humanity" · a puzzle that is one of the founding themes of The Mandarins. For years she had shrugged off the discomfiting fact that "the only reason for the problem presenting itself to me in these terms was because I happened to be a woman. But it was qua individual that I attempted to resolve it. The idea of feminism and the sex war made no sense whatsoever to me."

Now, in May 1946, with an itch to write a personal confession, she followed Sartre's suggestion to explore what difference growing up female had in fact made: "I looked, and it was a revelation: this was a masculine world, my childhood had been nourished by myths forged by men, and I hadn't reacted to them in at all the same way I should have done if I had been a boy." This revolution in personal identity was summed up in one simple sentence: "Wanting to talk about myself, I became aware that to do so I should first have to describe the condition of women in general" (Force of Circumstance). The shock of identity was a genuine breakthrough, and with it de Beauvoir's life and thought moved into a new dimension. She was forty years old.


 Today I know that the first thing I have to say if I
 want to describe myself, is that I am a woman.
 (All Said and Done)

The Second Sex was written out of its time. Published in 1949, it stood on an empty horizon, years after the suffrage movement at the turn of the century, years before the feminism of the 1970's. But it could not conceivably have been written at any other time. Its very untimeliness bears witness, in fact, to its paradoxical origins. Written by a woman who was also an existentialist intellectual, The Second Sex is scored through and through with the eddies and crosscurrents that arose from this special position. Quickened into life by the founding tenets of existentialism, the book came to reveal their phantasmic nature and delivered the coup de grâce to the alluring vision of individual autonomy and will that had enchanted de Beauvoir for so long.

The Second Sex is a remarkable document not only because many of its denunciations of the male management of the world remain tragically valid, but also because it records the fascinating record of the demise of an old way of thinking and the turbulent upheaval of a new · the emergence of a radical feminism that was in turn deeply colored, some would say blemished, by the very existentialist climate which had nourished it. In this respect it is what de Beauvoir would call an "epochal" book.

It has become easy to dismiss The Second Sex as an "unread classic." There is no doubt that it is a demanding book, an exhaustive thousand-page raid on biology, history, mythology, cosmology, politics, medicine, and literature to answer the single question of women's subjection. In its form it is turbulent, cataclysmic, and self-contradictory, virtually buckling under the stress of its innovatory brilliance and erudition. So it is important to remember how extraordinary a book it was in its time. The first volume, published in Les temps modernes, was read politely. The second met a storm of abuse and outrage, which did not abate. De Beauvoir had trampled publicly on very hallowed ground: the cult of the family, the mystique of maternity, the economy of domestic production, the cultural denigration of the female, the plundering and policing of female sexuality, lesbianism, and abortion. Ultimately, the revolution she was calling for would mean the most extensive redistribution of property and privilege in the history of the world.

The enabling idea of The Second Sex is existentialist freedom. For de Beauvoir, as for Sartre, there is no human nature, since there is no God to see it. Since there is no human nature, there is no fountain of the "eternal feminine," no feminine essence, no female fate. Women's subjection has nothing to do with the moon's drag or the flow of the tides. In the now famous terms that open Book II of The Second Sex, "One is not born, but rather becomes a woman." If everywhere women are subdued, beset, and distressed, the blame lies at the door of culture, which can be broken down. For de Beauvoir, dismantling the cities of custom erected by men to barricade their privilege will be an incendiary, revolutionary development. Moreover, this liberation "must be collective, and it requires first of all that the economic evolution of women's development first be accomplished."

At the same time feminists themselves have been dismayed by some of the arguments in The Second Sex. De Beauvoir was deeply indebted to existentialism, which nevertheless dragged in its train certain consequences that cast their ambiguous influence over the book. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre defines the origin of consciousness as the consequence of being seen by another: "On principle, the Other is he who looks at me." The glance of the other becomes the fundamental category of human consciousness and is, therefore, also the foundation of human relations. For Sartre the gaze of the other steals the world from me and turns me into an object: the other is the death of my possibilities and my "original sin." Here the gaze is a social idea, since it binds people and shapes identity, but it remains barren of social content, dramatizing social relations as a hostile clashing of equal and fleshless selves. In The Second Sex de Beauvoir discovers that the Sartrean idea of conflict as the crucible of consciousness becomes radically unstable when applied to women: by tradition and decree it is the man who gazes, it is the woman who is other. On her "journey into history," de Beauvoir was everywhere returned to a stark revelation: "What peculiarly signals the subjection of woman is that she · a free and autonomous being like all human creatures · nevertheless finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the Other."

Rifling through anthropology, history, mythology, and culture, de Beauvoir finds that "Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought." In other words, self and other is a primordial division in all consciousness. It was therefore "not originally attached to the division of the sexes." De Beauvoir retains in this way the idea of consciousness as conflict, but makes the radical discovery that everywhere in history "man put himself forward as the Subject and considered the woman as an object, as the Other" (Force of Circumstance). At once the formal Sartrean categories of freedom, the autonomous individual, and the other are flooded with history and capsize, and the existentialism that quickens The Second Sex slowly begins to subvert itself.

The fundamental question of The Second Sex is historical. What is the origin of woman as the other? Jews, blacks, foreigners, proletarians are also periodically condemned to the ghetto of otherness. Yet de Beauvoir finds a crucial difference: "Proletarians say 'we'; Negroes also. Regarding themselves as subjects, they transform the bourgeois, the whites, into 'others.' But women do not say 'we.'" (Neither in fact does de Beauvoir; women in The Second Sex are "they.") For de Beauvoir, women are alone among the oppressed in that we have never risen up to dispute men's thrall; there is something in the condition of otherness that seduces us, and we become complicit in our own enchainment. This position has been fiercely disputed, and we will return to it shortly, but for the moment it is enough to say that de Beauvoir begins to answer the question of the origin of women's submission by importing into The Second Sex the existentialist distinction between immanence and transcendence.

For de Beauvoir, all humans, women and men, harbor within themselves a primitive conflict between Immanence and transcendence. Immanence is a condition of blind submission to existence, torpid, submerged, and organic. Transcendence, on the other hand, expresses the insatiable will to "imperialism of the human consciousness, seeking always to exercise its sovereignty in objective fashion." Transcendence leaps up out of immanence into the realm of aggression, revolt, art, culture, and the risking of life: "Every time transcendence falls back into immanence, stagnation, there is a degradation of existence into the en-soi · the brutish life of subjection to given conditions."

As de Beauvoir sees it, there are powerful inducements to surrender to immanence. The ethical urge to liberty is challenging and fearful; alongside this there is a deep-seated temptation to "forgo liberty and become a thing," to acquiesce in the ruinous inertia of immanence. The anxiety of liberty is so tormenting and fundamental that "immediately after weaning, when the infant is separated from the whole, it is compelled to lay hold upon its alienated existence in mirrors and the gaze of its parents" to escape the heaviness of its own selfhood. Women, in particular, have been tempted to enshrine themselves in immanence, beguiled by the promise of security. This is their "original treason." Woman, for de Beauvoir, is "often well pleased with her role as the Other."

Certainly feminists have been most alarmed by those parts in The Second Sex where de Beauvoir treats the female body. At certain moments in the text the female body appears to serve as the incarnation of immanence itself: "Woman is doomed to the continuation of the species and the care of the home · that is to say, to immanence." The pregnant female is "victim of the species," which gnaws at her vitals. Her maternal fate is to be "prey to a stubborn and foreign life that each month constructs and tears down a cradle within her body . . . aborted in the crimson flow." Pregnant, she is "tenanted by another, who battens upon her substance."

Sexually, woman exists for man as inwardness, enclosure, a resistance to be broken through; in penetrating her the male bursts forth into transcendence and manifests the power of life. Her sexuality, on the other hand, conveys the essence of a mysterious, threatening passivity: female sexuality is "the soft throbbing of a mollusc," mucous, humid, and secretive. De Beauvoir consistently reaches for an array of what might be seen as perverse, neurotic metaphors that identify female eroticism as an organic degeneration to primitive life forms: "Woman lies in wait like the carnivorous plant, the bog in which insects and children are swallowed up." This metaphoric consistency reaches beyond The Second Sex into her fiction. In The Blood of Others Hélène abandons herself voluptuously in a sensual delirium that takes on all the appearance of an evolutionary metamorphosis to a primordial organic state: enveloped in sticky vapors, her flesh turns to plant, then to "a humid and spongy moss . . . forever enclosed in that viscid darkness," then to "an obscure and flabby jellyfish lying on a bed of magic sea-anemones."

It is not surprising that feminists have reacted with dismay to this depiction of female sexuality as submerged in a viscid, erotic night. It has, however, been pointed out that de Beauvoir inherited the nightmarish metaphors of "slimes and holes" from none other than Sartre, who devoted a portion of Being and Nothingness to an analysis of the "slimy": "The slimy is docile. . . . Slime is the revenge of the In-itself. A sickly-sweet, feminine revenge." The slimy reveals the threat of the "envenomed possession" of the male by the female. So does the "hole," which serves for Sartre as a fundamental, existential quality expressive of the "obscenity of the feminine, . . . that of everything which gapes open." For Sartre the tendency to fill, to plug holes, is a fundamental tendency of the human psyche: "The experience of the hole envelops the ontological presentiment of sexual experience in general; it is with his flesh that the child stops up the hole." It is Important to note here, as Michèle Le Doeuff does, that this fundamental "human" tendency is suddenly revealed to be male: "The female child will no doubt have to trade in her . . . fundamental human tendency," which is to fill, in order to be filled. The subject is suddenly and forever male; the female is banished beyond the frontiers of subjectivity.

Sartre needed the metaphors of knowledge as penetration, of the female as a slimy, gaping immanence, in order to give closure to his system. The Sartrean transcendental self needs the sticky, threatening female to guarantee (male) identity through conflict and conquest. In The Second Sex de Beauvoir unfolds this timeless scenario as an epochal point of view, a cultural attitude so fashioned as to perpetuate the intolerable condition of women. There in fact runs alongside the troubling nightmare of the female as organic regression another quite different vision, often overlooked or ignored, a lyrical panegyric to the silky beauty and magnificence of the female body.

It is therefore important at this stage to read de Beauvoir's text very carefully. For accompanying, and in opposition to, her account of immanence and transcendence, runs a far more radical explanation of women's subjection. One of the reasons for the widely contradictory interpretations of The Second Sex is the intricacies of its tone. It is deeply ironic, an often satirical, dramatic tissue of many voices. De Beauvoir has, as a consequence, been hauled over the coals for pronouncements that, if read carefully in context, are experiments in ventriloquism, the ironic voicing of a view which she rapidly proceeds to demolish.

Her notions of immanence and transcendence appear to signal a fall back into "human nature," as does her account of the female body helpless in the iron grip of the species. There is little doubt that de Beauvoir's sense of "the primitive misery of being a body" was in part a relic of the Catholic denigration of the flesh, compounded by her fear that her own flesh would eventually plunge her into extinction. The body threatened in every way the lucid rationality she so treasured. As she saw it, women in orgasm, for example, literally "lost their minds." Yet while she insists on biological differences between men and women, she states clearly: "I deny that they establish for her a fixed and inevitable destiny. They are insufficient for setting up a hierarchy of the sexes; they fall to explain why woman is the Other; they do not condemn her to remain in this subordinate role forever. . . . I categorically reject the notion of psychophysiological parallelism."

Indeed, The Second Sex appears to describe a sporadic zigzag course: affirmation of a primordial conflict between transcendence and immanence as the origin of all action, and a categorical insistence on the primacy of the "situation." This is one of the reasons why the book is so variously interpreted. In fact, for her it is neither one nor the other, which is why it is so important to read her dialectically, in the full sense of the word. Part of what is happening in the book is the settling of a long debate with Sartre. We learn from her autobiography that for some time she had been disagreeing with him on the nature of freedom: "I maintained that from the angle of freedom as Sartre defined it · that is, an active transcendence of some given context rather than mere stoic resignation · not every situation was equally valid: what sort of transcendence could a woman shut up in a harem achieve?" (The Prime of Life). In the end, she says, she made a "token submission" to Sartre's point of view, even though she remained sure: "Basically I was right." Why this token submission? To defend her position would have meant abandoning the entire intellectual basis of all their work, "the plane of the individual, and therefore idealistic, morality on which we set ourselves." The Second Sex amounts to a tremendous, contorted, incendiary effort to wrest from this precious heritage of the individual an alternative, fully social history of the female condition.

What is the "situation" of women? It is not biology. Muscular force cannot be the basis for domination, since violence itself is a social category. Human privilege rests on anatomical privilege only by virtue of the total social situation. It is not psychology. De Beauvoir respects the fertile insights of psychoanalysis but rejects its portrayal of humans as the playthings of subterranean drives. Psychoanalysis robs humans of the responsibility for choice, and, far more damagingly, it fails to explain why woman is the other: "The phallus assumes the value it does because it symbolizes a sovereignty realized in other domains." Yet psychoanalysis is bankrupt when it comes to explaining the social sovereignty of the male.

Finally, it is not economy that ensures men their thrall over women. Despite the fact that The Second Sex owes so much to Marxism, de Beauvoir remained skeptical of its easy promises to women. For Friedrich Engels the arrival of private property ushered in the "world-historical defeat of the female sex." Maternal right yielded to patriarchy as property was handed down from father to son and no longer from mother to clan. Women became subsumed in property, passing from father to husband. Yet although de Beauvoir is deeply sympathetic and indebted to Engels, what she found missing was, firstly, an account of how the institution of private property came about, secondly, how this entailed the enslavement of women, and, thirdly, where the interest lay in the passing of inheritance from father to son, rather than from father to daughter, or to the clan. In the last analysis de Beauvoir faults Engels for his neglect of the original imperialism of the human will: "If the human consciousness had not included the original category of the Other and an original aspiration to dominate the Other, the invention of the bronze tool could not have caused the oppression of women."

There is, ultimately, only one reason why woman remains enchained: "Woman does not assert her demands as a subject because she lacks the concrete means." These concrete means have been stolen from her and are scrupulously denied her during her passage from infancy, to adolescence, to womanhood. It is to woman's "situation," the key word of The Second Sex, that de Beauvoir returns again and again: "It is said that woman is sensual, she wallows in immanence; but she has first been shut up in it." This, then, is the project of the book: "We shall study woman in an existentialist perspective with due regard to her total situation."

Since there is no founding, aboriginal cause of women's abjection, de Beauvoir employs her expansive intelligence to expose the "forest of props" that men have erected to barricade their privileges. As Le Doeuff puts it, "Daily life is all the more narrowly policed because the subjection of women has at each moment to be reinvented." The cultural invention of woman's lot begins at infancy, which is embattled by the capricious magic of the adult gaze. The arduous and dangerous accession to female adolescence is shaped by a host of damaging conventions: our crimped education, our enshrinement in the family, the theft of our sexuality, our economic servitude. Everything conspires against the young girl, but, for de Beauvoir, our vassalage is ultimately secured by two major institutions: marriage and maternity.

Marriage inspires nothing but de Beauvoir's unrestrained animosity. Following Claude Lévi-Strauss, she views matrimony as an institution whereby women become a fleshly coinage exchanged from man to man: "Woman, as slave or vassal, is integrated within families dominated by fathers and brothers, and she has always been given in marriage by certain males to other males." Marriage is an organized plundering of women's labor and sexuality. Women perform two-thirds of the world's work, yet own only one percent of the world's property. This situation is perpetuated by restricting a woman's aspirations to a career that reduces her to virtually total financial dependency and all her ambitions to the Sisyphian torture of housework.

Even granting, as de Beauvoir does, the different historical shapes that marriage has taken, much of her criticism remains valid. But her bleak portrayal of motherhood has drawn particularly hostile fire. For de Beauvoir the mother is "confined in a limbo of immanence and contingence"; doomed to repetition and futility, "she is occupied without ever doing anything." Moreover, for de Beauvoir, woman in the early history of the world was "nourishing, never creative. In no domain whatever did she create." Her picture of women as victims of their own seething, organic fecundity collapses the rich and historically diverse sphere of women's activities into the single "natural function" of maternity.

In fact, women were for the most part the gatherers and horticulturists in early societies and were thus in all likelihood responsible for the major cultural and technological advances in horticulture, medicine and healing, pottery, weaving, and so on. By way of dealing with the early history of the world de Beauvoir echoes Lévi-Strauss in claiming that "this has always been a man's world." But a rich body of knowledge has now been made available by anthropology and history that testifies to the paramount political and cultural authority women held in the myriad egalitarian, or matrilineal-matrilocal societies that have been documented (Eleanor Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance). Moreover, de Beauvoir's notion that women have never risen up to resist men's thrall is refuted by much historical evidence to the contrary. Throughout history, women have revolted individually or in groups, sporadically or for sustained periods, successfully or futilely, in different ways in different periods, but yielding overall a long and intricate history of stubborn refusal to genuflect before their fate.

It is hard to escape the fact that de Beauvoir's denunciation of maternity, if perfectly legitimate as a personal though privileged choice, is unrealistic as a general exhortation and connives ultimately with the male denigration of domestic life that produces precisely the crippling dependence of women she was combating. Her nausea of the flesh can, however, also be seen as a fierce protest against the socially conspired denial of female reproductive rights in an era with no legal abortion and no legal contraceptives. As she says: "There are many aspects of feminine behavior that should be interpreted as forms of protest."

What matters, therefore, is not to judge de Beauvoir from an absolute point of view, but rather to understand her in her time. The current renaissance in the industrial West of freely chosen motherhood is in fact a privileged heritage of the fight for abortion rights that de Beauvoir herself ignited, and remains, sadly, the privilege of a small number of the world's women. In her time de Beauvoir's unveiling of the glamorous cult of the family, the hypocrisy of middle-class monogamy and its historical alliance with prostitution, the grueling monotony of domestic labor and the economic servitude of the housewife, her assault on marriage as a "surviving relic of dead ways of life," and her call for full control by women over their bodies · all this was extraordinarily radical, and still is, to which the fury of public response is sufficient testimony.

De Beauvoir maintained that she was never hostile to motherhood as such, only to the suffocating cultural myths in which it has been swaddled and the social circumstances that make it a special burden to women. She also said that if she were to write The Second Sex today, she would root the oppression of women not in a primitive and Manichaean struggle between consciousness, but in a materialist analysis of the economic vicissitudes of scarcity and a struggle over vital resources. Nevertheless, she called The Second Sex "possibly the book that has brought me the deepest satisfaction of all that I have written."

One personal outcome of The Second Sex for de Beauvoir was that it loosed a flood of autobiographical creativity that did not abate until she ceased writing altogether. In October 1950 she began writing The Mandarins, for which she won the Prix Goncourt (1954) and the admiration of France. In her autobiography she has this to say of the novel: "I started a vast novel, the heroine was to live through all my own experiences. . . . I wanted it to contain all of me · myself in relation to life, to death, to my times, to writing, to love, to friendship, to travel." That is to say, in it would finally flower the autobiographical stirrings so long denied and now quickened into bud by The Second Sex. Like almost all of her writing after The Second Sex, The Mandarins amounts to the creation of a persona, Simone de Beauvoir: the bold assertion of a female figure stubbornly determined to haunt her epoch, in person and in public. For The Mandarins unites the three impulses · the autobiographical, the social, and the political · that had always dominated her life but that had been held apart until now: "I also wanted to depict other people, and above all to tell the feverish and disappointing story of what happened after the war" (Force of Circumstance).

The Mandarins explores de Beauvoir's own very special, paradoxical milieu: the heady, conflicted world of the French intellectual Left after the war. France has often been called the paradise of the intellectuals, and great weight is traditionally given intellectuals' writings. (Charles de Gaulle, for example, stung by Sartre's fierce public opposition to the attempts to crush the Algerian war of independence, nevertheless declined to arrest him: "One does not arrest Voltaire .") But the aftermath of World War II found the French intelligentsia standing unsteadily in a new and difficult world. The political system had capsized in 1940; the Third Republic, after defeat, occupation, and collaboration, had proved itself bankrupt of all credibility and became a political fatality. The nineteenth-century capitalist order had entered its dog days in the 1930's. The aftermath of war inspired as a result a great flaming of intellectual activity in politics. As de Beauvoir put it, "Politics had become a family affair, and we expected to have a hand in it."

In 1945 de Beauvoir had helped found Les temps modernes, which was consistently anti-colonialist, independently socialist, and anti-Gaullist, with a largely intellectual rather than populist readership. In 1948 a group of intellectuals, activists, trade unionists, and journalists formed the Rassemblement Democratique Revolution, which "wanted to unite all the socialist forces in Europe behind a definite policy of neutralism." The Communists had consistently spurned Sartre's overtures of friendship, so he joined the RDR, which reflected his own unsteady class position "astride two classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat." Sartre resigned from the RDR in 1949 to protest its listing toward the Right; the RDR soon collapsed and with it hope in a middle way. Sartre left the RDR convinced that the individual was powerless to effect change; the individual can be defended as an end in itself, but an effective political organization cannot be founded on the principle of radical individualism, which by definition cripples all collective action and renders political organizations inoperable. De Beauvoir voiced the bleak sense of disillusionment this occasioned: "History was no longer on my side. There was no place for those who refused to become part of either of the two blocs" (Force of Circumstance).

According to de Beauvoir, "Before the war few intellectuals had tried to understand their epoch." One notable and celebrated exception was Julien Benda, whose La trahison des clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals, 1928) was a passionate defense of the intellectual vocation as a tradition of detachment. For Benda the intellectual life was a monkish calling, inspired only by "a pure passion of the intelligence, implying no terrestrial love," a position not at all remote from De Beauvoir and Sartre's early vision of themselves as ordained to be celestial "hunters of truth." Benda fulminated against the sight of intellectuals tramping in the marketplace and raising their voices in the political hubbub. But postwar France had moved irrevocably into a world in which cultural clout was passing from the hands of the traditional intellectuals into those of a new breed of media technocrats.

Regis Debray discerns three stages in French intellectual history: the academic (1880-1930), the publishing (1920-1960), and the reign of the media, on the ascendant since 1968. (In Les belles images de Beauvoir evokes the atmosphere of commercial peddling, the counterfeit images, the trafficking in banalities, and particularly the deleterious effect on how women are seen and see themselves in the impact of the media on the lives of two women: Laurence, who works in advertising, and her mother, Dominique, a powerful radio figure.) The Mandarins, written soon after Sartre resigned from the RDR, stands on the brink of the changing of the guard from the publishing era to that of the media.

De Beauvoir, standing on a "ground littered with smashed illusions," once more decided to turn failure to good purpose by redeeming it in words. Set in Paris between 1944 and 1947, The Mandarins follows the fate of an intimate group of Left intellectuals, loosely based on de Beauvoir's friends and associates, Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Raymond Aron, Albert Camus , and others. The book opens into the jubilant "orgy of brotherhood" of the Liberation and travels a darkening trajectory from solidarity through a slow splintering into factions, internal dissent, and disillusionment, and then out into a glimmering of optimism.

The novel circles round the central intellectual debate at the time of how to act and write politically in a world that had been cloven into two imperialist blocs: the Soviet Union and the United States. Much of The Mandarins' momentum springs from a quarrel between two close friends, Henri Perron, a writer and editor of a paper called L'Espoir, and Robert Dubreuillh, a writer and founder of an independent, leftist political group, the SRL. At issue is whether to publish the news of the Soviet labor camps and thereby keep faith with the intellectual vocation of truth-telling, as Henri would, while at the same time knowing full well that doing so would be politically and strategically disastrous, fanning the dangerous fires of the Right and alienating the SRL from the French Left. The personal undertow of the novel is chiefly fed by the love affair between Anne, a psychoanalyst and Debreuillh's wife, and an American, Lewis Brogan. Brogan takes most of his life and veracity from de Beauvoir's own four-year affair with the American writer Nelson Algren, and occasions thereby the full fictional attempt to come to terms with the simultaneously tormenting and exhilarating consequences of her open relationship with Sartre.

The great distinction and power of the book stem from de Beauvoir's fiercely honest efforts to answer the political and aesthetic question that had begun to plague her and that can perhaps best be summed up in Franz Fanon's question to Sartre during the Algerian war: "We [that is, the Algerians, the Third World, the dispossessed] have claims on you. How can you continue to live normally, to write?" Sartre spoke of de Beauvoir's "staggering" reluctance to become fully embroiled in the "sordid manoeuvres of politics." She herself openly admitted that despite her lifelong hatred of her class and of the Right (which deepened to loathing as France waged brutal and futile wars in Indochina, Algeria, and at home), despite her "furious solidarity with the poverty of France," and despite her extensive and passionate political involvement, "I am not a woman of action; my reason for living is writing."

Podium politics waged in the glare of publicity was constitutionally abhorrent to de Beauvoir. She was temperamentally impatient with the tedium and bureaucratic squabbles of endless rounds of committee meetings, but at the same time, as she was well aware, her choice to avoid them was a privileged one. As Anne Whitmarsh has pointed out, her political activity was characteristically pitched behind the scenes in small, intimate groups. During the Algerian war she became more active, at demonstrations, speaking, and writing articles, campaigning in particular on behalf of Djamila Boupacha, an Algerian woman tortured by the French.

In 1971 the Mouvement de liberation des femmes (MLF) was founded, emerging from the clandestine gauchiste groups of 1968. The MLF soon appealed to de Beauvoir to intercede against the new and inadequate abortion bill. She joined the MLF soon afterward and was a signatory to the famous Manifeste des 343, a public declaration by 343 women, many of them prominent, that they had undergone abortions. The MLF subsequently split into two factions, the Groupes de quartier (community groups) and Psychoanalyse et politique (Psych et Po), a non-Marxist, largely semiotic and psychoanalytic group that rapidly became a flourishing publishing business. It alienated itself from the other French feminist groups by appropriating the name "mouvement de liberation des femmes" for itself, by its hierarchical structure, and by its divisive legal battles with the other groups. De Beauvoir publicly disassociated herself from Psych et Po, as well as from the privileging of gynesis, an essentially feminine form of writing, defined without reference to history.

In June 1972 de Beauvoir and the lawyer Gisèle Halimi founded Choisir to fight for abortion rights at the judicial level. In 1974 de Beauvoir was elected president of the Ligue du droits des femmes, which wages legal battles for women and publishes a monthly journal, Questions Feministes. For de Beauvoir the politics of reproduction, rape, and violence to women were the fundamental concerns of feminism. If in The Second Sex she left the feminist revolution to follow willy-nilly from the socialist revolution, from the 1960's she lost faith in Marxist promises to take care of the feminist cause: "Now when I speak of feminism I mean the fact of struggling for specifically feminine claims at the same time as carrying on the class war." In other words, Marxism is necessary but not sufficient. In the final analysis she summed herself up as an activist, Marxist feminist, committed to dismantling the present management of society by a vigilant, sustained, and cataclysmic disruption. But she was resolutely skeptical of all existing political parties and vehemently insistent that feminism remain unhierarchical and flexible, generously open to anomaly and indecision, contradiction, unpredictability, and change.

De Beauvoir's life described in this way a great arc from her first allegiance to the solitary vocation of intellectual to a passionate solidarity with the collective, incendiary progress of feminism. But, finally, it was writing that inspired her deepest commitment and melded the two great tendencies in her life: "Writing has remained the great concern of my life." De Beauvoir remained as wary in her fiction as in her politics of easy solutions. Often scathingly impatient with the didactic strains in her early work, she saw the ultimate task of art as conveying the "perpetual dance" of nuance and ambiguity, anomaly and an often preposterous unpredictability in human lives. Irritated by well-proportioned plots (in fiction as in politics), she wanted above all to imitate "the disorder, the indecision, the contingency of life." The elusive ambiguity of language, "the black sorcery" of words that had bewitched her as a child, spilled out from her fiction to include her ambiguous relation to her public. Often misread, praised when she wanted to give offense, condemned when she thought she would please, she was acutely aware of the uncertain fate of a book once it left her hands. She always saw writing as a collaboration; for this reason, and motivated perhaps by a deep-seated sense of incompletion, she ended her autobiography with an open hand: "This time I shall not write a conclusion to my book. I leave the readers to draw any they may choose" (All Said and Done). She died in Paris on 14 April 1986 at the age of seventy-eight.

Selected Bibliography


L'Invitée, (Paris, 1943).

Pyrrhus et Cinéas, (Paris, 1944).

Le sang des autres, (Paris, 1945).

Les bouches inutiles, (Paris, 1945).

Tous les hommes sont mortels, (Paris, 1946).

Pour une morale de l'ambiguité, (Paris, 1947).

L'Amerique au jour le jour, (Paris, 1948).

L'Existentialisme et la sagesse des nations, (Paris, 1948).

Le deuxième sexe, (Paris, 1949).

Faut-il bruler Sade?, (Paris, 1953).

Les mandarins, (Paris, 1954).

Privilèges, (Paris, 1955).

La longue marche, (Paris, 1957).

Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée, (Paris, 1958).

La force de l'âge, (Paris, 1960).

Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome, (London, 1960).

La force des choses, (Paris, 1963).

Une mort très douce, (Paris, 1964).

Les belles images, (Paris, 1966).

La femme rompue, (Paris, 1967).

La vieillesse, (Paris, 1970).

Tout compte fait, (Paris, 1972).

Quand prime le spirtuel, (Paris, 1979).

La cérémonie des adieux, (Paris, 1981).

Simone de Beauvoir heute, (West Germany, 1983).


Adieux, translated by Patrick O'Brian (1984).

After "The Second Sex": Conversations with Simone de Beauvoir, interviewed by Alice Schwarzer, translated by Marianne Howarth (London, 1984).

All Men Are Mortal, translated by Leonard M. Friedman (Cleveland, 1955).

All Said and Done, translated by Patrick O'Brian (New York, 1974).

America Day by Day, translated by Patrick Dudley (London, 1952).

Les belles images, translated by Patrick O'Brian (New York, 1968).

The Blood of Others, translated by Yvonne Moyse and Roger Senhouse (New York, 1948).

The Ethics of Ambiguity, translated by Bernard Frechtman (New York, 1948).

Force of Circumstance, translated by Richard Howard (London, 1964).

The Long March, translated by Austryn Wainhouse (New York, 1958).

The Mandarins, translated by M. Friedman (London, 1960).

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, translated by James Kirkup (New York, 1959).

Must We Burn Sade?, translated by Annette Michelson (London, 1953).

Old Age, translated by Patrick O'Brian (London, 1972).

The Prime of Life, translated by Peter Green (New York, 1962).

The Second Sex, translated by H. M. Parshley (New York, 1953).

She Came to Stay, translated by Yvonne Moyse and Roger Senhouse (London, 1966).

A Very Easy Death, translated by Patrick O'Brian (New York, 1966).

When Things of the Spirit Come First, translated by Patrick O'Brian (London, 1982).

The Woman Destroyed, translated by Patrick O'Brian (London, 1968).


L'Arc 61 (1975). Special issue on Simone de Beauvoir and the Women's Movement.

Armogathe, Daniel, Le deuxième sexe: Beauvoir, (Paris, 1977).

Benda, Julien, The Treason of the Intellectuals, translated by Richard Aldington (London, 1928).

Bieber, Konrad, Simone de Beauvoir, (Boston, 1979).

Blair, Deirdre, Simone de Beauvoir, (New York, 1990).

Brée, Germaine, Women Writers in France, (New Brunswick, N.J., 1973).

Brée, Germaine, "The Fictions of Autobiography," Nineteenth-Century French Studies, 4 (1976) 446.

Brombert, Victor, The Intellectual Hero, London (1960).

Cayron, Claire, La nature chez Simone de Beauvoir, (Paris, 1973).

Cottrell, Robert D., Simone de Beauvoir, (New York, 1975).

Collins, Margery, and Christine, Pierce, "Holes and Slime: Sexism in Sartre's Psychoanalysis," in Women and Philosophy, edited by Carol C. Gould and Marx W. Wartofsky (New York, 1976).

Debray, Regis, Teachers, Writers, Celebrities, (London, 1981).

Dijkstra, Sandra, "Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan: The Politics of Omission," Feminist Studies 6 (2):291-303 (1980).

Epstein, Cynthia Fuchs, "Guineas and Locks," Dissent 4:581-586 (1974).

Evans, Mary, Simone de Beauvoir, (London, 1985).

Felstiner, Mary Lowenthal, "Seeing The Second Sex Through the Second Wave," Feminist Studies6 (2):247-275 (1980).

Fuchs, Jo-Ann P., "Female Eroticism in The Second Sex," Feminist Studies6 (2):305-313 (1980).

Gagnebin, Laurent, Simone de Beauvoir; ou, Le refus de l'indifférence, (Paris, 1968).

Gusdorf, George, "Conditions et limites de l'autobiography," in Formen der Selbstdarstellung (Berlin, 1956).

Harth, Erica, "The Creative Alienation of the Writer: Sartre, Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir," Mosaic 8:177-186 (1975).

Hourdin, Georges, Simone de Beauvoir et la liberté, (Paris, 1962).

Jardine, Alice, "Interview with Simone de Beauvoir," Signs5 (2):224-236 (1979).

Jelinek, Estelle C., ed., Women's Autobiography, (Bloomington, Ind., 1980).

Leacock, Eleanor, Myths of Male Dominance, (New York, 1981).

Le Doeuff , Michèle, "Simone de Beauvoir and Existentialism," Feminist Studies6, 2:277-289 (1980).

Marks, Elaine, Simone de Beauvoir: Encounters with Death, (New Brunswick, N.J., 1973).

McCall, Dorothy Kaufmann, "Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, and Jean-Paul Sartre," Signs2:209-223 (1979).

Miller, Nancy, "Women's Autobiography in France: For a Dialectics of Identification," in Woman and Language in Literature and Society, edited by Sally McConnell-Ginet, Ruth Borker, and Nelly Furman (New York, 1980).

Poster, Mark, Existential Marxism in Postwar France, (Princeton, 1975).

The Second Sex · Thirty Years Later, A Commemorative Conference on Feminist Theory. New York Institute for the Humanities. New York University, 1979.

Whitmarsh, Anne, Simone de Beauvoir, (Cambridge, 1981).

Source Citation
Anne Mcclintock. "Simone (Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand) de Beauvoir." European Writers: The Twentieth Century. Ed. George Stade. Vol. 12. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4 May 2010.