Simone de Beauvoir: Woman Extraordinaire

Profile of a Feminist
This issue of SAMYUKTA gives a profile of Simone de Beauvoir in its regular series on
major feminist therorists.

One of the factors that has always hailed women’s writing is its invisibility – particularly when juxtaposed with writing contributed by men of the same period, intellectual caliber or philosophical outlook. Simone de Beauvoir is well known as a philosopher, novelist and political activist. Yet even today when one looks at the canon of mainstream French philosophers one finds her being regarded merely as the companion of Sartre rather than seen in her own intellectual and philosophical right. Although recognised as one of the well-known philosophers of her time, her name has often been completely neglected even in highly rated books such as A Hundred Years of Philosophy by John Passmore (Penguin, 1968) and many others of the same status.

Simone de Beauvoir was one of the most well-known and intelligent women of the twentieth century. Her contribution to twentieth century French fiction— especially through her works like The Mandarins (published in French in 1954, translated into English in 1979) and The Woman Destroyed (1967,1979) cannot be underrated. However, her primary contribution, it may be said, is in the field of feminist thinking. Her capacity to think against the grain of the conventional and, more importantly, to live in accordance with her ideals, despite adverse situations that could have led to the compromise of ideals in lesser individuals, is what makes her contribution unique. Her most significant work in the field of feminist thinking is her book, The Second Sex (1949,1964), which is considered as a sort of feminist bible. This work has been hailed as one of the most influential theoretical studies into the women’s condition, and gives an existentialist account of woman’s sexualisation. She posits the view that “a woman is made not born” and goes on to make an in-depth study into the processes that alter a simple biological factor into a complex socio-cultural fact. In the course of this inquiry, she exposes the role of patriarchal ideology in the cultural construction of the popular notion of femininity. It is in her systematic and objective analyses of the whole process that Simone de Beauvoir’s work reaches out to both the serious scholar as well as the casual reader. Her outspoken views on the “woman- question”, as she herself phrases it, are stated explicitly and with clarity of perception, thereby making it an important document for the women’s movement.

The feminist movement, as such, gained much of its mass appeal, from the Women’s Rights Movement, which fought for the women’s right to vote, in the early part of the twentieth century. As early as 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft had written of the need for the Vindication of the Rights of Women (Penguin, 1982), and discussed the power structures in society that have led to the subordination of women in their daily roles and routines as well as stressed the need for change in the current position. In 1869, John Stuart Mill, in his extremely logically argued out essay The Subjection of Women, expressed his sympathetic views on the subjective position of women. Yet the full import of the situation seised the popular imagination only when the political question of the woman’s enfranchisement came to be debated. The question that came to occupy the forefront of the issue then was the question of women’s equality with men. The whole issue was seen in terms of an attempt to inveigle male authority or the take-over of male bastions. The protesting woman/women were seen as unfeminine creatures, masculine in attitudes, posture and tone. They were treated as aberrant creatures, deviating from the normal, and quite incapable of being treated as women. The stress was laid on equality and the women who stood up for their rights, also tried to emulate the masculine traits in order to bring home their arguments regarding their rights. The activists dressed differently and adopted a more aggressive tone of voice or a more defiant posture. Though in agreement with much of what these activists said, the large majority of womenfolk preferred to stay away from the limelight and not participate in the movement openly, for fear of social disapproval. To the large majority of women, the freedom they advocated was meaningless for they lived in a world completely controlled by men. Though they had now earned the right to vote, their thoughts, voting patterns and almost everything else were completely controlled by men who convinced them that they (women en masse) were inferior intellectually and less worldly- wise and therefore needed their superior views on any subject. The woman was treated in a sense, like a slightly overgrown infant, lacking in wisdom as well as knowledge in matters related to the state, society and politics.

The early feminists therefore called for the women of the world to unite. They hoped for a release from their own reproductive anatomy in which they saw that they were trapped. The only means to such a release, as they saw it, would be a moving away from their female roles and in the direction of a male identity. It is in this context that the works of Simone de Beauvoir attain their prominent place— in particular, her seminal work The Second Sex. Though the struggle for women’s suffrage had taken place in France, (the milieu of de Beauvoir’s writings), it was nowhere as militant as the movement in Britain and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, there was hardly a tradition of feminism in France, at that time, though it has since made significant contributions in the area of women’s language, semiotics and psychoanalysis. This informs the background of her work. Though feminist thought has made several insightful inroads into several disciplines since then and several theoreticians have taken up extremely divergent, and sometimes even opposing positions to that of de Beauvoir, this book remains a path-breaking and introductory endeavour with its position of undebatable significance to this day.

Prior to this, though Simone had written three novels (She Came To Stay, 1913, 1966, The Blood of Others, 1945,1964, and All Men Are Mortal, 1946,1955), which have featured strong female central characters, she had not expressed herself explicitly on the condition of women. In fact none of her characters or even opinions expressed before 1949 reveal her feminist insights. In fact she speaks at length of the privileges she enjoyed on account of her gender:

Far from suffering from my femininity, I have, on the contrary,
accumulated the advantages of both sexes; after She Came To Stay
those around me treated me both as a writer, their peer in the
masculine world, and as a woman; this was particularly noticeable in
America: at the parties I went to, the wives all got together and talked
to each other while I talked to the men, who nevertheless behaved
toward me with greater courtesy than they did toward the members of
their own sex. (Force of Circumstance, 189).

Her position was in fact quite different from the majority of the women she wrote about in The Second Sex.

Perhaps it was because she was, quite unlike most other French bourgeoisie women, unmarried and childless and thereby free from much of the responsibilities that they were forced to take up that she could study their situation with sufficient objectivity and impartiality. She was free from the ordinary domestic concerns and commitments of the women who lived “normal married lives” and in The Prime of Life (1960,1962), she speaks of her lack of familiarity with their world:

Now, suddenly, I met a large number of women over forty who in
differing circumstances and with various degrees of success, had all
undergone identical experience: they had lived as “dependant
persons”… they told me a great deal: I began to take stock of the
difficulties, deceptive advantages, traps, and manifold obstacles that
most women encounter on their path. I also felt how much they were
both diminished and enriched by this experience. The problem did not
concern me directly, and as yet I attributed comparatively little
importance to it; but my interest had been aroused. (PL, 572).

Though her interest was aroused and she did so much ground breaking work in this area, she has, on several occasions, come under fire by her critics for her what they construe as her lack of genuine concern for the feminist issues. In fact the opening lines of her book The Second Sex have been interpreted as an indication of her hesitancy to speak out on the subject of women and femininity:

For a long time I have hesitated to write a book about women. The
subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new. Enough ink
has been spilled in the quarrelling over feminism, now practically over,
and perhaps we should say no more about it. (SS, xiii)

Yet despite the initial diffidence, she did write the voluminous book of over 740 pages and make her opinion public by her words and actions in the public eye

Notwithstanding the size of the book, the interest generated in the reader is such that it is usually read at a single sitting. In it she carefully and systematically analyses the ways in which the male structuring of society has relegated women to the position of the second sex or more appropriately the secondary sex. In her thesis, the woman in society is not born into this subservient position, but made to assume one as she lives in a male-controlled society, which constantly treats her as the other— for being male is the norm. The woman’s body, thoughts, emotions and even her work are treated as either unimportant or something unusual— beyond the ken of the ordinary person (meaning of course the male). The book is divided into two parts, book one, titled “Facts and Myths”, —where she discusses the myths about womanhood and contrasts them with the actual facts— and the second part dealing with “Woman’s Life Today”, where she examines the whole history of the subjectivity of womankind. In short, she makes a powerful plea for the liberation of women and their need for equality with their male counterparts.

Many of her arguments came in for criticism from her male critics as well as later day feminists. For a full understanding of her work, one must have a closer awareness of her life and the extraordinary circumstances that she had created for herself. For here was a remarkable person who believed in living life in accordance with her ideals and strove to do so despite all societal disapproval. She was able to combine in herself the bourgeois values with her middle-class situation and solid plebeian labour ethics. To her the principles for which she lived for were her life itself.

Born on January 9th, 1908 in Paris, she was the elder of the two daughters of George Bertrand and Francoise de Beauvoir. Her father was a practicing lawyer who earned a good deal of money and Simone spent her childhood in bourgeoisie comfort and also acquired much of the culture and value-systems he prescribed for her. Her sister, Helene (often called Poupette) was born two and a half years later. Simone enjoyed a lot of attention as a child and her father who became a role model often equated her intelligence to that of a boy— the son he did not have. He is reported to have said: “Simone has the intelligence of a man, she thinks like a man, she is a man.” He took pride in her intellectual activity. She loved reading and indulged in it as much as possible. Her mother, Francoise was a very religious person and believed in reading through Simone’s reading matter and removing portions of which she disapproved. This censoring offended her and she smuggled into her parent’s library when they were away to read the forbidden matter. As a child she had very good relations with all the members of her immediate family, like her father, her mother and her sister, but the position changed considerably when she attained adolescence. Her father, who had been proud to show off his extremely intelligent daughter thus far, now began to treat her like a homely daughter rather than an honourable son. He had been a lawyer with a sufficiently well established practice before the war and he encouraged his daughter to read and develop her intellect, often supervising her reading and involving her in his own intellectual pursuits. Perhaps due to his influence Simone changed overnight into a patriot at the age of six, and wrote with chalk on the sidewalks, “Vive le France” and developed a hatred of the Germans. The war also changed their financial position irreparably. Her father was forced to give up his practice and take over his father’s shoemaking company. He told his daughters that he would not be able to afford a dowry for them and that they would have to become career women, a prospect that delighted Simone rather than disheartened her, for she detested the domestic role of women.

Georges Bertrand de Beauvoir belonged to the bourgeois tradition and had taken special care to bring up his children in the same tradition. He cultivated in them an interest in the arts. He supervised Simone’s education by correcting her written work, choosing her reading material, and providing her with much intellectual support and encouragement. In return, Simone would try to emulate her father’s image. This emulation caused an identity crisis for Simone as she was entering adolescence, for he now turned much of his attentions to his younger daughter who was less intelligent but pretty and genteel and therefore fitted into the requirements of his bourgeoisie cultural patterns better. Simone tried to regain her father’s interest by acquiring more and more educational qualifications and degrees. But the once stimulating influence now had a rather negative impact on her life.

Another powerful influence on her life was her mother, who was extremely religious and took her to church regularly as a child. Theirs was a loving relationship and she found her mother supportive as well. But during her adolescence, Simone’s religious beliefs altered and she told her mother that she no longer believed in God. She found the strict and conservative attitudes of her mother stifling and unbearable. Gradually the links between them were unalterably severed and mother and daughter were never to be close again. Later in her autobiographical work, A Very Easy Death, 1964,1966, Simone describes this changed relationship. Apart from this , Simone detested the domestic role of women and never wanted the responsibility of getting married and bringing up children like her mother. This resulted in her permanent separation from her parents and her independence henceforth.

Simone chose philosophy as her area of further study after secondary school, because she wanted to find a certainty in her life. She would write:

The thing that attracted me about philosophy was that it went straight
to essentials. I perceived the general significance of things rather than
their singularities, and I preferred understanding to seeing; I had
always wanted to know everything; philosophy would allow me to
appease this desire, for it aimed at total reality; philosophy went right
to the heart of truth and revealed to me, instead of an illusory
whirlwind of facts or empirical laws, an order, a reason, a necessity in
everything. (Fullbrook, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Hemel Hempstead: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994, p. 48. )

Philosophy was, for her a discussion and study of the essentials of existence – though she was also fascinated by beauty and aesthetics. She graduated from the Sorbonne in 1929, writing a thesis on Leibniz. It was at Sorbonne that at the age of 21, Simone joined a group of students of philosophy that included Jean-Paul Sartre and the unique relationship described as “the model relationship, based on love and liberty” took shape. (Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Paris: Penguin, 1963, p.167). The relationship between Simone and Sartre was a unique partnership, based on mutual agreement, but transgressing societal conventions. They were committed to each other, but were also able to have other relationships, physical and otherwise, alongside. They believed that one needed experience with other people in order to nourish their personal existence. Though extremely unconventional, their relationship was defined and defended with the existential emphasis on the invaluable importance of the freedom of the individual. They never lived together (except for a brief period during the second world war). They never had children and both of them indulged in many affairs with other people. Although honesty was stated as one of the important factors of their relationship, they were not able to keep to it all the time. At one juncture, Sartre actually proposed marriage to Simone so that they would be able to teach at the same schools, but Simone rejected his proposal because she did not want to institutionalize their relationship. Yet there was at times a greater intimacy and meaning in their relationship than the conventional ones. In this choice she had consciously adopted an existential lifestyle. For the first time, Simone had encountered another individual who was as intelligent as she was. And they were able to have a creative and stimulating partnership without limiting each other’s freedom. Much of her work, feminist or otherwise, reveals the influence of the existentialist principles. Sartre’s influence on her life is evident in many of her autobiographical writings like her words on his death and later on her own deathbed in Adieux: Farewell To Sartre (1981,!984)

My death will not bring us together again. This is how things are. It is
in itself splendid that we were able to live our lives in harmony for so long.

This extraordinary relationship ended only with Sartre’s death in 1981. The emphasis given to the philosophy of Existentialism in the way she lived out her life as much as in her writing, is indeed a unique achievement.

If The Second Sex was an avowal of her ideas on the liberation of women and their need to be treated as individuals, rather than merely as accompaniments to the male world, her novels were an illustration of their lives and problems. Being an advocate of radical revolutionary feminism, and honesty as a major strength of most intense relationships, she could not but touch upon these aspects in her fiction as well. Her fictional world is peopled with men and women entangled in a variety of attachments, some emotional, some amorous, some sterile and some intellectual.

Her fiction can essentially be divided into three stages. The earliest of these is the existentialist one, and the novels belonging to that period are She Came To Stay, The Blood Of Others and All Men Are Mortal. She was able to project and popularize the character of L’amoureuse, a woman who abdicates autonomy and her capacity for authentic engagement with others in favour of the slavish attachments she falsely thinks she is proficient at. In L’Invitee (1943), translated as She Came To Stay (1954), the character of Elizabeth is that of the existentialist anti-heroine. De Beauvoir’s prize-winning novel, The Mandarins (1960, Les Mandarins, 1954) can be placed in the second phase, that of the social novel. There is a marked shift in emphasis between the novels of these periods. While in the early novels of the existentialist phase, sexual relations are always seen as emotionally significant, in The Mandarin, they are seen as the passing encounters that they are, and are not indicative of any strong emotion. There is also more diversity in the range of heterosexual relationships. The unhappy relationship of Paula and Henri is juxtaposed with the bond between Anne and Lewis Brogan. The latter, as de Beauvoir has herself acknowledged is a fictionalised account of her own affair with the American novelist Nelson Algren (although he has condemned the suggestion). But the third stage of her novels is the one where despair and moral anarchy take the stage as in the collection of stories entitled, La Femme Rompue (1967), translated as The Woman Destroyed (1979) and the novel Les Belles Images (1966,1977). Here the focus becomes the central character of the woman who is totally emotionally dependant on the man, and is thereby unhappy. The old image of the woman as homemaker is now altered in her perception, for it no longer corresponds with the myths and fancies of a technocratic society, which makes other demands on the woman.

By making these bold portrayals of women and the complex relations between individuals in her novels, de Beauvoir is, in a sense, making a statement, a feminist statement that is summed up in the slogan that the personal is the political. But it is in her autobiographical writings that it is most apparent. These include Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958, 1959), The Prime of Life (1960), Force of Circumstances (1963,1964), All Said and Done (1972, 1974) and A Very Easy Death (1964, 1966), written on the death of her mother as well as Adieux: A Farewell To Sartre( 1981, 1984).

Suffice it to say that here was a remarkable person— a woman of extraordinary intelligence, character and commitment— who stood steadfast by her principles in a fast-changing world. And through both her writings and her life, she showed that such integrity was indeed possible.

Is the author of The Real and the Imagined: The Poetry of Ted Hughes. Her doctoral work was on the poetry of Ted Hughes. She is currently working on a UGC project on “Women, Bhakti and Poetry : The Poetic Discourse of South Indian Women Mystics.” Her other projects include a study of Women and Television in Kerala.

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Is the author of The Real and the Imagined: The Poetry of Ted Hughes. Her doctoral work was on the poetry of Ted Hughes. She is currently working on a UGC project on “Women, Bhakti and Poetry : The Poetic Discourse of South Indian Women Mystics.” Her other projects include a study of Women and Television in Kerala.

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