(1908 – 1986)
Simone de Beauvoir is one of the best-known French writers and thinkers of the twentieth century, and among the best-known female writers of all time. Her study of the oppression of women throughout history, The Second Sex (1949), is a founding text of modern feminism. De Beauvoir was prominent in the circle of left-wing Parisian intellectuals associated with the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Interest in her long-term relationship with Sartre and controversies around The Second Sex have often eclipsed recognition of de Beauvoir’s fiction. Yet she was an acclaimed and popular novelist; The Mandarins (1954) received the prestigious Prix Goncourt. De Beauvoir was a perceptive witness to the twentieth century whose works span from her childhood days before World War I to the world of the 1980s.
A Young Diarist
Simone de Beauvoir was born in the fourteenth arrondissement, or district, of Paris in 1908, and lived there most of her life. Her mother was a devout Catholic; her father, a lawyer, was agnostic. Despite a comfortable childhood, she rebelled against her parents’ values at an early age, declaring that she would never become a housewife or mother. She also began to write when young, penning her first story at age eight and keeping a diary that would evolve into four published volumes of memoirs, starting with Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958).
In 1925, she began studying philosophy at the Sorbonne. Four years later she met Jean-Paul Sartre, beginning an intimate personal and intellectual relationship that would continue until his death in 1980. They studied together and passed the agre´gation de philosophie in 1929, placing first and second on the exam that provided their teaching credentials. At twenty-one, de Beauvoir was the youngest student ever to receive this prestigious degree. From 1931 to 1943, she taught philosophy at secondary schools in Marseilles, Rouen, and Paris. Sartre and de Beauvoir were lovers and developed an unwavering partnership, but they never lived together. They rejected the institution of marriage, and neither wanted children. Furthermore, they did not exclude what they called ‘‘contingent’’ affairs, some of which became important in their lives. In 1933, the pair attempted a me´nage a` trois with one of Sartre’s students, Olga Kosakiewicz.
This experiment, and the anguish it caused, became the basis for de Beauvoir’s first novel, She Came to Stay (1943). The novel captures the hothouse atmosphere generated by the trio as the indolent intruder Xavie`re slowly destroys everything that surrounds her. In the 1930s, de Beauvoir’s life was essentially that of a provincial professor with intellectual leanings, a wide circle of friends, and a somewhat bohemian lifestyle. Sartre was drafted to fight in the French army during World War II, and spent nine months as a prisoner of war. When he returned in 1941, he and de Beauvoir determined to become more involved in public life during the German occupation of France. Both abandoned their teaching to devote themselves to writing and often to political activism. De Beauvoir provides one of the most vivid accounts of life in France during the war in her memoir The Prime of Life (1960).
The Second Sex and The Mandarins
When de Beauvoir set out to begin her autobiography, she realized that she first needed to understand the extent to which being born female had influenced her life. She spent hours in the library seeking documentation for each section of the book that was to become the foundation of her international reputation. The Second Sex examines the historical, biological, and sociological origins of the oppression of women. The opening statement of the section on childhood, ‘‘One is not born a woman, one becomes one,’’ has become familiar throughout the world. The book advises women to pursue meaningful careers and to avoid the status of ‘‘relative beings’’ implicit, in de Beauvoir’s view, in marriage and motherhood. Read the rest of this entry