Review of Simone De Beauvoir, a Biography by Diedre Bair

“Simone, the Writer, the Woman”

I am a writer, said Simone. “I have written novels, philosophy, social criticisms, a play-and yet all people know about me is “The Second Sex.” Granted, I am pleased that that book has had such an impact, but I want people to remember that I am a writer! A feminist, certainly, and I do not deny the importance of feminism in my life, but first of all, I am a writer!” (Bair, 543)

Of all the great writers in the world, how many are female? Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Harper Lee. Often these “female writers” were discredited-their work was thought as trite, or even that it was really done by a man. Simone de Beauvoir is among these women, and throughout her life, had to stand in the shadow of friend and writing partner Jean-Paul Sartre. Somehow, Beauvoir managed to free herself of Sartre’s association and is remembered today as “one of the most famous women of the twentieth century”-all on her own (Bair, 288).

Beauvoir’s life and writings mirrored the many challenges that women face today and throughout history-not just politically, but socially and economically. Hers was a life of struggles, competing for work in “a mans’ world,” overcoming poverty and facing her own self-image problems. She faced it all; substance abuse, bad relationships, struggling for an education, being discriminated in the workplace and even facing war and terrorism on herself and Sartre for their political views. While she did not face rape or discrimination because of her ethnicity as many of the other women in our readings did, Beauvoir still knew what it meant to be a woman who was discriminated against.

Her early childhood and young adulthood can best be compared to Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed.” Even though Beauvoir came from a “bourgeois” family, her parents were always poor. Luckily, Beauvoir’s mother put her children’s education before luxury items, and Simone and her sister were able to attend good schools their whole life. Granted, they never had nice clothes, and sometimes not enough to eat, but they survived. In today’s society, Beauvoir’s mother would have probably been a single mother (she did not have a good relationship with their father), which was a big theme in Ehrenreich’s boook. In a lot of ways, she really was a single mother because she raised her children alone, and on very little money.

Unlike Ehrenreich, Beauvoir never really had to work as a waitress or housekeeper. In fact, she almost always had a teaching or editing position of high standing. However, like Ehrenreich, she knew what it meant to be poor and live in bad conditions, and was the quintessential bohemian “starving artist.” I think that if Barbara Ehrenreich and Simone de Beauvoir were to meet today, they would probably have a lot in common and be friends. Like Beauvoir, Ehrenreich did not want to have children for the sake of her career, and is a great and influential writer. Today, Ehrenreich is an ardent speaker for women’s rights (particularly reproductive rights) just like Beauvoir was in her day for all women’s rights.

If I met Beauvoir as a young woman living in society today, I honestly would not like her. As a young woman, I feel as though she let the men in her life trample all over her. Her father was unsupportive and verbally abusive, and her relationship with Sartre was ludicrous. However, upon retrospect, what she was doing at the time was revolutionary, and I salute her for that.

As a young woman, she did not let the constraints of the age old French caste system bind her. She broke free of the mold of a typical young woman who should be searching for a husband and lived the bohemian life. Against her family’s wishes, and socially acceptable actions of the time, she had a long standing open affair with Sartre. It certainly did not appear that Beauvoir was as interested in an open relationship as Sartre was, but she went along with it anyway. While in many ways I think that this was damaging to her self-image, and was certainly unhealthy, it also helped to mold Beauvoir into a feminist. Her struggles in love and life were fuel for her writing and made her stronger in the end.

Although Beauvoir initially had no intentions of ever being a wife or a mother, she played those roles often throughout her life. Eventually adopting a daughter (Sylvie le Bon de Beauvoir as an adult!) and taking on a wifely role with Sartre her whole life was a contradiction to her scruples. Her relationship with Algren even pushed her further to want to taste the life of being a wife, and in fact called him her “husband.”

In this sense, Beauvoir’s life can be related to “The Neutered Mother,” because whether she liked it or not, Beauvoir had very strong maternal tendencies. She would often care for others at the sake of her own happiness and health, and nurtured Sartre until the very end. While Beauvoir fought for all of the things that held women back and was an ardent feminist, she never really knew much about being an oppressed housewife/mother in those days. However, Beauvoir’s ultimate viewpoints that were expressed throughout her biography are fairly similar to that in “Neutered Mother.” She is obviously the mother, and Sartre the child, and their relationship is a complete dyad where no one else may enter. Like Fineman argues, societal policies and rules should focus around the mother/child relationship, which would have sufficed for Beauvoir.

Just Fineman suggests, Beauvoir rearranged the definition of “family” to suit her own needs. Never finding much real “family” amongst her blood relatives (with the exception of sister, Helene) she created her own in a way. Always surrounding herself with friends, known in a cultish way as “the family” Beauvoir’s revolutionary ideas were not far off the mark from what Fineman suggests. I think that Fineman would have agreed a great deal with Beauvoir, for they are not “equalist” feminists. They both seem to agree that women and men ARE different, and society constantly points this out.

Even though on the surface, Beauvoir may have seemed cold and removed (for she never smiled in public or in her photos) she was really a nurturer at heart. For example, during the war and the Algerian conflicts, Beauvoir proudly took care of Sartre and relished it. “I cook for him,” she told Algren proudly “ham and sausages and lots of cans. That is what he eats except when Bost or Claude come and cook dinner” (Bair, 483). During this time, Sartre was under political fire and was having death threats made to him because of his views on the Algerian/French conflict. Nonetheless, in wartime and during terrorist actions, Beauvoir was there for Sartre just like a mother hen, despite her independent views. Her actions were not quite as noble or brave as the Mirabel sisters in “Time of the Butterflies” but their intentions are the same.

Beauvoir would also take care of “the family” and her myriad of girlfriends, sometimes at the sake of herself. She was there as a shoulder to cry on for her friends, even the ones that were sleeping with Sartre. She would tuck the younger members of “the family” in at night, just like a mother, and would make sure everyone had food and things that they needed. Fineman might have argued that Beauvoir should have been paid for her nurturing but I wouldn’t be so sure…

Because of this innate sense to take care of others, she would often forget herself. This would result in an unkempt look and a bad body image for Beauvoir. If any great female figurehead in history knew about the struggles of body image, it is Simone de Beauvoir. As the biography reads, we are never told of her having eating disorders as a result of her body image, but her awkward behavior was always a reflection of how she felt about her appearance.

I think that in this light, Beauvoir lived her life in a way that would have agreed with some of the things that “The Beauty Myth” had to say. In fact, her whole experience seeing American women being oppressed (which triggered her to write “The Second Sex”) is very similar to the ideas in “The Beauty Myth.” For example, the text says that;

“The affluent, educated, liberated women of the First World, who can enjoy freedoms unavailable to any women ever before, do not feel as free as they want to” (Wolf, 9). Wolf goes on to say that a woman’s appearance is often the barrier for her liberation in society, and I think that Beauvoir would agree with this.

While Beauvoir is touted as one of the most influential, intelligent and revolutionary women of the 20th century, I did not find her to be so. While she was certainly an intelligent woman, I think that perhaps she was a little sick. It seemed as though everything she did was based on what Sartre wanted, what he was thinking or what he was doing. I would like to think they had some sort of magical writing and philosophical relationship, but in the end, I think that Beauvoir rode on his coat tails entirely too much.

Throughout her entire life, Beauvoir seemed to mimic Sartre. In college, they were academic rivals-Sartre getting first place in everything while Beauvoir was second. In their adult lives, Beauvoir would follow Sartre almost like a lost puppy-she had plans and goals for herself, but seemed to forsake them and make herself miserable for Sartre. Where he lived, she lived, even when they were no longer and exclusive romantic item. When Beauvoir became involved in politics, it was only because Sartre forced her not to go into hiding like she wanted to. Where he traveled, she was there also.

Even later in life, when he adopted an older daughter, she followed suit and adopted an older daughter around the same time. One may say that she was simply in sync with Sartre, but I think that Beauvoir just wanted to follow his example as often as she could. Her constant need for Sartre is further illustrated in her first book, “L’Invitiee” where the main characters are based on her and Sartre. In the book, the character Francoise (i.e. Simone) says, “You and I are simply one. That is the truth, you know. Neither of us can be described without the other.” This is entirely true, because if you open any page in her biography, it is almost guaranteed that the word “Sartre” will be there. The story of Beauvoir’s life is dependant on Sartre, which I think is very unfortunate.

One of the best illustrations of this theory that Beauvoir was merely riding on Sartre’s fame was his theory of Existentialism. By their followers, the Existentialists, he is considered the High Priest of Existentialism, and Beauvoir the High Priestess. In very simple terms, Existentialism is Sartre’s philosophy of truth, an analysis of existence. Existentialism, by definition is “a philosophical movement that views human existence as having a set of underlying themes and characteristics, such as anxiety, dread, freedom, awareness of death, and consciousness of existing, that are primary. Existence is prior to essence.” (www.wikipedia.com).

During the time that Sartre began to found this idea, it was very new and revolutionary. I think that again, Beauvoir was just following along with her friend. Sartre’s first book “Nausea” is based on Existential thinking. Shortly thereafter, Beauvoir writes her own book based on Existential thinking. While Beauvoir was a big player in the beginning of Existential thinking, if it weren’t for Sartre, I think that she may have come up with a more interesting philosophy of her own.

Fortunately, she eventually grew up and did find a soap box and a philosophy of her own, one which would have a great influence on women. The one arena that Beauvoir did not mimic Sartre in was that of her feminist standpoints and political actions toward freedoms for women. This she did all on her own, and thankfully she did that because it redeems her in my eyes. If anything, Sartre was misogynistic, and didn’t seem to care for women as intellectual beings outside of Beauvoir. Perhaps it was this attitude, this treatment towards women, which pushed Beauvoir to be an active feminist. Certainly her trip to opened her eyes about how oppressed American women were, but I think that her entire life’s relationship with Sartre also fueled her for “The Second Sex.”

In “The Second Sex” the most influential and enduring statement that she made is “One is not born, but becomes a woman” (Beauvoir). This detailed analysis of women’s oppression was written in an existential point of view (ie, existence proceeds essence). This book was probably her biggest contribution to feminism. While she would speak at colleges and attend rallies, her book remains an important piece of feminist literature today. This book shows that women are as capable of choices as men, and that even though society is heightened to male awareness, women should stick together to overcome that and find their place in the world.

While Simone may have appeared to live most of her life in the shadow of a great man, she made a very important literal contribution to the world urging other women to not let that happen to them. She was a walking contradiction in a number of ways, but if she was one thing, it was an intelligent forerunner in the women’s liberation movement.

I personally do not agree with the way that Beauvoir lived her life, but I still respect her just the same. She broke ground for women in the scholastic world and made great strides for herself. I would argue that it was Sartre’s influence that made her so popular, but I think that if she had never met him, she would have done great things anyway. Beauvoir had a strong spirit, even as a little girl, and this passion shows in her writing and the way she lived her life.

Above all things, I respect Beauvoir as a writer. Certainly, her political, philosophical and social contributions to the world were important, but it is her words that remain. With more than 20 books to her credit, she was a highly prolific author, and was always writing or working and keeping busy. If Simone de Beauvoir taught us one thing, it was that being a woman should be no hurdle to finding your place in the world. She will forever be remembered as that wacky lady in the café Flore, obsessively writing and smoking and creating words of wisdom and truth for women everywhere.

Works Cited

Bair, Diedre. “Simone de Beauvoir, a Biography” 1990. Simon and Schuster, New York.]

Beauvoir, Simone de, “The Second Sex” 1949, Random House.

Wolf, Naomi. “The Beauty Myth” 1992. Harper Collins, New York.

www.wikipedia.com

About Rafaela Muilenburg

I read; I write; I travel, and I'm hungry for more. Ok, yes that line is partly stolen from Anthony Bourdain. Truth is I read more than I write - a lot more, but that is good for writers, right?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *