On Simone de Beauvoir

As I seem to be having an Existentialist kick this week, and because Stefanie is talking about reading her, I thought I’d write a bit about Simone de Beauvoir. I really love Beauvoir’s work and find her arguable the most accessible of the French Existentialists. There’s a very intriguing split between her non-fiction works (autobiographies and philosophical writings) in which she speaks with her own strong, liberated, rational voice, and her novels, which frequently feature confused women undergoing profound emotional crises. Whenever Beauvoir writes about herself she always communicates a real sense of liberation and control. Nothing seems to constrain Beauvoir, or compromise her freedom, unlike the female protagonists of her novels who are often encumbered and weighed down by husbands, children, parents, the choices they’ve made in the past and the images they have of themselves. It’s almost as if the writer of The Second Sex, the first major feminist theorist of the twentieth century, must live life as an invincible transgressor of gender boundaries. But those banished doubts, fears and frustrations at the female condition (she was notably terrified of childbirth and of ageing) resurface as the central concern of her fiction. So it’s particularly interesting that image is so significant to Beauvoir’s female characters, who are always striving to be the perfect wife, mother, lover, but who are repeatedly forced to confront the distance between the shiny surface of the image and the disturbing reality it conceals.

One of the last short stories she wrote (it’s a long short story – what to call them? Novellas?) is called The Broken Woman (from the collection of the same name) and it neatly encapsulates the major strands of Beauvoir’s thinking. In essence it’s a simple story, written in diary form, when Monique discovers that her husband, Maurice has been having an affair for the past eight years. In all the stories in this collection the women pour forth a monologue in which they become increasingly aware of self-deluding behaviour and Monique is no exception. She has tied her sense of self to an outdated image, and its loss forces her to confront unpleasant truths about herself. It was intended to be a philosophical and political object lesson to women to get them to shake up their ideas about themselves and embrace self-sufficiency and Beauvoir was amazed, when the story was first serialised in Elle magazine, at the thousands of letters she received from women who sympathised wholeheartedly with Monique’s plight. For Beauvoir, Monique has been a rubbish Existentialist; she’s let herself be determined by other people and their needs, remained oblivious to her freedom and to the dynamism of existence, and denied her own autonomy. In Existentialist terms, she was asking for it. You might well accuse Beauvoir of being un-sisterly and a tad harsh, and in fact it is intriguing how fiercely critical Beauvoir is of her female characters. Having crashed through so many gender barriers herself, it is likely she had little patience with less forward thinking women, and, writing in 1968, she considered that feminism was well on its way to providing the tangible changes women needed.

And yet. There’s that disingenuous side to Beauvoir that I hear operating here. We cannot dismiss all those Elle readers so lightly, and it’s probable that Beauvoir knew it too. The Broken Woman is also a tale of a wife, programmed to conform to a culturally valid notion of femininity, who is made to suffer for abiding by society’s rules. Monique has identified with a gender ideal, as indeed we are all encouraged to do by our cultures, and this role has provided her with a sense of identity. When Maurice betrays Monique, it’s not really about sex. His rejection of her suddenly reveals the gap between real and ideal, between image and reality, showing her up as a fraud and worse than that, a stranger to herself. For all her strident politics, Beauvoir had no idea what would happen to a woman like this, stripped of the domestic role she had been educated and brainwashed into performing. The famous line from Beauvoir’s The Second Sex runs like this: One is not born a woman, one becomes one. And knowing that, Beauvoir was still none the wiser as to what women would become once liberated from the kitchen sink. They couldn’t all become world-changing authors the way she had. Beauvoir wanted to denounce the clichés of femininity and make women see that allowing oneself to become cocooned within them was a lazy way to negotiate the trials and tribulations of identity formation. But what lay underneath the apron was simply a terrifying void in her conception of the individual. Beauvoir never offers any solutions to the difficulties facing her female protagonists, denouncing their complicity with patriarchal structures but failing to show them which way to turn next. If I only had a time machine, the first person I’d transport back to the present day would be Beauvoir. I would so love to know her thoughts and feelings on the way women’s roles have changed (and in some respects remained exactly the same) since her era. Would she approve I wonder? I like to think she’d have a few sharp, bracing words for us still, and an exhortation to us to keep thinking and keep changing.

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7 thoughts on “On Simone de Beauvoir

  1. What a mind-stirring post! One of the perhaps undersung aspects of the feminist project is this question of if someone is acting out a role allocated and encouraged by society, in order to change it, what does a person do? It is difficult to destroy a prison of conventionality in the teeth of society’s endlessly masticating jaws, but when those teeth are out, what would replace them? False teeth?
    In the end this can result in reperforming what is lost in ever more extreme ways. In the big picture of revolutions in society how often this becomes the case. The liberator, with the best of intentions, comes to resemble what was despised. Don Quixote tilts at windmills and then builds a wind farm – back to ‘Animal Farm’ (pointing out it is a short read, by the way). The French and Russian Revolutions remove oppression and then replace it with, well, even more repression! That is never what is intended, but how do you achieve what you intend, especially when you don’t know what that replacement can be?
    It makes me think of the trend to power dressing. In order to make an impact in a male dominated world, the feminine version of the suit is copied, the flowing locks of femininity are shorn, the decorative female look is cut back. You can see what the target is, but is the move not taking on another designated role? Yet what is the choice if you want to get on in a male world, other than to ape men, as if there aren’t enough apemen already, I hear someone ask?
    The whole issue is one of the great anxieties of our time. It isn’t confined to women, but to any group defined and designated by any cultural norm, ultimately it impacts (sorry, naughty verb), on each and every one of us. As restrictions have eased and choices become broader for a larger number of people, in some parts of the world at least, the difficulties of finding a way increase in proportion. These possibilities become like shopping in the mega-consumer world of the West, for just that perfect present. We are all looking for the elusive someone we believe we are meant to be, but perhaps there is no such thing. It is an endless journey. If we were to come to the end, what next, satisfaction or a kind of pointlessness? Is this the existentialist impasse? It feels like having been designated to be a culturally required square peg, having then honed oneself into the desired round peg to fit our dreams, then finding ourselves thinking we really wanted to be a triangular prism after all, perhaps.
    Well, I’d better sail off into the blue, as this is getting to be blog piracy. It’ll be a boarding party next. Sorry! As I set out I’ll just remind myself and all, that to jettison the given navigational beacons could leave us all at sea!

  2. Bookboxed you put your finger on exactly the problem. If the feminist movement seeks to avoid all encompassing definitions of women – definitions that start to look all too soon like prescriptions – then how can it identify the group that it seeks to represent politically? That’s the problem that took us from the 60s to the 90s. After that comes this form of individualism which, as you rightly suggest, starts to look like shopping. I think there’s a constant battle in contemporary culture between a new-age serenity that seeks to live just in and for the present, and a commercial culture that tries to insist we all resemble someone on a piece of packaging or an advertisement. (ps, I’ll let that ‘impacts’ go, just this time.)

  3. Thanks for this very intersting post. I’ve read a lot of de Beauvoir’s non-fiction but none of her fiction, and your post makes me want to give it a try. Yet again, you are broadening my reading horizons!

  4. Ugh, I just hit the wrong key and blanked out my comment! It was really good too! Anyway, thanks for writing about Beauvoir. She must have thought about what a liberated woman would be but since she didn’t write about it she has managed to avoid being wrong or looking silly. But I’d like to know what she thought. I’m looking forward to you getting that time machine!

  5. Kate – I’d love to know what you think of Beauvoir. I suppose The Broken Woman could possibly feature as A Curious Singularity story. It’s on the long side, but it might be possible. Stefanie – isn’t it just the pits when your comment gets eaten, for whatever reason! And oh for that time machine. Beauvoir would just be the start of it!

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