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 She has tied her sense of self to an outdated image, and its loss forces her to confront unpleasant truths about herself.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.