Simone de Beauvoir was one of the most important cultural historians of the twentieth century. She was also one of the most thoughtful critics of society. Her insights might have been a direct result of the mental stimulation she and her contemporaries provided to each other. Known primarily for her non-fiction, de Beauvoir was a philosophical crusader. She explored the roles of women in society in The Second Sex, a work placing her in the vanguard of the feminist movement. Later, she dealt with the challenges of the aged members of society, in The Coming of Age and other works. While Jean-Paul Sartre often preferred speeches and magazine editorials, de Beauvoir constructed long works with astounding clarity. While Sartre is known most for short works of fiction, de Beauvoir’s major works retain a role in political thought.
While Sartre has been called “the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century” by Bernard-Henri Levy and others, this often overlooks the contributions of de Beauvoir to Sartre’s thinking. Also, there is an increasing amount of evidence that de Beauvoir “edited” and contributed to her companion’s most influential works. This willingness to be overshadowed definitely complicates the image of Simone de Beauvoir as a feminist — but people are complicated.
The life of Simone de Beauvoir closely parallels that of her colleague, friend, and lover Jean-Paul Sartre. Her life is well documented, due to her many autobiographical works. These works also follow the lives of Sartre, Albert Camus, and other prominent philosophers of the twentieth century.
Simone Ernestine Lucie Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir was born on 9 January 1908, in Paris, to Françoise and Georges de Beauvoir. While Ernestine and Lucie were the names of her grandmothers, Marie was her “Christian” name to honor the Virgin Mary. The Catholic faith would be important to Simone until her adolescence.
According to her autobiographies and interviews, Simone was reading by the age of three and attempting to write almost as soon as she could read. She obtained this love for words from her father, who had a passion for books and the theatre.
Simone met Elizabeth “Zaza” Le Coin as a schoolgirl. Simone admired Zaza’s outgoing personality; she could be bold and spontaneous, while Simone was generally shy. Like Simone, Zaza was from a bourgeois Catholic family. Social standing was important to both families, but Zaza’s experiences with social norms would shape de Beauvoir’s views of social order. It is possible Zaza’s life helped create de Beauvoir’s feminism and sense of social justice.
As a student, Zaza met and fell in love with Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Unfortunately for the two lovers, Mr. Le Coin had already arranged a marriage for his daughter. Zaza’s parents demanded that she never see Merleau-Ponty or Simone again, as they deemed both to be corrupting influences. Elizabeth Le Coin died of encephalitis in 1929.
Simone wrote of Zaza’s short life several times. For de Beauvoir, the death of her friend revealed how unreasonable French social order was and how unfair life could be.
Within “proper” French society, a young woman of Simone’s class was expected to marry and raise children. Simone had other plans, deciding to pursue a career teaching and writing, much to the chagrin of her father. Yet there was little choice but to accept his daughter’s wishes; Georges lacked the financial security to attract an acceptable suitor. Again, Simone came to view French culture as absurdly preoccupied with matters of money and class.
Simone began taking courses at the Sorbonne in 1926. She completed her “certificate of letters” in 1927, the first step towards qualifying as a teacher in France. She was a student with Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Claude Lévi-Strauss.
In 1929, Simone began to study for the agrégation exam in philosophy. Passing the exam would qualify her for a teaching post. While studying, she met Jean-Paul Sartre. René Maheu had asked Simone to join a study group, which included Sartre. It was during these study sessions that Maheu nicknamed de Beauvoir “The Beaver,” or Castor in French. This nickname was based both on the English name for the animal and its reputation as a dedicated worker.
Sartre corresponded exactly to the dream companion I had longed for since I was fifteen: he was the double in whom I found all my burning aspirations raised to the pitch of incandescence. I should always be able to share everything with him…
— Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, 1959
Simone received a post at a lycée in Marseille in 1931, to the disappointment of Jean-Paul who received a post at in Le Harve. While the two never married, Sartre proposed to de Beauvoir in 1931, which would have resulted in them being placed together under French policies mandating that married couples be granted state positions near each other. To his dismay, Simone declined the proposal. The complex relationship between Sartre and de Beauvoir would never be traditional, and it is unlikely an official marriage would have changed this.
Olga, Sartre, and a Novel
In 1932 Simone was transferred to Rouen. While teaching in Rouen, de Beauvoir began a relationship with a student of hers, Olga Kosakiewicz. When Sartre was added to the relationship, the complexity eventually overwhelmed the trio. While Simone imagined the trio would enforce an “authenticity” on relationships, the reality was that Olga later presented a threat to Simone’s confidence and self-perception.
The relationship significantly challenged Beauvoir’s conception of herself. Olga confronted her as an independent consciousness; Beauvoir could not simply cast Olga in the role of object to her own consciousness. […] The trio of Sartre-Beauvoir-Olga was an attempt to live relationships with another consciousness authentically; the third person was to challenge the other two to relate to each individual involved with genuine reciprocity.
— On de Beauvoir; Scholz, p. 11
The relationship would later be chronicled in the novel She Came to Stay (L’Invitee).
When Sartre was conscripted in 1939, de Beauvoir was forced to consider European politics. Until that time, she was focused on teaching, writing, and theoretical debates among friends. Suddenly the debates were about the very real nature of life, death, and personal choices.
Possibly the most influential work by Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness was published in 1943. As noted in the commentaries, there is some debate as to Simone de Beauvoir’s influence upon Sartre. Did this work, edited by de Beauvoir, shape her thoughts, or are the marks of her intellect to be found in Sartre’s great work? That scholars still debate the role each played in the other’s works is indicative of how closely they were linked.
In the fall of 1943, de Beauvoir’s first novel was published. She Came to Stay was a fictionalized account of her relationships with Sartre and Olga Kosakiewicz. Living in occupied Paris, de Beauvoir and Sartre maintained close ties to several of their former students. In addition to Olga, Nathalie Sorokine and Jacques-Laurent Bost completed a unique social group. These three individuals were dedicated to Sartre and de Beauvoir intellectually, but also in a more complex manner.
Sartre and Beauvoir spent the war years with an intimate group of friends called “the family.” […] Among the members of “the family” were to be counted Olga and Jacques-Laurent Bost, Sartre’s former student, both of whom were significantly younger than Beauvoir and Sartre.The family frequently pooled resources and cooked together. Since she lived in hotels and ate at cafés most of her life, this was Beauvoir’s only real experience of cooking, to say nothing of the other domestic duties she was forced into adopting during the war. It is significant that the future author of The Second Sex was so unencumbered of domestic duties most of her life.
— On de Beauvoir; Scholz, p. 12
Philosophical exploration, especially studying the role of individual choice, was de Beauvoir’s academic passion. In 1944, her workPyrrhus et Cinéas was published. It featured a study of individual choice, as did her 1947 work The Ethics of Ambiguity (Pour une Morale de l’Ambiguité). These works demonstrate the underlying themes of existentialism: the importance of free will and the anxiety of the individual.
After World War II, de Beauvoir joined Sartre at Les Tempes Modernes, a “leftist” journal of sorts named for the Chaplin film,Modern Times. Founded in 1945 by Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and their intellectual circle of friends, Simone would remain on the editorial staff until her death. This journal served de Beauvoir well; her works often first appeared in its pages.
The postwar French sought to understand what had occurred to them during World War II. The war affected France a great deal, raising a great many moral questions. Published in 1945, The Blood of Others (Le Sang des Autres) was de Beauvoir’s exploration of the dilemmas confronting a Resistance leader during the war. The book sold well; the reviews were also complimentary. Her friend Albert Camus wrote a positive review Simone treasured.
At some point in 1945, Simone wrote her only play, Useless Mouths (Les Bouches Inutiles), which has also been called Who Shall Die?
In 1946 Simone’s attempt to explain the ethics of mortality, All Men are Mortal, was published. For Simone, the project was a long, demanding effort. She wanted to study ethical questions about immortality: how does mortality affect human relationships and ethical systems? The result was not well-received by critics. The work was considered weak and confusing. For de Beauvoir, feeling misunderstood was a shock.
The United States (and a Crocodile Husband)
A five-month tour of the United States during 1947 reinforced many of de Beauvoir’s opinions; she saw what she wanted to see, some critics have noted. She had been invited to the United States to lecture on philosophy at a number of universities. While in Chicago she contacted writer Nelson Algren, who took her on a tour of the more colorful parts of the city — not typical tourist destinations.
When Simone first called, Nelson initially hung-up on Simone, but she eventually persuaded him of her identity. Something must have clicked, because during February 1947 the two became lovers. Their relationship would last seventeen years, complicated by their other relationships. (Sartre was the greatest complication for de Beauvoir.) Simone called Nelson her “crocodile husband” as a reference to his smile, while he called her his “frog wife” in reference to her French nationality.
Simone’s observations on American life were published in 1948 as America Day by Day (L’Amérique au Jour le Jour). The work is critical of social problems within the United States, ranging from class inequalities to racism.
The love between Algren and de Beauvoir was more romantic and passionate than her relationship with Sartre had ever been. In either 1950 or 1951, depending on the source, Nelson wrote to Simone that he would marry her. Once again, Simone declined an offer of marriage. This time it was because she could not break from either Sartre or her life in France.
In 1997, eleven years after Simone’s death, some of her letters to Nelson Algren were published. More than 300 letters were written from 1947 through 1964. From these letters, scholars have noted both the publicly suppressed passion of de Beauvoir and her depth of knowledge.
Fame and The Second Sex
While Simone de Beauvoir was recognized before The Second Sex, this work firmly established her as a philosophical and political leader. Feminism, or at least the roots of “gender studies,” was born in 1949 with publication of The Second Sex. Granted, that seems a simplification of history, but de Beauvoir’s collection of essays on what it means to be a woman have shaped the discussion.
Simone started The Second Sex in 1947, while in America. The influence of her views on the United States can be detected throughout the work due to mentions of race relations and sexism in America.
Excerpts from The Second Sex appeared in May, June, and July 1949 editions of Les Tempes modernes. According to Simone, the work was meant to be political and philosophical, not only about sexuality. When the complete first volume was published, it caused quite a sensation in Europe and the United States.
The publication of The Second Sex marked something of a turning point for Beauvoir. Already well known for her novels and philosophical essays, this colossal study of the condition of women gained her international fame. Hailed as “the mother of second wave feminism,” Beauvoir waited until the early 1970s before calling herself a feminist and actively participating in the movement. […] Indeed, The Second Sex will continue to be the foundation piece for feminist theory as well as an inspiration for individual women to question the effects of the social construction of gender on their daily lived experience.
— On de Beauvoir; Scholz, p. 12
A second volume of The Second Sex was published in November, 1949. The publication generated a great deal of press attention. Coincided with an interest in human sexuality in the United States and Europe. The Kinsey Report, the research of Masters and Johnson, and other events were indicative of a major social shift in the United States.
Alfred Charles Kinsey (1894-1956) was a biologist at Indiana University. Kinsey and his staff interviewed thousands of people in the United States and Canada during the 1930s and 40s, testing his assumptions that humans behaved like other animals when it came to mating and pair bonds. Kinsey’s reports were published as two books: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). Both books were best selling works, though they had been intended for other biologists, physicians, sociologists, and psychologists. Doctor William Masters (1915–2001) and his research associate Victoria Johnson (1925–) also theorized biology was the primary influence on gender relations. They later examined psychology, as well. (As an aside, Masters and Johnson were married from 1971–1993.)
Simone de Beauvoir’s timing could not have been better. Sexuality was an academic topic, no longer something limited to quiet whispers or the rare psychological theory. Biological and sociological factors were considered valid points of study. Simone believed social factors were most important in gender relations, while Kinsey pondered biology.
Catholic writer François Mauriac led a social campaign against The Second Sex, as well as other sexually explicit literature. Mauriac labeled de Beauvoir’s candid descriptions as pornography. Other critics and readers called de Beauvoir a “nymphomaniac.” Those in literary circles complained that her study of sexuality and the roles of women was too dispassionate. Yet, the book was clearly a success because of the controversy as much as anything Simone stated.
Even More Fame
In 1952, Simone met Claude Lanzmann. Claude joined the staff of Les Temps Modernes in 1951 or 52, and quickly began courting Simone despite being 17 years her junior. The age difference pleased Simone, who had started to doubt her attractiveness. To be wanted to a charming, younger man brought a new energy to de Beauvoir.
The couple moved in together and were quite serious for nearly two years. They parted in 1954, when Simone purchased an apartment in Monparnasse. She would live in the small apartment until her death in 1986. With frequent travel and generally eating at cafés, she did not need a great deal of space.
About the time Simone and Claude parted ways, she was awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary award, for The Mandarins (Les Mandarins). Simone de Beauvoir was the third woman to receive the award.
The novel was about left-wing intellectuals in postwar France. It was seen as a follow-up to The Blood of Others, and in a similar fashion contained a great deal of autobiographical details.
Unfortunately, her career and reputation were about to be damaged by her embrace of communism. None of her future works would have the influence of The Second Sex. Simone would publish her last novel in 1966, becoming something of a symbol of what might have been. The public enjoyed Les Belles Images, a novel about a woman balancing career and romance, but the critics thought it lacked social insights. Simone was now expected to have social insights, even when she sought to tell an interesting story.
Communism and Rebellion
Why did Simone de Beauvoir’s star fade in public and critical circles? There were two reasons: her embrace of communism started to seem untenable and she became a critic of French colonialism.
Today, we can appreciate how French colonialism still affects world politics. France’s Indochina policies resulted in Vietnam and certainly influenced the strongman leaders of Pacific nations. The continent of Africa is still dealing with the legacy of French colonialism, in addition to other religious and political uprisings.
While de Beauvoir was eventually proved correct about the dangerous nature of French colonialism, she was as wrong as could be imagined when it came to the nature of global communism.
Simone’s interest in politics increased steadily after World War II. As with many of her contemporaries, de Beauvoir drifted increasingly to the left of the political spectrum. By the 1950s, de Beauvoir was defending the Communist governments of China and the Soviet Union on a regular basis — and routinely criticizing “Capitalism” as practiced in the United States and much of Western Europe. During the 1950s and 60s, de Beauvoir’s support of communist theory and Communist parties increased, as did her political activity.
In 1955, de Beauvoir and Sartre accepted official invitations to visit the Soviet Union and China. These tours were important public relations events for the two communist nations. Their goal was to appeal to the left-leaning academics and labor leaders in France, and possibly appealing to activists in other Western nations.
The Long March (La Longue Marche) was published in 1957. This one work effectively removed Simone from bookstores and many colleges in the United States.
This is probably her worst book in both style and content (she admitted to Nelson Algren that the book was written largely to obtain money). Beauvoir praises the accomplishments of communism in China and it is clear to the reader that she either turned a blind eye to the problems of the communist revolution there or was simply naive enough to believe that the entire country was as well off as what she saw on her official visit.
— On de Beauvoir; Scholz, p. 14
While other French radicals were starting to criticize the Communist parties in the Soviet Union and China, Simone was steadfastly supporting “communists” throughout the world. (She was apparently unconcerned by the dictatorial and militaristic natures of these men.)
She traveled to Cuba in 1960, at the invitation of Castro. She started to actively support the Vietnamese Communist party over the French colonial government about the same time.
Starting in the mid-1950s, Simone started to actively oppose the French colonial authority in Algeria. In 1962, with Gisèle Halimi, Simone published an account of the torture of Djamila Boupacha, a young Algerian. The authors argued that not opposing the actions of the French government was morally equivalent to endorsing the torture of “Arab” rebels. To this day, France is dealing with the consequences of its actions in North Africa.
The first volume of Simone’s memoirs was published in 1958. After The Long March, the success of Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (Mémoires d’une Jeune Fille Rangée) quickly restored de Beauvoir in European literary circles.
Additional memoirs followed, though none would enjoy quite the success of Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. The Prime of Life(La Force de L’Âge), The Force of Circumstances (La Forces des Choses), and All Said and Done (Tout Compte Fait) were mildly successful with the public. The memoirs might have been “too open” in some ways, with The Force of Circumstances leading to a final break between Nelson Algren and de Beauvoir. Algren was angered that his private life would be made so public.
Possibly the most touching and literary of the memoirs is A Very Easy Death. The memoir recounts the death of Simone’s mother, Françoise. Regardless of her political or philosophical standing, A Very Easy Death recounts emotions and situations familiar to many daughters.
Beauvoir’s relationship with her mother had been fraught with tension and even loathing at times. […] Nonetheless, when her mother was dying, Beauvoir felt a rush of emotions, at times very conflicting, which she expressed in A Very Easy Death. […] This account of her mother’s death was the younger Beauvoir’s way of coping with her loss but it is also a moving reflection on death, a theme with which she had long been fascinated.
— On de Beauvoir; Scholz, p. 15
Feminism and Sylvie
Simone met Sylvie Le Bon sometime during the illness of Françoise de Beauvoir. As part of her philosophy studies, Sylvie had requested an interview with Simone. The two became close friends, in part because Simone appreciated having someone with whom she could discuss her emotions. After the death of her mother, Simone was encouraged by the young student to write about the experience and emotions.
The depth of de Beauvoir’s feelings for Le Bon were evident with the publication of All Said and Done, which is dedicated to Sylvie. Published in 1972, the women had been friends for nearly a decade. The nature of their relationship had evolved from teacher-student to something more.
The younger Le Bon also encouraged de Beauvoir to become more active in the feminist movement within France and throughout the world. However, Simone came to believe that the academic feminism of the 1970s was too theoretical, making it hard for working-class women to relate to the leadership of the movement.
In interviews Beauvoir revised her position on socialism noting that socialism alone was insufficient for woman’s liberation. She also used her name to support campaigns in favor of abortion [access] and against domestic violence. The interviews she conducted at this time indicate her displeasure at some of the trends in feminism, in particular her discontent with theoretical positions based on deconstruction. Such abstract feminism that tries to reinvent a woman’s language or a woman’s way of writing, she thought, was too far removed from the lives of everyday, ordinary women.
— On de Beauvoir; Scholz, p. 17
As both an act of love and to secure an heir, Simone adopted Sylvie in 1980.
The final years of Simone de Beauvoir's life were marked by Sartre's illnesses and eventual death. Simone attempted to factually record their relationship, as best she could considering her strong emotional attachment to Sartre. Unfortunately, what de Beauvoir viewed as reporting facts was perceived by many as an attack on Sartre and his life. One person offended by de Beauvoir’s later works was Sartre’s adopted daughter, Arlette El Kaïm-Sartre.
To cope with the loss of Sartre, Simone began writing Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre in 1981. The work was published in 1985, a year before Simone’s death. While the work was extremely frank and open, it was also as factual and unemotional as an academic report. Critics complained the work was “cold.” Considering the complex relationship between the two, maybe this “cold” approach was necessary for Simone, who had certainly been hurt by Sartre many times — while she also conducted relationships with others.
In 1983, Lettres au Castor was published in France. This was a collection of letters from Sartre to de Beauvoir. The letters reveal much of his complex love for Simone and his need for attention and approval from others.
On 14 April 1986, Simone died. Her death followed a long illness, apparently complicated by her drinking.
Since the death of Sartre and de Beauvoir, a lot of information has surfaced regarding their personal relationship and their intellectual dependence upon each other. While this is further addressed in the commentaries that follow, it is also an important part of their biographies. It is quite probably that Sartre wanted and needed to be “the star” within his circle. Simone understood this, and as a result did the very thing she advised women not to do: she let a man take credit for her efforts.