This quotation by author Mary Evans effectively summarizes the powerful impact that Simone de Beauvoir had on both the evolution of feminism, and the literary world. For her efforts to heighten sexual equality through writing she was awarded the celebrated French prize "the Prix Goncourt" in 1954, and in 1974 she was given the Jerusalem Prize for leaders who have promoted the freedom of the individual. Her devotion to the rights of women and the principles of existentialism are materialized in her written works, political actions, and personal lifestyle, leaving behind a fascinating legacy in regard to the notion of creativity.
Simone de Beauvoir was born January 9, 1908. She was the first child of a white middle class Catholic family living in Paris; and her birth order was one of the key facilitator s of her early intellectual growth. She was followed by one sister; and given this position in the family, de Beauvoir was treated as a honorary son. Thus, during her early childhood she received much of the privileged attention normally reserved for males, which led to the keen development of de Beauvoir's intellectual capabilities. She once wrote, "Papa used to say with pride: Simone has a man's brain; she thinks like a man: she is man" (Okely 23). Hence, the absence of a brother in her life provided the foundation for the nourishing of her creative talents.
Additionally, three major aspects of de Beauvoir's childhood and young adult years can be discerned as undeniably influential forces in shaping and developing her innate abilities: her relationship with her father, her relationship with her mother, and her experience with space and nature.
conjured up the mystery which was being celebrated behind those walls; a classroom of boys, and I felt myself in exile. They had as teachers, brilliant, intelligent men who conveyed to them knowledge in its full splendor. My old schoolmistresses only communicated it to me in expurgated, insipid and faded form They nourished me with ersatz and I was kept in a cage (Okely 42)
This is not to say that de Beauvoir wished to be male. In her games, plans, and daydreams she never changed into a man, but imagined herself fulfilling all of her bold aspirations as a woman. As puberty approached de Beauvoir grew isolated from her father. He was confronted with her as a feminine offspring, not as an honorary son. His expectations became too high for her; and she felt that the only way to please him would be by accumulating diplomas in superhuman quantity. She writes:
His insistence on this point convinced me that he was proud to have a brainy woman for a daughter; but the contrary was true; only the most extraordinary successes could have countered the dissatisfaction with me (Evans, 36).
Thus, the stimulating childhood relationship that de Beauvoir had with her father continued to impact her through her teenage years, but in an obviously less positive way. The emotional trauma of her identity crisis and separation from her father at adolescence later became a major source of inspiration for the philosophies and personal morals that she espoused.
Additionally, unlike the adoration that she harbored for her father, de Beauvoir never strove to imitate her mother. From early on she rejected the idea of having children or subjecting herself to the burdens of domestic labor. Hence, although her relationship with her mother exemplified many differences from that with her father, both relationships took a drastic turn during her early adolescence, causing her to develop her ability to be independent. Additionally, the differences between the beliefs of her father and mother further developed her independent nature. She writes
My father's individual and pagan ethical standards were in complete contrast to the rigidly moral conventionalism of my mother's teaching. This imbalance, which made my life a kind of endless disputation, is the main reason why I became an intellect (Okely, 32).
Hence, the juxtaposing beliefs of her parents challenged her to formulate her own moral code and identity.
An escape that she capitalized upon as a child was her experience in nature while vacationing at her grandparents' home. The countryside offered both a freedom in space and a sensual awakening. Her most treasured escape, however, was the liberation provided through books. She used the word depayer (to change scenery or disorientate) to describe what books did for her: they displaced her from her known territory. As a result, by age eight, she realized that she wanted to be a writer, and was amusing her family with stories of her own.
She was immensely impressed by the way in which he was interested in everything and took nothing for granted; by his capacity to see her life in the light of her own values; and, above all, by his absolute confidence in his future as a writer. Unlike Beauvoir, he had already thought out an original philosophy of his own and for the first time in her life she felt intellectually dominated by someone, as Sartre exposed the weakness in her cherished views. She now saw that others had pursued the implications of the absence of God more systematically than she, had understood the technical difficulties of writing a novel better, and had a clearer idea of what they wanted to say. The future suddenly seemed much more difficult to her, but also more real (13).
De Beauvoir writes, "Sartre conformed exactly to the wishes I had entertained from the age of fifteen, he was the double in whom I found all my maniac enthusiasms" (Evans 37). However, although they pledged absolute commitment at the onset of their relationship, they did not pledge absolute fidelity. De Beauvoir's sexual relationship with Sartre was defined and defended in light of the existential emphasis on the invaluable importance of freedom as an individual. Hence, they never shared permanent domestic space, owned common property, or had any children; and both had many separate affairs and relationships. For the majority of their lives, they did not even live and work (as professors) in the same city. Yet, he undeniably occupied the most influential role in de Beauvoir's life on intellectual, emotional, and spiritual levels.
At the end of the second world war, de Beauvoir and Sartre emerged as nationally and subsequently internationally known figures in French culture. Initially famous as the founders of French existentialism, their fame was to involve the authorship of numerous novels and philosophical works. Later they became known not just for their individual work, but as a legendary couple, and one which represented "intellectual life."
Protecting what is human in men against technocracies and against bureaucracies presenting the world in its human dimension, that is as it reveals itself to individuals who are both bound to one another and separate--that, I think, is the task
Her works in general were concerned with several major themes. She asserted that love and sex should be enjoyed in free relationships of equality, and that romantic love and emotional dependence on a man were to be pitied, especially when combined with economic dependence. She also repeatedly stressed the importance of openly discussing the traumas surrounding menstruation and sexual awareness. These themes were especially deeply addressed in her work The Second Sex (La Deuxieum Sexe).
From humanity's beginnings, their biological advantage has enabled the males to affirm their status as sole sovereign subjects...condemned to play the past of the Other, woman was also condemned to hold only uncertain power: slave or idol, it was never she who chose her lot (Okely 53).
The concluding message is that individual women can liberate themselves-implicitly as de Beauvoir has done-by the efforts of the mind.
Several other traits covered in Gardner's theory can also be applied to de Beauvoir's life and work. She had two intellectual mentors in her life; first her father, and most importantly Sartre. Without the inspiration of these two men, de Beauvoir might not have recognized the potential of her intellectual capabilities. The theory of the ten-year-cycle is visible in de Beauvoir's life. Keefe writes that in 1939, "a ten-year period since the attaining of her independence and her first meeting with Sartre in 1929 had come to a close and a new phase of her life was about to begin" (17). At this juncture in her life, de Beauvoir's public visibility and influence dramatically increased, as a result of a rise in her literary production and political involvement. The issue of a Faustian Bargain also can be related to her life. She gave up the typical female role in society, including the role of wife and mother. "Whereas she wanted to speak about the conditions of all women, she could only attempt this from a position which entailed solitude among men and an exile from the womankind" (Okely 162).
The impact that Simone de Beauvoir's ideals and actions had on societies across the world remains undeniably recognizable today. Perhaps the power of her life's work flows from the fact that she lived what she believed and proclaimed. As writer Alice Schwarzer wrote, "In the darkness of the Fifties and Sixties, before new women's movement dawned, The Second Sex was like a secret code that we emerging women used to send messages to each other. And Simone de Beauvoir herself, her life and her work, was and is a symbol" (Okely 29).
2. Keefe, Terry: Simone de Beauvoir - A Study of Her Writing, Harrap Limited, 1983.
3. Okely, Judith: Simone de Beauvoir, Virago Press, Limited, London, 1986.
4. Simons, Margaret: Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir, The Pennsylvania State University Press, Pennsylvania, 1994.