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Throughout The Second Sex, de Beauvoir refers to a number of historical figures. This short list attempts to place them in their context and, in some cases, to explain how de Beauvoir uses them in her work.
A psychoanalyst associated with a theory that became known as the “inferiority complex.” After disagreeing with Freud over the role of the libido in individual psychology, Adler developed a branch of psychoanalysis he termed “individual psychology,” which posits that men are driven by the desire to attain superiority (or self-realization). When this project fails, an inferiority complex develops and various neuroses ensue.
A French poet, critic, and major proponent of the Surrealist movement. A former medical student influenced by Freud’s theories of the unconscious, Breton was interested in eliminating the distinction between subject and object, dream and reality, sanity and lunacy. De Beauvoir analyzes his work in Chapter X, “The Myth of Woman in Five Authors.”
An Italian adventurer who left behind a celebration collection of memoirs and was known for his dalliances with women.
A poet, playwright, and major figure on the French literary scene throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Claudel’s work derives much of its power from his faith in God, a rarity in the age of Modernism. The conflict between human and divine love tormented Claudel throughout his life. De Beauvoir analyzes his work from a feminist perspective in Chapter X, “The Myth of Woman in Five Authors.”
A French novelist known for her sensual descriptions and her intimate depictions of the sentimental life of women. Colette led an unconventional life, with several husbands and innumerable lovers. De Beauvoir frequently cites Colette’s work for insights into female psychology. Colette’s fictional heroines, while inhabiting traditional roles, display a rare depth and complexity.
An English doctor and writer who shocked polite Victorian society by tackling the unmentionable subject of sex. Ellis’s landmark work, Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897–1928), a seven-volume compendium of case studies, was initially banned as filthy, and for many years it was available only to the medical profession. Ellis was a champion of women’s rights and sex education.
A central theorist in outlining the principles of socialism and communism. With Karl Marx, Engels developed a “materialist” interpretation of history that posited the proletariat, or working class, as the eventual winners of the ongoing class conflict. De Beauvoir faults Engels for suggesting that the institution of private property led by necessity to the inferiority of women. Engels believed that the Industrial Revolution would bring about the liberation of women, but he failed to take into account that women would be more oppressed than men.
The father of psychoanalysis and one of the first theorists of the sexual nature of hysteria. Freud’s first major works were The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), his first manifesto of psychoanalysis, followed by The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901) and Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905). In the years leading up to World War I, Freud’s theories attracted many followers, including Carl Jung, Willem Stekel, and Alfred Adler, although many of his original adherents later broke with him. De Beauvoir finds many deficiencies in Freud’s thinking as they relate to the development of women.
An American zoologist and sex therapist known for his revolutionary work on human sexual behavior, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Because this landmark work was published in 1948, only a year before The Second Sex, its influence is keenly felt throughout de Beauvoir’s study. Kinsey followed this report five years later with Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Both reports, based on tens of thousands of interviews, came under scrutiny for the witnesses’ unreliable testimonies.
An English novelist, poet, and short story writer. Among Lawrence’s most famous works are Sons and Lovers (1913), The Rainbow (1915), and Women in Love (1920). Lawrence had a famously stormy relationship with his wife, Frieda, a subject that interested de Beauvoir. She analyzes Lawrence’s theory of “phallic pride” in Chapter X, “The Myth of Woman in Five Authors.”
New Zealand’s most famous writer, who is credited with reinventing the short story in English. Mansfield’s two most celebrated works are “Bliss” (1920) and “The Garden Party” (1922). De Beauvoir often cites passages from Mansfield’s fiction to illustrate the frequent swoons and spasms of sudden revelation that seize her respectable, outwardly conventional heroines.
One of the primary theorists of socialism and communism. Marx’s masterpiece, Das Kapital (Capital) (1867), which was co-authored by Friedrich Engels, is the most sweeping critique of capitalist society and hugely influenced de Beauvoir.
A French novelist and playwright known as much for his domineering, arrogant personality as for his writing. Montherlant’s most famous cycle of novels, translated as The Girls (1936-1940), chronicles a libertine artist’s relationship with a series of adoring young girls. This overtly misogynistic work celebrates male dominance while rejecting feminine possessiveness and cloying sentimentality.
A socialist, Polish revolutionary who led German workers’ uprisings immediately following World War I. Luxemburg overcame the usual temptations of “femininity,” de Beauvoir claims, because her ugliness immunized her from the temptation to “wallow in the cult of her own image.”
The Polish physicist who discovered radium. De Beauvoir mentions Curie as an example of “what women can accomplish when they begin to feel themselves at home on the earth.”
A psychoanalyst and psychologist who emphasized the importance of the will, human relationships, and creativity. Rank also laid the groundwork for existential, Gestalt, and relationship theories.
The French existentialist philosopher, playwright, and novelist who dominated three decades of intellectual life in France and was the lifelong companion of de Beauvoir. Sartre’s major works include the philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness (1943) and the plays The Flies (1943) and No Exit (1944). He rejected the institution of “bourgeois marriage” and took the lead in pursuing “contingent” affairs with other woman, but he remained allied to de Beauvoir until his death. As is evident throughout The Second Sex, his ideas influenced hers immensely—sometimes too much, as her detractors often claim.
The iconoclastic American writer whose Paris home became a legendary salon after World War I, attracting artists including Picasso, Braque, and Matisse. Stein’s most famous work, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), purports to be the memoirs of Stein’s longtime companion but is actually a history of Stein’s own life. De Beauvoir mentions Stein in her discussion of the lesbian, believing that Stein chose to love in a state of equality.
The writer most credited with developing the French novel from romanticism to realism in the 19th century. Proof of Stendhal’s realism surfaces in his portrayal of women in classic novels like The Red and the Black (1831) and The Charterhouse of Parma (1839). In “The Myth of Women in Five Authors,” de Beauvoir argues that Stendhal is unique in demonstrating an understanding of women as real flesh-and-blood creatures, doomed by the mediocrity of their circumstances.
A Polish psychoanalyst who broke early on with Freud. De Beauvoir cites many of Stekel’s case studies throughout The Second Sex.
A French novelist, journalist, and founder of the naturalist movement in late 19th-century French letters. Zola’s novels, especially Nana (1880), are known for their stinging depiction of the moral decay of French society. De Beauvoir cites Zola’s realistic depiction of the situation of women.
A legendary American dancer whose performances were inspired by Greek classical art. Duncan wore a Greek tunic, flowers in her hair, and flowing headscarves. Her autobiography, published the same year of her death, supplied de Beauvoir with many examples of female vanity but also of the rewards of artistic accomplishment and of achievements independent of male influence.
An early follower of Freud who became known as one of the first psychoanalysts to introduce theories of female sexuality into public discourse. A pioneer for women in fields of medicine and psychology, Deutsch had a troubled relationship with her parents, which she used as the basis for many of her later theories in her most famous book, The Psychology of Women (1944–1945). She argued that girls’ problems stemmed from the inability to detach from their mothers.
Victor Hugo’s first and most remembered mistress. Drouet was his companion for such a long time that his family eventually accepted her. De Beauvoir discusses Drouet’s never-ending devotion in “Justifications.”
A Ukranian-born painter and writer who made a huge splash when she arrived in Paris. Her diaries, first published in 1889, five years after her death, provide de Beauvoir with an example of female narcissism.
A middle-class woman who used her intellect and guile to become mistress of King Louis XV of France. Madame de Pompadour was hugely influential in matters of art and culture.
A French anthropologist who pioneered structural anthropology, a theory that values the structure of myths over their specific narrative content. Rather than see Western civilization as elevated and unique, Lévi-Strauss sought connections between primitive and modern societies. He believed that the savage man was equal to the civilized man and that man’s character was identical everywhere, regardless of culture or epoch. De Beauvoir leans on Lévi-Strauss’s theories in her analysis of myths.
A 14th-century nun who lived through the Black Death and one of the few positive examples de Beauvoir provides of a woman transcending her given options. De Beauvoir rejects Joan of Arc as a role model and instead praises Catherine of Siena, whose benevolence and inner visions gave her authority over some of the most important men of her age, including two popes. She experienced numerous visions and ecstatic encounters with the divine, and was also known for her cogent writing style.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Second Sex!