Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986)

Simone Lucie-Ernestine-Marie-Bertrand de Beauvoir was born into an eminent Parisian family in 1908. Her father, who had ties—or at least pretensions—to the nobility, had ceded his aspirations in the theater for a respectable law career. He was an art-loving atheist who encouraged de Beauvoir’s love of literature, but he was also extremely conservative on social issues. Her mother was from a wealthy bourgeois family, and was a devout Catholic who tried to raise her daughters, Simone and her younger sister, Helene (“Poupette”), in the same tradition.

Though pious as a child, de Beauvoir repudiated religion at the age of fourteen, and this became a recurring source of tension between her and her mother. Her renunciation of God also brought marked loneliness, a realization of the deep solitude of life. Throughout her youth, de Beauvoir’s closest companions were Helene and a classmate, Elizabeth Mabille (“Zaza”). In 1929, Zaza died, officially of meningitis, though de Beauvoir always believed that Zaza’s struggle to resist an arranged marriage had been the real cause of her death. Zaza’s friendship and her untimely death haunted de Beauvoir for the rest of her life, and many of de Beauvoir’s later critiques of rigid bourgeois constraints on women were rooted in her anger over Zaza’s death.

Having lost his wife’s dowry in World War I, de Beauvoir’s father was tormented by the necessity of his daughters taking professional careers. De Beauvoir, however, looked forward to a career as a writer and teacher, which she preferred over the “vocation” of motherhood. Early on, she decided to devote her life to studying philosophy, and, aside from a brief engagement to her cousin, she never seriously considered getting married. The autonomy of the intellectual life had always appealed to her more.

In 1929, after studying mathematics, de Beauvoir earned the second-highest score in a competitive philosophy exam called the agrégation. Only Jean-Paul Sartre, who was taking the exam for the second time, outscored her, and he had received far more training than she had—she was, after all, four years his junior, as well as female. Following this success, de Beauvoir moved in with her grandmother to study at the École Normale Supérieure, the most prestigious educational institution in France. At the École, de Beauvoir met a group of intellectual mavericks, including Sartre.

For the first time in her life, de Beauvoir felt she had found an intellectual equal in Sartre, who would become her lifelong companion. She resisted an “institutionalized” pairing with him, however, and refused his only offer of marriage early in their relationship. Her convictions scandalized her proper bourgeois friends. De Beauvoir’s relationship with Sartre became notorious for the two progressive beliefs the couple espoused: the liberty to love others and the commitment to total honesty and openness. She and Sartre became “essential” lovers, while permitting themselves “contingent” romances with others. While they remained in a committed relationship for the rest of their lives, they never married, had children, or even shared the same residence. De Beauvoir had numerous other romantic liaisons with both men and women.

In the early 1930s, de Beauvoir taught in various provincial outposts in France. When the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, de Beauvoir was fired from her teaching job for her outspoken views. Fired from another job in 1943 and shaken by World War II, during which Sartre was imprisoned, de Beauvoir became interested in the social problems of the age. An important precept of existentialism—the intellectual movement with which she was associated—concerns the intellectual’s engagement with her historical realities. In her determination to fulfill this commitment, de Beauvoir quit teaching and decided to pursue writing as a livelihood. In 1943, she published her first novel, She Came To Stay, which chronicles the incremental collapse of a couple’s relationship after a young girl moves into their house. The successful novel was a fictionalized account of the intrusion of a young female student, Olga Kosakievicz, in her relationship with Sartre. The three-way relationship was reputedly upsetting to de Beauvoir.

During the German occupation of France, from 1941 to 1943, de Beauvoir’s engagement with politics deepened and is expressed in several works, such as the novel The Blood of Others (1945), the ethical essay Pyrrhus et Cineas (1944), the play Useless Mouths (1945), and yet another novel, All Men are Mortal (1946). While de Beauvoir’s involvement in the French Resistance remained marginal, in 1945, she, Sartre, and other intellectual comrades founded Le Temps Modernes, a monthly left-wing political journal. In several of the articles she contributed, de Beauvoir explores her debt to Marxism and concomitant uneasiness about communism. While working at the journal, she also published The Ethics of Ambiguity (1946), an indispensable primer on existentialist ethics. Then, in 1949, she published the most controversial work of her career, The Second Sex. This lengthy study of the sources of women’s inequality, still a cornerstone of feminist theory, made de Beauvoir a feminist icon for the rest of her life.

De Beauvoir’s experiences at Les Temps Modernes, along with her continued perplexity over the intellectual’s role in politics, inspired one of her finest novels, The Mandarins, for which she received France’s highest literary honor, the Prix Goncourt, in 1954. Her output remained prolific throughout her middle years, a remarkably happy period of de Beauvoir’s life. In the late 1950s, she began work on her monumental four-part autobiography. The first volume, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), focuses on her childhood. In the second volume, The Prime of Life, de Beauvoir contemplates the difference between the “I” and the “we”—a major Existentialist question that Sartre also studied. In the third volume, Force of Circumstance, de Beauvoir reveals a heightened interest in issues of the day, from the French occupation of Algeria to universal questions about human rights. She finished the final volume, All Said and Done, in 1972. The Coming of Age, another major work of this period, reflects her growing interest in the subject of aging, and this chilling examination of society’s indifference to the elderly garnered wide praise.

De Beauvoir stayed with Sartre until his death in 1980, and she published a wrenching account of his last days, Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, the following year. Until her death in 1986, she sought to live out the philosophical ideals she articulated in her autobiographies, novels, and nonfiction treatises. Her diverse influences—from Bergson to Hegel to Descartes, from Kant to Heidegger to Marx and Engels—informs one of the richest bodies of work in 20th-century letters.