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Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir was born in 1908 on Boulavard Raspail in Paris. She was the eldest
daughter of a respected bourgeois family. Her younger sister, Poupette, and she remained close
throughout their lives, and de Beauvoir makes positive reference to her early years. It is said that
her work was inspired in part by the contrasting morals of her parents. Her father desired to work
in the theatre, but succumbed to social pressures and became a lawyer, and her mother was a
strict Roman Catholic. De Beauvoir was educated in private institutions and under the religious
discretion of her mother. De Beauvoir declared herself an atheist while she was still an
adolescent, later arguing that religion was only a method of avoiding truth. She committed
herself early to a life of learning, studying, and writing. When de Beauvoir was 21 years old she
went to live with her grandmother, and began to study philosophy at the Sorbonne.
In 1929 de Beauvoir passed her agrgation in philosophy with a thesis on Leibniz. This same
year, she met a group of students including Paul Nizan, Andre Hermaid, and Jean-Paul Satre.
Sartre and de Beauvoir began their lifelong partnership, becoming best friends and intellectual
equals. The pair ranked as the top two students of their graduating class. The influence of the two
philosophers on each other's work is remarkable. Their relationship would become famous for
the unique commitment they made to each other which involved the freedom to love other
people and the practice of complete openness and honesty between them. They would never
marry, although it was spoken of at one point, for de Beauvoir in particular felt strongly that their
relationship must not be institutionalized. This met with the disapproval of many of her friends
and relatives.
In the years between 1931 and 1941 de Beauvoir continued living with her Grandmother while
teaching at a number of Lyces in Marseille, Rouen and Paris. She was professor at the Sorbonne
from 1941 to 1943. Her work allowed her to be financially independent. She gathered a number
of friends around her, and spent time in the cafes of Paris writing and giving talks. She went to
study German philosophy in Berlin for a while, remaining in touch with Sartre all the time. At
one point they would form a kind of love triangle with a student at de Beauvoir's lyce named
Olga Kosakievicz. De Beauvoir based her first book of fiction, L'Invite (She Came To Stay,
1943), on the experience of living with the third party so close to her relationship with Sartre.
The novel is influenced by the philosophy of Hegel, Heidegger, and Kojeve, which both she and
Sartre were studying at the time. It examines the problem of choice in an absurd world, and the
relationship of an individual conscience to "the other". Her writing is also viewed as influenced
by existentialism, although she would persistently resist the title of "existentialist" despite her
links to Sartre.
During the Nazi occupation of France, de Beauvoir was able to continue working without
opposition from the Germans. By 1943 she had completed four more books including Les
Bouches Inutiles (Useless Mouths), All Men are Mortal, Pyrrhus et Cineas, and The Blood of
Others. Pyrrhus et Cinas was published in 1944, another study of anxiety, individual choice,
and the importance of free will. In 1945 she published Le Sang des autres (The Blood of Others),
a novel that explores the problems of political activism and dilemmas experienced by a French
Resistance leader during the war. The reviews of the book were favorable, and it sold well in the
environment of a confused post-war France, grappling with the moral issues left behind by the
war. The success of both de Beauvoir's and Sartres work during this time moved them into a
larger intellectual circle including Camus, Picasso, and Bataille. After World War II, de Beauvoir
and Sartre edited the leftist journal Les Tempes modernes, named for the Chaplin film, Modern
Times. The monthly review put the couple at the center of an active intellectual community.
De Beauvoir's interest in politics increased steadily after World War II. By the 1950s, de
Beauvoir had become highly critical of Capitalism, and was defending the Communist
governments of China and the Soviet Union. In 1947, she took a five-month trip in the United
States, reinforcing many of her beliefs. In 1948 she published L'Amrique au jour de jour
(America Day by Day), a critical work on the social problems, class inequalities and racism she

witnessed during her visit to the United States. While she was in the U.S., de Beauvoir met and
fell in love with the writer Nelson Algren. Her novel, The Mandarins, published in 1954, is
loosely based on her relationships with both Algren and Sartre. It is also a chronicle of the
movement of post-World War II intellectuals from their "mandarin" (educated elite) status
towards active political engagement. For the novel she was awarded the Prix Goncourt, France's
highest literary award. Her relationship with Algren continued for 15 years. The book The Works
traces the course de Beauvoir's relationship with Algren through their correspondence, supported
by accounts from friends, biographers and de Beauvoir's adopted daughter Sylvie Le Bon de
In 1947 de Beauvoir published Pour une Morale de l'ambiguit (The Ethics of Ambiguity), her
first strictly philosophical publication. She traveled to China, the USSR, Cuba, Japan, Egypt,
Israel, and Brazil to continue her political research, and in 1957 she published La Longue
Marche: essai sur la Chine (The Long March). This essay enthusiastically supports the Chinese
Revolution. She was also vocal about supporting the Vietnamese Communists over the French.
In 1949 she published her classic treatise of feminist literature Le Deuxime Sexe (The Second
Sex). This seminal work established her as a great political and philosophical thinker. She works
within the history of women's oppression, revealing woman as the "other" as defined by
patriarchy, and claiming that "one is not born a woman; one becomes one." The text is a
technically astute yet passionate plea for the abolition of what she calls the myth of the "eternal
feminine," and is considered by some scholars to be among the definitive declarations of
women's independence. Not everyone would approve of the text of course, and the Catholic
writer Franois Mauriac led a campaign against The Second Sex, labeling it as pornography.
Other critics labeled de Beauvoir a "nymphomaniac," while some complained that her work was
dispassionate. Later in her life, de Beauvoir would dedicate herself to the feminist movement,
and she spoke out against the institutionalization of impoverished and unwed mothers.
De Beauvoir devoted four volumes of work to her autobiography. These are titled Mmoires
d'une jeune fille range (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, 1958), La Force de l'ge (The Prime of
Life, 1960), La Force des choses (Force of Circumstance, 1963), and Tout compte fait (All Said
and Done, 1972). This particular body of work paints a fascinating portrait of French intellectual
life from the 1930s to the 1970s. In her second memoir, The Prime of Life, she analyzes the
relationship between the 'I' and the 'we', and writes about autonomy, being alone and her
evolving relationship with Sartre. Her ideas shift from her focus on her private life to external
and more universal topics in her third volume, Force of Circumstance. In this work she discusses
issues of the times, including the controversy and passionate conflict over human freedoms and
the French/Algerian War. She took 18 years to write the third volume, and it is the most popular
and dramatic work of the collection.
Later in life De Beauvoir concerned herself with the issue of aging, which she examines in Une
Mort trs douce (A Very Easy Death, 1964), which was written on the event of her mother's death
in a hospital. In 1970 she wrote La Vieillesse (Old Age), which is a scathing critique of society's
indifference to the elderly. In 1981 she wrote La Crmonie des adieux (Adieux: A Farewell to
Sartre), an account of Sartre's last years. She had stayed by Sartre's side until his death in 1980,
and de Beauvoir spent her final years attempting to record their relationship. The book offended
many people who saw it as a cold report rather than a factual testiment to a lifelong relationship.
Sadly, among de Beauvoir's critics was Sartre's adopted daughter, Arlette El Kam-Sartre. In the
last years of her life de Beauvoir became dependent on alcohol and amphetamines, and her
health rapidly declined. Through her life she had gained the respect of her peers as a sharp
intellectual, determined to live her life with the courage and integrity she aspired to in her
writing. De Beauvoir died in Paris on April 14, 1986, and was buried in the same grave as Sartre.