Simone de Beauvoir

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is the first volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, and covers her life from early childhood until her days as a student at the Sorbonne. De Beauvoir is considered one of the leading existentialist thinkers, and wrote several novels (none of which I have read yet…) as well as her feminist work, The Second Sex. I wanted to read this book because I’m interested in existentialism, enjoy autobiographies and was quite intrigued by de Beauvoir herself. Although I’ve read a couple of existentialist novels (The Stranger by Albert Camus and Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre, if you’re interested!), I was quite curious to read about the movement from a woman’s perspective. De Beauvoir’s memoir completely lived up to my expectations – she is an unusual and fascinating character, and it helped that the book also contained a few ingredients I usually like reading about (Paris, the 1920s and 30s, university life).

One aspect of the story she tells is her rebellion against her family in her late teens. She was born into a middle-class family; her mother was a strict Catholic, while her father, to whom Simone was devoted, was a conservative lawyer, a sceptic and an impressive amateur actor. Her parents’ two contradictory influences seem to have created a kind of internal conversation that repeated itself during her life: ‘My father’s individualism 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 intellectual’. Simone was herself very pious as a child and thought of becoming a nun but later completely lost her faith. I think you can see the same intensity and tendency towards extremism (in a positive sense) in her earnest attempts to find ‘the Truth’ as a philosophy student.

While reading this book, I was struck by how restricted the life of young girls was during the early twentieth century. Although Simone was encouraged by her parents in all her intellectual pursuits, her social life and that of her friends was limited. For example, when she was a student, she had to lie to her mother in order to spend an evening at the ballet with a friend. Until Simone was 19, her mother even opened and read her two daughters’ post before giving it to them. I don’t think this was unusual for the time, as the lives of Simone’s friends, like Zaza (her best friend, who plays a large role in this book), seem to have been just the same. The expectation that they’d behave in the narrow way acceptable to bourgeois society and then make a respectable marriage seems to have been very oppressive. I think it’s difficult enough nowadays (when there’s more freedom for women) to disregard certain social expectations, but this environment makes de Beauvoir’s decisions to break away from these conventions and incur her parents’ disapproval even more courageous.

However, in her later student days, she experienced (through her own determined efforts) a greater degree of freedom. This life seems to have been much more fulfilling: going to the theatre, cinema and jazz bars, expanding her horizons through studying, and making friends with a whole crowd of intellectual men and women. I was quite envious of the way de Beauvoir and her friends were able to discuss their opinions and their feelings in such an articulate manner, writing long, passionate letters and constantly challenging one another’s ideas about life. Although she loved the city nightlife, she seems to have had an ambivalent attitude towards ‘debauchery’, sometimes dismissive of friends whom she saw as merely drunken aesthetes and nihilists (typical insults in 1920s Paris). She herself was a very serious person, which leads me on to another thing I enjoyed about this book: the fact that it takes seriously a young woman’s feelings, opinions and interest in philosophy, in pursuing the truth about life. Although de Beauvoir often takes a slightly ironic tone (which I also liked) when describing her younger self, I appreciated the fact that she wasn’t too critical of her. It’s a book that seems to illustrate the belief that an individual’s inner life and subjective experiences are meaningful and worthy of analysis.

I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy explorations of a person’s emotional and intellectual life, and in-depth descriptions of their relationships with other people. I do like all of the above, but there were a few moments when the book’s events progressed slightly too slowly for me, or I found it somewhat repetitive (for example, in the neverending ups-and-downs of some of de Beauvoir’s relationships). It doesn’t have a fast-moving plot, that’s for sure. However, I’d then move on to a more interesting episode and would become absorbed again, so this is only a minor criticism. Overall I really liked this memoir of a personality and era I am drawn to, and am hoping to read the other volumes of de Beauvoir’s memoirs, The Prime of Life, Force of Circumstance and All Said and Done.

Something I think I particularly like about Simone de Beauvoir is that she sees philosophy as being vitally important and not merely abstract theories unrelated to people’s lives; as a student, she did not wish for the conventional academic and ultra-cerebral life, which she saw as dry and dull. I liked the way she expressed this: ‘In my view, it was not enough just to think or just to live; I gave my complete allegiance only to those who “thought their lives out”.’