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by Bamber Gascoigne

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) - in full Simone Lucie-Ernestine-Marie-Bertrand de Beauvoir


French philosopher, novelist, and essayist, the lifelong companion of Jean-Paul Sartre and vice versa. Simone de Beauvoir's two volume treatise Le deuxième sexe (1949, The Second Sex), which the Vatican placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, is one of the most widely read feminist works. Her own life Beauvoir documented in a monumental, four-volume autobiography. 

"I was born at four o'clock in the morning on the 9th of January 1908 in a room fitted with white-enamelled furniture and obverlooking at the boulevard Raspail. In the family photographs taken the following summer can be seen ladies in long dresses and ostrich-feather hats and gentlemen wearing boaters and panamas, all smiling at a baby: they are my parents, my grandfather, uncles, aunts; and the baby is me. My father was thirty, my mother twenty-one, and I was their first child." (Memoirs of A Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir, translated from the French by James Kirkup, Harped & Row, 1974, p. 5)

Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris into a bourgeois family. Her father, Georges Bertrand de Beauvoir, was a lawyer, whose fortunes declined after World War I. Bertrand de Beauvoir's lineage could be traced to Guillaume de Champeaux, one of the founders of the University of Paris. Beauvoir's mother, Françoise Brasseur, was a devout Roman Catholic, born to a family engaged in government servide and banking; she raised her daughters in a strict, traditional mode. However, as an adolescent Beauvoir rejected the religious and social values of her background.

Beauvoir was educated at Catholic girls' schools. Her teenage years Beauvoir spent hoping to marry her cousin Jacques Champigneulle, whom she had known since childhood, but Jacques never proposed her. In 1926, Beauvoir entered the Sorbonne, where she studied philosophy and literature. At the age of 21 she passed the difficult final examination, agrégation. The philosophy agrégation had been opened to women during the period between the two word wars. After having philosophical discussion with Jean-Paul Sartre, the 24-year-old star student of the École Normale Supérieure, she confessed: "Day after day, and all day long I set myself up against Sartre, and in our discussions I was simply not in his class. . . . I was beaten: besides, I had realized . . . that many of my opinions were based only on prejudice, dishonesty, or hastily formed concepts, that my reasoning was fault and that my ideas were in a muddle." (Ibid., p. 344) Beauvoir eventually joined Sartre's circle, and became his most trustworthy critic, who read his new manuscript before he sent it to a publisher.

Upon graduation, Beauvoir taught philosophy in several schools in Marseille, Rouen, and Paris. Until being dismissed by the German authorities, she  worked  from 1941 to 1943 as a professor at the Sorbonne. During the Nazi occupation of France, Beauvoir apparently was not involved with the activities against the Germans. In the late 1944 she founded with Sartre Merleau-Ponty and Raymond Aron the monthly review Les Temps modernes, which took its name from Charlie Chaplin's film. For twenty-five years the review was the most prominent forum for radical political and philosophical debate.

Beauvoir and Sartre met Albert Camus, a member of the Resistance, at the opening performance of Sartre's Les Mouches in  Paris in 1943; they talked about books. For a while they were good friends, spending their evenings together with an assortment of friends drinking, dancing, and having impromptu gatherings. Beauvoir took a new interest in cooking. Camus, a regular guest in her apartment on the Rue de Seine, once said that the quality was not exactly brilliant but the quantity was just right.  After the war she abandoned cooking and served usually cold meats, cheese and salads.  

Beauvoir's Pour une morale de l'ambiguité (1947, The Ethics of Ambiguity) was colored by the post-war disillusionment. Iris Murdoch said in her review: "The problems which seem to her most important are those of mass political action, the relation of a man to his party, and of the party to the people it serves; the problem of how to win freedom by violent means that temporarily deny it. How is the Liberal (or Christian) spirit of individualism to survive a long era of ideological warfare? Miss de Beauvoir puts the problem with an admirable fierceness, though her discussion of it is not prolonged or deep enough." (Review in Mind, 59, April 1950, Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature by Iris Murdoch, Penguin  Books, 1998, p. 123)

L'Invitée (1943, She Came to Stay) Beauvoir's first book, was dedicated to Olga Kosakievicz. Before this work she had been writing fiction for over ten years. Iris Murdoch said of the novel:"This is not moral literature, that is a literature with an ordinary accepted moral code – it is metaphysical literature." (Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature by Iris Murdoch, p. 110)

The fictionalized treatment of Sartre's affair with the young Olga Kosakievicz was born from a crisis that threatened Beauvoir's relationship with him.  Françoise and Pierre, the protagonists, are people of the theatre world. Used to share all secrets, their motto, as Pierre defines it, is: "You and I are simply one. That is the truth, you know. Neither of us can be described without the other." (Ibid., p. 21) Xavière, aged twenty, takes up an apprenticeship with his drama group, and Pierre develops a relationship with her. Françoise realizes that there is something in Pierre's life she cannot share and starts to see herself as a play object for Pierre. Françoise has an affair with a young man called Gerbert, for whom Xavière also has an interest. Françoise's world of perfect communication with Pierre is destroyed: Pierre has lived only for himself. "Without losing its perfect form, their love, their life, was slowly losing its substance, like those huge, apparently invulnerable cocoons, whose soft integument yet conceals microscopic worms that painstakingly consume them." (Ibid., pp. 165-166) At the end, Françoise kills Xavière by turning on the gas of her oven. "It was her own will which was being accomplished, now nothing at all separated her from herself. She had at last made a choice. She had chosen herself." (Ibid., p. 431)

Le Sang des autres (1945, The Blood of Others) was a novel dealing with the question of political involvement. Beauvoir wrote the work at a time when the final outcome of World War II was still unknown, but in the character of Jean she gave her support to the French Resistance. Jean Blomart is a wealthy young man. He breaks with his family and joins the Communist Party. He meets Hélène, a naive individualist, who lives just for the moment, and do not understand Jean's commitment to his beliefs.  "He too was alone; he had been wandering all over Paris since morning, with his demobilization gratuity in his pocket; the printing works were closed, his mother was far from Paris. He knew nothing about Hélène. He was alone but he was there. A complete man." Jean must choose between political activism and his private responsibilities. He realizes that he can find freedom in action without love. (The Blood of Others, translated by Yvonne Moyse and Roger Senhouse, Penguin Books, 1976, p. 184)

The book was filmed in 1982 by Claude Chabrol, starring Jodie Foster as Hélène, who is ready to die for her love, for Jean (Michael Ontkean). "There was another adaptation before, one that stuck more closely to Miss de Beauvoir's book, but it finally betrayed what she wanted to say, and she turned it down," said Chabrol in The New York Times. "But we felt more freedom to pull out certain elements, because the book really is something of a failure. And in the end, we are almost more faithful to her theme, the connection between individual actions and the collective destiny." (Robert Goldberg, The New York Times, January 15, 1984)

Beauvoir's breakthrough work was semiautobiographical Les Mandarins (1954, The Mandarins), which won the Prix Concourt. The central characters, psychologist Anne Dubreuilh, and her husband Robert, were thinly veiled de Beauvoir and Sartre. The third wheel, American Lewis Brogan, was the novelist Nelson Algren. Beauvoir had met Algren in 1947 in the United States where she was on a lecture tour. Algren wished to marry her but in the end she remained loyal to Sartre, who was "a warm, lively man everywhere, but not in bed . . . We dropped it after eight or ten years rather unsuccessful in this way," as she once wrote to Algren. (A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelson Algren by Simone de Beauvoir, New Press, 1998, p. 208) Beauvoir addressed the book to leftist intellectuals with a plea to abandon their elitist "mandarin" status, and to participate in the real world political struggle.

"I raise myself on my elbow, I look at the house, the linden tree, the cradle in which Maria is sleeping. It's a day like any other, and in appearance the sky is blue. But what a desert! Everything is still. Perhaps that stillness in only the silence of my heart. There is no more love in me, for anyone, for anything. I used to think, 'The world is vast inexhaustible; a single existence is hardly enough to drink your fill of it.' And now, I look at it with indifference; it's nothing but a huge place of exile. What do I care about the distant galaxies and the billions of men who will forever not know me! I have only my life; it alone counts. And now it doesn't count any more. " (The Mandarins, translated by Leonard M. Friedman, with an introduction by Doris Lessing, Flamingo,1984 , p. 732

Les Mandarins and the feminist classic The Second Sex (1949), were banned by Roman Catholic authorities. Perhaps remembering her early experience with Sartre, she stated: "In any case, however deferential and courteous a man might be, the first penetration is always a rape. While she desires caresses on her lips and breasts and perhaps yearns for a familiar and anticipated orgasm, here is a male sex organ tearing the young girl and introducing itself into regions where it was not invited." (The Second Sex, Vintage Books, 2011, p. 453) Beauvoir argued that women are "the other", the sex defined by men and patriarchy as not male, and consequently they are less than fully human. ". . . patriarchal society has made all feminine functions servile; woman escapes slavery only when she loses all productivity. At fifty, she is in full possession of her strenght, she feels rich in experience; this is the age when man rises to the highest positions, the most important jobs: and as for her, she is forced into retirement. She has only been taught to devote herself, and there is no one who requires her devotion anymore." (Ibid., p. 711) Critics have questioned de Beauvoir's assumptions of the male as norm, but her views about misogyny in myth and literature have been extremely influential.

Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée (1958) was the first of four volume memoirs. Beauvoir described her happy childhood, intellectual development and of course Sartre. It was followed by La Force de l'âge (1960), La Force des choses (1963), and Tout compte fait (1972), which examined from an existentialist perspective her choices between love and work.

Beauvoir herself thought that she had not influenced Sartre at all, "because she felt that she was not a philosopher, but rather a literary writer." (Beauvoir and the Second Sex: Feminism, Race, and the Origins of Existentialism by Margaret A. Simons, 1999, p. 2) She recalled, that when Raymond Aron and Sartre had a series of conversations, she did not take part in them "since my mind moved too slowly for them; nevertheless I found myself more often than not on Aron's side. Like him I had a weakness for idealism. In order to guarantee the human spirit its condition of sovereign freedom, I had come to the banal conclusion that the world must be scraped amd started again." (The Prime of Life by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Peter Green, 1962, p. 30) In general, Beauvoir differed from Sartre with her focusing on women's condition and tracing of sociopolitical, economic and ideological conditions behind freedom. Her own philosophical studies, Pyrrhus et Cinéas (1944) and The Ethics of Ambiguity, show the influence of Sartre's Being and Nothingness (1943), and are not considered her best work.

When De Gaulle seized power in 1958, Beauvoir was so disappointed she burst into tears. During the following ywars, Beauvoir travelled widely, often with Sartre, visiting Portugal, Tunis, Switzerland, Italy, USA, and China. She was with Sartre when he met Castro and Khrushchev but she did not enjoy these public occasions. Moreover, she did not accept Castro's political purges and persecution of homosexuals.

Although Beauvoir was a well-known figure in the service of social and political causes, she behaved reticently toward people who did not belong to the small circle of her intimates. The photographer Gisèle Freund, who met her from time to time for over forty years, noted that she seldom smiled. "Not smiling is probably her way of protecting herself from others, for celebrity can be a heavy burden," Freund concluded. (Photographer by Gisèle Freund, translated from the French by John Shepley, 1985, p. 136)

In the late 1960s, Beauvoir became involved with the feminist movement, but her engagement was first largely intellectual; she avoided what she described as the "trap of feminism" and stick to Marxist language and concepts in social criticism: "I never cherished any illusion of changing woman's condition; it depends on the future of labour in the world; it will change significantly only at the price of a revolution in production." (Woman's Estate by Juliet Mitchell, 2015, pp. 65-66) I. Especially she championed on issues dealing with abortion and sexual violence. With Sartre she participate in 1967 in the Bertrand Russell Tribunal of War Crimes in Vietnam. Originally he thought "I would not have to do very much more than lend my name, attend occasional meetings and sign statements and manifestos." (Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography by Deirdre Bair, 1990, p. 520) But actually she had to follow Sartre to several meetings in the Eastern European and Latin American countries.

In her later works Beauvoir depicted the problems of aging and society's indifference to the elderly. Une mort très douce (1964) dealt with the illness and death of her mother. Beauvoir asked herself, why this loss had shocked her so much. When her father died, she had only mentioned it as a fact in the memoirs. At the end of the book she realizes that there is no such thing as a natural death.

Beauvoir's book on Sartre's last years, Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre appeared in 1981. After his death her life was marked by bitter disputes with Arlette Elkaim. At the age of 18, the young Algerian Jewish student had telephoned Sartre discuss about Being and Nothingness. He liked her and started to do more and more his writing at Arlette's apartment. Eventually Sartre adopted Arlette and spent several weeks each summer in the house he had bought her in the south of France.

During the last period of her life, Beauvoir's drinking habits hastened her physical and mental collapse. She had always liked the taste of alcohol and she could drink men under the table. And like Sartre, she used drugs, mostly amphetamines. Beauvoir died in Paris, on April 14, 1986. She was buried in the same grave as Sartre.

For further readingSimone de Beauvoir: The Basics by Megan Burke (2024); Becoming a Woman: Simone de Beauvoir and the Politics of Trans Existence by Megan Burke (2024); Translating Simone de Beauvoir's the Second Sex: Transnational Framing, Interpretation, and Impact, edited by Julia C. Bullock and Pauline Henry-Tierney (2023); Beauvoir et Sartre: pour un matérialisme féministe by Michel Kail (2023); Beauvoir and Belle: A Black Feminist Critique of the Second Sex by Kathryn Sophia Belle (2023); Beauvoir in Time by Meryl Altman (2020); Becoming Beauvoir: A Life by Kate Kirkpatrick (2019)Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Womanby Toril Moi (2008); The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir by Emily R. Grosholz (2004); Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, and Feminism by Nancy Bauer (2001); Beauvoir and the Second Sex: Feminism, Race, and the Origins of Existentialism by Margaret A. Simons (1999); Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography by Deirdre Bair (1990); Simone de Beauvoir by Jane Heath (1989); The Novels of Simone de Beauvoir by Elizabeth Fallaize (1988); Simone de Beauvoir by Lisa Appignanesi (1988); Simone de Beauvoir: An Annotated Biography by Joy Bennett and Gabrielle Hochmann (1988); Simone de Beauvoir: A Life, a Love Story by Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier (1987); Simone de Beauvoir by Judith Okely (1986); Simone de Beauvoir, a Femnist Mandarin by Mary Evans (1985); After the Second Sex by A. Schwartzer (1984); Simone de Beauvoir and the Limits of Commitment by A. Whitmarsh (1981) - Place to see: Café de flore, 172 boulevard Saint-Germain , 75006 - Haut of Sartre, de Beauvoir and the Existentialists.  Other important feminist writers: Marilyn French, Betty Friedman, Germaine Greer, Doris Lessing

Selected works:

  • L'Invitée, 1943 - She Came to Stay (translated from the French by Yvonne Moyse and Roger Senhouse, 1949) - Kutsuvieras (suom. Mirja Bolgár, 1985)
  • Pyrrhus et Cinéas, 1944
  • Les bouches inutiles, 1945 (play) - The Useless Mouths, and Other Literary Writings (edited by Margaret A. Simons and Marybeth Timmermann, 2011)
  • Les bouches inutiles, 1945 - Who Shall Die? (translated by Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier, 1983)
  • Le sang des autres, 1945 - The Blood of Others (translated by Roger Senhouse and Yvonne Moyse, 1948) - film 1982, dir. by Claude Chabrol, starring Jodie Foster, Lambert Wilson, Michael Ontkean, Sam Neill, Stephane Audran
  • Tous les hommes sont mortels, 1946 - All Men Are Mortal (translated by Leonard M. Friedman, 1955)
  • Pour une morale de l'ambiguité, 1947 - The Ethics of Ambiguity (translated by Bernard Frechtman, 1949) - Moniselitteisyyden etiikka (suom. 2011)
  • L'Amérique au jour de jour, 1948 - America Day by Day (translated by Carol Cosman, 1952)
  • Le Deuxiéme Sexe, vol. 1-2, 1949 - The Second Sex (translated and edited by H. M. Parshley, 1953) / The Second Sex (translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, 2009) - Toinen sukupuoli (suom. Annikki Suni, 1980) / Toinen sukupuoli I: Tosiasiat ja myytit (suom. Iina Koskinen, Hanna Lukkari ja Erika Ruonakoski, 2009)
  • The Marquis de Sade: An Essay, 1953 (translated by Annette Michelson with selections from his writings translated by Paul Dinnage) - Onko Sade poltettava? ja muita esseitä (suom. Erika Ruonakoski, 2007)
  • Le Mandarins, 1954 (Prix Goncourt) - The Mandarins (tr. 1956) - Mandariinit 1-2 (suom. Mirja Bolgár, 1982-1983)
  • La Longue Marche, 1957 - The Long March (tr. 1958)
  • Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée, 1958 - Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (translated by James Kirkup, 1959) - Perhetytön muistelmat (suom. Annikki Suni, 1987)
  • Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome, 1960 (translated by Bernard Fretchman)
  • La Force de l'âge I-II, 1960 - The Prime of Life (translated by Peter Green, 1962) - Voiman vuodet (suom. Anna-Maija Viitanen, 1988); Pariisi 1939-44 (suom. Anna-Maija Viitanen, 1989)
  • Djamila Boupacha, 1962 (with Gisèle Halimi) - Djamila Boupacha, The Story of the Torture of a Young Algerian Girl which Shocked Liberal French Opinion (translated by Peter Green, 1962)
  • La Force des choses, 1963 - Force of Circumstance (translated by  Richard Howard, 1965) - Ajan haasteet (suom. Anna-Maija Viitanen, 1990); Maailman meno (suom. Anna-Maija Viitanen, 1991)
  • Une mort très douce, 1964 - A Very Easy Death (translated by Patrick O'Brian, 1966) - Lempeä kuolema (suom. Outi Kasurinen-Badji, 1966)
  • Les belles images, 1966 - Belles Images (translated by Patrick O'Brian, 1968) - Kauniit kuvat (suomentanut Irmeli Sallamo, 1969)
  • La femme rompue, 1967 - The Woman Destroyed (translated by Patrick O'Brian, 1969) - Murtunut nainen (suomentanut Mirja Bolgár, 1978)
  • La Vieillesse, 1970 - Old Age (tr.  Patrick O'Brian, 1972) / The Coming of Age (translated by Patrick O’Brian, 1972) - Vanhuus (suomentanut Mirja Bolgár, 1992)
  • Tout compte fait, 1972 - All Said and Done (translated by Patrick O'Brian, 1974) - Asioiden laita (suom. Anna-Maija Viitanen, 1995); Loppujen lopuksi (suom. Anna-Maija Viitanen, 1996)
  • Quand prime le spirituel, 1979 - When Things of the Spirit Come First (translated by Patrick O'Brian, 1982) - Ei yksin hengestä (suomentanut Marja Haapio, 1991)
  • La Cérémonie des adieux, 1981 - Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre (translated by Patrick O'Brian, 1984)
  • Lettres au Castor et à quelques autres, 1983 - Witness to My Life: The letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1926-1939 (tr.  Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, 1992); Quiet Moments in a War: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1940-1963 (tr.  Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, 1993)
  • Lettres à Sartre, 1990 - Letters to Sartre (translated  and edited by Quintin Hoare, 1991)
  • Journal de guerre, 1990 - Wartime Diary (translated by Anne Deing Cordero; edited by Margaret A. Simons and Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, 2009)  
  • Lettres à Nelson Algren, 1997 (edited by Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir) - A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelson Algren (translated by Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, et al., 1998)
  • Correspondance croisée: 1937-1940, 2004  (Simone de Beauvoir et Jacques-Laurent Bost, présentée et annotée par Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir)
  • Philosophical Writings, 2004 (edited by Margaret A. Simons with Marybeth Timmermann and Mary Beth Mader)
  • Cahiers de jeunesse: 1926-1930, 2008  (ed. Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir) - Diary of a Philosophy Student (translated by Barbara Klaw, 2006)
  • Letters to Sartre, 2011 (Lettres à Sartre, 1990; translated and edited by Quintin Hoare; preface by Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir)
  • "The Useless Mouths", and Other Literary Writings, 2011 (edited by Margaret A. Simons and Marybeth Timmermann; foreword by Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir)
  • Political Writings, 2012 (edited by Margaret A. Simons and Marybeth Timmermann; foreword by Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir)
  • The Woman Destroyed, 2013 (Femme rompue, 1967; translated from the French by Patrick O'Brian)
  • Simone de Beauvoir: Feminist Writings, 2015 (edited by Margaret A. Simons and Marybeth Timmermann; foreword by Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir)
  • The Independent Woman: Extracts from The Second Sex, 2018 (Deuxième sexe, translated by Constance Borde and Shelia Malovany-Chevallier; annotated and introduced by Martine Reid) 
  • Mémoires, 2018 (édition publiée sous la direction de Jean-Louis Jeannelle et d'Éliane Lecarme-Tabone; chronologie par Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir) 
  • Les inséparables, 2020 (introduction de Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir)

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