Who Was Simone de Beauvoir?
Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris, France, in 1908. When she was 21, De Beauvoir met Jean-Paul Sartre, forming a partnership and romance that would shape both of their lives and philosophical beliefs. De Beauvoir published countless works of fiction and nonfiction during her lengthy career—often with existentialist themes—including 1949’s The Second Sex, which is considered a pioneering work of the modern feminism movement. De Beauvoir also lent her voice to various political causes and traveled the world extensively. She died in Paris in 1986 and was buried with Sartre.
Catholic Upbringing and Atheism
Simone de Beauvoir was born Simone Lucie-Ernestine-Marie-Bertrand de Beauvoir on January 9, 1908, in Paris, France. The eldest daughter in a bourgeois family, De Beauvoir was raised strictly Catholic. She was sent to convent schools during her youth and was so devoutly religious that she considered becoming a nun. However, at the age of 14, the intellectually curious De Beauvoir had a crisis of faith and declared herself an atheist. She thus dedicated herself to the study of existence, shifting her focus instead to math, literature and philosophy.
In 1926, De Beauvoir left home to attend the prestigious Sorbonne, where she studied philosophy and rose to the top of her class. She completed her exams and a thesis on German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in 1929. That same year De Beauvoir met another young student, budding existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom she would soon form a lasting bond that would profoundly influence both of their personal and professional lives.
Relationship With Sartre and WWII
Impressed by De Beauvoir’s intellect, Sartre had asked to be introduced to her. In a short time, their relationship became romantic but also remained wholly unconventional. De Beauvoir rejected a proposal of marriage from Sartre early on. The two would also never live under the same roof and were both free to pursue other romantic outlets. They remained together until Sartre's death decades later in a relationship that was at times fraught with tension and, according to biographer Carole Seymour-Jones, eventually lost its sexual chemistry.
The individual liberties their relationship structure granted the couple allowed De Beauvoir and Sartre to part ways for a time, with each accepting teaching jobs in different parts of France. De Beauvoir taught philosophy and literature throughout the 1930s, but during World War II was dismissed from her post by the Vichy government after the German army occupied Paris in 1940. Meanwhile, Sartre, who was drafted into the French army at the start of the war, was captured in 1940 but released the following year. Both De Beauvoir and Sartre would work for the French Resistance during the remainder of the war, but unable to teach, De Beauvoir soon launched her literary career as well.
Debut: 'She Came to Stay'
De Beauvoir’s first major published work was the 1943 novel She Came to Stay, which used the real-life love triangle between De Beauvoir, Sartre and a student named Olga Kosakiewicz to examine existential ideals, specifically the complexity of relationships and the issue of a person's conscience as related to “the other.” She followed up the next year with the philosophical essay Pyrrhus and Cineas, before returning to fiction with the novels The Blood of Others (1945) and All Men Are Mortal (1946), both of which were centered on her ongoing investigation of existence.
During the 1940s, De Beauvoir also wrote the play Who Shall Die? as well as editing and contributing essays to the journal Les Temps Modernes, which she founded with Sartre to serve as the mouthpiece for their ideologies. It was in this monthly review that portions of De Beauvoir’s best-known work, The Second Sex, first came to print.
'The Second Sex'
Published in 1949, The Second Sex is De Beauvoir’s nearly 1000-page critique of patriarchy and the second-rate status granted to women throughout history. Now reckoned as one of the most important and earliest works of feminism, at the time of its publication The Second Sex was received with great controversy, with some critics characterizing the book as pornography and the Vatican placing the work on the church's list of forbidden texts.
Four years later, the first English-language edition of The Second Sex was published in America, but it is generally considered to be a shadow of the original. In 2009, a far-more-faithful, unedited English volume was published, bolstering De Beauvoir’s already significant reputation as one of the great thinkers of the modern feminist movement.
'The Prime of Life'
Although The Second Sex established De Beauvoir as one of the most important feminist icons of her era, at times the book has also eclipsed a varied career that included many other works of fiction, travel writing and autobiography, as well as meaningful contributions to philosophy and political activism. Among the most notable of her written works were the Prix Goncourt–winning novel The Mandarins (1954), the travel books America Day by Day (1948) and The Long March (1957) and four autobiographies: Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), The Prime of Life (1960), Force of Circumstance (1963) and All Said and Done (1972).
Not content to rest on the laurels of her literary and intellectual achievements, De Beauvoir used her fame to lend her voice to various political causes as well. She joined Sartre in support of Algeria's and Hungary’s struggles for independence during the 1950s and the student movement in France in the late 1960s, also condemning American foreign policy during the Vietnam War. During the 1970s, De Beauvoir’s work brought her to the forefront of the feminist movement, to which she shared her intellect through lectures and essays as well as by participating in demonstrations for abortion rights and women's equality.
'Old Age' and Death
In the later stages of her career, De Beauvoir devoted a good deal of her thinking to the investigation of aging and death. Her 1964 work A Very Easy Death details her mother’s passing, Old Age (1970) analyzes the significance and meaning of the elderly in society and Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre (1981), published a year after his death, recalls the last years of her partner’s life.
De Beauvoir died in Paris on April 14, 1986, at the age of 78. She shares a grave with Sartre in the Montparnasse Cemetery.
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