The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir celebrates its 70th anniversary
January 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of Simone de Beauvoir's feminist and existentialist book The Second Sex (Le Deuxième Sexe), in which she defiantly asks "What is woman?" before embarking on an exploration of the material and intellectual conditions that enabled and maintained the subjugation of women. Her two-volume work (Facts and Myths, and its sequel Lived Experience) focuses on the way woman gradually became the "Other", the failed derivative of the supposedly stronger, more balanced male principle.
In the first volume, she discusses biology before examining the evolution of the female condition in relation to the transformation of the labour market, access to education, and the spread of birth control methods and abortion. Facts and Myths also denounces the way male writers have contributed to the shaping of mentalities and the crafting of a series of myths that gradually informed the collective imagination. Lived Experience is devoted to the issue of education through its various forms (primary socialisation at home, studying, interpersonal relationships) and is centred on the claim that "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman". It is more personal, and examines the development of a female child through the frustration and maimed education of girls to the discovery of the adolescent, fertile body, all the way towards an adulthood spent in a golden cage. This volume focuses more on the personal, bodily experience, and on the relation between ideology and the life path imposed on most women. It ends with a call for the emancipation of women through education and a change in mentalities.
While The Second Sex is credited as the watershed leading to second-wave feminism, Simone de Beauvoir was a prolific writer; and as an existentialist philosopher, political activist, and feminist, she published dozens of novels, essays, and autobiographies in her lifetime. While our aim here is not to give you a complete bi(bli)ography, we have put together a list of her works you might enjoy.
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (Penguin Modern Classics) - An intimate portrait of the childhood and coming of age of the author in a bourgeois family, marked by a rebellion against conventional expectations of marriage and the intellectual ambition to build a life and reputation of her own. The Prime of Life (Penguin Modern Classics) - The second volume of de Beauvoir's autobiography, in which she continues to tell the story of her life through the politically-loaded 30s and the war years. Force of Circumstance (Penguin) - The third autobiographical volume is an honest intellectual confession about the birth of her political consciousness in reaction to Communism and the war events in Korea, Algeria and Cuba, while continuing to explore her personal relationships. A Very Easy Death (Penguin Random House) - de Beauvoir's day-by-day recounting of her mother's death. All Said And Done (Penguin) - The last volume of her autobiography, in which she looks back at ther life and wonders to which extent she was the free actor of her own making, and to which extent she was determined by circumstances or by the expectations of others.
When Things of the Spirit Come First: Five Early Tales (Flamingo) - Her first work of fiction inspired by her own experience, a collection of five tales recounting the stories of women struggling with the necessities of matrimony, the difficulty of finding one's place as a teacher, and Catholic struggles about living a spiritual life while being anchored to a physical body. Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre (Pantheon Books) - An autobiographical work about the last decade of Sartre's life offering insight into his personality. Adieux combines an intimate portrayal of Sartre with philosophical examinations about love and freedom.
The Coming of Age (W.W. Norton & Compagny) - A reflection on what it means to age and on "Society's secret shame" - the cold alienation of the old from the society they helped build.
Pyrrhus and Cineas - The author's first philosophical essay, and an inquiry into the human condition. Building upon Plutarch's account of a conversation between Pyrrhus and Cineas, during which the latter constantly asks the conqueror what he is going to do after the next victory has been won, de Beauvoir explores the vacuity of human ambition, while questioning the criteria of ethical action. The Ethics of Ambiguity (Citadel Press) - An essay on ethics highlighting the extent of human freedom and the meaning of voluntary human action.
She Came to Stay (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) - Set during the early days of the Second World War, the novel depicts a ménage à trois between an established couple and a younger woman. It is understood to be based on de Beauvoir and Sartre's own open relationship. The Blood of Others (Penguin Modern Classics) - The novel explores the relationship between Jean, a bourgeois turned Resistance fighter, and Helène, a young designer engaged to another man. It asks the question of human freedom both in matters of personal dilemmas and in the political choices to be made under the Nazi Occupation. The Mandarins (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) - Set in the aftermath of WW2, this is a chronicle of the personal lives of French intellectuals attempting to find a place in the new political landscape. It is believed to be based on the lives of de Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus and Koestler. The Woman Destroyed (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) - A collection of three novellas ('The Age of Discretion', 'Monologue', and 'A Woman Destroyed') centred on the lives of various women and the tragedies they have had to face in their personal and professional lives.
Diary of a Philosophy Student (University of Illinois Press) - a diary dated back from 1926-27 and examining de Beauvoir's time as a philosophy student at the Sorbonne as well as her meeting with Sartre.
Wartime Diary (University of Illinois Press) - Written between 1939 and 1941, these diaries recall de Beauvoir's relationships during the detainment of Sartre, as well as her view on the French defeat and the subsequent occupation.
Letters to Sartre (Vintage Classics) - de Beauvoir's letters to Sartre which have been found by her adopted daughter, and trace the complicated relationship between the two philosophers.
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