Analysis of Simone de Beauvoir’s Novels

Analysis Simone de Beauvoir’s novels are grounded in her training as a philosopher and in her sociological and feminist concerns. She Came to Stay, The Blood of Others, All Men Are Mortal, and The Mandarins all revolve around the questions of freedom and responsibility and try to define the proper relationship between the individual and society. Her characters search for authenticity as they attempt to shape the world around them. Their education is sentimental as well as intellectual and political. While most of her heroes accommodate themselves successfully to reality, the same may not be said of her heroines. In the later novels, The Mandarins and Les Belles Images, her female characters, who are successful by worldly standards, suffer a series of psychological crises. As they undertake what the feminist critic Carol Christ has called spiritual quests, they often face suicide and madness. The existentialist enterprise of engagement, or commitment with a view of defining the self through action, seems more possible for the men in her novels than for the women. Jean Leighton has observed the absence of positive heroines in de Beauvoir’s work: Woman seems condemned to passivity while man’s fate is one of transcendence. Arguments from The Second Sex and from de Beauvoir’s philosophical essays echo in the novels. The tension between the author’s philosophical ideas and their potential realization by the women characters is clearly visible in her fiction.


She Came to Stay

De Beauvoir’s first novel, She Came to Stay, is an imaginative transposition of her relationship with Olga Kosakiewicz. In 1933, de Beauvoir and Sartre had befriended Kosakiewicz, one of de Beauvoir’s students. They had attempted a ménage à trois; She Came to Stay is the story of its failure.

The heroine of the novel, Françoise Miquel, is a young writer who has lived with Pierre Labrousse, a talented actor and director, for eight years. They feel that their relationship is ideal because it allows them both a great deal of freedom. Françoise befriends Xavière, a young woman disenchanted with provincial life, and invites her to Paris, where she will help Xavière find work. Once in Paris, Xavière makes demands on the couple and is openly contemptuous of their values. Pierre becomes obsessed with Xavière; Françoise, trying to rise above the jealousy and insecurity she feels, struggles to keep the trio together. Out of resentment, Françoise has an affaire with Gerbert, Xavière’s suitor. The novel ends as Xavière recognizes Françoise’s duplicity; Xavière has now become the critical Other. Unable to live in her presence, Françoise turns on the gas and murders her.

She Came to Stay is a meditation on the Hegelian problem of the existence of the Other. The novel plays out the psychological effects of jealousy and questions the extent to which coexistence is possible. Critics such as Hazel Barnes and Carol Ascher have noted the close ties between de Beauvoir’s first novel and Sartre’s L’Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956), published in the same year. Both texts deal with the central existentialist theme of letting others absorb one’s freedom.

Despite Françoise’s apparent independence, she needs Pierre to approve her actions and give them direction. Françoise’s self-deception and the inauthenticity of her life anticipate de Beauvoir’s analysis of l’amoureuse, thewomanin love, in The Second Sex. Confronted with a rival, Françoise becomes aware that her self-assurance and detachment are illusory. Her growth as a character occurs as she sheds the unexamined rational premises she holds about herself and her relationship with Pierre. The gap between the intellect and the emotions continues to widen until it reaches a crisis in the murder of Xavière. Françoise is finally forced to confront her longconcealed hatred. In spite of its often stylized dialogue, She Came to Stay is a lucid, finely executed study of love and jealousy and one of de Beauvoir’s finest novels.

The Blood of Others

Although de Beauvoir was later to consider her second novel overly didactic, The Blood of Others is one of the best novels written about the French Resistance. The book opens with the thoughts of Jean Blomart as he keeps vigil over his mistress Hélène, who is dying from a wound received during a mission. The novel proceeds by flashback and alternates between the stories of Jean, a Resistance hero, and his companion Hélène. The son of a wealthy bourgeois family, Jean is plagued by feelings of guilt over his comfortable situation. He takes a job as a worker and tries to lead a life of uninvolvement. His attempted detachment is based on his belief that he can thus avoid contributing to the unhappiness of others. Passive at the outbreak of the war, he is finally drafted. Upon his return to Paris, he realizes that his detachment is actually a form of irresponsibility. He organizes a resistance group and becomes its leader. As he watches the dying Hélène, he questions whether he has the right to control the lives of his comrades. Although he is doomed to act in ignorance of the consequences of his decisions, he decides that he nevertheless has an obligation to act. The novel ends with Hélène’s death and Jean’s renewed commitment to the Resistance.

If The Blood of Others is the story of Jean’s engagement, it is also the story of Hélène’s political awakening. Like him, she is politically indifferent until a young Jewish friend is in danger of deportation. She then turns to Jean and becomes an active member of his group. In contrast with most of de Beauvoir’s women, Hélène is one who, in her political commitment, manages to define herself through her actions rather than through her emotional attachments.

The Blood of Others presages the discussion of individual freedom in The Ethics of Ambiguity. In both the novel and the philosophical essay, the problem of the Other is interfaced with the question of social responsibility. With its emphasis on the denial of freedom during the Nazi occupation of France, the novel underscores the necessity of political action to ensure individual freedoms. The closed space of the love triangle in She Came to Stay is replaced by the larger obligations of the individual to a historical moment. The Blood of Others conveys the problematic quality of ethical decisions; as Robert Cottrell has noted, it evokes “the sense of being entrapped, of submitting to existence rather than fashioning it.” Nevertheless, The Blood of Others is a more optimistic book than She Came to Stay in its portrayal of the individual working toward a larger social good.


All Men Are Mortal

Individual actions are seen against a series of historical backdrops in All Men Are Mortal. The novel traces the life of Count Fosca, an Italian nobleman who is endowed with immortality. At the request of Régine, a successful young actress, he recounts his varied careers through seven centuries. A counselor to Maximilian of Germany and then to Charles V of Spain, he discovers the Mississippi, founds the first French university, and becomes an activist in the French Revolution. Like other existentialist heroes, Fosca paradoxically admits that only death gives life meaning. His goal of building an ideal, unified humanity remains unrealized as violence and useless destruction prevail.

Fosca’s story is framed by that of Régine, who is embittered by her life and haunted by death. When she learns of Fosca’s immortality, she thinks that she can transcend death by living forever in his memory. Like the women in love in de Beauvoir’s preceding novels, Régine depends on others to give her life meaning. The story ends with Régine’s cry of despair as she understands the futility and vanity of human action.

All Men Are Mortal takes up the theme of the uncertain outcome of individual actions and gives it a more decidedly pessimistic turn. This theme is modified somewhat by the more optimistic section on the French Revolution. Here, Fosca follows the career of one of his descendants, Armand. Armand’s zeal in fighting for the Republican cause leads Fosca to modify his skepticism about human progress and to take comfort in the solidarity he experiences with Armand and his friends.

Fosca’s discovery of the rewards of comradeship is very similar to that of Jean Blomart. Although Fosca’s individual actions are either undercut by the presence of others or lost in history, actions taken by the group seem to have a more powerful impact on reality. Like The Blood of Others, All Men Are Mortal predicts de Beauvoir’s later Marxist sympathies and reflects her growing politicization. Both Jean and Fosca tend to break with the solipsistic tendencies of the characters in She Came to Stay and move in the direction of greater social commitment. The context of the action in All Men Are Mortal is wider than in the preceding novels from a narrative and political point of view. It is perhaps its vast historical scope that makes All Men Are Mortal the least satisfying of de Beauvoir’s novels. Philosophical speculations on love, history, and death dominate the narrative; the characters are lifeless and seem caught in a series of historical still lifes.

The Mandarins

The Mandarins, de Beauvoir’s finest novel, covers the period from 1944 to the early 1950’s and focuses on the relationship between political commitment and literature. The narrative voice shifts between Henri Perron, a novelist, journalist, and Resistance hero, and Anne Dubreuilh, a respected psychiatrist and the wife of Robert Dubreuilh, a prominent writer.

Robert, initiated into political activism during his years in the Resistance, believes that literature must now take second place to political concerns. He engages himself wholeheartedly in founding the S.R.L., an independent leftist political party. The problems that Robert confronts as a political figure point to the painful reality of making decisions that are not always satisfactory. He draws Henri into politics by convincing him that his newspaper, L’Espoir, should be the voice of the S.R.L. When they receive news of Soviet labor camps, they try to decide if they should publish the information. Knowing that they will play into Gaullist hands and alienate the Communists to whom they are sympathetic, they reluctantly decide to print the story.

For Henri, questions of political commitment after the war are more problematic. He would like L’Espoir to remain apolitical and is nostalgic for the prewar years, when literature and politics appeared to be mutually exclusive interests. Henri tries to act in good faith, but because of his sensitivity to others, he often opts for the less idealistically pure solution. He is reluctant to break with Paule, his mistress of ten years, and he protects acquaintances who collaborated with the Germans because he fears that, like Paule, they could not survive without his help. Throughout the novel, he is torn between politics and a desire to return to literature. He gradually faces the impossibility of “pure” literature. At the end of the novel, having lost L’Espoir, he and Robert decide to found a new journal of the Left.

The questions that de Beauvoir examines through Robert and Henri have a striking immediacy that captures the problem of the intellectual in the modern world. Much of the action in The Mandarins is a fictionalized account of her experiences as a member of the intellectual Left during the postwar years. Critics have sought to identify Sartre with Robert, Albert Camus with Henri, and de Beauvoir herself with Anne. In Simone de Beauvoir and the Limits of Commitment (1981), Anne Whitmarsh notes that there is much of Sartre’s experiences with the Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire in Robert’s ties with the S.R.L. and that some of the early problems facing Les Temps modernes are reflected in the debates on the political role of L’Espoir.

The problems faced by the male characters are less pressing for Anne. Married to a man twenty years older, she seems out of touch with herself and her surroundings. Her work as a psychiatrist fails to occupy her fully, and her relationship with her unhappy daughter, Nadine, gives Anne little satisfaction. Encouraged by Robert, she accepts an invitation to lecture in the United States. In Chicago, she experiences an emotional awakening when she falls in love with Lewis Brogan, an up-and-coming writer. Her visits to Brogan are described in a highly lyric style full of images of country life and nature. The physical and affective aspects of her life with Brogan form an effective counterpoint to the intellectual character of her relationship with her husband. The shifting loyalties she experiences for both men give Anne’s narrative a schizophrenic quality.

Back in Paris, Anne tries to help Paule, who has suffered a nervous breakdown. Paule rarely leaves her apartment and is unable to function without Henri. Anne sends her to a psychiatrist,who“cures” her by having her forget the past. Like Françoise and Régine, Paule represents the temptation of living through others. In Paule’s case, however, the dependence reaches an existential crisis from which she never fully recovers. Paule’s illness is mirrored in Anne as the psychiatrist herself plunges into a long depression. When Brogan ends their relationship, she contemplates suicide. Thinking of the pain her death would cause Robert and Nadine, she decides to live. Despite this decision, Anne’s alienation from her family and indeed from her own being is more acute than ever.

Anne’s emotional awakening and Paule’s mental breakdown leave them both as only marginal participants in life. Neither woman achieves the transcendence that characterizes the life of her male counterpart. As Robert and Henri accommodate themselves to political realities, they become more integrated into society. The female quest for self-knowledge acts as a negative counterpoint to the male quest. The final scene is not unlike a collage in which the two parts of the composition are radically divided. The enthusiasm of Henri and Robert as they search for an appropriate title for their journal is juxtaposed to Anne’s stillness; she sits off to the side, withdrawn, and hopes that her life may still contain some happiness.

Les Belles Images

Les Belles Images is one of de Beauvoir’s most technically innovative novels. Laurence, the main character, is a young woman who writes slogans for a French advertising agency. She is married to a successful young architect and has two daughters. Catherine, her eldest daughter, is beginning to question social values. Laurence comes from the same mold as de Beauvoir’s other heroines. She is, for all appearances, a confident young woman, but her facade of well-being dissolves to reveal an individual profoundly alienated from herself and her society. Les Belles Images is the story of Laurence’s progressive withdrawal from society. Her interior journey ends in a mental and physical breakdown. The novel is set in Paris during the 1960’s. Some friends have gathered at the fashionable home of Dominique, Laurence’s mother. Laurence, uninterested in the group, leafs through a number of magazines containing the belles images, or beautiful pictures, she is paid to create. The dialogue among the guests is filtered through Laurence, who then adds her own reflections. The conversations are trite and filled with clichés; like the slogans Laurence invents, they conceal the real problems of war, poverty, and unhappiness. The discrepancy between the advertisements and the things they represent precipitates Laurence’s budding consciousness of herself as yet another belle image. Laurence’s perception of the inauthenticity of her own life and of the lives of the people around her results in illness. Having already suffered a nervous breakdown five years before, she becomes anorexic and unable to relate to the artificial world around her.

Through her daughter Catherine, Laurence faces her unresolved feelings toward her childhood. She recalls the lack of emotional contact with her mother in a series of flashbacks in which she appears dressed as a child in a publicity snapshot. At the insistence of Laurence’s husband, Catherine has been sent to a psychiatrist because she is overly sensitive to social injustices. Laurence sees the treatment that Catherine receives as an attempt to integrate her daughter into the artificial bourgeois world. At the novel’s end, Laurence emerges from her illness to save her daughter from a fate similar to hers. Like other de Beauvoir heroines, Laurence chooses her illness as a means of escaping certain destructive social myths. Her breakdown, rather than the result of an original flaw discovered within herself, is an indication of the failure of society as a whole. Against the inauthentic world of the other characters, Laurence’s illness appears as a victory and an occasion for emotional growth. Much like Anne in The Mandarins, Laurence is a voice from the outside who sees the social games and reveals them for what they are.

All of de Beauvoir’s novels examine the relationship between the self and the Other that is at the heart of existentialist philosophy. In her early novels—She Came to Stay, The Blood of Others, and All Men Are Mortal— there is often an explicit existentialist premise underlying the action. In her later works, The Mandarins and Les Belles Images, the philosophical message, although still present, is clearly subordinated to the narrative. De Beauvoir’s conclusions in The Second Sex appear to have led her to a closer examination of the lives of her female characters. Her later fiction adds another dimension to the quests for authenticity that mark her early production. For her heroes, the quest usually ends in some type of existentialist commitment; for her heroines, the quest seems to involve a withdrawal from harmful social myths. If at times the quests border on madness or isolation, they do so without losing their striking immediacy or their profound sense of reality. Like other great twentieth century quests, de Beauvoir’s novels chart a journey into the heart of contemporary alienation.


Major works
Short fiction: La Femme rompue, 1967 (The Woman Destroyed, 1968); Quand prime le spirituel, 1979 (When Things of the Spirit Come First: Five Early Tales, 1982).
Play: Les Bouches inutiles, pb. 1945.
Nonfiction: Pyrrhus et Cinéas, 1944; Pour une morale de l’ambiguïté, 1947 (The Ethics of Ambiguity, 1948); L’Amérique au jour le jour, 1948 (travel sketch; America Day by Day, 1953); L’Existentialisme et la sagesse des nations, 1948; Le Deuxième Sexe, 1949 (The Second Sex, 1953); Privilèges, 1955 (partial translation “Must We Burn Sade?,” 1953); La Longue Marche, 1957 (travel sketch; The Long March, 1958); Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée, 1958 (4 volumes; Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, 1959); La Force de l’âge, 1960 (memoir; The Prime of Life, 1962); La Force des choses, 1963 (memoir; Force of Circumstance, 1964); Une Mort très douce, 1964 (A Very Easy Death, 1966); La Vieillesse, 1970 (The Coming of Age, 1972); Tout compte fait, 1972 (memoir; All Said and Done, 1974); La Cérémonie des adieux, 1981 (Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, 1984); Lettres à Sartre, 1990 (2 volumes; Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, editor; Letters to Sartre, 1992); Lettres à Nelson Algren: Un Amour transatlantique, 1947-1964, 1997 (Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, editor; A Transatlantic Love Affair, 1998; also known as Beloved Chicago Man: Letters to Nelson Algren, 1947-1964, 1999); Philosophical Writings, 2004 (Margaret A. Simons, editor).
Edited texts: Lettres au Castor et à quelques autres, 1983 (2 volumes; volume 1, Witness to My Life: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1926-1939, 1992; volume 2, Quiet Moments in a War: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1940-1963, 1993).

Appignansei, Lisa. Simone de Beauvoir. London: Penguin Books, 1988.
Bair, Deirdre. Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography. New York: Summit Books, 1990.
Brown, Catherine Savage. Simone de Beauvoir Revisited. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.
Card, Claudia, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Fallaize, Elizabeth. The Novels of Simone de Beauvoir. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Moi, Toril. Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997.
Rowley, Hazel. Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.
Sandford, Stella. How to Read Beauvoir. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.
Simons, Margaret A., ed. Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
Whitmarsh, Anne. Simone de Beauvoir and the Limits of Commitment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

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