Published just following World War II, All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86) speaks vehemently and passionately against vanity, the desire to control, and the desire for dictatorial power. Curious and existential, it is a type of philosophical ghost story. Like many of Beauvoir’s other novels, All Men Are Mortal begins from within the emotional life and social situations of an upper-middle-class artist. Unlike Beauvoir’s other novels, however, it does not stay in that realm—instead, it departs for a supernatural sphere while at the same time navigating through centuries of European political history. Throughout one artist’s odd relationship with a supernatural being, the story depicts self-serving mortality and immortality in such a way that each makes the other seem both meaningless and horrifying. Above all, All Men Are Mortal emphasizes the futility of living with the desire to control, to enslave, or to rise above others.
The novel begins with the presentation of an excessively vain and jealous actress, Regina, who secretly rages against the happiness of others, including that of her friends. She suffers in the knowledge that her life, beauty, and joy are not individual to her. Even romantic love, or the “great human drama,” is unsatisfying for her because she knows, as Beauvoir seems to indicate, that the experience is not unique. She finds life unbearable because she must share attention with others and must acknowledge that she is not the center of all things and people. Alongside Regina’s somewhat tormented path, Beauvoir places “middle-class houses” with “heartshaped vents,” perhaps representative of bourgeois mediocrity and love within a mediocre existence. Most painful to Regina, it seems, is the idea that time is passing and one day she will grow old and cease to exist.
Regina’s dissatisfaction and jealousy culminate when, in the courtyard of the hotel where she stays with her male companion, Roger, she sees a man who hardly moves and does not seem to desire to eat or sleep. She is sure the man “doesn’t know what boredom is.” He seems so self-assured that in his presence she thinks that she may not even exist. Regina’s insecurity draws her closer to the strange man, as though she thinks she might be capable of appropriating his peculiar form of enlightenment. After some investigating, she learns that his name is Raymond Fosca and that he has recently been released from an insane asylum. Regina makes his acquaintance and announces that she plans to cure him, which seems neither to startle nor interest him. There is nevertheless an attraction between them, as they both continually return to the subject of the passing of time. Fosca’s problem, he says, is not that he is insane but that he is immortal.
After only a brief time, Regina begins to believe in Fosca’s condition of immortality and falls in love with him. She seems convinced that she might, by being close to Fosca, also become immortal. Time, as an idea, becomes repugnant to Regina, and she makes that aversion known by occasionally lashing out at her friends if they even mention the time. It is unclear if Regina behaves as her true self when she spends time with her friends, who accept temporality, or when she spends time with Fosca, who persistently avers that he is immortal and timeless. Naturally, Regina’s love affair with a man her friends declare to be a lunatic isolates her from them and from her previous life. To everyone else it seems that Regina is falling into a type of insanity with this man Fosca, while she seems to believe that she is falling into a type of timeless immortality, or at least an enlightened state.
It is Regina’s ambition that Fosca become a playwright and write parts for her, but he does not share her enthusiasm for artistic creation and seems uninspired. Regina begs to be allowed to understand his lethargy or depression, and finally Fosca tells her the story of how he became immortal. Fosca’s tale, which constitutes the major part of the book, begins in medieval Italy, when he drinks a magic potion that, after causing several days of unconsciousness, makes him immortal. Already an important official and warrior of the city of Carmona, the newly supernatural Fosca becomes a master strategist, dictator, and murderer, first only in Italy and then in all of Europe. With the ability to live beyond all loved ones and enemies, there seems to be nothing for him to do except win battles and accumulate political power, century after century.
Fosca describes making his way through the time of the Hapsburg Empire, the exploration and colonization of the New World, the English Reformation, and the French Revolution, among other events. In the course of Fosca’s life, or his living condition, he loves and loses several women partners, his son, and many friends. His relationships are deep and meaningful and at the same time empty and meaningless, since he knows that he will retain his life and his power long after his companions have expired and faded away. The men he befriends envy his condition but make use of it in their political endeavors. The women who become aware of Fosca’s immortality feel disgust and fear for his condition and, quite reasonably, do not believe in his love for them. Fosca himself discovers that a life without end does not have much meaning; the future, he realizes, stretches out before him as an endless, gloomy plain. He becomes a scientist, coldly examining the world without truly caring for anything. His curiosities, desires, and hopes all vanish, and his life becomes an even path of destruction and loss.
Fosca’s story reveals that he has lived with what the fame-seeking Regina initially desires—immortality, eternal youth, and ultimate power over others—but finally it horrifies her, as it does many other women in Fosca’s history. His condition indicates that mortality and helplessness, or the weight of events within a normal life span, define humanness or give meaning to one’s life. According to All Men Are Mortal, Fosca is not a man but something else, even something monstrous. His immortality and dictatorial successes have brought him nothing but torturous over-satiation, the endless desire for desire, and the yearning for death or for freedom from existence.
Fosca’s observations also reveal that what many men and women strive toward, to rise above their stations, is also a futile endeavor, since all men and women will eventually cease to exist and will be forgotten. Fosca’s exposure of the insignificance of all things and people leaves Regina “defeated,” as Beauvoir says in one of the novel’s final lines. After Fosca has coldly taken his leave of her, she releases “the first scream,” with which she expresses the ultimate realization of her insignificance. It is a scream in fear of death, but also of living a futile life; it is certainly a scream akin to the existential terror felt by the World War–period intellectuals. Through Fosca’s dismal immortality and Regina’s neuroses, Beauvoir seems to ponder the essence of cruel, selfish, and psychotic dictatorships. With the “first” of Regina’s screams, Beauvoir gives voice to the horror, contempt, and revulsion she and her contemporaries must have felt for Hitler’s domination of Europe during World War II.
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Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis
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