In the middle of the 20th century Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86) published The Mandarins, a novel that won the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary honor. In The Mandarins Beauvoir reveals the social and political sentiments of a particular group of French bohemian-intellectuals, roughly based on herself and her friends. Featured under other names are Beauvoir herself, French existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and American writer Nelson Algren. Beauvoir calls them, the characters, “mandarins,” in order to suggest that privileged leftist intellectuals should relinquish elitism to address more effectively the social issues of France.
In describing the political and personal affairs of the characters in The Mandarins Beauvoir emphasizes the feelings of loss and the fraying personal and social connections felt by many in France after World War II. She also portrays a certain state of confusion within a time of new and unexpected freedoms in a war-torn country. Many lives have been damaged by the deaths of loved ones at the hands of the Germans. Political betrayals that began during and even before the war are finally beginning to surface. Devoted members of the French resistance face the reality that people they know had helped Germans to identify and capture those that they would send to concentration camps. In a time that should have been filled with great relief, it seems that some of Beauvoir’s characters must reassess their social connections and their principles, in processing the war’s aftermath and also in preparing to deal with the newly teeming Soviet and American superpowers.
Alongside scenes depicting political tensions surrounding the French resistance and Socialist groups, Beauvoir’s work delves into the subject of feminine and masculine tendencies within sexual and romantic relationships. The novel is, in many ways, complementary to Beauvoir’s famous earlier work of feminist existential theory, The Second Sex (1949).
The Mandarins closely follows the paths of Henri Perron, a successful writer and newspaper editor, and Anne Dubreuilh, a professional psychoanalyst and esteemed wife of celebrated writer Robert Dubreuilh. Henri and Anne are not only the main characters of The Mandarins, but the most powerful ones. Both appear not only professionally superior to most other characters in the story, but also powerful in their personal relationships, consistently seeming to know or see more about their own and other characters’ emotional entanglements, or to have somewhat of an upper hand in their relationships, which amounts to their abilities to distance themselves either physically or emotionally from other people.
Beauvoir seems to have written a lot of herself into the sensitive yet strong and intellectually cogent Anne Dubreuilh. Anne admits only to herself and to the reader her emotional vulnerability. She conducts her exterior life with practicality and careful precision, always internally assessing the feelings of others along with her own. The calmness that she aspires to maintain masks her strong emotions and a deep yearning for more adventure and passion in her life. At times the character of Anne seems androgynous, as though her coolness and intelligence keep her from resembling other, more flighty women, although because of her tenderness, she is in no way masculine. Anne maintains a solid marriage in France, it seems, while also conducting a passionate love affair overseas with a Chicago writer, Lewis Bogan, representative of writer Nelson Algren, to whom the book is dedicated. Anne’s husband, Robert, represents Jean-Paul Sartre, Beauvoir’s lifelong friend and intellectual companion. Although it is unclear if Robert actually knows about Anne’s affair with Bogan, her long absences do not seem to bother him—he often has other things on his mind, such as the state of L’Espoir, the paper that he and Henri run together. Robert and Anne’s daughter, Nadine, does not show as much strength as either of her parents and often seems seriously distracted from both work and school, as well as uncomfortable with love. Both Anne and Henri explain the weakness as the result of having matured during a terrible war and having lost a fi rst love to it.
Beauvoir’s presentation of Henri leads to questions of his degree of responsibility in the mental disintegration of his longtime sexual and romantic partner, Paula, a retired singer. After months, it seems, of living within a delusional haze about their relationship, Paula becomes “cured” and declares that psychoanalysis revealed that childhood tragedy caused her temporary insanity. Although the narration certainly does not take a sympathetic view of Paula in her madness, Henri is not presented as blameless in her downfall. It is clear from the story that he wronged Paula, or partially deceived her, and at the very least, abandoned her and chose to return to caddish behavior after what was essentially a marriage to her during the war. Beauvoir’s assessment seems to be, however, that Paula brought the insanity upon herself.
Henri’s other major dilemma involves a capricious young actress, Josette, for whom he writes parts in his playwriting debut. Josette and her mother are rumored to have gladly hosted German soldiers in their home during the war and provided them not only with food, drink, and entertainment, but also with intimate pleasures. To fall into a relationship with women known socially as enemies to the state makes Henri vulnerable to political attack. That, in combination with his sense of disgust over the idea that Josette had a romantic or sexual relationship with a German soldier, finally calls an end to Henri’s relationship with the actress. However, at this point he does not and will not return to Paula, but to Nadine, who is pregnant with his child as the result of what was a casual amorous relationship.
Henri Perron and Anne Debreuilh seem to share a condition of feeling domesticity and marriage as a burden, but by the end of the novel, both seem finally to welcome that burden, perhaps as a happy alternative to eternal uncertainty. Beauvoir’s portraits of them, along with other frustrated intellectuals, characters who had been involved in brutal war-related crimes, and those who suffer drug addiction or insanity, suggests that although World War II had come to an end in 1945, it was far from over in the minds of many French. The emotional authenticity that Beauvoir weaves into the actions and words of her characters makes The Mandarins an irresistible and informative read. It is also an excellent depiction of a volatile time in French history.
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