Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
(1958) is an autobiographical account of De Beauvoir’s early years, leading up to her coming-of-age when she leaves her family to attend classes at the Ecole Normale in Paris. De Beauvoir was a notable French writer, philosopher, and feminist. Her most famous work is The Second Sex
, an analysis of female oppression that became the foundation of the second-wave feminist movement. De Beauvoir had a longtime relationship with philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and died in 1986.
De Beauvoir traces the story of her early years in great detail. Young Simone was born in Paris to a life of privilege. Her father was a legal secretary and her mother was the daughter of a wealthy banker. Her family showers her with attention and affection; she is spoiled and untroubled. She is also able to recognize, even as a young child, that she is exceptionally intelligent. But this intelligence means she is not always willing to obey the rules, and she often gets in trouble for this.
During World War I, the de Beauvoirs’ lose most of their fortune but try to cling to their comfortable class status. Simone’s mother, a devout Catholic insists that the children be sent to the finest Catholic schools anyway. When Simone starts school at Cours Desir, she contrasts herself with her new friend Elizabeth, called “Zaza.” Zaza is also bright and charismatic; she easily captivates the school-aged Simone. Simone’s mother enforces conservative morals in her daughter such as duty, austerity, and self-sacrifice.
Once Simone learns to read, she does not stop. Her parents attempt to forbid her from reading certain books they deem improper, but this only incites their daughter further. She reads the forbidden works in secrecy, absorbing every word even if she does not fully understand it. She also begins to write.
When Simone reaches adolescence, she begins to feel as if she is a disappointment. Once a conventionally attractive child, she no longer finds herself pretty. Her skin is scarred and damaged by acne, and she becomes clumsy. She feels shame and observes (whether truthfully or not) that her father finds her ugly and her younger sister Hélène no longer looks up to her. She also writes that her mother becomes afraid of an “unidentifiable change” in her oldest daughter.
As Simone matures, she fears the utter sameness that she perceives in adult life: marriage, children, and domesticity. She promises herself that she will find a different path. Instead of settling down, she will remain single. And she will become a writer.
At the same time, Simone becomes disillusioned with religion. She is frustrated that, as a woman, she does not have the same access to education that men do. On top of that, she is fed up with her instructors at Cours Desir, finding them stupid and overly concerned with affectations, traditions, and pointless customs.
Simone rails that the education system is designed to prevent her from thinking for herself. She is also frustrated by the conflicting worldviews bestowed by her Catholic mother and atheist father. Eventually, she abandons religion in favor of atheism.
At this time, Simone also becomes close to her cousin Jacques, who lends her the books her parents tried to ban. Literature begins to take the place of religion for her, a place where she can find comfort and rejuvenation. When she is old enough, she signs up for literature classes at the Institut de Sainte-Marie. With the help of Garric, one of her teachers, she begins to understand her purpose in life: to express herself in a way that “would help others to live.”
Soon, however, Simone develops feelings for Jacques. She loves him, but at the same time is aware that the two are incompatible. She explains that Jacques enjoys life’s luxuries and is easily contented. Simone, on the other hand, is goal-driven, never happy unless she has a challenge to overcome. More importantly, while Jacques is non-traditional, he is happy to conform to society’s values and expectations. Simone refuses to do so.
As Simone studies, she also teaches younger students. The experience is a disaster and ends in an existential crisis: she says she is not needed because “being is not needed.” She struggles to find meaning and worth in her writing and in herself.
Later, Simone sits in on classes (but does not officially enroll) at the Ecole Normale. Here, she finds purpose and her people among a small group of students that includes Jean-Paul Sartre, her future romantic partner. She expresses the hope, though it seems impossible, that she will one day find the man who will “understand everything” and “profoundly be my brother and equal.”
Zaza, now a young woman like Simone, falls in love with the Ecole Normale student Jean Pradelle. However, Zaza’s mother forbids the marriage, saying her daughter must enter an arranged marriage instead. Soon after, Zaza falls ill and dies. De Beauvoir draws a parallel between her life and her friend’s all-too-short one, Zaza’s obedience to her mother followed by her untimely death.
Jacques’s future is briefly related in a kind of epilogue. He enters a conventional, loveless marriage with a woman named Odile, and leads a life that is uninspired and dull. He is lazy and lies to his wife, and eventually dies relatively young at age 46. His death, too, seems to symbolize the lackluster life of conventionality that Simone spurns.Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
is an insightful look into a powerful philosophical mind and also a reflection on conventionality versus self-expression and realization. Reviews of the book praise de Beauvoir’s evident “vitality and intellectual curiosity.” De Beauvoir published the memoir at the height of her career, just four years after winning the Prix Goncourt
, the highest literary prize in France, for her novel The Mandarin
s. She later published further volumes of her autobiography: The Prime of Life
, Force of Circumstance
, and All Said and Done