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Historical Background:Simone andFrançoise de Beauvoir,
a Mother's Influence

Simone and Sartre

Simone's Affairs

Simone and Sartre with FriendsSimone and Sartre StudyingSimone and Sartre with FriendsSimone and Sartre StudyingSimone and Sartre with FriendsSimone and Sartre StudyingSimone and Sartre with FriendsSimone and Sartre Studying



 Growing up in a bourgeois family in early 1900’s France, Simone de Beauvoir was able to achieve unparalleled success in her education and career as a writer and philosopher, owing to a unique mix of economic, religious and social conditions that occurred in her childhood.  At the same time, the influence of her family, especially her mother, led her to develop a personal life that sometimes contradicted much of her feminist writings.  De Beauvoir’s relationship with Sartre in particular, who was both her lover and contemporary in the French existentialist movement, was a reflection of her relationship with her mother.

 A "downwardly mobile upper-middle-class" family:

     Born in Paris in 1908, Simone de Beauvoir was the first child in what is described by Toril Moi, in Simone de Beauvoir: the Making of an Intellectual Women, as a “downwardly mobile upper-middle-class” family with “social and cultural aspiration beyond the family’s financial means” (Moi, 3).  At the time of her birth, de Beauvoir’s father, George, who came from a wealthy family himself, was a fairly successful lawyer in Paris, who enjoyed amateur acting on the side.  De Beauvoir says about her early years: “…I saw very little of him.  He used to leave every morning for the ‘Palace’ carrying under his arm a brief case stuffed with untouchable things called dossiers”(de Beauvoir, 8).   When he was home, he doted upon her, but did not play “any well defined role” in her life.  Her mother, Francoise, who like her father was given a strict Catholic education, also came from a wealthy family.  Unfortunately, her family’s wealth started to diminish around the time Francoise married George.  As a result, her dowry was never paid, a point which will be touched upon later. 

Although Simone saw more of her mother during her early years than her father, it was her nanny Louise that was responsible for most of her daily care.  De Beauvoir idolized her beautiful young mother, saying that even though she was “more distant, more capricious” than Louise, her mother “inspired the tenderest of feelings in me; I would sit in the perfumed softness of her arms and cover her fresh, youthful skin with kisses” (de Beauvoir, 8).  Despite the apparent distance between de Beauvoir and her parents, her early childhood was a happy and sheltered one. 

          The advent of World War I French Soldiersput a strain on the family both emotionally and financially.  George de Beauvoir was soon sent off to the front, leaving Françoise alone with the girls.  For Simone, this was a time of increased closeness with her mother, who now rarely went out or received visitors.  This was also when she began to recognize her mother’s favoritism for her, compared to her younger sister Poupette.  Although her father was discharged soon after the war began in 1914, after suffering a heart attack, the damage from the war on the economy, coupled with the fact that he had given up practicing law, started to take a toll on the family finances.  Besides this, some of his other business ventures had gone bad.  As a result, the de Beavoirs’ somewhat extravagant bourgeois lifestyle had to change.  This loss of status lead to the first of several moves that the family had to make into smaller and smaller apartments.  Besides the family’s finances, George’s temperament began to change as well.  No longer was he the amiable, if somewhat distant, father that Simone had known: “The refined man-about-town, who had once placed good manners above all else, demonstrated in outbursts his rage at being déclassé” (Moi, 40). 

          Even before George de Beauvoir’s personality changed, he held many of the nationalistic and patriarchal views common to bourgeois men at the time.  Although he was raised in Catholic schools like Simone’s mother, and respected the church, he was not a religious man.  His love of his country was so strong that he called it his “only religion,” and refused to participate in any anti-nationalist discussions.  He did not believe that Jews should be allowed to participate in government and despised all foreigners and the left-wing.  Above all, he believed in the sanctity of family, or the “cult of the family,” as Simone puts it in her memoirs.  Because “Woman, in her role as mother, was sacred to him; he demanded the utmost fidelity of married women, and all the young girls had to be innocent virgins” (de Beauvoir, 38).  On the other hand, “he was prepared to allow great liberties to men, which led him to cast an indulgent eye upon women known as ‘fast’” (de Beauvoir, 38).   He apparently was fond of telling Simone that “The wife is what the husband makes of her: it’s up to him to make her somebody” (de Beauvoir, 39).

          Unlike George, Françoise, who was brought up in a convent, absorbed the teachings of the Catholic Church.  A meek woman with a distant family, “she came into flower” (de Beauvoir, 33) with her marriage to George. Françoise in fact felt guilty about her lack of dowry and felt eternally grateful to her husband for not holding it against her.  Simone says that: “My father enjoyed the greatest prestige in her eyes, and she believed that the wife should obey the husband in everything” (de Beauvoir, 40).  Any domineering instinct she had was expressed towards her daughters, or Simone’s nanny, Louise.  Françoise de Beauvoir was also very rigid in her ideas about sex roles.  Sex, for her, was not to be discussed and certainly not for a woman, even when married, to enjoy.  As de Beauvoir, looking back, commented “convention obliged her to excuse certain indiscretions in men; she concentrated her disapproval on women; she divided women into those who were ‘respectable’ and those who were ‘loose’” (de Beauvoir, 41).  There is much evidence that George took full advantage of Françoise’s low expectations for him.  He is called a “philanderer” by Moi, and Simone herself states in “A Very Easy Death” that her father took advantage of “professional” women to satisfy his desires outside of marriage. 

          Whatever George de Beauvoir may have lacked as a husband, he still tried to involve himself in some aspects of Simone’s upbringing.  As George told Simone later in her life, without a dowry (which the family was now too poor to provide) she would never marry, and her education was therefore essential.  He was especially concerned with Simone’s spelling and writing: “whenever I wrote him a letter, he would send it back to me with corrections.  In order to help form my taste in literature, he had assembled a little anthology for me in an exercise book…” (de Beauvoir, 39).  He read the classics to her and dictated passages for her to transcribe.  Although he never intimidated Simone, she says that she “did not attempt to bridge the distance that lay between us; there were many subjects that I could not imagine myself discussing with him; to him I was neither body nor soul, but simply a mind”(de Beauvoir, 40). 

          According to Simone, her father “raised her up” to his level intellectually, but it was when she fell back to her “ordinary level” it was her mother that was there for her.  Her father took care of her mind, and her mother, the more mundane (at least to Simone) tasks of her body and morality.  To assist her in doing so, she attended the Union of Christian Mothers meetings regularly.  At the time, education, especially for girls, usually fell into the hands of the mother, a role Françoise de Beauvoir took seriously. She attended class with her daughters (a practice she continued until the girls were ten and she was forced to quit doing so), monitored their homework and lessons, and learned English and Latin so as to keep up with her daughters.  She went to mass with them and performed devotions with the girls morning and night.   Françoise was without a doubt a very attentive mother, but at times she was attentive to the point of being extremely overbearing: “At every instant of the day she was present, even in the most secret  recesses of my soul, and I made no distinction between her all-seeing wisdom and the eyes of God himself”(de Beauvoir, 42).  The parts of her Simone’s life that Françoise felt excluded from, she forced her way into.  Simone recounts her mother bringing letters addressed to her “already opened and regaling me with a full description of their contents; but this custom was so well-established that I made no protest” (de Beauvoir, 165). 

          In Simone’s estimation, the way in which her mother smothered her and her sister, Poupette was because of her deep faith: “Her personal conduct was an outward expression of her deep faith: with ready unselfishness, she devoted her entire being to the welfare of those near and dear to her” (de Beauvoir, 42).  This piousness, however, also accounted for the cold way in which Simone’s mother treated her at times: “I did not know her as a saint, because I knew her too well and because she lost her temper far too easily…” (de Beauvoir, 42).   Although she unfailingly obeyed her husband, in her relationships with friends and family she was unpredictable, sometimes breaking out into “out bursts of violent frankness.”  There were ways in which she closed herself off to Simone as well, especially when it came to matters of her body or sex: “Physical questions sickened her so much that she never attempted to discuss them with me; she did not even attempt to warn me about the surprises awaiting me on the threshold of puberty” (de Beauvoir, 41).  When Simone did get her period for the first time, she was horrified and thought she was dying.


Simone and Sartre:

          In many ways, Simone’s relationship with her mother was reflected in her later relationships her with her life-long companion, the famous French Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as with the other men and women that she was with.  De Beauvoir’s relationship with Sartre was, to say the least, eccentric, especially for the time period.  Although they had a relationship that spanned fifty years, they never married. A Young Simone and Sartre At the beginning of their relationship, Sartre proposed that they enter into a “pact of freedom.”  This pact would allow both of them to sleep with whomever they liked.  Simone initially would not agree to this plan, but gave in when Sartre promised her two years of complete monogamy at the end of which he would go to teach in Japan for several years.  As Moi puts it, “…Sartre was in effect trading two years of monogamy for a lifetime of infidelity” (Moi, 220).  Sartre then proposed another pact, “the pact of openness” which stated that neither would lie nor conceal anything from each other.  According to a friend of Sartre, he did not keep his pact, however.  When he asked Sartre, a known womanizer, how he dealt with so many women at once, his response was: “I lie to them.  It is easier and more decent” (Moi, 223).  His friend then asked: “Even to Beaver? (Simone’s nickname) Particularly to Beaver” (Moi, 223). 

Whether Simone realized that Sartre was not truly open with her is unclear.  At one point, Sartre seduced Simone’s student and close friend, Olga.  Instead of voicing her rage, Simone says: “There was no question of fighting him for her, since I could not bear any dissention between us” (Moi, 222).  Simone did not seem to realize, or if she did, she did not admit it to herself, that she had entered into a relationship similar to the one that her parents had.   As Moi says, “Perfect communion (between Simone and Sartre) means that when he insists, she gives away” (Moi, 222).  Simone frequently talked about her and Sartre having interchangeable identities, that they were “one”.  However, “the two may well be one, but he is the one” (Moi, 222). 

The fact that she would enter into a relationship like this is in part because of her belief that marriage leads to the complete subjugation of women.  By entering into these pacts with Sartre, she may not have been allowing him complete access to her body and time, but she was allowing him to rule all of her feelings.  In doing so, she was repeating a mistake that her mother made by letting herself be defined by her partner.  In essence, Simone lost her identity. Simone and Sartre on a trip to RomeEven to this day, she is mainly known for her association with Sartre and not for the vast amount of work that she produced on her own.  Another theory, posited by Moi, is that de Beauvoir saw Sartre as god-like figure.  In much the same way that her mother was her entire world as a child, so is Sartre in her later life.  Simone says that she “feels freed” by these pacts, because she and Sartre are bound in the world by their love even if they are not together.   Simone did not allow herself to realize that what Sartre was asking of her was not fair and that he was not fulfilling his end of the “pact”, because she saw him as the “good, all-providing mother” , ... one of the operative elements in Beauvoir’s founding fantasy of their couple” (Moi, 222).


Simone's Affairs:

In her many affairs with women, Simone did not let herself be controlled in the way that Sartre controlled her; instead, she was the manipulator. What she could not control with Sartre, she sought to control in the women around her.   Just as her mother had done, “she acted out a veritable obsession with spying and intrusion” (Moi, 233).  She locked up all of the letters she got from Sartre so as to keep them from his lovers (most of whom were mutual acquaintances of the couple).  She also admitted to sneaking into one of the lover’s rooms to read her diary.  Simone also seemed to have a certain reproach for her female lovers.  She peppers her descriptions of their relationships in her letters to Sartre with complaints about the women.  She “hates” one of them and another “tortures” her.  When she tries to kick one woman out of her apartment after curfew, she is almost beaten up and describes to Sartre her “rage” towards the woman: “I went to the door, trembling with rage, I wanted to be alone, have some peace, some sleep.  I frankly hated her” (Moi, 233). Again, the situation is quite similar to Simone’s mother with Simone’s father, while she is willing to forgive anything in the man she loves, she reserves her criticism for the women closest to her.  Says Moi, “…Beauvoir cast her female lovers as exact carbon copies of her own mother” (Moi, 233).



            Simone de Beauvoir was a fiercely independent revolutionary woman.  Even these qualities however, did not stop her from being influenced her mother.  Like Françoise de Beauvoir, she could be submissive, noisy and at time passionate.  Although she was not half of a bourgeois marriage like her mother was, she sometimes acted like it.  Her relationships with both men and women show what an indelible mark her mother left on her.