Simone de Beauvoir: The Courage to Love Differently

The word love has by no means the same sense for both sexes,
and this is one cause of the serious misunderstandings that divide them.
— Beauvoir

In 1968 the French magazine, Elle, serialised Simone de Beauvoir’s novella, The Broken Woman (La femme rompue). One of her most openly feminist pieces, it told the disquieting story of Monique, who discovers that her husband has been unfaithful for the last eight years and that her daughters have neither respect nor sympathy for her. As a woman who has invested deeply in the identity she relished as the lodestar of their lives, Monique is distraught. For much of the narrative she hovers on the brink of breakdown, trying to see clearly into her past and come to terms with the reasons why this crisis should have happened.

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre
in front of the Balzac statue
in Montparnasse during the 1920s.
PHOTO: Archives Gallimard (Public Domain)

When letters flooded in from readers of the magazine, sympathising with the luckless Monique and identifying with her plight, Beauvoir was astonished. She had not intended her protagonist to be an object of pity but a terrible warning. Monique may have been an admirable wife, but she had been a dreadful Existentialist. She had abdicated responsibility for her personal development in assuming the roles of wife and mother and given up her vital sense of autonomy in order to serve the needs of others. No wonder she was miserable now!

Monique was the last in a long line of deluded heroines created by Beauvoir. Her female characters were ever fools for love, allowing themselves to be drawn into unhealthy behaviour by their lovers out of fear of abandonment and low self-esteem. They are bitches and slaves, complicit in their victimisation, helpless without a man by their side. Beauvoir was well aware of this, and unrepentant: “From a feminist point of view, none of them could be considered a positive role model. I admit that without remorse.”

There is only one role model in Beauvoir’s writings, and it is of course Beauvoir herself, or at least the woman who appears centre stage in her memoirs. In contrast to her tragic fictional heroines, Beauvoir’s love story was essentially a triumphant one. She had managed, against the odds and the disapproval of bourgeois society, to maintain an open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre across the whole of their busy, prolific lives. In the early 1960s, as the volumes covering her middle years were published, interest in the Beauvoir-Sartre partnership reached epic proportions. The public had long known them as a power couple, but Beauvoir’s memoirs gave readers the sense of drawing closer to the intimate secrets of their life together, a particularly prurient pleasure given the audacity of their sexual arrangements. The legend that grew up around them was based on Beauvoir’s account of a tender but free union that managed to incorporate other lovers without jealousy or loss of affection: “There has been one undoubted success in my life,” she wrote in Force of Circumstances (La Force des choses), “my relationship with Sartre. In more than thirty years we have only once gone to sleep at night disunited.”

Yet when she wrote those words, Beauvoir at fifty-five was feeling sad and fearful for the future. She was suffering the loss of her youthful looks, afraid that sexual relationships were now at an end for her, and desperately jealous of Sartre’s latest love affair. After their deaths, the executors of Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s literary estates published the letters they wrote to one another and to other lovers, revealing a very different story to the official version that Beauvoir had created. Generally, Beauvoir’s memoirs were rigorously honest about her experiences, but when it came to love affairs, the accounts she gave were partial; as the full facts of her life were revealed, the portrait of a different woman in love emerged.

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