“Sartre corresponded exactly to the dream-companion I had longed for since I was fifteen; he was the double in whom I found all my burning aspiration raised to the pitch of incandescence,” writes a young Simone de Beauvoir who is about to begin her most famous love affair. While reading Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, the first in a trilogy of very detailed books about her life, I kept thinking that incandescent, intense, and passionate are the perfect words to describe Beauvoir even from a very young age.
At the age of five or six Beauvoir has vivid memories and intense feelings of love and devotion towards the people who are closest to her: her parents, her younger sister and her nanny, Louise. She believes they are all perfect and can do no wrong and adores her family with an unwavering and almost romantic fervor. She writes about her earliest years, “I though it was a remarkable coincidence that heaven should have given me just these parents, this sister, this life. Without any doubt, I had every reason to be pleased with what fate had brought me.” When she goes to school she throws herself wholeheartedly into her studies and is very proud when she receives praises and rewards for her academic achievements. And the young Simone’s religious devotion is just as passionate as her love for her family and her interest in learning:
I was very pious; I made my confession twice a month to Abbe Martin, received Holy Communion three times a week and every morning read a chapter of The Imitation of Christ; between classes, I would slip into the school chapel and, with my head in my hands, I would offer up lengthy prayers; often in the course of the day I would lift up my soul to my Maker. I was no longer very interested in the Infant Jesus, but I adored Christ to distraction.
As she grows older, she gradually loses her faith and questions the double standards for men and women placed on her not only by the rules of religion but also by the demands of the bourgeois society that she has grown up in. She is discouraged from asking any questions about sex and doesn’t realize until an absurdly late age—at least by today’s standards—how conception takes place and she knows full-well that this is ridiculous. She detests the idea that it is acceptable for young men to sow their wild oats and have a variety of sexual escapades before marriage, but if a woman does the same thing then she, and her family, are ruined.
Not surprisingly, Beauvoir goes from one extreme to the next—she embraces atheism, openly rebels against her parents, and chooses education and a career instead of marriage and children. As she is moving towards these things her desire for more and more freedom causes her a great deal of angst and her moods are rather extreme. She goes, within the space of a page or two, from being in love with life to being in the absolute pits of despair. She oftentimes quotes the diary she keeps during these years which are filled with grand, melodramatic statements: “I want life, the whole of life. I feel an avid curiosity; I desperately want to burn myself away, more brightly than any other person, and no matter with what kind of flame.”
In a lot of ways the memoir is a tragedy about two of the closest people to her throughout her childhood and her teenage years: her older cousin Jacques and her best friend Zaza. Beauvoir is intermittently in love with her cousin whom she views as a hero, especially in her younger years. For a time she even thinks that should could marry Jacques, but her feelings about him, like many other things in her life, run to the extremes of love and rejection. And Zaza she meets when they are young pupils at the same school. It is touching to see that as the girls get older they become closer friends and confidants. But neither Zaza nor Jacques are able to break free from yoke and expectations placed on the by bourgeois life. While Beauvoir is studying at the Sorbonne, living on her own, and meeting Sartre, her cousin and her best friend are swallowed up by their miserable lives.
This volume of the memoir ends just as Beauvoir is about to take up a love affair with Sartre. The amount of details, the extremes of emotion, the incandescence are, at times, a bit overwhelming—not that I didn’t like her writing, and, in fact, I oftentimes identified with her. But I think I will take a break because I am in need of something a little more serene at the moment before I resume her story.