Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée


The short of it: From the opening pages I fell head over heels for Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée (translated into English as Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter but more literally "Memoirs of a well-behaved girl"), the first of four volumes in de Beauvoir's autobiography. It's been a long time since I connected with a book at such a level of visceral sympathy—since I had the feeling "Yes! That's what it's like for me too!," since I felt such a sense of loss upon turning a final page. So there may be a certain lack of critical distance in this post: I'm declaring myself right up front to be a newly-converted de Beauvoir fangirl, and my only dilemma now is whether to break my book-buying ban and order the second volume (La force de l'age) right this second, or whether to hold out for a gift-giving holiday or upcoming trip to France.

And the long: For me, one of the greatest pleasures of Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée is simply watching de Beauvoir's brain apply its lifelong training in philosophy and semiotics to the examination of her own early life. Beginning with birth and ending with the completion of her secondary schooling, some of the most interesting passages in this book map to what are often the "boring bits" of biography and autobiography: de Beauvoir's early childhood. She is such a keen observer, and obviously so well-accustomed to dissecting the way humans perceive and process the world, that hers becomes an early-childhood story unlike any I've ever read before—and it's especially exciting to read about her development in this regard if the reader has some slight familiarity with her existentialist feminism later in life, since she does a complete about-face on many issues. She writes, for example, about her early assumption (age five or so) that language and other signs sprang organically—necessarily and without human intervention—from the things they signify, so that the word "vache" (cow) was somehow a necessary and organic component of the animal itself. In this mindset she could understand letters as objects (an "a," for example) but not as building blocks representing sounds that make up words. In this passage, she recalls the "click" in her brain when she finally, although in a limited way, grasped the concept of a sign:

[J]e contemplais l'image d'une vache, et les deux lettres, c, h, qui se prononçaient ch. J'ai compris soudain qu'elles ne possedaient pas un nom à la manière des objets, mais qu'elles représentaient un son: j'ai compris ce que c'est un signe. J'eus vite fait d'apprendre à lire. Cependant ma pensée s'arrêta en chemin. Je voyais dans l'image graphique l'exacte doublure du son qui lui correspondait: ils émanaient ensemble de la chose qu'ils exprimaient si bien que leur relation ne comportait aucun arbitraire.
[I was looking at a picture of a cow [vache], and the two letters, c and h, that together were pronounced "ch." I understood suddenly that they had no name in the sense that objects do, but that they represented a sound: I understood what a sign is. It then took me very little time to learn to read. However, my ideas stopped there. I saw in the picture the exact double of the sound corresponding to it: they emanated together from the thing they expressed, so well that the relation between them involved nothing arbitrary.

One of the many threads running through the book traces de Beauvoir's evolving understanding of signs: where they come from, how they work, and the inescapable gap (despite her early naïvete) between the thing itself and the sign humans have invented to indicate it. There comes a period in her teenage years when language, the necessity of interpreting language, becomes her enemy for just this reason: when we express our thoughts, feelings, and intentions, there is always a chasm between the thing itself—our interior landscape—and our expression of it; often this chasm is only widened when our words are interpreted by another person.

Despite this semiotic difficulty, however, de Beauvoir herself does an impeccable job of articulating her own interior landscapes at different times in her life, not only as personal experiences, but as ontological states capable of dissection by her as an adult. Another thread that is first woven into the narrative very early is the dread inherent in the realization that we change with time, that our present incarnation is different than the person we will be in the future, and in ways currently dismaying or frightening to us. That these changes may cease to dismay or frighten us in the future, before or after they happen to us, doesn't change the dread our current selves feel at being left behind, replaced:

Je regardais le fauteuil de maman et je pensais: "Je ne pourrai plus m'asseoir sur ses genoux." Soudain l'avenir existait: il me changerait en une autre qui dirait moi et ne serait plus moi. J'ai pressenti tous les sevrages, les reniements, les abandons et la succession de mes morts.
[I looked at maman's chair and I thought: "I won't be able to sit on her lap anymore." Suddnely the future existed: it would change me into someone else who would say "me" and would no longer be me. I sensed all the weanings, the renunciations, the abandonments and the whole progression of my deaths.

This was one of those jolts of recognition for me: I have a memory very like this, of being at the zoo with my mother and grandmother when I was three or four years old, and overhearing them talk about how unpleasant "teenagers" were. Mom and Grandma probably didn't actually say this, but I got the impression from their conversation that teenagers hate their parents. And it suddenly dawned on me that one day I would be a teenager: would I hate my parents as well? But I didn't want to hate them; I loved and depended upon my parents. Where would this monstrous teenage-me come from, and how would it eat away at the love I currently felt toward my family? I remember an awful feeling of dread, and of impotence: I didn't want to become this future self I foresaw, but presumably I could do nothing to stop it: "I"—the "me" looking at the polar bears—would be consumed in teenage-ness and no longer care about "my" (toddler-age) preferences. Of course the truth was more complicated—I never stopped loving my parents, needless to say—but in a way, my three-year-old self was right: by the time I was a teenager I DID act snotty and unpleasant to them a lot of the time, and I no longer wished (luckily) to regress into the trusting dependence of toddler-hood. I had become a stranger, and no longer wanted to go back; the only way was forward.

De Beauvoir's delineation of this process is fascinating, and she returns to it several times throughout this volume: the dread that precedes a change, and the ontological break that enables us to be in a completely different emotional space after the change, so that our former dread is no longer relevant. Raised devoutly Catholic, for example, she realizes sometime in her early teens that she no longer believes in God. At some point before this realization, she thinks to herself that to lose one's faith would be the most horrible thing she can imagine happening to a person; yet when she herself realizes that it has happened to her, it makes no immediate change in her life; she feels little distress. She had thought that her morality and assumptions about the universe would immediately and drastically be torn asunder, but in fact she retains the tenants of her bourgeois Christian upbringing long after she has stopped believing in God, and only very gradually (years, decades later) comes to reexamine the aspects of that upbringing that no longer make sense to her. By the time she is questioning these assumptions, other things (literature, philosophy, human relationships) have taken the spiritually fulfilling place that religion once held in her life:

La littérature prit dans mon existence la place qu'y avait occupée la religion: elle l'envahit tout entière, et la transfigura. Les livres que j'aimais devinrent une Bible où je puisais des conseils et des secours; j'en copiai de longs extraits; j'appris par coeur de nouveaux cantiques et de nouvelles litanies, des psaumes, des proverbes, des prophéties et je sanctifiai toutes les cironstances de ma vie en me recitant ces textes sacrés. [...] entre moi et les âmes soeurs qui existaient quelque part, hors d'atteinte, ils créaient une sorte de communion; au lieu de vivre ma petite histoire particulière, je participais à une grande épopée spirituelle.
[Literature took, in my life, the place that had formerly been occupied by religion: it overran everything, and transfigured it. The books I loved became a Bible from which I took advice and comfort; I copied long extracts from them; I learned by heart new hymns and new litanies, psalms, proverbs, prophecies, and I sanctified all the circumstances of my life by reciting these sacred texts. [...] Between me and these sister souls there existed something, out of reach; they created a sort of communion; instead of living my trivial individual story, I was participating in a grand spiritual saga.]

Although I want to discuss so much more—young Simone's feeling of tragedy at the unconsciousness of inanimate objects; her attribution of her own negative capability to the difference in her parents' belief systems; her relationships with her sister and her best friend; her first meetings with Sartre—I'm already running long. I can't close this post, however, without mentioning the insight that Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée gives into de Beauvoir's feminism. Her father looms large in this history, as both the object of her childhood and adolescent idolatry, and as a conservative blow-hard who says things like "a wife is what her husband makes her; it's up to him to shape her personality," and bitterly regrets the fact that his loss of money means that his daughters will be earning their own livings, rather than marrying well into good society (never mind that they PREFER to earn their own livings; that's not the point). Her father's betrayal of her—he tells her she will have to educate herself and earn her living, then hates her for being a reminder of his own financial failure—was a formative event in de Beauvoir's life, and a source of real bitterness for her; I was impressed, however, at how impartial she manages to be toward her father himself, while coming to reject the set of values he held.

As with all other aspects of the book, her observations on gender relations are detailed and perceptive, and the roots of her feminism run through this volume, from her examination of the sexual double-standard that allowed her parents to entertain men who kept mistresses but not the mistresses themselves; to the assertion of her otherwise avant-garde philospher friends that they "can't respect an unmarried woman"; to the effects of having her reading censored (it was considered dangerous for unmarried women to read about sex). I can't resist including this passage, in which a ten-year-old Simone is reacting to her priest's story about a young female parishioner who reads "bad books," loses her faith in God, and subsequently commits suicide:

Ce que je comprenais le moins, c'est que la connaissance conduisît au désespoir. Le prédicateur n'avait pas dit que les mauvais livres peignaient la vie sous des couleurs fausses: en ce cas, il eût facilement balayé leurs mensonges; le drame de l'enfant qu'il avait échoué à sauver, c'est qu'elle avait découvert prématurément l'authentique visage de la réalité. De toute façon, me disais-je, un jour je la verrai moi aussi, face à face, et je n'en mourrai pas.
[What I understood least, was the idea that knowledge led to despair. The priest hadn't said that the bad books painted life in false colors: in that case, it would have been easy to brush aside their lies; the tragedy of the girl he had failed to save was that she had prematurely discovered the true face of reality. In any case, I said to myself, one day I'll see it too, face to face, and I won't die.]

This passage makes me feel like cheering. And de Beauvoir does not neglect to notice that men and boys were not considered so delicate as to kill themselves over premature exposure to a tawdry potboiler. Still, Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée puts de Beauvoir's feminism in perspective: she may be most famous for The Second Sex, but she's primarily a humanist, interested in the modes of existence experienced by all humans, and by specific humans, regardless of gender.

I'll be honest: this is not the memoir for everyone. If you're not interested in philosophy and like a lot to "happen" in your books, it will probably seem hopelessly dry. De Beauvoir's adolescence involves all the arrogance and angst one might expect from a recently-secularized teen who went on to become a preeminent existentialist (hint: a lot). But even when she is recalling her most turbulent periods, the adult de Beauvoir maintains her incisive, perceptive, ever-so-faintly-amused voice. She doesn't take herself too seriously, but neither does she dismiss her experiences or manifest a false modesty. This balanced tone, combined with her stunning intelligence and existentialist insights, makes this volume easily one of my favorite reads of the year, if not of all time.


Please excuse my creaky translations from the original French; I am no Lydia Davis, and have no copy of this book in translation.

Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée is my fifth book for the Women Unbound Challenge, and my fourth book for the Challenge that Dare Not Speak its Name (GLBT connection: de Beauvoir was bisexual, and although she takes no lovers of any gender during the course of this first volume, she does have a passionate, near-obsessive relationship with her best friend, Zaza.)


  • "There is always a chasm between the thing itself—our interior landscape—and our expression of it; often this chasm is only widened when our words are interpreted by another person. "

    Isn't this so what we all struggle with? It really is a rather simple concept, but it becomes so complex in the experiencing of it.

    I am impressed not only with your insights, your enthusiasm, and your "creaky" French, I think it amazing that you can translate the language and still grapple with the philosophical depths such a work demands. Brava!

  • Those 'jolts of recognition', so Proustian.

    On the strength of your comments I have added to my wish list, now to find a reliable translation. Have you read Adieux: Farewell to Sartre, de Beauvoir's celebration of their time together? It is wonderful.

    Thank you, Emily.

  • This is one of my favourite books which I read as an undergraduate. I may have to read it again just to see how my world view has changed. And you've got to get the other three volumes!

  • I have very fond memories regarding de Beauvoir because "The Second Sex" was the first book on feminism I ever read. And it was a total epiphany for me! In fact, I think there was something in every chapter that just knocked me flat. It certainly changed my life.

    I love your sentence "Where would this monstrous teenage-me come from...?" So many bloggers who are mothers of teenaged girls ask the same question from the parental perspective!

    And I love this line of thought of de Beauvoir, as you state: "...the dread inherent in the realization that we change with time, that our present incarnation is different than the person we will be in the future, and in ways currently dismaying or frightening to us." Even though she is articulating the fear of the child who will grow up, I think this dread has an even more universal application. In fact, one reason I won't go to high school reunions is that I am not sure who I *was* then, and so don't know how to act! (act being an existential double entendre!)

    And isn't it still true: "the sexual double-standard that allowed her parents to entertain men who kept mistresses but not the mistresses themselves.." We disparage women who sleep around as "whores" - where is the similarly disparaging word for men? Why are "welfare moms" the subject of scorn, but not "welfare dads"? Well, one could go on and on. Somethings have changed, some have not. But for those that have changed, I think de Beauvoir played a seminal role.

    Wonderful comprehensive review of this book!

  • Sara: Love that formulation - a simple concept that becomes complex in the experiencing of it. So, like, every state of being in the human repertoire, I suppose. :-) Thanks for the nice words! I feel like this book did wonders for my French. Can't wait to start Madame Bovary.

    Anthony: Ha, I endeavor to be nothing if not Proustian. :-) I haven't read Adieux, but will be sure to check it out after reading the next three volumes of de Beauvoir's autobiography - I'm hooked. (And the passages toward the end of this volume in which she describes her feelings on first meeting and getting to know Sartre were AMAZING.)

  • Sakura: I KNOW, I really do have to get the next three volumes. I was eyeing them on Book Depository just today. Would be interested to know your impressions if/when you do revisit this.

    Jill: Whoa, thanks for the awesome, thoughtful comment! I read The Second Sex in English when I was in high school (in the translation that everyone is now calling fatally flawed), and it definitely impressed me but not to the degree Mémoires did, probably just because my own maturity level wasn't quite up to par yet. I'll be curious to revisit it in French one of these days and check out everything I missed. But anyway, I completely relate to your feeling of being "knocked flat" every other page, because that's pretty much my reaction to this book. And totally agree with your points about the stubbornness of the sexual double standard, and about the universality of that dread/change/lack of dread progression - I still very much experience that, and laughed in empathy at your reunion example!

  • For all my conviction that my major interest is gender studies, I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't read antyhing by Simone de Beauvoir and I know that needs to change. I'd love to turn to this book once I read her most famous "The Second Sex".

  • I often see this book at the used bookstore and wonder it if is any good and now I know! Next time I will have to buy myself a copy. great review and I think your translations are perfectly fine!

  • Iris: I actually preferred / got more out of this book than Second Sex, believe it or not - but like I said, I was reading the faulty English translation of Second Sex, and I was in high school at the time, so I really should revisit it. All that said, I bet you will find both books fascinating from a gender-studies point of view!

    Stefanie: Highly recommended; snap that copy up! And thanks for the nice words about the translations. :-)

  • Lovely post, Emily--both the "critical" and the "non-critical" bits! I know relatively little about du Beauvoir other than some basic biographical/bibiliographical bits, but everything you say here is way compelling. On that note, I think making an exception to your book-buying ban for vol. II would be the way to go, my friend!

  • Enjoyed your review very much and it made me want to read her again. I read The Mandarins many years ago and I love The Second Sex.

  • Richard: Thanks, friend! It was a totally fantastic reading experience. David is lobbying for breaking the book-buying ban too, so I will probably crack very soon. :-)

    Nicola: Hearing so much love for The Second Sex really makes me want to re-read, so I can love it too! I suspect there's a lot in there I missed the first time around. And I haven't even cracked the surface of de Beauvoir's novels....!

  • Simone de Beauvoir is a real favorite of mine, particularly her memoirs (Une mort tres douce is short, and a perfect gem) but I love her novels, too. I agree that her amused, slightly distanced tone is one of the most wonderful things about her writing -- witty without trying too hard, objective without removing herself altogether. And why shouldn't she be arrogant? Look at who she was and what she did! What a wonderful review. I love it over here. :)

  • Jenny: You're so sweet! The feeling is mutual. :-) And I totally agree - whenever de Beauvoir wrote something like "I felt I would be someone, that I was different from those around me" I thought, well, she sure was right about that.

  • Wow, I had no idea about this book! I don't remember ever seeing it and have never read any Simone de Beauvoir, although I have a copy of The Second Sex. Your description of the book makes it sound like something I would like. I'm fine without a whole lot "happening"!

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography