‘The Second Sex’ reviewed by Mary Evans

The Second Sex

Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, Jonathan Cape, London, 2009. 848pp., £30 hb
ISBN 9780224078597

Reviewed by Mary Evans

About the reviewer

Mary Evans is at present a Visiting Fellow at the Gender Institute, London School of Economics. She …


One of the many problems of writing about Beauvoir, for both author and reviewer, is the question of the boundaries and the meanings of academic disciplines. Everyone who has read anything by (or about) Beauvoir knows of the infamous ranking of their respective abilities in their final examinations: Sartre in first place, Beauvoir second. It has been a much mentioned and, more recently, a much contested ranking. (This academic ranking is again referred to in Sheila Rowbotham’s introduction to the new translation of The Second Sex). Yet one aspect which is much less mentioned (and might perhaps say something about the importance that academics attach to the hierarchies of examinations, rather than the content of the examinations) is that the discipline in which they were both being examined was philosophy, and it is that discipline which was to dominate much of their lives.

This aspect of Beauvoir’s work is, I would suggest, more important than is sometimes suggested. Her many works included fiction, non-fiction investigations (most famously The Second Sex) and essays in philosophy, a list which gives the impression of crossing disciplinary boundaries. But at the same time much of her work is derived, as Penelope Deutscher’s work makes very clear, from philosophical concepts: her fiction, for example, is organised around the presentation of characters who in various ways stand for certain ethical positions and allow the author to interrogate the various related possibilities. Beauvoir thus gives her readers depictions of the complexities of human lives, presented in such a way as to emphasise both the existence of choice and the choices that individuals might make. But for a reader from other disciplines, for example that of a tradition of sociology that is informed by Marxism and questions of the relationship between ideas and class interests, there remains the consistent issue of the impact of the material world on individual lives and ideas, an aspect of human existence which is often absent from Beauvoir. As she herself says of her reaction to the outbreak of war in 1939, she had never thought that her life could be affected (let alone controlled) by political events and circumstances.

It would be easy to dismiss Beauvoir, given this apparent refusal of a consideration of the various social factors which condition the lives of most individuals, as an individualist of the most craven kind. But given her own victories over her own situation (most significantly poor and female) it is little wonder that Beauvoir believed wholeheartedly in the idea, better known perhaps in the United States than in Europe, that we can literally make our own lives. By the age of twenty three Beauvoir had acquired a job for life as a teacher of philosophy; by her own determination she had earned her place in the French professional elite. Yet Beauvoir’s own story is not quite the rags-to-riches tale that this summary would suggest: yes, she was poor in financial terms but at the same time she possessed a considerable legacy of what her compatriot Pierre Bourdieu was to describe, decades later, as ‘cultural capital’, the characteristics which enable children of educated parents to reproduce a privileged place in the world for themselves.

The question, however, is not so much about the origin of Beauvoir’s intellectual success as that of the impact on her work of her interpretation of it: for example, did that passionate acquisition of autonomy, and her determined separation from her mother through secular intellectual life, blind her to issues about the social derivation of ideas and values? It is here, I would suggest, that we come to that issue of disciplinarity – and even more the homologous relationships between highly developed ideas (those of exceptional individuals such as Beauvoir and Sartre) and the rather less developed, but often highly articulate, values of groups or even classes of people. In the case of both Beauvoir and Sartre there was, we know from the mountain of works about them and by them, a furious wish to de-racinate themselves from the salaried petit-bourgeoisie from which they came. At the same time, the values of this group inform the very individualism which both claimed, and re-interpreted, for their own purposes.

This argument about Beauvoir is, inevitably, not one which is much favoured by many scholars about Beauvoir, for whom she has an iconic status as the woman who led a generation of women out of the darkness of lives conditioned by male needs and desires. Yet as Rowbotham points out, her ‘source material focuses on women in her own image’. (xv) That tendency, which we might describe as a form of intellectual narcissism, is also noted in Deutscher’s very careful account of Beauvoir.

For example, in the section entitled ‘Conversions of Repetition’ Deutscher discusses Beauvoir’s negative view of repetition and habit as a form of social existence. But, as Deutscher notes, both these forms of experience are a central part of human existence. Those denied what George Eliot (1964, p. 20), in Daniel Deronda, described as ‘a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection’ are often not those who are able to convert their talents into any form of adult competence. Deutscher quotes, in a footnote, the work of Iris Marion Young on Beauvoir’s account of old age: for Beauvoir, those very repetitions which appear to be destructive for old people are, Young suggests, the ties that bind them to place and social relationships. (126) To be removed from familiar places was not, and is not, the positive circumstance which Beauvoir herself always craved. To be a forced migrant or a refugee is to live a life of unchosen change; this is not the experience of the world’s variety which the adolescent Beauvoir longed for but the separation from much which provides social meaning.

In this example of the way in which Deutscher elegantly unpicks some of the assumptions behind Beauvoir ‘s work there lies an understanding of Beauvoir that avoids the hagiography that has long beset studies of Beauvoir, most particularly in the United States. Those versions of her work which present Beauvoir as a feminist saint ignore many of the complexities and contradictions of her work which Deutscher illuminates, in the same way that they have ignored many aspects of Beauvoir’s own behaviour that fell somewhat short of either sainthood or even the most generous humanist assessment. Deutscher’s book begins with an over-view of what she describes as ‘conversion’ in Beauvoir, the way in which she appropriated various concepts for her own work. She then proceeds (in the chapter entitled ‘American Bad Faith’) to discuss the ways in which Beauvoir’s visit to the United States just after the end of the Second World War introduced her (in much the same way as the Holocaust had forced her to recognise the social impact of the categorisation of human beings) to the concept of race. An important related influence here was, as Deutscher points out, Gunnar Myrdal’s book American Dilemma, the first and fullest non-fiction account of race in the United States. But, and it is a very important qualification, Myrdal’s is, Deutscher argues, the lesser work: its very coherence and systematic disciplinary base makes it less illuminating than the greater disciplinary heterogeneity of The Second Sex.

It would seem, therefore, that Deutscher does not suggest the absolute dominance of philosophy as the disciplinary framework of Beauvoir’s work. Indeed, she demonstrates the way in which Beauvoir uses both literature and the social sciences to inform and illustrate her work. From The Second Sex to Old Age, Beauvoir’s work is scattered with references to the ‘evidence’ of biology or history: disciplines are used, as Deutscher remarks for ‘ theoretical cross-fertilization’. But although the use of the work of other disciplines is transparent throughout Beauvoir I would suggest that she often treats them with scant respect: the understanding, for example, of both Marxism and psychoanalysis tends to be highly determinist and chapter one of Part Three of The Second Sex begins with the dangerous words ‘History has shown that…’. (163) History, as various people have pointed out, is often able to show exactly what we want it to show. Whilst Marx is famous for remarking that all history is the history of class struggles (and thus apparently placing himself firmly in the camp of his more determinist readers) we also recognise, as is the case with Freud, a much greater complexity in his work.

In the section of her book on ‘American Bad Faith’ Deutscher demonstrates convincingly the ways in which Beauvoir makes of Marx (as is her habit with other writers) not just a determinist writer but one with a greater degree of internal coherence than might be the case. This sense of a search for absolute coherence, for the explanation which will cover all cases and situations, gives Beauvoir’s work a range and a force but makes it, perhaps, not a wholly convincing account of either the social or the individual world. The case which Deutscher argues here is both powerful and very subtle and she is able to bring together the various strands in Beauvoir’s work in a way which is extremely helpful and illuminating.

There is, indeed, little to fault in Deutscher’s book. What there is to question, rather than perhaps fault, is Beauvoir’s own account of the world, an account of the world which perhaps has too little to say about female agency, about divisions between women and the incoherence of everyday life and inter-personal relations. In this context it is important to recognise that for some time it has been suggested that her account of gender relations in the English language edition of The Second Sex was distorted by the H.M. Parshley translation. The shortcomings of that edition, described in detail by, amongst others, Margaret Simons (1983) and Toril Moi (2002), have now been rectified by the fluent new translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. The new, hardback edition of an English version of The Second Sex is a thing of beauty: wonderful print and an elegant material product. Notwithstanding the critical comments about the translation by Toril Moi (2010) in the London Review of Books there is much to praise about the new edition. Moi’s reservations demonstrate her faultless scholarship yet at the same time raise other questions about issues implicit to the process of translation, questions about the authority and ‘ownership’ of the meanings of words. There are obviously good and less good translations, but it is also perhaps necessary to ask whether or not it is ever possible to provide definitive translations: languages carry not just the meanings of words but the understandings of diverse cultures.

Yet it is still the case (even allowing for the recovery of lost text and a greater sensitivity to the meaning of words) that we enter, in reading The Second Sex, a world in which the biological difference between the sexes constructs harsh, and absolute, binaries of experience that almost always work to the disadvantage of women. Nor does the new translation erode the problems of the final two paragraphs of The Second Sex, in which men and women ‘affirm their brotherhood unequivocally’. It would, in this context, be perfectly possible for Beauvoir to write of the affirmation of ‘their humanity’, a term which allows much more than the inevitable associations of one gender with politics. Indeed, the value of humanity, in the context of contemporary global social relationships quite as much as in 1949, would be well worth advancing.

In all, Penelope Deutscher has made a very considerable contribution to scholarship about Beauvoir. I would argue that in taking various themes in Beauvoir’s work (repetition and alterity) she has made it possible to trace the various ways in which Beauvoir strives for the absolute in her arguments yet is constantly challenged by both her own unacknowledged subjectivity and the endless incoherence of much of the social world. This takes us much closer to the recognition of the way in which the greatness of Beauvoir lies less in her conclusions than in her initiation of argument and debate.

23 March 2010


  • Eliot, George 1964 Daniel Deronda (London: Random House)
  • Moi, Toril 2002 While we Wait: The English Translation of The Second Sex Signs vol. 27, no. 4, pp.1005-35
  • Moi, Toril 2010 'The Adulteress Wife’ (Review of The Second Sex) London Review of Books translated by Constance Boarde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier), vol. 32, no. 3, pp. 3-6
  • Simons, Margaret 1983 The Silencing of Simone de Beauvoir Women’s Studies International Forum vol. 6 no. 5, pp. 559-64

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