The Second Sex
Simone de Beauvoir
Contributed by Fernande Huls
Volume 1 Part 3 Chapters 1-3
Summary

In her first chapter, de Beauvoir establishes her central theories regarding how men have mythologized women. She begins by reiterating that men established woman as the Other in order to subjugate her economically. However, she goes on to claim that this position suited men’s “ontological and moral ambitions” as well. She explains her philosophical approach: men are constantly trying to impose themselves on the world in order to prove their own sense of being, but the highest state they can achieve is actually one in which they renounce this more active form of being in favor of a more passive form of existence. However, achieving this state requires constant effort. Thus, men have contradictory impulses to life and rest, existence and being. They turn to women to solve some of these problems because women are neither their male peers, nor a totally foreign being. Man wants to possess woman in order to prove his being.

de Beauvoir explains that this conception of women varies by culture. In wealthier countries, women are idolized because men have no other struggles by which to give their lives meaning. However, in socialist countries the Other is not a category, and women are considered to be human beings. Nevertheless, one constant in men’s conceptions of woman is their ambivalence about them. Man connects woman with Nature: for him, both represent life and death at the same time. Man thus projects his own mortality onto woman. This leads to men’s disgust with menstruation, in particular, because it represents feminine fertility, which also reminds men of mortality.

Overall, men are also caught between fear and desire of women. This ambivalence is reflected in their perspectives on virginity; in some cultures it is reviled because it represents women’s separation from men, but in others it is prized because it represents their ability to belong only to one man. By possessing women, men also want to metaphorically subjugate Nature, which represents a similarly passive and unexpected resistance to men’s advances. However, part of this desire for possession involves inevitable failure, since woman remains Other and cannot be fully possessed. Sex is also complicated for men, because it represents furthering the human species and thus reminds him of his own individual insignificance. Thus, religions in which mortality is celebrated, such as Islam, tend not to fear women, but for religions in which sexuality is sinful, women represent all evil earthly temptations. Men are always disappointed by women because they represent all the things men want, as well as everything they fear.

de Beauvoir also examines literary representations of women to show how men mythologize them. In art, women are often celebrated precisely because they are a mysterious Other. Women are often muses, but this also means that they do not create anything themselves. Instead, they simply serve as inspiration. Men also value women as an audience for their art because they view them not as peers, but rather as an Other who is just separate enough from the world to view it more objectively than they can. Woman is often represented as a sphinx because she is mysteriously caught between an angel and a devil.

In the second chapter of Part 3, de Beauvoir analyzes a number of novelists to show how most tend to mythologize women and reinforce her status as Other. The one exception to this list—which includes Montherlant, D. H. Lawrence, Claudel, and Breton—is Stendhal, whom she credits for depicting women as human beings. Overall, she concludes that these male novelists tend to depict woman as a privileged Other, meaning she represents positive forces as long as she sticks to the submissive role they assign to her. All of these novelists believe the ideal woman is the one who embodies the Other and can reveal something about man to himself. They all expect women to be altruistic in ways that are not required of men.

In the third chapter of the section, de Beauvoir considers how these myths affect everyday life. She defines the difference between static myths, which assume that a certain idea is a given and project it onto different situations, and concrete reality. In reality, women cannot be encompassed by a single idea. This often leads to frustration for men who try to understand them. Because myths attempt to summarize women as a whole, under a single idea, men cannot accept it when women break this mold in reality. In particular, the connection between women and nature allows men to explain much of her suffering as something “natural” and impossible to change. Moreover, the myth of feminine “mystery” allows men to believe that women are impossible to understand, instead of spurring him to come to terms with what he does not understand. In reality, de Beauvoir points out that all people are mysteries to one another.

de Beauvoir explains that, in actuality, women have learned to be mysterious in order to protect themselves. Because men oppress them, they have learned to be deceptive and hide their real feelings. de Beauvoir praises authors who write about women without mystery, and points out that this does not make their work less compelling. In general, she argues that getting rid of these myths about women would not take away from men’s experiences, but would rather ground these experiences in truth. Currently, men believe that “real women” are those who accept their role as the Other. However, for de Beauvoir, this is the opposite of the truth. She celebrates a new trend in which women who occupy professional positions are eroticized. Perhaps this signifies that new myths, more favorable to women’s liberation, will come about.

Analysis

de Beauvoir begins her first chapter of this section on a more philosophical note. She establishes the kinds of existential theories that form the core of most of her analysis. In order to do this, she uses more general language and theoretical vocabulary. For example, she makes use of phrases such as “tragedy of the unhappy consciousness” and “dialectical reversal.” This shift in tone signifies that she is providing readers with some of her own theories regarding how humans in general approach their lives and find meaning in existence. Her terminology and sentence structure becomes more complex as she considers more complex subjects.

Throughout the first chapter, de Beauvoir analyzes several different literary passages in order to prove her point about how women are depicted as an Other in mythology. As in the previous section, she makes careful use of evidence to support her points. However, whereas she had previously drawn on historical research, she is now performing close readings of literature. This represents a different approach to evidence and analysis in her work. In addition to drawing patterns from history, de Beauvoir can also look closely at an author’s words to deconstruct their arguments. This inclusion of close reading demonstrates the importance de Beauvoir places on word choice and sentence construction. She demonstrates how to read critically to her readers, who can then apply these skills to her text, as well.

In the second chapter of Part 3, de Beauvoir does not include as much of her own philosophy. Instead, she focuses on summarizing and evaluating the works of certain novelists who wrote about women. She often adopts the voice of the author she is describing, using some of the language they would use to describe women. For this reason, she loses some of her personal voice and does not engage as much with the philosophical terminology she brought up in her first chapter. However, she is occasionally sarcastic, as she engages with some of the authors’ more offensive ideas. In this way, her voice does continue to come through in this chapter.

Throughout this second chapter, de Beauvoir’s tone also becomes more critical and straightforward. Instead of unfolding her own ideas, she must quickly summarize and debunk other authors’ conceptions of women. Her sentences become shorter and more abrupt as she spends her energy on pointing to the reasons a given author’s idea is flawed. For example, when describing the novelist Montherlant, she simply states, “Montherlant wants woman to be despicable.” In other parts of her work, de Beauvoir tends to expand on her ideas more than she does in this chapter. However, given her aim of efficiently dismantling previous theories, this more straightforward tone is used effectively.

Toward the end of this second chapter, de Beauvoir returns to her own theories and speaks in generalities. Though she has just deconstructed specific authors’ exact approaches to women, she concludes the chapter by making general statements about where these authors fit into a bigger picture. She reduces each author to the one factor in which they locate transcendence. So, for example, she associates Lawrence with the phallus and Claudel with God. This allows her readers to come away from the chapter with one most important piece of information they can hold on to for each author. It allows conveys de Beauvoir’s message that these authors are reductive in their treatment of women. Just as they reduce women to certain symbols, she reduces these authors all to a single symbol, as well.

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