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Jean-Paul Sartre at 100

Sartre’s Image in De Beauvoir’s Memoirs

Willie Thompson tries to see Sartre through the eyes of the person who knew him best.

In Erica Jong’s best-selling novel of the seventies, Fear of Flying, two characters amuse themselves by telling a third that they’re Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, their acquaintance being vaguely conscious that these are names he ought to recognise, but unable to quite locate the reference. It is presumed that the readers will do so and that awareness of their significance will be part of an educated person’s intellectual equipment. Indeed, the pair formed the most renowned couple of the twentieth century – and in addition Beauvoir effectively wrote Sartre’s adult life-history as well as her own (“a dazzling biography of Sartre in her memoirs”, according to Claude Francis and Fernand Gontier) . Although his public image was not altogether Beauvoir’s creation, she was certainly its principal disseminator, and showed herself determined during her lifetime to maintain control over it. Consequently much of what was known about Sartre’s private life and the image of their relationship was constructed on the basis of her memoirs. Even when it was significantly modified following his death by the publication of a selection of his letters to her, it was she who edited and published them. The letters of both, together with much subsequent documentation, reveal the extent to which the image of Sartre that appears in the memoirs was distorted and sanitised (as was her own).

Beauvoir presents Sartre both as an intellectual and thinker and a human personality. Her memoirs consist of five volumes, published between 1958 and 1981, very differently structured in each case. In the first, (Memoirs d’une jeune fille rangé; translated as Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter) dealing with the years between her birth and graduation, Sartre appears only towards the end, though in a manner which sets the scene for their future relationship. The second (La Force de l’Âge translated as The Prime of Life) describes the years up to the Liberation during which Sartre had begun to make a name as a philosopher and author, as, more modestly, had Beauvoir herself. In this, some of the complexities of their personal relationships are also recounted, though in a heavily censored fashion. The third (La Force des choses, translated as Force of Circumstance) covers the years of their fame, of The Second Sex, of political endeavour and disillusionment ending in the trauma of the Algerian war, also describing some of their personal history.

The final two volumes are of a different character. The fourth (Tout Compte Fait translated as All Said and Done) is more a series of episodic anecdotes and reflections than a memoir. The last, (La Cérémonie des Adieux translated as Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre) consists of two parts, the first tracing Sartre’s physical decline up to his death, the second being a lengthy dialogue between Beauvoir and Sartre ranging over his history, philosophic outlook, politics and personal foibles. After the initial volume, which is concerned with Beauvoir’s personal growth, the succeeding ones all intertwine her career with the course of Sartre’s philosophic development, imaginative creation, personal relations and political trajectory.

The mutual project

Readers first meet Sartre towards the close of the first volume when, preparing for her Sorbonne degree, Beauvoir encounters him as a member of a scarily intellectual and somewhat disreputable group of Ecole Normale students who mock every bourgeois convention and attitude. Sartre is depicted as the brightest of them all, the most philosophically informed and ablest in debate, who is nevertheless endlessly willing to give all the others the benefit of his time and understanding. With money too his “munificence was legendary”. She does not fail to mention his theatrical and musical gifts; and “Torpor, somnolence, escapism, intellectual dodges and truces, prudence and respect were all unknown to him” He abhors conformity but also the pursuit of novelty for its own sake. His ambitions to experience life are so comprehensive that a note of irony creeps in when she recounts them, but she is deadly serious when identifying “his true superiority over me” – the fact that he “lived in order to write” and that even her own intense dedication to work appeared feeble beside Sartre’s. At the same she contrasts his conviction in the importance of his ideas with his personal modesty. Subsequently in Beauvoir’s memoirs, though Sartre’s theory and practice may alter, these personality characteristics do not, and they correspond in the main with those observed by other witnesses.

During the course of the thirties self-deceptive thoughtlessness insulated them both, she confesses, from the brutal realities which might have intruded on their bourgeois complacency and spoiled their holiday enjoyments. By 1939 however, Sartre’ position, influenced in part by the Spanish Civil War, is shifting. Convinced that there must be no further appeasement of the fascist powers and that war represents the only alternative, he quickly erases Beauvoir’s continuing doubts. He is setting out on the political path on which he was to continue, albeit with alterations in direction, for the remainder of his life. He had started to become conscious of History. During the Occupation the development of Sartre’s clear thinking is stressed again when he dissolves his ineffective resistance group despite the work and commitment he has put into creating it, and turns his attention to action through writing.

Beauvoir represents their philosophical and political views as being constantly in harmony – or very nearly so. Sartre’s major work during the period covered by The Prime of Life was Being and Nothingness, the philosophical text for which he is most renowned, published in 1943 and dedicated to Beauvoir, ‘Le Castor’ (‘The Beaver’). However one does not have to accept the argument of Kate and Edward Fullbrook (Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre: The Remaking of a Twentieth-Century Legend, 1993) that Sartre’s ideas were purloined from Beauvoir to feel somewhat puzzled at how little discussion of it, whether of its content or its production, appears in her volume. In fact she acknowledges that while in accord with its premises she disagreed to some extent with Sartre’s concept of freedom implying necessarily, as he emphasises, the potential to actively transcend any situation. She had argued with him that freedom of any sort was pretty meaningless for a woman imprisoned in a harem. Sartre had succeeded in overcoming her doubts, but clearly she was never wholly convinced, for writing in the late fifties she declares that she was right. Possibly the origins of The Second Sex can be detected in these discussions.

In her subsequent volumes Beauvoir describes Sartre’s political turns and reversals, presenting them as a logical progression within the context of his basic values. The fact that she is in accord with almost all of these positions should not be taken as in indication that she had no political mind of her own, for there is no reason to imagine that they did not work them out mutually, rather than the decisions always being taken by Sartre. At the last however they did fall into deep disagreement when in the final years of Sartre’s decrepitude he was influenced (his friends said intellectually seduced and manipulated) by the ideas of the Maoist turned Talmudist Benni Lévy (Pierre Victor). In Adieux Beauvoir does not conceal the fact that the disagreement was severe – “I let Sartre know the full extent of my disappointment.” She could scarcely do otherwise, since the episode was widely known. Even so, she underplays the degree of her exclusion and the full ferocity of the dispute with Lévy and with Sartre’s other companion and adopted daughter Arlette El-Kaim. In subsequent interviews she was more forthcoming and forceful.

Not for a moment does she take Sartre’s new standpoint seriously, but excuses him on account of his decrepitude, “Old, threatened in his own body, half blind, he was shut out from the future. He therefore turned to a substitute ... To doubt Victor was to doubt that living prolongation of himself, more important to him than the praise of future generations.” Which is not to say that her judgement was mistaken in dismissing the notions Lévy put into Sartre’s mouth as nothing more than pretentious waffle.

The principal scandal occasioned by Adieux however was not the relatively restrained presentation of the Lévy quarrel but the unvarnished account of Sartre’s physical deterioration in its unsavoury detail during his final decade. There is no need to assume a form of payback, as some critics alleged. In her earlier memoirs she had never been particularly reticent about Sartre’s physical state or her reactions to it; we learn that he scared her by drugging himself to the eyeballs with stimulants to enable him to sustain impossible intensities of work in the midst of his hectic and exacting private and public life, (particularly while writing Critique de la Raison Dialectique) and it cannot be doubted that his strenuous abuse of such drugs, together with tobacco and alcohol did a great deal to ensure that he went blind and died much earlier than he otherwise need have done.


Although The Second Sex is the foundation document of twentieth-century feminism it was not until late in life that Beauvoir declared herself to be a feminist. Taking that step however made no difference to her estimation of Sartre, which never deviated, in essence, from what she had written in the initial volume of her memoirs – she continued to regard him to the end as the ‘dream companion’ of a lifetime, and by all accounts never fully recovered from his death.

It is evident that the image presented in the memoirs is in its details a very distorted picture, and not only on account of the omissions which are in the nature of any record, or even those which are deliberate concealments intended to mislead the reader. The more significant distortion – though it might be pleaded that such an outcome is intrinsic to any chronicle – is that much, if not all, of the contingency in Sartre’s career and in their relationship is edited out, and the result is a literary artefact presented with a coherence and unity, a patina of necessity, that could not possibly correspond to the actuality.

Any outside observer taking into account both the memoirs and other sources would be forced to the conclusion that Sartre’s treatment of Beauvoir was less than principled. Apart from taking advantage of all the unreciprocated organisational assistance she accorded him, on no fewer than two occasions he contemplated marrying one of his lovers (or would-be lovers), promising to Beauvoir all the while that such a move would not affect their essential relationship and eventually, without informing her in advance, adopted one of them as his daughter. Yet nowhere in the public record or interviews nor in Beauvoir’s letters or diaries, does she regard his behaviour as inexcusable.

A hostile critic could characterise this as Beauvoir struggling to perpetuate the myth to which she had attached her identity, but another interpretations is possible - namely that the image presented in the memoirs reflects the basic realities of Sartre’s life and their relationship, the deliberate inaccuracies of which she took steps to see would be amended at a later date.

Overall, the picture emerging from Beauvoir’s memoirs is of a life which in spite of Sartre’s changes of political tack formed – except in its last, short phase, which could reasonably be attributed to waning mental powers – a unity in a manner which is true for few individuals. Development is recorded of course, but development along a logical pathway, which does not reverse, or break with his earlier concepts (in spite of his repudiations) but grows out of and incorporates them. In the end perhaps, in spite of all the distortions, lacunae and misleading trails, that picture is not untrue in essence, not notably different from what is otherwise known of the real Sartre – so far as that term has any meaning.

© Willie Thompson 2005

Willie Thompson is currently a visiting professor in History at Northumbria University Newcastle; he has had a lifelong interest in Sartre and his philosophy.

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