Simone de Beauvoir: “The Woman Destroyed”

The third story of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Woman Destroyed, aptly titled “The Woman Destroyed,” puts to poetic-diary story the essence of Beauvoir’s existential and Marxian feminism.  Through the course of the entries we learn that the narrator, Monique, is trapped madly in love with a bourgeois careerist man – “the serious man” – Maurice.  Their relationship, if we can call it that, is reflective of what Beauvoir outlined in Second Sex: man is the metaphysical given and “breadwinner” who merely engages in love from time to time while woman’s life is defined by love in of itself.  The story also captures the destruction of a woman who lives in a state of bad faith (hope) and passivity.  Lastly, the story deals with the quintessential “existential crisis” and the hopelessness of life: how living alone becomes the bane of existence and conquers people rather than being the conduit of their liberation and freedom.

The story “The Woman Destroyed” follows the diary entries of a woman named Monique, her struggles with her husband Maurice, and her daughters who are separated from her living elsewhere and chasing their own ambitions.  Monique’s existential struggle is brought to fruition with the problems besetting her: a sick daughter, a lying husband, and her increasing age and desires.  In particular, the essence of the story rests on the decaying relationship of Monique and Maurice, what this represents, and the bad faith that Monique embraces as her consolation to a dying marriage and, ultimately, a dying life.  The last essential aspect of the story is loneliness and how we cope with this; for Beauvoir, loneliness (independence) is a double-edged sword.  On one hand it can be the instrument of liberation.  On the other hand, it can be conduit of our despair and final death.  In examining this story, I am going to explore these three core themes and how they develop to the final diary entry.

Monique and Maurice: A Tale of Separation and “The Woman in Love”

Monique and Maurice begin the story as a married couple with a seemingly successful marriage and family.  One daughter (Colette) is married and lives with her husband.  A second daughter, Lucienne, lives in America chasing ambition and fortune (“the American Dream”).  A third daughter, the helpful daughter, is Isabelle.  What we come to learn, however, is that Colette is suffering from leukemia and this becomes the occupation that devours Monique: her attempt to help her daughter (living for another, aka being-for-others).  Additionally, Monique and Maurice are not having a rosy marriage.  As is quickly revealed, Maurice is cheating on her and seems not to care about Monique’s growing anxieties and depression.

This is the first problem that is flagged by Beauvoir in the relationship between man and woman is what she explored in more philosophical verboseness in her great work Second Sex.  In their relationship we see the replaying of man as the metaphysical given who doesn’t need a woman to live a successful life while woman, as the ideal “stay at home wife” and “married woman” needs man for her livelihood.  Monique lives for Maurice and needs Maurice (in the construct that is marriage).  Meanwhile, Maurice does not need Monique and is certainly not dependent upon a single woman for his livelihood. As Monique writes in the Saturday September 25 entry concerning her loneliness and need for Maurice, “Still, I am angry with him.  I need you, and you aren’t here!”

The relationship between Maurice and Monique reflects Beauvoir’s metaphysic of nothingness, existentialism, and freedom.  Monique is “unfree” insofar that she is dependent upon all the social constructs that men had created long ago: love, marriage, and fidelity.  Maurice, however, shows his freedom in being able to have an affair, not be dependent upon Monique, and essentially be able to live as he chooses while burdening Monique with despair and anxiety over her growing realization that Maurice is slipping away from her.

This “falling away” of man and woman is the doctrine of the Fall of Man in Christianity.  According to Christianity, humans are made in love for love, they are social animals with deep desires (for affectivity) and thrive on relationships.  However, human sin and fallenness has ruptured this relationship.  Man and woman are fallen, and what this means according to Augustine is that man and woman have a hard time having a loving and intimate relationship with each other.  This theological-anthropology which undergirds even existential atheist writers is their acceptance of the “Fallen” metaphysic of Christianity without the hope of any salvation.  This is important to understand when reading someone like Beauvoir.  The “salvation” offered in the world is the world of social constructs which man has created for himself.

Man, as metaphysical given, means he is creator (like God) and draws others to him.  Beauvoir is critical of this “union” metaphysic and ontology that undergirds Platonism, Neoplatonism, and Christianity.  For Beauvoir, the closer and more dependent woman (Monique) becomes to man (Maurice) the less freedom woman has.  She is absorbed by man, becoming totally dependent upon man – like with humanity’s relationship to God, if man is God and woman is subject to enter union with man that means woman’s life is dependent upon man like how humanity’s life (salvation) depends upon union with God.  Between the lines Beauvoir is critiquing the entire humanist tradition of ontological happiness (or fulfillment).  The claim that woman will flourish in relationship to man is a lie, and the destructive relationship between Monique and Maurice highlights this.  The more dependent and needful Monique becomes the more miserable and weaker she becomes.

Monique is “in love” with Maurice.  But Maurice is not in love with her.  (Men are never really “in love” with women according to Beauvoir.)  In being “in love” with Maurice and having her entire life and existence dependent upon her relationship with Maurice, Monique’s “in love” mentality is the cause of her enslavement.  She is a slave to Maurice.  She consents to Maurice’s affair because she hopes it will make him happy and, in turn, he will care for her (which he won’t and never does).  Monique’s relational dependence on Maurice is the embodiment of unfreedom: Monique has become a being-for-others rather than a being-for-itself (herself).  Monique’s living for others is ultimately the root for her being-for-others which is the enabling of bad faith and also the enabling of Maurice to live free.

In the entries Monique struggles with Maurice’s affair with a woman named Noellie.  She knows that he is spending his nights and with her but does nothing about it.  She knows of the affair and accepts it because he was honest with her.  As she writes in the entry on Wednesday October 6, “In one way his confession had comforted me-he was having an affair: that explained everything.”  Monique’s relationship and reaction to Maurice is Beauvoir’s exploration of the problem that woman faces in her relationship with man.  Maurice is free to do as he wills, but at another level, he owns Monique.  Monique cannot live without him.  But he can live apart from her.  And what is worst of all is that on the Tuesday December 1 entry we learn that Maurice has been cheating on Monique for eight whole years!

Monique’s Bad Faith

Drawing from Sartre, bad faith is not the same as lying.  Nor does it have explicitly religious connotations despite the term “faith.”  Bad faith is accepting the tensions and pressures of social constructs and other social forces which lead to an individual living an inauthentic life.  It is, in essence, a form of self-deception.  In Beauvoir’s case, Monique’s bad faith revolves on her disowning her essential freedom as a creative being (to live and create for herself) and her embrace of hope that all the problems with her life will be resolved (primarily in the form of living for others which is the catalyst for her inauthentic living).

Monique’s ruptured relationship with Maurice should have been the cause of her liberation.  In Maurice’s absence she should have seen her freedom.  Without Maurice Monique had the clearest opportunity to create a life and live for herself rather than him (or for others).  While Monique always had this opportunity, in their growing rupture which Monique became more aware of, even to the point of acknowledging that she was being manipulated, this should have prompted Monique to become her own creator.  Instead, she continued to fall into bad faith.

Monique’s bad faith is represented by her shift to narcissism and objectification.  She begins to compare herself to Noellie and thinks that she can win Maurice back by being a sexualized object for Maurice’s attention.  Monique’s descent into narcissist objectification is the ultimate form of bad faith in Beauvoir’s feminism.

Woman is a subject-consciousness.  In love, however, she allows herself to become a sexualized object.  Rather than a subject person woman is reduced to sexualized and stimulative matter.  As it is specific to Monique, her objectification of herself to Maurice is the ultimate culmination of her rejection of being-for-itself and embrace of being-for-others.  This is when a person becomes a masochist, as Sartre described in Being and Nothingness: allowing oneself to become an object of gratification and pleasure for another in the misguided hope that this will bring the other happiness and, in their happiness, bring about your own happiness.  (Notice the Augustinian tragedy within this relational portrait: we all want happiness and everything we do is premised on happiness, even if it costs us, for a lack of a better pun, our own soul.)

In becoming a sexual object for Maurice Monique is utterly destroyed and ruined.  She does anything to simply keep him around her, and most of what she does degrades herself beneath the level of being human.  Furthermore, in this turn to bad faith Maurice even drops truth onto her: Maurice likes Noellie because she works.  She has a calling.  She is an intrepid explorer and doer.  Monique, on the other hand, does not work.  Maurice doesn’t find that appealing no matter how sexualized Monique becomes.

This is subtle interplay on the part of Beauvoir.  If we recall from Second Sex, Beauvoir doesn’t blame man for woman’s enslavement and disempowerment.  She blames woman.  This is not “blaming the victim” however.  For Beauvoir, all woman have the freedom to choose to break free from the bonds of man’s social constructs and embrace her life as a free and creative being and can do so at any moment.  The onus rests on woman – which is why it is a problem and a struggle.  The burden of freedom and responsible is often too much for people to handle so they retreat into security and comfort.  In other words, “the way things have always been.”  Because woman makes the conscious choice to retreat into the world of submission to men she, and she alone, is the culprit of her misery.  This is no different than with Monique.

Noellie is the contrast to Monique.  In being an active spirit and creative being of her own, Noellie lives a more authentic life than Monique.  Monique, in being trapped in the mentality that her life revolves around Maurice, the she needs him in their marriage, and that her life would be meaningless without him, is reflective of how inauthentic Monique has become.  Yet, all the signs pointing her to her authenticity and freedom are right in front of her.  Maurice is having an affair.  He has admitted to it.  She knows she is being manipulated.  She knows why Maurice is interested in Noellie and not her.  And yet she does nothing.  She only continues to make herself an object to Maurice.

Monique’s fall is made manifest with her affair with Quillan.  Monique’s affair with Quillan is done out of retribution.  It was done to win back Maurice, but she recognized that he was indifferent to her.  In the end, her actions only make her feel worse.  She realizes the depravity to which she has sunk.  “How very low I must have fallen!” she writes.

It is after the affair with Quillan that a remarkable moment happens in the diary.  Up until that point Monique’s diary has included day and month.  Now she only includes the month and day like “December 20” instead of including “Monday,” “Tuesday,” or “Wednesday,” etc.  This shift, subtle thought noticeable on Beauvoir’s part, is meant to reflect Monique’s utter brokenness.

Monique’s Isolation: From Liberation to Misery

Over the course of the story Monique becomes freer in not being dependent on Maurice, at least with his presence in her life.  The existentialists took as a given metaphysical atomism.  Hence their radical individualism on the surface of things.  However, the existentialists do not celebrate atomism qua atomism.  Thus, they do not celebrate individualism as most celebrate individualism today.

For Beauvoir, human atomism is a terrible thing as evidenced by Monique.  She grows depressed and sad.  Beauvoir recognizes that in this cold and dark world people seek relationships with others as a means to cope.  But this attempt to form relationships leads to the Sartrean dilemma of objectifying others or allowing myself to be objectified.  We should see, more clearly, the Augustinian-Christian inheritance on the part of the existentialists.  We seek relationship for happiness, and we want to do good things for ourselves and for others.  But we cannot achieve this.  We are truly fallen creatures with no hope of salvation.  Thus, our only hope is to embrace the lonely life with the understanding that it is meaningless.  Existentialists do not celebrate “individual freedom” because it is awesome.  They deplore it!  But because atomism is the guiding metaphysic, and therefore our nature, our attempt to have relationship is, in of itself, bad faith.  So, we must choose a life to be for myself and no one else but for myself.

Monique’s loneliness should have been the conduit of her becoming a superwoman; the Beauvoirean equivalent of Nietzsche’s superman.  She should have been able to seize this moment of rupture and independence as her call to freedom.  Instead, she fell further into dependence by objectifying herself before Maurice and then to Quillan.  At the end of the day this utterly broke her.  The cold, dark, and miserable world defeated Monique.  The Cosmos crushed her.  At the end of the story Monique has fully embrace her being-for-others.  She visits Colette and her husband Jean-Pierre for dinner.  Although in their home and presence she admits her fear that she “cannot call on anyone for help.”  Monique is afraid of being alone in the universe – which is made more ironic given the fact that she is with her beloved daughter and her husband and feels like there is no one in the world for her.  This shows, at closure, how far the ethos of relationality runs and how destructive it is.

Conclusion

There is so much more one can read from The Woman Destroyed but what I have highlighted should be the most straightforward that gets at the heart of some of Beauvoir’s major concerns which she highlights in the story.  Monique’s life is defined by love and she lives for love.  Without love she is destroyed.  And here lays the paradox that Beauvoir puts her thumb on: love itself destroys the woman.

What Beauvoir is advocating is that woman must throw off the shackles of the social construct of love and marriage and live a life for herself and create her own meaning in the cold and indifferent world.  Embracing her life as wife, her role as sexualized object, or dependence on men, will only lead to her destruction.  Love and marriage are not the way out for women in this absurd universe we find ourselves living in.  Lastly, just like in Second Sex, woman have the power to decide for themselves to be free and create their own meaning in life or succumb to male-created social constructs and, ultimately, the indifferent Cosmos.  There is no “Prince Charming” who will rescue woman from their misery.  Woman must do this herself.

 

This was originally published on Hesiod’s Corner, June 26, 2018.

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