WHEN THINGS OF THE SPIRIT COME FIRST
Simone De Beauvoir
Translated from the French by Patrick O’Brian
Ms. Hen chose to read this book because she recently watched the film VIOLETTE, about Violette Leduc, and Simone De Beauvoir appeared as a character in the film, and was her mentor and friend. Ms. Hen was curious about both writers, and she was browsing in a used bookstore and by chance she found this jem.
Ms. De Beauvoir says in the introduction to the book that she had several unfinished novels before she started writing these stories about young women she knew, including herself. She thinks that her writing improved when she wrote about women’s issues that were from real life rather than things she invented. Ms. Hen agrees with her in that writing should be personal and honest, even when it is fiction. Ms. De Beauvoir claims this collection is a beginner’s work, but Ms. Hen couldn’t help but think, what a beginner!
The stories are each about one young woman and the story’s title bears her name: Marcelle, Chantal, Lisa, Anne, and Marguerite. Ms. Hen thought a lot of these stories were sad; the characters don’t seem to have any hope for their lives, and seem to dwell in misery. She believes the reason is their Catholic upbringing, and the pressure that society put upon them to behave in a certain way and do what their parents tell them.
Marcelle is a serious young woman who falls into the hands of the wrong man, and pays the price by losing her freedom. She doesn’t realize who she is marrying and what she is getting herself into. Chantal is a young teacher at a girl’s school in the provinces and she tries to be the “good” teacher, but is shocked by the students’ behavior when one of them asks for advice on a delicate matter.
The character Lisa goes to the dentist, and on her way a middle-aged woman accuses her of being her husband’s mistress. She goes to the dentist, and he tries to flirt with her, and says, “’Pretty girls shouldn’t be allowed to study.’” Ms. Hen was shocked by this. She was shocked because no professional man would be allowed to say that to a young woman in today's society, and if he did, he would be fired.
Ms. Hen thinks it’s horrible that men were allowed to treat women like that in France in the 1930s. Ms. Hen is happy that she doesn’t live in a society where this kind of behavior is acceptable, and has decided to celebrate that fact that she was not alive eighty years ago when men were allowed to act like that. Life for women isn't perfect now, but society has improved as time moves on, as Ms. Hen believes.
Anne is a character who is tied to her mother, and she thinks she has to follow her mother’s commands. She comes to a tragic end. Marguerite is the wildest character in the collection. She goes out to cafes to drink and toys with men, but falls in love with the wrong man. She is the person who is most likely to come out okay of all these women. Marguerite is based on Ms. De Beauvoir, and Ms. Hen can see how her independent streak was born.
A lot of these stories made Ms. Hen angry and upset, not because she felt sorry for the characters, but upset that society made it possible for such women to exist. Ms. Hen likes to think that women have more options today, and are not stuck with no way out. Ms. Hen loved this collection of short stories, even though she felt sorry for the characters, and the book made her sad, she’s happy she does not have to live with the utter hopelessness that they felt in that time.