Simone de Beauvoir's Une Mort très douce: Existential and Feminist Perspectives on Old Age

by Doris Y. Kadish
Simone de Beauvoir's Une Mort très douce: Existential and Feminist Perspectives on Old Age
Doris Y. Kadish
The French Review
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Simone de Beauvoir's Une Mod tris douce: Existential and Feminist Perspectives on Old Age

by Doris Y.Kadish

WnlrrrN IN 1964,shortly after her mother's death, Simone de Beauvoir's Une Mort tr& douce is a short, intensely moving autobiographical work in which a daughter pursues the goal of lucidly describing her aging mother's debilitating illness and eventual death.' Yet although it is clearly one of Beauvoir's most successful writings-Sartre called it her best, and it is an exceptionally accessible, thought-provoking text to use in French classes- many readers and students of French literature are unfamiliar withUne Mort trks deuce.* What is more, among Beauvoir's critics, only a few have given it more than passing consideration, leaving many significant perspectives on it unexplored.3

Among those perspectives, I would like to consider two that are fundamental to this work: the existential outlook, which Beauvoir adopted throughout her career, and the feminist viewpoint, with which she was always sympathetic, although she agreed to be officially identified with it only in the early seventies. Those perspectives are relevant to the depiction of both participants in Une Mort trks douce, for during the closing days of the mother's life, both the mother and daughter lived in ways that, although not consciously acknowledged at the time as reflecting ethical or philosophical positions, have important existential and feminist implica- tions. The first half of this essay examines the mother's existential drama and its feminist implications for her as a participant. The second half examines Beauvoir's own existential drama, this time considering not only its feminist implications for her as a participant but also for her as a ~riter.~

The mother's existential drama arises during the progression from life to terminal illness, from being as a free, active, human subject to being as a passive, undifferentiated object in the world. It is this progression that occurred over the thirty-day period recorded by the text, with its eight formal divisions marking the various phases of her illness, her death, and its aftermath. Far from presenting the mother's illness as merely an obliteration of self, however, Beauvoir chooses to highlight the limited but courageous spirit of freedom and affirmation that sparked the last month of her mother's life, in sharp contrast with the adherence to convention and religion that had characterized much of her earlier adult life. The starting point in the final thirty days is the very fact of clinging to life itself, which Beauvoir described in La Vieillesse: "bon nombre de vieillards s'accrochent h la vie, m6me aprPs avoir perdu toutes raisons de vivre; j'ai dkcrit dans Une Mort fr& douce la maniPre dont ma mPre h 78 ans s'y est agrippke jusqu'h son dernier souffle . . . ma mPre a eu de la mort une peur animale" (V 470-71). Admittedly, this clinging to life is in itself neither positive nor negative from an existential point of view; and admittedly, too, the mother never chooses to face squarely the imminence of her death, nor does she gain lucidity during the course of the thirty days. But in a limited way she does make an attempt, as the following examples will show, to achieve the goals of forming projects for the future and, at times, committing herself to others and enhancing the quality of their lives.

Beauvoir records a number of ways in which the mother attempts to affirm future values during her final days, even though those attempts are futile. She shows a great willingness to change and adapt-planning to choose a new residence or selecting new books to read-as she had earlier at age 54 when, after her husband's death, she was willing to start over, retraining and taking up new habits and activities that helped others. Beauvoir finds the same determination in the choices her mother makes while in the hospital: "Je l'ai considkrke avec admiration. . . . Soudain . . . elle trouvait la force d'affronter, lucide et rksolue, ses soixante-dix-huit ans"; "Sa vitalitk m'kmerveillait et je respectais sa vaillance" (MD 25, 27). Beauvoir also records "l'attention qu'elle portait aux moindres sensations plaisantes: comme si h soixante-dix-huit ans elle s'kveillait hneuf au miracle de vivre" (76).Recapturing some of the joy she had as a young woman, the mother seems actively to assert the meaning of her final days: "Chaque journke gardait pour elle une valeur irremplaqable" (129).

Beauvoir also records her mother's willingness to deal squarely with her own bodily functions: "C'ktait aussi une forme de courage, chez cette spiritualiste guindke, que d'assumer avec tant de dhcision notre animalitk" (83).Although her affirmation of physical well-being stems from a deluded hope for a future recovery, it reflects nevertheless a significant coming to grips with her own body, in sharp contrast again with her attitude during certain periods of her earlier life as a woman. Indeed, in both LPDeuxikme Sexe and La Vieillesse, Beauvoir has stressed that old age has certain advantages in this regard for women. Earlier in life, she maintains, women are frequently alienated from their bodies because of biological functions such as menstruation and childbearing. As she notes in LP Deuxikme Sexe, "L'histoire de la femme-du fait que celle-ci est encore enfermke dans ses fonctions de femelle-dkpend beaucoup plus que celle de I'homme de son destin physiologique" (DS 399). Only later in life are the alienation and biological dependency mitigated: "C'est dans son automne, dans son hiver que la femme s'affranchit de ses chaines. . . . Dkchargke de ses devoirs, elle dkcouvre enfin sa libertk" (408).

The feminist dimension of how the mother lives her final days arises from another, closely related feature of the mother's existential drama, her liberation from social constraints, which enables her to give free expression to her concern for others while affirming her independent identity as a woman. Beauvoir notes that "Sa maladie avait fracas& la carapace de ses prejugks et de ses prktentions: peut-Ctre parce qu'elle n'avait plus besoin de ces defenses"; and elsewhere she observes, "AlitCe, elle avait decide de vivre pour son compte et elle gardait cependant un constant souci d'autrui . . . elle avait pour la vie une passion animale qui etait la source de son courage et qui, quand elle a connu le poids de son corps, l'a rapprochee de la vCritC" (MD 91, 161). Liberated from the constraining reproductive, social, and domestic functions imposed on her by society, the mother experiences a heightened freedom that enables her actively to assert her independence. That independence in turn allows her to affirm the values of others: the nurses, her nieces, her daughters. It also enables her, despite her unwavering religious faith, to replace the abstract consolations of religion with the concrete presence of the people she loves and with her own personal satisfactions. Through her own limited but real independence and commitment to others during her final months, she thus emerges in the book as exemplifying important existential and feminist issues. As one critic observes, "For de Beauvoir the existentialist, 'women's destiny' must be taken as a challenge. Her particular contribution has been to link a profound analysis of the origins of our bonds with the realisation that we women can free ourselves from them, and set out on the uphill path" (Schwarzer 25). It is that uphill path that the mother is presented as having climbed in the final days of her life.

In La Vieillesse, Beauvoir suggests that women are in a privileged position to assert the meaning of their final years since they typically live longer than men, are accustomed to giving meaning to life through others, and do not rely on work for their social status. Whereas men seem no longer to fill any social function in old age, women continue to derive satisfaction from their household duties, while no longer being excessively burdened with those activities as in their childbearing days. Beauvoir notes that

dans l'ensemble, la femme AgCe s'adapte rnieux que son man sa condition. Mknagirre, femme dmtCrieur . . . pour elle, travad et existence se confondent. Aucun dirret extkrieur n'interrompt brutalement ses activitks . . . elle ne se trouve tout de mOme pas entiirrement dksceuvrke; et son r6le de grand-mirre lui apport de nouvelles possibitks. (V279)

Such explanations are all relevant for understanding the enhanced freedom and independence that Beauvoir's mother experiences as an aging woman and that her daughter celebrates from a feminist perspective in Une Mort tr& douce.

Turning now to the lived, existential and feminist drama that Beauvoir herself experiences during the thirty days of her mother's illness, we discover a progression that can perhaps best be described by recourse to a number of notions from contemporary psychoanalysis and radical feminism.' Before taking up these notions, I want to anticipate the possible objection that they do not belong to a discussion of Beauvoir since they are foreign to her way of thinking. For one thing, such an objection overlooks the fact that new tools can indeed be profitably used to cast light on earlier works. For another thing, although Beauvoir herself only became aware of these notions later in her career, they were not antithetical to her views. Although she rejected radical feminists who ascribe a mystic status to women, create a separate women's language, or make a value of women's bodies, she was receptive to contemporary work on psychoanalysis, and even stated that if she had the time, she would work on it herself, "from a feminist perspective" (Schwarzer 88-89). That perspective, for her, would have entailed a complete break with Freud (Wenzel 12), but she acknowl- edged nevertheless the value of certain feminist revisionist writers, who retain Freud's terms in order to revise and reform them. In this regard, she particularly mentioned Luce Irigaray, to be considered below, as "trying to construct a psychoanalysis which would be feminist"; and, singling out Irigaray's Ce Sexe qui n'en est pas un, she stated, "I am interested in the kind of work she is doing and I found her book very interesting" (Jardine 228). Moreover, when questioned as to the possible incompatibility of existen- tialism with the notion of the unconscious, she stated, "It doesn't inevitably eliminate the notion of choice, because choice springs from the totality of the person. Thus, to study what a person is, does not eliminate the idea of freedom" (Jardine 232). The Lacanian notion of the unconscious fundamen- tal to most radical feminist writing is especially compatible with Beauvoir's existentialist and feminist views inasmuch as Lacan expands the existential- ist notion of the pure, free subject to allow for explanations of gendered subjectivity.

Returning now to the progression that Beauvoir herself experiences during the thirty days of her mother's illness, we can speak of a progression from an Oedipal rejection of the mother at the beginning of Une Mort trAs douce to a pre-Oedipal return to a oneness with her later on. Couched in somewhat different terms, this progression can be described as feminist in its movement away from the order of the symbolic (the order of language, law, and the name of the father) to the order of what Lacan calls the imaginary, which is linked with the mother and precedes the paternal order of language. (We know from external, biographical sources that Beauvoir was strongly linked to the symbolic order, not only as a philosopher, but as a daughter who tended to reject her mother and favor her father: "Entre dix et treize ans, les sentiments de Simone pour son pPre s'etaient exaltes. I1 I'impressionnait par sa culture, son intelligence, son 'bagou'," (Francis and Gontier 56). Luce Irigaray observes that conflictual relations between mothers and daughters are part and parcel of patriarchal society: "il n'y a aucune possibilite, dans la logique actuelle du fonctionnement socio- culturel, qu'une fille se situe par rapport A sa mPre: parce qu'elles ne font, en toute rigueur, ni une ni deux, qu'elles n'ont pas de nom, de sens, de sexe propres, qu'elles ne sont pas 'identifiables' I'une par rapport h l'autre" (Irigaray 140).

It is not surprising, then, that as an independent adult, Beauvoir appears at the beginning of the book as committed to maintaining a distance between her and her mother on a variety of different levels. Spatially, allusions to her recent or planned destinations-Rome, Moscow, Prague- reveal that her normal life style involves frequent travel that typically separates them. Temporally, her life is free and open, organized around periods such as her two-month stay in Rome. Both spatially and temporally, then, the thirty days constitute a progressive movement into her mother's enclosed world. From the open space of travel, she moves to the narrow space of the hospital or occasional returns to her own apartment; and as the mother's physical state worsens, that space contracts even more: "Le monde s'ktait rkduit aux dimensions de sa chambre . . . Ma vraie vie se dkroulait auprPs d'elle" (MD 112). Similarly, she moves from month-long travels to counting the days, hours, and minutes of her mother's final days.

On the psychological level, there is a corresponding movement from her freedom as an independent adult to an awareness of the deep-seated ties binding her to her mother and her childhood. From the initial psychological distance she manifests at the beginning of her mother's illness ("Je m'kmus peu. Malgrk son infirmitk, ma mPre ktait solide. Et, somme toute, elle avait 1'8ge de mourir," MD 16-17), she moves toward the realization that something especially traumatic is happening to her as a daughter: "mon dksespoir kchappait h mon contr6le: quelqu'un d'autre que moi pleurait en moi" (MD 47). She also moves toward a loss of her independent identity and a sense of a shared identity with her mother: "ma propre bouche . . . ne m'obkissait plus: j'avais posk celle de maman sur mon visage et j'en imitais malgri. moi les mimiques" (MD 47). The movement of her mouth in itself does not of course reflect existential values. Beauvoir does manifest such values, however, even at this early stage in her development over the thirty days, in the lucidity with which she acknowledges and thus valorizes her compassion for and commitment to her mother.

Existential values pertain at all levels in Beauvoir's progression from openness to enclosure, from independence to confinement with her mother, and from the symbolic to the imaginary order. She is not merely a dutiful daughter begrudgingly meeting her obligation toward her ailing mother. Just as the mother's progression from life to death involves a conscious affirmation of independent values in the face of death, the daughter's progression entails an existential affirmation of communal, interpersonal values through a willingness to come to grips with the reality of her mother's existence. Whether the issue is the repulsion at the sight of the older woman's body or the annoyance provoked by her scorn for the lower classes, Beauvoir chooses to plunge into the muddy waters of their past misunderstandings, mutual distrust, and resentments and emerges with an increased understanding of her mother and herself. At one point she says, "l'accident de ma m&re . . . l'avait arrachke h son cadre, h son rBle, aux images figkes dans lesquelles je l'emprisonnais" (MD 30), thereby acknowledging the important extent to which their misunderstanding was a two-way street. Beauvoir must also acknowledge responsibility for the choices she makes that affect the quality of the mother's final days, notably, lying to her about the gravity of her illness and authorizing the operation that, while prolonging her life, also prolonged her suffering. Accepting to live with and for others is shown inevitably to entail accepting the imperfect, even painful consequences of choices that concern them.

From a feminist point of view, the positive result of Beauvoir's lived experience of the thirty days is a renewed sense of her maternal origins and of the wellsprings of her own affective life. That sense is poignantly expressed, for example, in the following scene:

Tandis que nous parlions dans la pi.nombre, j'apaisais un vieux regret: je reprenais le dialogue brisC pendant mon adolescence et que nos divergences et notre ressemblance ne nous avaient jamais permis de renouer. Et l'ancienne tendresse que j'avais crue tout i fait eteinte ressuscitait, depuis qu'il lui Ctait possible de se glisser dans des mots et des gestes simples. (MD118).

Although, as noted earlier, feminists acknowledge that a woman needs to separate herself from the mother to assure her independent identity, they also consider that a woman needs to return throughout her life to her mother, nostalgically if not physically, for continued nurture and support. Indeed, as Adrienne Rich states, "The loss of the daughter to the mother, the mother to the daughter, is the essential female tragedy" (Rich 237). And elsewhere Rich states:

For it was too simple, early in the new twentiethqentury wave of feminism, for us to analyze our mothers' oppression, to understand 'rationally'. . . It was not enough to understand our mothers; more than ever, in the effort to touch our own strength as women, we needed them. The cry of that female chdd in us need not be shameful or regressive; it is the germ of our desire to create a world in which strong mothers and strong daughters wd be a matter of course. (Rich 224-25).

Beauvoir conveys a strong sense in Une Mort trks douce of needing her mother in the way Rich describes and thus of valorizing, emotionally as well as rationally, the woman's inescapable ties to her maternal origins.

A different but equally crucial feminist dimension of Beauvoir's work arises if one considers her choice as a writer to elevate her mother's drama and death to the role of a worthy literary subject. For whereas the weighty or tragic circumstances of men's deaths often occupy a central place in literature, women's deaths have rarely been recorded. One text about a man's death that comes to mind in this regard, even though it is never mentioned as such within the pages of Une Mort trks douce, is LP Pkre Goriot

by Balzac, an author whom Beauvoir repeatedly castigates in J2 DeuxiAme Sexe for his patriarchal attitudes. Because Balzac's depiction of the father's death in J2 PAre Goriot is a virtual commonplace to French readers, it is conceivable that it served as an intertext for Beauvoir, prompting her to replace the two daughters' culpable absenceat their father's side in Balzac's novel with two daughters' responsible presence at their mother's deathbed. Beauvoir stresses the thematic centrality of that presence by noting at one point that it indeed served in some measure to render her mother's especially painful end "une mort trPs douce," the obvious ironic if not oxymoronic nature of that phrase notwithstanding. Such a rewriting of the daughters' role would have important feminist implications, as Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar observe: "women writers . . . throughout the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth, have been especially concerned with assaulting and revising, deconstructing and reconstructing those images of women inherited from male literature" (Gilbert and Gubar 76).

The very act of choosing to describe the mother's death, moreover, has important feminist implications, for it is an act in which a woman names and pays tribute to another woman. Beauvoir's role can be compared in this regard to that she attributes to the priest who pronounces the funeral oration: "Le prCtre a encore un peu parlk. Et toutes les deux, l'kmotion nous poignait quand il prononqait: 'Franqoise de Beauvoir'; ces mots la ressuscitaient, ils totalisaient sa vie, de l'enfance au mariage, au veuvage, au cercueil; Fransoise de Beauvoir: elle devenait un personnage, cette femme effacke, si rarement nommke" (MD 156). Significantly, early in the book, Beauvoir chooses to name the nurses whose concrete assistance is so comforting to her mother, whereas she indicates by mere letters the doctors whose distant or paternalistic behavior she resent^.^ The very fact of naming is thus used here by Beauvoir as a feminist strategy for granting or denying significance to people's lives. That strategy can serve to undermine the control that devolves upon men through names, as Irigaray observes, "Car l'ordre patriarcal est bien celui qui fonctionne comme organisation et monopolisation de la propriitt privte au bintfice du chef de famille. C'est son nom propre, le nom du pPre, qui dktermine l'appropriation, y compris en ce qui concerne la femme et les enfants" (Irigaray 79).

It is worth noting, in conclusion, that there is a natural tendency in the limited criticism of Une Mort tris douce, mentioned earlier, to downplay the positive side-the existential and feminist side-of Beauvoir's account of her mother's death. The temptation to minimize the daughter's admiration for her mother's strength, courage, and new-found independence in old age is especially strong for readers who are aware of Beauvoir's resentment of her mother expressed in earlier autobiographical works. Understandably, such readers are likely to be struck by the numerous critical, resentful, or fault-finding statements that Une Mort tris douce does at times contain. But what it also contains, and what has been too often overlooked, is a warm, sincere, and loving tribute to a mother and to mother-daughter relation- ships in general. Admittedly, it is not a glorification of those relationships. Rather, it acknowledges fully their conflictual nature. But by rationally and emotionally assuming the full force of the conflict, and living with and through it, Beauvoir makes an important statement about women's double need to come to grips with their mothers and themselves. As Rich says in this regard, "We need to understand this double vision or we shall never undersand ourselves. Many of us were mothered in ways we cannot yet even perceive; we only know that our mothers were in some incalculable way on our side" (Rich 225). Simone de Beauvoir knew that about Franqoise de Beauvoir and said it poignantly by describing her old age and death.


nothe her version of this paper was presented at the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference in April 1987. '~eauvoir's texts will be indicated in the body of this paper as follows: La Vieillesse (V), Une Mort tris douce (MD), and LP Deuxiime Sexe (DS).

%ee, notably, Robert Cottrell, Simone de Beauvoir (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1975); Mary Evans, Simone de Beauvoir, A Feminist Mandarin (London: Tavistock, 1985); Elaine Marks, Simone de Beauvoir: Encounters with Death (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1973).

%n the issue of the compatibility between existentialism and feminism, see Toril Moi, "Existentialism and Feminism: the Rhetoric of Biology in the Second Sex."

5~ormore on Beauvoir's relationship to recent French feminism see Yale French Studies, 72 (1986), notably Catherine Portuges, "Attachment and Separation in The Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, 107-118," and Dorothy Kaufman, "Simone de Beauvoir: Questions of Difference and Generation," 121-31. See also Alice Jardine, "Death Sentences: Writing Couples and Ideology," Poetics Today, 6 (19851, 119-31.

"I am indebted to Anne Roberts for this observation about the naming of nurses and doctors as well as to my colleague Maryann DeJulio and the other participants in a seminar on French Feminism held at Kent State University in the Spring of 1987 for their stimulating discussion of Une Mort tris douce.

Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. La Vieillesse. Paris: Gallimard, 1970. -. LP Deuxiime Sexe. Vol. 11. Paris: Gallimard, 1949.

. Une Mort tris douce. Paris: Gallimard, 1964. Francis, Claude, and Fernande Gontier. Simone de Beauvoir. Paris: Perrin, 1985. Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven: Yale UP,

1979. Irigaray, Luce. Ce Sexe qui n'en est pas un. Paris: Minuit, 1977. Jardine, Alice. "Interview with Simone de Beauvoir." Signs, 5, no. 2 (1979): 224-36. Moi, Toril. "Existentialism and Feminism: the Rhetoric of Biology in the Second Sex." Oxford

Literary Review, 8, no. 1-2 (1986): 88-95.

Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976. 
Schwarzer, Alice. After the Second Sex. Trans. Marianne Howarth. New York: Pantheon, 1984. 
Wenzel, HClPne Vivienne. "Interview with Simone de Beauvoir." Yale French Studies, 72 (1986): 


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