It was more because of stubbornness than interest that I managed to overcome the great ordeal of finishing Simone de Beauvoir’s “She Came To Stay”. I felt it a matter of pride not to let myself be defeated by this novel, no matter how bored or infuriated I was with it.
Let me start by saying that I do consider myself a feminist. Not to a drastic bra-burning, hairy-arm-pit extend, though – I guess you can call me a moderate feminist. Already familiar with de Beauvoir’s articles and non-fiction work, a few weeks ago I decided it was just about time to get to know her as a novelist. And I have to say, I was rather disappointed (she said, losing at least half of her two readers, who had accidentally stumbled upon this article). But before you go , please hear me out.
It is nothing short of a paradox that my biggest problem with a novel, written by a feminist theorist, is her depiction of the women in the story. At best I felt angry at their stupidity, exaggeration and lack of will. At worst – I found them completely implausible.
I will be able to better illustrate the reason for my frustration with de Beauvoir if I outline the main female characters (trying not to spoil it for those who haven’t read the novel). To make it more comprehensive I need to mention that “She Came To Stay” is a semi-autobiographical revenge towards the real-life addition to the de Beauvoir -Sartre’s ménage à trois Olga Kosakievicz (with some elements of her sister Wanda, also an object of desire, particularly Sartre’s) , who apparently caused a temporary disruption between the two, thus inspiring the writing of this work.
– Xaviere: the “Olga/Wanda” in the novel. The way de Beauvoir depicts her is unflattering, to say the least. This character is moody, spoiled and stubborn, at the same time devoid of any charm, reason or logic. Such a combination not only makes it impossible to like her but increases the absurdity of everyone who puts up with her erratic volatile nature.
– Fracoise: obviously de Beauvoir herself. She is constantly torn apart by words and situations, over-exaggerated through her own perception. Even though she is in a constant state of turmoil, she does virtually nothing to break any of the patterns that apparently cause her great suffering. The better part of the book consist of describing her own inner state, where every insignificant detail is overemphasized, trivializing her tragedy to a point that it causes fury rather than sympathy.
At the same time, the male characters are far more reasonable, cleverly manipulating women, without being perceived as negative in any way. Nothing wrong with that, but is this the distinction that de Beauvoir makes between men and women? Rational and well-grounded against borderline delusional?
Well, we can take this superficial approach and just say de Beauvoir should have stuck to non-fiction, or we can take a deeper (and somewhat speculative) look at what her motivation behind the novel actually was.
We have the real-life events which inspired the writing of this work: a young girl, one of many, becomes center of interest to Sartre. This very same girl is also a student of de Beauvoir and somewhat of a protege of hers. It is known from many a testament, made by the French feminist’s inner circle, that de Beauvoir was quite fond of the idea of being adored by young impressionable women. The logical one solution to feed both Sartre’s desires towards the young girl and de Beauvoir’s narcissism is a collective relationship between the three.
And we also have the peculiar extremity to which the narrator goes to explain the flaws of Xaviere as opposed to the virtues of Francoise. In the former we see the image of a monstrous creature (for instance, at one point in the book she states that anti-fascist intellectuals are so uninteresting that they are better off sent to concentration camps) who consistently torments an innocent, compassionate martyr in the face of the latter. Fracoise on the other hand is modest and compassionate: she does not want to be put on a pedestal or seen as a god-like inspiration (and still the constant insinuation is that she should be), on the contrary : she wants to just be perceived as the simple creature of flesh and blood that she is. Yes, We The Readers are pissed at her unnerving patience and unconditional love, we want to provoke a rebellion against her vile oppressor. We The Reader are so aggravated by the lack of action and at the same time despise Xaviere so strongly, that we are ready to forgive all means needed to break this horrid tyranny. By chapter seven our nerves are strained to the point where if we only could, we would jump into the novel and strangle the little beast ourselves.
And thus the revenge is exacted. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and when this woman decides to write a novel, there is no revenge alike for it is a murder, committed not once, but time and time again throughout history. De Beauvoir’s goal is completed and yet it feels unfair. Why does this leave such a bad taste, why do I myself feel betrayed? I have been lied to throughout three hundred pages. I have been fed the subjective side of a spiteful woman towards her enemy and I have been manipulated into hating her enemy myself. The author has turned me from a spectator to a weapon in her war and a tool against her rival. In this sense this novel is nothing more than a cunning aspersion, used to crush de Beauvoir’s opponent, making the reader an unwilling accomplice.
I personally find such arrogant exploitation of literary power unforgivable. I can excuse vile language, pretentiousness and lack of skill. But dishonesty in a writer is the one unforgivable offense! Because just as the author allows himself to be vulnerable and open, the reader is trusting and exposed. But once this equilibrium is impaired, the fault always falls on the author.