Literature Study GuidesThe Second SexVolume 1 Part 3 Chapter 1 Summary

The Second Sex | Study Guide

Simone de Beauvoir

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The Second Sex | Volume 1, Part 3, Chapter 1 : Facts and Myths (Myths) | Summary

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Summary

In this untitled chapter, Beauvoir claims that woman, in the eyes of all men, remains a singular value. In Italy, for example, woman is mother and lover. There are governing myths, the beliefs of a culture transmitted in familiar stories—legends, fairy tales, folk tales—that transmit certain beliefs or habits of mind from one generation to another. The objectification of women, and the generalizations that define women, are common in myths across human culture. Just as the history of women has been written by men, the mythological infrastructure that defines woman is a male projection. Inescapable is the governing myth of Judeo-Christian culture, the story of Eve, who was not Adam's equal, but was made from his flank. Eve, one might say, was God's afterthought, a companion for Adam, the first human, who might otherwise have been lonely in the Garden of Eden. From the beginning, Eve's potential as an individual is irrelevant. Eve is a convenience for Adam: a thing, an object.

Key life principles are immortalized in the story impressed upon people's collective memory as well as in the poetry and song of the myth. English poet William Blake called the earth, "The Matron Clay." An Indian prophet told her disciples not to dig in the ground, saying, "It is a sin to hurt or cut, to tear our common mother." The Baidya, a Hindu caste community in central India, thought it was a sin "to rip the breast of their earth mother with the plow." Often, the objectification of women is cloaked in language of lasting beauty.

Finally, the myth of woman is All. For Beauvoir, woman is "all in that which is inessential: she is wholly the Other." That is, her stories, her mythic identity, have been constituted by him. These are the myths, not the individual woman. Beauvoir explains, "being all, she is never exactly this that she should be; she is everlasting disappointment." This is the relation of alterity, the relation between man and woman, ontologically described—the nature of Being.

Analysis

Beauvoir states that the more women assert themselves as humans, "the more the marvelous quality of Other dies in them." The myth has a long life, though. Even as people resist the myth, they guard it as part of their heritage, their membership in culture. Today, people study the myths and speculate on the real lives of individual women who wrest independence and individuation from the chokehold of the myth. Part of the answer to why women are complicit in their subordination has to do with the staying power of the myth, the early life lessons that remain even for women who strike out on their own, and the cultural practices that recall the myth.

According to Beauvoir, the subordination of women serves men's economic interests and suits their "ontological and moral ambitions." This important statement points to the powerful ways in which the subordination of women describes culture and people's place in it. As an ontological example: Mother Earth—an objectified version of woman—is both the source of nurture, and the realm of "chaos, where everything comes from and must return one day." Thus, Mother Earth is both life and death—and the oft-cited masculine fear of the feminine is rooted in such myths of power and loss of control.

Power is reinstated, and control over fear regained in myths that diminish the feminine. For example, in many cultures, menstruating women are viewed as unclean. In some cultures they are separated from the general population for a week each month. In others, there are purifying rituals. In the late 19th century the British Medical Journal reported the "indisputable fact that meat goes bad when touched by menstruating women." Menstruating women have been known to destroy products in factories, turning sugar black and opium bitter.

The moral ambition tends to emerge in the study of taboo, unspoken rules about unspeakable practices. For example, the little boy who loves his mother's flesh grows up to be frightened of it. If he wants to see her as chaste, he cannot acknowledge her body.

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