Literature Study GuidesThe Second SexVolume 1 Part 3 Chapter 2 Summary

The Second Sex | Study Guide

Simone de Beauvoir

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The Second Sex | Volume 1, Part 3, Chapter 2 : Facts and Myths (Myths) | Summary



This is the only chapter in the book containing topics broken out by Roman numerals. There are six topics, five of which contain titles.

The chapter examines the singular forms the feminine myth takes in the work of five writers.

I. Montherlant or the Bread of Disgust

Henry-Marie-Joseph-Millon de Montherlant (1895–1972), a popular French novelist and dramatist, was best known for four novels in which a libertine novelist seduces and abuses his willing victims. His earlier work is unabashedly autobiographical, and reflects an egocentric and autocratic personality.

In considering Montherlant's work, Beauvoir isolates the writer's habits of mind that elevate male subjectivity, and reduce women to objects of masculine disgust. As Beauvoir observes, a woman in Montherlant's work is not merely Other, but "monster." Femininity is defined negatively: "woman was woman through a lack of virility." In other words, woman is woman because she lacks masculine vital energy. For Montherlant, this energy would include sadism, aggression, contempt, and a sense of entitlement.

Montherlant's work demonstrates a misogyny that the preceding chapter on myth suggests is derived from man's hatred of his carnal origins and, therefore, his sensual mother. The mother's body is a site of disgust. In his earlier autobiographical work, Montherlant presents a mother who cannot let her son, Alban, go. In a later work, Alban identifies his lover with his mother. Love is her trap—her demand for his vulnerability, and her focus on his troubles. He makes a distinction between masculine strength and autonomy, and feminine lack of self-sufficiency. She is a "parasite." For him, to be unmarried, unattached, is to be free. Marriage is a burden.

Another representation of the need for domination is revealed in Alban's sexual practice. His pleasure is solely to give pleasure, to remain in control, to dominate. The loss of control that signals consummation is exactly what he avoids. He prefers a "haughty solitude of domination," and "cerebral, not sensual, satisfactions in women."

A brief exception to Alban's disgust of the woman is the sportswoman who can "acquire a spirit, a soul, thanks to the autonomous exercise of their body." But, alas, once a sportswoman falls in love, "she who had been all spirit and all soul sweated, gave off body odors." That is, at the height of intimacy, she moved from venerated sexual object to repulsive human individual.

For Alban, the Oriental woman is another acceptable object, "totally stupid and totally subjugated." Two examples: Douce, "admirably silly and always lusted after;" and Rhadidja, "a quiet beast of love who docilely accepts pleasure and money."

Montherlant's acceptance—he was elected to the French Academy in 1960—and his publication successes point to a readership agreeably attracted to these works that glorify a male predator and the plight of his victims.

II. D.H. Lawrence or Phallic Pride

David Herbert Lawrence (1885–1930), a British writer who eventually settled in Taos, New Mexico, was known for his short stories, poems, and novels. In his work he presented sex and nature as remedies for the evils of modern society, including industrialization. His work was frequently involved in notorious censorship cases, especially his novel Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928).

While elevating the masculine, Lawrence—in contrast to Montherlant—has enduring faith in the feminine. According to Beauvoir, "She is as real as the man." And sexual intercourse is an ideal union in which personality is put aside. Still, Lawrence presents women as overpowered by the sexual attraction of men—not the opposite. Women are subjugated by the male animal, by the troubling and powerful spell of the mystery of life that men exude.

According to Lawrence, life's deep mystery and great communion lies in the sexual union of man and woman and the abolishment of claims to personality, in which "each one is a complete being, perfectly polarized," and in which "each acknowledges the perfection of the polarized sex circuit."

Subjectivity—the sort of individuation Beauvoir sees as essential to women's liberation—is not an issue in Lawrence's work. Subjectivity in lovers generates nothing but a fever analogous to that achieved with alcohol or opium. The will to dominate debases woman. As French novelist André Malraux notes in the preface to the translation of Lady Chatterley's Lover, Lawrence believes it isn't enough for a woman to be the "occasion for ... contact with the infinite ... that would be another way of making her an object." For Lawrence, the phallic marriage is infallible: "When the virility-femininity circuit is established, desire for change is inconceivable."

It is the ideal of the "real woman," that Lawrence offers the reader, that is, "the woman who unhesitatingly assents to defining herself as the Other." Thus, Lawrence's woman is the woman who not merely complies, but willingly participates in her own subordination.

III. Claudel or the Handmaiden of the Lord

Paul-Louis-Charles-Marie Claudel (1868–1955), was a French writer of prophetic, faith-based work. Throughout his work, Claudel maintained the conventional Roman Catholic view of Eve, the temptation in the Garden of Eden, and the expulsion as a result of her sin. Woman's risk paves the way for mankind's salvation. Without the first sin, there would be no salvation. Beauvoir identifies Claudel's themes, saying, "It is good that man should know the temptations of the flesh." The "enemy within" gives life its drama. Man is made aware of his soul not only by the spirit, but by the flesh of woman. Love is, thus, a deeply perturbing element, and in that, redemptive.

There is no equality in this enterprise—the roles of men and women are not symmetrical. "Man's primacy is evident," Beauvoir observes. In Claudel, "It is man ... who builds cathedrals, who fights with the sword, who explores the world."

Claudel's women are loyal, faithful, sweet and humble—in other words, resigned. Such characters can overcome feminine weakness, and "modesty through loyalty to the cause," that is, her master's cause. Thus, Beauvoir notes that in the world, woman draws "greatness from her very subordination. But in God's eyes, she is a perfectly autonomous person."

The woman, thus venerated, is finally a servant in the world. The more surely she moves toward salvation, the more dedicated she is to her lot in life: her family, her home, her country, and her church. Beauvoir concludes: "To sanctify this hierarchy ... does not modify it ... but ... attempts to fix it in the eternal."

IV. Breton or Poetry

André Breton (1896–1966), a one-time medical student and reader of Freud, was a French poet, essayist, and critic. He was also one of the founders of the surrealist movement. Deeply influenced by Freudian ideas of the unconscious, Breton advocated automatic writing—"thought free from any control by the reason and of any aesthetic or moral preoccupation." Surrealism aimed to eliminate distinctions between dream and reality, reason and madness, objectivity and subjectivity. Breton also maintained a lifelong commitment to Marxist ideals, although he was a member of the Communist Party for only a few years.

Beauvoir acknowledges the "gulf" between Claudel's religious orientation, and Breton's poetry, and nonetheless recognizes the analogous positions to the role each assigns women. For Breton, it is at the height of "elective love" for a particular woman that the "floodgates of love for humanity open wide." Colliding with the mystery of life is the only way of finding it.

Breton finds women the key, and thus prizes women over men. Beauvoir states, "beauty for Breton ... exists ... only through passion; only through woman does beauty exist in the world." And beauty is more than beauty. It fuses with knowledge—it is truth, eternity, and the absolute. It is love, the reciprocity of one being to another, the natural and supernatural bridge spanning life. Breton's definitive statement, the conclusion to this notion of reciprocal love, claims "the time has come to value the ideas of woman at the expense of man."

Still Beauvoir objects: "It is exclusively as poetry and thus as Other that woman is envisaged." Exchanging male privilege for female privilege is not an adequate solution. If one were to ask about women's destiny, "The response would be implied in the ideal of reciprocal love." However, one cannot know if the answer for her would be the same as for him. Would beauty be found there? Would beauty be all? Breton, Beauvoir notes, does not speak of woman as subject. She concludes, "She is All: once more all in the figure of the other, All except herself."

V. Stendhal or Romancing the Real

Beauvoir calls Stendhal, born Henri Beyle (1783–1842), a "tender friend of women." In the life and affections and work of this French novelist of the early 19th century, Beauvoir finds a model for a moral and credible representation of women. Stendhal not only understands and reports the situations that circumscribe women's lives, and therefore their habitual responses, but also creates female characters whose identities are made by their specific experiences and needs. He avoids the mythic woman "disguised as shrew, nymph, morning star, or mermaid."

Stendhal, whose mother died when he was seven, "loved women sensually from childhood." Beauvoir claims that Stendhal has no use for the notion of feminine mystery, or the idea of the eternal female. Moreover, he understands the specific lack of opportunity in women's lives and the effects of oppression. He rejects negative judgments about women's intelligence and idleness, and supports the notion that women educated as men would be more successful than their male counterparts. He also understands that the "deadening educations" women are given are part of the oppressor's attempts to diminish those he oppresses.

Beauvoir concludes, "Woman, according to [Stendhal], is ... a human being: dreams could not invent anything more intoxicating."

VI. Woman is the "privileged Other"

That is, she is "one of the measures of man, his balance, his salvation, his adventure, and his happiness." As "privileged Other," she is beauty, poetry, grace, and giver of peace and harmony. In her failures, she is an ogress, witch, or praying mantis who eats her partner. In this final section of "Facts and Myths," Beauvoir points out that each of the authors she has treated has a particular and idiosyncratic version of the woman. Beauvoir believes the difference is "orchestrated differently for each individual ... according to the ... way the One chooses to posit himself." The crucial factor is the nature of each man's freedom. The key, she notes, are men who "posit themselves as transcendences but feel they are prisoners of an opaque presence in their own hearts." They blame the woman for this limit on their freedom. Stendhal's kinder version is distinct: "He needs woman as she does him."

Beauvoir concludes: "In defining woman, each writer defines his ... ethic and the ... idea he has of himself." There is an improvement, however, when a writer—like Stendhal—is interested in the woman's individual life adventure rather than merely casting her as Other. Beauvoir laments that the latter loses importance in an era when "each individual's particular problems are of secondary import." Still, woman as Other necessarily plays a role as each writer needs to discover himself.


Beauvoir refuses to allow the reader to lapse into rationalization, or into a false sense of security with respect to misogynist writers, as opposed to men who are sympathetic to women. Although there are significant variations in the ways these five authors treat notions of femininity or the alterity of the male/female relation, all—but Stendhal—hold the woman as Other. Oddly enough, even among the most sympathetic of the 20th-century writers, not one posits a female subject. For Beauvoir and for the feminists who succeed her, subjectivity is the liberating criterion. She locates this clarity in the fifth writer, Stendhal, whom she considers a "tender friend of women."

On Montherlant: his sadomasochistic narratives simply affirm the extremes of masculine behavior, and the forces of discontent and disorder that characterize the historical account of the subordination of women.

On Lawrence: Men and women operate within the respective cults of virility and femininity. To depart from these assigned positions means disabling the potential for the perfect union with the other—something Lawrence posits as ideal, and the source of all knowledge.

On Claudel: Woman is very specifically objectified in the persona of the "good Christian woman."

On Breton: Breton's idea that "colliding with the mystery is the only way of discovering it," is closer to Lawrence's view of the "sexual shock," the latter's term for the effects of the collision with life's mystery, and in Breton, the discovery of beauty.

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