- A Masochism Promising Supreme Conquests:Simone de Beauvoir's Reflections on Fairy Tales and Children's Literature
Children's literature is a powerful instrument of indoctrination. But the powers of indoctrination are not absolute. A person who almost entirely escaped it is Simone de Beauvoir.
Simone de Beauvoir was brought up in Paris as the first of two daughters in a strict Catholic middle-class family. She had a mother who was a passionate reader, a father who was a passionate amateur actor, and also a great-aunt who wrote stories for the children's magazine La poupée modèle.1 The men of the family—the father, the grandfather, much later also a cousin, Jacques, Simone's first love—proved to be failures in the business world; they lost their money, and after the First World War the formerly well-off family found themselves among the "newly impoverished." Consequently, the Beauvoir daughters could not be furnished a dowry and therefore not expect to get married—they should have to win their bread themselves. Much to the displeasure of her instructors at a Catholic private institute, Simone decided to become a teacher in a public school because this would entitle her to a pension. She had been a very pious little girl but lost her faith at the age of twelve. By the end of her studies she made the acquaintance of Jean-Paul Sartre. They passed their agrégation exams in philosophy in 1929. Sartre came first in the examination, and Beauvoir second—a fact which is often repeated, but he was twenty-four, and she was [End Page 29] only twenty-one; one year earlier, he had failed his exam while she had skipped a year and became the youngest agrégée of philosophy in France.
Many writers have left us testimonies about early storytelling experiences: Goethe and Pushkin, Gorky, and Hesse—to name but a few—had mothers, grandmothers or nurses who were wonderful narrators.2 Simone de Beauvoir is among another group: she exclusively tells about early reading experiences. Reading was an important part of her life. She and her mother supplied themselves with books from the Bibliothèque Cardinale, place Saint-Sulpice, and the family passed their evenings sitting side by side with the father reading for the family or everybody absorbed in their books (Beauvoir, Mémoires 71, 73).
The books and stories Simone de Beauvoir read as a child are of interest to us from several points of view: first, as a source of information about reading material for girls in the early twentieth century, especially in a Catholic middle-class milieu in France; for conclusions about the effects of reading material on the minds of children which can be drawn from comments in Beauvoir's memoirs; for the use Beauvoir made of her childhood reading memories in her voluminous treatise The Second Sex,3 published in 1949, which had a tremendous impact on the movement of women's liberation and belongs among the key writings on feminism;4 and finally, for the reception of these passages in feminist folktale scholarship.
In her Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée, a title difficult to translate and incorrectly rendered into English as Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter—the participle "rangée" referring not to duty but to aspects of conformism—Simone de Beauvoir evokes the reading materials of her childhood. Fairy tales are represented by the classical collections of Perrault, Madame d'Aulnoy, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen; as individual tales she mentions only Andersen's "Little Mermaid" and a conte de fées entitled "Valentin ou le démon de la curiosité,"5 both of which deeply impressed her (52-53). Furthermore, in The Second Sex, Beauvoir variously cites, in different contexts, the popular triad of so-called passive heroines, namely Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Snow White, as well as their male redeemer, Prince Charming; among her examples of children's literature she also names the figures of Peau d'Ane (Donkey Skin),6 Bluebeard, Griselda, dragon slayer tales, Andersen's "Garden of Paradise," "The Emperor's New Clothes" and, again, the "Little Mermaid...