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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Mme de Sévigné interpreted according to de Beauvoir's theories in Le deuxième sexe Steinberg, David Myles


The original purpose of this essay was to demonstrate that there are certain similarities between the works of women writers which are valid regardless of differences in geographical location or time period. As the paper evolved, it became more of an examination of the work of Mme de Sevigne seen as a prototype of the feminine writer, with Simone de Beauvoir's Le Deuxieme Sexe being used as a theoretical base for such a prototype and only a relatively small number of supporting illustrations from other writers. While de Beauvoir's evaluation of certain traits of various feminine writers is rather negative, our approach has often been to reinterpret them more positively and to try to motivate de Beauvoir's negative reaction. Chapter I contains a resume of Le Deuxieme Sexe and particularly of the sections which discuss women's literature, with illustrations from the works of Mme de Sevigne. We attempt to show that de Beauvoir has been co-opted into a masculine viewpoint when she dismisses women's writing as sloppy, self-obsessed, over-abundant in detail and lacking in audacity. In Chapter II, women's predilection for insisting on the importance of human relationships and interrelationships in general is discussed and interpreted positively, as well as their greater ability to enter into the thoughts and feelings of others, their need to "personalize" the theoretical ideas to which they are exposed, and the greater degree of human orientation (as well as originality and spontaneity) which characterizes their wit. In Chapter III, we examine women's greater ties to the everyday world, that is, we hear in their letters of their day-to-day pre-occupations and activities, and those of others in their particular society. Naturally the language used in women's writing is likely to be "everyday" as well, characterized by the rhythm and vocabulary of actual conversation. Women's traditional love of nature, which is to be met with here and now, falls into this category. They are less likely than men to create the fictional surroundings of the historical novel or science fiction. It follows that women are also more likely to be in touch with the rhythm of their bodies, making their literature the repository of proverbs, recipes, home remedies and other folk wisdom. Chapter IV centers around women's issues, specifically the way in which women relate to and are regarded by their society. Mme de Sevigne admires cultivated women such as Mmes de La Fayette, de Chaulnes, Mile de Scudery, but deplores those who, through their frivolity and ignorance, damage the reputation of the sex as a whole. Finally, there is a discussion of the all-important mother-daughter relationship - are Mme de Sevigne and her ilk simply neurotics, as de Beauvoir would have it, or are there more positive aspects to this common feminine preoccupation?

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