Friday, July 1, 2011

Review: The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

Reviewed by Ingrid

This book is the July selection for A Year of Feminist Classics

Published: This book was first published in French as Le Deuxième Sexe in 1949. The first English translation by H.M. Parshley was published in 1953. A new English translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier was published this year, 2011. I read the complete text of the Parshley translation and also bits of the Borde/Malovany-Chevallier translation.
My copy of the Parshley trans.

It's about: Woman. Yep, you guessed it. This book is famous because it was the first book published that completely focused on Woman - her biology, history, psychology, the way she is portrayed in mythology and literature, and her experience in contemporary society. Simone de Beauvoir's famous line from this book is, "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." She shows how gender is more of an acquired characteristic than an inherited one. She also discusses how women can break out of gender stereotypes and become independent.

I thought: First, let's talk translations. There's been a lot of talk about the English translations of The Second Sex. Many have claimed that the Parshley translation is poor and incomplete, as Parshley made significant cuts to the text and also mistranslated de Beauvoir's philosophical language. The new translation was much needed and seemed promising, though it has been criticized for being "excessively literal" and even "unreadable." In hindsight, many have found the Parshley translation more accessible.

The reason I read the Parshley is pretty simple - because I bought it and started it before the new translation came out just last month. After comparing the two and reading the above articles, I came to the conclusion that, for my purposes reading this book just for myself, with a pretty elementary understanding of philosophy but also a desire to actually read through the whole thing, the Parshley translation suited me just fine. I frankly didn't pay much attention to de Beauvoir's philosophical bits on women, I don't think I would have noticed or cared if certain words were mistranslated. That didn't seem to be the point of the book anyway - her point is to show how society has shaped views on women. It certainly isn't some complicated Existentialist tract. You don't need to know anything about philosophy to enjoy this book.

As for the cuts, I went to the new translation to check out what I missed. There were a few interesting examples, and ideally Parshley would have left them in, but I don't think it would ruin your experience with this book if you missed out on them. (Most of the cuts were just more examples, nothing fundamental to the point of the text.)

Love this pic of Simone de Beauvoir (via)
If you were reading this book for a college class or because you want to read it in context of Existentialism, I would recommend the new translation. If you want to read it just to read it, I'd say the first translation is a bit more accessible. (It also has a MUCH better introduction.)

Alright, now let's talk about the content. I was very impressed with how thorough de Beauvoir was with her imformation and examples. She examines Woman from every angle (that sounds weird) and thoroughly fleshes out every idea. I especially enjoyed the "Mythology" and "Lived Experience" sections. I loved how she used examples from literature. Her section on D.H. Lawrence and his depiction of women in his novels was fascinating. The second half of this book focused in on "Woman's Life Today," with sections on the young girl, sexual initiation, lesbians, the married woman, prostitutes, movie stars, mystics, and grandmas. There was a heavy focus on psychoanalysis, which was a popular and respected viewpoint at the time this book was written (but is somewhat outdated now.)

Though many of de Beauvoir's examples seem passé, I still think this book is applicable and important to read not only because it is a monumental work but also because it is just plain interesting! Though on the surface it may seem that women in the U.S. and many other countries are now pretty much treated as equals to their male counterparts, there are many communities within these countries and throughout the world where women are certainly still treated as second-class citizens. Reading this book helped me recognize why this occurs. I also become aware of characteristics about myself as well as women I know that corresponded to both positive and negative examples of women acting ways that just keep them in this position.

Though it took me A WHILE to read all 741 pages of this chunkster, I'm extremely glad that I did. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in giving it a try.

Me at Simone de Beauvoir's grave in 2009
Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: Like I said above, if you want the more enjoyable/readable version of this book, I would recommend the Parshley translation.

Favorite excerpts:

"The curse that is upon woman as vassal consists, as we have seen, in the fact that she is not permitted to do anything; so she persists in the vain pursuit of her true being through narcissism, love, or religion. When she is productive, active, she regains her transcendence; in her projects she concretely affirms her status as subject; in connection with the aims she pursues, with the money and the rights she takes possession of, she makes trial of and senses her responsibility."

What I'm reading next: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson