Literature and Existentialist Ethics in Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘Moral Period’

  • Terry Keefe


In one corner of the large territory covered by issues concerning the relations between literature and ethics, there are questions concerning the positions of particular practising authors on this matter. Few would claim that Simone de Beauvoir has unique insights in this area, but her case as such is an outstandingly rich and fascinating one. Within the relatively short period of her career under examination, she wrote — among other things — one play, two novels, a number of ethical works, and an essay on the theory of literature, all of which items are intricately interrelated in a variety of ways. Together they provide an intriguing body of material from which certain questions and certain points about literature and ethics emerge very strongly. One important factor is that we are dealing with a set of formally stated moral views on the one hand, and what we might begin by calling a ‘corresponding’ group of literary works on the other. This is already quite rare, since most ethical theorists do not write novels, and novelists, whatever their personal moral views, do not usually write essays about ethics.


Moral Judgement Moral View Moral Prescription Church Tower Existentialist Ethic 
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  1. 1.
    La Force de l’âge (Paris: Gallimard, 1960); translated by P. Green as The Prime of Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965). References will be given firstly to the French ‘Folio’ edition of the text (FA) and then to the English translation (PL). The reference here is: FA, 625–6; PL, 547. (In this case as in others, I have modified the translation where this seemed to me to be required.) She Came to Stay, trans. Y. Moyse and R. Senhouse (London: Fontana, 1984) is the translation title of Beauvoir’s first novel, L’Invitée (Paris: Gallimard, 1943). For each French text I give details of an English translation, where one is available. But because there are different translations on the market, only for The Prime of Life do I give page-references to an English as well as the French version of Beauvoir’s text.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Les Mandarins (Paris: Gallimard, 1954), translated by L.M. Friedman as The Mandarins (London: Fontana, 1982).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    La Force des choses (Paris: Gallimard, 1963), translated by R. Howard as Force of Circumstance (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Le Sang des autres (Paris: Gallimard, 1945), translated by Y. Moyse and R. Senhouse as The Blood of Others (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Les Bouches inutiles (Paris: Gallimard, 1945), translated by C. Francis and F. Gontier as Who Shall Die? (Florissant, MO: River Press, 1983).Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Pyrrhus et Cinéas (Paris: Gallimard, 1944) (‘Idées’).Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    Pour une morale de l’ambiguïté (Paris: Gallimard, 1947); translated by B. Frechtman as The Ethics of Ambiguity (New York: Philosophical Library, 1948) (a better translation title would have been Towards an Ethics of Ambiguity).Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    See my French Existentialist Fiction: Changing Moral Perspectives (London: Croom Helm, 1986).Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    Tous les hommes sont mortels (Paris: Gallimard, 1946); translated by E. Cameron as All Men are Mortal (London: Virago, 1996).Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    ‘Littérature et métaphysique’, in L’Existentialisme et la sagesse des nations (Paris: Nagel, 1948) 89–107.Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    Qu’est-ce que la littérature? was first published in book-form, together with other writings on literature, in Sartre’s Situations II (Paris: Gallimard, 1948); translated by Bernard Frechtman as What is Literature? (London: Methuen, 1951).Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    In Y. Buin, ed., Que peut la littérature? (Paris: Union Générale d’Editions, 1965) (collection ‘10/18’); Beauvoir’s contribution is on 73–92.Google Scholar
  13. 16.
    Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (London: Chatto and Windus, 1992; Penguin, 1993).Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1999

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  • Terry Keefe

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