Simone de Beauvoir's 'La femme rompue': reception and deception.
Simone de Beauvoir's short story 'La femme rompue' is the last of three that appear in the collection of the same name, published by Gallimard in 1967. (1) It is one of only two collections of short fiction ever written by Beauvoir and, together with the novel Les Belles Images, (2) represents both a return to fiction after a long period during which she published only autobiographical texts (1958-64) (3) and the close of Beauvoir's fiction-writing career. (4) The short story 'La femme rompue', however, distinguishes itself not simply by being one of Beauvoir's few experiments with the short-fiction form. More than any of the author's other fictional texts, this story has had something of a troubled reception. It is narrated in the form of a diary, whose entries, spanning a period of just over six months, from 13 September to 24March, bear on the discovery by the diarist, Monique, of her husband's in.delity, and the subsequent breakdown of her marriage. Intended by Beauvoir as the exposition of the protagonist's bad faith in having conformed too readily to a traditionally subordinate role in her relationship to her husband, the story has been subjected to what the author considered a 'gross misreading'. The readers of French Elle magazine, where the story was initially serialized, (5) empathized with the fate of the central character to such an extent that they failed to detect Beauvoir's denunciation of her tendency towards self-deception.
In this article I attempt to account for the 'misreading' of 'La femme rompue' by drawing on Marxist critic Pierre Macherey's theory of literary production and how the non-dit of the literary text comes to undermine the dit. The discussion will be conducted on two levels. Firstly, I shall offer an analysis of how the intended reading of the story is generated by the reader's response to a series of textual clues laid down by the author that point towards the bad faith of the narrator. The second level of the discussion sets out to account for the 'gross misreading' of the text through an analysis of how the non-dits of the text enable the reader to take up an alternative readerly position. I show firstly that Beauvoir's intended reading of the story depends on a resisting reading strategy that implicitly acknowledges the capacity of narrative to be read contrary to a speaker's intention. This reader position will therefore be referred to throughout as the text's 'intended resisting reader'. (6) Secondly, I demonstrate that the 'misreading' of 'La femme rompue' emerges from a resisting reading strategy that exceeds the boundaries of resisting reading prepared by the author. During the discussion of this alternative reading strategy, reference will be made to the 'unintended' or 'excessive' resisting reader. (7) In my own 'excessive' resisting reading, I offer a close reading of the text which focuses on the parallels between the protagonist's strategies for self-deception and Beauvoir's own attempts to deceive the reader in the act of literary creation.
Beauvoir makes two explicit statements about the intended meaning of 'La femme rompue', one in the priere d'inserer to the original 1967 Gallimard edition, the second, an attempt at clarification after the fact, in the final volume of hermemoirs, Tout compte fait. In the priere d'inserer she describesMonique, the anti-heroine of the story, as 'la victime stupefaite de la vie qu'elle s'est choisie: une dependance conjugale qui la laisse depouillee de tout son etre meme quand l'amour lui est refuse'. (8) In Tout compte fait Beauvoir attempts to defend herself in the face of the poor critical reception of 'La femme rompue', where her readers had largely failed to 'read between the lines'. She describes her motivation forwriting the story in terms of a desire to give literary expression to a situation in which women of her personal acquaintance, or from whom she had received correspondence, all too commonly found themselves--that of being abandoned by their husband for another woman:
J'avais recemment recu les conFIdences de plusieurs femmes d'une quarantaine d'annees que leurs maris venaient de quitter pour une autre. Malgre la diversite de leurs caracteres et les circonstances, il y avait dans toutes leurs histoires d'interessantes similitudes: elles ne comprenaient rien a ce qui leur arrivait, les conduites de leur mari leur paraissaient contradictoires et aberrantes, leur rivale indigne de son amour; leur univers s'ecroulait, elles finissaient par ne plus savoir qui elles etaient [...] elles se debattaient dans l'ignorance et l'idee m'est venue de donner a voir leur nuit. (9)
Beauvoir's statements do not suggest a complete lack of sympathy on her part with the sufferings of these women, since she contextualizes their various failings and weaknesses as testament to the fallibility of all existence:
Jeme sens solidaire des femmes qui ont assume leur vie et qui luttent pour la reussir; mais cela nem'empeche pas--au contraire--dem'interesser a celles qui l'ont plus ou moins manquee et, de maniere generale, a cette part d'echec qu'il y a dans toute existence. (10)
None the less, her motivation for writing the story is given in terms of shedding light on another's situation of suffering from a position of exteriority: to the ignorance of these abandoned women Beauvoir opposes her understanding; against their darkness, she offers enlightenment: 'elles se debattaient dans l'ignorance et l'idee m'est venue de donner a voir leur nuit'. In her characterization of the women who provided the real-life inspiration for the story, Beauvoir employs a homogenizing rhetorical gesture and reduces them to a common essence of ignorance and error: 'Malgre la diversite de leurs caracteres et les circonstances, il y avait dans toutes leurs histoires d'interessantes similitudes:
elles ne comprenaient rien a ce qui leur arrivait'. In a comically acerbic account of the story's reception, moreover, Beauvoir expresses frustration with what she sees as the 'misreading' of the story by the Elle readers. Their failure to grasp her intention is attributed by Beauvoir to a blindness to the reality of their situation that mirrors that of the protagonist:
je fus submergee de lettres emanant de femmes rompues, demi rompues, ou en instance de rupture. S'identiFIant a l'heroine, elles lui attribuaient toutes les vertus et elles s'etonnaient qu'elle restat attachee a un homme indigne; leur partialite indiquait qu'a l'egard de leur mari, de leur rivale, d'elles-memes, elles partageaient l'aveuglement de Monique. Leurs reactions reposaient sur un enorme contresens. (11)
Subsequent academic criticism of the story has sought to account for this 'misreading' in various ways. Terry Keefe echoes the contemporary critics who fall foul of Beauvoir's acid pen in Tout compte fait when he sees the initial reception not as a 'misinterpretation', but as testament to Beauvoir's own failings as a writer. He offers a generally negative appraisal of the collection as a whole, reproaching Beauvoir for the narrowness of the narrative techniques employed and the concerns taken up: 'the book can be seen as making for a somewhat unfortunate close to her career as a writer of fiction'. (12) Keefe thus holds Beauvoir ultimately responsible for the reception of her text, suggesting that the fact of its having been read contrary to the author's intention indicates poor execution of that intention, a failure to create a credible fictional world in which the intended reading would be the inevitable product of engagement with the text.
The more compelling approaches to the question of the 'misreading' of 'La femme rompue' extend their consideration of the determinants of reader response from authorial intention to literary genre. Elizabeth Fallaize has shown how Beauvoir's decision to publish 'La femme rompue' in the pages of Elle magazine creates an extra-textual interpretative framework in accordance with which the story will necessarily be read. (13) She shows how the story shares a number of structural features with the kind of material the readers had come to expect from romantic fiction in the women's magazine and roman de gare genre, including the 'confessional' tone of a first-person narrative, and a female protagonist with whom the reader is encouraged to identify. (14) All these hallmarks of women's magazine romance fiction encourage the reader towards an empathetic rather than critical reading of the narrative, thwarting Beauvoir's intention. Fallaize finds that the unintended reading can therefore be accounted for with reference to the limitations necessarily constraining any writer's attempt to 'carry out a demystifying task [...] while attempting to work within the formal structures of that ideology' (p. 23).
Toril Moi has taken a similar approach, this time with the genre of detective fiction. Beauvoir herself was an avid reader of the roman policier, and explicitly states in Tout compte fait that the intended reading of 'La femme rompue' emerges from a reading strategy similar to that required of the reader of the detective novel: 'J'aurais voulu que le lecteur lut ce recit comme un roman policier; j'ai seme de-ci de-la des indices qui permettent de trouver la cle du mystere: mais a condition qu'on depiste Monique comme on depiste un coupable.' She goes on to reinforce her view that the empathetic reading rests on a failure to read 'properly' (ie. sufficiently closely) by adding: 'La verite n'est jamais avouee: elle se trahit si on regarde d'assez pres'. (15) Moi disagrees on the point that all that is required for a reader to produce the intended reading is a sufficiently attentive reading. She argues that Beauvoir's mistake lies partly in her having made this intended reading contingent on a specific reading practice which is itself dependent on certain formal features of the detective genre from which Beauvoir's story deviates. Because the detective novel generally uses the third-person narrative form, or else makes a first-person narrator of the detective, the reader tracks down the guilty party through a series of clues laid down by the narrator that point towards the guilt of another. In 'La femme rompue', however, Beauvoir disrupts this dynamic by asking the reader to read between the lines of the guilty speaker's discourse, assuming a position something akin to that of the psychoanalyst who is able to listen to the patient from a position of detached analytical superiority. For Moi, this represents a failure on Beauvoir's part to acknowledge the reader's tendency to identify with the fictional speaker, which makes it impossible to achieve the level of detachment necessary to produce Beauvoir's intended reading:
If Beauvoir's act of enunciation fails to persuade her readers to take up the position prepared for them, it is precisely because of the way in which the identificatory logic of transference prevents her from paying sufficient attention to the metonymical strategies of rhetorical displacement. (16)
Moi goes on to show how, in placing the intended reader in the position of 'detective' against the narrator-criminal, Beauvoir is treating the reader as the somewhat passive recipient of authorial intention, and assuming that the reader will slavishly follow the author in her own interpretation of the protagonist's situation. Moi notes that this interpretation of the protagonist's 'complicity' in her oppression, as opposed to 'victimhood', is entirely consistent with Beauvoir's analysis of the female condition in Le Deuxieme Sexe. (17) But in asking the reader to read 'La femme rompue' in the light of this extra-textual analytical framework, Beauvoir is in some sense making the reader into her double. She thereby paradoxically reproduces the subject-object dynamic she purports to denounce in Monique's relationship to her adulterous husband:
In this way Beauvoir's rhetorical strategy aims for a romantic identification between reader and author: an identification where the reader knows her place. Apart from being highly flattering for the author, this kind of hierarchical symbiosis is uncannily like Monique's deluded view of her relationship with Maurice: they are one--but he is the one they are. (Moi, p. 81)
Moi's analysis thus suggests that the empathetic reading of the story represents not the product of a .awed reading practice but, ironically, a refusal on the part of the readers to submit to the kind of relations of domination that Beauvoir's text wants to denounce at the level of plot, but requires at the level of the author-reader relation. Moi thereby suggests that the accusation levelled at the 'errant' readers rebounds on the author, who implicates herself in the crime of delusion when she unconsciously reproduces the self-deception of her protagonist in her own act of enunciation.
There are a number of accusations of error being distributed here. Beauvoir accuses the real women who inspired the story of misinterpreting their own situation, an act of misinterpretation she then dramatizes in the fiction. She accuses readers of misreading her text when they fail to see it as a denunciation of self-deception on the part of the protagonist. Finally, subsequent critics find the error is Beauvoir's, either because she has failed in the techniques of narrative construction or because of a misapprehension of the dynamics of reading, the limits of intentionality, and the determinants of reader response. As Beauvoir would have it, her authorial position is one of lucidity and understanding (elle ne se trompe pas), which she opposes to the abandoned women's/protagonist's/readers' position of ignorance, incomprehension, and self-delusion (elles se trompent). As Keefe would have it, Beauvoir's fictional world fails to convince readers of her own analysis of the protagonist's situation. It is therefore Beauvoir who is erroneous in her belief that readers merely need to read attentively enough in order to produce the intended reading; it is Beauvoir herself who is guilty of some technical failing in her construction of the narrative (elle se trompe).
This distribution of error within the logic of either/or--either author or reader is somehow technically at fault by writing/reading 'badly'--recalls the Platonic view of the act of literary creation as one of weaving an illusion, by which the readers either are or are not deceived (trompe-e-s). (18) In the act of accepting the fictional world presented by the author as reality, by taking up the position of the author and perceiving this fictional world as she does, the reader is temporarily deluded. To the extent that fictionality is thus conceived as a form of illusion creation on the part of an author, a disjuncture between intention and reception of the literary work can be viewed as a failure to deceive the reader, which then attests to some error on the part of the author. Within this logic, the only means for the author herself to escape the charge of error is to deflect the accusation onto the readers: Si elles ne sont pas trompees, c'est qu'elles se trompent. Thus Beauvoir's denunciation of her character's self-deception paradoxically rests upon the author's ability to deceive the readers by weaving a hermetically closed fiction, in which all the necessary components are in place, and where no extra-textual factor (such as the reader's expectations of the genre, ideological commitment to the romance plot being denounced) interferes with the act of literary deception. In order to show how far Monique and her female correspondents are deceived, Beauvoir herself must deceive the readers and must not herself be in any way subject to the same form of error. In order to be able to donner a voir leur nuit, she must be presumed to be in daylight; for the readers to see what Beauvoir leur donne a voir, they cannot themselves be in darkness.
Within this perspective of the literary text as illusion, the existence of the 'misreading' of 'La femme rompue' suggests that someone is mistaken here, and it must be either reader or author. Indeed, in 'Litterature et metaphysique' Beauvoir describes the process of writing committed literature as a form of successful 'tromperie'. She suggests that wherever such literature is deemed to have failed, it is because the credibility of the fiction is compromised by the too evident attempt by the author to elaborate a philosophy. This results in the unmasking of the author as a dissimulator, the reader is not deceived, and the narrative fails:
toute idee trop claire, toute these, toute doctrine qui tenteraient de s'elaborer a travers une fiction en detruiraient aussit ot l'effet car elles en denonceraient l'auteur et la feraient du meme coup apparaitre comme fiction [...] De toute maniere, en feignant de s'abolir l'auteur triche, il ment; qu'il mente assez bien, il dissimulera ses theories, ses plans; il demeurera invisible, le lecteur se laissera prendre, le tour sera joue. (19)
Beauvoir thus maintains here the ancient idea of art as illusion or as 'beau mensonge'. Furthermore, she attempts to account for an author's failure to convey her intention in terms of the readers' resistance to deception: 'Tout en admettant que l'art implique l'artifice, donc une part de mauvaise foi et de mensonge, ils repugnent a l'idee de se laisser jouer' (ibid.). The author's response to such resistance fromreaders, for Beauvoir, should therefore be to hone her deceptive skills--in essence, then, she must learn to lie better.
Beauvoir's view of the literary text as 'un tour joue au lecteur' positions the author as creator and therefore origin of the illusion, a skilled prestidigitator who conjures the artifice out of her box of writerly tricks. Macherey mounts a critique of this view, shifting the emphasis from literary creation to literary production. Here the author is not the source and origin of the work of art as illusion, but an ouvrier working with a specific tool--language:
L'oeuvre est le produit d'un travail, et ainsi d'un art. Mais tout art n'est pas artificiel: il est l'oeuvre d'un ouvrier et non d'un illusionniste ou d'unmontreur d'ombres. Le pouvoir de cet ouvrier n'est pas le fauxmiracle de faire surgir, a partir de rien, une forme absolument choisie (c'est pourquoi il ne sert a rien de dire que l'auteur d'une oeuvre est un createur). (20)
Beauvoir herself explicitly refutes this view of the author's role, finding that it represents a degradation of both author and text in its minimization of the role of creativity and writerly technique, the author's freedom to choose the form of her narrative: 'Un roman n'est pas un objet manufacture et il est meme pejoratif de dire qu'il est fabrique.' (21) For Macherey, however, Beauvoir cannot be viewed as the creator of an illusion, a 'montreuse d'ombres' who 'donne a voir' another woman's darkness, because the nature of language is itself at least partial opacity to the user. The specificity of the author's tool is that it exists prior to the author's use of it in her own literary work. This being so, she cannot be deemed to be in full control of her materials: the materials are not 'made to measure' for the literary work being produced. Rather, they arrive at the author's pen already worn, bearing the traces of their previous users and uses, which are carried over into the new text:
ce ne sont pas des elements neutres, transparents, qui auraient la grace de s'abolir, de disparaitre dans l'ensemble qu'ils servent a constituer, lui donnant matiere, prenant sa ou ses formes [...] ils ont comme un poids specifique, une force propre, qui fait que, meme utilises et melanges dans un ensemble, ils conservent une certaine autonomie et peuvent aller dans certains cas jusqu'a reprendre leur vie propre. (Macherey, p. 54)
With regard to textual meaning, the consequences of this are that the text is not the unitary expression of authorial intention, but is characterized by internal disunity, conflictual signification, and contingence. The text's powers of signification depend upon an infinite number of prior texts, discourses, ideologies, such that any position the text takes up will evoke the contrary position against which it is defined, or that which is structurally absented from it:
L'oeuvre litteraire [...] donne a voir une absence determinee, c'est elle qu'elle dit si, par force, elle n'en parle guere. Ainsi, ce qu'il faut voir en elle, c'est ce qui lui manque, un defaut sans lequel elle n'existerait pas, sans lequel elle n'aurait rien a dire, ni les moyens de le dire ou de ne pas le dire. (Macherey, p. 97)
Macherey's theory of literary production thus offers a means to understand how the text comes to speak against itself. The literary work, for him, becomes itself only through the not-itself, and the act of enunciation becomes such only through the act of non-enunciation implied within it, of which it bears the traces.
Within a Machereyan analysis of the dynamics of writing and readership, the reception of 'La femme rompue' becomes not so much the effect of some technical error of Beauvoir's, or of an inattentive approach to the text by readers. Rather, this 'misreading' is recast as the effect of the inevitable defaut, or the hollow centre of any text. The fictional text is not so much an illusion that succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to convey a single and intended meaning, but is in itself a perpetual betrayal of its own impulse towards stable signification. The shift in characterization of the literary work offered by Macherey--from illusion to something approaching an object in constant disillusionment with itself--requires that literary criticism focus not on what the text means, for that meaning will never reify sufficiently to be susceptible to description. Rather, the task is to show what the text 'knows':
La fiction, qu'il ne faut pas confondre avec l'illusion, est le substitut, sinon l'equivalent, d'une connaissance. Une theorie de la production litteraire doit nous enseigner ce que 'connait' le livre, et comment il le connait. (Macherey, p. 80)
The following reading of 'La femme rompue' considers the narrative in this light, as an instance of knowledge, the unconscious knowledge of the text, and of the characters Monique and Maurice. I want to show, at each stage, what these protagonists and Beauvoir's text are shown to know, and how they can be perceived as knowing it.
Monique's diary, which is ostensibly the fiction of which the reader is the recipient, is, as Moi has said, a sort of 'running commentary on questions of communication and language, so that it is in The Woman Destroyed that we find the most interesting reflections [in Beauvoir's oeuvre] on the relationship between truth, knowledge, and language' (p. 77). Within Beauvoir's intended reading, the diary bears witness to the slow process by which Monique assimilates a painful truth about the fictional nature of what she once believed to be her happy marriage. The narrative thus enacts the process by which one version of events comes to overlay and supersede another. The 'happy marriage' fiction is slowly replaced by a radically contradictory narrative which speaks of Maurice's having fallen out of love with his wife long ago, of his multiple infidelities, and of Monique's delusional belief in their love. In essence, the short story narrates the reception of fictions: how Monique initially failed to be a resisting reader of the beaux mensonges that her faithless husband dispensed in order to conceal his infidelities, and how she then receives the new narrative of a failed and unhappy marriage.
The trope of Monique's failure to read her situation correctly (sufficiently attentively) is played out throughout the text. In the first diary entry, for 'lundi 13 septembre', Monique relates her day in the town of Les Salines, where she and Maurice often spend weekends. She describes her attempts to ascribe a meaning to the buildings of the small town, which were constructed for a specific purpose, but which now stand empty:
longtemps j'ai contemple la sobremajeste de ces batiments edifies a des fins utilitaires et qui n'ont jamais servi a rien. Ils sont solides, ils sont vrais; cependant leur delaissement les transforme en un simulacre fantastique: on se demande de quoi. (p. 121)
This first entry proleptically establishes the theme of failure of interpretation. Monique detects a pretence, but cannot arrive at an answer to her own question when she later asks idly of what exactly this might be a pretence. She seems to know that the seeming reality of the buildings is belied by their failure to serve their intended purpose, but does not know with what fiction the buildings are attempting to replace their true vanity. On one level here, Monique is the dupe of an attempt at dissimulation, since her attempts at decipherment ultimately falter. This level serves the intended reading of the story of Monique's suggestibility. At another level, however, the narrative already seems to know that intentions, too, can falter. The purpose for which the buildings were constructed never comes to fruition, leaving behind merely a 'simulacre fantastique' of, perhaps, the force of intentionality, of plentitude, or of creative design. To the extent that Beauvoir conceives of fiction itself as a formof 'simulacre fantastique', her own narrative betrays her at this point by its awareness that the fulfilment of creative purpose does not necessarily follow from the construction of beautiful facades. The architect may yet be left with an object that testifies only to the redundancy of her initial vision: a monument to her own folly that deceives no one.
Just over ten days later, Monique begins to relate how Maurice has of late become increasingly distant and distracted in her company. She tells herself that this is simply because he has become increasingly preoccupied with his career. (Monique and he had met as medical students, but she gave up her own career in medicine for a life as wife and mother to their two daughters.) Now a practising doctor, Maurice had ten years previously decided to specialize in leukaemia research. Instead of approving of his ambition, Monique sees this transition as a betrayal of the concrete concern for 'des gens en chair et os a soulager' (p. 128) in favour of clinical abstraction and personal advancement. Whereas Maurice's general practice had previously allowed her some contact with the patients in an administrative and secretarial capacity, his work now increasingly takes him away from home in order to attend conferences, and the laboratory where he now carries out his research is a space of knowledge and understanding that is closed to Monique.
In this entry, as Monique enumerates the signs that all is not well between her and her husband, there are two moments where her mauvaise foi is hinted at. The first occurs where she tells how their holiday this year had not lived up to her expectations: 'Meme a Mougins cette annee il m'a paru lointain: avide de retrouver la clinique et le laboratoire; distrait et meme morose' (p. 128). She catches herself in the act of minimizing how far this had upset her: 'Allons! Autant me dire la verite jusqu'au bout. J'avais le coeur serre a l'aerodrome de Nice a cause de ces mornes vacances derriere nous' (p. 128). Having finally admitted that Maurice's indifference had deeply affected her, she goes on to tell herself that this is now all in the past. Having enjoyed her break at Les Salines alone, she locates her pleasure in the fact that she now knows what to do to repair the damage: 'Et si j'ai connu dans les salines abandonnes un bonheur si intense c'est que Maurice, a des centaines de kilometres, me redevenait proche' (p. 128). She has decided to confront Maurice about their differences, and to 'admit' that she may be in some small part responsible for the distance between them. She acknowledges that she has neglected him, having been excessively preoccupied with their children, but believes that things will improve now that she has realized her 'error': 'Je n'etais pas aussi disponible que Maurice pouvait le souhaiter. Il aurait du me le faire remarquer au lieu de se jeter dans des travaux qui maintenant le coupent de moi. Il faut nous expliquer' (p. 129).
For Monique, this realization represents an instance of personal confession, of candour. She has faced up to the level of distress her marital difficulties are causing her, and instead of blaming this entirely on Maurice's selfishness and arrivisme, she has found cause for reproach in her own behaviour: now that this is so, everything will be fine. Beauvoir, however, considers that she has laid down a series of clues that betray how far Monique is still self-deceived. By raising the theme of Monique's propensity to disavow uncomfortable truths ('Allons! Autant me dire la verite jusqu'au bout'), it seems that Beauvoir means the reader's suspicions to be aroused, so that they interrogate Monique's every word for further instances of her tendency to shy away from the facts.
Beauvoir further reinforces the need for resisting reading with the parenthetic '(Curieuse chose qu'un journal: ce qu'on y tait est plus important que ce qu'on y note)' (p. 128), which appears in the middle of the entry for that day. Ostensibly another limited acknowledgement from Monique that she is sometimes less than honest with her diary-self interlocutor, this remark is one of the clues to Monique's guilt laid down for the 'attentive' reader to spot. This sign, for Beauvoir's intended resisting reader, should function in much the same way as the earlier 'Allons, autant me dire la verite jusqu'au bout'. But for this to be the case the sentence must be read, unlike the rest of the passage, au premier degre. One can surmise that the parentheses indicate how far this is in fact one of the few truths Monique gives here. Beauvoir brackets it off from the preceding and subsequent parade of half-truths and self-deceptions, thereby indicating that this sentence requires a different, non-resisting, reading practice.
However, the attempt to shepherd the reader through the passage in this way, dictating how she should read and when, backfires on the author. She has entrusted to the punctuation the task of instigating a new reading strategy, using the parentheses to grant immunity, as it were, to this sentence from the resisting reading she elsewhere demands. Beauvoir thus shows an awareness that there is more than one way to read any text, but tries to control the resisting reading and limit it to certain sections only. These parentheses, however, are no defence against the vulnerability of texts to the reader's power to produce meanings for herself. Having referred to the ways in which the silences of a literary work can often speak louder than what is actually said--the power of Macherey's non-dit to undermine the dit--Beauvoir unleashes upon her text a power that will ultimately exceed her control.
Monique says in this same diary entry that she has now shaken off her tendency towards self-deception, that she will no longer be complacent in her relationship with Maurice. She admits that she has allowed too many of the signs of marital disharmony to pass without comment, particularly Maurice's taciturnity. She writes: 'Au bout de vingt--vingt-deux --ans de mariage, on accorde beaucoup au silence: c'est dangereux' (p. 129).On one level this is a further example of Monique's limited acknowledgement of her naive faith in the couple's unity, which the reader must push further in the light of the preceding clues that even now she has not managed to rid herself of delusions. On another this is a prescient reference to Beauvoir's frustrations with the misreading of the story: 'Demander au public de lire entre les lignes, c'est dangereux.' (22) On this level, the remark constitutes an ironic warning to Beauvoir herself not to underestimate how far the silences of her own text may come to testify against her.
Two days later, a discussion takes place between Maurice and Monique in which he confesses to his in.delity. The entry opens with Monique's attempts to normalize this deception, and to take some comfort in the fact of his 'honesty': 'Maurice m'a menti, oui; [...] c'est normal. Il aurait pu continuer au lieu de me parler. Meme tardive, je dois lui savoir gre de sa franchise' (p. 130). The already suspicious reader doubts Monique's apparent equanimity and guesses at the devastation that lies beneath her facade of the accommodating wife's discourse. She also begins to wonder at the completeness of Maurice's confession and to suspect that there may be more revelations to come, as there of course are. When read against Monique's diary, Maurice's 'confession' functions as a mirror image that reinforces the demand for resisting reading. Just as Maurice has admitted something, the better to conceal something of far greater magnitude (that this is not a one-off casual affair begun recently, but a serious threat to the marriage begun some time ago, and merely the latest in a long list of betrayals), Beauvoir's 'attentive' reader will detect a parallel in Monique's diary, for Monique often concedes a minor instance of self-deception on her part, which Beauvoir asks us to read as the sign of a larger dishonesty. The trope of 'confession', then, in the intended reading, is to be regarded with suspicion, as always partial, and as an attempt on the part of the speaker to lie all the better by conceding a lesser truth.
For the unintended resisting reader, though, there is a still more important parallel with Beauvoir's own project as the deceiver of the reader in her art of illusion. Monique persistently tries to place parentheses around her moments of honesty. She betrays herself to the reader of the diary in small ways, bracketing off her readings of herself and her situation, the better to protect herself from the more painful truths concerning the actual degree to which she has been 'trompee' by Maurice, and how far 'elle se trompe elle-meme'. Small-scale confessions in the narratives of both Maurice and Monique thus function as epistemological 'inoculations'. By introducing an element of truth, each hopes to guard their story against total infection, but the strategy, in both cases, ultimately fails. Each time there is a further revelation, Monique tries to assure herself that this, finally, is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: a defensive strategy that she repeats over and over, until she finally arrives at the last of the revelations--that Maurice loves her rival, Noellie, that he long since stopped loving his wife, and that he is leaving her for Noellie.
Like Monique, Beauvoir too dispenses the occasional truth, the clues to Monique's guilt, in the form of punctual references to the capacity of narrative to speak against itself, through the silences, through that which it conceals. These truths too are either literally or metaphorically bracketed off from the rest of the text, as the strategic confession that will enable Beauvoir's bigger deception. Beauvoir, however, thereby lays herself open to a resisting reading of the intended resisting reading, a reading that strains at the boundaries of resisting reading prepared by the author, rupturing the parentheses. The result is that just as Monique's narrative comes undone, so too does Beauvoir's.
Within this 'excessive' resisting reading, Monique's exploration of the nature of deception and self-deception produces an unwitting comment on Beauvoir's own attempt to deceive the reader while herself remaining immune from the charge of self-deception, unaware of the degree to which her own text may be deceiving her. As Monique confronts the painful truth that she has been trompee, lied to, when she thought herself a woman, a wife, and a mother to whom one does not lie, she says bitterly: 'Toutes les femmes se pensent differentes; toutes pensent que certaines choses ne peuvent pas leur arriver, et elles se trompent toutes' (p. 134). These women, then, think that they cannot be trompees, but it is in fact they who deceive themselves (elles se trompent). Similarly, Beauvoir, in seeing the novel as a 'tour joue au lecteur', believes that she can deceive her readers without herself being deceived. She grants herself an immunity that her short story knows, in spite of her, that she in fact does not have.
Following the elaboration of this metonymical resisting reading strategy, a number of comments that are intended as strategically placed clues to Monique's guilt now come to speak against Beauvoir's text as a whole. In the entry for 'dimanche, 17 octobre' Monique is just beginning to guess at the magnitude of the web of lies and deceit that Maurice has woven around her, and has some insight into how her own self-deceptions have compounded the problem. She reflects on her married life, and finds that the once happy memories have palled in the light of her new knowledge: 'Je suis fatiguee de me poser des questions, d'ignorer les reponses. Je perds pied. Je ne reconnais pas l'appartement. Les objets ont l'air d'imitations d'eux-memes. La lourde table du living-room: elle est creuse' (p. 152). Thus Monique has learnt that narratives have a tendency to transform themselves retrospectively, to take on the shape required of them in order to be consistent with what we know to have happened next. The story of her married life that she used to tell herself will have to alter in the light of recent events, and with the benefit of this hindsight everything will become an unnoticed omen of the now imminent break-up, a testament not to their happiness but to her folly, and to the vanity of her good intentions as the architect of a conventionally happy marriage. Monique is here forced to confront the instability of truth. The apparent certainty of the love between Monique and her husband in the early days of their marriage has been rocked by the current turmoil, such that even the furniture and ornaments in their apartment have lost their erstwhile solidity. Now that the fiction of contented bourgeois conjugality has been called into question, even the dining table seems hollow.
If this passage functions from the perspective of the intended reading as evidence of Monique's newly acquired awareness that much of her married life has been but a 'simulacre fantastique', a beautiful lie, it also functions on another level where it bears witness to the impossibility of determining the reception of our enunciative acts. The passage sows the seeds of doubt in the reader's mind about the possibility of attributing stable meanings to elements of narrative. The short story, in a sense, now knows about the instability of signification within narrative, that the act of saying something does not guarantee its being heard as true by the listener, that what is said and deemed true at one time is susceptible to revision and reformulation after the fact. Even the seemingly reliable solidity of material objects can be removed at a stroke as perceptions and reading strategies change. Thus even the apparent materiality of the written text cannot be trusted: the objects here too--the words on the page--can be reordered and assigned new meanings. By extension of this logic, the literary work, including Beauvoir's story, becomes as fragile as Monique's narrative. Its apparent materiality becomes in itself an illusion, a belief in which on the part of the author could only constitute a case of self-deception. At the centre of the literary work lies a treacherous 'creux' into which the reader may pour her own interpretations.
Beauvoir's fiction, like Monique's, is gradually unravelling in spite of her attempts to conjure a reality with a determined meaning for the reader. Her undoing is the resistant reader, whose resisting reading Beauvoir tries to control, but who has refused the constraints imposed by her creator. Beauvoir emerges from this excessive resistant reading as less the skilled prestidigitator and executor of a literary deception than the paradoxical victim of the text's very vulnerability to shifts in meaning that she has tried to exploit. Beauvoir is no longer the all-knowing subject in full control of her enunciative acts, but rather a mere ouvriere. Like the ouvriere within Macherey's Marxist analysis, Beauvoir is dispossessed of the means of her literary production--language--and, as such, cannot fully determine the effects of her labour.
We can recall here that Beauvoir suggests in the priere d'inserer to the text that she, as a woman who has largely avoided the many pitfalls of the female condition under patriarchy, is none the less not immune to failure:
Je me sens solidaire des femmes qui ont assume leur vie et qui luttent pour la reussir; mais cela ne m'empeche pas--au contraire--de m'interesser a celles qui l'ont plus ou moins manquee et, de maniere generale, a cette part d'echec qu'il y a dans toute existence. (Les Ecrits de Simone de Beauvoir, p. 232)
The inspiration for the text as it is presented here comes not from a total condemnation and objectification of the real-life abandoned women who served as the model for Monique. Although Beauvoir repeatedly opposes these women's ignorance and incomprehension of their situation to her own insight, in this comment from the priere d'inserer she comes closer to admitting that her own womanhood creates a solidarity between her and these women and their unhappy situation as 'femmes trompees'. It is thus not simply from a position of privileged exteriority that Beauvoir writes 'La femme rompue', despite the fact that she elsewhere seems to want to make this claim. Rather, the fact of their belonging to the second sex creates a certain commonality of situation between these women and Beauvoir, which is what generates the author's interest in their story and the desire to fictionalize it. She wants to write their story not because she feels unconcerned by it but, on the contrary, because this could also have been her fate, as a woman, had things been different in her own story. Beauvoir thereby acknowledges here that her own privileged position as an exceptional woman does not remove her from the concerns of less fortunate, less 'enlightened' women than herself. Rather, there is a 'part d'echec' in all existence, and it is from this acknowledgement that the story is generated rather than a position of indifferent superiority.
To that extent, this passage from the priere d'inserer functions as a further instance of the parallels between Monique's diary and Beauvoir's own remarks; it is another parenthetic truth introduced among the half-truths, bracketed off as if to protect the body of the text from the same degree of franchise. If there is a 'part d'echec dans toute existence', then Beauvoir's text here knows that she too must be fallible, as a woman and as an author; if there is a defaut in every text, as Macherey suggests, then 'La femme rompue' will be no exception. To write is always to render oneself vulnerable to the indeterminacy of reception; to engage in the act of literary deception is always also to run the risk of deception.
ST JOHN'S COLLEGE, OXFORD
(1) Simone de Beauvoir, 'La femme rompue', in La Femme rompue, Folio edn (Paris: Gallimard, 1967), pp. 119-252.
(2) Les Belles Images (Paris: Gallimard, 1966).
(3) Memoires d'une jeune fille rangee (Paris: Gallimard, 1958); La Force de l'age (Paris: Gallimard, 1960); La Force des choses (Paris: Gallimard, 1963); Une mort tres douce (Paris: Gallimard, 1964).
(4) Beauvoir's only other short-story collection, La Primaute du spirituel, is part of her early writing, and was published, under the revised title Quand prime le spirituel (Paris: Gallimard, 1979), over forty years after the manuscript was completed in 1937.
(5) Elle, 9 October-16 November 1967.
(6) For a feminist theoretical discussion of the concept of the 'resisting reading' of male-authored texts see Judith Fetterley, The Resisting Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978).
(7) For a feminist-psychoanalytic discussion of the notion of the 'unintended reader' of a male authored text with an implicitly male narratee, see Naomi Segal, The Unintended Reader: Feminism and 'Manon Lescaut' (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
(8) Reproduced in Les Ecrits de Simone de Beauvoir, ed. by Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier (Paris: Gallimard, 1979), pp. 231-32 (p. 232).
(9) Simone de Beauvoir, Tout compte fait, Folio edn (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), p. 175.
(10) Les Ecrits de Simone de Beauvoir, p. 232.
(11) Tout compte fait, pp. 177-78.
(12) Simone de Beauvoir (London: Macmillan, 1998), p. 165.
(13) 'Resisting Romance: Simone de Beauvoir, "The Woman Destroyed" and the Romance Script', in Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives, ed. by Margaret Atack and Phil Powrie (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), pp. 15-25.
(14) Fallaize is referring here to Michele Coquillat's study Romans d'amour (Paris: Jacob, 1989), pp. 10-12.
(15) Tout compte fait, pp. 175-76 (emphasis added).
(16) Toril Moi, Simone de Beauvoir and Feminist Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 86.
(17) Ibid., p. 63. Moi's remark refers to the following citation: 'L'homme qui constitue la femme comme un Autre rencontrera en elle de profondes complicites' (Simone de Beauvoir, Le Deuxieme Sexe, Folio edn, 2 vols (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), I, 21).
(18) Plato, The Republic, trans. by Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 596e.
(19) Simone de Beauvoir, 'Litterature et metaphysique', Les Temps modernes, 1 (1946), 1153-63 (p. 1155).
(20) Pierre Macherey, Pour une theorie de la production litteraire (Paris: Maspero, 1966), pp. 53-54 (emphasis original).
(21) 'Litterature et metaphysique', p. 1156.
(22) Tout compte fait, p. 175.
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|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2005|
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