The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir

This famous winner of the Prix Goncourt is an intriguing melodrama set in Europe and the United States. The action takes place in the period when the unity of the French Resistance comes to an end after the Second World War closes. Philosophers and their friends lose their ideological certainty as the Cold War begins.

The confusion felt by French intellectuals in that period is understandable. Fascism may have suffered a massive defeat, but revelations about forced labour in the Soviet Union were difficult for sections of the left to accept. Further, the dynamism of American capitalism threatened European political autonomy, while authoritarianism prevailed in Spain and Portugal despite this emerging hegemony.

Simone de Beauvoir was not a generous observer of the characters in her narrative. Despite her feminism, she judged the mistakes of women harshly. This is partly the legacy of existentialism, which arguably overstates the importance of choice in determining what happens in the complex lives of people. For example, she put these words in the mouth of her main character:

“It’s a horrible thing, a woman who labours to lead a man’s hands to her body by appealing to his mind.”

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