Sunday, March 22, 2015

Brutaliser une femme, il n'y a pas de quoi être fier

Les belles imagesLes belles images by Simone de Beauvoir
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Simone de Beauvoir's Les Belles Images is about the role of women in a modernizing French society during the 1960s. As a femme au foyer (a housewife), Laurence - the novel's narrator - supposedly enjoys "le privilège" of having "tout [sa] temps" (all her time). However, trapped in the social 'image' of what a 'proper' woman should be and suffocated by the confines of a patriarchal household, she eventually descends into anxiety and anorexia.

Although the novel is set in an era where machines are so omniprescent that "les hommes deviendront inutiles," the lack of awareness of women's rights juxtapose such progress and instead reveal the backwardness of society. Indeed, the crushing reality of a woman's dependance on her husband is highlighted throughout the novel. In the first chapter, the people around Laurence assume that she only has her job because of her husband's connections. Similarly, Dominique, although an independent woman who enjoys "le solitude," admits that "même avec un nom une femme sans homme, c'est une demi-ratée, une espèce d'épave." It is in a society where"une femme n’est rien sans homme" (a women is nothing without a man) that the novel takes root.

"Les belles images," pretty pictures, are powerful symbols of deception in the novel. They are all that we see ("on n'aperçoit que des images, proprement encadrées sur le petit écran) but lack the "weight of reality" (leur poids de réalité). For example, the fact that "les objets gardent encore l'aura qui les nimbait sur l'image en papier glacé" suggests how the 'images' inside the window seem glossy and flawless on the surface, even though Laurence recognizes that they are "inerte et froid" underneath their sheen.

The idea of a woman as a "belle image" further emphasizes the objectification of women in the novel. Dominique, for instance, is one 'belle image' but is a broken woman under her mask of independence ("sous les masques, il y a une femme de chair et de sang, avec un cœur, qui se sent vieillir et que la solitude épouvante"). The tragedy is that people "exhorteraient leurs amis à aller voir Athènes et la chaîne de mensonges se perpétuerait, les belles images demeurant intactes en dépit de toutes les désillusions" (people perpetuate the chain of lies, allowing the pretty images to remain intact despite their illusory nature).

Thus, most captivating of all is the fate of Catherine, Laurence's eldest daughter, for she is the only one in the novel to question the meaning of existence (ah, the French and existentialism) and show how the world is not a "belle image". She represents the voice of a young generation that is beginning to consider increasingly independent ideas. When she is sent to psychologist, however, Catherine seems about to suffer the same fate as her mother. Indeed, Laurence thinks of Catherine, she thinks of someone"qu'on était en train d'assassiner" (who one was about to assassinate).

Saying that she wanted to give her daughter "la sécurité, la gaieté, le plaisir d'être au monde," to "lui ouvrir les yeux tout de suite et peut-etre un rayon de lumiere filtrera," Laurence thus reveals her wish to give Catherine the rights she was denied - security, happiness and the light of life. After all, "élever un enfant, ce n’est pas en faire une belle image:" raising a child is not to delude her into believing that the world is a "pretty picture." Only through grasping the truth can Catherine - and the women of her generation - "s'en sortira ... De quoi? De cette nuit" - the darkness of oppression. 

In the novel, Laurence is a victim of her time:"Qu’a-t-on fait de moi ? Cette femme qui n’aime personne, insensible aux beautés du monde, incapable même de pleurer, cette femme que je vomis." According to Laurence's husband, Jean-Charles, the 'solution' to this malaise is "le docteur," an approach reminiscent of the remedies presented to Jane in The Yellow Wallpaper and Emma in Madame Bovary.

Laurence, however, understands what she must do to save herself. Saying that she must "se débarrasser de Lucien" (remove herself from her lover, Lucien), she echoes the importance of "le solitude" in finding independence. Stronger still, the shouting match between her and her husband at the end of the novel captures the boldness of a woman bravely fighting to help her daughter see a better future.

The novel is an engaging critique on the social stereotypes in 19th century France, as well as a cry for the liberation of women. "Quelle chance," what chance, will "les enfants," the children, have? Laurence asks herself this question at the end of the novel. "Elle ne le sait" - she did not know - yet in today's France, where local elections have introduced a voting system that ensures each ballot will have a male and female candidate, the chance is slowly, but surely, approaching.

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