Les Belles Images
is a 1966 novel by French existentialist and feminist author and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. A social analysis, the novel focuses specifically on women in France’s elite class, known colloquially as the bourgeoisie
. De Beauvoir deconstructs women’s roles, the expectations imposed on them by society, and their own, often very private anxieties, establishing a multi-perspective view on their difficult position in contemporary life. The novel is told from the point of view of a French woman, Laurence, who strives to fulfill the roles of wife, lover, mother, daughter, homemaker, and career woman; though she succeeds in many respects, she still feels unfulfilled. The novel challenges the view that women can enact their own liberation by working within the patriarchal system, arguing that this system will always subjugate by limiting women to its imagined roles, affective potentials, and other existential conditions.Les Belles Images
begins by introducing Laurence and her many roles. By all measures, she is a highly accomplished woman, belonging to one of the most stable upper-class families in Paris. By the age of thirty, she has already married a renowned architect, given birth to two daughters, and been hired into a high-profile advertising job. Recently, however, she has grown disillusioned in her search for self-satisfaction and is tired of letting the appearance of her family’s success take priority over thinking through her individual thoughts and desires.
Highly educated in the art of language and symbolism, Laurence is easily able to see through appearances and messages, understanding the motivations behind them. This skill bleeds through into her existential philosophy. Throughout the story, she repeats the refrain
, “What do others have that I do not?” Laurence knows that she has not really created her life; her life has mostly been made for her. She likens this fact to her own creation of slogans – messages that carry no intrinsic meaning but seem
meaningful in the social world as a product of their generality. Several years into her marriage, Laurence is resigned to the fact that it is a passionless one.
Laurence relates that the reason her marriage is passionless is that her husband has no interest in anything beyond appearances that can add to his social capital. As a result, he is emotionally stunted. Laurence defines herself partly in opposition to him: she is deep, analytical, and relatively carefree about how she is valued (or, at least, because of her status, is able to enjoy a degree of carelessness). Laurence also distinguishes herself from her sister, Marthe, who has given over her whole identity to her religion. She is also dissimilar to her mother, Dominique, who is afraid of aging and will do anything to sustain the illusion that she is young.
The latter section of the novel details the coming of age of Laurence’s oldest daughter, Catherine. A precocious child, Catherine quickly realizes that the world is unfair towards women. However, rather than try to undermine these social norms, Catherine internalizes them. Laurence resents her daughter for bending so readily to the patriarchy, sacrificing whatever personality she might have developed if she had been independent. At the end of the novel, Laurence explains that seeing a good deal of herself in Catherine, she now strives to ensure that her daughters feel free to express themselves.Les Belles Images
is not well known relative to de Beauvoir’s other works. However, it offers sharp insight into the fears and anxieties of women in the mid-twentieth century, making it an important contribution to feminist literature.