by French existentialist philosopher and novelist Simone de Beauvoir is a long, complex novel based on the author's political, idealogical, and personal experiences after World War II. It is considered by many to be a roman a clef, or an autobiography loosely disguised as fiction by subtly changing names and small details. The book is part philosophical and political text, part love story, and part autobiography. It explores the varied experiences of French left-wing intellectuals after the war, and the convoluted personal and political relationships these thinkers had with one another. De Beauvoir received the Goncourt Prize for this novel in 1954, and she considered it her favorite of all her books.
The book is stylistically complicated, and has many parts – for this reason, it's hard to give a linear summary of the content. That being said, because the book is not a straightforward political text, but includes some autobiographical details, elements of the plot are integral to understanding the books wider ideological messages. The book begins at Christmas in 1944, just after the French liberation. It continues through four years of life among the French leftist intellectual circle, describing the mostly peaceful but complicated fallout that occurred among the group after they no longer needed to remain united as part of the Resistance against the Vichy regime. De Beauvoir tells the story in alternating chapters – half the chapters are told in the third-person, and tell the story of a leftist underground newspaper editor named Henri Perron (a character inspired by Albert Camus). The other chapters are told in the first-person by narrator Anne Debreuilk, a psychiatrist who many read as de Beauvoir herself.
Over the course of the novel, Anne's husband Robert – a character similar to Jean Paul Satre, de Beauvoir's life partner – begins a non-Communist leftist movement in France called the SRL. Robert urges editor Henri to advocate for his movement, but the two men have a disagreement over a story that exposes Russian camps using slave labor. Henri is suspicious that Robert has become a Communist but was refusing to admit his political leanings to his colleagues. The pair ultimately reunite when they realize that it is important to maintain political space for left-wing intellectuals who don't fully support Communism or Capitalism.
Woven between this story of political discourse is a love story between Anne and an American novelist named Lewis Brogan. In reality, de Beauvoir had an affair with American author Nelson Algren, and most consider this element of the story to be based almost entirely on her real experiences with Algren. The relationship is complicated – it is sometimes beautiful, sometimes frightening, sometimes deeply passionate. These sections of the book also include some of de Beauvoir's reflections on America and American culture.
Beyond the romance, Anne also struggles with her relationship to her adult daughter, a woman named Nadine whom many consider to be a composite character of two of Satre's younger mistresses. Anne also has her own unique relationship to Henri Perron, and to another more curmudgeonly writer, Scriassine. All of these characters have nuanced conversations and thoughts about politics, ideology, philosophy, and the future of the left in France and beyond. The Mandarins
is difficult to define because it includes so many different types of writing, but each revolve heavily around the central theme of life as a Leftist intellectual in France after the war. De Beauvoir includes travel writing, philosophy, romance, and scenes of straight action, as well as cutting portraits of prominent men and women in the literary scene at the time. Because it relies so much on her own experiences, the book is considered by many to be a seminal work, because it describes in great detail the changes in French liberal politics after the war and dismantling of the Resistance.
Simone de Beauvoir is best known for her book on gender, politics, and philosophy, The Second Sex
. In this book, she writes on the difference between physiological and socially-constructed ideas of gender, and how they play into the global oppression of women. She also wrote a significant novel, She Came to Stay
, which describes in more detail the struggle she had to accept her life partner Sartre's young sexual partners, despite the couple's agreement to maintain an open and non-monogamous relationship. De Beauvoir won the Prix Goncourt for The Mandarins,
as well as the Jerusalem Prize and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. She is one of the most widely taught early feminist scholars, and one of few well-known female existentialists of her era.