Simone de Beauvoir on ‘The Woman in Love’ by Bridget Allan

The Ultimate Salvation or a Sterile Hell?

An Introduction

French existential-phenomenological philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex altered the very nature of Western philosophical understanding of the meaning of ‘woman’ through her phenomenological account of Other. In particular, her chapter ‘The Woman in Love’ assesses romantic love as a response to woman’s inessential Otherness. This paper contends that Beauvoir’s notion of romantic love, as a mode of being, is infantile and profoundly flawed (McCall, 1979: 216). Romantic love traps and reduces the self of l’amoureuse (‘the woman in love’) into a paradoxical embracing of this otherness and slavish dependence, which remains irreconcilable with her essential subjectivity and transcendence, and ultimately carries destructive implications for l’amoureuse and therefore is not sustainable (Boulous Walker, 2010: 335-6). In sum, “for the woman in love, her lover becomes the person who is the source of meaning and significance in her world, the person who legitimizes her erotic nature, who functions as the limits of her world, the infallible judge of her life, and the locus of her own freedom” (Morgan, 1986: 130). This paper establishes Beauvoir’s account of woman’s experience of romantic love – with regard to Beauvoir’s transcendence-immanence framework – and its implications for her subjectivity, examines l’amoureuse through Beauvoir’s account of freedom, as compared to Sartrean freedom, and addresses subsequent objections.

Beauvoir’s Account of L’amoureuse

In ‘The Woman in Love’, Beauvoir distinguishes woman’s experience of romantic love, which is experienced in the context of extreme socio-politico-economic oppression (Beauvoir, 1952: 652). Beauvoir cites existential German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Gendered nature of love”, to form an ambiguous frame for her discussion (Nietzsche, 1882; cited in Beauvoir 1952: 652). Nietzsche states: “What woman understands by love … is not only devotion, it is a total gift of her body and soul … a faith … As for man, if he loves a woman, what he wants is that love from her …” (Nietzsche, 1882; cited in Beauvoir 1952: 652). According to Beauvoir, man is the Absolute Subject and woman the inessential Other “[s]hut up in the sphere of the relative, destined to the male from childhood, habituated to seeing in him a superb being whom she cannot possibly equal” (Beauvoir, 1952: 653).

Beauvoir espouses a version of Hegel’s hierarchical master-slave dichotomy, which establishes an intimate connection between identity and alterity, where the subject’s fate is intimately bound to the existence of the other. Beauvoir’s account introduces woman into intersubjectivity and the struggle for recognition in a position similar, but not identical, to the dependent existence of Hegel’s slave, who complements and is enslaved to the master (Hutchings, 2003: 60). She writes, “certain passages in the argument employed by Hegel in defining the relation of master to slave apply much better to the relation of man to woman … Hegel’s definition would seem to apply especially well to her.” (Beauvoir, 1952: 90). For Beauvoir, however, woman is dependent but not, however, slave to man and importantly does not desire his destruction (Beauvoir, 1952: 659-60). Ultimately, Beauvoir’s account of romantic love developed inThe Second Sex seeks to expose “the dangers and moral wrong of assuming a dependent love in relation to a transcendent other” (Boulous Walker, 2010: 335-6).

In The Second Sex, Beauvoir expresses romantic love as denying woman’s transcendence and sense of self (Beauvoir, 1952: 652-679). While her early works use ‘transcendence’, as influenced by Hegelian and Sartrean concepts, it is not until The Second Sex, that Beauvoir pairs transcendence with the Hegelian concept of immanence (Veltman, 2009: 228). Beauvoir develops transcendence as an active mode of existence, where a transcendent subject seeks to “invent, act and make choices” that open a future liberated from biological-orientation or a pre-existing identity (Morgan, 1986: 122-3). Immanence, comparably, is established as a passive mode of existence (Veltman, 2009: 228). The immanent subject operates within predetermined limits, submitting to her perceived “necessary and given” identity-role and biological-fate (Morgan, 1986: 122-3). According to Beauvoir, only transcendence is worthy of human-respect, for “every time transcendence falls back into immanence, stagnation, there is a degration of existence into the “en soi” – the brutish life of subjection to given conditions – and of liberty into constraint and contingences” (Beauvoir, 1952: xxxiii).

In ‘The Woman in Love’, Beauvoir identifies woman’s desire for romantic love as the “dream of transcending her being towards one of those superior beings, of amalgamating herself with the sovereign subject” (Beauvoir, 1952: 653). For l’amoureuse being loved by this transcendent being will justify her very existence, and as such “love becomes for her a religion” (Beauvoir, 1952: 653). Beauvoir asserts, that because man “dream[s] of being God” and woman His Beloved, inevitably, this idolatry will collapse upon her realization that “a fallen god is not a man: he is a fraud” (Beauvoir, 1952: 665). However, if his idolatry remains undamaged, the woman in love will abandon her freedom to his superior reality, and unwittingly sacrifice both his love and her self (McCall, 1979: 216). Beauvoir contends, that l’amoureuse “gives up her transcendence, subordinating it to that of the essential other, to whom she makes herself vassal and slave… she does lose herself in him wholly” (Beauvoir, 1952: 661). Thus, paradoxically, it is through the very promise of transcendence that romantic love denies it from l’amoureuse (Beauvoir, 1952: 660).

In Beauvoir’s account, meaning befalls the world through subjectivity alone. Subjectivity denotes the ‘meaning-giving’ that arises “when the projects which a person chooses become contexts of meaning for the objects of his or her consciousness” (Fullbrook & Fullbrook, 1998: 168). The impossibility of l’amoureuse is that, for her, attaining subjectivity requires its complete abandonment to the Absolute Other, for the “paradox of idolatrous love is that in trying to save herself she denies herself utterly in the end” (Beauvoir, 1984: 660). This denial of self is not Sartrean masochism, but rather, the pursuit of an “ecstatic union” where – through man’s superior subjectivity– her self transcends limitations and reaches infinity (Beauvoir, 1952: 159-660). For l’amoureuse desires love as her escape from stultifying feminine immanence, and a way to self-realization and liberation (Björk, 2010: 56).

The implication of romantic love upon woman’s subjectivity, further, manifests in jealousy. While both man and woman experience jealousy, Beauvoir argues that l’amoureuse in “loving her man in his alterity and in his transcendence, feels in danger at every moment … She has received all from love, she can lose all in losing it” (Beauvoir, 1952: 673). Thus, l’amoureuse projects this danger onto other women, and resultantly, “because the woman in love is shut off in her lover’s universe” her isolation and dependence is perpetuated (Beauvoir, 1952: 674). Ultimately Beauvoir contends, that while love is perceived by l’amoureuse as a form of transcendence and essential to obtaining her subjectivity, it remains a paradoxical embracing of woman’s otherness and slavish dependence.

Sartre, Beauvoir and Freedom for L’amoureuse

Beauvoir contends that the existential fraud and injustice for woman is masking inauthenticity and self-deception as “freedom”, where romantic love is idealized as the highest form of existential aspiration open to women (Morgan, 1986: 130-1). Beauvoir distinguishes between the absolute and inherent ontological freedom that Sartre propounds, and an individual’s “willed” or “genuine” freedom, where for women freedom can be possessed, even extinguished, by actual experience (Weiss, 2009: 247). In an intersubjective context, Beauvoir believes in a Sartrean freedom insofar as freedom is always lived – embodied and expressed. Departing from Sartrean freedom, Beauvoir establishes a connection between freedom and human relationships through emphasizing freedom of the other is a necessary condition for freedom for the self (Weiss, 2009: 241). Beauvoir, in companion with Sartre and Merleau Ponty, recognizes that in order “to be present in the world implies strictly that there exists a body which is at once a material thing in the world and a point of view towards the world” (Beauvoir, 1952: 39). For woman, then, living a body made object by another’s gaze is significant, for it inhibits intentionality and free movement – her “exuberance of life … restrained” and “lack of physical power” results in “general timidity” (Beauvoir, 1952: 323-39).

The complex interplay between what has been chosen and what has been internalised by woman circulates throughout Beauvoir’s account of romantic love (Boulous Walker, 2010: 337, 351). Beauvoir illustrates romantic love as woman’s almost inevitable response to her immanent status, stating, “no other aim in life which seemed worthwhile was open to [women], love was their only way out” (Beauvoir, 1952: 655). She, further, asserts the “unfortunate infantilism of the woman in love”, perceiving the woman’s situation to be, in part, an attempt to ward off her fear of abandonment through reconstructing a situation of ‘adult protection’, where:

“What she wants to recover is a roof over her head, walls that prevent her from feeling her abandonment in the wide world, authority that protects her against her liberty. This childish drama haunts the love of many women… many women suffer in becoming adults” (Beauvoir, 1952: 655).

Beauvoir understands woman’s life of dependency as largely categorised by fear and servility, and thus, “for woman, love is a supreme effort to survive by accepting the dependence to which she is condemned” (Beauvoir, 1952: 678). This ‘dependent’ love, for Beauvoir, denotes a “deeply flawed mode of being, an inauthentic reduction of self to object status” (Boulous Walker, 2010: 337).

Beauvoir’s unique insight into the meaning of l’amoureuse recognizes this “natural submissiveness” as largely constructed by social norms and power relations (Lundgren-Gothlin, 1996: 199). This internalization of passivity, and ultimate objectivity, is crucial to Beauvoir’s analysis. For it demonstrates Beauvoir’s deviance from Sartrean notions of “bad faith” and “inauthenticity”, which denote one consciously becoming object in relation to a subject, or in Sartrean terms becoming a being-in-itself, or being-for-others, rather than a being-for-itself (Lundgren-Gothlin, 1996: 199). Thus, for Beauvoir, when these submissive actions derive from imposed oppressive social relations structuring woman as inessential and other, it can clearly not be considered bad faith or inauthenticity (Beauvoir, 1952: 665).

Beauvoir distinguishes “moral fault” – a replacement of Sartre’s “bad faith” – from oppression that forces woman to assume object-status, “moral fault” denotes responsibility for allowing the degradation of oneself to object-status. Beauvoir argues, then, romantic love can also be chosen from laziness and despondency as an easier alternative to the “agon[y] for a woman to assume responsibility for her life” (Boulous Walker, 2010: 337). According to Beauvoir, “everything incites her to follow the easy slopes … she is told that she has only to let herself slide and she will attain paradises of enchantment” (Beauvoir, 1952: 655). Here, romantic love adopts a form of “being-for-the-other”, which avoids the responsibility and perseverance required to actualise her existence and her self (Boulous Walker, 2010: 337). Ultimately, Beauvoir contends, romantic love mimics the other’s superiority, however, in a servile and demeaning manner and for woman’s subjectivity, “it is one of the loving woman’s misfortunes to find that her very love disfigures her, destroys her” (Beauvoir 1984: 675).

Considering Objections

Contemporary feminist critics raise various objections to Beauvoir’s account of l’amoureuse (Grimwood, 2008: 207). Notably they criticize Beauvoirian transcendence and immanence as Sartrean imports that assert existentialism’s masculine elements, arguing this renders her framework inadequate in examining l’amoureuse (Le Doeuff, 1995: 63-4). Charlene Haddock Siegfried argues, for instance, that in Beauvoirian terms man’s value is glorified and woman’s undermined, “refer[ing] to nothing less than the central thesis of Sartrean existentialism” through affiliating transcendence with subjectivity and immanence with facticity (Siegfried, 1984: 426; cited in Veltman, 2009: 230). Lloyd asserts, further, that the Sartrean notions in Beauvoir’s account “left its [male] mark on the very concepts of ‘transcendence’ and ‘immanence’” (Lloyd, 1993: 100-101).

Beauvoir’s notion of l’amoureuse, however, challenges established understandings of subjectivity as synonymous with transcendence, proposing instead subjectivity is synonymous with the ambiguity of the body (Björk, 2010: 40). In this sense, for Beauvoir, the ambiguity of the body establishes transcendence as a dimension of subjectivity, rather than the defining characteristic of the subject, while simultaneously establishing the subject is also immanence – “a being who may become a gift” (Bergoffen, 1995: 191). Importantly, Beauvoir’s emphasis on the superior value of transcendence over immanence is not, then, a perpetuation of patriarchy for in Beauvoir’s account objectivity and subjectivity are not mutually exclusive terms. While Sartre propounds an inability to transcend objectivity, Beauvoir implies an account of reciprocality between subject and object (Bergoffen, 1995: 191). Thus, Beauvoir’s account of the subject, as distinct from Sartre’s, in her account of the woman in love holds the potential for relations with others beyond the subject-object, an authentic and not romantic love, and allows for the possibility of relations “founded on the mutual recognition of two liberties; [where] the lovers would then experience themselves both as self and as other: neither would give up transcendence, neither would be mutilated” (Beauvoir, 1952: 679).


Beauvoir understands love for l’amoureuse to be flawed and infantile, an entrapment of self, and an enslaver of immanence. Thus, romantic love as woman’s response to her inessential Otherness and a paradoxical embracing of her slavish dependence, ultimately, places destructive implications upon any sustainable freedom for l’amoureuse. Perhaps, as Beauvoir bleakly concludes, romantic love represents the “curse that lies heavily upon woman confined in the feminine universe, woman mutilated, insufficient unto herself”, where the only absolute for woman is her inessential Otherness, for surely, “the innumerable martyrs to love bear witness against the injustice of a fate that offers a sterile hell as ultimate salvation” (Beauvoir, 1952: 679).

Bridget Allan is studying a Bachelor of Arts with an extended major in philosophy.


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