Continental Philosophy Review

, Volume 45, Issue 1, pp 41–75

The feminist phenomenology of excess: Ontological multiplicity, auto-jealousy, and suicide in Beauvoir’s L’Invitée



DOI: 10.1007/s11007-011-9204-7

Cite this article as:
McWeeny, J. Cont Philos Rev (2012) 45: 41. doi:10.1007/s11007-011-9204-7


In this paper, I present a new reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s first major work, L’Invitée (She Came to Stay), in order to reveal the text as a vital place of origin for feminist phenomenological philosophy. My reading of L’Invitée departs from most scholarly interpretations of the text in three notable respects: (1) it is inclusive of the “two unpublished chapters” that were excised from the original manuscript at the publisher’s request, (2) it takes seriously Beauvoir’s claim that phenomenological philosophy is often better expressed in novels than essays or treatises, and (3) it views the novel’s main characters, Françoise and Xavière, as one woman who has multiple, contradictory, excessive selves. Thus approached, L’Invitée provides us with a thick description of one woman’s embodied consciousness and thereby shows us with specificity what a consciousness whose underlying structures reflect sexual difference looks like. This consciousness not only experiences itself as being both gendered, categorized, disciplined, and defined and in excess of these genders, categories, disciplines, and definitions at the same time, but also experiences its own self-relation through the presence of multiple selves who are each simultaneously attracted to and negating of the other. As such, the defining features of this consciousness involve experiences that I have respectively labeled “ontological multiplicity” and “auto-jealousy.”


PhenomenologyFeminismOntological multiplicityAuto-jealousyExcessSimone de BeauvoirL’Invitée (She Came to Stay)

One line of interpretation that has been pursued with increased frequency and fruitfulness in recent Beauvoir scholarship is that of reading Simone de Beauvoir as a phenomenologist, either alongside or in critical relation to such archetypal phenomenological thinkers as Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Lévinas, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.1 Contemporary feminist philosophy has likewise witnessed the emergence of a new sub-field termed “feminist phenomenology,” which seeks to construct a phenomenology that centrally considers how our experiences of reality, embodiment, subjectivity, and consciousness and our phenomenological descriptions of them are linked to the gender of the subject in question.2 My aim in this essay is to advance both of these projects by presenting an original (if not unorthodox) reading of Beauvoir’s first major work, L’Invitée (She Came to Stay), which was written from 1938 to 1941 and published in 1943.3

L’Invitée is a text of primary importance to the development of French phenomenology because, unlike The Second Sex, L’Invitée precedes most of the other defining works in that tradition.4 Most importantly, both Merleau-Ponty and Sartre read and commented extensively on a draft of L’Invitée in December of 1940 before writing their own major works—a fact which causes Edward and Kate Fullbrook to consider the text “by far the most influential of Beauvoir’s works” and to emphasize that “the impact of its arguments and ideas on the shape of continental philosophy was both immediate and profound.”5

In her 1946 essay “Literature and Metaphysics,” Beauvoir argues that phenomenological philosophy is better expressed within the genre of the novel than it is in the philosophical treatise and, even more controversially, that literary writing is perhaps the only place where certain phenomenological insights can find articulation.6 Here Beauvoir explores the differences between philosophy and literature and claims that while the philosophical treatise carries us beyond “terrestrial appearances” into the timelessness of eternity, literature keeps us on earth.7 She explains that this characteristic of literary writing prompts many existentialist philosophers to write novels in addition to essays and treatises because the subjective, singular, dramatic, and ambiguous aspects of experience are recalcitrant to philosophical language, which aspires to concepts, abstractions, and longer-lasting truths. Beauvoir’s point is not that novels are necessarily better than treatises when it comes to writing philosophy, but rather that the form and content of a philosophy are intimately involved with one another. Put differently, each style of writing carries with it a host of ontological commitments. As such, if a philosopher employs the universalizing genre of the treatise or essay to show the subjective, singular, and temporal aspects of existence, his philosophy will “contest itself.”8 As Beauvoir writes,

There is an original grasping of metaphysical reality, and…there are two divergent fashions of making it explicit…The more keenly a philosopher underscores the role and value of subjectivity, the more he will be led to describe the metaphysical experience in its singular and temporal form…There may even be thoughts that cannot, without contradiction, be expressed in a categorical manner…The novel will permit us to evoke the original upspringing of existence in its complete, singular, and temporal truth.9

Beauvoir tells us that once we recognize this connection between content and genre, we can see why “it would be absurd to imagine an Aritotelian, Spinozan, or even Leibnizian novel,”10 why Plato and Hegel resort to poetry or literature when they discuss the carnal and temporal aspects of their philosophies, and why “the novel is the sole form of communication possible for Kafka.”11 Following Beauvoir’s logic, we should expect the philosophical insights of L’Invitée to be ones that find expression more easily in a novel than in a treatise and that perhaps could not be expressed otherwise. Although Beauvoir does not explore this claim herself in “Literature and Metaphysics,” it seems that the novel provides an especially suitable genre for the expression of feminist phenomenological insights, since, in a novel, features like consciousness, perception, and intentionality almost always appear tied to characters who possess gendered embodiments and are situated socially and historically. Moreover, in the context of a sexist society where feminist ideas are often discarded or ignored and women’s voices have been treated similarly, the venue of “fiction” gifts women with opportunities to express insights about their own experience that receive little uptake elsewhere.

L’Invitée is most frequently interpreted either as a literary depiction of the metaphysical struggle between self and other or as that of an individual’s encounter with some generalized quality of human existence, such as death, femininity, desire, or the repressed unconscious. While there is ample evidence to suggest that Beauvoir’s text can sustain these meanings, L’Invitée also surpasses them by a large measure. The reading that I undertake below seeks to make visible that, in its most intimate recesses, L’Invitée is less about the meeting of self and other or self and existence than it is about a self who experiences herself in excess of her own self. But, how is it possible for a self to be in excess of itself? How can I be other than who I am? L’Invitée realizes these questions by evoking two distinguishing features in its protagonist’s consciousness: “ontological multiplicity” (“My self is other than what I am” or “I have multiple selves who each exceed the grasp of the others”) and “auto-jealousy” (“Whom I would have wanted myself to become exceeds what I have become” or “I am jealous of whom I was and could have been”). These excesses are fostered by the tensions and contradictions between a woman’s experience of herself and what can be thought, said, written, represented, performed, published, penetrated, and known of her within the confines of a sexist society. As we will see, the movement of L’Invitée’s plot follows the passions, crises, separations, and reconciliations constitutive of these distinctive experiences of excess, which are so profound that they eventually lead to a murder.

Methodologically, my reading of L’Invitée departs from other scholarly interpretations of the text in three notable respects. First, there is a question as to where to mark the beginning of L’Invitée, since Beauvoir was asked by Gallimard to delete the first two chapters that describe Françoise’s childhood and the start of her friendship with Élisabeth. Curiously, they are thought to have been excised from the original manuscript due to their depictions of a female-centered sexuality that takes the form of masturbation and self-love.12 The published version thus lacks these initial chapters, which were eventually published separately in 1979 and only recently translated into English in 2004.13 My reading is decidedly inclusive of the two excessed chapters because a ground for Beauvoir’s feminist phenomenology emerges therein, as well as in the spaces between the chapters and the official version and in other parts of the narrative that are left omitted or unsaid. Second, in deference to Beauvoir’s own affirmation of the phenomenological potential of the novel, I do not assume that philosophical insights and literary creations necessarily belong to different genres of expression.14 As such, I attempt to engage L’Invitée with an openness to the possibility that philosophical theories are being rigorously developed therein.15 Third, and most importantly, my reading does not expect the self to be unitary, especially within a context of sexist oppression. As a result, it asks us to view the novel’s main characters, Françoise and Xavière, not as two individual women who compete for male partners and for the right to self-description, but as one woman who has multiple, contradictory, excessive selves. When the text is thus approached, L’Invitée reveals itself, not as a story about woman’s relationship to man/male authority, but as a painful and authentic consideration of the often unspeakable and unthinkable kind of human experience that is a woman’s relationship with her own self. The philosophical implications of this expression of a woman’s lived experience provide us with a place of origin for a phenomenological philosophy that is distinctively Beauvoirian in virtue of its attention to the ways that bodies are lived as gendered, the ways that gendered embodiment structures consciousness and experience, and the ways that that gender is related to those aspects of reality that overflow our language, concepts, and categories of understanding.

1 Beauvoirian phenomenology

Before embarking on a reading of L’Invitée, let us consider what it means to think of Beauvoir as a phenomenologist, for her place in the phenomenological canon is apparently not as secure as those of her closest intellectual companions, Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. What are the distinguishing features of Beauvoirian phenomenology? Why does it make sense to think of this kind of phenomenology as “feminist”? And, how does the theme of “excess” emerge in Beauvoir’s thought and animate the phenomenological philosophy found in L’Invitée?

In recent years, scholars have made several attempts to locate Beauvoir’s work in the context of the phenomenological tradition and to identify her key contributions to that school of thought.16 For example, Sara Heinämaa repeatedly notes that Beauvoir is one of the first thinkers to seriously pursue Husserl’s idea that the “the problem of the sexes” should be studied phenomenologically.17 Consider the following ways that Heinämaa and Debra B. Bergoffen respectively identify the phenomenological contributions of The Second Sex:

Beauvoir’s original and far-reaching innovation was to pose the question of sexual difference within and in terms of a phenomenology of body. The Second Sex gives us a rich description of the living sexual body, its bodily and spiritual aspects, and its relations to other bodies and to the world as a whole. Thus it implies the fundamental question of the sexuality of philosophy itself. In Beauvoir’s understanding, sexuality is not a detail of being but an element that runs through our whole existence—including our philosophical reflections.18

In introducing the concept of gender and examining the processes of gendering, Beauvoir may be seen as participating in the phenomenological-existentialist project of historicizing the embodied subject. Subjective embodiment, Beauvoir notes, is always sexed and gendered. Further, given current historical conditions, bodies are sexed and gendered according to the categories of patriarchy—categories which pervert the meanings of desire and subjectivity and which undermine the conditions of the possibility of reciprocity.19

Beauvoir does not use the phrase “feminist phenomenology” to describe her own work, but subsequent theorists have applied this term to Beauvoir’s inquiries as a means to categorize those phenomenological methods that do not assume that gender and sexual difference are inessential, unimportant, or simply given and instead explore how gender presents itself in experience.20 As Judith Butler writes, “For a concrete description of lived experience, it seems crucial to ask whose sexuality and whose bodies are being described, for ‘sexuality’ and ‘bodies’ remain abstractions without first being situated in concrete social and cultural contexts.”21 Although they do so in different ways, Heinämaa and Bergoffen each suggest that the phenomenological significance of Beauvoir’s thought lies in its insistence that we experience our embodiment as always already gendered and that therefore most, if not all, aspects of our experience are constituted through gender, sexual difference, and erotic orientation. There are many important philosophical consequences to this line of thinking that Beauvoir explores throughout her oeuvre, not the least of which is the idea that philosophical descriptions that purport to be universal are actually partial toward particular kinds of gendered experience.

Both Heinämaa and Bergoffen rely primarily on The Second Sex and Beauvoir’s essays to craft their accounts of her phenomenology. However, when we look to those scholars who analyze the philosophical elements of Beauvoir’s novels, an alternative picture of her contribution to phenomenology surfaces. Specifically, those readings of L’Invitée that make a case for its phenomenological importance tend to do so by denuding the philosophical ideas expressed therein of their feminist components.22 For example, in his nuanced study of L’Invitée, Merleau-Ponty emphasizes the ways that the novel addresses the ambiguities of immanence and transcendence, consciousness and body, and self and other, but these ambiguities are discussed as if they were universal aspects of existence rather than as aspects that are differentially tied to certain genders or kinds of embodiment.23 Edward Fullbrook follows a similar approach in his reading of L’Invitée, which argues that Beauvoir presents a fresh solution to the problem of other minds by seeing “the experience of the Other and the embodiment of consciousness as paired.”24 But, while attempting to show how L’Invitée develops many of the same ideas that Sartre later explores in Being and Nothingness, Fullbrook neglects an analysis of how gendered embodiment affects consciousness and perception. Likewise, Margaret A. Simons deftly identifies three Bergsonian theories that surface in Beauvoir’s novel: a criticism of intellectual understanding, the necessity of exposing perceptual distortions, and the primacy of immediate experience.25 However, Simons gives us no story of how the gendered embodiment of the novel’s characters relates to these themes and thus we are left to wonder whether Beauvoir is merely replicating Bergsonian phenomenology or surpassing it in a creative way.26

My point is not to disagree with Merleau-Ponty, Fullbrook, or Simons as to their assessments of the phenomenological content of L’Invitée, all of which I believe to be insightful and largely correct. Alternatively, I wish to highlight the contrast between Heinämaa’s and Bergoffen’s readings of The Second Sex and these interpretations of Beauvoir’s first novel. Whereas the former set locates Beauvoir’s phenomenological importance in terms of her ability to see each philosophical situation as particular, that is, as tied to a singular body that always already presents itself as gendered, the latter set suggests that Beauvoir’s primary phenomenological contribution lies with her innovative solutions to universal philosophical problems such as articulating the ambiguity of immanence and transcendence or the problem of other minds. Insofar as we read Beauvoir as a philosopher working within the phenomenological tradition, we need not see these two interpretive approaches as necessarily opposed to one another: Beauvoir’s innovative solutions to universal philosophical problems likely derive from her rigorous attention to the particular and concrete aspects of human embodiment that are gender, sexual difference, and erotic orientation. And yet, the story of continuity between the philosophical ideas in what are arguably Beauvoir’s two most important and influential works—L’Invitée and The Second Sex—remains to be told.

The present study of L’Invitée begins to articulate these connections by showing us how Beauvoir’s first novel offers a thick description of a gendered consciousness and exposes the phenomenological and political consequences of this description. In this way, the novel reveals how certain kinds of embodiments that are socially and historically situated help to constitute particular modes of consciousness, intentionality, subjectivity, and perception. This project places Beauvoir in the company of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty in her attempts to critically refigure the Cartesian relationship between consciousness and body; to understand the epistemological consequences of such a shift; to describe how experience is co-constituted by the relationships between self and other and self and world; to affirm the primacy of pre-reflective, fluid, or un-sedimented experience; and to approach the living body in all its concreteness. However, unlike the philosophies of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, Beauvoir’s description of a woman’s consciousness does not present this consciousness as unitary or immediately given to itself and, as a result, implicates the harmful costs of sexist oppression and patriarchy. In its compelling evocation of one particular woman’s consciousness, L’Invitée helps us to see what it means to be a “woman,” phenomenologically speaking—how womanhood arises in experience, which of its aspects are necessary or could be otherwise, and what kind of reality appears to such a consciousness.

Central to my feminist phenomenological reading of L’Invitée is the theme of “overflow” or “excess” (débordement) that is present in most of Beauvoir’s writings. This theme is taken up repeatedly and explicitly in The Prime of Life, the second volume of Beauvoir’s autobiography, which covers the years from 1929 to 1944 and therefore also recounts many of the experiences that Beauvoir drew on while writing L’Invitée as well as her own reflections about her first novel.27 Here Beauvoir tells us that she had always maintained that “reality overflows [déborde] anything that can be said about it; that instead of reducing it to symbols capable of verbal expression, we should face it as it is—full of ambiguities, opaque, and impenetrable.”28 Her use of the verb “déborder” connotes a liquid substance spilling over its container—an excess—that is in some way reduced or diminished in the attempt to enclose it. This imagery also occupies the concluding sentence of The Prime of Life and allows Beauvoir to summarize her experience of becoming a writer: “each book impelled me toward a new book, for the more I saw of the world, the more I realized that it was brimming over [débordant] with all I could ever hope to experience, know, and put into words.”29 Moreover, Beauvoir’s descriptions of reality as “opaque” and “impenetrable” and the world as more than could be put into words adds an epistemic aspect to the idea of excess: we can have partial knowledge of reality, but there will always be a portion that is out of reach, inexpressible, or hidden from our sight. Beauvoir’s epistemic stance on this matter fueled one of her more substantial philosophical disagreements with Sartre, which the two discussed often during the early 1930s. Whereas Sartre often asserted that the phenomena of the world “coincided exactly with the knowledge [la connaissance] man had of them,”30 Beauvoir believes that “words can only capture [retiennent] reality after they have murdered [assassiné] it; they let the most important aspect of reality escape—its presence.”31 For Beauvoir, writing involves a movement away from the world. In contrast, Sartre saw writing as “giving [the world] something it needed.”32 Later in her autobiography, Beauvoir again affirms the irreducibility of reality: “Though [the author] spend scores of years repeating and modifying his ideas, he will never succeed in capturing on paper—any more than in his flesh and heart—the multitudinous reality that lies all about him.”33 Her use of the verbs “to capture” (retenir and capter) and “to murder” (assassiner) expresses the difficulty of and the violence inherent in the project of making fluid, ambiguous reality coincident with words and knowledge.

In Beauvoir’s thought, reality’s excess is not a universal category that is equally impenetrable from any perspective or any mode of knowing. If it were, then the projects of knowing and describing reality would be futile—forever limited only to whatever content fits neatly into pre-established words. Moreover, if every perspective lacked access to excess, then we would never have any indication that it existed in the first place. The theoretical move, then, is not to give up any hope for knowing the excesses of reality, but to ask, as Beauvoir does, “just what functions words could or could not perform.”34 Beauvoir has at least two ways to explain how there could be differential entries into excess. First, as discussed above, Beauvoir argues in “Literature and Metaphysics” that certain aspects of reality are tied to certain genres of expression: those aspects of reality that overflow the language of the philosophical treatise are not the same as those that overflow the language of poetry or fiction. Once we recognize this fact we can see also admit that “diverse truths are made manifest by means of diverse techniques.”35 More importantly, those genres that do not seek to transcribe or explain the world but rather to bring forth an experience it in all its complexity and ambiguity are better suited to implicating the excesses of reality. Of the fictional novel Beauvoir writes, “Although made of words, it exists as objects in the world do, which overflow [débordent] anything that can be said about them in words.”36 A novel succeeds, not insofar as it accurately represents the particularities of experience, but rather insofar as it evokes a certain “flesh-and-blood presence” for the reader, “prior to any elucidation.”37 Fittingly, this evocation of excess is often achieved more so by what is left unsaid, prohibited, and ambiguous in a text than by what is stated clearly and directly.

The second way that differential access into the excess of reality can be explained is by recognizing the connections between certain kinds of excess and particular embodied perspectives, an approach which comes to life through the plot and characters of L’Invitée.38 In her autobiography, Beauvoir intimates that one of the times in her life where she sensed the excesses of reality most profoundly was when she and Sartre formed “the trio” with Olga Kosakievicz—a situation which inspired many of the events that make up L’Invitée and served as a concrete example for many of the discussions Beauvoir and Sartre had about phenomenological concepts. In regard to the distance that she felt between Sartre and herself during this time she writes, “I had always maintained that words fail to give the presence of reality itself, and now I must face the consequences. When I said ‘We are one person,’ I was mistaken…The agony which this produced in me went far beyond mere jealousy: at times I asked myself whether the whole of my happiness did not rest upon a gigantic lie.”39 That the primary character struggles in L’Invitée involve this felt tension between the transparency of language and those aspects of reality that overflow expression is a detail that was not lost on Merleau-Ponty in his early exposition of Beauvoir’s text:

Her book shows existence understood between two limits: on the one hand, there is the immediate closed tightly upon itself, beyond any word and any commitment (Xavière); and, on the other, there is an absolute confidence in language and rational decision, an existence which grows empty in the effort to transcend itself (Françoise at the beginning of the book).40

However, what is lost on Merleau-Ponty is that L’Invitée is a story of a woman. The consciousness described in the text is not gender-neutral: the ambiguities of immanence/transcendence and excess/linguistic transparency are experienced differently by the women characters than they are by the men. As my reading below will show, L’Invitée repeatedly associates being a woman with being penetrated, epistemologically and/or (hetero)sexually. To be penetrated is to be named, defined, categorized, objectified, disciplined, normalized, bounded, and entered into—in short, it is to be “knowable” inside and out by others. And yet, for the women characters in L’Invitée, penetration is persistent and inescapable, but never total and complete. From their earliest years, these characters sense and experience all the ways in which they overflow the names, definitions, heterosexual practices/rituals, and knowledges that constitute their (imminent or actual) womanhood. Beauvoir’s description of the tension between concepts and lived reality that she felt as a young girl in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is also relevant here: “Whatever I beheld with my own eyes and I really experienced had to be fitted somehow or other into a rigid category: the myths and the clichés prevailed over the truth.”41 For the women in L’Invitée, the kind of embodiment that is “being a woman” fundamentally structures its associated consciousness in a peculiar kind of relationship to reality’s excesses and therefore affects the ways that such a consciousness experiences itself.

That phenomenological themes animate the pages of L’Invitée is a relatively uncontroversial claim, as is evidenced by the variety of philosophical interpretations like those of Merleau-Ponty, Fullbrook, and Simons that emphasize them. What is controversial, however, is the project of classifying the kind of phenomenology that Beauvoir develops in L’Invitée and the rest of her writings. As many scholars have noted, Beauvoir clearly possessed the training and resources to create phenomenological philosophy by the time she began writing L’Invitée in 1938.42 We know from Beauvoir’s autobiography and diaries that she was reading Bergson in the late 1920s and that she began reading Husserl as well as works by Heidegger, Lévinas, and Eugen Fink in the early 1930s.43 And yet, to which phenomenological thinkers, methods, and ideas Beauvoir’s philosophy owes the greatest debt is a question whose answer lacks interpretive consensus. Scholars have argued for the compatibility of Beauvoir’s own phenomenological philosophy with those of a diverse range of phenomenologists, including Bergson, Husserl, Heidegger, Lévinas, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty.44 This span of interpretations is not unfounded since throughout the corpus of her work Beauvoir’s thought intermittently shows allegiances and disloyalties to all of the phenomenological styles mentioned above. As a result, there are a host of pressing questions that arise whenever the label “phenomenologist” is employed in relation to Beauvoir: Is Beauvoirian phenomenology best identified with transcendental phenomenology, existential phenomenology, Bergsonian phenomenology, or something else altogether? How does Beauvoirian phenomenology reflect criticisms, modifications, or extensions of Husserlian phenomenology? What are the hallmarks of Beauvoir’s phenomenological method and what are the key insights that this method has produced? Although I readily affirm the importance of those projects that work to situate Beauvoir’s philosophy within the phenomenological tradition, this is not my immediate focus here. My express intention is instead to engage L’Invitée on its own terms as much as it is possible to do so by tracing the descriptions and images of consciousness, woman, and excess present in the text itself. Readers may accept my interpretation of the novel without necessarily agreeing with my assessment that its philosophical concepts show the strongest affinities with those of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. Moreover, the classification of Beauvoir’s phenomenology is a conversation to be had after we have first engaged the text itself. As Merleau-Ponty writes in regard to L’Invitée, “Everything changes when a phenomenological or existential philosophy assigns itself the task, not of explaining the world or of discovering its ‘conditions of possibility,’ but rather of formulating an experience of the world, a contact with the world which precedes all thought about the world.”45 It is to the particular experience of the world that is L’Invitée that I now turn.

2 Selves in excess/exile: Becoming woman

Contrary to what Edward Fullbrook writes in his introduction to the English translation of L’Invitée’s two unpublished chapters, the philosophical ideas expressed in the outcast chapters are not the same as those at play in the first published chapter, even if they do repeat those ideas almost word for word.46 They were, after all, excised for a reason. This reason is given to us when we attend to the differences between the 6 year-old protagonist of the unpublished chapters and the 30 year-old woman that she has become by the official start of L’Invitée. Namely, it is that these differences, which manifest most starkly in the unwritten, unpublished space between 20 years of age (Françoise’s age at the end of the second unpublished chapter) and 30, constitute just what it is to “become a woman.” As the publishers at Gallimard were well-aware and as Beauvoir herself undoubtedly knew, to include this meaning in the text of L’Invitée is to change everything.

The unofficial beginning of L’Invitée opens upon a little girl named Françoise, who “knew perfectly well who she was.”47 Sometimes Françoise would overhear her parents talking about her at night and she found their descriptions both apt and pleasing. They would say that Françoise is a precocious child who has a good nature, is very upright, tells her mother everything, likes reading, does well in school, is never disobedient, idle, or scatterbrained, and has beautiful, naturally curly hair.48 However, the text intimates to us both that the little girl’s identity cannot be exhausted in these descriptions and that the little girl feels her own excess:

That little girl was Françoise; she looked at her in the mirror with satisfaction and she said to herself “it’s me!” But she was not always this little girl; when she is alone there sometimes happen strange things, and she does not really know whom they happen to; they are nonsense [des bêtises]. To become emotional over an old jacket is nonsense; to tickle oneself at length in that place where the skin is so soft and sticky when in bed at night is nonsense. Françoise told her mother everything, but nonsense does not exist; it is nothing, and there are no words to talk about it; in Françoise’s life, these moments counted for nothing.49

On the one hand, Françoise experiences herself as “Françoise,” a studious little girl defined by her parents, who sees herself from the outside (in the mirror). On the other hand, Françoise is keenly aware of experiencing herself on the inside as a different little girl, whose existence is mysterious, unspeakable, and counts for nothing in the life of “Françoise.” This little girl is unknown, without parents, without a future, and without even a name (we could call her “X,” but that would prematurely dispose us to a certain reading of the rest of the novel). Françoise only experiences this second little girl when she is truly alone, as is the case when she visits her grandmother’s provincial house and spends her afternoons hiking in the pine forests, reading forbidden books, eating apples, and giving herself auto-erotic pleasure.50 In “the pine grove”—literally and figuratively/anatomically—the unnamed girl experiences scents, tastes, and peculiar sensations, and “Françoise” no longer existed anywhere.51 Alternatively, in Paris, Françoise “had only one existence” whose restrictive nature causes her deep anguish: she continually feels as if she is “playing at being another” and “playing at being herself.”52 Upon returning to the pine grove after the end of the school year, Françoise begins to weep in her awareness that both she and the grove miss something desperately important when she is absent from it. Stepping out of her Parisian character, she even fails to go back home for dinner one evening because she feels that she commits “a betrayal” whenever she leaves the grove.
When Françoise begins a friendship with the eccentric Élisabeth during her adolescence, her sense of loss over leaving her unnamed self in the pine grove intensifies. Unlike the other “interchangeable” girls in Françoise’s class, Élisabeth had a “ravishing complicity with herself,” which Françoise longed for so intensely that it brought her to the verge of tears.53 Moreover, Élisabeth’s indiscreet voice, undisciplined appearance, and penchant for Nietzsche set her apart from all of her classmates, whose desires were readily crafted by prevailing social norms. Françoise becomes disgusted with herself when she realizes that she is more like the conformist, ethereal “tissue-paper women” in her class than she is like Élisabeth; her dresses are chosen by the seamstress, her hairstyle is chosen by her mother, and her room could have belonged to anyone. Françoise thus likens herself to “a shapeless swamp where ideas and images sunk in without any obstacle” and laments that “nothing in her was capable of deciding or choosing.”54 When Françoise rejects this way of being by not wanting to look pretty, desiring “to be truly herself,” and persisting in her friendship with Élisabeth despite her mother’s disapproval, she is swiftly reprimanded by those around her.55 In this unaccommodating adult world, Françoise becomes nostalgic for the multiplicity of her childhood existence:

In the past, there was a secret life and a public life, and in the latter there were clear hierarchies where she had to come in first; in the former she could do all that she wished because she was completely alone in the world. Now, Françoise was no longer alone in the world and there was no longer a place that was indisputably first; every choice was at the same time a sacrifice: one could not have both Élisabeth’s striking originality and the discrete balance that Madame Miquel liked. Françoise saw it as an outrage that she should have to renounce one or the other of these seductive images that she felt capable of embodying.56

Whereas Françoise-the-girl could sustain her multiple selves, albeit by keeping them separate from one another, Françoise-the-almost-woman must choose one in place of the other; she must exile one so that the other may thrive. It seems that as Françoise’s body grows more shapely and pubescent, her selves grow to be more and more incompatible. In the midst of this blossoming friction, it is no wonder that Françoise becomes enchanted when Élisabeth murmurs Baudelaire’s poem, “The Invitation to the Voyage,” to her in class. Only the first few lines are included in the narrative: “My child, my sister, just imagine the happiness [la douceur] of voyaging there to spend our lives together…”57 The enticing, unmentioned remainder describes an idyllic promise of feminine integration within the unreachable landscape of inner life, where the soul can finally and secretly speak its soft, native language.

The tensions between Françoise and her unnamed self and between Françoise and Élisabeth seem to replicate the difference between two alternate ways of knowing, experiencing, and relating to one’s own body. On the one hand, there is the body as it is known through ready-made categories of comprehension and as it is interchangeable with other bodies insofar as they also conform to those categories. On the other hand, there is the body as one lives and experiences it—as a field of sensations and projects as well as the locus of all of one’s perspectives in the world. Françoise experiences the sensations of pleasuring herself sexually, but there are no words that accommodate this experience and so, not only does Françoise relegate these feelings to “nonsense,” but she also attributes them to a different perspective that she accesses only when she is truly alone. Beauvoir’s later discussion of the phenomenological notion of “the lived body” (German: Leib, French: le corps veçu) is relevant here. In The Second Sex she writes, “It is not the body-object described by the biologist that actually exists, but the body as lived [le corps veçu] by the subject.”58 A person lives her body not as a thing, but as “a situation”—as “our grasp on the world and the outline of our projects.”59 Moreover, for Beauvoir, the body is always lived within particular social and historical milieus: “It is not merely as a body, but rather as a body subject to taboos, to laws, that the subject is conscious of himself and attains fulfillment.”60 Françoise and her unnamed self each express a different kind of lived, bodily, experience, whose variation is the result of disparate epistemic attitudes regarding which aspects of reality are to be trusted most: words and concepts or sensations and emotions. The differences between Françoise and her unnamed self are also the differences between two ways of apprehending their own bodies—as matter described or flesh experienced, or as what Merleau-Ponty terms “the objective body” and “the phenomenal body.”61 Importantly, one attitude is not necessarily more indicative of Françoise’s self than the other at this early point in the narrative: the text makes clear that Françoise’s struggles and despair stem from her attraction to both stances and her capacity to embody each in turn.

The feature of Françoise’s consciousness whereby it is equally animated by two disparate postures of relating to the world is best characterized by the term “ontological multiplicity.” “Ontological multiplicity” is a potentially problematic philosophical idea that does not refer to a unitary self who has multiple aspects, but to one person who has has cultivated more than one self or worldly orientation.62 This idea makes more sense if we understand it in terms of the lived body, that is, the body as “our manner of being in the world, our ‘anchorage’ in this world, or even the collection of ‘holds’ we have on this world.”63 As such, the body is the locus of subjectivity for Beauvoir: “In girls as in boys the body is first of all the radiation of a subjectivity, the instrument that makes possible the comprehension of the world.”64 But, as we have seen above, Françoise-the-girl has at least two ways of anchoring herself in and holding the world—two different postures of comprehending and relating to the world and her body, which Merleau-Ponty might describe as two schemas of “bodily” or “operative” intentionality.65 Although all kinds of consciousness likely involve multiple ways of viewing oneself and one’s body, Françoise’s experience is distinctive because the two attitudes that she possesses are not only developed enough and intricate enough to constitute different subjectivities, but they are also contradictory enough to be mutually exclusive—recall that Françoise cannot enact both postures simultaneously. As Eleanore Holveck suggests but does not elaborate on, “Françoise and Xavière are two poles of one and the same woman, two diverse philosophical points of view, which are as irreconcilable as they are inadequate.”66

With reference to Beauvoir’s later articulations of woman’s subjectivity in The Second Sex, we can see how ontological multiplicity is a feature of consciousness that is likely to be experienced by women, rather than men. Beauvoir writes, “Woman, like man, is her body; but her body is something other than herself.”67 Becoming woman entails surrendering one’s body at the same time that one lives one’s body and, as such, the commonly experienced ambiguity of relating to oneself as an object and as a living body is tipped out of balance toward the objective stance. As Beauvoir describes the war veteran, Schneider, in her review of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, “He can live his body, not represent it to himself, which clearly demonstrates that the represented body is a secondary construction that is added on to the reality of the lived body, and which can, in certain cases, become disunited with it.”68 Insofar as sexism teaches women to understand their bodies in terms of prevailing representations of them, they are likely to experience themselves as belonging to something other than them. Whereas “[man] thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection with the world, which he believes he apprehends objectively,”69 a woman’s body “is not perceived as the radiation of a subjective personality, but as a thing sunk deeply in its own immanence.”70 This situation helps to constitute a frustrated and multiple consciousness that is divided against itself because each of its actions towards transcendence negates itself. Françoise cannot both be respected in society and a woman who makes her own decisions, nor can she both be in a heterosexual relationship and affirming of her own sensuous desires. Sexism makes both postures equally inescapable and attractive: a woman’s subjectivity always peaks through when she is being an object for others and, likewise, the way that a woman lives her body and experiences sensations is affected by patriarchal thinking that sees her as penetrable and interchangeable. Because “it is impossible to consider our bodies as an object, even as a privileged object,” a woman will never be entirely coincident with any category that sees her and molds her as such.71 This is why it is not altogether accurate to describe Françoise at the beginning of L’Invitée as lacking a self, as Simons and Beauvoir herself have done in their commentaries.72 It is not that Françoise has come to have no self at all by her thirtieth year—especially if by “self” we mean an embodied style of relating to and comprehending the world—but rather that she has cultivated a manner of being that she often finds repugnant due to its conformity with bourgeois conventions, extreme deference to Pierre’s desires, and willingness to relate to her body only as a representation or object of thought. We would not be doing justice to the being that Françoise has become, nor to the parts of that being that are attractive and useful to her, if we denied her any kind of subjectivity.

Françoise’s experiences of having a self that fits within dominant descriptions and categories and another that is in excess of them are situated amidst a series of events that mark a typically feminine adolescence such as Françoise’s awareness of her growing breasts, her confusion upon beginning menstruation, her father’s comment that she was not too ugly for a girl entering the awkward stage, her discovery and subsequent rejection of masturbation, her mother’s scolding her for sitting on her male cousin’s lap while wearing a nightgown, and her mother’s failed attempt to discuss sex with her. By weaving Françoise’s experiences of ontological multiplicity together with the story of her physical and social development towards womanhood, the text suggests that cultivating, embracing, and finally exiling excessive selves may be part and parcel of what it means to become a woman. Absent from the pine grove, Françoise feels herself becoming like the old jacket that her 6 year-old self identifies with in the opening scene of the text—always suspecting (sensing) that her sensuous self may exist somewhere else, in excess of her knowing it.73 The old jacket is compelling and haunting, because it is an empty outer-layer that cannot even see, speak to, or be conscious of its essential self. It looms and lurks in the text as a symbol of the shapeless swamp that Françoise will become if the unnamed self of the pine grove who is also she recedes further and further into the distance.

Although we never witness the final moments of Françoise’s transformation from girl to woman, we find that our protagonist has somehow become a woman by the beginning of the published version of L’Invitée. At 30 years of age, Françoise is an accomplished playwright who has just finished writing a version of Julius Caesar. She is satisfied with what her life has become and thinks of herself as happy, independent, and morally virtuous. She is also comfortable in the romantic relationship that she has had with Élisabeth’s brother, Pierre, for the past 8 years—a textual detail which suggests that Françoise is no longer a virgin and helps to affirm her womanly status. However, we also find that somewhere in the widening gap between the two unpublished chapters and the first official chapter, Françoise has come to understand that she must “resign [herself] to a choice” in order to maintain her “cloudless happiness” and stave off the anguish and heart-break that she experienced earlier in life.74 Unspecified and unwritten, this resignation/choice could very well be that of being “Françoise” at the expense of her unnamed self. Françoise has chosen to live her adult life in Paris rather than in the country, her vocation centrally involves play-acting (a drastic change from her adolescent desire to be a doctor or an historian), and the “joys of solitude” have been lost to her for at least 8 years. Françoise also tells Gerbert that she no longer laments “living only in my skin when the earth [la terre] is so vast.”75 Taken literally/anatomically, Françoise is implying that she has come to live only in the outer-layer of herself, without connection to her earthy, organic, recessed insides. Françoise-the-woman has obviously cultivated her intellectual faculties in place of those sensuous faculties that used to flower in the pine grove, as is evidenced by the fact that she repeatedly favors objects of thought over and above touchable subjects and objects. In her romantic life, for example, Françoise prefers familiar, absent Pierre over the warm, present Gerbert. At the start of the text’s official version, Françoise gains one moment of connection with the self she knew in solitude when she walks outside in the middle of the night to the quiet provincial square. And yet, in a repetition of her adolescent self’s betrayal of the unnamed girl in the pine grove and in a gesture that signals her present discomfort with embodying this earlier self, the adult Françoise quickly abandons the square where “there was no Françoise any longer” in order to become “just a woman again.”76 By the time the published version of L’Invitée begins, Françoise’s unnamed self has been effectively positioned behind a door and at a distance, like a train moving through the silent countryside on the eve of an impending war.

3 Xavière and auto-jealousy: Being woman

At the end of L’Invitée’s first official chapter, we see that, despite glimmers of self-satisfaction and cloudless happiness, Françoise’s adolescent anguish has not really been extinguished. Here, we find that Françoise-the-woman’s sadness ultimately overflows her happiness: she feels that her acts and words could only be lies, that she has no right to even feel regret or melancholy, and that her life was “renunciation, final, and without recompense.”77 Immediately following this admission of enduring sadness, Xavière first appears—as if by magic—in the text. The two women are seated in a café watching a belly dancer who, as Xavière observes, dances like “a demon were trying to tear itself from her body.”78 Later that night, as the sun begins to break into dawn, Françoise invites Xavière to move to Paris at her expense. Although Xavière is resistant to Françoise’s suggestion at first, she soon agrees, and both women are filled with warmth and hope at the prospect of living in such close proximity to one another. Françoise is determined to “lead [Xavière] through life” and “make her happy” and Xavière, for her part, is shiny-eyed, soft, and yielding.79

It is tempting to take Françoise’s invitation for what it seems to be: an overly generous gesture to help an acquaintance who is in need of mature guidance to ease her transition from dependent adolescent to independent adult. However, Françoise’s motivations are not so gender-neutral: for both Françoise and Xavière, the invitation takes on meaning insofar as it affirms or denies socially prescribed roles for women. Françoise’s need to help Xavière stems from her belief that Xavière’s uncle envisions a provincial, motherly future for his niece that involves “a pious husband and a lot of children.”80 Xavière is reluctant to accept Françoise’s invitation because she fears that the Parisian alternative is no better: having to get a typically feminine job and live a woman’s life would be too much of a compromise. As Xavière sees it, “If you can’t have the sort of life you want, you should no longer live.”81 This shared desire to keep Xavière from womanhood in conjunction with the timing of Xavière’s appearance, the tension between the two characters, the kind of invitation alluded to in Baudelaire’s poem in the second excised chapter, and Françoise’s adolescent multiplicity all encourage us to look beyond the invitation’s superficial meaning. Specifically, each of these details suggests that Xavière is the actual incarnation of Françoise’s formerly unnamed self. In terms of our reading, taking this idea seriously would mean that at every place where Xavière is present in the text, we should not conceive of her as a separate person than Françoise, but rather as Françoise herself enacting a different kind of subjectivity, or selfhood, than she has been doing up until Xavière’s appearance. Put simply, “Xavière” is a name for one of the selves that Françoise is capable of embodying. While one might be quick to dismiss this idea as both eccentric and beyond what is explicitly written in the text, we should not only remember that meanings can and often do emerge in literature even when they are not explicitly intended, but also allow ourselves to explore the surprising extent to which this reading can indeed be sustained throughout the novel.82 Inasmuch as Xavière is an incarnation of Françoise’s formerly unnamed self, the story of her life that is told in L’Invitée is suggestive of the unspeakable, excessive story of Françoise’s final transformation to womanhood that exists in the space between the end of the second unpublished chapter and the official beginning of the novel. Furthermore, reading Xavière as an incarnation of Françoise’s formerly unnamed self makes sense of the motivation behind Françoise’s invitation, which is otherwise lacking, unless bourgeois good-will alone could warrant such a gesture. Worn out by the work of exiling her excessive self to no avail, it is no wonder that the exasperated Françoise is driven to try an alternative approach and invite her formerly unnamed self into her life on a voyage of integration as the honored female guest—as l’invitée.

There are striking parallels between Xavière and the unnamed self of Françoise’s childhood that further support the idea that the two are one in the same. Both remain largely unknown, since it is difficult to describe them in words and to fit them into pre-existing categories. Xavière is “a living question mark” and a “perpetual surprise,” whose unpredictability correlates with the fact that no one can really get close to her no matter how much time one spends trying.83 As Françoise observes, “there was a kind [genre] of intimacy that one could not achieve with Xavière.”84 Xavière’s inaccessibility rings just as true for the reader of L’Invitée as it does for its characters, given that the narrative style permits the reader to take up the perspectives of Françoise, Élisabeth, and Gerbert, but never that of Xavière—a literary technique that also serves to emphasize the phenomenological idea that one’s perspective is partly constitutive of reality.85 Not only are Xavière and Françoise’s unnamed self both epistemologically impenetrable, but, as virginal girls who are about to become women, they have not been sexually penetrated either (at least not by anyone other than themselves). Xavière is likely the same age that Françoise’s unnamed self was when we last saw her, before she was excised from the narrative altogether at the very end of L’Invitée’s two unpublished chapters. We can also easily imagine that after a romp in the grove, the young Françoise would have Xavière’s sensuous, organic scent that evokes tea leaves, flesh, and dead flowers. Still more similarities between the two young women about: They are both from the provinces, their parents are conspicuously absent, they fully inhabit the present moment, they favor sensual/sensory experiences over intellectual ones, they often engage in auto-erotic gestures such as touching one’s own eyelashes or blowing on one’s own skin, and they are unconcerned with social norms, discipline, and etiquette. In short, Xavière and Françoise’s unnamed self are both irrevocably self-centered, self-attentive, and in touch with their bodies.

Françoise and Xavière’s relationship is animated by many tensions, which are each entwined with the overarching temporal tension between becoming a woman (not-yet-a-woman) and being a woman. If we read Xavière as an incarnation of the unnamed girl in the pine grove, then we can see how she embodies a threat and a challenge to Françoise, for Xavière’s being makes manifest exactly what Françoise has compromised for the sake of being happy and respected in a society that demands interchangeability and selflessness from women. The more Françoise cultivates her relationship with her formerly unnamed self, the greater the risk that she will realize that she “had not dared to be herself, and…that this hypocritical cowardice had led her to being nothing at all.”86 But, Françoise is also a danger to Xavière. To be original and unwomanly is to be alone, misunderstood, and inaccessible. Françoise’s love and companionship is, for her other self, an inescapable seduction to compromise. Xavière thus tells Françoise that since they have (re)formed their relationship, she no longer knows true solitude: “I knew how to live in those days. I’m amazed when I think how I used to feel things…Now, I’m diluted.”87 In order to become a woman, Françoise had to reject Xavière’s belief that “nothing is certain except what you can touch,”88 and instead come to trust the linguistic accounts of others and their “detached” observations over and above the feelings of her sensuous self, even in matters concerning her own self-identity and self-knowledge. By respectively pairing Xavière-the-almost-woman’s and Françoise-the-woman’s characters with these two different modes of knowing, L’Invitée quietly likens having been penetrated heterosexually to being the “shapeless swamp where ideas and images sink in without any obstacle” that Françoise-the-adolescent had so feared she would become. And, this imagery of a wet, swampy void that takes in anything without discretion further affirms its association with anatomical womanliness. Françoise’s rational, conformist thinking promises to reduce her formerly unnamed self to the “harmless vapors” of mental ideas, while Xavière’s hatred and affection “bite” into Françoise and siren the passionless intellectual back to her body.89 Situated between these opposing seductions of reflection and sensuality, dissolution and materialization, and the body-as-object and the body-as-lived, it is easy to see why Françoise has the recurring impression throughout the novel that she is “divided against herself.”90 To think Françoise and Xavière as one woman who finds herself always in conflict with herself, is to feel the pain of a loving incompatibility, where the risks of separation and integration are equally as great and hence, where every “choice” is also, necessarily, a tragic sacrifice.

Recognizing the swamp that is she, experiencing the abyss between her current self-image and what she feels in her body, Françoise becomes jealous of the girl that she was and jealous of the person that she could have become, had she not become a woman. Recall that, for Françoise, becoming a woman entails being put into words, being seen as interchangeable, and being penetrated heterosexually, all of which are images that depend on an extreme receptivity, or “representability,” that leads to ontological multiplicity. In so far as womanhood is thus conceived, Françoise’s jealousy is an obvious consequence of this experience. Françoise is jealous of those bodily qualities in Xavière that she exiled years ago: she longs to be able to dance like Xavière, to feel as intensely as Xavière, to feel precious to herself like Xavière does, to have Pierre look at her the way that he looks at Xavière, and to be aware of her womanly body as Xavière is aware of hers. In contrast, Xavière is jealous of Françoise because she has “seen so many things,” had so many worldly experiences, and formed meaningful relationships with others.91 Specifically, Xavière is jealous of Françoise’s womanhood; she is jealous that Françoise is heterosexually experienced and that she knows how to be involved in social engagements and keep a circle of friends, both of which entail accommodating the needs of others in place of her own.

Jealousy is commonly thought to be a triangular emotion wherein the jealous person is jealous of someone who is receiving special attention from a third party—attention that the jealous person believes she herself deserves.92 This schema is reflected in the prototypical characterization of jealousy as a sexual emotion that emerges in the context of love triangles, whenever one member seeks sole possession of another. Insofar as we are habituated to thinking of jealousy in these terms, we will be tempted to see Pierre as the third-party that sparks the jealousy between Françoise and Xavière.93 However, in so doing, we will miss the fact that Françoise has always been uncannily immune to becoming jealous of other women for receiving the attention of men. In the excised chapters, we learn that, unlike all of her female classmates, Françoise-the-adolescent was never jealous of the other girls and did not compete over boyfriends.94 As a woman, Françoise remains starkly disinterested in heterosexual fidelity and has never once become jealous over Pierre’s many affairs. But, Françoise is by no means immune to jealousy tout court: Françoise-the-adolescent is “desperately jealous” of Élisabeth and Françoise-the-woman is frequently jealous of Xavière.95 The jealousies that Françoise experiences are ultimately more homoerotic and masturbatory in nature than they are (hetero)sexual. She is particularly jealous of female adolescents like her formerly unnamed self who seem to experience a manner of integrated, sensuous self-relation that is grounded in bodily apprehension and feeling. Françoise’s jealousy toward women makes sense when we consider that jealousy is frequently an emotion of self-defense that is spurred when the self is threatened and endeavors to persist in its current mode of being;96 non-conformist girls who are unconcerned with other’s views and in touch with their own needs and desires threaten the morally upright, disembodied Françoise at her core in a way that Pierre or Gerbert do not.

Unable to deny the existence of her sensuous, self-loving, not-yet-woman self and unable to be coincident with this self, Françoise is tortured by jealous feelings of lust, longing, rivalry, desire, devotion, anxiety, obsession, and fear of displacement. This kind of conscious experience runs in sharp contrast to more traditional accounts of consciousness such as the one given by Merleau-Ponty in his study of L’Invitée: “But how am I then to forget that intimate attestation of my existence, that contact of self with self, which is more certain than any external evidence and which is the prior condition for everything else?”97 Had Merleau-Ponty attended to the way gender is presented in the text, he might have noticed that Françoise does not necessarily experience her own consciousness in this way: since a woman is her body but her body is something other than herself and since sexism cultivates coexisting, yet mutually exclusive subjectivities in women, Françoise’s consciousness is not best characterized by a primordial contact of self with self. Instead, Françoise’s consciousness experiences itself in terms of auto-jealousy, where the one who is jealous and the object of jealousy are the same and yet, are experienced as different or separate enough to warrant jealousy between them. Given the character of Françoise’s ontological multiplicity, we can say that the sexual difference at play in auto-jealousy is not a hetero-sexual difference. Rather, Françoise’s being a woman and Xavière’s becoming a woman are treated as distinct gender positions in the text. The separation that renders auto-jealousy possible, then, is the difference between one who is definitively gendered as woman and one who precedes or exceeds that gender—between being marked “F” or “X.” This is not to say that Xavière exceeds all genders though; Françoise’s experiences of being a girl and being a female adolescent are still gendered experiences (“X” is a marker for the female chromosome after all). Auto-jealousy is a natural consequence of Françoise’s ontological multiplicity—it is an experience of never being given to oneself and of having sexual difference always already present in one’s subjectivity. Living in the throes of this auto-jealousy, Françoise seeks an escape by fantasizing about a coherent and integrated self who would render this kind of harrowing self-relation impossible.

The closest the two selves come to fulfilling Françoise’s wish for integration and self-love is on the night when they visit the candy shop together. Sharing caramels, Turkish Delight, and doigts de fée (fairy’s fingers), the two women dream of a moment when they are 80 years old, standing in front of the window of the shop, arguing about the flavor of the candies, and remembering an earlier time.98 In this scene, the linear temporality of the novel is disrupted, not only because old-age and childhood are juxtaposed, but also because Françoise and Xavière are the same age in the fantasy and yet they have 10 years between them in the wider narrative. The fantasy intimates their common hope for a sweet and tender reconciliation, where the mutual incompatibility between them falls away and where Françoise is no longer afflicted with auto-jealousy but instead re-connects with the self that she sacrificed to become a woman. Shortly after the two women enjoy the candies, they enter a dance hall and “act” as if they are lesbians—a plot line that reinforces the novel’s thematic equation of self-division with heterosexual penetration.99 This second, amorous fantasy further pleases Françoise, who feels “as if she and Xavière were being isolated together, away from the rest of the world and locked in a passionate tête-à-tête.”100 Contrary to her usual habits, Françoise even agrees to dance with Xavière, feeling Xavière’s breasts against hers and inhaling her candy-sweet breath. Put differently and in terms of ontological multiplicity, Françoise’s decision to dance is a decision to allow her sensuous self to explore the world and participate in it. Nonetheless, this fantasy of self-love is as ephemeral as the candies the women shared earlier. Xavière begins to fixate—longingly, jealously—on Lise Malan, a beautiful black woman whose manner of dancing is intoxicating, and tells Françoise that she would give a year of her life to be this woman for just one hour. As Françoise and Xavière engage in racist exoticism through comparisons with Lise, Françoise tells herself that she is too pure, too angular, too cold, and too full of “translucent whiteness” for Xavière to love her. Both of Françoise’s selves long for the “unrestrained obscenity” embodied in Lise’s dance at the “Bal Colonial,” and yet, neither is capable of filling the long pause between them at the end of the evening with a passionate kiss that would signal their desire for each other and Françoise’s return to the auto-erotic grove of earlier years.

Françoise finally comprehends the impossibility of merging with her formerly unnamed self when she repeatedly burns her own hand with a cigarette in the Spanish night club. As Xavière presses the lit cigarette deeper and deeper into her widening wound, it becomes clear to Françoise that her invitation could never be fulfilled. Despite their efforts to the contrary, the widening abyss between Xavière and Françoise could not be regained:

Françoise jumped. It was not only her flesh that rose up in revolt; she felt herself attacked at the very heart of her being in a more profound and irreparable way. Behind that maniacal grin, a danger threatened her that was more definite than any she had ever imagined. Something was there that hungrily hugged itself, that unquestionably existed for itself. Approach to it was impossible, even in thought. Just as she seemed to be getting near it, the thought dissolved. This was nothing perceptible, but an incessant outpouring [un incessant jaillissement], an unstoppable leak, open to itself alone, and forever impenetrable. Eternally excluded, she could only circle around it.101

As Xavière’s presence rises up and fills the void that is woman with a fully material fluid that overpowers any attempt at penetration (epistemological/linguistic or otherwise), the carnal seduction overwhelms Françoise, as does her realization of just what she has lost in exiling her formerly unnamed self. As this scene unfolds, a young Spanish woman stands up and begins to recite a poem about the Spanish Civil War. Like Spain in 1939, Françoise finds herself devastated by a war within, where there can be no victory and where she is unwittingly pulled toward an inevitable destiny and an uncertain fate. Enacting Xavière’s maniacal, ecstatic presence, Françoise recalls those aspects of her childhood that so preoccupied her unnamed self:

Images kept passing through Françoise’s mind—an old jacket, an abandoned grove, a corner of the Pôle Nord where Pierre and Xavière were living a mysterious tête-à-tête far removed from her. She had felt before, as she did this night, her own being dissolving itself in favor of other inaccessible beings; but never had she realized with such perfect lucidity her own annihilation [anéantissement].102

Françoise now grasps that by becoming woman she has become like the old jacket: she exists, but is not fully aware of her own existence, and she keeps up appearances, but is thoroughly empty on the inside and out-of-touch with her own needs and desires. Her other self’s refusal to be dissolved into mist, which is communicated to Françoise through her carnal act of self-mutilation, is for Françoise “a condemnation with no appeal.”103 In the aftermath of Xavière’s burning flesh, Françoise no longer has any illusions about the possibility of possessing Xavière, becoming one with her, or leaving her altogether. Françoise-the-woman is like the pink carapaces of shrimp that she had fiddled with at the Dôme a few nights before and Xavière is the flesh that once filled and animated them; after separation, the two cannot be put back together in such a way so as to regain the life that they were before.104

All of the possibilities for overcoming the tormented ontological multiplicity that Françoise experiences have been extinguished and exhausted with Xavière’s gesture. At first, Françoise tried exiling her excessive self. She then pursued the opposite approach and invited her other self to be fully present in her life. When this attempt at co-habitation became volatile, Françoise tried to merge completely with her formerly unnamed self. But, this strategy was also unsuccessful. Desperate, Françoise‘s trembling words whisper beyond the page to the reader like a secret: “Have you ever felt someone else’s consciousness in yourself?… It’s intolerable you know.”105 Is there no way out of this place of simultaneous and mutually exclusive selves, of being dissolved into others or being material and alone, of apprehending your body as an object or experiencing yourself as a living field of sensation and sensuality? What possibilities for a different kind of self-experience remain for Françoise?

4 A suicide which is not one: Having been woman

In the final pages of L’Invitée, Françoise murders Xavière by turning the gas on in her bedroom. Unable to dissolve Xavière’s bodily presence into harmless vapors, Françoise tries a subtler technique and allows her to suffocate, which is an obvious consequence of a materiality so thick that no air can circulate. Any interpretation of the ending of L’Invitée is dependent on a reading of Xavière, since whatever Xavière represents is what Françoise puts to death. Feminist scholars are far from reaching agreement as to the meaning of Françoise’s act. For example, Elizabeth Fallaize and Simons view it as a triumph, wherein the self (Françoise) is ultimately victorious over the other (Xavière) and Françoise “lays violent claim to her own subjectivity.”106 Alternatively, Martha Noel Evans, Toril Moi, Karen S. McPherson, and Linell Secomb see the murder in a darker light.107 According to these readings, Françoise (whose actions are also authored by Beauvoir), kills those aspects of femininity that are difficult to accept, such as her own erotic emotions, selfish desires, feminine immanence, repressed unconscious, and likeness to the “negative mother figure.” Still others, including Beauvoir herself, read the ending as implausible and contradictory to Françoise’s character—in excess of the novel that contains it.108 However, almost all of these interpretations of L’Invitée’s dénouement overlook one crucial detail that dramatically alters our reading of the murder: Xavière is increasingly suicidal throughout the entirety of the novel. There are profound differences between committing a murder and assisting in a suicide—especially if the suicide is your own.109

From the very start of L’Invitée, its characters and its reader know that Xavière is suicidal. Without recognizing this fact, it is hard to make sense of why Françoise and Pierre return to Xavière again and again after all of her rejections, insults, self-centeredness, and trickery. As Françoise confesses near the end of the book, “You know…I’m not so friendly with Xavière, but I feel such a responsibility. Ten months ago she was young, passionate, full of hope, and now her life is a waste [un déchet].”110 Not only does the text make more than ten direct references to Xavière’s consideration of suicide, but Xavière’s preoccupation is also evidenced by her actions and lifestyle.111 For example, Xavière is excessively moody to say the least, she sometimes stays in bed all day and withdraws from her social commitments, she frequently engages in self-harming behaviors such as burning herself and sniffing ether, and on many occasions she publicly threatens suicide.112 Indeed, the possibility of Xavière’s committing suicide is so real by the end of L’Invitée that Françoise reasons it can serve as her alibi, extricating her from any future accountability for Xavière’s death.

What is perhaps more disconcerting than Xavière’s longing for death is the fact that all of the other female characters in L’Invitée are suicidal to some extent. Françoise also experiences mounting depression throughout the novel, the seeds of which were present in the first official chapter and in the excised chapters. After having been caught plagiarizing her Latin translation in order to spend more time in the pine grove—a gesture that parodies the interchangeability and conformity asked of women under sexism—the young Françoise considers throwing herself into the Seine reasoning that “it would be easier to destroy herself than to erase this fugitive gesture that had not really been committed.”113 By her thirtieth year though, Françoise steers herself away from suicide, because she believes that such an act is not even possible: “killing yourself in order not to be killed is not dying voluntarily.”114 In another strange reversal that must have occurred somewhere in the gap between the unpublished and published versions of the text, the once self-assured, eccentric Élisabeth has become overly concerned with other people’s views of her. Lost in an affair with a married man, lacking in self-confidence, and unable to move forward in her career despite having “chosen freely to sacrifice her life to art,” Élisabeth envisions having “a revolver—a dagger—a phial labeled poison” to kill someone, possibly herself.115 Even the novel’s minor female characters suffer from bouts of depression or anxiety, which suggests that they too could be wrestling with their own suicidal thoughts and tendencies. Paula has sacrificed too much for her husband, Canzetti is no longer wanted as Pierre’s mistress, Éloy is caught in a violent love triangle with Canzetti and Pierre, Inès lives alone and is an unskilled actress despite her efforts, and Suzanne belongs to “the breed of victims” that is dependent on men and accepts anything from them.116 Furthermore, images and intimations of less-privileged, unnamed women occupy every recessed corner of the novel’s plot and setting: Remember the Arab belly dancer, the rejected professions of prostitute, housewife, model, secretary, and beauty-parlor attendant, the dark-skinned women sitting on newspapers at the flea market, the fortune-telling gypsy, the lunatic woman preening herself at a table all alone, the intersex tenant of Françoise and Xavière’s hotel who cries all the time, and the beautiful, pitiable Greek girl who is destined to waste her life stagnating at some barren crossroads.

The suicidal wishes, despairing gestures, and persistent anguish of all of the novel’s female characters invite us to ask the following questions: Why is suicide a desirable option for the women of L’Invitée? Specifically, why does Xavière prefer death to life? Why does Françoise want to suffocate her formerly unnamed self? What finally spurs Françoise to help Xavière take her own life? And, what are the consequences of this decision? Unsurprisingly, the answers to all of these questions lie in the text’s descriptions of what it means to become and be a woman.

Let us explore the two moments in the text where Xavière’s desire for suicide reaches a crescendo. The first occurs when Françoise and Pierre confront Xavière about having intentionally told Gerbert that the two had lied to him in order to avoid spending the evening with him. Xavière breaks down in tears and cries, “I’m disgusted with myself. I loathe myself…I no longer feel anything, I no longer am anything…No one can help me…I’m marked for ruin!…I’m such a coward. I should kill myself, I should have done it a long time ago…I will do it.”117 The second moment of crisis, which is even more impassioned than the first, is symbolized by the suicide note that Xavière tacks to Françoise’s door. The note reads: “I am so disgusted with myself—I should have jumped out of the window—but I haven’t the courage. Don’t forgive me. Tomorrow morning you should kill me yourself if I’ve been too cowardly to do it.”118 Notably, both of these incidents immediately follow periods of intimacy between Xavière and Gerbert. In the first case, Xavière had prioritized her interest in Gerbert over her loyalty to Françoise and Pierre. In the second, Xavière has just had sex with Gerbert for the first time. That the threat and reality of heterosexual penetration—of becoming woman—is the impetus behind Xavière’s wanting to commit suicide is further emphasized by Xavière’s feelings of shame, dirtiness, and self-disgust. Xavière’s scorn for womanhood is nothing new: she is disgusted by the belly dancer’s big hips and belly, revolted by Élisabeth’s attempts at social acceptability, nostalgic for her childhood self, and admirably protective of the intersexual tenant who lives in her hotel. Xavière’s attitude toward womanhood echoes that of the young Élisabeth of the excised chapters who runs away from home because, as she puts it, “If one doesn’t do as one likes, there is no point in living.”119 A few lines later, Élisabeth contrasts herself with her brother, Pierre, using the exact same phrasing: Pierre had always “done as he liked.”120 It seems as though both Xavière and Élisabeth are equating not doing what one likes with being a woman. And, for Xavière at least, such is a fate worse than death.

Élisabeth, more so than any other character, sees where Xavière is headed with haunting clarity, and even schemes to effect Xavière’s transformation more quickly by encouraging Gerbert to pursue her. By contrast, Françoise tries to prevent Xavière from becoming woman from beginning to end; she even finds it “sacrilegious” to think of Xavière as a woman with a woman’s desires.121 Élisabeth and Françoise are not the only ones who have a stake in the outcome of Xavière’s development. As commentator Hazel Barnes remarks, Xavière’s heterosexual relationship with Gerbert is the only moment in the novel where expected gender roles fall into place: “In fact [Xavière’s] interest in Gerbert, her admiration for his good looks and boyish charm, is almost the only thing about her which makes her seem like a normal girl instead of a self-worshipping monster…The evening which the two spend together is like a breath of spring to Xavière and Gerbert—and to the reader…”122 Beyond the text itself, the reader feels the pull of wanting the novel’s heterosexual relationships to work out, and she or he may even become angry with Xavière both for disrupting Françoise and Pierre’s unity and for not behaving in such a way so as to warrant Gerbert’s love. Feminist readers, in particular, often feel affirmed when Françoise sleeps with Gerbert after Xavière does, because she finally pursues her own desires and stops responding to Xavière’s needs. However, the description of physical intimacy between Françoise and Gerbert is short, unsatisfying, and lacking in passion. In a matter-of-fact manner that bespeaks the absence of her own feelings and bodily desires, Françoise suggests that Gerbert sleep with her. At this point, the narration shifts from encompassing Françoise’s subjective thoughts to reporting the objective aspects of their embrace: “Gerbert’s hand caressed her back, the nape of her neck; it rested on her head and stayed there…He put his warm lips to her mouth and she felt his body cleave tightly to hers.”123 This change in perspective again suggests an incompatibility between Françoise’s participation in a heterosexual relationship and the affirmation of her own sensual experience as it is lived in her body. Such an unsatisfying description is the closest readers come to witnessing the acts of heterosexual penetration that are continually alluded to in the text, but are never written and still remain unsaid.

Because she has followed a path to womanhood herself, Françoise knows what her participation in that romantic economy entails. In the 8 years that they have been together, Pierre has not only had many affairs (three of which occurred during the year that the novel takes place), but he has also told Françoise every detail of his “conquests.” Pierre’s sexual proclivities confirm what Françoise has suspected from her earliest years; namely, that women are expected to be interchangeable—mirrored copies of one another—and that her failure to conform to expectations will be met with swift and consistent acts of discipline from the society around her. Pierre feels himself particularly responsible for “taming” independent women and he is remarkably skilled at doing so: “Where others only saw an impenetrable jungle [maquis], Pierre discerned a virgin future which was his to shape as he chose. That was the secret of his strength.”124 This attitude is consistent with Pierre’s position as the principal actor in the theater company and the director of all its plays. Françoise is an author and playwright only insofar as she creates scenes that are made for him; her own novel about adolescents’ attempts to give value to their lives upon crossing into adulthood remains in excess of the important work of the theatre and unfinished. Pierre’s power is largely the result of his “directorial skills” for convincing others to trust language’s ability to accurately represent reality.125 What Françoise and Pierre’s relationship lacks in bodily fidelity (heterosexual penetration) is made up for with a linguistic fidelity (epistemological penetration) that makes the one’s experience transparent to the other and that ultimately encourages Françoise to reject her own experiences and interpretations in favor of Pierre’s. United with Pierre linguistically, Françoise no longer experiences her own “shady thoughts” and “irrational gestures,” which comprise the “shameful, subterranean vegetation under the surface of her consciousness, where she finds herself alone and in danger of suffocation.”126

Instead of reading L’Invitée as the story of how “the other woman” can disrupt a heterosexual love relationship, we could read it as the story of how a heterosexual relationship ultimately cannot sustain Françoise’s inviting her own active subjectivity to play a role in it. If we take Françoise’s ontological multiplicity seriously, then the text’s descriptions of Xavière’s meetings with Pierre are really descriptions of Françoise beginning to enact a different kind of self. The part of Françoise that is Xavière drives a wedge between Françoise and Pierre because this new self exposes the ways in which life exceeds language, socially accepted categories, and the strategies that Pierre uses to “conquer” self-centered girls sexually and linguistically. In the words of Merleau-Ponty, “For the first time [Françoise] has the feeling of being her body, when all along she had thought herself a consciousness. She has sacrificed everything to this myth. She has grown incapable of a single act of her own, of living close to her desires.”127 As Françoise learns to have less and less confidence in words and to trust her own body by enacting Xavière, Xavière is learning how to become an actress and sleep with men, under the direction of Pierre (the principal actor) and Gerbert (the puppet master). Françoise eventually achieves Élisabeth’s perspective and foresees Xavière’s unfortunate destiny with certainty:

Pierre, with the caressing hand of a man, would turn this black pearl, this austere angel, into a swooning woman…With clarity, she was able to make out each step along this fatal path that led from kisses to caresses, from caresses to complete surrender. Through Pierre’s fault, Xavière would end up like anyone else. In this moment she frankly hated him.128

Xavière’s surname, “Pagès,” signifies that she is a series of blank pages, a shapeless swamp, and a virgin future, waiting to be written on, molded, and penetrated by patriarchal instruments such as the penis, the pen, and their corollary social categorizations. Holveck aptly describes the metamorphoses of both selves as follows: “In the end both Françoise and Xavière change their positions completely and go over to the other’s side.”129

The novel’s final chapter takes place in a space that we, the readers, have not yet encountered and, temporally speaking, it is the only chapter that occurs after the start of the war. Françoise has left the hotel where she lived on the second floor above Xavière and the two women have since moved into Inès’s abandoned house. In Inès’s house, they live together on the same floor and their rooms are connected by a long passageway. It is here, amidst this spatio-temporal arrangement, that Xavière steals the key to Françoise’s desk, discovers the letters written by Pierre and Gerbert to Françoise, and learns that Françoise has had sex with Gerbert. When the two women confront each other, Xavière relies on the letters to accuse Françoise of being jealous of her and of seeking revenge upon her by sleeping with her boyfriend. This accusation is commonly interpreted to be the motive behind Françoise’s murder of Xavière; by killing Xavière, Françoise “wrest[s] back the right to narrate her own story.”130 We must remember, though, that all of the letters that Xavière finds are authored by men, since Françoise would not be in possession of any of the letters that she wrote to Pierre and Gerbert in her own hand. As such, these letters detail the story of Françoise and Xavière from the perspective of men, according to the interpretation of men, and within the confines of their language. Having learned that who she is overflows letters, words, behaviors, and the conceptual structures that identify her as woman, Françoise cannot bear to see Xavière, who has never before trusted words or language, yielding to the seductions of those letters written with man’s caressing hand. In this moment, Françoise knows that her formerly unnamed self has been penetrated and become a woman, despite both of their efforts to the contrary and, with this realization, Françoise comes face to face with her crimes. She looks in the mirror—the mirror that showed her the studious, good-natured “Françoise” of her parents’ definition when she was a little girl and in which she affirmed “It’s me!”—and she repeats, “No. I am not that woman.”131 Here, Françoise finally rejects her receptive, conformist, disembodied subjectivity.

Just before Françoise turns the lever on the gas stove, she desperately extends her invitation to Xavière two more times, citing all the hallmarks of her own choice to be “Françoise” rather than her unnamed self: “Stay in Paris. Resume your work at the theatre. Live wherever you wish, you will never see me again…”132 Unfaltering in her choice to be dead rather than to be a woman, Xavière twice responds with finality, “I would rather drop dead [crever sur l’heure].”133 And, Françoise knows intimately—has known for some time—that Xavière is right:

…there was no way of uniting with Xavière, and no way of ridding oneself of her. Even exile would not obliterate this existence that would not let itself be appropriated. Françoise remembered how, through her indifference, she had at first denied that existence; her indifference had been conquered, and now their friendship had failed. There was no salvation. She could flee, but she would have to return, and there would be other periods of waiting and other moments of flight, endlessly.134

Having been a woman for quite some time now, Françoise knows that there is no escape from the incessant turmoil that comes from the ontological multiplicity and auto-jealousy present in her consciousness. Perhaps it would be easier to destroy her formerly unnamed self than to continue to acknowledge the ways that she betrayed her own needs and sensuous desires to become a woman. From this space of self-awareness, Françoise turns the gas valve on the stove in Xavière’s room; it is her legitimate defense against a sexism that cultivates the coexistence of mutually exclusive selves within her consciousness.

But, ultimately, this suicide is not one. It is not “one” because at least two selves perish through Françoise’s act. The final lines of the novel run, “It was her own will which she was fulfilling, now nothing separated her from herself. She had chosen at last. She had chosen herself.”135 Given the analysis that we have just advanced that sees Françoise and Xavière as two mutually exclusive selves, these lines admit of varying interpretations. According to the most obvious reading, Françoise murders Xavière to rid her consciousness of its ontological multiplicity. Having been led to auto-jealousy through her inability to choose between the two attitudes that Françoise and Xavière respectively embody, Françoise finally resigns herself to being just “Françoise” with more finality than she had done at the start of the novel. In contrast, however, we could also see Françoise’s act as an attempt to eternally preserve the indescribable materiality that is Xavière through a gesture that enacts the suffocation that society has already, relentlessly envisioned for her. Taking this perspective, we see that the self that has been chosen is the pre-woman self that is Xavière, which would make sense of Françoise’s rejection of her disembodied self and correlate with Beauvoir’s idea that “the represented body is a secondary construction that is added on to the reality of the lived body.”136 And yet, neither of these alternatives is definitive, because we suspect that each of these strategies will eventually fail to keep Françoise’s ontological multiplicity at bay; there will be times when her sensuous desires and emotions will surface even when she is being “Françoise” and there will be others when her desire to live and be in relationship will overcome her wish to keep Xavière from becoming a woman. Even Beauvoir herself admits that “the ending of L’Invitée does not satisfy [her]: murder is not the solution to the difficulties engendered by coexistence.”137 In this manner, the text’s definition of “woman” as one who is (heterosexually) penetrated opens upon a second sense of “woman” as one who is situated between existences, selves, genders, intentionalities, and choices/sacrifices—being a woman involves both being gendered and being in excess of that gender at the same time.

More importantly, this suicide is also not one because it is never really committed. The novel comes to a close before Françoise’s intention is fulfilled and Xavière dies, thus leaving the ending of this story in excess of the text itself. From the reader’s perspective, we do not know whether Françoise lets Xavière die, whether she reconsiders and “saves” her, whether Xavière leaves her room to plead for reconciliation, or whether something else intervenes. By catching the reader between several equally plausible and equally impossible choices/sacrifices, L’Invitée’s anti-dénouement asks the reader to experience the ontological multiplicity and auto-jealousy that is part of becoming woman. Whichever ending you are drawn to, whichever future you envision, maps your position within the multiple, coexisting selves that constitute your womanhood. Whichever character you dislike most throughout the text, whichever character is least like you, shows you what you have exiled, sacrificed, and excised to thrive in a society that oppresses women. Seated, facing the “darkened passage” at the end of which Xavière sleeps, we do not know which side of the vagina we are on. We could be gestating in a womb, waiting for birth. We could also be the shapeless swamp that is woman, unaware of our own depths and capacities for overflowing all that is given to us. It is at this suspended moment, situated in this position of excess, that the burden of the novel’s female characters shifts to its reader—it is at this moment that we become l’invitée. Perhaps the answers are revealed in the unwritten spaces of the text that are gestured to but never represented: the description of sexual relations that Madame Miquel is ultimately unable to provide for her daughter, the explanation of consciousness that Françoise gives to Élisabeth when studying for their philosophy class that is never detailed in the text, the scarcely mentioned book on adolescence that Françoise is apparently writing throughout L’Invitée, Xavière’s sketch “The Road to Ruin” that we never see, the multiple acts of heterosexual penetration that we never witness but are repeatedly alluded to, and Xavière’s suicide that has not yet been committed. But, since the content of each of these evocations exceeds the text itself, we must decide how this gendered tale of ontological multiplicity and auto-jealousy ends. We must ask ourselves whether alternative styles of being a woman exist and under what conditions they present themselves. We must ask ourselves whether there is any hope for a different future.

5 Conclusion/invitation

Philosophical readers of L’Invitée and the present study will likely be tempted to understand the phenomenological philosophy therein (anachronistically in some cases) in terms of the work of more familiar thinkers, such as Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Lévinas, Marion, Foucault, Irigaray, and Derrida, whose ideas are liable to have been better represented in their own philosophical training. These resonances are suggestive not only of the importance of this text to the traditions of phenomenology, French philosophy, and feminist theory, but also of the extent of its innovation as a preamble to concepts like deconstruction, flesh, discursive normativity, and l’écriture féminine. In particular, the content of Beauvoir’s philosophy beckons us to take phenomenological descriptions of the lived body several steps further than those of her predecessors by attending to the concrete ways in which bodies are gendered and certain genres of embodiment participate in structures of consciousness. Furthermore, in terms of its method, Beauvoir’s novel compels phenomenologists to pause and ask whether the style of their writing is congruent with its content. The whole of Beauvoir’s oeuvre, which spans a range of literary genres/genders including those of the essay, the treatise, genealogy, autobiography, the play, and the diary entry, indicates an incessant movement between varying strategies for expression and containment, thereby being able to more fully access the excesses of life, which include a woman’s lived experience.

L’Invitée’s concrete evocation of one woman’s consciousness has likely raised our suspicions about the purported phenomenological contingency, givenness, or after-the-fact occurrence of sexual difference. Rather than simply pointing to the possibility of a feminist phenomenology, the consciousness that is Françoise and Xavière and that is animated by relations of ontological multiplicity and auto-jealousy provides a raw material for feminist phenomenologists to adopt and reject, sort and refine, generalize and specify, embrace and cast away. The concept of a fluid, feminine, “excess” or “overflow” further provides feminist scholars with a way to theorize the ambiguities, seductions, and difficulties inherent in what it means to be a woman who is located socially and historically. “Excess” is a slippery, liberatory concept that emphasizes the idea that those languages, institutions, and identities produced within a sexist society cannot contain the presence that is woman. Through its ability to sustain multiple meanings of “woman,” “excess” may also be a concept that is flexible enough to account for heterogeneity among women in practice and in theory.

To pursue a feminist phenomenology of excess is to experience the pine grove that is our shapeless swamp and our unstoppable leak. It is to voyage into our own bodies and self-relations, into our tenuous relations with each other, and out of the disciplinary boundaries and genres that give us a (false) sense of safety and propriety. Let us voyage into excess. Let us answer Beauvoir’s pressing invitation.


See, for example, Lundgren-Gothlin (1996); Bergoffen (1997); Fullbrook (1999); Cataldi (2001); Gothlin (2001, 2003); Tidd (2001); Holveck (2002); Heinämaa (2003a, b, 2006); Simons (2003); Langer (2003); Bauer (2006); McWeeny (2009−2010).


For some of the defining works in this field, see Bartky (1975); Young (1980); Allen (1982–1983); Butler (1989, 2003); Bergoffen (1997); Fisher (1999); Dastur (2000); Fisher and Embree (2000); Heinämaa (2003a); Oksala (2004, 2006).


Beauvoir (1943). The original and the English translation are hereafter cited as L’Invitée and “SCS,” respectively.


Beauvoir (1949). The original, which consists of two volumes, and the English translation are hereafter cited as and “DSI” or “DSII” and “SS,” respectively.


Fullbrook and Fullbrook (1998, p. 77).


Beauvoir (1946/1948). The original and the English translation are hereafter cited as “LM” and “LME”.


LME (p. 269); LM (p. 87).


LME (p. 274); LM (p. 98).


LME (pp. 273–274); LM (pp. 97–100).


LME (p. 274); LM (p. 98).


LME (p. 274); LM (p. 100).


See Klaw (1995).


Beauvoir (1979). The original, “Deux chapitres inédit de L’Invitée,” and the English translation, “Two Unpublished Chapters from She Came to Stay,” are hereafter cited as “DCI” and “TUC,” respectively.


In addition to LM, see Merleau-Ponty (1945/1964, pp. 27–28), who also makes the argument that literature and phenomenology cannot be separated in regard to L’Invitée.


In this respect, my approach to L’Invitée is not altogether unique. For philosophical readings of the text, see also Merleau-Ponty (1945/1964; Barnes 1998; Fullbrook 1999; Holveck 2002, pp. 67–90; Simons 2003).


See note 1 above.


Heinämaa (2003a, pp. xvi, 21, 2006, pp. 21–22).


Heinämaa (2006, p. 25).


Bergoffen (1997, p. 29).


Butler (1989, 2003); Fisher (1999); Fisher and Embree (2000).


Butler (1989, p. 98, original emphasis).


Cataldi’s (2001, pp. 101–105) and Kaufman’s (2003) brief analyses are notable exceptions.


Merleau-Ponty (1945/1964).


Fullbrook (1999, p. 56).


Simons (2003, p. 108).


Simons does note differences between Bergson’s and Beauvoir’s philosophies, but Beauvoir’s feminist insights are not mentioned in this analysis (2003, p. 108).


Beauvoir (1960). The original and the English translation are hereafter cited as PL and FA, respectively.


PL (p. 173), translation modified; FA (p. 151).


PL (p. 733), translation modified; FA (p. 622).


PL (p. 46); FA (p. 46).


PL (p. 44), translation modified; FA (p. 44).


PL (p. 44); FA (p. 44).


PL (p. 733); FA (p. 622). See also Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962, p. xx), who writes, “Our relationship to the world, as it is untiringly enunciated within us, is not a thing which can be any further clarified by analysis; philosophy can only place it once more before our eyes and present it for our ratification.”


PL (p. 44); FA (p. 44).


PL (p. 522); FA (p. 447).


LME (p. 270), translation modified; LM (p. 90).


LME (p. 270); LM (p. 89).


Although their conceptualizations of “excess” are somewhat different than the one I present here, see Diprose (1991) and Holland (2009) for discussions of the relationship between excess and sexual difference.


PL (p. 313), translation modified; FA (pp. 268–269).


Merleau-Ponty (1945/1964, p. 39).


Beauvoir (1958, p. 26; English translation, p. 17, translation modified).


See Allen (1997), Simons (2001, p. 28; 2003), and Heinämaa (2003a, b, pp. 53–57).


PL (p. 241, 428, pp. 521–522; FA p. 208, pp. 363–364, p. 447). See also Simons (1998) and Heinämaa (2004, p. 154).


See note 1 above.


Merleau-Ponty (1945/1964, p. 28, original emphasis).


Fullbrook (2004, p. 39).


TUC (p. 42); DCI (p. 277).


TUC (pp. 42–44); DCI (pp. 277–278).


TUC (p, 43), emphasis added, translation modified; DCI (p. 277).


The forbidden books mentioned in the text, which are Henry Bataille’s Maman Colibri, Colette’s Chéri, and Émile Zola’s Nana, are all about women who stand outside of established social and (hetero)sexual conventions.


TUC (p. 45); DCI (p. 279).


TUC (p. 45, 43); DCI, (pp. 277, 278).


TUC (p. 65), translation modified; DCI (p. 305).


TUC (p. 63), translation modified; DCI (p. 302).


TUC (p. 64); DCI (p. 304).


TUC (pp. 64–65), emphasis added, translation modified; DCI (p. 304).


TUC (p. 57); DCI (p. 294). The entire poem can be found in Baudelaire (1986, pp. 125–127).


SS (p. 38), translation modified; DSI (p. 80).


SS (p. 34), translation modified; DSI (p. 75).


SS (p. 36); DSI (p. 77).


Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962, p. 121).


For various philosophical descriptions of this phenomenon as it manifests in the lived experiences of oppressed beings see W. E. B. Du Bois’ concept of “double-consciousness” (1997, pp. 37–44), Frantz Fanon’s discussion of being a “triple person” (1967, pp. 109–140), Gloria Anzaldúa’s notion of “mestiza consciousness” (1987/1999), and María Lugones’ account of “‘world’-traveling” (1987).


Beauvoir (1945, p. 363; English translation, p. 160).


SS (p. 267); DSII (p. 13).


Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962, pp. xx, 498). See McWeeny (2010, pp. 308–309) for more on how Merleau-Ponty’s account of operative intentionality can bypass the philosophical problems generated by the idea of ontological multiplicity.


Holveck (2002, p. 74).


SS (p. 29), translation modified; DSI (p. 69).


Beauvoir (1945, p. 365; English translation, p. 161).


SS (pp. xxi–xxii); DSI (p. 14).


SS (p. 157); DSI (p. 257).


Beauvoir (1945, p. 364; English translation, p. 161).


Simons (1999, p. 1) and PL (p. 408); FA (p. 347). In this passage from the Prime of Life, Beauvoir also uses the words “exile” and “exorcise” to describe Françoise’s situation vis-à-vis Xavière.


TUC (pp. 41–42); DCI, (pp. 275–276). Beauvoir was apparently unwilling to excise this scene entirely from the novel, since it appears again with few revisions as one of Françoise’s memories in the published version. See SCS (p. 120); L’Invitée (pp. 128–129).


SCS (p. 15); L’Invitée (p. 17).


SCS (p. 15, translation modified); L’Invitée (p. 17).


SCS (p. 12); L’Invitée (p. 13).


SCS (p. 18); L’Invitée (p. 21).


SCS (p. 20); L’Invitée (p. 22).


SCS (p. 38); L’Invitée (p. 45).


SCS (p. 24), translation modified; L’Invitée (p. 27).


SCS (p. 35), translation modified; L’Invitée (p. 42).


Let us also note that we have easily accepted similar strategies of metaphysical disruption that expose painful psychologies operative under oppression in the case of critically acclaimed novels, such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987).


SCS (pp. 128, 228): L’Invitée (pp. 156, 284).


SCS (p. 40, translation modified); L’Invitée (p. 47).


See PL (p. 407, 414); FA (pp. 346–347, 352), where Beauvoir discusses her use of this technique.


SCS (p. 288); L’Invitée (p. 359).


SCS (p. 242), translation modified; L’Invitée (pp. 303–304).


SCS (p. 245); L’Invitée (p. 308).


SCS (pp. 291–292); L’Invitée (p. 364).


SCS (p. 109); L’Invitée (p. 359).


SCS (p. 19); L’Invitée (p. 21).


For philosophical accounts of jealousy that favor this paradigm see Neu (1980), Farrell (1980), Wreen (1989), Kristjansson (1996).


Many scholarly interpretations see Françoise’s jealousy in just these terms. For example, Eric Levéel claims that the dramatic framework of L’Invitée is “dictated by Françoise’s jealousy vis-à-vis her rival Xavière; the two women engage in a fight to the death for the emotional control of Pierre, a.k.a. Sartre” (2003–2004, p. 65; my translation).


TUC (p. 53); DCI (p. 290).


TUC (p. 65); DCI (p. 305).


See Wreen’s discussion of this point (1989, p. 651).


Merleau-Ponty (1945/1964, p. 29).


SCS (pp. 242–243); L’Invitée, (pp. 304–305).


For a thorough discussion of the possibilities of reading L’Invitée as a lesbian text, see Emery (1998–1999). See also Simons (1992).


SCS (p. 246), translation modified; L’Invitée (p. 309).


SCS (p. 284), translation modified; L’Invitée, (pp. 354–355).


SCS (p. 292), translation modified; L’Invitée (p. 365).


SCS (p. 291); L’Invitée (p. 365).


SCS (p. 233); L’Invitée (p. 292).


SCS (p. 295); L’Invitée (p. 369).


Simons (1999, p. 17). See also Fallaize (1988, pp. 35–36, 42).


Evans (1986, pp. 82–86); Moi (1991, pp. 161–165); McPherson (1988, pp. 37–39); Secomb (2006, p. 352).


Beauvoir (PL, pp. 409–411); FA, (pp. 346–353). See also Beauvoir (1963, p. 290; English translation p. 283) and Moi’s commentary on this “excessive” aspect of the novel (Moi 1991, p. 152).


In her analysis, Evans construes Beauvoir’s act of writing Xavière’s murder as a kind of suicide. However, she does not go so far as to conceptualize Françoise’s act as a fulfillment of Xavière’s wishes (1986, p. 86).


SCS (p. 349), translation modified; L’Invitée (p. 434).


SCS (pp. 35, 109, 134, 185–186, 234, 310, 313, 316–317, 334, 349, 374, 399, 403); L’Invitée (pp. 42, 132, 164, 230–231, 293, 387, 390–391, 394–395, 416, 434, 467, 497, 502).


Self-mutilation is not necessarily an indication of suicide and can instead be expressive of a wish to overcome trauma. See McLane (1996).


TUC (p. 52, translation modified); DCI (p. 288).


SCS (p. 234); L’Invitée (p. 293).


SCS (69, 77); L’Invitée, (pp. 83, 94).


SCS (p.74, translation modified); L’Invitée (p. 90).


SCS (pp. 107–109, translation modified); L’Invitée, (pp. 131–132).


SCS (p. 310, translation modified); L’Invitée (p. 387).


TUC (p. 62); DCI (p. 300).


TUC (p. 62); DCI (p. 301).


SCS (p. 184, 208); L’Invitée (pp. 228, 260).


Barnes (1998, p. 165).


SCS (pp. 369–371); L’Invitée, (pp. 460–462).


SCS (p. 24); L’Invitée (p. 28).


See also Fallaize’s discussion of this point (Fallaize 1988, pp. 36–37).


SCS (p. 26), translation modified; L’Invitée (p. 30).


Merleau-Ponty (1945/1964, p. 33).


SCS (p. 208, translation modified); L’Invitée, (pp. 260–261).


Holveck (2002, p. 75).


Fallaize (1988, p. 42).


SCS (p. 402); L’Invitée (p. 500).


SCS (p. 4030); L’Invitée (p. 501).


SCS (p. 403); L’Invitée (p. 502).


SCS (p. 352, translation modified); L’Invitée (p. 438).


SCS (p. 404, translation modified); L’Invitée (p. 503).


See note 68 above.


PL (p. 733); FA (p. 622).



I am grateful to Kyoo Lee, Beata Stawarska, Christine Daigle, and an anonymous reviewer for their insightful and careful comments on an earlier version of this essay. I would also like to thank those individuals in attendance at the “Phenomenology of Simone de Beauvoir” session of the 2008 Annual Meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I presented an initial formulation of the ideas expressed in this paper. In addition to the three individuals listed above, attendees included Margaret A. Simons, Sara Heinämaa, Mary Beth Mader, and Dianna Taylor, among others. Their supportive contributions to the session’s lengthy discussion helped me to develop my ideas further into the present essay. Finally, I am appreciative of the encouragement and support given to me by the members of the Gestalt Training Program XII at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland.

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