A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir. Published by Pantheon. ©Pantheon.

A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir. Published by Pantheon. ©Pantheon.

 
 

Simone de Beauvoir’s 1964 memoir is a personal account on the author’s mother’s death from cancer. Within this slim but intense book de Beauvoir pores over the final weeks of her mother’s death as well as considering on her own relationship with her mother and that with her younger sister Poupette (who the memoir is dedicated to).

When I initially read A Very Easy Death a year after my mother died suddenly in 2015, this meditative piece of writing on death summarised many thoughts that I had about my own relationship with my mother and the process of death. What struck me was the detailed honestly with which de Beauvoir relays the final moments of her mother’s life. De Beauvoir’s compassionate, subjective viewpoint of her mother’s death is quite remarkable considering the complexity of their relationship.

On a second reading I was able to discern themes that are prevalent within my own practice; perhaps it’s only now that, with a bit of perspective, I’m able to come back to this memoir to write this essay and contextualise its influence on my resulting new series blown out like a candle[1], named after a quote from this book. Here de Beauvoir describes the physical implications of the stress of her mother’s diagnosis and impending death:

 

I went home feverish with flu. Leaving the overheated clinic I had caught a cold in the autumnal dampness: I went to bed, stupefied with pills. I did not switch off the telephone: Maman might die at any moment, ‘blown out like a candle’, said the doctors, and my sister was to call me at the least alarm.[2]

 

When I first read this quote I was struck by the line blown out like a candle,[3] as it seemed very poetic way to summarise the process of dyeing. The lingering smoke from a candle frame becomes a metaphor for the stages of grief that follow the initial death of a loved one. My own mother was cremated and I can remember scattering her ashes on a cool autumnal day, the action of scattering her ashes reminded me of the motion of smoke lingering from a candle frame. Seeing her ashes slowing sink into the ground signified her body being returned to nature and how the body can become part of the regeneration of the earth. On the 3rd year of her anniversary I went to the cemetery spotted grass growing from where her ashes were laid and this gave me some comfort. My new series is includes a mixture of landscape, portrait photography. I’ve also included objects as representations my mother’s life that are used to bring context.

This essay will dissect three themes: the complexity of the mother/daughter relationship; Françoise de Beauvoir – a daughter’s reflection; and Death.

 

The complexity of the Mother/Daughter Relationship

The mother/daughter relationship is a much discussed topic within the book as de Beauvoir scrutinises and demystifies the perception of motherhood and her relationship with her mother, Françoise. Their relationship is signified by their contrasting reactions to their upbringings; her mother’s character is the result of a rigid nineteenth-century Catholic middle class context. De Beauvoir was a devoted Catholic until she lost her faith aged 15, this triggered a deterioration in the relationship between mother and daughter which de Beauvoir remarks upon: ‘our brief conversation cost us both a great deal. The sight of her tears grieved me; but I soon realised that she was weeping over her failure, without caring what was happening to me.’[4]

De Beauvoir doesn’t allow this to make her sentimental, she remembers her mother’s curious prudishness which occasionally contrasted with her admiration of SBD, de Beauvoir discusses a conversation with her mother, in which Françoise remarked: ‘I know you don’t think me intelligent; but still, you get your vitality from me. The idea makes me happy.’[5] This comment startled de Beauvoir: “I should have been delighted to agree that my vitality came from her; but the beginning of her remark utterly chilled me. So we paralysed each other. It was all that she meant, when she looked firmly at me and said, “You frighten me, you do.”[6]  

Both women are aware of a tension within their relationship that doesn’t seem to diminish towards the end of Françoise’s life. De Beauvoir constantly visits her mother even though their relationship is fraught, with Françoise ‘often involved in painful and oppressive mother daughter relationships which repeat a pattern of conflict marked by jealous rivalry, claustrophobic possessiveness and lack of real exchange or communication.’[7]

This is particularly prevalent in regard to de Beauvoir’s relationship with her younger sister, Poupette, who is subject to her mother’s condescending remarks and acts of jealously. These led to the sister’s secretive relationship as they were forced to correspond only by letter and to meet in secret locations in Paris without their mother’s knowledge. De Beauvoir notes that ‘until I began to reach adolescence Maman ascribed to me the loftiest intellectual and moral qualities: she identified herself with me and she humiliated and slighted my sister – Poupette’.[8]

The description of the mother/daughter relations is relatable to me; I was never close to my own mother and the tension between de Beauvoir and her mother mirrored that which I experienced with my own. Reading this book reassured me in some way that my experience wasn’t unusual and that the mother daughter relationship is very complex. I found that my mother’s death forced me to contemplate on a relationship that I had taken for granted.  

Like de Beauvoir, my mother’s death led me to reassess the context of my relationship with her and with the woman she had become. My artistic practice became a way for me to process my own narrative and to draw connections between myself and my mother; I’ve concluded that my mother had a complex relationship with her own mother, who had moved to the UK with my grandfather when my mother was a small child. I believe that this period of absence altered her connection with her mother and shaped how she was to engage with her own children; as de Beauvoir perceptively remarks, ‘nothing ever wipes out childhood.’[9] 

This is a very poignant point to reflect upon in relation to my mother and our relationship, trauma of her separation from her mother and then moving to the UK probably never left her. My grandmother died when I was a child and my mother would have been in her mid-20 at the time. The implications of grief and the rationalisation that coincides with such an event feels familiar to me as I have already seen this narrative played out in my own mother’s life. This realisation is quite profound and ones that I’m in the process of trying to understand, the mother/daughter relationship will be a subject that will resonate in subsequent work as I continue the exploration of my identity through my own mother.

 

Françoise De Beauvoir – A Daughter’s Reflection

Within the memoir de Beauvoir has abstracted her mother’s identity in order to create a character which is made up of stories recounted by her mother, her mother’s relationship with de Beauvoir’s Father, Françoise’s childhood and de Beauvoir’s personal experiences and reflections. In order to contextualise Françoise’s death, we are given intimate and reflective accounts by de Beauvoir, such as this quote, indicating that she was able to dissect her mother’s identity beyond her role as ‘mother’. ‘I do not think my mother can have been a happy child. I only remember her speaking of one pleasant memory – her grandmother’s garden in a village in Lorraine.’[10]

Françoise de Beauvoir (née Brasseur) was born into a middle class Catholic family from Verdun, a small city in northwest France. Her identity was intrinsically linked to her social status which changed when her father went bankrupt as a young woman in her 20’s; this loss of status left her feeling ‘dishonoured, so much so that she broke with all her connexions at Verdun’[11] This loss of wealth and status occurred again after WWI when her husband Georges Bertrand de Beauvoir, a legal secretary, lost much of his fortune. The circumstances of this loss is not addressed in this book.

Social status and religion seemed to be centred within Françoise’s character and the repercussions of a nineteenth-century upbringing meant that she performed the expected role of wife and mother. She was aware of her husband’s frequent infidelities, which led to insecure fits of rage in private and personal situations. She was deeply insecure and was ‘bitterly hurt when she heard that people said Françoise is so pessimistic! Or Françoise is becoming neurotic’.[12]

This insecurity extended to her own children; she grew jealous of their closeness as they grew up, although she was intimidated by her eldest child, she humiliated her youngest, Poupette. This didn’t diminish the sibling’s relationship, which was in some ways made stronger by their mother’s behaviour. De Beauvoir refers to an occasion when her mother humiliated a teenage Poupette by reading aloud a letter she had received. De Beauvoir recounts ‘Poupette, stiff with fury, overwhelmed her with scorn and swore that she would never forgive her. Maman burst into tears and begged me, in a letter, to bring them together again: which I did.’[13]

Acts like this were meant to assert Françoise’s power over Poupette and became more extreme when de Beauvoir renounced her religion. This sealed the dynamic between the three women for the course of her mother’s life. De Beauvoir reflects upon this crucial moment which announced her independence:

She grew jealous of our friendship. When she knew that I had lost my faith she said very loudly and angrily to Poupette, I shall defend you against her influences. I shall protect you! During the holidays she forbade us to see one another alone: we met secretly in the chestnut woods. This jealousy tormented her all her life, and until the end we still kept the habit of hiding most of our meeting from her.[14]

           

Death

Françoise was initially admitted into hospital after falling and breaking her leg, only to be told a few days later that she had stomach cancer. She died within a month of her diagnosis. De Beauvoir recounts a dream that her mother had after her diagnosis: “I am being chased: I run, I run, and I come up against a wall; I have to jump over this wall, and I do not know what there is behind it; it terrifies me.” She also said death itself does not frighten me; it is the jump I am afraid of.’[15]

The shock of her mother’s diagnosis even took de Beauvoir by surprise as she describes here: ‘Amazement. When my father died I did not cry at all. I had said to my sister, it will be the same for Maman. I had understood all my sorrows until that night: even when they flowed over my head I recognised myself in them. This time my despair escaped my control: someone other than myself was weeping in me.’[16] Even a formidable woman such as de Beauvoir was not infallible to the emotional confusion of her mother impending death.

De Beauvoir recounts in detail the physical symptoms of her mother’s illness, from the bed sores that ravaged her body and caused excruciating pain to the emotional and mental state of her mother as she swung from fear to desperation. As Françoise cried a few days before her death from the excruciating pain of the bedsores: ‘Finish me off. Give me a revolver. Have pity on me.’[17]  

Her age and the severity of her cancer meant that she was never going to recover, lending a sense of inevitability to the book’s ending. Towards the end, de Beauvoir had struck a sympathetic tone towards her mother, stating, ‘I had grown very fond of this dying woman.’[18] De Beauvoir’s frankness made me feel that I was reading an honest appraisal of the process of death, the lack of romanticism was refreshing and finality of death was described with empathy.

When death came for Françoise, de Beauvoir was not there to witness her mother’s final breaths; her sister Poupette was left to relay the final moments of their mothers passing. Françoise’s final words to Poupette were ‘I don’t want to die’,[19] followed by several outcries and body spasms that sent her into unconsciousness and then death.

The last section is where I draw my inspiration from regarding my mother’s death. De Beauvoir relays her sister’s testimony of the last moments and the aftermath: ‘the doctors said she would go out like a candle: it wasn’t like that, it wasn’t like that at all, said my sister, sobbing. But Madame, replied the nurse, I assure you it was a very easy death.’[20] This strikes me as a very curious term of phrase; I understand the context in other ways in which one can die but to describe death as ‘easy’ is something that I have thought about deeply.

My mother died suddenly of a heart aneurism and it was also made clear to me that her death would have been ‘painless’ that her passing would have been quick’. This has made me linger on the precariousness of life and how we are all in flux between being conscious and death; much like a candle being blown out.


[1] De Beauvoir, Simone, A Very Easy Death (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1964), p.41.

[2] De Beauvoir, Simone, A Very Easy Death (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1964), p.41.

[3] De Beauvoir, Simone, A Very Easy Death (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1964), p.41.

[4] De Beauvoir, Simone, A Very Easy Death (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1964), p.60.

[5] De Beauvoir, Simone, A Very Easy Death (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1964), p.61.

[6] De Beauvoir, Simone, A Very Easy Death (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1964), p.61.

[7] Fell, Alisoll, Double Vision: Mother(s) in Simone de Beauvoir's ‘Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter’ and ‘A Very Easy Death’ (Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publisher Ltd, UK, 2000).

[8] De Beauvoir, Simone, A Very Easy Death (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1964), p.29.

[9] De Beauvoir, Simone, A Very Easy Death (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1964), p.30.

[10] De Beauvoir, Simone, A Very Easy Death (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1964), p.29.

[11] De Beauvoir, Simone, A Very Easy Death (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1964), p.31.

[12] De Beauvoir, Simone, A Very Easy Death (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1964), p.33.

[13] De Beauvoir, Simone, A Very Easy Death (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1964), p.36.

[14] De Beauvoir, Simone, A Very Easy Death (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1964), p.36.

[15] De Beauvoir, Simone, A Very Easy Death (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1964), p.14.

[16] De Beauvoir, Simone, A Very Easy Death (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1964), p.28.

[17] De Beauvoir, Simone, A Very Easy Death (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1964), p.67.

[18] De Beauvoir, Simone, A Very Easy Death (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1964), p.67.

[19] De Beauvoir, Simone, A Very Easy Death (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1964), p.78.

[20] De Beauvoir, Simone, A Very Easy Death (Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1964), p.78.