‘I wanted all human life to be pure, transparent freedom; and I found myself existing in other people’s lives as a solid obstacle’.
The Blood of Others, Simone de Beauvoir, pg.108
Simone de Beauvoir’s beautiful existentialist novel opens with a quote from the great Russian philosopher, Dostoyevsky: ‘Each of us is responsible for everything and to every human being’. This pretty much sums up they key themes de Beauvoir explores in The Blood of Others. The responsibility people have to themselves, to one another, to their country, to other nations and to the world. Set in the heart of France during German occupation leading up to and during the Second World War, the setting perfectly captures these themes in a universal context.
The story opens with Jean Blomart, the protagonist and narrator of this story, sitting at the deathbed of the woman he supposedly loves, Hélène. She is dying due to her participation in the French resistance and Blomart is torn with grief and despair at the thought that it was his actions which have led to this point. At first I found the narrative style quite difficult to get into. Time jumps back and forth as Blomart recounts the events that led up to the present. De Beauvoir doesn’t give any indication of this change in time. It is up to the reader to work this out – The Blood of Others is certainly not an easy, laid-back read.
However, after settling into the rhythm of the novel I soon got into the story itself and devoured it within a day. There are few characters that make up the plot, which, therefore, makes for an intimate read and the characters are so strong and lifelike that I can vividly imagine them. Although the story is told from Blomart’s point of view, there are instances where we glimpse interiority from Hélène.
‘This dreary light, the dampness in the street … and I … I’m here. But why should I be here? I, who am I? Someone who can say? I. And some day, no one will be aware of my identity. She rested her hand on the top of the bar. It’s impossible. I’ve always been here. I shall always be here – it is eternity. She stared at her feet, they were riveted to the ground. How could she ever move? And where should she go?’
The Blood of Others, Simone de Baeuvoir, pg. 52
For me Hélène is the most interesting character in The Blood of Others. At first she appears as an irritating and naive young girl who is bored with the man she is engaged too – Paul – who she has known since she was a child. When she meets Jean for the first time she is intrigued by his maturity and unavailability. She latches onto him childishly. However, as the plot progresses, so does Hélène’s character. She matures into this strong-minded individual, of which we catch glimpses at the beginning, as highlighted in the above quote. For Hélène, one of the main recurring thoughts she has is about the importance, if any, of her existence in the world. This may be the reason why she pursues Jean. She believes that she can love him and that to love someone is to feel and to feel is to exist.
It is only towards the end of the novel that she realises that in order for her to feel like she exists, she must decide to believe in something and act. Her involvement with the French Resistance is this act, this feeling of existing that she has been waiting for. She explains to Jean as she is on her deathbed:
”You mustn’t feel guilty.’ She smiled weakly. ‘I did what I wanted. You were just a stone. Stones are necessary to make roads, otherwise how could one choose a way for oneself?”
The Blood of Others, Simone de Beauvoir, pg.238
Although Jean played a significant role in her life, whether he wanted to or not, only Hélène could decide on her course of action. Only Hélène could make herself act the way she did.
There is, however, a lot more to this novel than just the relationship between Jean and Hélène. De Beauvoir explores the idea of action and inaction. Do we still hold the same level of responsibility if we decide to act or if we decide to shy away and remain passive? This is one of the thoughts that torments Jean Blomart throughout the novel as he decides whether or not to take a lead in the French Resistance. In fact, Blomart is a very tormented individual altogether. But de Beauvoir masterfully depicts his character in such a way that the reader really feels as if they are inside the intricacies and intimacies of his mind.
The Blood of Others reminds us of the difficulty there is in making choices, no matter how big or small. It reminds us that each decision we make has consequences – consequences that we should have the courage to take responsibility for. This is what makes Simone de Beauvoir’s novel, The Blood of Others, a timeless and thought-provoking read.