Existentialist Medievalism and Emotional Identity Politics in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Useless Mouths

Paul Megna

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Composed at the end of the German Occupation of France during World War II, Simone de Beauvoir’s first and only play, The Useless Mouths (Les bouches inutiles), empathetically imagines the emotional turmoil of besieged noncombatants in the Middle Ages, who were frequently labeled “useless mouths” and forced to undergo atrocious suffering. Both a stunning instance of “feeling for the premodern” and an allegory for the political circumstances in which Beauvoir wrote, the play anticipates the antideterministic historiography that Beauvoir would later employ in The Second Sex. This article examines the emotional dynamics of The Useless Mouths, arguing that the play stages a theory of emotional ethics that is simultaneously existentialist and attentive to the vicissitudes of identity politics. Although some of the play’s initial critics, and Beauvoir herself, repudiated The Useless Mouths as excessively didactic, its central lesson — that the vital and endless task of producing and maintaining a truly egalitarian society is necessarily rife with anguish, shame, fear, and love — remains as crucial today as it was in either Beauvoir’s time or the Middle Ages.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)241-256
Number of pages16
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jul 2018


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