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The question is on vit des femmes in the following excerpt from L'Étranger by Camus.

Juste à ce moment est entré mon deuxième voisin de palier. Dans le quartier, on dit qu’il vit des femmes.

I understand from English translations that it means being a pimp or living off women, but what is the literal meaning? And how does it come to mean what it is supposed to mean?

Here is my confusion:

  • The expression may be 3rd person singular passé simple for voir des femmes. But I don't find any definition for voir in the dictionary that would give us the intended meaning. Also, why a past tense?

  • The expression may be 3rd person singular présent for vivre des femmes. Now this sounds quite poetic. Someone can vivre sa vie or vivre des femmes. But again no dictionary definition for this.

  • Finally, I see that vivre de qch means living off something. But that would give us vit de femmes by the rule that the indefinite article des is omitted after the preposition de.

Or perhaps there is something I have not been able to think of.

  • Note that des can also be the contraction of de les. – Stéphane Gimenez Nov 18 '15 at 15:49
  • @Stéphane Gimenez Oh, I missed that one. So, is that how I should read it? "Live off the women"? Or is it the more picturesque "live some women"? The one answer so far below seems ambiguous between the two. – Catomic Nov 18 '15 at 15:55
  • @Stéphane Gimenez Would vivre des (de les) femmes (literally) mean living off the womankind or all the women? Does avoir peur des (de les) femmes mean fearing all the women? – Catomic Nov 18 '15 at 16:04
  • Yes, it means women in general. “To live off some women” would be “vivre de femmes”, but it sounds utterly wierd. There is no reason to identify a subset. – Stéphane Gimenez Nov 18 '15 at 16:12
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    "il" refers to a pimp that earns his life by exploitation of women. For a worker, you would write: "il vit de son travail" (he lives from his own work). Another French expression with "vivre de" is: "vivre d'amour et d'eau fraîche", what corresponds to the English idiom "live on love alone". – Graffito Nov 18 '15 at 21:36
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The verb in the sentence here is indeed vivre. Comments by Catonic, Stéphane, Graffito and SF_user are all true in a way.

So in this context, il vit des femmes indeed means he lives off (some - those of the neighbourhood for example, acquaintances of his...) women. This is not the same as il vit de femmes, which does seem weird.

As a French, the immediate meaning I get from il vit de femmes is "he lives on women", that is, he satiates basic physiological needs (either he eats them, or has lustful, indiscriminate sex with them for example, which galanterie forbids). The correct English translation of Camus' sentence would be in this case "he lives off women" as SF_user points out. A way to paraphrase that in French would be il est entretenu par des femmes.

Another nuance in using des femmes instead of de femmes is that Camus is not specific about which particular women, but not entirely unspecific altogether: he is not saying he is living off womankind. He means the protagonist:

  • is living off some women - he does not really care which one in particular
  • yet he is not living off any woman in the world: it has to be women he knows, neighbours, relatives...

Please note the importance of context here: the reader at this point has an idea of which women Camus is talking about. It is perfectly correct and not weird to say : il vit de petits larcins (he lives off petty crime). In this case, I understand he is not directly sating basic needs, but that he is involved in a fishy business to get some money somewhere. On the contrary, if someone said il vit des petits larcins, it would seem weird: which ones? It would translate as "he lives off the petty crimes", and would seem strange.

Last, you are correct: il vit may be 3rd person singular passé simple for voir des femmes. voir des femmes would then mean "he dates some women, he meets some women on a regular basis, and rather casually". Here, both context and tense are crucially important. - In French, passé simple denotes a brief action, well situated in time. For example, we could use it to underline an extraordinary situation, such as il vit une très belle femme or il vit un très gros chien. So using voir meaning "to date, on a casual, somewhat lengthy basis" with passé simple does not fit. We would use imparfait in this case, and say, "il voyait des femmes", all the more so because passé simple belongs to the written language and is very formal, whereas voir des femmes is quite casual.

  • See also the expression "vivre des femmes" directly in the TLFi and the interesting entry for the familiar use of gigolo, not the same as the proxénète indeed. Cheers. – user3177 Nov 20 '15 at 23:02
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In this novel, the person designed by il dans on dit qu’il vit des femmes. is Sintès.

And after reading this novel, it is clear Sintès lives off women. In other words, he uses women to live, women pay for his living, he lives at the expense of women.

So in conclusion, the verb used in this sentence is Vivre.

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