Jean-Paul Sartre 1905-1980
French philosopher, dramatist, novelist, essayist, biographer, short story writer, journalist, editor, scriptwriter, and autobiographer. See also Jean-Paul Sartre Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 4, 7, 9, 13, 18, 24.
Jean-Paul Sartre is regarded as one of the most influential contributors to world literature in the twentieth century. The core of Sartre's fiction, including the five stories published in his only collection Le Mur (The Wall and Other Stories), is existentialist in nature, meaning that his works center on the philosophical concept of a godless, meaningless universe in which individuals merely exist until they become "engaged," or choose a course of social or political action. Moreover, Sartre believed that human beings ultimately exercise free will within a context of moral responsibility. Critical reception to his stories has been slight, though enthusiastic, with most critics examining Sartre's short fiction against his works in other genres.
Sartre's earliest influence was his grandfather Charles Schweitzer, with whom he and his mother lived after his father's early death in 1907. As Sartre recalled in his childhood memoir Les Mots (The Words), Schweitzer, a professor of German, instilled in him a passion for literature. While attending the E'cole Normale Supe'rieur, Sartre met fellow philosophy student Simone de Beauvoir, with whom he maintained a lifelong personal and professional relationship. Sartre spent much of the 1930s teaching philosophy and studying the works of German philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Sartre's early philosophical volumes reflect the influence of Husserl's phenomenology and focus on the workings and structure of consciousness.
While serving with the French Army during World War II, Sartre was taken prisoner by the Germans and held captive for nine months. His experiences among fellow inmates affected Sartre strongly, and his subsequent literary work demonstrated an increased awareness of history and politics. In 1945 Sartre quit teaching and co-founded the leftist review Les temps modernes. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Sartre devoted much attention to world affairs, participating in political demonstrations and espousing Marxist solutions to social problems in articles later collected, along with philosophical and literary essays, in the ten-volume Situations. In Critique de la raison dialectique, Volume I: Théorie des ensembles pratiques (Critique of Dialectical Reason: Theory of Practical Ensembles) Sartre attempted to fuse Marxism and existentialism to provide a new approach to historical analysis. Condemning capitalism and Western democratic institutions, Sartre called for a synthesis of personal freedom and moral duty within a neo-Marxian context in order to create the foundation for social revolution.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Sartre's stories, collected in Le Mur, are noted for their concise form, acute social observation, and dark view of human existence. Despite variances in technique, Sartre's stories are philosophically linked by what he called "bad faith." According to Sartre, bad faith occurs when an individual denies moral responsibility for his or her behavior; it can also be characterized by a lack of action or the inability to progress in life with any real sense of purpose. In "Intimité" ("Intimacy") the protagonist Lulu exhibits bad faith when she ignores the counsel of her friend Rirette and lover Pierre by living with her passive and impotent husband. In "L'Enfance d'un chef ("The Childhood of a Leader") a young man of the bourgeois class, who is terrified by the prospect of creating his own identity, finds refuge in a fascist organization. "Herostratus" features a man who attempts, and ultimately fails, to commit a heinous crime in an effort to escape mediocrity. In "La Chambre" ("The Room") Eve insists on living with her mad husband, whose world she desperately tries to understand, despite her parents' efforts to separate them. In the title story, the most famous of Sartre's short works, a political prisoner awaiting execution allows his situation to propel him into a state of apathy, thus giving up on life before he is killed.
Although Sartre's short fiction has been overshadowed by his work in other genres, several scholars consider Sartre's stories excellent vehicles for his philosophical theories. Philip Thody, in particular, observed that Sartre's stories exhibit greater detachment and overall control than his other works. While some critics have reproached Sartre's stories for their graphic sexual content and negative outlook, others have argued that these elements lend credibility Sartre's philosophical arguments, which, ultimately, have been regarded as the most significant components of Sartre's short fiction. As Albert Camus asserted in his 1939 review of The Wall, "A great writer always brings his own world and its message. M. Sartre's brings us nothingness, but also to lucidity. And the image he perpetuates through his characters, of a man seated amid the ruins of his life, is a good illustration of the greatness and truth of this work."
Le Mur [The Wall and Other Stories; also published as Intimacy and Other Stories] 1939
Other Major Works
L'imagination [Imagination: A Psychological Critique] (philosophy) 1936
La nausée [Nausea; also published as The Diary of Antoine Requentin] 1938
Esquisse d'une théorie des émotions [The Emotions: Outline of a Theory; also published as Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions] (philosophy) 1939
L'imaginaire:Psychologie phénoménologique de l'imagination [The Psychology of Imagination] (philosophy) 1940
Les mouches [The Flies] (drama) 1942
L'être et le néant: Essai d'ontologie phénoménologique [Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology] 1943
Huis clos [The Vicious Circle; also produced as No Exit] (drama) 1944
*Les chemins de la liberté. 3 vols. [The Roads of Freedom] (novels) 1945-49
L'existentialisme est un humanisme [Existentialism; also published as Existentialism and Humanism] (philosophy) 1946
Morts sans sépulture [Men without Shadows; also produced as The Victors] (drama) 1946...
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SOURCE: "Intimacy," in Yale French Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring-Summer, 1948, pp. 73-9.
[In the following essay about Sartre's short story "Intimacy, " Morris examines the character Lulu, noting that in "Existentialist terms, Lulu refuses her choice; she remains 'astride' of a paradox in Baudelairian fashion. " Morris concludes by asserting that "Existentialism is for heroes."]
The opening section1 of Sartre's "Intimité" is the richest of all in the dramatic, esthetic, and metaphysical ironies which lie at the center of the story and the situation it describes. It reminds us inevitably of the closing episode of Joyce's Ulysses, where Molly Bloom, "in the attitude of Gea-Tellus, fulfilled, recumbent, big with seed," at rest in her bed, approximating the lotus-dream of the Great Sleeper Haveth Childers Everywhere, lets flow forth the vital rhythms of the feminine principle. As Joyce's last becomes Sartre's first, the Earth Mother-soprano is metamorphosed into a barren little flirt ("Je ne peux pas avoir d'enfant, c'est constitutionnel") who designs fabrics and would like to have time to paint. An attempt to name the genre of this first section flounders, finally, in the same ambiguity, for while Lulu's monologue at first appears to be a stasis (just as the whole story is really a situation, open at both ends, and with only a very arbitrary climax) closer examination reveals an...
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SOURCE: "The Making of a Leader," in Yale French Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring-Summer, 1948, pp. 80-3.
[In the following essay, Smith discusses the relationships between the main characters in Sarte's "The Making of a Leader, " concluding that the story serves as propaganda against Zola's theories of Naturalism in literature.]
For a discerning public that propaganda is best which obtrudes itself least. There must be art in the making of it, and attractions external to the propaganda aim, if it is to be effective. It is best of all when the idea of its serving as a guide to social conduct has not even been in its author's mind. In the case we are about to examine, what is uppermost is the desire to individualize an observed trend in man's behavior, an instance of the course of human frailty. A writer who is always studying his fellow men, earnestly and sympathetically, here gives an extended example in response to his own commanding need to put across his ideas in concrete form, for Jean-Paul Sartre is above all a creative publicist. The result, however, will stand as a lesson in human relations and may therefore be called a good piece of propaganda.
The longest of the five sketches presented by Sartre in Le Mur, the last one, entitled "L'Enfance d'un chef," is in the nature of a social document. Inasmuch as it traces the early life of a fictional hero, Lucien Fleurier, in...
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SOURCE: "Short Stories as Examples," in Jean-Paul Sartre: A Literary and Political Study, The Macmillan Company, 1960, pp. 22-41.
[Here, Thody provides a general overview of each of the short stories collected in The Wall, focusing on how they serve as illustrations of "Sartre's favourite philosophical ideas."]
Before the publication of The Diary of Antoine Roquentin in June 1938, Sartre had already been introduced to the French literary world by the appearance of two of his short stories in review form. In July 1937 the Nouvelle Revue Française published 'Le Mur' ('The Wall') and in January 1938 Mesures published 'La Chambre' ('The Room'). According to Marc Beigbeder [in L'Homme Sartre] this was arranged by Sartre's publisher, Gaston Gallimard, in order to see what chance there was of a favourable reception for The Diary of Antoine Roquentin. He was, apparently, surprised at the success which Sartre's first novel secured. It was well received by several of the leading critics—including Edmond Jaloux in the conservative Nouvelles Littéraires—and has remained one of Sartre's most successful works. It has been reprinted in the popular Édition Pourpre series, and in 1950 was included in the list of the twelve best novels of the half-century, chosen by a jury of well-known French literary figures. In England it has been less well-received—the...
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SOURCE: "Madness in Sartre: Sequestration and the Room," in Yale French Studies, Vol. 30, 1963, pp. 63-7.
[In the essay below, Simon compares Sartre's "The Room " with Frantz von Gerlach's Les Séquestrés d'Altona, both of which feature protagonists who sequester themselves from the world with physical and mental walls. Simon asserts that "Sartre's emphasis is upon lucid despair and the mockery of false, self-delusive solutions. "]
A Nazi torturer is the intellectual hero of Les Séquestrés d'Altona. Frantz von Gerlach is an existentialist Luther beside his unscrupulous industrialist father, a sensitive prodigal to his weak-kneed conformist brother, a pitiful victim for his incestuous sister. We are positively oriented toward the madness that has caused Frantz to sequester himself during the thirteen years since the close of the war. While Germany and the world have continued on into a meaningless prosperity devoid of guilt and of the quest for innocence, the young officer, with his time frozen at the moment of the Nuremberg trials, plays out and perpetuates the cycle of guilt and purge in outraged self-confinement. To the end of the play we hope that he will not be enticed from his room, his strangely lucid world of insanity, out into the materialistic reality below.
Yet Frantz' madness is deliberate self-delusion, an effort to escape from involvement, thus running...
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SOURCE: "Source and Psychology of Sartre's 'Le Mur'," in Criticism, Vol. VII, No. 1, Winter, 1965, pp. 45-51.
[In the following essay, Braun studies "The Wall" in an effort to better understand Sartre's psychoanalytic theories, particularly those concerning the emotion of fear.]
Finding a number of similarities between Sartre's short story "Le Mur" and Andreyev's "The Seven Who Were Hanged," this writer wrote Sartre some time ago to ask whether, in fact, he had been inspired by the Russian writer. Sartre, much too occupied with more important literary duties, did not have time to reply; but Simone de Beauvoir, who has often acted as his secretary, answered for him. In her courteous but direct reply, in which she denied the influence of Andreyev, she wrote: "En fait il a été inspiré pour le Mur par . . . le Traité de psychologie de Dumas au chapitre des émotions: la peur."
The clue supplied to the elusive search revealed two important bits of information: the name of an important psychologist who, during Sartre's stay as a student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, was the latter's professor of psychology and, secondly, the fact that fear was the principal theme and framework of reference for this short story, first published in the Nouvelle Revue Française (July 1937, pp. 38-62). This information did raise, however, in the mind of the present writer several questions....
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SOURCE: "Sartre's 'Chambre': The Story of Eve," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XVI, No. 1, Spring, 1970, pp. 77-84.
[In the following essay, Greenlee studies Eve's perceptions of herself in relation to, and subsequent alienation from, her parents and her husband.]
Composed when Sartre was elaborating his theory of being, "La Chambre" has been considered a continuation of the metaphysical drama of La Nausée.1 Its representation of Pierre's insanity appeared as a sequel to the hallucinatory visions in the journal of Antoine Roquentin. But Pierre's experience is registered differently from that of Roquentin or those in other tales of Le Mur, all of which are distorted by the particular vision of the main character. His dementia has progressed so far that he can no longer recount his own experiences. For the author, scrupulously writing from the viewpoint of his characters, Pierre's story must be told by his wife, who has observed the progress of the illness in the isolation of their darkened bedroom.
Eve's provocative account of Pierre's withdrawal before the absurd might have received less credit had it been read in the light of the narrative principles announced by Sartre's early essay, "M. François Mauriac et la liberté."2 In the year of the publication of Le Mur, Sartre criticized Mauriac's failure to respect his character's...
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SOURCE: "Jean-Paul Sartre's 'L'Enfance d'un Chef': The Longing for Obscenity," in Romance Notes, Vol. 23, No. 3, Spring, 1983, pp. 204-09.
[In the following essay, Harvey examines Sartre's use of obscenity in "The Making of a Leader, "focusing on how it serves to develop character and plot.]
Sartre's collection of short stories Le Mur has received less attention from critics or the public than his other works of fiction. Among the few articles devoted to this early work, a brief review by Jean Vaudal expresses the malaise many may experience on reading the last and longest of the collection, "L'Enfance d'un Chef": "Je ne suis pas sûr que dans 'L'Enfance d'un Chef' l'auteur ait voulu mettre autant de grotesque que j'en vois. Le fait est que, maintenant que je l'y ai vu, plus rien ne l'ôtera."1 Various aspects of the story are indeed grotesque; examples range from the vaguely scatalogical but amusing description of young Lucien sitting on his potty, straining to evacuate his bowels, while his mother looks on and says: "Pousse, Lucien, pousse, mon petit bijou, je t'en supplie" (p. 155)2 to the graphically-detailed description of the homosexual act between Lucien and Bergère which Lucien sums up as he contemplates his toes: "Ces orteils, un homme les avait sucés, l'un après l'autre" (p. 206).
Since Sartre's literary work is a vehicle for conveying...
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SOURCE: "Lying to the Murderer: Sartre's Use of Kant in 'The Wall'," in Mosaic, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, Spring, 1985, pp. 1-16.
[In the essay below, Sweeney examines the psychological condition of all three men sentenced to execution in "The Wall" in an effort to comprehend Sartre's philosophical argument that "there are moral boundaries to human existence" and "one of these limits is the responsibility for one's actions."]
Despite the lingering "old quarrel between philosophy and poetry" over the suitability of presenting a philosophical investigation in literary form (Plato's Republic 607 B), philosophers regularly use literary genres to present their ideas. Jean-Paul Sartre's short story "The Wall" is an example of such a philosophical project. In the story Sartre offers a counter-example to one of Husserl's views and an illustration supporting his own alternative position. Sartre's particular project is easy to overlook given the vivid, extended descriptions of the central characters' terrified reactions to the prospect of their execution. Critics routinely interpret the story as a phenomenological account of the emotional state of terror in the face of death. They refer to "The Wall" as a story whose "real subject is fear" [in "Sources and Psychology of Sartre's 'Le Mur'," Criticism, Vol. 7, 1965, p. 48], and as a "classic treatment of the central existentialist motif of confrontation with...
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SOURCE: "The Sense of Ending: Sartre's 'The Wall'," in Modern Language Studies, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 46-52.
[In the following essay, Argyros responds to critics who consider the conclusion of the story "The Wall" flawed by arguing that Sartre's ironic ending is a "result of the marriage of the theoretical presuppositions of existentialism with the rules of narrative prose."]
Many readers of Sartre, both admirers and detractors, view the ending of his short story "The Wall" as a flaw. Two examples will illustrate this rather widely held opinion. Paul P. Somers Jr., in an article denigrating Sartre in comparison to Camus, argues: "In discussing Sartre's capacity for irony, we should keep in mind the sledge-hammer obviousness of the trick ending in his short story "The Wall" (The French Review, Vol. xlii, No. 5, April 1969). A much more favorably inclined Maurice Cranston nevertheless makes a similar point in Jean-Paul Sartre (New York: Grove Press, 1962):
Now, although this is the short-story which (with La Nausée) made Sartre's name in France before the War, it is, in its general outline, the least characteristic of his works. The neat plot with the "ironical twist" at the end belongs to a tradition of fiction which Sartre specifically repudiates. Maupassant might have invented such a plot. It is a technique which is...
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