The Words Essay - Critical Context

Jean-Paul Sartre

Critical Context

Sartre’s autobiography is essentially a semi-Freudian, semiexistential analysis of himself as a child. The incidents and situations he recalls marked his being, uniting to produce his character and personality. It is what might be called “literary autobiography”: Avoiding any direct presentation of sexual matters, it relates his early exploration of the world of books, both good and bad, and his own first efforts to become a writer. Probably no previous author has penned such a detailed account of his own intellectual development.

The Words is often viewed as a sort of confession, an effort made late in life to seek the sources of what he had become. His efforts to create “committed literature” and excite political action from his readers had often been swallowed up by the purely imaginative expression in novels and plays. By the early 1960’s, Sartre had to ask himself why. The answers reposed in the past, in the childhood of a precocious and pampered youth. The tales of heroes and buccaneers and the silent films about exotic adventures had left a permanent mark on his mind; try though he might to be an engaged political activist, Sartre could not quell the energies of imagination and fantasy in his spirit.

A concept of the self as perceived both internally through reflection and externally by responses of others, which was elaborated philosophically in Being and Nothingness, permeates this entire volume. Observations and insights into a child’s developing self-image, along with perceptions of the adults who surrounded him, are related with charm and innocence, spiced occasionally by a barbed comment. Conflict between the self and others is the sine qua non of Sartre’s works; in The Words one finds its genesis.

In this honest and beautiful self-portrait Sartre is sometimes rather evasive. He sought to justify his existence by writing, by becoming a priest of the word; he ended with the disillusioned feeling of having played at “winner loses.” He continued to write out of habit, having nothing else to do, cultivating a literary self-indulgence which expressed his changing flow of thought. Not believing himself particularly talented, Sartre wrote in order to save himself, to become a man as good as others but better than none.