Jean-Paul Sartre Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: A powerhouse of intellectual energy, French existentialist Sartre poured out novels, plays, screenplays, biographies, criticism, political essays, and philosophy. Journalist, teacher, and perennial activist, he served in the first rank of worldwide liberal causes.

Early Life

Jean-Paul Sartre was the only child of Anne-Marie Schweitzer and Jean-Baptiste Sartre. Jean-Baptiste had been a promising naval officer, active in several engagements in China, where he contracted the enterocolitis that killed him in September, 1906. The young widow and her son, then fifteen months old, returned to her parents’ home. Charles Schweitzer, Anne-Marie’s father, an overbearing intellectual, undertook the education of the precocious boy, who was soon reading voraciously and writing imitations of adventure comic books. Anne-Marie kept her son in long, golden curls. When the curls were finally cut, he recognized himself as ugly, with one eye turned out and blinded by an early illness. This ugliness and his small adult stature (five feet, two inches) fueled his self-consciousness. Formal schooling was intermittent until he was enrolled in the Lycée Henri-Quatre in 1915. After a rocky start, he was academically successful and began making friends.

In 1917, Anne-Marie remarried and moved with her son and new husband to La Rochelle. The move was unhappy for Sartre, who returned to Paris in the fall of 1920 as a boarding student. Thus began a happy period of his life. He renewed and deepened his school friendships and in 1924 entered the rigorous École Normale Supérieure. He shared an interest in philosophy with several classmates and spent hours in reading and discussion, and in the fun of movies, music, jokes, and girl-watching. Sartre loved the regimented life of all-male schools with their camaraderie and emphasis on intellectual achievement. He read widely, preferring Plato or René Descartes to his living professors. He also began to develop his own philosophical attitudes.

Probably his stubborn originality lay behind his failure at the agrégation in 1928. Since this competitive exam was the sole entry into the national system of secondary schools and universities, failure made a would-be academic unemployable. Sartre began a year of concentrated preparation for a retake. Early in that year, he met Simone de Beauvoir, a brilliant philosophy student also preparing for the agrégation. Although Sartre’s romantic life was already crowded, de Beauvoir soon took the central position. They became partners, each the other’s first reader and critic. They openly shared all experiences, and, although each had other lovers, they never broke with each other. They took the agrégation in July, 1929; Sartre took first place, de Beauvoir second.

In November, 1929, Sartre was called up for military service. Trained as a meteorologist, he spent his spare time in reading and writing. Both Sartre and de Beauvoir felt driven to put everything on paper, but neither had published when he was demobilized in February, 1931. Both accepted teaching jobs, and Sartre’s unconventional style made him a favorite with students. He spent 1933-1934 in Berlin, studying the works of Martin Heidegger and the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. Sartre finally gave up teaching for professional writing in 1945.

Life’s Work

In the years before World War II, Sartre settled into a lifelong pattern of regular hours of work, often at café tables and while traveling. Very prolific, he was unconcerned with the fate of his manuscripts, losing some and leaving several works unfinished. In the years 1937-1939, he published philosophical essays on imagination, ego, and emotions. Simultaneously, he published the novel La Nausée (1938; Nausea, 1949) and a collection of short stories, Le Mur (1939; The Wall and Other Stories, 1948). These writings were well received, in spite or because of their pessimistic view of absurd human life. Albert Camus, later a close friend, was an early, enthusiastic reviewer.

Sartre was called into active service as a meteorologist on September 2, 1939, the day after German troops invaded Poland. His military duties were minimal, and he spent most of his time writing letters, a journal, and the first draft of a novel, L’Âge de raison (1945; The Age of Reason, 1947), first of the planned tetralogy, Les Chemins de la liberté (1945-1949; The Roads to Freedom, 1947-1950). Equally important was his philosophical work L’Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956), begun in the same period. In June, 1940, he was captured and sent to a German prison camp. Paradoxically, Sartre felt liberated as a prisoner. He enjoyed the solidarity of inmates against their jailers. He discussed theology and philosophy with the priests who served the camp and wrote his first play, Bariona: Ou, Le Fils de tonnere (1962;...

(The entire section is 2062 words.)