Jean-Paul Sartre

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Jean-Paul Sartre Long Fiction Analysis

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Hailed in the immediate prewar years as a rising master of prose fiction, Jean-Paul Sartre soon deserted the form and would leave unfinished the fourth and final volume of The Roads to Freedom, originally announced as a tetralogy. As it turned out, his creative talents were perhaps indeed better suited to the theater; encouraged by the eminent director Charles Dullin, Sartre, between 1943 and 1959, turned out eight original plays, fully half of which survived him and are still included in the world’s repertory. Unlike his onetime friend and colleague Albert Camus (1913-1960), who repeatedly tried and failed to apply his gifts to the stage, Sartre possessed a particularly dramatic imagination that proved especially well suited to theexposition even of the most difficult philosophical concepts originally expounded in his essays. To be sure, a number of his concepts found their earliest, albeit undeveloped, expression in Nausea and in the stories to be collected in The Wall, and Other Stories; nevertheless, Sartre found fiction a comparatively inefficient vehicle for the communication of his ideas.


Completed as early as 1936 under the working title of “Melancholia” (inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Melancholia I, 1514), Nausea proved to be as unconventional in content as it was apparently conventional in form. Cast in the more or less familiar format of a diary discovered after the death (or disappearance) of its author, a convention in turn derived from the time-honored epistolary form, Sartre’s first novel bodied forth a disoriented, disorienting vision of the world as perceived through the eyes of its rapidly changingprotagonist and narrator: Antoine Roquentin, a thirty-year-old historian and former teacher, finds himself suddenly overcome by the sensation of his own existence, a sensation that soon evokes in him the nausea of the book’s eventual, publisher-selected title. Overwhelmed by the evident contingency of his own being, Roquentin soon senses the same contingency in others, and in inanimate objects as well: In one memorable scene, Roquentin watches and describes his own hand as if it were a monstrous creature quite divorced from his existence, a beached crab with hair; in another scene, a glass of beer appears to be spying on him. His eventual and perhaps inevitable conclusion is that he is superfluous (de trop), a quality shared by most of the things and people around him.

Had Sartre limited Nausea to Roquentin’s record of the changes taking place in his own mind, the book might well have been dismissed as an inventive simulacrum of a psychological case history. What assures the viability and power of Nausea is the nature and aptness of Roquentin’s powers of observation, powers that alternately feed on and are fed by the operations of his mind. Even without the record of Roquentin’s depression, Nausea might well have earned a respectable place in French literary history as a rare work of biting yet perceptive social satire in which few conditions of life are spared. To his credit, Sartre in Nausea repeatedly manages portraits that closely approach caricature yet stop short of straining the reader’s credulity.

Trained as a historian, Roquentin is perhaps well chosen as an observer, yet not even he is presented wholly without satire. Dissatisfied with teaching, able to survive (if barely) on a small but regular unearned income, Roquentin probably is superfluous, at least by certain people’s standards; in 1932, when he begins his journal, he has been working for some three years on the study of one Marquis de Rollebon, a minor survivor of the French Revolution whose descendants have willed the Marquis’s papers to the city of Bouville (Mudville,...

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equated by most of Sartre’s commentators with the port city of Le Havre). Roquentin’s daily work at the public library of Bouville has exposed him to a small but highly memorable cast of characters, including the Corsican librarian and especially the Self-taught Man (l’autodidacte), a drab civil servant and World War I veteran who spends all of his free time in the library, attempting to educate himself by reading all of the books in alphabetical order, as filed under the author’s name: “He has passed brutally from the study of coeleopterae to the quantum theory,” observes Roquentin, “from a work on Tamerlaine to a Catholic pamphlet against Darwinism, he has never been disconcerted for an instant.” Later in the novel, the Self-taught Man will emerge as a deeply committed if somewhat fuzzy-minded Socialist not unlike those satirized around the same time by George Orwell in Britain; Roquentin, decreasingly proud (or even certain) of his own humanity, will turn a deaf ear to his acquaintance’s declarations of predigested humanism. In a brief scene near the end of the book, the Self-taught Man stands cruelly revealed and judged as a barely repressed pederast, permanently expelled by the Corsican from the library that has come to represent his entire life. The greater part of Sartre’s satire and Roquentin’s scorn is reserved for the bourgeois “city fathers,” however, whose portraits hang proudly on the walls of the civic museum—“les salauds,” Roquentin calls them, using a term perhaps best rendered into English as “the bastards.” For Sartre, as for Roquentin, the salauds are perhaps the most superfluous of all, born into a system that was set in place by their ancestors and that they themselves accept without question even as they perpetuate it; such individuals were to serve as models for Sartre’s diatribes against inauthentic or “received” behavior. Roquentin, perversely fascinated by one portrait of particularly fearsome aspect, makes no secret of his pleasure upon learning that the man portrayed stood barely five feet tall.

Inevitably, Roquentin abandons his work on the life and career of Monsieur de Rollebon, having long since begun to suspect its futility. A brief visit to Paris and his former girlfriend, Anny, yields little more of consequence; Anny, a second-rate actor apparently addicted to striking poses, freely announces that she has become another man’s “kept woman” and that, moreover, she is about to leave the country. Roquentin notes with some satisfaction that Anny has grown quite fat and wonders, between the lines of his journal, why he ever lent his collusion to her endless poses and “game-playing.” With love thus discredited, Roquentin then moves on to the oddly Proustian conclusion that art alone offers a possible clue to life’s meaning, if any, and a potential cure for his “nausea.” Perhaps, he thinks, he might have found more meaning in life if he had written a novel. In any case, it is now too late, and the journal trails off into nothingness.

Throughout the diary, to be sure, Roquentin’s only solace against his disquieting revelations has come through art, authentic art as opposed to the commissioned excrescences on display in the Bouville museum. A particular favorite is a jazz tune that he first heard on the lips of American soldiers during 1917, now preserved on a record on the jukebox in the Railwaymen’s Café. As he continues his journal, the record grows in importance until, toward the end, Roquentin conjures up a vision of a Jewish musician and a black woman vocalist, who in less than five minutes of recorded playing time have achieved their immortality. The song, initially associated in Roquentin’s mind with Anny, has long since acquired an authentic life of its own; by then, however, Roquentin has tacitly rejected the option of creative salvation for himself. Instead, he simply disappears, leaving the diary behind.

From the 1940’s onward, it was customary to read Nausea in the reflected light of Sartre’s subsequent efforts, finding Roquentin’s memoirs complete illustration of such Sartrean categories as “essence,” “existence,” “anguish,” and “bad faith.” As James Arnold and other scholars have shown, however, the novel originally conceived as “Melancholia” represents a somewhat earlier stage in the evolution of Sartre’s thinking, and such examples as there are (such as the implicit “bad faith” of the salauds) must be seen as prototypical rather than exemplary; those in search of specific illustrations might be better advised to consider such plays as The Flies, No Exit, or Dirty Hands. To be sure, Sartre’s particular concept of “existence” receives its first exposition in Nausea, as Roquentin discovers and explores the “unjustified” fact of his being in all of its contingency; the “nausea” that overwhelms him as a result might likewise be interpreted as an early manifestation of the state later described as angoisse (anguish). Still Nausea demands to be read and appreciated as an independent work of art rather than as an existentialist manifesto. As Arnold has pointed out, moreover, the novel is also rich in autobiographical elements, however skillfully reworked and transposed; the character of Anny, for example, was drawn quite closely from life, in the person of an artist-actor with whom a very young Sartre once believed himself to be in love and whose perennial posing provided him with an invaluable object lesson in the “art” of inauthentic behavior. Like “The Wall” and its companion stories, Nausea must thus be seen, regardless of its thought-provoking “content,” above all as a work of literary art.

It was not until well after Nausea, during the wartime and postwar years, that Sartre would truly emerge as an original and provocative thinker. His ideas, afforded scholarly and rather ponderous exposition in Being and Nothingness, soon gained widespread exposure through his plays, particularly The Flies and No Exit, as well as in essays and columns initially published in Les Temps modernes. Soon a coherent existentialist attitude began to emerge, roughly delineated as follows: Of all beings, Sartre maintains, only the “human animal” is capable of creating itself through continual, fully conscious acts of choice; at birth, people share essence with rocks, plants, and other animals, but they must then proceed toward a uniquely human existence of their own choosing. Those who refuse to choose, or to accept responsibility for choices already made, are guilty of “bad faith” (mauvaise foi) in renouncing their potential “existence” (pour-soi) for a subhuman fixed “essence” (en-soi) that is tantamount to death. Indeed, as the godless prefigured hell of No Exit makes abundantly clear, those who reject the “anguish” of perpetual free choice for the illusory comfort of self-applied “labels” are in fact already dead to the world. Only after real, physical death should it be possible to draw the bottom line, to add up the total of a human life; until that time, any effort to complete the phrase “I am . . .” with a predicate, adjective, or noun identifies the speaker as a person “in love with death,” one who has forsaken the unique human privilege and potential of existence. Sartre applies this theory with particular clarity in his Réflexions sur la question juive (1946; Anti-Semite and Jew, 1948), in which bigotry is portrayed not as an “opinion” or “reaction” but rather as a “passion,” a predisposition that antedates its object. Bigots, Sartre maintains, are at bottom terrified of their own freedom, of their own capacity for change; they have therefore opted, in conscious or unconscious bad faith, for the fixed essence of a position that they perceive as self-protective: Refusing to consider the possibility that the world is simply ill-made, they choose to blame all of its ills on a particular minority—Jews, blacks, or Arabs, for example. “If the Jew did not exist,” concludes Sartre with the persuasion of simple logic, “the anti-Semite would have to invent him.”

As Hazel E. Barnes has pointed out, much of Sartre’s argument against anti-Semitism, and against bigotry in general, is outlined in his prewar novella L’Enfance d’un chef (Childhood of a Boss), the longest of the tales collected in The Wall, and Other Stories. Frequently too broad in its satire of bourgeois mentality and morality to be thoroughly credible, Childhood of a Boss nevertheless announces, even more clearly than Nausea, the provocative blend of philosophy, psychology, and politics that would become characteristic of Sartre’s mature output: The life of Lucien Fleurier is a life lived almost totally in bad faith, including a constant search for comforting, self-applied labels and dilettantish flirtation with the artistic “fads” of the time, most notably Surrealism. Insecure from his earliest childhood onward, Lucien constantly seeks to hide behind something larger and stronger than himself, ultimately finding refuge in Fascist anti-Semitism. Haunted also by suspicions of his homosexuality, he relates to women only insofar as he can “objectify” them, to be objectified by them in his turn. In the end, Lucien is so strengthened by his reactionary politics as to have crystallized into the archetypal, unbending capitalist “boss” of the title, not unlike the salauds of Bouville.

The Roads to Freedom

In the projected tetralogy The Roads to Freedom, begun around the same time as Being and Nothingness and the early plays, Sartre endeavors to illustrate his developing philosophy through the lives of several continuing characters, most of whom are fortunately drawn less close to caricature than the hapless Lucien Fleurier. Although narration throughout is in the objective, “affectless” third person, the apparent central character in the three published novels is one Mathieu Delarue, a disaffected intellectual in his thirties who resembles Sartre even more than does Antoine Roquentin. The first volume, ironically titled The Age of Reason, deals mainly with Mathieu’s efforts to secure an abortion for his unloved and unlovely live-in mistress, Marcelle; only at the end, having met with odd opposition from unexpected quarters, will Mathieu ruefully conclude that he has at last reached “the age of reason.” Among the more intriguing characters of The Age of Reason and its sequels is Mathieu’s friend Daniel, a gay man who nevertheless cherishes his clandestine friendship with Marcelle and refuses Mathieu a loan for the abortion, claiming that he does not have the money when in fact he does. A protracted earlier scene has shown Daniel contemplating suicide, planning first to drown his three beloved cats in order to be free of his last responsibilities; unable to kill the cats, he will likewise lack the nerve to carry out his projected self-annihilation. At the end of The Age of Reason, he will astound the reader and his fellow characters alike by choosing to marry Marcelle, ostensibly to assure her unborn child a home and father but also, and perhaps more likely, to lock himself into a situation in which he will be condemned to feel false, deserving of contempt as well.

For Barnes, Daniel is perhaps the archetypal character in existentialist fiction, defined not by heredity or environment, as in the traditional novel, but rather, simply by choice. As Barnes points out, nothing is revealed of Daniel’s parentage, childhood, or early sexual encounters; Daniel is shown only in situa, defining himself (however negatively) through continuous and conscious acts of choice. It is Daniel’s choice to be reviled and hateful, for whatever unknown reasons. Like Lucien Fleurier—although with far greater lucidity, reflecting the subsequent evolution of Sartre’s thought—Daniel is so terrified of his potential freedom that he repeatedly uses that freedom to turn himself into a detestable object, a walking testimonial to the negative effects of bad faith. Mathieu, in turn, “has discovered his freedom but does not know what to do with it.” Less interesting as a character than is Daniel, although perhaps equally complex, Mathieu functions throughout the existing trilogy less as protagonist than as catalyst, a common acquaintance shared by the variety of characters portrayed. Toward the end of the third novel of the series, Troubled Sleep, which portrays the end of the “phony war” and the start of the Vichy regime, Mathieu falls in battle and is apparently left for dead, his “central” position being assumed by the committed Communist Brunet; from Sartre’s descriptions of the projected fourth volume, however, as well as from excerpts from it published in Les Temps modernes during 1949, it was clear that Mathieu would survive his wounds and that Daniel, perhaps too predictably, would collaborate with Occupation forces.

As in Nausea, Sartre in The Roads to Freedom proves to be a keen observer of human nature as well as a social satirist of no mean talent; among his more skillful portraits are those of Mathieu’s brother Jacques, a successful lawyer (who in turn will refuse to lend Mathieu the abortion money) and Jacques’s wife, Odette, an intelligent but bored (and boring) bourgeoise. By the early 1940’s, however, social satire had lost ground in relative importance to the development of Sartre’s philosophical and political attitudes; diverting though the social portraiture may be, it is clear throughout The Roads to Freedom that what really matters are the choices facing, and made by, each of the characters, whether consciously or unconsciously. As early as 1939, Sartre had addressed himself as a critic to the delineation of character in fiction, calling for a clear-cut distinction between exposition and “advocacy” on the part of a supposedly omniscient narrator, berating François Mauriac, in particular, for assuming a “godlike” attitude in denying his characters their “freedom.” “God is no novelist,” Sartre opined in a now-famous statement, “and neither is François Mauriac.”

In The Roads to Freedom, Sartre appears to have been quite determined to allow his characters their freedom, even at the cost of plausibility; taking care to preserve their integrity by denying his personages the customary justifications of heredity and/or environment, Sartre frequently strains readers’ credulity by asking them to accept the validity of voluntary, seemingly unmotivated actions, a practice perhaps derived from André Gide’s earlier concept of the acte gratuit, or unmotivated gesture, exemplified in the murder of Fleurissoire in Les Caves du Vatican (1914; The Vatican Swindle, 1925; better known as Lafcadio’s Adventures, 1927). Perhaps not surprisingly, Sartre’s ideas received considerably more credible and effective presentation in his plays, in which actors could accomplish the necessary mediation between text and audience; one is reminded, in particular, of Electra’s sudden but thoroughly plausible recourse to bad faith in The Flies.

In all of Sartre’s published fiction, perhaps the best illustration of his developing theories is to be found in his story “The Wall,” narrated throughout by an unprivileged first-person narrator from inside a situation that threatens him with imminent extinction; that Pablo survives to tell the tale at all is surely among the greater, and more skillfully managed, ironies in all modern fiction. In the longer form, however, Sartre proved somewhat less skillful at bridging the gap between theory and practice; indeed, few of his commentators expressed any real surprise when his tetralogy was left unfinished.

With or without the support of Sartre’s unfolding existentialism, The Roads to Freedom appears not to have stood the test of time. However carefully observed, the disaffected, often marginal characters of the trilogy seem unlikely to capture or maintain the reader’s interest, perhaps least of all in what might have become of them in the projected fourth volume. Of the existing volumes, The Reprieve has perhaps deservedly received the greatest critical attention, owing mainly to Sartre’s skillful experiments with time and simultaneity, a technique admittedly borrowed from the cinema by way of John Dos Passos. On balance, however, Sartre was doubtless well advised to turn his talents elsewhere.


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