Jean-Paul Sartre World Literature Analysis
Almost from the start, Sartre tended to dismiss most existing literature as “inauthentic,” both politically and psychologically. Among the earlier literary critics of Marxist orientation, he distrusted the literary “canon” most of all because it depended upon the capitalist system for its mere existence: Publishing is, after all, a business like any other, and publishers are most likely to print, and profit from, books that encourage the political status quo. At a deeper level, Sartre questioned also the “authoritative” stance of traditional prose fiction, in which characters and their actions are fully “determined” by an omniscient narrator. “The Wall,” a short story written and collected in Le Mur (1939; The Wall, and Other Stories, 1948), serves in many ways to illustrate Sartre’s developing theories of fiction, most fully expressed in the lecture-essay Qu’est-ce que la littérature? (1947; What Is Literature?, 1949), which calls for a new kind of narrative prose more closely related to “real life.”
Told in the first person by a most “unprivileged” narrator, a political prisoner awaiting execution at sunrise along with two others, “The Wall” limits exposition to Pablo Ibbieta’s own sensations and immediate reactions. The other characters, Pablo’s captors and fellow prisoners, are seen and portrayed through Pablo’s eyes alone. Militant and “macho,” Pablo tries hard to face death “cleanly” and with dignity, and he is increasingly alone with his thoughts as he observes the other prisoners’ reactions with more than a hint of disapproval. Detained for further questioning after the two others have been shot, Pablo suddenly finds humor in the situation and sends his captors off on a “wild goose chase,” deliberately misleading them as to the whereabouts of his fellow-conspirator Ramon Gris. In a “trick” ending amply prepared by the preceding action, Pablo’s practical joke will “backfire,” leaving him physically alive but psychologically “dead” after Franco’s troops find and kill Gris exactly where Pablo told them to look. Truth, implies Sartre, is frequently stranger than fiction; fiction, in turn, must reflect that strangeness in order to remain honest or “authentic.”
By the time Nausea was published in 1938 Sartre had moved somewhat away from “pure” literary experimentation toward the deliberate use of creative writing as a vehicle for his philosophical speculations. In addition to the later stories eventually collected with his first in The Wall, and Other Stories, he was recording observations for future use in his projected tetralogy of novels, to be known collectively as The Roads to Freedom. Thereafter, Sartre’s prose fiction tended to reflect his philosophy, and vice versa. It was not long, however, before Sartre found in the theater an even more effective outlet for his ideas, given the relative ease and simplicity of expressing character and behavior on the stage. In The Flies, upon which he began work not long after his release as a prisoner of war, Sartre managed to illustrate his concepts of “bad faith,” “freedom,” and “choice” in terms instantly grasped by audiences already familiar with the Orestes legend.
For at least fifteen years prior to the first performances of The Flies, Parisian audiences had grown accustomed to the use of ancient myths, preferably Greek, as vehicles for stimulating commentary on contemporary themes, thanks mainly to the plays of Jean Giraudoux. In planning and executing The Flies, Sartre used Giraudoux’s Electre (pr., pb. 1937; Electra, 1952) both as inspiration and as target, implicitly rebutting many of the older playwright’s conclusions through the metaphysics of existentialism. Whereas Giraudoux portrays Electra as a heroine of sorts, Sartre sees and shows her as a coward who prefers the “comfort” of assumed guilt to the “anguish” of responsibility for her actions. There was also, for the play’s first audiences, a strong political message implicit in Orestes’ existential defiance of the prevailing social order, likened to that of France under Nazi occupation. For his next dramatic effort, best known in English as No Exit, Sartre touched only briefly on political concerns, preferring instead to present the psychological implications of his thinking. There, even more than in The Flies, his ideas began to take on a life of their own, readily grasped by spectators who knew or cared little about philosophy.
As expressed through his early plays as well as in his essays, Sartre’s mature thought draws sharp distinctions between passive “essence” (a form of being that humanity shares, at birth, with rocks, plants, and animals) and active “existence,” a uniquely human form of purposive being too often denied. Of all beings, Sartre maintains, the human form alone is capable of choosing itself, of creating itself through continuous acts of choice. Those human beings who refuse to choose or take responsibility for choices already made are guilty of bad faith (mauvaise foi), a fundamental dishonesty that is in its own way a form of death, at the very least a denial of “authentic” human life. Only after physical death, argues Sartre, should it be possible to define an individual human life, as the sum total of that individual’s actions; until that time, any effort to identify or fix labels to oneself, to complete the utterance “I am . . . ” with a predicate noun or adjective, amounts to premature living death, a refusal of the change and growth peculiar to authentic human life, or existence. By contrast, those who opt for existence are too busy choosing themselves for labels to be applied either by themselves or by the Other.
The Other constitutes for Sartre the greatest threat to individual freedom and responsibility. Each individual, as the Other, tends to limit “my” freedom by applying labels, by attempting to fix “my” essence; blind to “my” intentions, the Other sees and judges only...
(The entire section is 2511 words.)