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."