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Jean-Paul Sartre 1905-1980

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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

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Short Fiction

Le Mur [The Wall and Other Stories; also published as Intimacy and Other Stories] 1939

Other Major Works

L'imagination [Imagination: A Psychological Critique] (philosophy) 1936

La nausée [Nausea; also published as The Diary of Antoine Requentin] 1938

Esquisse d'une théorie des émotions [The Emotions: Outline of a Theory; also published as Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions] (philosophy) 1939

L'imaginaire:Psychologie phénoménologique de l'imagination [The Psychology of Imagination] (philosophy) 1940

Les mouches [The Flies] (drama) 1942

L'être et le néant: Essai d'ontologie phénoménologique [Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology] 1943

Huis clos [The Vicious Circle; also produced as No Exit] (drama) 1944

*Les chemins de la liberté. 3 vols. [The Roads of Freedom] (novels) 1945-49

L'existentialisme est un humanisme [Existentialism; also published as Existentialism and Humanism] (philosophy) 1946

Morts sans sépulture [Men without Shadows; also produced as The Victors] (drama) 1946

Baudelaire [Baudelaire] (biography and criticism) 1947

Les jeux sont faits [The Chips Are Down] (screenplay) 1947

Situations. 10 vols. (essays) 1947-76

Les mains sales [Crime Passionnel; also published as Dirty Hands] (drama) 1948

Le diable et le bon dieu [Lucifer and the Lord; also published as The Devil and the Good Lord, and Two Other Plays] (drama) 1951

Saint Genet, comédien et martyr [Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr] (biography and criticism) 1952

Les séquestrés d'Altona [Loser Wins; also published as The Condemned of Altona] (drama) 1959

Les mots [The Words] (autobiography) 1963

L'idiot de la famille: Gustave Flaubert de 1821 à 1857 [The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert, 1821-1857] (biography and criticism) 1971-72

Le scenario Freud [The Freud Scenario] (essays) 1984

The War Diaries of Jean-Paul Sartre (diaries) 1985

*The three volumes of this sequence are L'age de raison (1945; The Age of Reason), Le sursis (1945; The Reprieve), and La mort dans l'âme(1949; Iron in the Soul; also published as Troubled Sleep).

†The first volume of this series is Critique de la raison dialectique, Volume I: Théorie des ensembles pratiques (1960; Critique of Dialectical Reason: Theory of Practical Ensembles). Volume II contains the essay "Qu'est-ce que la littérature?" (1948; What is Literature?; also published as Literature and Existentialism).

Edward Morris (essay date 1948)

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SOURCE: "Intimacy," in Yale French Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring-Summer, 1948, pp. 73-9.

[In the following essay about Sartre's short story "Intimacy, " Morris examines the character Lulu, noting that in "Existentialist terms, Lulu refuses her choice; she remains 'astride' of a paradox in Baudelairian fashion. " Morris concludes by asserting that "Existentialism is for heroes."]

The opening section1 of Sartre's "Intimité" is the richest of all in the dramatic, esthetic, and metaphysical ironies which lie at the center of the story and the situation it describes. It reminds us inevitably of the closing episode of Joyce's Ulysses, where Molly Bloom, "in the attitude of Gea-Tellus, fulfilled, recumbent, big with seed," at rest in her bed, approximating the lotus-dream of the Great Sleeper Haveth Childers Everywhere, lets flow forth the vital rhythms of the feminine principle. As Joyce's last becomes Sartre's first, the Earth Mother-soprano is metamorphosed into a barren little flirt ("Je ne peux pas avoir d'enfant, c'est constitutionnel") who designs fabrics and would like to have time to paint. An attempt to name the genre of this first section flounders, finally, in the same ambiguity, for while Lulu's monologue at first appears to be a stasis (just as the whole story is really a situation, open at both ends, and with only a very arbitrary climax) closer examination reveals an essentially dramatic structure, the rhythm, to be exact, of the sex-act which does not take place between Lulu and her impotent husband, Henri. Again, "Intimité," as a whole falls neatly into five acts, with prologue and epilogue; only all actions, except the one critical one, take place off-stage. This device has the double value of making Rirette and Henri's tug-of-war over Lulu stand out, as the only action in the story, with a ritual clarity and significance, and of conferring upon the written word, the récit, all the dignity which it has in Racine (to whom Sartre alludes obliquely not only by this sleight-of-hand elimination of scenes, but also in Lulu and Pierre's outing at Port-Royal.)

This absence of action, then, is a drama, and it is Lulu who assumes the masculine hero-role, jutting out clear and free against the massive, shadowy background of her somnolent husband, who imagines himself bound by countless tiny threads which reduce him to complete helplessness. ("le plaisir [de Lulu] de se sentir alerte auprès de cette chair molle et captive.") In a gesture of assertion Lulu proves that she is untrammeled and distinct by inserting her toe into a hole in the sheet and breaking her threads; with this same gesture she begins an extraordinary rehearsal (with Lulu herself in the male lead) of the same absent act of love. It is soon apparent, in fact, that Lulu's libido is not a happy one: what love she has for Henri is a gravitation to his soft, impotent non-masculinity; in a significant passage she remembers herself at a carnival shooting rubber arrows at disk-like targets.

Lulu's married life is something less than idyllic, since Henri, who admires Swiss manners and is (ironically enough) "stiff as a post" in company, finds that she is not distinguished—"distinguished", in fact, is an adjective he pathetically reserves for his Swiss brother-in-law who has produced five children. Lulu, overlooking the equivocal nature of her instincts, has corrected this romantic deficiency in the conventional way; like Molly Bloom, though without her prolific proficiency, she has entertained one lover after another. But her current gallant, Pierre, is possessive in the extreme, completely lacking in the gentle impotence that oddly characterizes Henri, of the bearlike aspect. He loves to stand behind Lulu and press against her. This represents the last degree of brutality and humiliation since he sees her while she cannot see him; Lulu is an auto-erotic ("le plaisir il n'y a que moi que sache me le donner") who finds only horror in the physical reality of love, and in whose eyes to take the offensive in the anticipatory action of seeing is equivalent to subjugating and using another person. If she accompanies Pierre to his villa at Nice (as he is pressing her to do) it will be one long trauma, a continual climbing of the marble staircase while Pierre watches her from behind. Even the physical love that Pierre pretends to have for her is unreal and meaningless, since he would not know her internal organs from anyone else's, if he were to see them in a jar; "starfish must love each other better than we do" because they expose their stomachs to open view. Lulu, reflecting on what orifice might serve to display the human stomach, for the achievement of this Utopian sensuality, decides (with pathetic irony) that it could only be the navel, the still point of the body, the receptacle of mother-nourishment, Joyce's "umbrilla-parasoul." Lulu's reflections on priests, her childhood desire to be a nun and flirt with men, her visit with Pierre to Port-Royal, (the apogee of modern ascetic Christianity) constitute oblique references to the absolute of religion, now bankrupt, which in another age might have profferred a matrix of repose. Now in this ironic image of fertility and fulfillment, Sartre connects the maternity which Lulu can never know with her experience of sterility and disgust in her relations with her lover ("c'est dégoûtant, pourquoi faut-il que nous ayons des corps?") knocking down the one idol which the toughest of modern writers (Hemingway, Faulkner, and Co., in particular), for all their iconoclastic cynicism with regard to fixed values, have adored as the last, great Unmoved Mover.2

Frustrated at every turn, Lulu seeks to lull herself to sleep by thinking about the crimson-and-gold ear of her friend Rirette, but quickly becomes irritated when the aggressive side of Rirette (her constant nagging at Lulu to leave Henri and go away with Pierre, her precise, nasal voice) obtrudes upon her reflection. She is disgusted at the idea of homosexual love with Rirette, who is just like Pierre in her eagerness to possess and dominate Lulu. Repulsed again, she reverses her field and fabricates a charming fantasy in which she lives in purity and moonlight with a delicate young boy, whom she loves as a sister loves a brother (again we catch Sartre amusing himself by inverting Molly Bloom, who, in her monologue, goes into raptures at the idea that Stephen, the young poet, may come to live at No. 7, Eccles Street, and that she may be able to seduce him). Finally she comes to rest in a scene where she imagines herself, free, untouched, and invisible, watching Rirette in the act of being seduced; this situation is the only possible erotic satisfaction for Lulu, who lives, in the final, decadent stage of unengaged individualism, by the watchword "noli ne tangere."

At the end of the section, worn and wrung by the terrors of her erotic Odyssey, Lulu decides that if Henri would only take her in his arms and plead with her, she would make the "sacrifice" (!) of staying with him.


If Sartre's Lulu-Molly seems a perverted and unearthy Cybele, we can understand how elemental a soul-searching her monologue has been only when we are exposed to the corresponding rhapsodies of Rirette (his Gerty MacDowell) whose little tragedy is interwoven with and contrasted to Lulu's in the second part of "Intimité." Nausicaa meeting Odysseus on the Phaeacian strand and Gerty MacDowell calling to "that handsome foreign-looking gentleman," Mr. Leopold Bloom, from her Rock on Sandymount beach, merge into Rirette calling to a waiter and making eyes at a Montparnasse Bohemian in the Dôme. Sitting in this restaurant whose lack of tone and style she deplores, ruminating on the ideal man, with his odor of Cologne and English tobacco, and his gentleness which comes from suffering,3 Rirette keeps reaching towards static beatitude in contemplation of the face of her God—but irrational, irritating Lulu (already a half-hour late for her pre-arranged meeting with Rirette) keeps coming to her mind with an insistence which disturbs the equilibrium of her reflections. Rirette's ideal is simply a more vulgar version of Henri's, a Utopia of "style" and "distinction;" but she detests Henri because impotence is a revolting, physical affliction.4 Lulu must leave Henri for Pierre; she hasn't the right to compromise her happiness. "Le bonheur, le bonheur": it is a magic word for Rirette, its complete lack of meaning absorbs all her shopgirl's aspirations.

The disturbing intrusion which has been prefigured by the repeated appearance of Lulu in Rirette's musings is realized; Lulu, again in masculine rôle, comes thrusting into the undifferentiated, flat sea of Rirette's thought, into the restaurant where Rirette sits and whose name (Dôme) is a plastic-objective of the feminine, maternal principle. Aliter, she arrives in a taxi, valise in hand, to announce that she has left Henri. She tells Rirette how, after a quarrel that morning, she locked Henri out on the balcony in his pyjamas (a complete triumph for Lulu, since Henri, like a fish in an aquarium, is powerless to prevent all who wish from observing him) and then left for good and all, tired of his domineering attitude. Rirette is of course delighted, but at the same time wishes Lulu would tell the story more comically, and would not be rude to the waiter. This mixture of irritation and pleasure ("ce que j'aime en elle, c'est sa vitalité,") is the crux of the ironic contrast Sartre establishes between Lulu and her foil Rirette; Rirette must stop all action, compress the real into two-dimensionality, and fit the unusual into the patterns of normality, before she can understand or enjoy. Lulu, who flows with the rhythms of Nature itself, cannot be "contained" in this way. At the instant of Lulu's arrival Rirette muses on "the bluebird, the bird of happiness, the rebellious bird of happiness" and a few seconds later she thinks "Lulu is charming, but she can be amazingly futile; she's a bird." In this seemingly gratuitous juxtaposition Rirette's unattainable ideal takes on a meaning: it is the realm of three-dimensional, fluid, "unfrozen" reality, the vital world which Lulu, the Magna Mater, is, and which Rirette simply cannot surround. In her opening monologue, remembering Rirette's remark, "You simply can't stay with Henri, since you don't love him, it would be a crime," Lulu thinks with annoyance "To her everything is simple and easy: you love or you don't love. But I'm not simple." The final blow for poor Rirette comes when she excuses Lulu's "nervousness" to the waiter, who, obviously bewitched, replies that he finds Lulu charming.

That afternoon, as Lulu and Rirette shop for clothes for Lulu's fugue, they meet Henri in the boulevard Montparnasse and the climactic (and only) action takes place: while Lulu, "molle comme un paquet de linge" tries to pursue her course along the sidewalk, Henri pulls on one arm, shouting "Tu es à moi" and Rirette, pulling in the other direction, manages to get Lulu into a taxi. Rirette has triumphed; Lulu has been ripped untimely from her nuptial couch and will go with Pierre. In this mad dance the real loser is Lulu; her vital forward-movement has been stopped; Henri has claimed her and pulled at her as a wife-possession-thing, Rirette has used her as a mere thing for her own sentimental satisfaction. She retains no more dignity or freedom than a bundle of laundry. It is too much: "I hate you, I hate Henri, I hate Pierre" she screams at Rirette, "you're all torturing me." Rirette can only feel cold and haughty, shocked as she is by the vulgarity (the one great sin) of the scene. She returns to her room, where loneliness and self-pity overwhelm her as she thinks of the ingratitude of Lulu; after all (another great ironic stroke of Sartre's) Lulu will know happiness at Nice, and will owe it all to Rirette. She breaks down completely, sobbing "A Nice . . . à Nice, au soleil . . ."


"Pouah! Nuit noire."—this dismal echo of Rirette's "au soleil" wrenches us from our tepid bath of "bonheur" into cold, damp blackness, into the boue5 of the sordid hotel-room6 where Lulu lies captive and defeated after her unsavory tryst with Pierre. The word "passion" (which Sartre doesn't use but Rirette would) seems to attend ironically and etymologically at this second enchainment of all Lulu's active liberty. Once again, it is too much, and Lulu flees from this black saloperie back to the maternal womb of her own room, where the warm red light of a neon sign filters through the blinds, back into the arms of Henri, who is no longer a domineering, impotent husband, but a pure, tender companion (almost the young boy of her fantasies), a shelter against Pierre and Rirette and their plot to possess and control. But the visit offers Lulu only very temporary consolation; brought up short against Henri's indifferent and helpless passivity, she is forced to realize that once again she has been the buffeted victim of an impulsive reaction of pure negation. She has rebounded to Henri as to a citadel of stability, only to see a mirage dissolve before her very eyes. More miserable than before, she attempts to explain to Henri (whose own chagrin proceeds from the blow to his respectability he anticipates and from his mistaken feeling that, while he is powerless, Lulu is a free agent) why she cannot stay with him: "C'est comme une fatalité . . . c'est le flot qui vous emporte." Lulu's recourse to generalization (the classic refuge of mediocrity in the face of adversity) is the climax of Sartre's ironic equivoke with regard to the real motivation of "Intimité." In one sense, this flot is Lulu's earthy permanence, the momentum of the spheres, what Rirette calls "vitalité"; but also (as it now appears clearly for the first time) it is the restless frustration, the mad surface-gyration of a body at once attracted and repulsed by many potential points of rest, the yearning without object prefigured in the monologue at the beginning of the story. We have come to think of movement as the sanest and most fundamental characteristic of Lulu; her suffering has come at the points of forced inertia. Now the tragedy is re-interpreted, with Lulu as "l'oiseau bleu, l'oiseau rebelle, l'oiseau futile." "Inquietum est cor meum, donec requiescat in te"; the tragedy of Lulu and of modern man is the progressive evaporation, not only of God-as-te, but of all te, of all solidity outside the ego.

Between the third section of "Intimité" and the brief Epilogue in the Restaurant, event follows event with the regularity of simple harmonic motion: fleeing from Henri as she has just fled from Pierre, Lulu returns to the sordid Hôtel du Théâtre (whose name gives us a sly, Sartrian tip-off on the dramatic character of the story). There Rirette comes to visit her, and Lulu, reacting once more (but this time to a weaker agent of repulsion than Pierre or Henri)7 assumes her final position, elucidated in the tender note to Pierre which the dumbfounded Rirette (insisting to the bitter end "Je possède ma Lulu sur le bout du doigt,") reads in the Dôme, the site of her sometime triumph. "I'm not leaving, my darling Pierre; I'm staying with Henri . . . but we'll see each other as often as in the past."8 In Ulysses, Joyce presents Molly Bloom not only as Cybele, but as a parody of the faithful wife, a Penelope who prefers to entertain not only Odysseus-Bloom but Antinous-Boylan as well, and many another "suitor." Sartre's parody of a parody has even more complexity and irony: Lulu, and not Henri, has been the wanderer, returning (again in the masculine role) to the faithful spouse; and while Lulu, like Molly, keeps her lover because he is more manly than her husband, and her husband because he is more comfortable than her lover, this complex of relationships is meaningless in the pathological case of the androgynous Lulu who is constitutionally unable to enjoy the masculinity of her lover. Joyce resolves Bloom's undirected longings and fretful peregrinations in the deep, still rhythms of Molly's near-dream at the end of Ulysses; placing the ruminations of Lulu at rest in her bed (relatively, the most conclusive and reposed section of his story) at the beginning of "Intimité," Sartre proceeds through successive frustrated agitations to an end in fragile tension, anguishing in its lack of finality.9

In Existentialist terms, Lulu refuses her choice; she remains "astride" of a paradox in Baudelairian fashion. This unresolved tension, this attempt to profit from two relationships, one of which has meaning only as a reaction to the other, is perhaps the only possible inconclusion of "Intimité." It is inconceivable that a Lulu would be able to integrate from within, to create a set of values out of the potentially positive nihilism which has been revealed to her (where convention, marriage, religion, and even sex are just so many old crutches now knocked out from under the uncertain personality), to rise vertically out of this Hegelian situation which frustrates her. Existentialism is for heroes.


1 On one level "Intimité" is a light, easy story, almost in the New Yorkergenre. If I have voluntarily neglected this aspect of the story in an attempt to uncover the patterns underlying it, it is not with intention to mystify or mislead, but simply because this approach seems best to show Sartre's extraordinary talent for expressing thematic richness through banal reality and seemingly indifferent detail. It would be impossible to represent the richness of detail of this first section (which resumes the whole story and therefore deserves more careful study than the other episodes) without giving a completely unreadable word-forword analysis of it. I shall try to trace the central themes of its structure, and ask my reader to reread Lulu's monologue with these currents in mind, rejecting no possible meaning as too fantastic. The imagery of the passage is informed by the central section of Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams ("The Dream Work"), and the reader will find it especially profitable to read pages 371-375 in the Modern Library edition, The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, New York, 1938.

2 Again Sartre finds his prophet and apologist before-the-letter in Freud,who in the essay called "The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life" insists that the very nature of the sexual instinct precludes complete gratification in sexual relations.

3 "The story of a haunting sorrow was written on his face" thinks Gerty of Bloom,Ulysses (Mod. Lib. ed.) p. 351.

4 Just as Ivich in Les Chemins de la liberté hates anything which she thinks of as "physiological" in herself or others; Rirette's subjective disgust with the physical is ironic foil to Lulu's constitutional sterility and pathological androgyny.

5 Marking Lulu's final and complete humiliation, Sartre savors the assonance of "boue" and "tout" on pp. 127-128. Compare the last sentence of La Nausée: "Demain il pleuvra sur Bouville" (italics mine).

6 Sartre seems to have an extraordinary sensitivity to the nature of rooms, as containing-vessels to put people in: in Le Mur,the rank cellar is a box of unreal, or sur-real, inhuman atmosphere; in La Chambre, Pierre's room is a cage of insanity; for Paul Hilbert, in Erostrate,his room is a closed-off refuge against "the others"; in L'Age de Raison, Mathieu's room is the center of his meaningless, unengaged liberty, and only becomes real when Brunet enters it.

7 Rirette, of course, does not interpret Lulu's abrupt change of mind in this way: she thinks the Texiers (friends of Henri's) have convinced Lulu that she must stay with her husband. For us the fact that Lulu uses the Texiers' visit as an excuse in her note to Pierre suffices to invalidate this explanation.

8 Note the Racinian character of this second climax, this violent coup de théâtre which takes place offstage.

9 In this consummate esthetic irony in an early work we find Sartre in the destructive phase of his "revolution in literature"; taking an idea from Joyce, the master of the literary tradition against which Existentialists are in full rebellion, he parodies it (not without "complicity") in a drama without actions, a situation expressed in motion. At once fulfilling and destroying a previous idea, breaking an old form open at the seams, he prepares the way for "the new literature."

Madeleine Smith (essay date 1948)

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SOURCE: "The Making of a Leader," in Yale French Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring-Summer, 1948, pp. 80-3.

[In the following essay, Smith discusses the relationships between the main characters in Sarte's "The Making of a Leader, " concluding that the story serves as propaganda against Zola's theories of Naturalism in literature.]

For a discerning public that propaganda is best which obtrudes itself least. There must be art in the making of it, and attractions external to the propaganda aim, if it is to be effective. It is best of all when the idea of its serving as a guide to social conduct has not even been in its author's mind. In the case we are about to examine, what is uppermost is the desire to individualize an observed trend in man's behavior, an instance of the course of human frailty. A writer who is always studying his fellow men, earnestly and sympathetically, here gives an extended example in response to his own commanding need to put across his ideas in concrete form, for Jean-Paul Sartre is above all a creative publicist. The result, however, will stand as a lesson in human relations and may therefore be called a good piece of propaganda.

The longest of the five sketches presented by Sartre in Le Mur, the last one, entitled "L'Enfance d'un chef," is in the nature of a social document. Inasmuch as it traces the early life of a fictional hero, Lucien Fleurier, in the manner of a case-history, it might be vulnerable to the same logic that breaks down the Zola fallacy. Zola proclaimed that he would take human material as he observed it—a passion, for example, at work in a man's heart—and follow it through like a laboratory project, using the findings of physiology to explain what should come of it, then report his results. The only thing he overlooked was that the original situation, and the stages that he might note in the passion's gradual development, were vitiated by the humble fact that they were not real but imaginary. The results (from which he aspired to work out a pathology for social evils whereby to control them and eventually to wipe them out, like smallpox or diphtheria) were therefore likewise invalid, however scientific might be his basic hypothesis and his method of isolating his variable factor from his constants. The "constants" might be real conditions, but the determining factor from beginning to end was not nature but his own mind. Therefore his progress notes could not be facts and his conclusions could never be laws. Writers have by now pretty well outgrown this naive zeal, however, and are not often guilty of Zola's fallacy. Sartre skirts it by not claiming any basis of philosophic necessity for the spiritual adventures of Lucien. His story does not lose but gains by the undogmatic approach. The reader may enjoy it as fiction, free from the oppressive sense of a thesis, and yet gain an appreciation of the deep-lying sources present in a character of intolerance. He will consider how this typical modern phenomenon, the stuffed-shirt bully, is probably not just any man who has been provoked by hostile elements aiming at his security, but is more likely the result of a long evolution within himself, and may therefore be prevented.

For Lucien Fleurier is our own contemporary. Although no dates are mentioned in "L'Enfance d'un chef," at least none associated with the hero at a particular age, certain indications point to 1910 as approximately the year of his birth. He would therefore have been twenty in 1930 and twenty-five in the heyday of Col. de la Roque. But the narrative concerns only the formative years of Lucien and leaves him on the threshold of what will be a safe, orthodox, Tory, adult existence, now "petrified," as Sartre would say, into a thoroughly predictable pattern and of no further interest. He has had a poor preparation for the decisions which will confront him in his career as one of the élite. What with his own clumsy groping for an egocentric good and the various worthless or vicious hawks that spot him as a likely prey, we see that it could hardly have been otherwise.

His history is told as a physiological thing, as we should expect from the author of La Nausée. His emerging personality is altogether bound up with the history of his bodily sensations. We learn how, in the random experimenting of his early years he delights, as children often do, in hurting creatures that will react, though there is no fun in hitting a tree and calling it names. For himself, however, he revels in the opposite sensations of being washed, caressed, tickled, and otherwise touched, by women. Being told over and over in his early childhood that he looks more like a cute little girl than a boy, he starts to wonder, as any child does, about appearances and reality, to doubt whether he exists, whether his parents really are his own mother and father, whether they have not exchanged clothing so as to seem each to be of the other sex.

The first part of "The Making of a Leader" is full of engaging anecdotal touches, that reveal a child's mind in action and stripped of any sentimentalizing. "From that day Lucien realized that he did not love his mother. He did not feel guilty about it, but he was twice as nice to her, because he had come to the conclusion that everybody must pretend all his life to love his parents, or else be a bad little boy." Or consider the nonchalance of this bit: "Lucien no longer bothered about God. At his first communion the curé said he was the most virtuous and pious little boy in the whole catechism-class."

As he is passing through stages of self-glorification—by tales of walking in his sleep (quite imaginary), by a spell of masturbation, by joining the others in jeering at the peewee proportions of a classmate only to be profoundly upset when the game turns on himself for his "asparagus" build (the awareness of a difference between himself and the gang gives him serious uneasiness), by a brief career of peeping at keyholes—his father, who is a Captain of Industry in a small way, gives him a casual indoctrination in the principles of being a "leader." He instills in Lucien a gentleman's scorn for thorough thinking. When he falls behind in his studies at the lyoée, his father says: "Students who attend school on scholarships make poor leaders: they have skipped an important part of life." The father shows him the proper shades of condescension to be used toward employees and the patronal ways of securing not only obedience but a distance-observing affection for the employer and his soil-rooted social group.

This deep security, imbued with the sense of the solidarity of the land and the unmixed heritage of the French racial strain in him, becomes Lucien's original choice and the unrecognized ideal toward which his adolescent years will see him craving and groping. In his desire to know what he is, whether he is, and above all where he belongs, this typical young French bourgeois, intelligent and mildly intellectual, is an easy mark for the zealots of various forms of baseness. He is saved from a romantic suicide and from his inner torments by his classmate Berliac, who has discovered Freud. "'Naturally, you too at one time desired to sleep with your mother. He wasn't asking, he was stating." Lucien finds it flattering to be labelled a "sadico-anal." But this doesn't last long. Berliac leads to Bergére, an older and sophisticated man, who pleases Lucien by telling him he is a second Rimbaud. He succeeds in seducing the boy, but—whether it is the "moral wholesomeness" of his family stock asserting itself, or merely timidity—Lucien soon ditches Bergére. After Freud and Rimbaud, the third prophet is Maurice Barrés. Another classmate, Lemordant, starts Lucien to reading Barrés's Les Déracinés, and the dénouement approaches. The heir to the Fleurier fortune sees that the answer to all his uncertainties will be in sinking his roots into the home-soil of France and sticking. Xenophobia, semitophobia, democratophobia are the natural and negative fruits of this positive isolationism.

This Action-Française phase of Lucien's history is of course developed at some length. A club-meeting scene, an incident of street violence, a couple of love-affairs, a sane friendship rejected, all lend interest to this last part of the story. The component elements of the nationalist complex are cleverly analyzed.

The author sees to it that some shred of reader-sympathy is left for his young protagonist. This is his creature; and besides, he has been showing Lucien to us as a victim, not as a villain. He has escaped the toils of Bergère and will have a normal sex life. He can afford to abandon the extreme fanaticism of the anti-semitic, anti-republican Action-Française, although by shunning the lunatic fringe he will only wield a more authoritative influence on the side of injustice. Lucien's human craving to be a joiner and a conformer is emphasized at the end. As he sinks into complacent adjustment to his privileged state, the Jews and foreigners circulating about him no longer irritate him, but give him on the contrary a faint sexual satisfaction. Thus Sartre reveals a subtleness in his art, making for plausibility and setting his work on a plane far above the writer whose dominating purpose blinds him to live values.

Although anti-semitism, like communism, is in some respects quite a different problem in our country from its counterpart in France, this narrative study nevertheless applies clearly to American situations as well as French, emphasizing, as it does, the human, fundamental urges that we all have to fight, in our neighbors, in ourselves, and in our children.

Philip Thody (essay date 1960)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8391

SOURCE: "Short Stories as Examples," in Jean-Paul Sartre: A Literary and Political Study, The Macmillan Company, 1960, pp. 22-41.

[Here, Thody provides a general overview of each of the short stories collected in The Wall, focusing on how they serve as illustrations of "Sartre's favourite philosophical ideas."]

Before the publication of The Diary of Antoine Roquentin in June 1938, Sartre had already been introduced to the French literary world by the appearance of two of his short stories in review form. In July 1937 the Nouvelle Revue Française published 'Le Mur' ('The Wall') and in January 1938 Mesures published 'La Chambre' ('The Room'). According to Marc Beigbeder [in L'Homme Sartre] this was arranged by Sartre's publisher, Gaston Gallimard, in order to see what chance there was of a favourable reception for The Diary of Antoine Roquentin. He was, apparently, surprised at the success which Sartre's first novel secured. It was well received by several of the leading critics—including Edmond Jaloux in the conservative Nouvelles Littéraires—and has remained one of Sartre's most successful works. It has been reprinted in the popular Édition Pourpre series, and in 1950 was included in the list of the twelve best novels of the half-century, chosen by a jury of well-known French literary figures. In England it has been less well-received—the Times Literary Supplement [March 23, 1949] said it was 'pretentious'—and at the moment of writing it is out of print in the English edition. While this may be due to the difficulty of translating Sartre's prose into English of comparable force, it is also due to English impatience with near-heroes of the Roquentin type and to a general lack of sympathy for their problems. The English translation of Sartre's short stories, published in French in 1939 under the title of Le Mur and translated as Intimacy, is, however, still in print and has clearly been more popular than The Diary of Antoine Roquentin. It is quite natural that this should be so, since these stories have plenty of human interest in addition to a rather lubricious character which should endear them to less intellectual readers. After all, Punch [July 12, 1949] did describe them as 'leaving Lady Chatterley's Lover asleep at the post', which one would have expected to be a guarantee of good sales. They are also, like The Diary of Antoine Roquentin, published in a popular paper-backed edition in France.

There are five stories in the volume, each of which illustrates one of Sartre's favourite philosophical ideas. The title story, 'The Wall', refutes Heidegger's idea that man can live towards his own death and thus humanize it. The second, 'The Room', illustrates the impossibility for the sane mind to enter deliberately into the world of madness. The third, 'Herostratus', explores the extreme confines of anti-humanism; the fourth, 'Intimité' ('Intimacy'), is a study of the idea of bad faith; and the fifth, 'L'Enfance d'un Chef' ('The Childhood of a Leader'), exposes the way in which the human mind can escape from the feeling of its own superfluousness into the comforting world of Rights. Although different in tone and technique, the five stories are linked together by Sartre's own personal vision and his extremely acute awareness of the physical details of human existence. In the same way as this served in The Diary of Antoine Roquentin to exploit his own obsessions, so here it is used slightly more objectively to insist upon the closeness in man of the link between mind and body. The general unpleasantness of existence still constitutes the basic reality for all Sartre's characters, although it is less insistently present than in The Diary of Antoine Roquentin. What Sartre does do in his stories is show what different reactions there are to this unpleasantness and to the other problems of human existence.

The hero of the first story, 'The Wall', is a Spanish Republican who has been taken prisoner by the Fascists in the civil war. Together with Tom Steinbock, an Irishman from the International Brigade, and a young Spaniard called Juan Mirbal—unjustly imprisoned, because he has played no part in politics—Pablo Ibbieta is condemned to death. He remains awake through the night before his execution, sitting in an ice-cold cellar where the sweat pours off him in his terror, watched by a sadistically curious Belgian doctor. In the morning, having realized that the inevitability of death makes everything unimportant, he decides to play a trick on his captors. He sends them on a wild-goose chase in search of one of his friends whose hiding-place he had previously refused to reveal. With supreme irony, his gesture of sterile defiance saves his life. Ramon Gris, his friend, had left his cousin's house because of a quarrel, and gone to hide in the cemetery, exactly in the place where Ibbieta had told the Fascists to search. He is shot while resisting arrest, and the story ends with Pablo sitting on the ground, laughing until he cries at the absurdity of chance.

The plot of the story, and the description of Pablo's reaction to the idea of his own death, provide a double refutation of the idea that man can control and decide the significance of his own mortality. Because he knows he is going to die, Pablo assumes that he can have no further effect upon the course of events in the world around him. He is wrong, and the story is an ironical illustration of the idea that man can never count on anything at all except his own actions. More important, however, is Sartre's description of man's physical reactions in the face of death. Tom, Pablo's companion, talks and talks in an attempt to grasp the incomprehensible, until Pablo points out that he is urinating in his trousers through sheer terror. Pablo sweats profusely, but needs the ironical remarks of the Belgian doctor to become conscious of how he is betraying his own terror. Finally, he realizes that the whole of his past life is meaningless because he will die some day whatever happens. Pablo does his best to face up to death and to remain hard. He refuses the refuge of tears in which the young Spaniard hides, as well as the over-talkativeness of Tom, but cannot really understand what is going to happen. All he sees is that objects change in appearance now that they can no longer be included in any of the projects which he might make. Death cannot be humanized, for man is made in such a way that he must be perpetually tending towards an open future. When this possibility is removed, no course of action is left open to him. Pablo is caught in the trap that, although death takes away all meaning, man cannot live in accordance with this truth. Heidegger is wrong, and no man can live in such a way as to make his death really his own.

In the next story, 'The Room', the atmosphere changes abruptly. We are no longer with the Spanish Republicans with whom Sartre's political sympathies so obviously lie, but with the French middle class whom he observes with considerably less sympathy. 'Madame Darbédat held a piece of Turkish Delight between her fingers. She brought it carefully up to her lips, and held her breath lest the fine dusting of sugar with which it was covered should be blown away. "It's pink," she said to herself. She suddenly bit into its glassy flesh, and a smell of decay filled her mouth. "Strange how illness sharpens our sensations." She began to think of mosques, of obsequious Orientals (she had gone to Algiers for her honeymoon), and a faint smile came to her pale lips: the Turkish Delight was obsequious as well.'

Madame Darbédat's daughter, Eve, insists on continuing to live with her husband Pierre, who is going mad. Madame Darbédat has just learned that her daughter still sleeps with Pierre, and with considerable embarrassment has to point this out to her healthy and rather unperceptive husband. Monsieur Darbédat goes to visit Eve, but finds her strange, uncommunicative, and indifferent to his arguments for sending Pierre to a private nursing-home. He tells her that before three years are out, Pierre will have sunk into complete idiocy, and is surprised to learn that this is something she already knows. Reflecting that the only way to save his daughter would be to remove Pierre by force, he leaves the flat and is happy to be out again in the fresh air, among normal people. He realizes that his daughter is trying to live outside what is human, and reproaches her for it. 'He looked fondly at the passersby; he loved their grave and limpid eyes, and, in this sunlit street, among men, he felt he was safe, as if in the midst of a large family.' Monsieur Darbédat is a normal man—in his confidence that normality is right and proper he is something of a Swine in the Sartrian sense of the word—and cannot understand his daughter's strange ambition to leave the normal world and enter into her husband's mad universe.

The second part of the story is told entirely from Eve's point of view. She is trying to share her husband's feeling for the strangeness of objects, and his belief in the reality of the flying statues which cause him such terror. She cannot do so, for the human mind can no more deliberately escape from its humanity into madness than it can think its own death. At the very moment when Pierre is cowering terrified in his chair, waiting for the flying statues to arrive, Eve hears a slight noise in the corridor outside. Immediately, she realizes that it is the charlady, and remembers that she must give her the money for the gas bill. Although aware of the fact that she can never feel what Pierre feels, she nevertheless knows that she could never live again among normal people. 'They still think that I am one of them. But I couldn't live an hour with them. I need to live down there, with Pierre, on the other side of the wall. But down there, nobody wants me.' Her love for her husband, which is so great that she decides to kill him rather than let him sink into complete madness, is nevertheless not great enough to enable her to share his experiences. The wall between human minds cannot be scaled, and however much Eve may hate the normal world she can never escape from it.

The filiation of ideas and imagery between 'The Room' and Sartre's other work is much closer than it is in 'The Wall'. When Madame Darbédat tastes her Turkish Delight and finds it pink, she is echoing one of Sartre's assertions in Being and Nothingness that 'If I eat a pink cake, its taste is pink'. Eve hates her father because of the image which he has of her husband when he looks at him and judges him. So, in Being and Nothingness, Sartre maintains that when two lovers know they are being observed by a third person it destroys their love. Pierre, in his delirium, speaks of objects which he 'pins down with his look'—a clear case of Sartre exploiting his own fascination with the importance of the look, a subject which he again treats at length in Being and Nothingness. The obsession with objects that seem to acquire a life of their own is something which Pierre shares with Roquentin, and with certain of Sartre's other characters. In both The Diary of Antoine Roquentin and 'The Room' Sartre uses the same image to speak of the human hand, when he compares it to a crab lying on its back. Eve imagines the words which Pierre cannot pronounce correctly coming out of his mouth 'like a soft, whitish substance'—an image often used in Sartre's first novel to indicate indeterminacy and colourless vagueness.

As in The Diary of Antoine Roquentin, Sartre extends his verbal skill beyond the mere description of his own obsessions. He succeeds in creating the claustrophobic atmosphere of the room in which Pierre lives, and the staleness—like that of unchanged water in a vase of flowers—which Eve feels as she thinks of the need to try once again to enter into her husband's world. His own somewhat morbid imagination, together with his acute awareness of the physical details of life—Madame Darbédat dusting the fine powdering of sugar from the pages of her book and being reminded of the sand at Arcachon, the sunlight in the air like 'a blinding dust', Pierre's lips moving like two frightened beasts, the incense and shade in his room forming 'a single element, acrid but soft and padded, as simple and familiar as water, air or fire'—is eminently suited to short stories like 'The Room'. In fact, he so excels at describing the abnormal that it is tempting to see his early work as primarily an attempt to liberate himself from his obsessions, and to neglect the philosophical overtones that each of his stories has. This is particularly true of the next story in the collection, 'Herostratus'.

Its hero, a clerk called Paul Hilbert, develops Roquentin's dislike of humanism and of humanity to the extreme point where it merges into criminal madness. Inspired by the example of Herostratus, who secured immortality by burning down the Temple of Diana at Ephesus, he decides to commit an act which, 'shining like a black diamond', will enable him to leave his own mediocrity and join the ranks of the splendid criminals. He writes two hundred letters, which he sends to two hundred famous 'humanist' writers, telling them that he has so little love for men that he is going to shoot six of them, quite at random, in the street. Or, rather, he is going to shoot five men, keeping the sixth bullet in his revolver for himself.

Hilbert waits in his room, meditating on his plan, and trying to imagine the satisfaction which he will derive from his crime. 'It would take hold of me, would overthrow my too-human ugliness . . . A crime cuts the life of the criminal into two parts. There may be moments when he hopes to go back, but the crime is there, behind you, a glittering mineral barring your way.' Unfortunately for Hilbert, he is not of the stuff of which the magnificent criminals whose photographs he admires in the newspaper are made. He makes a mistake in his plan, shoots three bullets instead of one at his first victim, and then runs in the wrong direction. He had originally intended to go back to his room, wait there quietly savouring his crime until his pursuers arrived, and then kill himself. As a result of his mistakes, however, he is chased into a café, takes refuge in the lavatory, and finally comes out and surrenders. He has not put any of the details of his originally perfect plan into practice. Crime is no escape from the mediocrity of existence, and the beauty which the criminal has when seen from outside is a lie.

There is no doubt that the story is satirical, and that Sartre is showing the anti-humanist attitude to be just as pointless as that of the humanist. Certainly, Hilbert shares with Roquentin his hatred for the humanists who can see in man only a projection of their own false notions of nobility. Like Roquentin, he feels sick at the sight of men eating. Like Roquentin, he despises people who find consolation for their unhappiness in listening to classical music, but carries his scorn to the extent of wanting to shoot them one by one as they come out of the concert hall. He is, however, much more of a puppet than Roquentin, and is used far more objectively in order to illustrate some of Sartre's ideas.

In his sexual habits, for example, Hilbert represents the sadist described in Being and Nothingness. His greatest pleasure, which frequently procures him a spontaneous orgasm, is to watch a prostitute undress and walk about in front of him, while he sits fully clothed in an armchair. The sadist, in Being and Nothingness, tries to dominate The Other by making him realize that his existence is absurd and contingent. He does this by forcing The Other to be completely identified with his body, which the sadist then contemplates as an obscene prison for The Other's mind. The fact that Hilbert remains dressed while the prostitute walks about in all her naked obscenity under the threat of his revolver, is characteristic of the sadist's desire to imprison The Other in the flesh while he himself remains free. The sadist wishes to remain a pure mind which objectively contemplates and judges the imprisonment of The Other in his or her flesh. According to Being and Nothingness, man's relationship with The Other is always one of combat, for each person is perpetually trying to use other people in order to realize his own being. One of the basic means of doing this is sadism. In this respect, Hilbert is merely living out his chosen means of realizing his own existence, and Sartre is describing him with the same objectivity as a doctor would describe a natural physical function. Sartre has often been accused of writing semi-pornographical literature, and he has in general replied with the defence that he is merely describing things as they are. In 1946 [in an interview with Christian Grisoli], for example, he justified the fact that the plot of the first volume of Les Chemins de la Liberté (The Roads to Freedom) centred round a projected abortion by referring to the statistics which might be used to show that in 1938 there were more abortions than tramway employees [Paru, December 1946, pp. 5-10]. He also maintained that the rather curious sexual relationship between the invalid Charles and his nurse Jacqueline, described in the second volume of The Roads to Freedom, was something of which he had been told at first hand. He has not so far specifically mentioned the incidents in his short stories, but a remark which he made in 1951 was obviously intended to cover the whole of his work. He told Gabriel d'Aubarède [in Le Figaro Littéraire] that: 'If we speak of the body and of its lowest functions, it is because we must not try to forget that the mind goes right down into the body . . . It is not for my own amusement that I talk about these things, but because in my opinion a writer should take hold of man in all aspects of his being.'

Neither his assertion that he is merely describing things as they are nor his claim that there should be no 'forbidden territory' for the modern writer has, however, saved him either from those who liked his work for the wrong reasons or from those who saw in his supposed obscenity a further excuse to attack him. In 1953, for example, the description of Hilbert's visit to the prostitute appeared in an interesting collection edited by René Varin entitled L'Érotisme dans la littérature française, and François Mauriac is said to have referred to Sartre as an excrémentialiste. Nevertheless, there is no gratuitous pornography in his work, since each of the so-called pornographical passages can be linked up with a sincerely held philosophical idea. There is no doubt that, in Being and Nothingness for example, Sartre is completely serious in the extremely pessimistic description which he gives of personal relationships, and in his thesis that sadism is a basic human attitude. If he wishes to translate his ideas from the abstractions of philosphy to the more immediately personal world of the novel or the short story—which he surely has every right to do—he is inevitably led to describe characters like Herostratus. Hilbert's sexual habits form an integral part of his attitude towards life, and fit in both with the hostility he feels for others and with his desire to assert himself by killing. In describing these, Sartre is merely bringing to life a particular philosophical idea. This is also his intention in the last two stories in the collection. 'Intimacy' explores the idea of bad faith which is essential to his moral philosophy, while 'The Childhood of a Leader' is a further presentation of the idea of Rights as a means of escape from man's contingency.

Like 'The Room', 'Intimacy' is written in such a way as to show how the same events appear from the standpoint of two different characters. 'The Room' showed Eve and her husband first of all as seen from the outside by Monsieur Darbédat, and then from the inside by Eve herself. 'Intimacy' is made up of four sections, in which Lulu and Rirette describe Lulu's abortive attempt to leave her husband and go off to the South of France with her lover. The story opens with Lulu's thoughts as she lies in bed—naked because it saves the laundry—thinking about her husband Henri and her lover Pierre, and absent-mindedly pulling with her toe at a hole in the sheet. She would like to stay with her husband, in spite of his pomposity, because he is more or less impotent and because she is not very fond of sex anyway, while Pierre, her lover, annoys her with his constant attempts to dominate her and make her feel sexual pleasure. Rirette, her friend, wants her to leave Henri and feels slightly jealous of her opportunity to do so with such a nice-looking man as Pierre. The second part of the story describes Rirette's thoughts as she waits for Lulu in a café, and her delighted surprise when Lulu eventually turns up and tells her that she has left Henri. He had slapped her cousin Robert, Lulu had tricked him into going out on to the balcony, had then locked him out, and when she let him back in again he had struck her. Lulu has to buy some new clothes for her trip with Pierre, and it seems to Rirette that she deliberately chooses to go shopping in a street where she knows that Henri is bound to see her. Lulu insists that this is not true, but the inevitable happens, and Rirette has to drag Lulu away from her husband by force and bundle her into a taxi. During the struggle, Lulu is 'as soft as a bundle of laundry' and leaves all the decisions to Rirette. The third section takes us back to the inside of Lulu's mind. She is again lying in bed, this time in a rather dubious hotel where Pierre has just spent two hours making love to her, and growing steadily more and more depressed at the idea of going away with him. She slips out of the hotel and goes to see her husband. Weeping with sadness at the thought of leaving him for ever, she nevertheless manages to tell him where she is staying. In the very brief fourth part, we see Rirette's reaction to Pierre's news that Lulu has gone back to her husband. She had left a letter for Pierre telling him how the neighbours had come and told her that Henri was terribly unhappy, and how she had felt unable to leave him. Twice in her letter she repeats that she cannot think how the neighbours got hold of her address. Pierre tells Rirette that it is perhaps just as well after all that Lulu did not come away with him, since his mother was very annoyed that he should be taking a woman to the villa in the South of France. At the failure of her scheme to organize Lulu's life for her, Rirette 'felt herself inexplicably filled with bitter regret'. Lulu, after all, got what she wanted and not what Rirette thought she ought to have. She stayed with her husband—but made the best of both worlds by arranging to meet Pierre at five o'clock that same afternoon.

In spite of the fact that this story is told with perfect mimicry of the expressions and thought-habits of two Parisian shopgirls, it does examine a concept which is at the very basis of Sartre's moral philosophy. Man, he argues, is always free to make whatever decisions he likes and to live his life as he pleases. This does not mean, he hastens to add, that the prisoner can escape or the incurable invalid recover his health simply by deciding to do so, but that they are free to adopt whatever attitude they please towards their captivity or their illness. Moreover, he insists, we are in most cases far freer than we think. Most people try to hide their liberty from themselves because they are afraid of taking the responsibility of choosing their own life. They run away from their freedom by pretending either that their conduct is dictated by preestablished ethical laws—in which Sartre does not believe—or that it is determined by their physical makeup. In 'Intimacy' he is describing the ruses which Lulu adopts to disguise from herself the fact that she and she alone must decide whether to stay with her husband or go off with her lover. What Lulu really wants to do is to stay with her husband and still keep her lover—to have her cake and eat it—but she will not admit this to herself. Neither will she recognize that her dislike of sex is a deliberate choice, and a refuge against the power which she knows that her physical pleasure would give her lover. Instead, she pretends that 'it's medical' and that nothing Pierre can do, even though he may excite her, can in any way change her basic constitution. She hides her fear of letting herself go under the disguise of physical determinism, in the same way as she pretends to Rirette and herself that she did not know who had given the neighbours the address of the hotel at which she was staying with Pierre. She is a perfect illustration of the Sartrian idea of 'bad faith'—the intellectual sleight-of-hand by which we try to hide our freedom and responsibility from ourselves. In fact, she knew quite well that she had managed to whisper the name of the hotel to Henri when she went back to see him, exactly as she knew that if she went shopping in a certain place Henri would see her and try to dissuade her from leaving him.

As an illustrative tale, 'Intimacy' is possibly more successful than 'The Room' or 'Herostratus' because the meaning is more obvious and more easily elucidated. While Lulu is by no means what we like to think of as a normal human being—her sexual tastes are rather odd in their own way—it is possible to recognize her avoidance of responsibility as a very human characteristic. In her ambition to have it both ways, in fact, she is rather like the lady in the cartoon who says to her friend, 'I want to be swept off my feet by someone I can bend to my will.' Once again, however, the vocabulary, images and minor obsessions bear the unmistakable imprint of Sartre's mind. Lulu detests being looked at from behind—an echo of Sartre's preoccupation with The Other as primarily someone who may be looking at one and judging one—and, as we learn from Rirette's judgement on the indecent prominence of her behind, her dislike is justified. 'Intimacy' dismisses the ideals of Romantic love with an even greater luxury of physiological detail than does The Diary of Antoine Roquentin, and seems to share with Sartre's first novel the desire to disgust people with their own existence. Yet it is again wrong to see in 'Intimacy', as Monsieur Varin did, a deliberate example of eroticism. In this story, Sartre is a moralist and a pessimistic realist, in 'Herostratus' a clinical examiner.

The last story in Sartre's collection, 'The Childhood of a Leader', is primarily an essay in social satire, and is the most obviously political of all his pre-war writings. Here he uses the same talent for mimicry which he exploited in 'Intimacy', this time in order to describe the upper bourgeoisie as seen from the inside. The story traces the early life of Lucien Fleurier, through his childish fears of his own unreality, through his adolescent hesitations and experiments in homosexuality and Surrealism, up to the moment when he discovers an escape from all his difficulties in the idea of Rights. 'The Childhood of a Leader' presents a different solution from that proposed at the end of The Diary of Antoine Roquentin to the problem of man's awareness of the absurdity of his existence. Whereas Roquentin faces up to his own nausea and realizes the dishonesty of all attempts to escape from it, Lucien Fleurier takes the easy way out. He can do this because he belongs to a certain class, and because, in becoming a member of the Fascist 'L'Action Française', he is protecting his own interests at the same time as he avoids the uncomfortable awareness of his own superfluousness. Up to his unfortunate decision, however, Lucien illustrates in miniature a number of Sartre's ideas on the nature of the human mind, and seems to be on the point of acquiring Roquentin's lucidity.

At a very early age, Lucien makes the discovery that he is never completely identified with the emotions that he feels. When he cries out 'I love my mummy', and slashes fiercely at a clump of nettles in violent affirmation, he still fails to coincide exactly with the emotion he is pursuing. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre maintains that man can only be conscious of his emotions because he remains distinct from them—because a 'nothingness' which constitutes his self-awareness is perpetually sliding between him and what he feels. If he were totally identified with his anger or his sadness, man would cease to be angry or sad because he would no longer be conscious of anything at all. Since he can never coincide absolutely either with what he is or with what he feels, man is forced to play a part in order to realize himself and make his emotions satisfying. The example which Sartre gives in Being and Nothingness is that of the waiter whose gestures are a little over-precise, whose politeness is exaggerated, and whose whole demeanour is devoted to playing the part of being a café waiter. Man can also escape from his unreality by forcing other people to have a definite idea of him, in whose reality he will then be able to share. Thus Lucien tries to persuade his cousin that he walks in his sleep, in order that he may have an essence and a reality—that of a sleepwalker—which will be 'sanctified' and confirmed by his cousin's knowledge of it. This confirmation of his own existence in the idea which others have of him, will, finally, form part of Lucien's solution, but his first attempt fails because both he and his cousin sleep too well.

Lucien also becomes acutely aware, while still a child, of the difference between himself and physical objects. He is infuriated by the compactness and certainty with which a chestnut tree is a chestnut tree, absolutely and without a shadow of doubt, while he is always a little uncertain whether he is the real Lucien or not. This distinction between man's consciousness, which according to Sartre is what it is not and is not what it is, and physical objects, which are completely what they are, is also one of the main themes of Being and Nothingness. Lucien also feels himself vague and unjustifiable, and realizes one day that 'right through his childish worries and the sleep which followed them' (where he temporarily forgot his uncertainty) 'he had never stopped being embarrassed by his own life, this useless and voluminous present which he had carried in his arms without knowing what to do with it or where to set it down'. His escape comes through his acquaintance, while still at school in Paris, with the anti-semitic ideas of Charles Maurras and 'L'Action Française'. The boy in his class, André Lemordant, who is the most violently anti-semitic, seems to Lucien to have a rock-like solidity and a complete freedom from the inconstant haze which characterizes Lucien's own consciousness of himself. When Lemordant asks Lucien to sign a protest against 'The Yids at the École Normale', he says to him: 'You're French. You have the right to express your opinion.' At that moment, Lucien 'feels himself shot through with a sudden and inexplicable delight' and signs. When he finally takes the plunge and joins 'L'Action Française'—after an incident in which he joins with a number of friends in beating up a solitary Jew in a side-street—he loses all his uncertainty. Henceforth, his problems disappear and he is convinced only of the necessity for him to be just as he is.

At a party to which he is invited by one of his friends, Lucien is introduced to a young man whom he immediately recognizes as a Jew. He turns his back on him, and stalks furiously out of the house. Like Lulu, he disguises his free decision in a deterministic phrase, claiming to his friend, 'It's not my fault, old man, it's too much for me, I can't touch them, I feel that they have scaly hands.' Originally, Lucien had been rather embarrassed by his rudeness, but when he discovers that it had forced his friend to look at him in a particular way, as someone who was anti-semitic and could do nothing about it, he is filled with delight. He has at last achieved his ambition of having his tastes and existence consecrated by another person's recognition that they are predetermined and real. Sitting in a café in the Latin Quarter, Lucien feels infinitely superior to all the poor foreigners around him. He has Rights, he has his place in society and in the world marked out for him, he is a leader among Frenchmen. In the hope of finding in his own features some of the rock-like solidity which he admired in Lemordant, he looks at his reflection in a shop window. 'But the glass only reflected a rather pretty, stubborn, little face, which was not yet sufficiently terrible. "I shall let my moustache grow," he decided.'

The final note of irony drives home the point that someone who, like Lucien, has chosen to live in an inauthentic mode, is constantly dependent on the image of himself which he creates in the eyes of other people. It is perhaps the best ending of any of Sartre's short stories, for it suddenly brings the reader back to what the character whose imaginary life he has been sharing is really like. The satire, as in the visit of Roquentin to the museum in Bouville, is both philosophical and political. Philosophically, Lucien's realization that his Rights are 'something like triangles and circles—so perfect that they do not exist' corresponds to Roquentin's idea that a circle is not absurd because it is not contingent. It can be deduced from first principles, from the rotation of a segment round one of its extremities, and is therefore not infected with the absurdity of things which simply exist for no reason at all. The Rights and circles with which Lucien identifies himself are beyond existence, they are because they have to be, they are not superfluous and inexplicable. Politically, Lucien becomes one of the Swine whom Roquentin detested at Bouville, one of the bourgeois who have a divine right to existence. In his anti-semitism, he becomes a particular kind of Swine, whose more detailed portrait Sartre gave in his Réflexions sur la Question juive (Portrait of the Anti-Semite) in 1946.

The anti-semite is exactly like Lucien. Like him he 'has chosen to be terrible', and people 'are afraid to annoy him'—as they become afraid to annoy Lucien. 'No one knows to what extremities the wildness of his passion will lead him. He knows, however. For this passion is not caused from outside. He is in complete control of it, lets it go just as far as he wants, sometimes giving it its head and sometimes pulling on the reins. He is not afraid of himself; but he reads in the eyes of others a disquieting image of himself, and he makes his actions and words conform to that image. This exterior model frees him from the need to look for his personality within himself; he has chosen to exist completely outside, never to examine himself, and to be nothing but the fear which he inspires in other people. What he runs away from, even more than from Reason, is the intimate awareness of himself.' The whole of Sartre's essay on anti-semitism reads, in fact, like a commentary on 'The Childhood of a Leader'. The anti-semite, like Lucien, 'wants to be a pitiless rock, a ferocious torrent, a devastating thunderbolt: anything but a man'.

This close relationship is important for several reasons. It shows how easily Sartre's political and philosophical ideas intermingle at the level of his basic obsessions, and how his dislike of the bourgeoisie springs from a complex of philosophical and political reasons. The bourgeois, he maintains, thinks he has a right to existence. He also is a person who tends to run away from his indeterminacy, when he does feel it, into the emotional and irrational attitude characterized by Fascism. Sartre's idea, in his Outline of a Theory of the Emotions, that anger is essentially an escape from an over-difficult world here provides another link between his philosophy and his politics. Philosophically, Sartre regards emotion as a means whereby people try to deny their liberty and pretend that they have been 'carried away' by passion. Politically, he prefers people to try to solve problems in a rational way, without what he considers as a semi-magical recourse to emotion. His dislike of the irrational aberrations of anti-semitism and Fascism is consistent with his general world view. Facts about ourselves and about the world—we are unhappy, the world is difficult—must, in his opinion, be faced honestly. 'The Childhood of a Leader' with its satire on Lucien's attempt to identify himself with his anger against the Jews, is both philosophically and politically a cautionary tale.

This link between 'The Childhood of a Leader' and Portrait of the Anti-Semite once again gives a hint of the more optimistic view of man's fate which is implicit in Sartre's early work. If man is an unnecessary being, unjustifiable because he conforms to no pre-established idea, he is also, by virtue of this fact, completely free to choose what he shall become. Although man's first awareness of this liberty is always terrifying—an idea which Sartre develops in The Flies—it is nevertheless his only source of dignity. In refusing their liberty and identifying themselves with their social persona or with their emotions, the Swine in The Diary of Antoine Roquentin, Lucien Fleurier and the anti-semite are, like Lulu, refusing their liberty and their only possible chance of salvation. Sartre does not, either at this or any later stage, say exactly what this salvation is, or how it may be achieved. One can only assume, from hints in his work, that it consists of accepting oneself for what one is, and acting in accordance with one's conscience. In his short stories, as in his novels, Sartre remains disappointingly negative in his final recommendations.

In many ways, this collection of short stories is a more satisfying book than The Diary of Antoine Roquentin. Sartre's novel tends to go on for just a little too long, has little or no plot, and its extensive theorizing seems out of place in what is supposed, after all, to be a work of fiction. Each one of the stories, on the other hand, has a conciseness which comes from being written to illustrate a particular philosophical point. Each has its own particular atmosphere, from the harsh staccato realism of 'The Wall' to the reproduction of a shopgirl's thoughts in 'Intimacy', from the social satire of 'The Childhood of a Leader' to the obsessional and claustrophobic world of 'The Room' and 'Herostratus'.

Sartre's gift for mimicry, which later in his career he will use largely to score points in polemical discussions, is most evident in 'Intimacy'. Rirette, for example, is sitting at the terrace of a café thinking of Lulu's happiness, and repeats to herself: 'Happiness, happiness—a beautiful, grave, moving word, and she thought that if they asked her opinion in the competition for Paris-Soir she would say it was the most beautiful word in the French language. Has anyone thought of suggesting it? They said Energy, Courage, but that's because they're men, they really ought to have had a woman, a woman would have said that, they ought really to have had two prizes, one for men and the first word would have been Honour and one for women and I would have won, I should have said Happiness . . . I'll tell her: "Lulu, you have no right to miss your happiness, your Happiness, Lulu, your Happiness." I think Pierre's very nice myself . . .'

In his description of the childhood and youth of Lucien Fleurier, particularly of his relationship with the homosexual surrealist Bergère, Sartre has a gift for choosing exactly the right detail to satirize the atmosphere of French upper-middle-class life. When Lucien's father goes away to the war in 1914, he soon returns 'because he was a leader and because the General had told him that he would be more useful looking after his factory than staying in the trenches as if he were just anyone'. The description of Madame Fleurier's visit to the priest in charge of Lucien's first school is an excellent example of the way in which Sartre reproduces both the habits of the French upper class and the thought-processes of a child. 'She was sitting on the extreme edge of the green armchair and leaning her ample bosom in the direction of the priest; she was speaking very quickly and had put on her musical voice, as she did when she was angry but did not want to show it. The priest talked much more slowly and the words seemed much longer in his mouth than when other people used them, you would have said that he sucked them a little like barley-sugar before he let them slip out.' Bergère, the surrealist, 'had a pale face and magnificent white hair'. When Lucien was introduced to him, he 'took his hand between his own long, elegant fingers and made Lucien sit down. There was a silence. Bergère looked warmly and tenderly at Lucien: "Are you Disquiet?" he asked in a soft voice.'

There is in Sartre, as there is in François Mauriac, a social satirist who is hidden too early by more ambitious religious and political preoccupations. In the same way as Mauriac gives an extremely amusing picture, especially in his early novels, of the wine aristocracy in Bordeaux, so Sartre, with a wider range, excels at depicting the social atmosphere of particular groups. He is equally at home in describing Paul Hubert's visit to the prostitute as in recreating the tendency to pomposity and self-satisfaction in Monsieur Darbédat. In both cases, the characters climb stairs. 'At the Hôtel Stella there was only one room free, on the fourth floor. We went up. The woman was rather plump, and had to keep stopping to get her breath. I was very much at my ease; I have a dry body, in spite of my stomach, and it would need more than four flights of stairs to make me out of breath. On the landing of the fourth floor she stopped, put her right hand on her heart and breathed very heavily. In her left hand she held the key of the room. "It's a long way up," she said, trying to smile at me.' In contrast, here is the description of Monsieur Darbédat going to visit his daughter. 'He ran lightly up the one hundred and twelve stairs which led to her flat. When he rang the doorbell, he was not even breathing faster than usual. With some satisfaction he recalled the remark of Mademoiselle Dormoy: "At your age, Charles, you're quite simply marvellous." He never felt stronger or more healthy than on Thursdays, especially after these alert ascents.' In both cases Sartre manages to give the whole character of the person he is describing through these touches. It is not only the ideas which his short stories express which make them one of his most interesting works, but also the evidence they give of his acute observation of social behaviour.

The short stories have another superiority over The Diary of Antoine Roquentin, which comes from the effort which Sartre has to make in order to move from one atmosphere to another. The distance between the author and his characters is greater, and there is consequently less temptation to criticize the extreme subjectivism of the experience presented. Of course, the characters in Intimacy share many of Sartre's quite personal minor obsessions—that of being looked at, in particular—and all have something of Roquentin's horror of physical existence. Lucien Fleurier detests the 'mucous-like intimacy of the flesh' and Pablo Ibbieta feels that he is 'tied to his body as to an enormous insect'. While Sartre's power of describing physical sensations is equally effective in both books, one nevertheless feels a greater detachment in the short stories, and a more conscious control of the material. Indeed, Sartre's mastery of the different styles used in the book is so great that one is left with the problem of why he limited himself to publishing only five short stories. The varieties of human relationships described in Being and Nothingness would provide material for a dozen or more stories of a similar type, each of which would contribute towards bringing Sartre's philosophical ideas more fully to life. Why, since 1939, has he refrained from writing in a medium in which he was once so successful?

The answer is partly, of course, that an artist is often wise not to try the same trick twice. The danger for Sartre, if he had continued to write short stories, would have been to fall into an automatic exploitation of this medium. More important than this, however, is the evolution of his thought in the late nineteen-thirties, which had already led him, before the outbreak of war, to write the first volume of Les Chemins de la Liberté (The Roads to Freedom), and to think up the idea of the second. An article in the weekly review Marianne in 1938, written by a journalist who had apparently been recently in touch with Sartre [Claudine Chonez, "Jean-Paul Sartre: Romancier Philosophe," Marianne, November 23, 1938], mentions his plan to take Roquentin away from his wholly personal life at Bouville and plunge him into the all-embracing world of modern political and social reality created by the Munich crisis. Elsewhere [in an interview with Olivier Todd, BBC Third Programme, Listener, June 6, 1957], Sartre has spoken of his realization in 1938 and 1939 that the men of his generation had mistakenly lived their lives with the idea that peace would continue. When war revealed itself as inevitable, they discovered that they had been cheated, and that their lives up to that moment had all been based on wrong assumptions. This experience led Sartre away from the personal world of The Diary of Antoine Roquentin, and inspired him with the desire to write works which would express a more general social reality. There was also another reason for the change in his literary activity between 1939 and 1943, the date at which his first specifically committed work, The Flies, was performed.

In an interview published in Le Figaro Littéraire in 1951, Sartre spoke of the decisive influence which the period of captivity as a prisoner of war had exercised over his development. Before the war, he said, he had not been particularly interested in political questions. His early career had, in fact, been dominated by primarily academic preoccupations. He was born in Paris in 1905, entered the École Normale Supérieure, the most select and intellectual of all French educational institutions, at the age of nineteen, and after his military service became a teacher of philosophy. Except for the academic year 1933-4, which he spent in Berlin, he taught until the outbreak of war: at Le Havre, which probably served as the model for Bouville, at Laon, and, from 1937 onwards, at the Lycée Pasteur in Paris. In 1939 he was called up, and was taken prisoner by the Germans on 21 June 1940. It was while he was behind barbed wire, he says, that he discovered the true nature of liberty, and decided to become 'a militant democratic writer'. It was also in the prison camp, from which he was released in 1941 and allowed to resume his teaching in Paris, that he discovered his vocation for the theatre. A short play, the first he had ever written, which was performed in front of his fellow-prisoners one Christmas, showed him the immense potentialities of the theatre in speaking directly to men of their own problems. In view of the political implications already noted in his first novel and short stories, it is doubtful if the break in his political development was quite as absolute as this interview might suggest. Nevertheless, there is a distinct change in intention if not in atmosphere between the books written before 1941 and those published after his release from the prison camp and after the liberation of France in 1944. The medium of the full-scale novel, as well as that of the theatre, seemed to provide him with the ideal opportunity to express the more optimistic side of his philosophy. He had already written, in his criticism of François Mauriac in 1939, that the novel was concerned first of all with the problem of freedom, the philosophical and political value which he cherished above all others.

John K. Simon (essay date 1963)

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SOURCE: "Madness in Sartre: Sequestration and the Room," in Yale French Studies, Vol. 30, 1963, pp. 63-7.

[In the essay below, Simon compares Sartre's "The Room " with Frantz von Gerlach's Les Séquestrés d'Altona, both of which feature protagonists who sequester themselves from the world with physical and mental walls. Simon asserts that "Sartre's emphasis is upon lucid despair and the mockery of false, self-delusive solutions. "]

A Nazi torturer is the intellectual hero of Les Séquestrés d'Altona. Frantz von Gerlach is an existentialist Luther beside his unscrupulous industrialist father, a sensitive prodigal to his weak-kneed conformist brother, a pitiful victim for his incestuous sister. We are positively oriented toward the madness that has caused Frantz to sequester himself during the thirteen years since the close of the war. While Germany and the world have continued on into a meaningless prosperity devoid of guilt and of the quest for innocence, the young officer, with his time frozen at the moment of the Nuremberg trials, plays out and perpetuates the cycle of guilt and purge in outraged self-confinement. To the end of the play we hope that he will not be enticed from his room, his strangely lucid world of insanity, out into the materialistic reality below.

Yet Frantz' madness is deliberate self-delusion, an effort to escape from involvement, thus running directly counter to Sartre's political and philosophical sympathies. What is the significance of the ambiguity with which this kind of sequestration is treated? In Sartre's first novel, nausea is equally ambivalent since it constitutes a personal obsession, a "sickness" plaguing the narrator and revolting the reader, while also revealing the formless, obscene nature of life as it breaks through the illusory compensations of normal, complacent vision.

Although he often claims in his criticism and philosophical treatises to have transcended Gide and foreign influences of his formative period, such as Kafka and Faulkner, in his literary works, Sartre reformulates certain of their basic themes, that of internment, for example, and also the magic of hallucinations. After all, it was at the beginning of his flirtation with political and social concern, that Gide published a curious book, La Séquestrée de Poitiers.

The gruesome story of Mélanie Bastian, who was discovered in 1901 to have remained prostrate in filth and semi-idiocy, locked-up—voluntarily or at the will of her mother—in a respectable bourgeois apartment, is apparently a factual document. Nevertheless one senses a literary aura, almost a hoax, in the incredible details which emerge from the investigation. With its epigraphs from Pascal (quoted above) and from Les Faux-Monnayeurs, the text seems to progress naturally out of Gide's preoccupations with the pathological mystery of Dostoevsky's heroes. Various aspects of the pathetic creature's seclusion recall the Russian novelist (who incorporated faits divers frequently in his works himself), and must have been suggestive to Sartre: the very scandal of insanity, the placards with mottoes on the wall, the important fear of objects, the schizophrenic presence of childishness and sophistication, of a desperate need for purity and a wallowing in the obscene, finally the insolubility of these contradictions.

Sartre's preoccupation with madness during the 1930's is obviously related also to his readings in Freud, the development of his philosophical thesis on the dissolution of the ego. In La Force de l'âge, Simone de Beauvoir recollects a significant visit that they made together to an insane asylum at that time. The unfinished sentence at the start of La Nausée—"In one case alone it could be of interest to keep a diary: that would be if"—could be completed ". . . I were about to go mad." But Antoine Roquentin, in spite of his first-person narrative, seems always to stay a far enough distance from the nausea he is experiencing so that he may treat it discursively, as Sartre himself does.

Less philosophical, the images of madness created in "La Chambre" (1938) and Les Séquestrés d'Altona (1960) suggest that insanity is a potential form of the truth. Sartre has succeeded in neutralizing the expression bad faith to such an extent that at first the obvious artificiality of the madman's performance, his form of tricherie as Claude-Edmonde Magny analyzes it in Les Sandales d'Empédocle, does not undercut the authenticity but adds to its grandeur. The movement of each of these works is devised to bring the reader or spectator into sympathy with the madman. There are three successive points of view in the forty pages of "La Chambre." The story shifts deliberately from the grotesque paralytic mother-in-law of the mental syphilis victim Pierre, to the philistine father-in-law on his way to make his apprehensive weekly visit, finally to the devoted wife Eve who tries desperately to enter into the madness.

Similarly, during the admirable first act of Les Séquestrés, the exposition of the play, conducted by the family of the hero, takes place in an atmosphere of veneration and fascination for the young man sequestered in the room upstage. In each work, an attempt is made to destroy the sequestration in some way, by removal to an asylum in the case of Pierre, by return to normality for Frantz. One identifies, however, with the women who, in each instance, hopelessly seek to continue, and to take part in, the insane proceedings.

The sacred aspect of the madman's room is a measure of Sartre's reversal of the "sane" order. Pierre's dark incense-filled sanctuary and Frantz' bolted and windowless room on the stair landing are both like theatrical property closets, filled with all the accoutrements for a performance of magic. They serve to enact with continual variations what would be considered merely a personal persecution complex in psychoanalytical terms. But Sartre's hero is intensely aware of the vulnerability of man, constantly threatened by the inanimate, the mysterious danger lurking in things. The room constitutes his effort to stage a perpetual battle with the forces of inhumanity. These forces are death or the deathlike, external interpretation of human conduct. Pierre protects himself against the attack of the circling statues with their pieces of flesh indicating that they are coming to life while he is dying, against the objects and parts of the body which can turn immediately into semi-vegetal crustaceans. Frantz, fearful of an identical dehumanization, defends himself also against the "crabs," representatives of a non-human form of life, the only one in existence ten centuries from now. In opposition to anthropocentrism—the false unity of normality where the dual aspect of man is ignored—the hallucinations create a tension where man is flesh as well as mind, object as well as subject. This tension is externalized in the mad idiom of the room. It is thus maintained and controlled.

Both Frantz and Pierre fail: the former comes down from his room to join his father in a double suicide; the latter is about to slip into complete idiocy. Their failure, however, appears in a larger sense in Sartre's literary structure. The symmetry of Les Séquestrés and the realistic setting for the play suggest that the early attraction toward Frantz' room had to be matched by a fatal return to the salon below; his room remains attached to the bourgeois mansion, is contained within it. Frantz' sister-in-law who goes first to bring him back to reality and then finds herself drawn toward his madness, cannot divest herself of her ordinary feelings and abandons him.

Likewise, the narration of "La Chambre" makes the reader approach Pierre only through Eve. The latter cannot participate in her husband's hallucinations and seems moved to do so mainly through negative reaction to the normal life represented by her parents and the people in the street outside. Indeed, Pierre's madness itself appears conceived as a reaction to the outmoded belief in subjectivity and rationality attributed to his Proustian mother-in-law and athletic father-in-law. Eve prides herself in belonging nowhere, in a void between conventionality and initiation into Pierre's mystery. The situation of her self-conscious detachment, which suggests that of Sartre, is symbolized by the salon from which she watches her father leave and where she hesitates before re-entering the Room. The reader, like Eve, is figuratively left in this antechamber, on the threshold of madness.

The dialectic framework on which Sartre bases his conception of madness is reflected in the importance of words. At the end of "La Chambre" the imminent collapse of Pierre is prefigured in a lapsus: he says "recapitulation" instead of the contrary. The pair of opposites is significant, recalling the verbal antitheses of much of Pierre's (and Sartre's) theatricality. We realize the fragility of the intellectual game when he stutters now. In Les Séquestrés, Frantz, who tape-records his defense of Man, finds that his voice is dead and admits to saying white when he means black. The tape-recorded voice that he leaves behind reverberating at the end of the play is a tragic reminder of the artificial intellectuality of the device.

There are significant differences between the story and the play. The singular, private case of "La Chambre" has become plural and public. Frantz claims to be defending Man, not himself alone, talks of History and a less abstract guilt. The portrait of Adolf Hitler has replaced Pierre's anonymous, hallucinatory enemy. Frantz' room opens onto the arena of actuality, war crimes of the immediate past and present. The hero wants not only to protect himself from the Crabs but to justify himself to them. The voice, recorded, is intended for other ears, just as the play is meant to be seen especially in France and Germany. Frantz' sister-in-law leaves him to return to the indifference of reality when she learns that he has tortured.

For Sartre as for his hero it would seem that the sanctuary-like room (above Saint-Germain-des-Prés?) must become the infernal hotel-room of Huis clos. The latter is no room at all, but rather the open arena of incriminating exposure and persecution. After the sympathetic portrayal of Pierre's refuge, the nostalgic regret toward Annie's den in La Nausée, Sartre's subsequent works show a refusal to accept a private place susceptible to self-deception. Thus, in a succession of rooms, no prison is free from the "public" gaze, and the respectful prostitute Lizzie's flat, for example, with its shades and curtains drawn to create a "night" world and cover the black sin, is grossly exposed. Since Sartre appears to condemn the individual's haven which denies time and amoral history, it is strange to see this theme revived in an ambiguous way in Frantz' case. Here once again the room is surrounded by the invincible pressure of the outside world in the person of the Gerlach family waiting below. But does Sartre really think, as he is quoted in the interview mentioned above, that Frantz' death at the end of the play is a "liberation," that Frantz is good because he left his room and committed suicide? Rather than clearly rejecting the myth of sequestration, the mystery of madness, Sartre, in reformulating these themes, confuses them with his topical convictions, his political commitment. He is not able to produce a spectacle specifically on the subject of torture in Algeria but would like to have done so anyway. He seems almost tricked by his own vocabulary: sequestration and the insane monologue are part of an older and more personal dialectic.

Pierre's or Frantz' room, as a scene for a certain "idiotic" way of revealing the inhuman chaos beneath things, is a real creation. But Sartre deliberately moves by negation and refuses to achieve a Dostoevskian figure of synthesis on the edge of madness. In his philosophical works as in his literary and critical efforts, Sartre's emphasis is upon lucid despair and the mockery of false, self-delusive solutions. An exchange in Les Séquestrés clearly shows where the stress lies in Sartre's use of madness:

"Madmen tell the truth . . ."

"Really. Which?"

"There's only one: the horror of living."

Sidney D. Braun (essay date 1965)

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SOURCE: "Source and Psychology of Sartre's 'Le Mur'," in Criticism, Vol. VII, No. 1, Winter, 1965, pp. 45-51.

[In the following essay, Braun studies "The Wall" in an effort to better understand Sartre's psychoanalytic theories, particularly those concerning the emotion of fear.]

Finding a number of similarities between Sartre's short story "Le Mur" and Andreyev's "The Seven Who Were Hanged," this writer wrote Sartre some time ago to ask whether, in fact, he had been inspired by the Russian writer. Sartre, much too occupied with more important literary duties, did not have time to reply; but Simone de Beauvoir, who has often acted as his secretary, answered for him. In her courteous but direct reply, in which she denied the influence of Andreyev, she wrote: "En fait il a été inspiré pour le Mur par . . . le Traité de psychologie de Dumas au chapitre des émotions: la peur."

The clue supplied to the elusive search revealed two important bits of information: the name of an important psychologist who, during Sartre's stay as a student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, was the latter's professor of psychology and, secondly, the fact that fear was the principal theme and framework of reference for this short story, first published in the Nouvelle Revue Française (July 1937, pp. 38-62). This information did raise, however, in the mind of the present writer several questions. Why, for one thing, was the indicated source not common knowledge? Why, too, in the several psychological studies on Sartre, studies which include the names of those psychologists who had influenced him, was the name of Georges Dumas never referred to? Finally, why did Simone de Beauvoir, who, in her La Force de l'Age, scrupulously indicated (even in footnotes) the sources of Sartre's works, including those of the other short stories in the volume Le Mur, not shed any light on the genesis of the short story we are presently considering?


These are indeed interesting questions. More important, however, than finding the answers to these questions are the problems relating, first, to Sartre's psychology—since his almost exclusive preoccupation prior to 1938 was with psychology—and, second, to the way in which Dumas' notion of fear influenced Sartre. An examination of the latter problem is basic, of course, for a proper evaluation and explication of Sartre's "Le Mur."

Simone de Beauvoir sheds some biographical light in La Force de l'Age on Sartre's intellectual formation. He had read Freud, Adler, and Jung at a time when, in the late Twenties, his generation was being drawn to psychoanalysis; but he was opposed to the psychoanalytic view which "decomposed" man instead of understanding him, and to the theory of the unconscious which, according to him, crushed human liberty. If, therefore, he was more drawn in 1927 to Jaspers (whose treatise on Psychopathology, written in 1913, had just been translated), it was because the latter "saisit des relations singulières, par des intuitions, plus affectives que rationnelles." With regard to Georges Dumas, it is interesting, to say the least, that Simone de Beauvoir, referring to his psychology and to his theory of the "monisme endocrinien" (associated by him with a "dualisme cartésien"), calls it "inacceptable"! As she sees it, then, Sartre viewed the individual as a "totalité synthétique et indivisible," whose conduct was to be judged "globalement." Expressed differently, "l'individualisme est une prise de position par rapport à la totalité du monde."

On the plane of emotions, therefore, Sartre tried to prove that they do not determine our actions but rather that they constitute a certain way in which we choose to live these relations. This is the significance of his early psychological studies as well as of his basic Esquisse d'une théorie des emotions (1939). As an "experiment in phenomenological psychology," the latter work is a psychological interpretation of emotions, which are a form of existence of consciousness. To recapitulate, then, Sartre's existential psychoanalysis rejects the theory of the unconscious and believes that man is conscious of all his acts. Of course, what Sartre has in mind is that an emotional (i.e. non-reflective) consciousness is a certain way of apprehending the world; but a non-reflective action is not an unconscious one.

Dumas' position on emotions, though stated less clearly, is not basically different from that of Sartre. In his Traité de Psychologie, he says, in part: ". . . notre état affectif est à chaque instant déterminé par les rapports du donné matériel, sensoriel ou représentatif avec nos tendances et nos inclinations." (italics mine)

On fear, as one of the emotions, Dumas leaves no doubt as to his interpretation. Although he distinguishes between active and passive fear, he finds that the depressive form of fear is characterized "par une dépression subite de l'appareil neuro-musculaire volontaire." (italics mine) And the only positive reactions he finds associated with this type of fear are "less spasmes des muscles de la vie organique, muscles intestinaux, muscles vésicaux, muscles vasomoteurs, d'ù évacuations fécales et urinaires." Such acts, then, if we interpret them correctly, are, even when the subject is immobile and incapable of fleeing, conscious on the non-reflective level.

Sartre, too, sees the body as using a form of incantation when it wishes to free itself of fear; in other words, it transforms itself in order to transform the object of fear. This act, too, is a conscious one on the non-reflective level, since the body is directed by the emotional consciousness to change its relationship to the world so that the qualities brought on by the world be changed. Fear is the individual's freedom and so is his choice of "flight."


It is well to remember, then, that, prior to World War II, Sartre published studies in psychological theory and that, at least with regard to the emotion of fear, he gave evidence of having been influenced by his psychology teacher. When, then, he gave up these studies in order to write "Le Mur," the subject of this investigation, as well as the subsequent stories that were to appear in the volume Le Mur (1939), his interest in and unique approach to psychology were to be their main source. This is true, of course, even of his La Nausée. In a word, what we hope to underline is the fact that critics have often missed the point that Sartre's existential psychoanalysis is important as a psychology, in theory and, especially, in its application to his stories.

"Le Mur" contains a wealth of psychological observations, and its real subject is that of fear. The physical reactions to fear are presented within an existential framework as the narrator describes his own experiences as well as those of his two comrades who, like himself, have been taken captive and are waiting to die. Juan's trembling lips and nostrils, Pablo's (the narrator's) perspiring in the cold, his shirt sticking to his skin, while he feels nothing, Tom's incessant talking, his urinating in his pants without apparently being aware of it; later, when the lieutenant comes for him and Juan who are to be shot, his spontaneous jumping and the tears rolling down the cheeks of Juan—all this is presented as banal physical disorders provoked immediately by a non-reflective—in Sartrean terms—emotional consciousness. These reactions, on this plane, are those of fear of something on the outside that is not controlled by the self, and follow pretty closely the theory of Dumas, who states that fear can assert itself "devant un danger possible, avec un minimum de représentations, et son expression physiologique . . . peut être cependant très accusée." In other words, the body uses its own incantation to free itself of fear. But Sartre views these reactions, in the words of Simone de Beauvoir, as those of "la complaisance," the equivalent, for him, of "bad faith." (La Force de l'Age)

More important for Sartre, as Simone de Beauvoir puts it, is "la signification d'un visage." The fact that he regarded seriously the interpretation of physiognomy is clearly seen in "Le Mur" when the narrator, referring to Juan, describes the latter's fear in the following manner: "il avait un visage trop fin et la peur, la souffrance l'avaient défiguré, elles avaient tordu tous ses traits . . . Il . . . était devenu gris: son visage et ses mains étaient gris." And the narrator himself wonders about his own facial expression and whether Tom is afraid to see him as he was, "gris et suant."

Following Sartre's phenomenological psychology, fear, then, is not, at first, consciousness of being afraid, but rather a physical or non-reflective emotional consciousness. Only when passing from this stage to that of awareness does fear become a reflective emotional consciousness, as can clearly be seen in "Le Mur." This, of course, involves the play of consciousness upon consciousness, of mind upon mind, the relationship between the "en-soi," "pour-soi," "autrui"—the whole interplay effected by the Look, and the role of the human body as flesh which loses its transcendency before death, end of all "projects."

Not ever having been faced with death before, the narrator declares he had never before thought of it. There is, in other words, no previous memory of such an experience which could induce fear in him. It is only when he begins to observe Tom's bundle of flesh, a "masse de chair tendre comme dans une motte de beurre," and to imagine gunshots or the bayonet going through it, that Tom's body becomes an Object ("en-soi") for him.

It is well to recall, in this connection, that the body itself is at first revealed to us in its immanence by the Other, its possibilities being replaced by probabilities, and that only in the subsequent process of reflection, resulting from the Look of others, do we discover the "en-soi" dimension of our own body.

Hence, the consciousness of Tom's body is then associated with that of his own body—or lack of it since, as he puts it, "je ne sentais plus mes épaules ni mes bras . . . j'avais l'impression qu'il me manquait quelque chose." Not yet fully "aware" of the situation, he wonders whether one suffers a great deal in dying and, bringing imagination rather than memory into play, pictures to himself the "grêle brûlante" of the bullets going through his body. What he wishes, however, is "to understand"—that is, what Death does to the body. Only when the doctor appears on the scene, and when he realizes that he is being observed by him, does the narrator begin to feel crushed by an enormous weight; neither the thought of death nor fear accounts for this feeling; rather, as he puts it, "c'était anonyme. Les pommettes me brûlaient et j'avais mal au crâne." Looking at Tom, with his head now buried in his hands, and at Juan, whose arm the doctor takes, slyly running his hand down to the wrist to get his pulse, he reacts with anger. Sensing, moreover, that he is being looked at, he returns the look. The more conscious he becomes of being the Object of the doctor's fixed gaze, of being watched as drops of perspiration, in spite of the cold, roll down his cheeks, and, at the same time, of feeling nothing while the doctor appears proud just because he feels cold, the more does his anger rise and the more humiliated does he feel. To the doctor, he is an Object, a piece of flesh manifesting a quasi-pathological state of terror; but, apparently assuming a rôle, he tries to convince himself that "ce n'était pas la crainte de souffrir qui me faisait transpirer." Unlike his comrades Juan and Tom, both of whom are obsessed with the fear of suffering which, to them, is associated with death, the narrator watches them both. Juan is asking the doctor whether the pain lasts for a long time, and Tom keeps speaking incessantly, without daring to lift his eyes toward Pablo (the narrator), for fear of seeing him "gris et suant." The play of consciousness upon consciousness—the "pour-soi" having become an "en-soi"—is clearly brought out when the narrator, echoing the Sartrean theme of "l'enfer, c'est les autres," says: "nous étions pareils et pires que des miroirs l'un pour l'autre." As the awareness grows on all that the doctor "était venu regarder nos corps, des corps qui agonisaient tout vifs," Tom, trying desperately to understand the meaning of death, sees his own facticity with eyes that view his body as a corpse. Listening to the latter's visual articulation of the body's disintegration, the narrator now sees him, for the first time, as something strange: "il portait sa mort sur sa figure." Death begins, in effect, to take on a dimension of reflective awareness as the three now look at the doctor who, representationally speaking, is life. "Il avait les gestes d'un vivant, les soucis d'un vivant; il grelottait dans cette cave, comme devaient grelotter les vivants; il avait un corps obéissant et bien nourri. Nous autres nous ne sentions plus guère nos corps—plus de la même façon en tout cas." The fact that consciousness of fear takes hold of the hitherto "brave" narator is now brought out in another contrast—between his imagination and memory, his future and past. Not wanting to die "comme un bête," but wishing to "understand," he tries to dismiss from his mind the thought of what would happen the following dawn, with death; he has in his imagination a vivid picture of the cannon shots, sees himself being dragged to the wall and resisting. And he suddenly remembers, very much like Camus's "L'Etranger" how he ran "après le bonheur, après les femmes, après la liberté." Previously he has also recollected his joys on the beach, in the sun and shade, at the bar. Death now begins to appear to him through objects which he sees as "moins denses qu'à l'ordinaire"; and his own body he now observes as that of an Other, as "une espèce de pesanteur." The thought of his own perspiring and "grey" body leaves him with a feeling of horror—a realization of his being cut off, even from the Look of the Other that has hitherto sustained his existence.


At the heart of this story, then, fear exists by virtue of concrete facts of consciousness. This consciousness, as depicted by Sartre, is dependent upon the Look, through which conflict in human relationships and the domination of the Object are also brought out in bold reilef. Death as a theme has always been one of Sartre's concerns, witness his Huis-Clos, Les Mains sales, and Les Morts sans sépulture. But the fear of death, which is the central theme in "Le Mur," is the fear of physical pain on the more immediate level; in the final analysis, however, it is, as Jolivet reminds us [in Le Problème de la mort chez M. Heidegger et J. P. Sartre, 1950], "de tomber sans rémission 'sous un insupportable regard.'" And since fear of death is also fear of the unknown, the reflective emotional awareness of it is brilliantly dramatized in this story thanks to the Sartrean psychology of the Look or of consciousness. In so doing, Sartre, bearing the initial stamp of Dumas' influence, has succeeded in adding to it his own approach and originality.

James Greenlee (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: "Sartre's 'Chambre': The Story of Eve," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XVI, No. 1, Spring, 1970, pp. 77-84.

[In the following essay, Greenlee studies Eve's perceptions of herself in relation to, and subsequent alienation from, her parents and her husband.]

Composed when Sartre was elaborating his theory of being, "La Chambre" has been considered a continuation of the metaphysical drama of La Nausée.1 Its representation of Pierre's insanity appeared as a sequel to the hallucinatory visions in the journal of Antoine Roquentin. But Pierre's experience is registered differently from that of Roquentin or those in other tales of Le Mur, all of which are distorted by the particular vision of the main character. His dementia has progressed so far that he can no longer recount his own experiences. For the author, scrupulously writing from the viewpoint of his characters, Pierre's story must be told by his wife, who has observed the progress of the illness in the isolation of their darkened bedroom.

Eve's provocative account of Pierre's withdrawal before the absurd might have received less credit had it been read in the light of the narrative principles announced by Sartre's early essay, "M. François Mauriac et la liberté."2 In the year of the publication of Le Mur, Sartre criticized Mauriac's failure to respect his character's limitations in La fin de la nuit, blaming the novelist for repeatedly supplying information that the distraught Thérèse Desqueyroux could not have given.3 The theory underlying this criticism was expanded first in the Esquisse d'une théorie des émotions4 and shortly afterwards in L'imaginaire,5 where Sartre indicates how the "magic" of the emotions transforms the world. Judged by these principles, Eve's account loses all objectivity. It acquires a different value, however, as it becomes the record of her own distorted perceptions. As her selection and interpretation of the events in the bedroom receive the attention that has been given to the events themselves, they will be seen to present the personality of the character reporting Pierre's drama far more accurately than the drama itself.

Read with respect for Eve's point of view, the story loses none of its philosophical impact. It may even gain substantially by overcoming the problem of Pierre's disease. In his study of the Sartrian theme of sequestration, Profesor Simon suggests that Pierre may be syphilitic.6 Although neither Eve nor her parents confirm it, the impending aphasia and the diagnosis attributed to Doctor Franchot7 point to an organic cause of the dementia. His retreat from the world, then, would not be a voluntary response to the absurd. But, whether they are brought on by disease or fear, the ramblings of a lunatic can hardly be as fecund as the psychology of the wife who chooses to share her husband's torments rather than accept the comforts offered by her parents.

To appreciate this personality, the reader must reconstruct it from the bits of information provided by her and her parents as they report their views of the events of the Thursday afternoon. Realizing how the characters' emotions can affect their perceptions, the reader must approach "La Chambre" as he would a work of the "new novelists," whose techniques Sartre appears to anticipate, or Gide's composition "en abyme," that he continues.8 The solitary mediations that introduce Mme. and M. Darbédat expose the sensitivities which color their responses to their daughter's revolt, the theme which unifies the two episodes of part one.

Alone in the tranquility of her own bedroom, the hypochondriac mother relives the past which her rahat-loukoum evokes in a manner recalling Proust's madeleine.9 As the moment of his intrusion into her bedroom approaches, Mme. Darbédat's musings are arrested by her anticipation of the conversation with her vigorous but obtuse husband. Consistent with her retreat from the coarseness of the world is the impulse to share her daughter's onerous admission. With the characteristic refinement so irritating to her impatient husband, Mme. Darbédat succeeds in communicating that Eve continues to have sexual intercourse with Pierre. Although Eve's lie does not become apparent until much later in the story (p. 67), the consternation it immediately provokes suggests the importance Eve's sexuality should assume. Consideration of her motives leads to the assumption that she must have realized the shock her admission would produce. As subsequent incidents confirm (pp. 52 and 59), she did intend it as a repudiation of her mother's Victorian standards and as an action which would isolate her from her mother.

The themes of sexuality and revolt are further developed in the second episode through the observations of M. Darbédat, who takes the reader to the apartment Eve occupies with her husband. The brisk climb up to the apartment above rue du Bac flatters the father's vanity and reveals the type of sensitivities which will color his observations. The boredom he reads on Eve's face during the rehearsal of a banal real estate transaction, the coldness of her abrupt responses to his questions and her rejection of the compliment on the comfort of her salon indicate his awareness of Eve's estrangement. He signifies his disapproval by refusing the luxury of a cigar. Finally, he ventures a criticism of Eve's make-up, undoubtedly observed upon entering, but until now a disagreeable thing he chose to put out of his mind. If Eve understood his preference for the "natural" as well as the normally imperceptive father suggests (p. 52), the make-up she put on to receive her regular Thursday afternoon caller becomes a repudiation of the father's standards. Because it also confirms her intention to alienate her mother, this incident presents Eve in a posture of revolt against her parents and the middle-class propriety they represent.

When his final attempt to have Pierre committed to the asylum fails, M. Darbédat again raises the question of his daughter's sexuality. In the reflection which terminates his visit, the "old naturist" concedes his daughter's "unnatural perversity": "C'est vrai, pensa M. Darbédat, furieux, ils ne font pas que ça; ils couchent ensemble" (p. 55).

Expressed immediately before his departure for the healthy atmosphere where people live contentedly on the surface of events, the father's scorn serves as an introduction to part two, in which the events are interpreted by Eve. While her observations can offer no explanation for Pierre's calling her "Agathe," nor for any of his fabrications, they will explain the more significant drama of a wife who capitulates to her insane husband's whims.

The visit of her father still fresh in her mind, Eve's irritation provokes her imprecation that he die (p. 57). When a final glimpse revives her resentment, it is associated with a possessiveness, a refusal to share Pierre with anyone. "Pourtant la colère la reprit quand elle le vit tourner au coin du boulevard Saint-Germain et disparaître. 'Il pense à Pierre.' Un peu de leur vie s'était échappée de la chambre close et traînait dans les rues, au soleil, parmi les gens. 'Est-ce qu'on ne pourra donc jamais nous oublier?'" (pp. 57-58). Eve's rejection of other people is punctuated by her sneer as she turns away from the spectacle on the street below. But the fear which then prevents her from returning to her husband's side raises doubts about the sincerity of her devotion. With counterfeit conviction, she tries to overcome the repugnance of Pierre's den and the attraction to the comforts of the salon that, moments earlier, she had denied entering: ". . . comme chaque fois qu'elle avait quitté la chambre, elle était prise de panique à l'idée qu'il lui fallait y rentrer. Pourtant elle savait bien qu'elle n'aurait pas pu vivre ailleurs: elle aimait la chambre. Elle parcourut du regard avec une curiosité froide, comme pour gagner un peu de temps, cette pièce sans ombres et sans odeur où elle attendait que son courage revînt" (p. 58). Failing, she grasps another pretext, renewing her efforts to delude herself: "Il faudrait qu'Eve triomphât de cette résistance et qu'elle s'enfonçât jusqu'au coeur de la pièce. Elle eut soudain une envie violente de voir Pierre; elle eût aimé se moquer avec lui de M. Darbédat" (p. 59).

Anxiety over the reception she would receive dispels the desire, and she lapses into memories of the more pleasant autumns of her childhood. Then, self-consciously admonishing herself to distrust her memory, she hears Pierre's call and, without hesitating, enters the bedroom.

During these moments of solitude, the elements of Eve's drama are presented. It involves first her self-conscious resistance to the world of "normal people," repugnant for its falseness but attractive for its familiar comforts. For the rejection of its artificiality, she appears to confront the human condition with existential authenticity. The second aspect of her drama, however, betrays a cowardly retreat from life as she attempts to adapt herself to Pierre's world. Her account will contain other inconsistencies when what she wishes to believe conflicts with what her reason shows her. This opposition can be explained by her curious sexuality which motivates her response to the world, a response scarcely more authentic than her mother's, but one that permits the heroine of "La Chambre" to take her place among the other deviates represented in the stories of Le Mur.

Eve's portrait of Pierre, more vividly detailed than the one sketched by her father, registers at once her physical attachment to her husband. But her passivity before his ridicule of M. Darbédat indicates, first, her inability to participate in his fantasies. Beyond that, it exposes both the facticity of her earlier desire to ridicule her father and the self-deception which distorts her view of events in the room. Delusion is her mechanism for overcoming her sentiments of exclusion from Pierre's experiences, but the mechanism is not always effective. The moments of lucidity following her entry into the bedroom register its failures: she blames herself for feeling superior (p. 61); reports a self-consciousness about her gestures (p. 62); and, perhaps most significantly, admits her inability to see objects as Pierre does: "A Pierre seul les choses montraient leur vrai visage. Eve pouvait les regarder pendant des heures: elles mettaient un entêtment inlasable et mauvais à la décevoir, à ne lui offrir jamais que leur apparence—comme au docteur Franchot et à M. Darbédat" (p. 63).

Her admissions here also convey her longing to share her husband's experiences and to believe in the superiority of his vision. She registers her longing again when, anticipating the arrival of the terrifying statues, she appears to blame Pierre for not using his "ziuthre" for protection (p. 65). A moment later, she becomes skeptical about the existence of the statues: "'Il souffre. Mais jusqu'à quel point croit-il [Sartre's italics] aux statues et au nègre? Les statues, en tout cas, je sais qu'il ne les voit pas, il les entend seulement: quand elles passent, il détourne la tête; il dit tout de même qu'il les voit; il les décrit'" (p. 66).

Her doubts recede before her desire to share Pierre's hallucination and she readies herself for the visitation of the statues (pp. 66-67). Her attention is drawn to her husband's lips, the only part of his body that appears alive to Eve. Since a nightmare left him afraid of the touch of another body, his words constitute his contact with his wife. With some regret, she observes how the lips have lost their sensuality. But her perception seems to restore it. The vivid description of their movement shows her response to their sensuality:

Elles s'écartaient l'une de l'autre en frémissant un peu et se rejoignaient sans cesse, s'écrasaient l'une contre l'autre pour se séparer de nouveau. Seules, dans ce visage muré, elles vivaient; elles avaient l'air de deux bêtes peureuses. Pierre pouvait marmotter ainsi pendant des heures sans qu'un son sortît de sa bouche et, souvent, Eve se laissait fasciner par ce petit mouvement obstiné. "J'aime sa bouche." (p. 67).

Pierre's command not to stare at his lips is followed by an obedient shift of Eve's glance. Seeing the tension transmitted to his hands, she feels the impulse to seize him in her arms. Her restraint, the subsequent refusal to join in his fanciful reconstruction of their first meeting and her seemingly superfluous recollection that she is not—or not yet—Agathe indicate the lucidity that still checks her desire to share in Pierre's world.

Her husband's ramblings again draw Eve's gaze to his mouth. The painfully articulated sounds seem to acquire a palpable solidity as her aroused imagination transforms the perception: "Il parlait péniblement, d'une voix aiguë et pressée. Il y avait des mots qu'il ne pouvait prononcer et qui sortaient de sa bouche comme une substance molle et informe" (p. 68).

This evocation announces Eve's concentration on her husband's hallucination. His recitation of the "Coronation of the Republic" is uninterrupted as Eve resolutely projects herself more deeply into her husband's frenzy: she "feels" the statues enter the bedroom; the maid arrives, but she refuses to leave Pierre's side to give her the gas money. She "feels" the flight of the statues about the bedroom and observes Pierre cringe before them. Then, seeing the pallor of his face and the ugly contraction of his mouth, she shuts her eyes to prevent the sight from interfering with her emotion. But the creak of the floor cannot be shut out and her determination to prolong the drama appears with all its artificiality: "Il lui suffirait d'un tout petit effort et, pour la première fois, elle entrerait dans ce monde tragique. J'ai peur des statues, pensa-t-elle. C'était une affirmation violente et aveugle, une incantation: de toutes ses forces elle voulait croire à leur présence . . ." (p. 70).

Pierre's chilling cry destroys the illusion which had finally communicated its excitation to Eve's body. Trembling and unfulfilled by her efforts, she blames herself for trying to participate in an experience which her reason prevents her from sharing with her husband: "'Un jeu, pensa-t-elle avec remords; ce n'était qu'un jeu, pas un instant je n'y ai cru sincèrement. Et pendant ce temps-là, il souffrait pour de vrai'" (pp. 70-71).

Pierre's experience has left him exhausted, but his calmness and the coherence of his speech show he has experienced some release from his torments. During the brief conversation that follows the climax of his hallucination, he speaks of Eve's beauty and ventures a cautious caress before accidentally pronouncing récapitulation. His halting explanation of the lapsus divests the world of any meaning or context. The characters' reaction to the word and its subsequent association with an earlier representation of Pierre's speech indicate that it is more than a portent of aphasia. It is seen, rather than heard, by the wife who has been captivated by her husband's sensuous mouth. After he dozes off, the now calm Eve reflects on the release she read in his expression as he articulated the syllables: "Pierre avait pris soudain l'air bête et le mot avait coulé hors de sa bouche, long et blanchâtre. Pierre avait regardé devant lui avec étonnement comme s'il voyait le mot et ne le reconnaissait pas; a bouche était ouverte, molle; quelque chose semblait s'être cassé en lui" (p. 72).

Clarified by Sartre's theory on the distortions affected by the emotions,10 the orgasm Eve attributes to Pierre can be seen to represent her own sexual climax. Evidence she has presented earlier suggests that her husband's release came at the moment of his chilling cry, the moment Eve realized her exclusion from the hallucination (pp. 70-71). The previous reference to Pierre's babbling (p. 68) indicates that she had expected some viscous emission from his mouth. When récapitulation acquires the viscosity and color of semen, Eve is associating it with the sexual release accompanying an ejaculation. The orgasm is her own, but it is the one she desires Pierre to experience with her. Through the distortions effected by her emotions, she is able to satisfy the desire which elicits the sensuous description of her husband's mouth and which is announced at the beginning of the story by her father and mother.

Continuing her reflections, Eve diagnoses Pierre's slip of the tongue as a sympton of the aphasia predicted by the psychiatrist for a year later. Her concern about the progress of the disease communicates her anticipation of that time when neither his speech nor countenance will solicit her response. Then she will kill him, she resolves, to deprive other people of any satisfaction from his last moments of existence.

Consideration of the narrative techniques employed by Sartre confirms Eve's importance in "La Chambre," an importance which his contemporary essays have already suggested. The two initial episodes raise the question of Eve's sexuality, which the conclusion of the story resolves: the structure, then, points to her importance. And stylistically, the distortions in her account obscure Pierre's story, but they permit the reader to understand her own withdrawal from the world.

Her revolt against her parents is a defense against the seizure of Pierre: the parents alone appear to oppose their daughter's determination to remain at his side, sequestered from the society of "normal" people. Her devotion to Pierre can be explained in existential terms as a retreat from the responsibility of freedom. She has sought the comfort of the circumscribed universe dominated by Pierre, who had been able to offer her the satisfaction she desired. When the impotence of the demented husband forces her to refine her sexual responses, her adjustment elicits the acts of ritual, delusion and bad faith by which Sartrian characters often mask the reality of their existence.

Having effected this adaptation, Eve ceases at the end of the story to consider the authenticity of her acts. She has succeeded in participating in Pierre's drama and her concern is then to continue. Confronted by her husband's impotence, she had approached the wall of the absurd, but she manipulated her perception of the world to avoid the liberation of the existential experience. "La Chambre" is her own account of the subordination of her freedom and reason to the satisfaction of her sexual desires. During that afternoon after her father's departure, when she describes the development of this singular perversion, what she lets us see about herself is far richer than anything we learn about her demented husband.


1 See Claude-Edmonde Magny, Les Sandales d'Empédocle(Neuchâtel: Editions de la Baconnière, 1945), pp. 120-131 and passim; Marie-Denise Boros, Un séquestré: l'homme sartrien (Paris: Nizet, 1968), pp. 23-25 and passim;John K. Simon, "Madness in Sartre: Sequestration and the Room," Yale French Studies, XXX (1964), 63-67; and John K. Simon, "Sartre's Room," Modern Language Notes, LXXIX (Dec. 1964), 526-538. The last contains a good bibliography of earlier studies which reflect this view.

2 Reprinted in Situations I (Paris: Gallimard, 1947), 36-57.

3 "Mauriac," p.44.

4 Paris: Hermann, 1939.

5 Paris:Gallimard, 1940.

6 Simon, "Madness," p. 65.

7 "La Chambre," Le Mur (Paris: Gallimard, 1961), pp. 54 and 72. Further references to the text of the short story will follow in parentheses.

8 André Gide, Journal 1889-1939 Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1941), pp. 40-41.

9 Simon, "Sartre's Room," pp. 526-527, and Robert Greer Cohn, "Sartre vs. Proust," Partisan Review, XXVIII, No. 5-6 (1961), 633-645. This refinement is also sketched by Sartre in Esquisse, p. 54.

10Esquisse, pp.40-43, 51-53.

C. J. Harvey (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: "Jean-Paul Sartre's 'L'Enfance d'un Chef': The Longing for Obscenity," in Romance Notes, Vol. 23, No. 3, Spring, 1983, pp. 204-09.

[In the following essay, Harvey examines Sartre's use of obscenity in "The Making of a Leader, "focusing on how it serves to develop character and plot.]

Sartre's collection of short stories Le Mur has received less attention from critics or the public than his other works of fiction. Among the few articles devoted to this early work, a brief review by Jean Vaudal expresses the malaise many may experience on reading the last and longest of the collection, "L'Enfance d'un Chef": "Je ne suis pas sûr que dans 'L'Enfance d'un Chef' l'auteur ait voulu mettre autant de grotesque que j'en vois. Le fait est que, maintenant que je l'y ai vu, plus rien ne l'ôtera."1 Various aspects of the story are indeed grotesque; examples range from the vaguely scatalogical but amusing description of young Lucien sitting on his potty, straining to evacuate his bowels, while his mother looks on and says: "Pousse, Lucien, pousse, mon petit bijou, je t'en supplie" (p. 155)2 to the graphically-detailed description of the homosexual act between Lucien and Bergère which Lucien sums up as he contemplates his toes: "Ces orteils, un homme les avait sucés, l'un après l'autre" (p. 206).

Since Sartre's literary work is a vehicle for conveying his philosophy,3 it is hardly plausible to suggest that such details are intended merely to titillate or attract the reader.4 The story chronicles the physical and metaphysical experiences that Lucien Fleurier, the only son of a well-to-do industrialist, undergoes as he grows from infancy to adulthood. It is closely allied thematically to the earlier La Nausée, as it provides a fictitious illustration of the existential basis for man's anguish: Lucien, like Roquentin, may either create his own essence from his existence or may mould his existence to conform to a preconceived essence. In fact, from its ironic title to its concluding words, the story exposes the shams and pretences of the various refuges Lucien seeks in order to avoid creating his essence. As Lucien stands on the threshold of manhood and decides to accept his hereditary "place . . . au soleil" (p. 247), the fifth generation of the Fleurier family to be a leader of society with all the rights and privileges of his station in life, Sartre's condemnation of his "hero's" mauvaise foi is apparent. It is unlikely, then, that those sordid, obscene or scatalogical experiences which give rise to the grotesque are purely gratuitous. They have been characterized as "techniques de provocation" intended to shock or scandalize the reader.5 However, in addition to provoking interaction between text and reader, they may well have a role to play in the development of plot or character, or in the elaboration of Sartre's philosophy. There is in all probability an aesthetic or philosophical value to be found in the use of the grotesque.

From the aesthetic point of view, much of the imagery Sartre employs is, at the very least, unconventional. Little Lucien is sitting on his mother's knee, listening to Little Red Riding Hood and to his mother's stories of her childhood. This touching scene of maternal and filial affection is rudely shattered by Lucien's thoughts when his mother laughs: "Elle rit en ouvrant la bouche toute grande, et Lucien vit sa langue rose et le fond de sa gorge: c'était sale, il avait envie de cracher dedans" (p. 154). As an adolescent, Lucien meets Bergère, a self-styled surrealist of about thirty-five, who teaches him a great deal about the shadier aspects of literature and life and who introduces him to homosexuality in a hotel room. It is a distressingly sordid experience for Lucien, affording him no pleasure; on the contrary, the purely animal, depersonalized nature of the act is accentuated by Sartre's imagery: "Une bouche tiède et molle se colla contre la sienne, on aurait dit un biftek cru" (p. 204). Later, on holiday at the family's country home in Férolles, he hesitates to sleep with the attractive seventeen-year-old maid, Berthe, because she smells of sweat and her black blouse is stained under the arms (p. 216). When he sets her on his knee he has to wash his hands, which smell of Berthe's perspiration. Back in Paris, he finally sleeps with Maud, whose favours he has been assiduously courting, but the act he had anticipated for so long is described thus: ". . . il avait approché ses lèvres d'un visage sans yeux, nu comme un ventre, il avait possédé une grosse fleur de chair mouillée. Il revit la bête aveugle qui palpitait dans les draps avec des clapotis et des baîllements velus . . ." (p. 238). In all these situations, the reader's expectations are frustrated or drastically modified. The sentimentality of the traditional mother-and-son relationship in a secure and happy childhood is questioned; the relationship between two young men of sensitive, artistic temperament, culminating in the homosexual act is mocked as a hollow travesty of sexual fulfillment. Although the descriptions of Lucien's initiation to heterosexual experiences are probably not intended as obscene, the imagery can hardly be said to evoke the traditional romantic pictures of young love, with its attendant quickening of the pulse and heightening of the emotions. The customary lyrical description of the charms of the beloved and the passions inspired are replaced by mean and sordid imagery. Any of the conventional elements of romance which do come into play—le visage, la fleur—are juxtaposed with unaccustomed and apparently incongruous attributes.

On a literary level, such substitutions for the traditional "happy-ever-after" ingredients of fairy-tale or romance are usually the essence of parody. However, Sartre's caricatures of person, plot or situation are not merely comic or absurd and his parody indubitably transcends the purely literary. In fact, from the aesthetic point of view it serves a double function: so far as the reader is concerned, the intrusion of incongruous elements is grotesque and serves to confuse his conventional modes of thought. In the context of the story itself, the involuntary intervention of grotesque imagery between Lucien and other people precludes the possibility of happiness by inhibiting Lucien's ability to take pleasure in love. In this way, the parody also fulfills a philosophical function in the story as it conveys Sartre's ideas that neither maternal love, nor homosexual love nor heterosexual love will furnish sufficient justification for Lucien's existence.6 Sartre implacably destroys all the refuges Lucien seeks. He will not be allowed to seek oblivion of self in the arms of another; he must be perpetually lucid, conscious of his situation, even though such lucidity is anguishing. Love will not furnish Lucien with an alibi any more than it will the young couple whom Roquentin and the Autodidact observe in a cafe in Bouville: "Quand ils auront couché ensemble, il faudra qu'ils trouvent autre chose pour voiler l'énorme absurdité de leur existence."7

Sartre's grotesque imagery is not restricted to the sexual encounters between Lucien and Bergère, Berthe or Maud. Equally disquieting to the reader anticipating a conventional work of fiction is Sartre's use throughout the story of scatalogical details. Why does little Lucien not notice the pretty birds or butterflies but "une mouche à caca" (p. 159)? Why is his most persistent recollection of his elegant cousin Riri the fact that ". . . à sept ans passés, [il] faisait encore son gros dans sa culotte, et qu'alors il marchait les jambes écartées comme un canard" (p. 174)? What is the value, aesthetic or otherwise, of the "excrément parfaitement imité" which the surrealist Bergère has in his room (p. 193)? So far as Riri is concerned, Sartre bursts the bubble of his inflated facade, reminding us that it is the être and not the paraître that counts. Bergère himself suggests the value of the "étron diabolique" as he holds it in his slender fingers and informs Lucien that it is meant to disturb people; it is, he asserts, potentially more destructive than the complete works of Lenin. Exaggerated though Bergère's claim may be, it nonetheless indicates Sartre's intention of using scatalogical detail in the same way as parody: both scandalize the reader, jolting him out of his aesthetic and philosophical complacency.

Analysis of other details reveals further dimensions of the use of scatology within the text itself. During the course of his adolescent search for his essence, Lucien discovers the theories of Freud. Diagnosing himself initially as suffering from an Oedipus complex which he would outgrow, Lucien is outraged when his friend Berliac informs him: "'tu es un anal' et il lui expliqua le rapport freudien: fèces = or et la théorie freudienne de l'avarice" (p. 188). Geneviève Idt has pointed out that the spot diagnosis by the adolescent Berliac may be seen as an obvious parody on Sartre's part of Freudian analysis.8 However, although one may dismiss Freudian analysis as outrageous and scoff at Berliac's pretentiousness, the theory of greed remains, serving to underline Lucien's concern with the materialistic trappings of the chef.

From the literary point of view, another dimension is thus added to the characterization of Lucien. Once his concern is recognized, a secondary ironic colour is imparted retrospectively to many of his existential conflicts. Berliac's accusation: "'Tu es un bourgeois . . . tu fais semblant de nager, mais tu as bien trop peur de perdre pied" (p. 197) takes on new meaning; Lucien's need for the comfort and security afforded by his affluent background is apparent in another of Berliac's remarks: "'Tu montes dans les trains, mais tu choisis soigneusement ceux qui restent en gare'" (p. 198). These more conventional images of movement and progression reveal little more than stagnation, clearly demonstrating that Lucien may vacillate but not evolve. The reader's initial sympathy for little Lucien's distress at being mistaken for a girl or being called a "grande asperge" gives way to frustration; antipathy follows when he finds his niche in political terms in the extreme right-wing, anti-Semitic movement known as the Action française: it is an affirmation that he will irrevocably accept what he considers to be his rightful inheritance. Philosophically, his acquiescence in a pre-destined essence seals his fate, for in Sartrian terminology the chef is no more than a salaud.9

Sartre's predilection for grotesque, scatalogical or obscene incidents and images has attracted the attention of more than one critic. It is interesting to note that in an otherwise laudatory review of Le Mur, Albert Camus expressed the reservation: ". . . s'il y avait une critique à faire, elle porterait seulement sur l'usage que fait l'auteur de l'obscénité."10L'Enfance d'un Chef betrays in many respects Sartre's longing for obscenity; it is meant neither to titillate nor corrupt but is intended rather as an antidote to respectability. Furthermore, the "techniques de provocation" Sartre uses to scandalize or disturb his reader's sensibilities are also the medium through which the author conveys literary caricature and parody and existentialist philosophy.

Like some verbal alchemist, Sartre transmutes baser metals into gold. He is fascinated by the uglier side of life and has an intuitive understanding of the dark moments of existence. In Les Mots he tells how his discovery of his own physical ugliness became his "principe négatif, la chaux vive où l'enfant merveilleux s'est dissous."11 This negative principle can be traced through much of Sartre's work, illuminating his analysis of Baudelaire, enhancing his understanding of "Saint" Genêt, and surfacing as sordid, obscene or grotesque images in "L'Enfance d'un Chef," provocative in their complexity but never gratuitous.


1 "Le Mur, par Jean-Paul Sartre," Nouvelle Revue Française (October, 1939), pp. 639-642.

2 Page references following quotations from L'Enfance d'un Chef are taken from the Livre de Poche edition of Le Mur (Paris, 1967).

3 Cf. Pierre-Henri Simon: "Non que la littérature soit, pour l'auteur de L'Être et le Néant, une diversion ou un jeu gratuit: elle est une autre voie pour rejoindre les mêmes sommets ou plonger dans les mêmes profondeurs" (L'Homme en procès [Neuchâtel et Paris: La Baconnière, 1950], p. 53).

4 In his book Sartre (1962; Edinburgh and London: Oliver & Boyd, Ltd., 1965), the British critic Maurice Cranston recalls that the English publishers promoting the translation of Le Mur would frequently quote the words of a Punch reviewer who wrote that "it leaves Lady Chatterley's Lover asleep at the post" (p. 24).

5 The expression is used by Geneviève Idt in Le Mur de Jean-Paul Sartre, Collection thèmes et textes (Paris: Larousse, 1972), p. 147.

6 Idt shows yet another dimension of Sartre's parody: ". . . l'agressive odeur d'autrui rappelle aux moments les plus émouvants que l'autre n'est qu'un corps . . . toutes ces odeurs dégradent le pathétique d'une scène angoissante ou le lyrisme des idylles . . . De telles indications fonctionnent comme des marques de sordide, destinées à réduire au trivial toute action et tout sentiment que valorise l'idéalisme" (op. cit., pp. 149-150).

7La Nausée (1938; Paris: Livre de Poche Université, 1968), p. 158.

8Op. cit., pp. 197-200.

9 The identification is authorized by the well-known passage in La Nausée, in which Roquentin visits the portrait-gallery of eminent past citizens—or chefs—of Bouville and concludes his visit with the words: "Adieu, beaux lis tout en finesse dans vos petits sanctuaires peints, adieu, beaux lis, notre orgueil et notre raison d'être, adieu, Salauds" (op. cit., pp. 135-6).

10 The article —Camus' last critical text of Sartre's work, published in Alger républicain, 12 March 1939,—is entitled "Le Mur de Jean-Paul Sartre," and is reproduced in Camus' Essais (Paris: Gallimard, 1965).

11 Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Mots (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), p. 210.

Kevin W. Sweeney (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7682

SOURCE: "Lying to the Murderer: Sartre's Use of Kant in 'The Wall'," in Mosaic, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, Spring, 1985, pp. 1-16.

[In the essay below, Sweeney examines the psychological condition of all three men sentenced to execution in "The Wall" in an effort to comprehend Sartre's philosophical argument that "there are moral boundaries to human existence" and "one of these limits is the responsibility for one's actions."]

Despite the lingering "old quarrel between philosophy and poetry" over the suitability of presenting a philosophical investigation in literary form (Plato's Republic 607 B), philosophers regularly use literary genres to present their ideas. Jean-Paul Sartre's short story "The Wall" is an example of such a philosophical project. In the story Sartre offers a counter-example to one of Husserl's views and an illustration supporting his own alternative position. Sartre's particular project is easy to overlook given the vivid, extended descriptions of the central characters' terrified reactions to the prospect of their execution. Critics routinely interpret the story as a phenomenological account of the emotional state of terror in the face of death. They refer to "The Wall" as a story whose "real subject is fear" [in "Sources and Psychology of Sartre's 'Le Mur'," Criticism, Vol. 7, 1965, p. 48], and as a "classic treatment of the central existentialist motif of confrontation with death" which closes with an "O. Henry" ending [Walter Kaufmann, ed. in Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre, New York, 1975]. As I will argue, however, "The Wall" needs to be seen as a developed, philosophical argument.

The philosophical character of the story stands out more clearly if close attention is paid to the integrity of the work's four-part structure. In the first section Sartre sets out the central ethical issue; the second section contrasts the protagonist's actions with those of his two companions; the third shows the predicament that results from those actions; finally, the fourth section reveals the consequences of the protagonist's choice and draws a conclusion. If one were to concentrate primarily on the anguished behavior of the main characters, the integrity of the structure might go unobserved. The ending would most likely be seen as a literary device for reducing the tension built up by the prisoners' terror in the middle sections, rather than a resolution of the themes of commitment and psychological escape on which Sartre bases his criticism of Husserl.

The integrity of the story's structure and the story's identity as a philosophical enterprise are more clearly visible if one realizes that Sartre has used some examples from Kant's essay, "On A Supposed Right To Lie From Altruistic Motives." Seen in the context of Kant's examples, instances of lying in "The Wall"—both to others (the theme of commitment) and to self (psychological escape and self-deception)—are foregrounded and show the development of Sartre's thesis.

Kant's essay is a reply to an attack by Benjamin Constant on his position that one has a duty always to tell the truth. In criticizing Kant's position, Constant poses the following situation of moral choice. (Situations of this general sort I will refer to as "Constant situations.") You are entertaining a friend in your home. A murderer intent on killing this friend comes to the door and asks you whether or not the friend is there, threatening to kill him. On the assumption that the murderer forces you either to lie or tell the truth, what ought you to do? Constant argues that anyone in such a position has the right to lie to the murderer. The murderer has no right to the truth; hence, one has no duty to reveal where the friend is. Constant chides Kant that his prohibition against lying would require one to tell the murderer the truth, a consequence of the position Constant finds ethically outrageous.

In the opening section of "The Wall" Sartre introduces this same general form of moral predicament—a Constant situation. Set during the Spanish Civil War, the story opens with Pablo Ibbieta, the protagonist and narrator, and two other men (young Juan Mirbal and Tom Steinbock, a volunteer in the International Brigade) being brought before a Falangist military tribunal. They face charges of complicity with the Republican side, an offense punishable by death. The last of the three to face the four-man court, Pablo is asked:

"Where's Ramon Gris?"

"I don't know."

"You hid him in your house from the 6th to the 19th."


Ramon Gris is Pablo's friend and, as Pablo later admits, an asset to the Republican cause. Although he denies knowing where Gris is, Pablo is lying. Later, in the third section, he reveals: "Of course I knew where Gris was; he was hiding with his cousins four kilometers from the city." Pablo lies to the court from an altruistic motive. Knowing that the Falangists want Gris's life, he lies to protect his friend and political ally.

It is not apparent to the reader at this point of the story that Pablo is lying. The narrator says neither whether Pablo is lying or telling the truth; nor does he indicate what Pablo's motives are in answering the questions. This lack of narratorial context is augmented by the judges who neither challenge nor react to what Pablo tells them.

The ambiguity of Pablo's exchange is contrasted with Tom's straightforward trial. The International Brigade volunteer faces the court fully aware that the judges know both who he is and what his role in the fighting has been. "They asked Tom," Pablo relates, "if it were true he was in the International Brigade; Tom couldn't tell them otherwise because of the papers they found in his coat." As the narrator implies, Tom is in no position to bluff his way free. He tells the truth, knowing that the court has found his identity papers. This narrator-supplied confirmation of veracity is lacking in Pablo's case.

Juan's situation is different from that of Tom's truthful reply and Pablo's prevarication. Juan believes that his being brought before the tribunal is a mistake. He believes that the soldiers have confused him with his brother José. "My brother José is the anarchist," he pleads, "you know he isn't here any more. I don't belong to any party. I never had anything to do with politics. . . . I haven't done anything. I don't want to pay for someone else." All he needs do, he believes, is to tell the soldiers of their mistake. Unlike Pablo he is quite willing to inform on the person for whom he believes the soldiers are looking. Nevertheless, Juan's pleading is to no avail. The reader later learns that the Falangists have sentenced him to death even though as Tom says, they "don't have a thing against him."

Led to a cell, the three prisoners learn that they have been sentenced to be executed the next morning. This common sentence and the short and indifferent treatment by the tribunal tend to blur the differences among the three prisoners' behavior. In the second section the similar symptoms of terror exhibited by the men also create the impression of a certain uniformity. And it is this similarity which is responsible for the view that "The Wall" is concerned with the common physiological and psychological responses to a terrifying event. But the main concern of the story is not to dramatize terror. Rather, Sartre analyzses each character's moral choice in response to his predicament. He presents three different models of how individuals choose to confront an extreme situation.

Sartre offers a preview of these moral choices in the different ways that each of the men reacts to the court in the first section. In the next section each of the three men takes an attitude toward his death much like the one he adopts toward the court. Tom eventually confronts the fact of his approaching death, just as he recognized that he could not bluff his way out of the tribunal's charge; Juan, believing that the court has mistaken him for his brother, continues to deny his fate; and Pablo pursues a strategy of deceiving himself just as he sought to deceive the tribunal. Tom is the model of acceptance; Juan of rejection; and Pablo, the curious combination of both acceptance and denial, is the model of self-deception. Of the three prisoners Pablo receives Sartre's major attention. The other two characters serve to put Pablo's situation in perspective, and after so doing, at the end of the second section, they are eliminated.

In the second section of "The Wall" the psychological condition of the prisoners is presented and developed so as to provide the necessary context for assessing their moral attitudes and choices. Sartre wishes to set out the psychological conditions under which Tom, Juan and Pablo act, as well as to show in what sense the prisoners' behavior is peculiarly moral. To see what philosophical values Sartre attaches to their respective actions and attitudes, it will be helpful to analyze the prisoners' behavior in terms of his contemporary philosophical works. In "The Transcendence of the Ego" (1936) and The Emotions (1939) Sartre not only develops his own theories on the emotions and consciousness, but also criticizes Husserl's position on transcendental subjectivity. These same topics appear in "The Wall."

Spending the night in the cell, a coal cellar of a former hospital, awaiting execution, all three men exhibit similar symptoms of terror, appearing "alike and worse than mirrors of each other." A Belgian doctor spends the night in their cell recording their "almost pathological state of terror." He notes their chills and tremblings, their facial distortions and grey coloring, the profuse sweating, the involuntary urinating, and the despondent lethargy alternating with violent reactions to slight irritations.

Although such emotional responses might seem to be merely involuntary reactions, Sartre in The Emotions urges a theory according to which such emotional behavior indicates the presence of a conscious, cognitive attitude. Sartre claims that an emotion is "a certain way of apprehending the world." Rather than being merely an affective state, an emotion is a form of consciousness, one frequently unreflective, whose purpose is to bring about a "transformation of the world." Sartre describes this transformational character of emotion in the following passage: "When the paths traced out become too difficult, or when we see no path, we can no longer live in so urgent and difficult a world. All the ways are barred. However, we must act. So we try to change the world, that is, to live as if the connection between things and their potentialities were not ruled by deterministic processes, but by magic. Let it be clearly understood that this is not a game; we are driven against a wall, and we throw ourselves into this new attitude with all the strength we can muster" [emphasis mine]. When a person is driven against a "wall," his fear is a magical attempt to alter the predicament confronting him. In emotional behavior, one consciously—although one may not reflectively be aware of so doing—acknowledges and transforms the relationship between consciousness and the threatening situation. One of Sartre's examples of such an emotion is the fear exhibited by someone who faints when charged by a ferocious beast. Certainly fainting is not an effective way of eluding the danger; yet it is, says Sartre, "a behavior of escape." With the magical act of fainting the person eliminates the dangerous beast "by eliminating consciousness." In summarizing his view, Sartre states, "the true meaning of fear is apparent: it is a consciousness which, through magical behavior, aims at denying an object of the external world, and which will go so far as to annihilate itself in order to annihilate the object with it."

Seen in the context of Sartre's theory of emotions, the prisoners' terror is indicative of a consciousness of their predicament. Yet, despite their similar display of terror, each prisoner adopts a different magical attitude toward his execution. Juan takes up a number of magical defensive postures. At first he moralizes about the injustice of his sentence and in so doing denies the prospect of its being carried out. Confronted with the death sentence, he exclaims: "That's not possible . . . I didn't do anything." He cannot be in mortal peril, he is convinced, since he refuses to accept that he is the one the soldiers want. Yet the "misunderstanding" continues, and gradually Juan becomes absorbed in self-pity. "I could see," says Pablo, "he was pitying himself; he wasn't thinking about death." The posture of self-pity alternates with "a terrible fear of suffering." By focusing on the pain, he avoids confronting the thought of his extinction. If the execution will be painful, at least one has to be alive to suffer from the bullets. Dreading the pain of the bullets is less terrifying than facing the thought of not existing at all.

In all of Juan's ways of magically dealing with death Pablo notices that he "made more noise than we did, but he was less touched: he was like a sick man who defends himself against his illness by fever. It's much more serious when there isn't any fever." Juan's final defense and "escape" is to collapse in terror on being taken from the cell to face the firing squad.

Unlike Juan who denies any political allegiance, Tom accepts responsibility for his role in the fighting, telling Pablo that he has "knocked off six [of the enemy] since the beginning of August." His first reaction to the prospect of dying is to talk, conversation being a way to avoid thinking about death. Pablo sees that "he didn't realize the situation and I could tell he didn't want to realize it." Yet his bodily reactions belie this tactic of avoidance. He then tries calisthenics and the comforting of Juan as ways to avoid the thought of dying. Ultimately, however, these ploys fail and the thought of his death becomes inescapable. Yet he makes a last effort to distance himself from the thought of dying. His death, he blurts out to Pablo, is incomprehensible: "Something is going to happen to us that I can't understand. . . . I see my corpse; that's not hard but I'm the one who sees it with my eyes. I've got to think . . . think that I won't see anything anymore and the world will go on for the others. We aren't made to think that, Pablo." Tom's implicit argument is that one cannot imagine oneself being dead since imagining oneself dead requires an inconsistent state of affairs: someone at the same time both actively imagining something and being the inanimate object of the imaginative activity. The argument, however, is specious. It takes a distorted view of the activity of imagining; it conflates the subject of the activity with the imaginary, mental object, and it runs together the present time of the act with the future time of the imagined event.

That Tom is using a specious argument to escape considering his imminent death is suggested by an event that occurs later that night. Pablo notices that Tom "had begun to stare at the bench with a sort of smile, he looked amazed. He put out his hand and touched the wood cautiously as if he were afraid of breaking something, then drew back his hand quickly and shuddered. . . . It was his death which Tom had just touched on the bench." This glimmering of awareness of his own mortal condition, this coming to terms with his own fate, places Tom in a sympathetic light. Of the three prisoners, he seems, from Sartre's point of view, to be the most authentic: struggling with his fear, accepting responsibility for his past, and confronting the prospect of his death as best he can.

Pablo, on the other hand, takes quite a different attitude toward his extinction. He sets himself the project of disassociating himself from all ties to his past (his memories, values, and attachments) in order, as he says, "to die cleanly." Yet despite this disassociation, Pablo still maintains some ties to his former way of life. At the time of his trial Pablo accepts his Anarchist past; he tenaciously guards the secret of Gris's hiding place. Unlike Juan, he accepts the connection between his sentence and his former life. His continuing to maintain the secret of Gris's whereabouts is evidence that he has not abandoned all his past allegiances. Thus with his decision to disassociate himself from all that has taken place there arises a bifurcation in his character: he both acknowledges his past and denies it.

The project of disassociation is brought on by his facing "the wall" of approaching death. As Sartre would have it, Pablo's project is an instance of magical behavior. In reminiscing about his past, he disparagingly notes his previous tendency to take "everything as seriously as if I were immortal. . . . I had spent my time counterfeiting eternity. I had understood nothing." He had lived, he muses, without fully realizing his mortal condition. His lack of understanding blinds him to his commitments and makes his former way of life seem futile. With his terror he has transformed the positive attachment he had felt toward his former way of life into one of nihilistic rejection. In his emotional state he has changed his relationship to himself and the world he lives in. One can see this in the attitude he takes toward Concha, the woman he loves. "Last night," he says to himself, "I would have given an arm to see her again for five minutes. . . . Now I had no more desire to see her, I had nothing to say to her." Disillusioned, he comments about his life: "'It's a damned lie.' It was worth nothing because it was finished. . . . death has disenchanted everything."

Pablo's calling his past life a "lie" is significant. He thinks that he has deceived himself by his past unsuspecting attitude toward his pleasures, projects and goals. His rejection of his past marks a split for him between what he sees as his former, deceptive life and a present, more honest, conscious self. That he might again be deceiving himself with his project of disengagement does not enter his mind.

Pablo's project of separating himself from his past is an emotional remedy for the anguish he feels in anticipating the firing squad. If he can face death free of his past, he will, he thinks, be free from the terror he feels so acutely. He says: "I clung to nothing, in a way I was calm." He is also motivated by his desire to be fully conscious of all his remaining moments of life, especially the moment of execution. By separating himself from his past attitudes and values, he will then be able to face the firing squad fully conscious, rather than unexpectedly suffering his death like a slaughtered animal. He does not want to be groggy with sleep and oblivious to what is happening to him: "I didn't want to die like an animal, I wanted to understand."

Pablo's desire for understanding is quite a different project from Tom's quest for understanding qua comprehension. For Pablo, to understand is to be aware and to realize the significance of all that takes place around him. His desire for understanding and for separation from his past express themselves in his taking an attitude similar in important respects to the Husserlian epoché. Although he has no philosophical motive behind his project, Pablo does believe that only if he adopts the attitude of a pure observing ego will he be able to witness what happens to him objectively. In taking such a stance he believes that he will no longer perceive his surroundings in his former, natural way, colored by his emotional associations, but will instead observe them with objectivity.

The resemblance between Pablo's disengaged understanding and the Husserlian project of epoché is intended to make a point similar to the one Sartre makes in "The Transcendence of the Ego." In that work, Sartre takes issue with Husserl's position that conscious experience requires the existence of a transcendental subject "behind" consciousness. Husserl's argument for transcendental subjectivity depends upon the phenomenological technique of epoché—the bracketing or setting aside of one's natural attitude toward the existence of things in the world so as to reduce the objects of one's experience to a presentation of phenomena. This reduction, according to Husserl, allows one to perceive the world objectively. Given this objective, reduced state of the world of experience, Husserl reasons that in order for consciousness to be able to perceive the various phenomena as unified objects, there must be a unifying agent in consciousness which makes possible one's perception of ordinary things in the world. This unifying agent Husserl identifies with a transcendental subject.

Sartre rejects both Husserl's derivation of a transcendental ego and the role epoché plays in the derivation. Rather than being transcendental (an active, conscious subject manipulating immediate experience into a world), the ego, Sartre holds, is only transcendent (an entity not identical with a particular phenomenon but known from a number of phenomena). The ego, Sartre says, "is the spontaneous transcendent unification of our states and our actions." In being transcendent the ego is like any other object in the world that has an existence independent of immediate experience. By holding there to be a transcendental ego, Husserl, according to Sartre, conflates consciousness with the subject of experience. His mistake is in identifying the conscious subject with an object having the power to unify experience. The transcendent character of the world, not any transcendental, conscious subject, ensures the unity of the things we experience.

Husserl employs the epoché in order to separate the subject of consciousness from the world of experience, thereby isolating the subject so as to show its transcendental nature. Repudiating Husserl's theory, Sartre holds that the ego exists in the world and cannot extricate itself. There are various ways of perceiving the world but none of them separates the self from the world, however much one might be convinced that such a separation is possible. Sartre says of Husserl's view of the ego: "Unfortunately, as long as the I remains a structure of absolute consciousness, one will still be able to reproach phenomenology for being an escapist doctrine, for again pulling a part of man out of the world and, in that way, turning our attention from the real problems." Husserl's account of epoché, Sartre holds, is actually an escapist theory.

Sartre claims that in his theory of epoché, Husserl has also misdescribed an extraordinary, but actual, project of consciousness. There is something like what Husserl labels an "epoché," but as a project bent on separating consciousness from the world of its predicament it is doomed to failure. Far from being "an intellectual method, an erudite procedure," Sartre views the project of epoché as induced by "an anxiety which is imposed on us and which we cannot avoid."

In "The Wall" Sartre puts forward an account of how such a project of disengagement might come about and the possible consequences of such a futile attempt to separate oneself from the world. In the guise of Pablo's project of "staying clean," Husserl's epoché is presented and reworked so that instead of being part of a philosophical method it is a magical project consciously undertaken in order to deal with a predicament.

Pablo's attempt at disengagement is made to seem credible by devices in the story that encourage the reader to distinguish Pablo in his role as protagonist from his role as narrator. Certain information that the narrator reports is information to which Pablo the prisoner does not have access. Tom, we are told, touches "his death" on the bench, yet he never tells Pablo about this experience. All that occurs in the story is presented from Pablo's point of view—but it is a variable point of view. At times, as in his observations about Tom and Juan, Pablo seems omniscient; at other times, especially when he reflects about himself, he is ignorant or fallible. For example, he says about himself: "Only I would have liked to understand the reasons for my conduct." Pablo's lack of self-knowledge alternating with his acute insight into others' characters tends to divide Pablo as narrator from Pablo the prisoner. That the tale should be told from the point of view of one whom—until the end of the story—the reader believes to be doomed, also encourages this division. Thus, Pablo's status as both narrator and condemned prisoner lends credence to his project of disengaging himself as conscious subject (a role compatible with being an omniscient observer) from his past identity (the role responsible for his being the condemned man).

His project of disengagement is frustrated, however, by a tie that he cannot sever. Remarking on the calm that sets in after he has adopted his attitude of epoché, he says: "But it was a horrible calm—because of my body; my body, I saw with its eyes, I heard with its ears, but it was no longer me, it sweated and trembled by itself and I didn't recognize it anymore." His description of the "horrible calm" he feels is faintly reminiscent of Tom's voicing his incomprehensibility of his death. However, whereas Tom balked at imagining his body not being animate, Pablo is aghast that his body exists and behaves independently of his conscious ego. The involuntary reactions of his body infringe on the detached integrity of his consciousness, and he rejects his body as an integral part of his being. Yet the tie still holds between his conscious self and what he considers a bothersome attachment. "Everything that came from my body," he says, "was all cockeyed. Most of the time it was quiet and I felt no more than a sort of weight, a filthy presence against me; I had the impression of being tied to an enormous vermin." His body is something from which he cannot escape. He can try to banish his emotional attachments and his values, and he can steel himself so that on seeing Juan weep he will be able to resist pitying himself and others, but he cannot break free from his body. The existence of his body as a constituent of his being is something that in his epoché he cannot deny, however much he struggles to achieve an independence from its effects on his state of mind.

In his desire for understanding, Pablo has ignored what for Sartre is a natural source of understanding—his emotions. Immediate awareness is not the only mode of consciousness. Emotion, he says, "is a mode of existence of consciousness, one of the ways in which it understands (in the Heideggerian sense of Verstehen) its 'being-in-the-world'." In rejecting the terrified responses of his body, Pablo rejects the tie that holds him to his predicament; but in so doing he also rejects a form of understanding. He has deceived himself as to the true nature of his project. His desire is not for dispassionate understanding or awareness; it is for escape.

In the second section Sartre has presented three ways in which an individual might deal with "a wall" against which he has been driven. According to Sartre's theory of emotions such actions are conscious and take on the character of moral attitudes for which the agent is responsible. For Tom and Juan the moral implications of their decisions are clear: Tom deals authentically with his fate, whereas Juan by collapsing seeks to abandon responsibility for his actions. But in Pablo's project of disengagement Sartre presents the interesting situation of one who both accepts and denies his predicament. Yet it is not clear at the end of the second section what the moral implications of his actions are. The reader is still not certain that Pablo has lied to the Falangists, although enough about his past is presented to suggest it.

When dawn finally comes, Tom and Juan are taken out to be shot. Pablo, however, is once more interrogated by the soldiers about Gris. He now realizes that the night he spent in the coal cellar has been psychological torture bent on breaking his will and forcing him to reveal where Gris is. Seeing through his captors' "shocking and burlesqued" behavior, he says: "I almost felt like laughing. It takes a lot to intimidate a man who is going to die . . . " The soldiers offer Pablo his life in exchange for his telling them where Gris is hiding. But Pablo continues to lie, insisting that he does not know where Gris is. The offer of his life for information about Gris is a shift in the basic Constant situation confronting Pablo. Instead of simply having the predicament of choosing to lie or tell the truth, he now has the choice of his life for Gris's.

Locked in a laundry room to consider the Falangist's offer, Pablo ponders his refusal to inform on his friend. Given his project of detachment his allegiance to Gris should be something that he abandons just as he professes to abandon his tie to Concha. His resistance to telling the soldiers what they want to know puzzles him. He questions himself: "Only I would have liked to understand the reasons for my conduct. I would rather die than give up Gris. Why? I didn't like Ramon Gris any more. My friendship for him had died a little while before dawn at the same time as my love for Concha, at the same time as my desire to live." Pablo attempts to explain his resistance to inform on Gris as being due to obstinacy. Yet this is rather lame conjecture. The thought of being obstinate pops into his mind; he accepts it as if he could make himself have whatever motives he imagines. His off-hand way of arriving at this explanation casts suspicion on its being some deep insight. His puzzlement as to his motive contrasts sharply with his perspicacious seeing through his captors' schemes and his understanding of his companions' emotional responses.

Initially the reader might suppose that Pablo is correct in his judgment, given his past success in perceiving others' motives and plans. But in so doing the reader would be taken in by the narrator's authoritative point of view. Pablo is not infallible; later in the story his sense of understanding will be severely challenged. His deliberations should be seen as an attempt to reconcile a conflict between his misconstrued project of escape and his commitment to Gris. Since he cannot "stay clean" and at the same time preserve this commitment, he achieves a self-serving consistency by deceiving himself into believing that his loyalty is actually stubbornness. His explanation provides a motive which is consistent with his "staying clean," since he views his obstinacy as a spontaneous quirk rather than as the expression of an established character trait.

The soldiers return in a while. Convinced that he is "clean," Pablo fancies the soldiers as so many players in a farce. He responds to their questions by inventing a scenario for himself and the soldiers to act out. He tells them that Gris is hiding in the cemetery. He wants to get the soldiers to search the cemetery and make fools of themselves. "I represented," he says, "the situation to myself as if I had been someone else: This prisoner obstinately playing the hero, these grim falangistas with their moustaches and their men in uniform running among the graves; it was irresistibly funny." What Pablo tells the soldiers is as much a lie as his previous disclaimer about Gris's hiding place. Not believing Gris to be in the cemetery, he gleefully anticipates the satisfaction he will receive from their futile expedition.

As if responding to his cue, the soldiers set off for the cemetery. Prepared for his imminent execution, Pablo waits the soldiers' return, gloating over his imagined victory. But when the soldiers do return, no execution order is given. Instead, he is sent out into the hospital yard to join some other prisoners. Disoriented by such an unexpected turn of events, he wanders around the yard in a daze. While earlier he had struggled to maintain a clarity of mind, he is now confused and oblivious to his surroundings. He does not understand why he has been spared and does not realize (until the baker Garcia tells him) that the soldiers have found Gris in the cemetery—precisely where he told them to look. Pablo's project of understanding has come crashing down. He had undertaken the task of detaching himself from the impinging world of his expected execution in order to perceive and understand all that took place around him during his last hours alive. He had felt confident in his detachment. Although he had taken, as he says, a "malicious" delight in sending the soldiers off on what he believed was a futile expedition, his detachment was preserved by his imagining the situation as if he had been "someone else." Confronting his captors, he had endeavored to maintain the removed stance of the "transcendental" observer and manipulator of events. Yet with his reprieve, he is thrown into confusion, his "transcendental" project exploded.

With the soldiers finding Gris in the cemetery, Sartre has introduced an elaboration on the Constant situation. This sort of situation is presented and discussed by Kant in his essay. There he presents the following example, intending to show that one can be held culpable if one lies in a Constant situation. I refer to the example as "K-l": "But if you had lied, and said he was not at home when he had really gone out without your knowing it, and if the murderer had then met him as he went away and murdered him, you might justly be accused as the cause of his death."

As a situation in which the decision-maker is claimed to be responsible for the friend's death, Kant's example highlights Sartre's similar assessment of Pablo's actions. In comparing K-l to the situation of Gris's capture, it is well to keep in mind that the decision-maker in K-l and Pablo both lie. Even though Pablo and the decision-maker say what happens to be true, both believe what they say to be false and both intend what they say to deceive their inquisitors. In K-l it is due to what the decision-maker says that the murderer finds his victim. This connection needs to be stressed in order for the congruence of the two situations to be seen.

If in a purported K-l situation there is at most a tenuous or non-existent connection between what the decision-maker says and the murderer's finding his victim, then one has a different moral situation. Such a similar sort of situation is assumed by Garcia the baker in his account of how the soldiers found Gris. I will refer to this variation on K-l as a "Garcia situation." In a Garcia situation nothing that the decision-maker says is causally responsible for the murderer finding the friend. The murderer stumbles on him by chance, or because he happens to look in a place (e.g. a cemetery) that is a likely hiding place. According to Garcia, that the soldiers found Gris is entirely his own fault; Gris chose to hide in the cemetery. "Of course," Garcia says, "they [the soldiers] went by there this morning, that was sure to happen." In the Garcia situation, Sartre offers a case in which the decision-maker is not responsible for the death; it is a case that contrasts with the one in which Pablo plays a role and for which he is in Sartre's view morally responsible.

Kant uses his example to argue that if one departs from the duty always to tell the truth one can be held responsible for unforeseeable consequences of one's actions. He states in the article: "Therefore, whoever tells a lie, however well intentioned he might be, must answer for the consequences, however unforeseeable they were . . . " While Sartre neither shared Kant's view on truth telling, nor subscribes to Kant's de-ontological ethical system, he is interested in the issue of responsibility for one's actions, responsibility that extends even to unforeseeable consequences of one's actions. And just as Kant claims that the decision-maker is responsible for the friend's death in K-l, so Sartre—by his use of Kant's example (and as his later theory of strict responsibility in Being and Nothingness confirms)—implies that Pablo is responsible for Gris's capture.

In Being and Nothingness Sartre holds that everyone is absolutely responsible for what happens to him or her. This responsibility is a consequence of what Sartre holds is a conscious being's radical freedom. I am responsible for, in fact I choose, all that I do not stop from happening to me. He says: "For lack of getting out of it [a situation] I have chosen it." And in a most significant passage for "The Wall," Sartre says: "the most terrible situation of war, the worst tortures do not create a non-human state of things; there is no non-human situation. It is only through fear, flight and recourse to magical types of conduct that I shall decide on the non-human, but this decision is human, and I shall carry the entire responsibility for it." Non-human situations would be those in which we would not be held morally responsible for our behavior. Likely candidates might be battles, tortures, or the terrifying psychological predicament that the three prisoners face. However, Sartre insists that all such situations are "human" ones and that magical attempts to escape such situations are also actions for which we are responsible.

In Sartre's view, Pablo is responsible for Gris's capture. His magical escape instigated the scenario that led the soldiers to Gris. Believing himself "clean," Pablo thinks that he can act with impugnity. However, he is mistaken. "I am responsible," says Sartre in Being and Nothingness, "for everything, in fact, except for my very responsibility, for I am not the foundation of my being." But Pablo believes that it is within his power to extend or retract his responsibility. A major fault with Pablo's magical project is that he thinks that he can rebuild the "foundation" of his being, to choose what he will be responsible for. And, ultimately, Sartre's criticism of Husserl is that the project of epoché lends credence to the idea that one can select the moral foundation of one's being. Pablo's selective responsibility is illustrated by his deliberations on whether to inform on Gris. He ponders: ". . . I could save my skin and give up Gris and I refused to do it. I found that somehow comic; it was obstinacy." Pablo rationalizes that his refusal is due to a quirk rather than a choice based on a commitment: "Undoubtedly I thought highly of him [Gris]: he was tough. But it was not for this reason that I consented to die in his place; his life had no more value than mine; no life had value. They were going to slap a man up against a wall and shoot him till he died, whether it was I or Gris or somebody else made no difference." Since both lives are worthless, he thinks, there is no rational basis for preferring one over the other. The matter is decided by his obstinacy rather than by his deliberated choice. He realizes that he faces a choice, but he is self-deceived in thinking that he need not choose.

By presenting the consequences of Pablo's self-deceived project of epoché, Sartre has attempted to show the folly of such an endeavor. Pablo's project functions as a counterexample to Husserl's thesis that use of the epoché allows one both to perceive the world objectively and to witness the separated, transcendental nature of the self. For Sartre, Pablo's "escape" is an example of a plausible interpretation of epoché. Pablo undertakes his magical project in order to free himself from the distortion of emotional reaction and to observe all that happens to him objectively. Instead of awareness, however, all he ends up with is confusion. He is aware of neither his commitments nor his motives for his behavior. Instead of being the detached author of events, he becomes the manipulated one.

In the final section Pablo, dazed and confused, hears Garcia's interpretation of Gris's capture. His reaction to the account indicates that he realizes the truth about what has happened. "Everything began to spin," he says, "and I found myself sitting on the ground: I laughed so hard I cried." His outburst belies his earlier denial of any commitment to Gris; it reveals to him that his explanation of his motive as being due to obstinacy is a sham. His reaction is out of character for someone who has rejected as worthless his own and his comrade's life and is simply acting out of stubbornness.

Pablo's laugh/cry marks, I believe, a flash of insight—not only about Gris's capture but also about there being certain moral boundaries of his life. The confusion of wandering in the yard has been replaced by an understanding: not a detached state of understanding such as he longed for during the vigil in the cell, but a comprehension about his own deception. Perceiving his causal role in Gris's capture makes him aware that what had earlier seemed to him to be the very expression of his detached state of "staying clean"—his sending the soldiers on an expedition to the cemetery—was in fact an action with telling consequences for his previous and continuing commitments.

That Pablo's outburst is a stroke of insight rather than a reaction of ironic surprise is not obvious, given the brevity of the incident. Described in the last sentence of the story, his response has very little context within which to fix its meaning. As an ending to the story, the laugh/cry certainly functions as a release of the tension built up over the course of the story. However, by limiting the interpretation of the ending to a device for the release of tension, one ignores the ending's status as a resolution of the point of this didactic story. Given Sartre's use of Kant's example, the ending serves as Pablo's final understanding of the moral repercussions of his project to "stay clean."

Interpreting the ending as insight is corroborated if one notices Sartre's similar use of the laugh/cry in his contemporary novel Nausea. In the novel Sartre provides more textual background with which to gauge the meaning of the outburst. Roquentin, the narrator and protagonist, during the course of the book develops an awareness of "the meaning of 'existence'"; he sees "existence" as an incontrovertible, brute fact which in its "frightful, obscene nakedness" is "the very paste of things"—not something convenient for use but something independent of human manipulation. While dining in a restaurant, he gazes around at the other diners, and breaks into a laugh/cry. The provocation for his reaction is a fantasy he has had. He muses:

What a comedy! All these people sitting there, looking serious, eating. . . . Each one of them has his little personal difficulty which keeps him from noticing that he exists . . . but I know I exist and that they exist. And if I knew how to convince people I'd go and sit down next to that handsome white-haired gentleman and explain to him just what existence means. I burst out laughing at the thought of the face he would make. . . . I'd like to stop but I can't; I laugh until I cry.

There are a number of significant similarities between the laugh/cry in Nausea and in "The Wall." In the novel, the laugh/cry marks both the collapse of Roquentin's fantasy of explaining "existence" to the white-haired gentleman and an acknowledgment of the ridiculousness of such a project. It also indicates a shift from Roquentin's noticing the diners' "seriousness" to his reflexive realization of the futility of his extraordinary attempt at explanation. His reaction is more than a response to something overwhelmingly funny; it expresses an achievement of understanding: he sees the "seriousness" of the diners as a blindness to their own "existence." But as Roquentin later remarks, "nothing that exists can be comic," so the laugh turns to a cry. In recognizing the diners' incomprehension as well as the senselessness of his own remedial response, Roquentin signals his understanding of existence.

In "The Wall" similar conditions precede Pablo's laugh/cry. First, there is the failure of his fantasized scenario. Upon hearing Garcia's tale, Pablo realizes that his fantasy with the soldiers has vaporized. He sees now who has been made to look foolish. Previously brought to the brink of laughter by what he claimed was the soldiers' "seriousness" in their roles as captors, Pablo now sees his own attitude and behavior as having been reality-denying. Whereas he had thought that it was the soldiers who did not realize their participation in some low form of comedy, Pablo now sees that he has been the one acting out the farce. Faced with this failure and reversal, he perceives that his other fantasized project has also failed—he has not "stayed clean." His attempt to sever the ties between his present state of consciousness and his past identity has failed. In telling the soldiers to go to the cemetery he has acted in ignorance and has blundered like the unsuspecting animal he most dreaded becoming. Pablo's laugh/cry is an acknowledgment of his failure and, given Sartre's view on the cognitive character of emotions, a sign of awareness of his self-deception.

The laugh/cry marks Pablo's awareness of both the failure of his project of detachment and his responsibility for Gris's death. This achievement of insight underscores Sartre's thesis that there are moral boundaries to human existence and that one of these limits is the responsibility for one's actions. Husserl's view of transcendental subjectivity, by separating the self from the world, challenges Sartre's view. Sartre seeks to argue against Husserl by presenting through his use of Kant's example a counterexample to Husserl's view. Pablo's flash of insight is Sartre's emphatic pronouncement that responsibility for one's actions is a condition of human existence, a condition from which one cannot escape.

Alexander J. Argyros (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3242

SOURCE: "The Sense of Ending: Sartre's 'The Wall'," in Modern Language Studies, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 46-52.

[In the following essay, Argyros responds to critics who consider the conclusion of the story "The Wall" flawed by arguing that Sartre's ironic ending is a "result of the marriage of the theoretical presuppositions of existentialism with the rules of narrative prose."]

Many readers of Sartre, both admirers and detractors, view the ending of his short story "The Wall" as a flaw. Two examples will illustrate this rather widely held opinion. Paul P. Somers Jr., in an article denigrating Sartre in comparison to Camus, argues: "In discussing Sartre's capacity for irony, we should keep in mind the sledge-hammer obviousness of the trick ending in his short story "The Wall" (The French Review, Vol. xlii, No. 5, April 1969). A much more favorably inclined Maurice Cranston nevertheless makes a similar point in Jean-Paul Sartre (New York: Grove Press, 1962):

Now, although this is the short-story which (with La Nausée) made Sartre's name in France before the War, it is, in its general outline, the least characteristic of his works. The neat plot with the "ironical twist" at the end belongs to a tradition of fiction which Sartre specifically repudiates. Maupassant might have invented such a plot. It is a technique which is cultivated by what Sartre calls the bourgeois "literature of consumption."

There are three possible explanations for "The Wall"'s trick ending. 1. It is a mistake, an error, a moment of residual bourgeois excess in a relatively young Sartre. 2. It is symptomatic of a defect in Sartrean existentialism. 3. It is result of the marriage of the theoretical presuppositions of existentialism with the rules of narrative prose.

Somers would probably argue a version of #2. Cranston's sympathetically condescending reading of the story is clearly subsumable under #1. In fact, most critics of Sartre have interpreted "The Wall"'s ending as either weakness or error. This essay proposes to suggest a third possibility, that is, #3. Specifically, I will claim that the ending of "The Wall" is necessary given two conflicting demands. A cliché of existentialist criticism is that for Sartre (and, a fortiori, for Camus) pure theory lacks the emotional directness and persuasive power of literature. Consequently, in order for the principles of existentialism to be presented in the most authentic manner possible, they need to be embodied in the form of literature. This imperative, although seemingly unproblematic, is in fact the locus of a crucial contradiction. As I will explain shortly, the internal logic of existentialism and the internal logic of literary prose are in fact incompatible. The "trick" ending of "The Wall" is the expression of this impasse.

It is not within the scope of this essay to give a comprehensive definition of existentialism. Suffice it to say that for Sartre, the only existentialist who willingly accepted and affirmed the label, existentialism is a philosophy which stresses man's freedom. The fundamental axiom of Sartrean existentialism is that meanings, values, identities etc. are produced by man (or more properly the For-itself, or Human-reality) who is, as a consequence, free to create his own umwelt. A corollary to this principle is that given his freedom in the domain of meaning (the meaning of the world, as opposed to the physics of the world which Sartre calls facticity and which he believes to be beyond man's compass to effect in any significant way), man is rendered solely responsible for the world he creates. All this is relatively obvious and widely accepted. For the purposes of my analysis, I would like to focus on one aspect of existentialist theory. For Sartre, man's cosmogenic activity is always to be understood as malleable and contingent. Since man is himself unessential and accidental (de trop), his projects are open-ended. To the extent that man is free, that is, given the past does not impinge on him to such a degree that it constrains his freedom to choose his being, no state in which man finds himself or to whose creation he contributes can be theorized as permanent or necessary. If man's being is freedom, then his future cannot be predicted from either his past or from any kind of law (psychological, sociological, economic etc.).

This view of man's freedom is the central theme of "The Wall." Specifically, the short story attempts to investigate the dilemma of reconciling freedom with mortality. The story's three central characters, among whom is the protagonist, Pablo Ibbieta, are condemned to death by the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. The bulk of story deals with Pablo's attempts to understand how the supposed certainty of his execution will affect both what is left of his life and his perception of his past. Briefly, Pablo realizes that in the past he had lived as if he were immortal. Now, certain of his impending execution, he is overwhelmed by his morality:

My life was in front of me, shut, closed like a bag and yet everything inside of it was unfinished. For an instant I tried to pass judgment on it; it was only a sketch; I had spent my time counterfeiting eternity, I had understood nothing.

No longer able to pretend that he is immortal, yet, like Tom, incapable of understanding what will happen after he is propped against the wall and shot ("It made no sense. I only found words or emptiness."), Pablo would like to make sense of his life. Unlike Garcin in No Exit, who tries to change his past by retroactively interpreting it in a favorable light, Pablo is not yet dead. Consequently, his life is still open, essentially a project. Yet it is not indefinite. He knows he will be dead in a few hours. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre argues that although one's death is in principle non-experiencable and consequently not something that can be anticipated, an exception is possible in a number of special cases, among them that of one condemned to death: "Furthermore, death can not be awaited unless it is very precisely designated as my condemnation to death." The dilemma Pablo faces is as follows: his life is unfinished because life is by definition a series of future choices; yet at a given moment, in the middle its flux, it will be terminated. That which can have no end will end.

On the level of existentialist theory Pablo's aporia is easily resolved. Sartre makes a sharp distinction between termination and closure. Man's life is an untethered futural projection until, at a certain moment, it is disrupted in the midst of its freedom. Since death is not completion, it offers no solace for one who is looking for the intellectual and ethical comfort of an absolute touchstone. Death may make man's existence more poignant, it might highlight its difference from the existence of a rock, but it in no way offers the comfort of resolution. Therefore, we could argue that Pablo's apparent lack of interest in life towards the end of the story (I say "apparent" because, despite his indifference, he nevertheless does lie about Gris' whereabouts in the attempt to foil the fascist's plans to apprehend him.) would be an example of Sartrean bad faith. Ibbieta lives as if he were already dead, which is to say he abdicates the little bit of freedom left him.

Having ventured this far into existentialist theory, we are ready to turn to narrative theory. Given the distinction just established between the notions of ending and closure, why does Sartre resort to the seemingly theatrical finale of the short story? Two features of "The Wall"'s narrative organization need to be investigated. One is a choice on Sartre's part, the other an inevitable and inescapable characteristic of all narratives. First, we will examine the narrative voice which structures "The Wall." Then, we will examine the consequences of the requirement that all narratives end.

"The Wall," like a number of other prose works by Sartre, is written in the first person. At first glance, this is an excellent choice of narrative voice for one with an existentialist agenda. Roland Barthes, in Writing Degree Zero [A Barthes Reader, 1983] argues that the first person has two defining characteristics. One, "the 'I' is usually a spectator." Second, as opposed to the transparency of the third person, the "I " connotes opacity, particularity, contingency: "the profound darkness of the existentialist T. " Both of these qualities make the first person into a perfect vehicle for an author whose main interest is to communicate in a concrete way the existential choices of a character with whom the reader is clearly meant to identify. It is no accident, then, that Ibbieta, like Roquentin in Nausea, speaks in the "I. " What Sartre sacrifices in control and precision he makes up for in immediacy and the authenticity of a limited perspective.

The second characteristic of "The Wall"'s narrative structure is one it shares with all literature. Narratives, as opposed to one's awareness of the constitution and dissolution of consciousness, imply the possibility of experiencing their first and last moment. Although there are a number of strategems to palliate this necessity (one of which, the creation of a self-reference loop, I will discuss presently), it is inevitable that a narrative exhaust itself. The reader, who, according to Sartre, is in principle unable to experience his own birth or death, is the necessary witness to the narrative's beginning and end. If fiction is to have a mimetic function, as Sartre clearly thought it does, then its finitude is an essential moment of opacity, a cruel disjunction between fiction and life.

This dilemma, the inability to reconcile boundless experience with a limited work of fiction, is also a central concern in Nausea. As is "The Wall," Nausea is beset with the problem of its own conclusion. Sartre's strategy in Nausea is to have the novel end with the ambiguous possibility of salvation through a book that Roquentin will write. As many critics have noted, it is inviting to hypothesize that this novel within a novel is Nausea itself, in which case the novel would have created a closed, infinitely regressive structure of self-representation, thereby diluting the effects of closure. As I will argue shortly, the ending of "The Wall" is in fact a version of this internal mirror. The difference between "The Wall" and Nausea is that because "The Wall" contains a plot feature absent from Nausea, the closure problem is exacerbated in the former and demands a different kind of resolution.

The challenge besetting "The Wall" is to reconcile a first person narrative with a plot in which the character who says "I " is condemned to death. This is not a minor problem peculiar to merely "The Wall." In fact, the dilemma I am describing recapitulates in a highly condensed manner a crucial difficulty troubling any attempt to incarnate the theory of existentialism in narrative form.

Clearly, given a first person narrative, Pablo Ibbieta cannot be executed. Of course there are ways to finesse this difficulty. The story could end before his execution, a tack chosen by Camus in The Stranger. Such a solution would clearly not serve Sartre's purposes, since a conclusion during the penultimate moment would still leave Pablo's ultimate fate undecided. Another solution would involve a switch in narrative voice at the end, something like what Sartre does in "Intimacy." That also would not do, since in "Intimacy" the alternation between narrative voices is an integral feature of the story, whereas such a switch at the end of "The Wall" would appear no less makeshift than its actual conclusion. Therefore, the moment Sartre conceived of a plot in which a first person narrator awaits his execution, he in fact created an impossible work of fiction. In its form, it is reminiscent of the Epimenides paradox ("This statement is false."). If it is to be authentic, it must end with the execution of the protagonist; however, if Ibbieta is executed the story cannot be completed, consequently it cannot be written. We can imagine a version of an Epimenides sentence that goes like this: "In order for this sentence to be authentic, its author must have been executed before he finished it."

It is not difficult to generalize this paradox so that it encompasses the general relation between existentialist theory and fiction. In other words, the internal structure of "The Wall," the self-negation of its project, is in fact a microcosmic version of the impossible reconciliation between a theory of experience which posits an essentially open future with a form of expression which is finite. In fact, much of Sartre's literary work can be seen to grapple with this issue. From the projected novel at the end of Nausea to the "Well, well, let's get on with it. . . ." closing No Exit, Sartre repeatedly attempts to create a kind of fiction that is indefinite. It goes without saying that, notwithstanding such strategies as suspended endings, deferred endings, and, at the highest levels of sophistication, self-referential loops, the project is doomed to failure. It is in the nature of fiction to be repeated. This not a contingent state of affairs; the very essence of literature is that it be available for repeated performances, consequently it must be framed in such a way as to insure that it begins (that is, that the audience's awareness switches from a normal experience mode to an aesthetic mode) and ends (the audience's frame of mind switches back). However, for an entity to be repeatable, it must have concrete limits. In other words, it is logically impossible to repeat something which has not been delimited: iterability implies finitude. This basic principle yields a consequence that is of paramount importance for our analysis. It appears that the fictive mode is in basic contradiction with the existentialist project. In fact, fiction could be construed as an instance of the For-itself indulging in bad faith.

Given such a state of affairs, we are in a position to reevaluate "The Wall." If, as I have argued, the structure of "The Wall" makes a reasonable ending impossible, and if, furthermore, this impossibility is understood as a version of the larger issue of the incompatibility of existentialist theory with the internal laws of fiction, then we are in a position to offer an interpretation of the story's conclusion. It will be recalled that the dilemma facing the narrator in "The Wall" is that, although he is condemned to death, he cannot be executed. In other words, the reader of "The Wall" is deprived of an authentic identification with Pablo because, even though Pablo believes he will be shot the morning following the night during which most of the plot of "The Wall" transpires, the reader understands that, insofar as he sees the world through Pablo's eyes, there is an unbreachable disparity between what he knows and what Pablo thinks he knows. One is reminded of a similar situation common to ancient Greek drama in which the audience, being aware of the legendary plot, constantly attributes double meanings to the protagonist's proclamations (in Oedipus The King, for example, the audience is acutely aware that the murderer of Laius and Oedipus are the same person). Sartre's solution to this aporia is to have Pablo's petulant attempt to humiliate his interrogators by launching them on a wild goose chase backfire. What Somers calls a "sledge hammer . . . trick" and Cranston an "ironical twist" worthy of Maupassant is, I would argue, a moment of stark lucidity on the part of Sartre. When it turns out that Juan Gris is actually in the cemetery where Pablo sends the fascists, he is, naturally, nonplussed: "Everything began to spin and I found myself sitting on the ground: I laughed so hard I cried." Pablo's laughter could be interpreted as his realization that life is fundamentally unpredictable, hence absurd, or his sudden understanding that his previous abdication of freedom had been irresponsible, given the whimsical nature of human events. Although I think these are possible explanations of the story's ending, I think another, perhaps more obvious interpretation, is actually more compelling. I would like to suggest that the kinds of readings engaged in by Somers and Cranston are in fact correct except in one crucial aspect. The ending of "The Wall" is indeed theatrical, bourgeois, cheap etc. What if, however, the ending's very artificiality, its very fictiveness, were its strength, perhaps its central point?

I am not arguing that Sartre was or was not aware of what he was doing. As far as I know, there is no evidence one way or the other, and I think that the retroactive assignment of authorial motives without concrete evidence is one of criticism's worse habits. I am merely suggesting that the ending of "The Wall" can be read as an instance of trenchant self-reflexion, a superb moment of auto-representation. For if there is no Ariadne to lead Pablo (or the reader) out of his labyrinth, what better solution than to acknowledge, in a tacit but powerful way, that the labyrinth is nothing other than "The Wall" itself? In other words, the story's seemingly forced ending can be read in an affirmative manner by seeing it as a gesture of submission to the laws of fiction. By pointing to its own artificiality, that is, by containing within itself a miniature version of itself which differs from the entire story only in that it asserts its limitations as fiction, "The Wall," which is usually read as a good story with a weak ending, can now be interpreted as a powerful ending salvaging an impossible story.

The consequences of such an interpretation of "The Wall" are of two basic kinds. On one level, and certainly not an insignificant one, it is now possible to salvage "The Wall" from its critical dust bin. Instead of seeing it as "the least characteristic" of Sartre's works, we may now situate it in a series of attempts to experiment with the notion of fictive closure. As such, "The Wall," because it is the most daring of these efforts, may be the most intriguing. On a second, broader level, "The Wall" can be seen as figuring the general dilemma generated by any attempt to incarnate existentialist theory in fiction. Specifically, the reading of "The Wall" that I am proposing postulates its ending as its theme. Rather than conceptualizing the plot twist that saves Pablo's life at the end of "The Wall" as flaw, I am suggesting that it's theatricality, its unabashed fictiveness, is its strength. It's as if "The Wall" were telling the reader that the unlimited futural projection posited by Sartre as the essence of Human-reality's freedom is inimical to fiction. Furthermore, if, as opposed to Kant, we hypothesize that the aesthetic drive in humans is not an isolated phenomenon, then "The Wall" compells us to ask why the organism which, according to Sartre, creates its most genuine existence when it refrains from repetition and fixity is the same organism which creates art, a mode of experience that is by definition framed, that is, immured within its own limits?

Additional coverage of Sartre's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12R, 97-100; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 21; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 4, 7, 9, 13, 18, 24, 44, 50, 52; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 72; Discovering Authors; Discovering Authors: British; Discovering Authors: Canadian; Discovering Authors: Dramatists Module; Discovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; Discovering Authors: Novelists Module; Drama Criticism, Vol. 3; Major 20th-century Writers; and World Literature Criticism.

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Jean-Paul Sartre World Literature Analysis


Sartre, Jean-Paul (Vol. 1)

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