Jean-Paul Sartre Sartre, Jean-Paul - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Jean-Paul Sartre 1905-1980

French philosopher, dramatist, novelist, essayist, biographer, short story writer, journalist, editor, scriptwriter, and autobiographer. See also Jean-Paul Sartre Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 4, 7, 9, 13, 18, 24.

Jean-Paul Sartre is regarded as one of the most influential contributors to world literature in the twentieth century. The core of Sartre's fiction, including the five stories published in his only collection Le Mur (The Wall and Other Stories), is existentialist in nature, meaning that his works center on the philosophical concept of a godless, meaningless universe in which individuals merely exist until they become "engaged," or choose a course of social or political action. Moreover, Sartre believed that human beings ultimately exercise free will within a context of moral responsibility. Critical reception to his stories has been slight, though enthusiastic, with most critics examining Sartre's short fiction against his works in other genres.

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

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Madeleine Smith (essay date 1948)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Philip Thody (essay date 1960)

(Short Story Criticism)

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')....

(The entire section is 8391 words.)

John K. Simon (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1983 words.)

Sidney D. Braun (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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James Greenlee (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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C. J. Harvey (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Kevin W. Sweeney (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

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....

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Alexander J. Argyros (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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