Jean-Paul Sartre Sartre, Jean-Paul (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sartre, Jean-Paul 1905–

Sartre, a French playwright, essayist, philosopher, politician, and novelist, is considered by many to be the most influential thinker and writer of our time. The founder of existentialist philosophy, Sartre has examined virtually every aspect of human endeavor from the position of a search for total human freedom. Early in his career Sartre forged a philosophy of fiction revolving around the reader-author relationship which became a pivotal perspective of the New Novel school. Sartre called for the implication of the reader in fiction and the establishment of highly subjective points of view. He maintained that chronology could best be handled through a series of constantly unfolding and ongoing present moments. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 7, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sartre's plays, and especially The Flies, are generally considered to be vulgarizations of his previously elaborated philosophical positions. This assumption is misleading. The Flies is the first work in which Sartre presents what can be taken as an ethics of freedom. Being and Nothingness concerns not ethics but ontology, freedom not as value but as a structure of Being, that essential freedom which makes it possible and meaningful for man existentially to make himself free. In a footnote to the chapter of Being and Nothingness, "Concrete Relations with Others," Sartre indicates that his description of human reality does not exclude "the possibility of an ethics of deliverance and salvation." But, he continues, "this can be achieved only after a radical conversion." Such a radical conversion takes place … in Act II of The Flies; it involves a complete transformation in Orestes' understanding and use of his freedom. In committing murder, Orestes overthrows the moral and religious laws established by Jupiter. He kills Aegistheus and Clytemnestra in the name of his own liberation and that of the people of Argos. He has discovered that there are no a priori values, and that he must therefore bear the anguish of full responsibility for inventing values by his acts. (p. 12)

Clearly, Sartre intends Orestes to convey the idea that "existentialism is a humanism." The ethics of freedom embodied by Orestes involves a humanism that in certain historical situations must express itself in the form of violence. However, there is another aspect to Orestes which confuses his role as heroic liberator and points not to a dramatic richness in the character but to a confusion in Sartre's conception of him. Why does Orestes decide to leave Argos at the end of the play? Part of the reason is that Jupiter wants him to stay and to become ruler of Argos in place of the murdered Aegistheus. Here, as in committing the murder itself, Orestes' choice is defined in exact opposition to Jupiter's will. He says to the people of Argos: "I shall not sit on my victim's throne or take the scepter in my blood-stained hands. A god offered it to me, and I said no." On the other hand, he claims he has killed Aegistheus to liberate the people from their tyrant…. Orestes has freed the people from Aegistheus, but nothing indicates that he has freed them from the slave mentality which made Aegistheus' tyranny possible…. By some mysterious logic, Orestes seems to believe that by liberating himself, he is also liberating "his" people. (pp. 12-13)

In his fascination with the dark destiny he knows will be his, [Orestes] resembles more a romantic force qui va, gloriously doomed, than a liberté en situation. He acts, not with the fear and trembling of an individual who recognizes the risk inherent in every commitment, but with a kind of exalted joy. (p. 13)

The audience of The Flies in 1943 was less interested in the philosophical problems of the play than in its clear political meaning: satire of the Vichy puppets and praise of the Resistance. (p. 15)

The actual killing of Aegistheus and Clytemnestra, foreordained by the legend's tradition, is of secondary importance in Sartre's play…. The central question in the plot of The Flies is not whether Orestes will murder Aegistheus but how he will bear his act: will he take full responsibility for it, or will he abdicate his responsibility and disavow what he has done? The real murder of Aegistheus and Clytemnestra is meaningful only because of the symbolic murder of Jupiter that follows it. (pp. 16-17)

Orestes dramatizes in its most extreme form the power of freedom against tyranny. Sartre wrote his first play as a call to revolt; the freedom which inspires that revolt is meant as a passionate imperative. The Flies remains indispensable to any understanding of what Sartre is about. (p. 24)

Sartre has insisted that it was not his purpose in writing The Devil and the Good Lord to demonstrate that God does not exist. He stopped believing in God when he was twelve years old, he has asserted, and "the problem of God interests me very little."… Sartre deals in this play not so much with God as with all absolutes—Good and Evil, God and the Devil, Heaven and Hell—as evasions from the finitude of existence. (p. 32)

For Sartre freedom and solidarity are facts of human existence. They are also the basis for judgments of value. It is in the individual's awareness of his freedom and his solidarity with other men, in his will to assume responsibility for these facts and to work toward their realization as practical realities, that moral judgments are possible. In both The Flies and The Devil and the Good Lord the hero's conversion involves precisely this kind of awareness. (p. 33)

Like Orestes, Goetz is meant to serve as an example. The audience is supposed to identify with him, to learn from his mistakes and from his final heroic decision. (p. 36)

The evil with which Sartre is concerned in this play has no relation to the evil of which he has been able to speak so powerfully during and since the Occupation. It is a theological principle, by definition impossible to realize. Sartre explains his concept of "pure" evil in Saint Genet: "If he does not abhor Evil, if he does it out of passion, then, as Genet himself says, Evil becomes a Good. In actual fact, the person who loves blood and rape, like the butcher of Hamburg, is a criminal lunatic but not a true evildoer." The only "true evildoer," then, is Satan; no merely human creature is capable of pure evil. Even Faust, who sells his soul to the Devil, does not do evil for its own sake: he wants gold, women, power. It is because he is the Devil that Satan, through Faust, can be evil.

In another sense, too, Goetz's evil does not count as real. He pays no price for what he has done; his acts carry no consequences that limit his future possibilities. With Goetz's conversion, his past evil is erased. (p. 38)

[The Flies and The Devil and the Good Lord are Sartre's] spectacular plays; Orestes and Goetz are his two "heroic" heroes. In both cases, their conversions signify an absolute break with the past. Orestes' conversion, however, occurs early in the play…. For Orestes, the past involves no clearly definable self—that is, in Sartre's terms, no irrevocable action. Consequently, the past does not count heavily in that play's dramatic economy. Just before Orestes' conversion, his self is so light as to be almost nonexistent. This is not true in The Devil and the Good Lord. Goetz's conversion occurs in Act III, scene x; at this point his past should carry a good deal of weight. Man is, for Sartre, to the extent that he has done. Goetz has done many things, all of them with disastrous outcome. But the crimes of Goetz-Evil and the catastrophic mistakes of Goetz-Good never have any weight in themselves; they are simply lessons for Goetz and for the audience. With each metamorphosis Goetz is able to start again tabula rasa. (p. 39)

Goetz suddenly realizes that all his buffoonery has been in vain, that he cannot be anything in the eyes of God because there is no God for him to be for. Sartre would have us believe that this discovery makes of Goetz a completely changed man. This is difficult to believe, even on the basis of Sartre's own theories. His analysis of Genet draws extensively from Freud as well as from Marx; the conditions that define the situation within which Genet makes his choices are psychological as well as social. Sartre emphasizes the continuity underlying even the most radical of Genet's transformations. There is no such continuity in Goetz's conversion. (p. 40)

In The Devil and the Good Lord Sartre fails to create a language capable of embodying his hero's stated transformation. (p. 41)

Ideas in [The Devil and the Good Lord] do not arise from the confrontation of two wills in conflict; they exist as packaged goods compartmentalized within each character…. Goetz at the end of the play is like Faust saved instead of damned. Once he has seen the truth, he is able to take back his pact with the Devil and the Good Lord. (p. 42)

Although the theme of The Victors is heroism, the play has no hero. [There are no spectacular, exemplary individuals as in The Flies or The Devil and the Good Lord who] have the power to act, to change the world in which they find themselves. The five Resistance fighters in The Victors have no such power; things happen to them but they cannot make things happen. Evil in this play is not a metaphysical or theological idea as it is in The Devil and the Good Lord. The emphasis is on an extreme situation: torture. (p. 43)

Each of Sartre's Resistance fighters in The Victors is an exploration of one possible answer to the question: If they tortured me, what would I do? The maquisards are trapped in a closed situation in which action is no longer available to them. There is only suffering; all they can choose is the meaning of that suffering. They are defined not as personalities but in relation to their ordeal: to the threat of torture and to torture itself. In this situation, the problem of freedom is posed in a radical form. Each man must choose the attitude with which he will confront his torturers. Even under torture he is free since he must decide the exact moment he can no longer stand the pain, and what he will do at that moment. (p. 44)

One has to agree with Sartre that The Victors is less than successful. It fails for several reasons: the unsuitability of torture on the stage, the sketchy characterization of the torturers, the victims' failure to behave in such a way that the dramatic illusion is maintained. Its legitimate achievement is its presentation of the contest between torturer and tortured and its study of the fanatic pride that is part of heroism. (p. 52)

Although almost all critics of Dirty Hands have referred to [the protagonist] Hugo as a Hamlet-like character, the comparison does not take us very far, in spite of Hugo's long drunken tirade—"To be or not to be, eh? You see what I mean"—the worst speech in the play. Hamlet intellectually dominates every contest; Hugo always comes out a loser. He is bested by all the other characters…. Hugo is supposed to be lucid, but actually his lucidity operates only on his own inadequacies; he has little understanding of the events in which he wants to play a role.

As a psychological study …, Hugo is complex and interesting—one of the most fully realized characters in Sartre's plays. As spokesman for the moral position, however, he carries no weight at all. We are given psychological problems parading as legitimate moral dilemmas. (p. 59)

The real interest of Dirty Hands lies in the delineation of its three main characters: Hugo, Jessica, and Hoederer. None of them is reducible to an idea; in spite of the social issues involved, they communicate an immediacy and concreteness which makes us experience them also as private persons, a rare phenomenon in Sartre's plays. Sartre's portrait of Hugo, especially, involves an intimacy of understanding which Sartre does not usually give to his dramatic creations. He reveals Hugo from within, Hugo as he is for himself, with all the hesitations and blurs that such a portrait involves…. Hugo's wife Jessica, usually ignored or dismissed by critics, shows [a] kind of believable unpredictability of intelligence and emotion…. Hoederer, although an entirely admirable character, is neither stiff nor unconvincing. It is the three-way relationship between Hugo, Hoederer, and Jessica which finally makes the play interesting. (pp. 64-5)

In Hugo, Sartre explores many of the themes he deals with less successfully in Orestes and Goetz; Hugo stands as Sartre's modern humanized version of his two mythical heroes. Like them Hugo finds himself isolated, belonging to no collectivity he can experience as "we" instead of "they" and, as a result, suffers from a constant feeling of unreality…. In common with his larger, more heroic counterparts, Hugo is primarily concerned not with practical consequences, but with a justification for his existence: the salvation of his soul. All three characters need to be seen in order to be sure they exist: Orestes by the people of Argos, Hugo by his comrades in the Party, Goetz by God. They act not for ends, but for spectators. For this reason, the most extreme and irrevocable form of action—murder—becomes their chosen means of acceding to reality, of forcing "them," Sartre's Autrui, to take their presence into account. (p. 66)

Hoederer is the one authentic hero of Sartre's plays, the one fully admirable character. His behavior has nothing in common with the flamboyant heroism of Orestes and Goetz, slaying their respective Gods; his concerns are practical objectives in a world of men. Orestes and Goetz must go through the "baptism of blood" before they can feel themselves free. Their ends, we are told, are noble; but we see only the means. Hoederer is more modest. Orestes and Goetz fight dragons; Hoederer simply gets work done. He represents Sartre's more sober ideal of political action…. (p. 73)

Although Sartre reveals Hugo from several points of view, giving the spectator the impression of complete familiarity, Hoederer remains elusive, constantly suggesting a complexity which never shows itself fully. It is significant that Hoederer is able to see Hugo, to understand what is going on inside Hugo's head, but for Hugo Hoederer always remains opaque, impenetrable. (p. 74)

It is Jessica who finally acts as catalyst of what we have known will be Hoederer's inevitable fate. Hugo kills Hoederer after Hoederer's one moment of weakness,...

(The entire section is 5765 words.)

Catharine Savage Brosman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although a number of scholars have noted the presence in Jean-Paul Sartre's fiction of images of insects and crabs, the role of numerous other animal images in La Nausée and their psychological and philosophical suggestiveness have not been fully explored. In the present essay I shall be concerned to study these in relation to its thematics and to draw some conclusions concerning Sartre's early view of nature. (p. 107)

In La Nausée, I count some 77 similes and metaphors in which an object or the human body—usually the latter—is compared in part or in whole to an animal or a part of an animal…. In addition, they are supported by at least 43 instances (excluding those in fixed...

(The entire section is 3298 words.)

Walker Percy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Nausea is] an onslaught on the "normal" or what is ordinarily taken for the normal. Unlike Sartre's later political novels, it is interesting because the attack is phenomenological, not political, an examination, that is, of the way things are.

What interests us about Roquentin, the protagonist of Nausea, in the present context is his conscious and deliberate alienation from those very aspects of French culture which by ordinary standards one would judge as eminently normal, for example, the apparently contented lives of the provincial bourgeoisie and the successful lives of the savants of the academy of science. (p. 368)

It is important to notice that Nausea is no ordinary free-thinking rationalistic-skeptical assault on the Catholic bourgeoisie. For Roquentin (and Sartre) have as little use for the opposition, the other triumphant sector of French society, the anti-clerical members of the academy, famous doctors, generals and politicians. (p. 369)

[What] are we to make of Sartre's and Roquentin's alienation?…

[Is] Sartre saying something of value about the condition of Western man in the twentieth century or perhaps about the human condition itself?

Or is Sartre's existentialism to be understood as only a way station in his transit from a bourgeois intellectual to a Marxist ideologue?

If Sartre is correct, then things have indeed been turned upsidedown. For in his novel the apparently well are sick and the apparently sick are onto the truth. But is the truth an unpleasant business we would do well to avoid? Roquentin thinks he knows something other people don't know, that he has made an unpleasant discovery which scarcely makes for happiness but allows him to live with an authenticity not attained by the happy bourgeoisie and the triumphant scientists. Anxiety, a sense of unreality, solitariness, loss of meaning, the very traits which we ordinarily think of as symptoms and signs of such and such a disorder are [in Nausea] set forth as appropriate responses to a revelation of the way things are and the way people really are. (p. 370)

Walker Percy, in Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1977), Fall, 1977.