Jean-Paul Sartre Sartre, Jean-Paul (Vol. 24)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jean-Paul Sartre 1905–1980

French critic, philosopher, playwright, novelist, editor, and journalist.

Sartre is regarded as one of the most influential contributors to world literature since World War II. As with all of his work, the core of Sartre's literary criticism is existentialist: the philosophical concept of a godless, meaningless world in which individuals merely exist until they become "engaged," or choose a course of action in order to live as free, responsible beings.

Sartre's numerous literary and political essays appeared in a ten-volume anthology entitled Situations. The literary essays chronicle the development of Sartre's critical mind and are considered by many critics as outlines for his studies of Baudelaire, Genet, and Flaubert. Sartre's books on these authors examine the writers through the social conditions under which they wrote and the changes they underwent as a result of historical events. This method is described in part in Qu'estce que la litterature? (What Is Literature?). In this work, Sartre denied the necessity of critical analysis of a writer's style and language. For Sartre, style was important only as a means to eloquently state the writer's theme. Sartre commended the "engaged" author, the author who has made the decision to raise social consciousness through writing. In Qu'est-ce que la litterature?, Sartre wrote: "[The] function of the writer is to act in such a way that nobody can be ignorant of the world and that nobody may say that he is innocent of what it's all about." Sartre's later critical works, particularly L'idiot de la famille (The Family Idiot), his study of Flaubert, combine a Marxist viewpoint with his existentialist beliefs.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 7, 9, 13, 18 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., Vols. 97-100 [obituary].)

Jacques Hardré

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Sartre's critical method is to begin with a search for the original choice made by the author when confronted with his own situation. To clarify this statement it must be recalled that an important tenet of existentialism is that each of us is in a particular situation. We are rich or poor, black or white, healthy or sick, and so forth. Within this situation we have freedom of action and our acts are all-important since they will determine our essence. Equally important is how we are seen, in that situation which is ours, by those around us (the Others, in the existentialist vocabulary). For it is only through the Others that we may be able to realize what we are. (p. 99)

When the individual becomes aware of his situation, he is faced with a choice. Will he accept his situation, and that means, primarily, will he accept himself as the Others see him, or will he react against it and seek to change the image that the Others have of him? This choice, the original choice, is not one which is made once for all. It is one which has to be made over and over again throughout one's life. For if one chooses to be what the Others have decided he is, one must at all times reject, or modify, actions that might change that image…. If, on the other hand, the individual chooses to react against the Others' image of him, he will constantly have to act in a fashion contrary to the one that is expected of him, at least until he is satisfied with his image. The tragedy is that none of us is ever satisfied with the image the Others have of us.

There is, furthermore, another existentialist doctrine that we must remember here: the individual, since he is free, is able by his acts to change his personality as he ages, for his personality is a fluid thing. It is only at death that it becomes solid, unchangeable. But it is only through the Others that the changes in this personality will be apparent and it is the Others, finally, who at the individual's death will be able to label once and for all the sum total of that individual's personality. The latter will not fully know, therefore, what he is until he has ceased to be—which means that he will never know.

(The entire section is 23,544 words.)