Jean-Paul Sartre

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Trained as a philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre emerged during and after World War II as a major intellectual force in France and around the world, thanks mainly to his developing doctrine of existentialism. Unlike the rank and file of philosophers, Sartre soon proved to have a vivid literary and dramatic imagination, using the medium of creative writing to illustrate his major precepts. He is best known as a dramatist and the author of such plays as Les Mouches, Huis clos (pr. 1944; In Camera, 1946, better known as No Exit, 1947), and Les Mains sales (pr., pb. 1948; Dirty Hands, 1949). Sartre is remembered also for the experimental novel La Nausée (1938; Nausea, 1949). Les Chemins de la liberté (1945-1949; The Roads to Freedom, 1947-1950), a projected tetralogy of which only three volumes were ever completed, represents Sartre’s only other venture into long fiction. Thereafter, apart from his plays, Sartre wrote mainly essays, both literary and political, collected in Situations (1947-1976; partial translation, 1965-1977); he is known also for psychobiographical studies of eminent French authors, including Baudelaire (1947; English translation, 1950) and L’Idiot de la famille (1971-1972; partial translations, The Family Idiot, 1981, 1987), a study of the youth and maturity of Gustave Flaubert before the publication of Madame Bovary in 1857. Published in France in the early 1970’s, The Family Idiot did not appear in English translation until after Sartre’s death.


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Ironically, Jean-Paul Sartre’s continuing reputation as a writer of short fiction rests on a single volume published at the start of his career and more specifically on the title story in the collection. “Le Mur” (“The Wall”), for all of its flaws, remains among the more arresting and memorable short stories of the twentieth century, defying imitation even as it invites increasingly “revisionist” criticism. The “other stories” included with “The Wall” are decidedly uneven in quality, of interest primarily to those interested in tracing Sartre’s development as a writer and thinker. Meanwhile, “The Wall” itself remains standing, still viable because of its analysis of human nature as well as its documentation of a regrettable moment in history. Shortly after publication of Sartre’s autobiographical essay Les Mots (The Words, 1964), Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature but saw fit to decline the honor, ostensibly on political grounds.

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A philosopher by trade and training, Jean-Paul Sartre is best known as the principal exponent of existentialism , a philosophical attitude developed from the work of such earlier thinkers as Karl Marx, Edmund Husserl, and Sartre’s older contemporary Martin Heidegger. Initially developed across such fictional texts as the early novel La Nausée (1938; Nausea, 1949) and the collected short stories of Le Mur (1939; The Wall and Other Stories, 1948), Sartre’s existentialism received full academic exposition in the massive L’Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956). In the meantime, Sartre had discovered in the immediacy of theater a vehicle almost ideally suited to the expression of his ideas. Further experiments with prose fiction, somewhat less successful than his playwriting, resulted in the unfinished tetralogy The Roads to Freedom (1947-1950), which includes L’Âge de raison (1945; The Age of Reason, 1947), Le Sursis (1945; The Reprieve, 1947), and La Mort dans l’âme (1949; Troubled Sleep, 1950). Sartre also achieved distinction with speeches and essays contained in the several volumes of the journal Situations, published from the 1940’s through the 1960’s, as well as with highly personal literary criticism devoted to such authors as Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, and Jean Genet. In 1964, Sartre declined the Nobel Prize in Literature on grounds deemed both political and personal. His autobiographical essay Les Mots (The Words) had appeared earlier in that year to considerable critical acclaim.


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With the possible exception of his younger contemporary Jean Anouilh, Jean-Paul Sartre emerged as the most accomplished and noteworthy French playwright of the 1940’s and early 1950’s. Interested in the stage since childhood, Sartre soon found in the theater an ideal vehicle for his otherwise ponderous philosophical speculations on the nature of humankind and society. Indeed, the rapid spread and acceptance of Sartre’s profound and challenging ideas can be almost entirely attributed to the success of his plays, in the best of which the complex is rendered not only simple but also visible and audible. At times almost too close to such popular forms as melodrama to be considered literature, Sartre’s characteristic dramatic style nevertheless provides for highly entertaining, accessible, and effective theater. Animated through rapid-fire dialogue exchanged among generally well-rounded and credible characters, Sartre’s notions of truth and falsehood, of authentic and inauthentic behavior become both perceptible and memorable. In the best of his plays, most notably The Flies and No Exit, Sartre achieves the enviable goal of almost instantaneous communication with his audience. Perhaps even more remarkable, the strongest of his efforts remain valid as theater even without direct consideration of the ideas that they were written to express. In this respect, Sartre’s achievement by far exceeds that of his erstwhile friend Albert Camus, an experienced actor and director whose efforts at playwriting failed, in general, to reach an audience secured in advance by the success of his essays and novels.

As a student and critic of the drama, with the best of his articles collected in Situations and elsewhere, Sartre advocated political commitment in the theater while stopping somewhat short of the “thesis drama,” best exemplified by the work of Bertolt Brecht. In his own plays, Sartre, unlike Brecht, invites the participation and identification of his audience, even in the case of those characters who are to be weighed in the balance and found wanting. Indeed, such efforts as The Flies, No Exit, and The Condemned of Altona have managed to survive most post-Brechtian thesis dramas precisely because of Sartre’s basically conventional, or Aristotelian, approach to character and plot.

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Around the time that he published Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre (SAHR-truh) drew considerable attention as a promising writer of short fiction with the stories collected in Le Mur (1939; The Wall, and Other Stories, 1948). Trained as a philosopher, Sartre went on to define and develop his concept of existentialism in L’Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956), turning also to the theater with such famous plays as Les Mouches (pr., pb. 1943; The Flies, 1946), Huis clos (pr. 1944; In Camera, 1946; better known as No Exit, 1947), and Les Mains sales (pr., pb. 1948; Dirty Hands, 1949), in which the basic tenets of his thought are brilliantly executed and easily grasped. He is known also for essays and reviews collected in several volumes of the journal Situations as well as for psychological criticism of such authors as Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, and Jean Genet. In 1964, he published a partial autobiography, Les Mots (The Words, 1964).


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For students and readers of long fiction, Jean-Paul Sartre is perhaps most notable as the author of Nausea, an unsettling and groundbreaking work that exercised considerable influence over developments in the novel during the postwar era. His later efforts in the genre—the unfinished tetralogy Roads to Freedom—are viewed less charitably by most of his commentators, who would contend that Sartre had by that time turned his finest efforts toward the drama. Some scholars, however, have argued that Sartre’s later novels have simply been obscured by the sensational publicity afforded his plays and other writings. In any event, Sartre himself appears to have lost interest in the writing of fiction, preferring such alternative forms as his essays on Baudelaire and Flaubert. Nevertheless, Sartre’s influence on fiction, both long and short, has been considerable. In 1964, Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he declined to accept.

Existence Precedes Essence

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In Sartre’s thought, there was no higher being, no God who had created human nature, and thus no transcendent basis for ethics. “There is no human nature,” he wrote, “since there is no God to conceive it.” Candidly atheistic, Sartre turned away from traditional religion. An individual, he argued, exists before he or she has a nature (essence), and the essence that a person acquires is the result of his or her own choices and their translation into action. The pivotal emphasis is upon action, for intentions alone do not shape essence.

If this seems to place Sartre clearly within a relativist genre of ethics, other factors qualify the apparent radical individualism of his thinking about morality. The first is his unflagging zeal for human responsibility. Although one does shape one’s own essence, one is also responsible—for the sake of authenticity—to be consistent with the goals of one’s chosen way of life. For example, one who eschews dishonesty can hardly spend his or her life lying or otherwise deceiving others. Responsibility in Sartrean ethics is tantamount to commitment, a view that has an interesting correlation with more conventional ethical thinking in the Judeo-Christian and other great major religious traditions.

A second dimension of Sartrean ethical thought that limits extreme relativism and individualism is Sartre’s perception of “bad faith” (mauvaise foi). It is bad faith, to Sartre, to pretend—particularly to oneself—to be something that one is not. Social role-playing such as “being” a student, professor, worker, or attorney is one level of such bad faith, but so is assuming that one’s being is exhausted by such a definition. People are more than the social roles they play, and morality is much more than being good at performing the expected behavior patterns. Although there is no one in the final analysis to help one make choices, one is responsible to one’s past and anticipated future to be sincerely what one is.

Furthermore, Sartre defined individual existence in terms of broader human existence. Just as a person is the product of the past, he or she is also relational. The surrounding world of things, as well as other people, is an integral part of one’s existence and therefore morality. In the play No Exit, the characters are in hell, which is symbolized by a small room where each is subjected to the piercing gaze of the others. One of them, Ines, is a lesbian who is responsible for the death of her friend’s husband. Like Garcin, a deserter, and Estelle, a child-killer, Ines can find no escape from the others’ eyes and presumed judgment. No less a philosopher than Immanuel Kant had raised similar moral issues, but he did so in terms of the question of whether a person could legitimately want his behavior to be universal. Kant’s “categorical imperative,” as it is called, assumed a universal transcendent moral order. Sartre did not, but neither did he advocate behavior that did not in some sense aid the existence of others. If Sartre thus seemed to approximate such concepts as love and universal moral premises, he remained humanistic in his ethical theory. The significance of others in one’s ethics is that they also objectively exist and are part of the individual’s responsibility.


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Basic to this line of ethical reasoning is Sartre’s distinction between being-for-itself (pour-soi) and being-in-itself (en-soi). Being-in-itself is the type of existence that defines things. A rock’s essence and being are identical. There is no self-conscious reflection, no selfhood at stake. In short, there are no choices to be made by things. Human existence is radically different, a being-for-itself; that is, the human mode of existence is one of active choices and bearing the responsibilities for the outcome of those choices. In that sense, it is being-for-itself. Humanity also exists “en-soi,” however, and this dual nature demands responsibility. A tree or rock cannot decide, either for itself or for other things, what to do or be. Humans can and must. The individual is in the present, facing the de facto past and facing a future that requires continued decision making and acting on those decisions responsibly.

Implications for Ethical Conduct

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In the Sartrean view of human life, nothing counts more than responsibility. Indeed, responsibility is the essence of being human. With no higher moral order either to shape one’s essence or by which to judge one’s actions, one must face squarely individual responsibility as well as the possible impact that one’s behavior might have on others. Sartre’s own estimation of the ethical implications of his ideas focused on the notion that the individual’s quest for being is related to that of humanity as a whole. People are, he argued, agents “by whom the world comes into being.” Lacking in Sartrean ethics is a transcendent source of value, but there are good reasons in the existentialist perspective to love, to help others, and to discipline one’s actions.

Discussion Topics

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What future for human possibilities does Jean-Paul Sartre see?

Sartre’s No Exit has been called good theater but not “to be taken seriously” as literature. Can this highly successful play be considered nonliterary?

What are the burdens imposed by Sartre’s theory of freedom?

Which does Sartre consider most important in life: art or political philosophy?

Which does Sartre portray most convincingly in his fiction: existential success or failure?

Is it necessary to study Sartre’s philosophical works to understand his version of existentialism?


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Anderson, Thomas C. Sartre’s Two Ethics: From Authenticity to Integral Humanity. Chicago: Open Court, 1993. This work, while focusing on Sartre’s ethics, provides an explanation of the themes that pervaded his dramatic works. Bibliography and index.

Aronson, Ronald, and Adrian van den Hoven. Sartre Alive. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991. Sections on Sartre’s continuing political relevance, rethinking his political and philosophical thought, his fiction and biography, his relationship with de Beauvoir and other writers, and concluding assessments of his career. Aronson and van den Hoven provide a judicious and well-informed introduction.

Barnes, Hazel E. The Literature of Possibility: Studies in Humanistic Existentialism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1959. Among the earliest expositions of existentialist thought, this first of several books by Barnes (also a frequent translator of Sartre) that deal with postwar French thought and writing is still noteworthy for its analysis of the short stories, a genre often overlooked by Sartre’s other critics. Using the short fiction as a point of entry into Sartre’s developing thought, Barnes is especially authoritative in her reading of “Childhood of a Boss.”

Bloom, Harold, ed. Jean-Paul Sartre. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001. A collection of critical essays on Sartre, with an introduction by Harold Bloom. Bibliography and index.

Brosman, Catherine Savage. Jean-Paul Sartre. Boston: Twayne, 1983. An introduction to Sartre’s life and thought; includes chapters on Sartre’s life, philosophy, fiction, and drama. A brief discussion of the five stories in The Wall appears in the chapter on the early fiction.

Cranston, Maurice. Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: Grove Press, 1962. A short introductory volume with chapters on Sartre’s life, drama, fiction, and critical theories. Contends “The Wall,” although it along with Nausea made Sartre’s name in France, is one of his least characteristic works of fiction; in fact, with its neat plot and ironical final twist, it belongs to a tradition of fiction typical of Guy de Maupassant which Sartre repudiated.

Danto, Arthur C. Sartre. 2d ed. London: Fontana, 1991. A good introductory overview of Sartre’s life and thought.

Fournay, Jean-François, and Charles D. Minahen, eds. Situating Sartre in Twentieth Century Thought and Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Sartre scholars offer varied interpretations on the significance of Sartre’s philosophical and literary works.

Fullbrook, Kate. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre: The Remaking of a Twentieth Century Legend. New York: Basic Books, 1994. A worthwhile study of the relationship between two important twentieth century philosophers who helped to establish existentialism as an important movement.

Hayman, Ronald. Sartre: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987. Well written, Hayman’s life of Sartre shows the biographical and historical context of the various works, suggesting how and why Sartre explored various literary genres in search of the most accessible vehicle for his ideas.

Hill, Charles G. Jean-Paul Sartre: Freedom and Commitment. New York: Peter Lang, 1992. Discusses Sartre’s quest for freedom and authentic actions as well as his recognition of the ambiguities of commitment. See especially chapter 2, on Nausea. Includes chronology, notes, and bibliography.

Howells, Christina, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Sartre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. A comprehensive reference work devoted to Sartre and his life, times, and literary works. Bibliography and index.

Howells, Christina, ed. Sartre. New York: Longman, 1995. Howells presents critical analyses of the literary works of Sartre. Bibliography and index.

Kamber, Richard. On Sartre. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2000. Although this volume focuses on Sartre as philosopher, it explicates the thought and viewpoints that permeate his literary works. Bibliography.

McBride, William L., ed. Existentialist Literature and Aesthetics. Vol. 7 in Sartre and Existentialism. New York: Garland, 1997. This volume, part of a multivolume series on Sartre and his philosophy, examines his literary works and how existentialism was expressed in them. Bibliography.

McBride, William L., ed. Sartre’s Life, Times, and Vision du Monde. Vol. 3 in Sartre and Existentialism. New York: Garland, 1997. This volume, one in a multivolume work on Sartre and existentialism, looks at his life, the times in which he lived and wrote, and his worldview. Bibliography.

Peyre, Hanri. French Novelists of Today. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. This volume is a revision of The Contemporary French Novel, originally published in 1955. Peyre’s exhaustive survey of then-recent French fiction devotes an entire chapter to Sartre’s narrative prose, including the short stories. Unlike many of Sartre’s commentators both before and since, Peyre sees Sartre’s fiction as forming a significant portion of his total literary statement.

Peyre, Hanri. Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968. A brief monograph in the Columbia Essays on Modern Writers series. Peyre asserts there may not be another volume of short stories in French literature of the last hundred years as remarkable as The Wall. He argues that because they are early works, they are not marred by philosophy or obtrusive symbolism, but rather are as concrete as the stories of Ernest Hemingway.

Plank, William. Sartre and Surrealism. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Press, 1981. One of the few studies of Sartre to discuss the short fiction at length in detail, Plank’s monograph situates the stories with regard to intellectual as well as political history.

Thody, Philip Malcolm Waller. Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. An examination of Sartre as novelist, with some reference to his dramatic works.

Wardman, Harold W. Jean-Paul Sartre: The Evolution of His Thought and Art. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992. A critical examination of the literary works of Sartre that traces his philosophical development through his writings. Bibliography and index.

Wider, Kathleen Virginia. The Bodily Nature of Consciousness: Sartre and Contemporary Philosophy of Mind. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997. Underscores the emphasis that Sartre places on the embodied nature of human consciousness and relates Sartre’s views to important contemporary theories about the mind-body relationship.


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