Jean-Paul Sartre Analysis

Other Literary Forms

0111206432-Sartre.jpg Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964. (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.


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.

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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.

Other literary forms

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).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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

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...

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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...

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Implications for Ethical Conduct

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...

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Discussion Topics

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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(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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...

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