The Roads to Freedom by Jean-Paul Sartre

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Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The first two volumes of The Roads to Freedom shocked France when they appeared in 1945, for they dealt freely with homosexuality, abortion, and nonmarital affairs. Yet the works proved as popular as they were controversial, going through numerous editions in French and in translation. With the passing of time, critics and readers alike came to recognize Sartre’s achievement of bringing philosophy to life, an accomplishment that contributed to the Swedish Academy’s decision to award Sartre the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964.

The Roads to Freedom has taken its rightful place beside Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981) and Honore de Balzac’s La Comedie humaine (1829-1848; The Human Comedy, 1895-1896, 1911) as an epical record of its time, even though Sartre never finished his saga. He had indeed intended to write a trilogy, but the work grew as he progressed, so that “La Derniere chance,” originally designed as the third installment, became the fourth, which remained incomplete at the time of the author’s death. He had worked out the plot, which would allow Mathieu, Brunet, Odette, Philippe, and even Daniel to reach the end of their separate roads to freedom, but this concluding volume, to be set during the Nazi Occupation, never satisfied Sartre, because he regarded the choices facing his characters as too clear-cut: resist or collaborate. True to his philosophical calling, Sartre preferred to leave his readers with hard questions rather than with simple answers.