The Roads to Freedom by Jean-Paul Sartre

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Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

At the same time that characters seem to act independently, they cannot escape the central issue implied in the title of their saga. “My intention is to write a novel about freedom,” Sartre declared; in fact, he wrote three. More precisely, he wrote about ways to achieve freedom or the roads to that goal, for in the published trilogy, none of the characters, with the possible exception of Gomez, actually achieves the desired end.

Mathieu constantly thinks about and yearns for freedom. Early in The Age of Reason, he tells Marcelle, “I recognize no allegiance except to my-self.” Hence he shuns marriage or any other commitment, such as going to fight against Franco or joining the Communist Party, as his friend Brunet urges him to do. Although Sartre intended him to be the hero of The Roads to Freedom, he noted that Mathieu’s initial attitude is not one that he himself could endorse:Mathieu is the embodiment of that total availability which Hegel calls terroristic freedom and which is practically the opposite of freedom....He is not free because he has not been able to commit himself....Mathieu is the freedom of indifference, abstract freedom, freedom for nothing, because he is always an outsider.

This aloofness manifests itself frequently, as when Mathieu and Ivich visit a Gaugin exhibit. Paul Gaugin represents all that Mathieu is not, for Gaugin abandoned his family and job to become an artist. Mathieu, however, will not commit himself to anything. Similarly, in Troubled Sleep, he remains sober while his comrades get drunk. Even within the confines of the small church tower he remains separated from his fellow soldiers, standing while they sit, surviving while they perish.

In fighting the Germans, Mathieu does at last commit himself, but he still does not attain true freedom, because his purpose is destructive. Moreover, he is not so much acting as reacting, shooting to erase “some ancient scruple.” Hence, his behavior is, for Sartre, not freedom but its very negation.

Still, Mathieu remains more heroic than the characters who surround him, because of what Sartre calls his “lucidity.” Mathieu is not free, but he recognizes that fact; he understands both what he is doing and the consequences of his actions. For example, toward the end of The Age of Reason, he concedes, “I have led a toothless life....I have never bitten into anything. I was waiting. I was reserving myself for later on—and I have just noticed that my teeth have gone.” When Mathieu fires on the Germans, he again recognizes that he is trying to compensate for his past, not to save France or protect his colleagues.

Such enlightenment, a prerequisite to attaining real freedom, eludes Brunet in these novels. Sartre shares the Communist’s critique of capitalism, but he regards Brunet as too unthinking: “Man is free to commit himself, but he is not free unless he commits himself to being free.” Brunet instead commits himself to following a Party line, whereas Sartre never joined the Communist Party because he wanted to think for himself. Schneider tries to educate Brunet. When Brunet begins to organize a Communist cell in the prison camp, Schneider asks whether this action is appropriate: “What’s the party up to? What orders has it issued, what directives?...If I were in your place, I should want to know.” Brunet does not recognize the implication that he has acted previously only after he had received orders from Moscow.

Yet even Brunet is farther along the road to freedom than is Daniel or Philippe, who exemplify the exact opposite of the independent existential hero. Both of these characters want to turn themselves into objects and so commit metaphysical, if not actual, suicide. Daniel wishes “to be of stone, immobile, insensate, no sound, no movement, blind and deaf,...a ferocious statue with an empty stare, without a worry.” When Mathieu looks at the statues in the Luxembourg Gardens and recognizes that he is becoming fixed and...

(The entire section is 1,046 words.)