Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Jean-Paul Sartre decided, when he was about twenty years old, that at the age of fifty he would write an autobiography. He began writing “Jean-sans-terre” (one without inheritance or possessions) in 1952 and worked on it for nearly a decade. This unpublished volume was conceived from a political point of view. He later referred to it as an ill-natured work, revealing him to be a person uneasy with others in his milieu, one who at last became the Communist he ought to have been. Realizing that this book would require extensive elaboration, he eventually abandoned it in order to do other things.

He restarted the project in 1961, fashioning the book from a different perspective, one more literary and social than political. He aimed to blend the confessional method of Jean-Jacques Rousseau with something not unlike the reflective meditations of Blaise Pascal, bidding farewell to belles lettres with a very literary book about his childhood. He labored over the style, spending more time and effort than he had ever devoted to any previous work. The Words reveals the childhood of a precocious and pampered but lonely boy as he begins to perceive the reality of his existence; the style charms the reader by turns of phrases more felicitous than those found in Sartre’s previous writings.

A relatively short book (slightly more than two hundred pages), The Words is divided into two parts of nearly equal length, “Reading” and...

(The entire section is 583 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Aronson, Ronald. “Introducing a Crisis: Les Mots,” in Jean-Paul Sartre: Philosophy in the World, 1980.

Beauvoir, Simone de. Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, 1984.

Bree, Germaine. Camus and Sartre: Crisis and Commitment, 1972.

Champigny, Robert. “Sartre on Sartre,” in The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, 1981. Edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp.

Champigny, Robert. Stages on Sartre’s Way, 1938-1952, 1959.

Davies, Howard. “Les Mots as Essai sur le Don: Contribution to an Origin Myth,” in Yale French Studies. LXVIII (1985), pp. 57-72.

McMahon, Joseph H. Humans Being: The World of Jean-Paul Sartre, 1971.