Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 583
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 This unpublished volume was conceived from a political point of view.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 “Writing”; it deals to a large extent with Sartre’s immersion in language as a child, the development of his interest in literature, and his longing to become a writer. “Reading” relates how he learned the alphabet from his mother and then virtually taught himself to read; “Writing” describes his first efforts to express himself on paper with stories and novels before he was ten years of age. His reading was first directed by his grandfather toward the French classics (he especially liked the plays of Pierre Corneille), but his taste soon led him to prefer cloak-and-dagger romances and tales of swashbuckling heroes. His early writings reflect similar interests: He rewrote the fables of Jean de La Fontaine in Alexandrines; a story, “For a Butterfly,” elaborates upon adventures which had appeared in a popular picture magazine. As a child author Sartre often plagiarized, but he managed to liven things up by blending imagination with memory while including long, didactic passages copied directly from the encyclopedia.
Simple in structure, this autobiography expresses Sartre’s reflections on his intellectual and emotional development; it flows smoothly and gracefully from beginning to end. The author’s view of himself as a child is expressed from the perspective of a mature thinker unembarrassed by the pranks and disgraces of his past, and he writes with a considerable amount of affection about nearly everyone he remembers.
Sartre’s tone is casual and informal—essentially conversational—though the style is highly wrought and polished. He touches on a wide variety of topics which affected him during his childhood: the early loss of his father, his relationships with his mother and grandfather, school friends and experiences, the development of his interest in classical music and silent films, and the first glimmers of philosophical reflections which were later to result in the production of an elaborate system of thought. Philosophy, in fact, binds the whole of Sartre’s work together, and The Words reveals the childhood sensibility and imagination of a person who was to become one of the great French writers of the century.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 85
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.
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