History of Literature

Jean-Paul Sartre


Jean-Paul Sartre



Jean-Paul Sartre

French philosopher and author

born June 21, 1905, Paris, France
died April 15, 1980, Paris

French novelist, playwright, and exponent of Existentialism—a philosophy acclaiming the freedom of the individual human being. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964, but he declined it.

Early life and writings
Sartre lost his father at an early age and grew up in the home of his maternal grandfather, Carl Schweitzer, uncle of the medical missionary Albert Schweitzer and himself professor of German at the Sorbonne. The boy, who wandered in the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris in search of playmates, was small in stature and cross-eyed. His brilliant autobiography, Les Mots (1963; Words, 1964), narrates the adventures of the mother and child in the park as they went from group to group—in the vain hope of being accepted—then finally retreated to the sixth floor of their apartment “on the heights where (the) dreams dwell.” “The words” saved the child, and his interminable pages of writing were the escape from a world that had rejected him but that he would proceed to rebuild in his own fancy.

Sartre went to the Lycée Henri IV in Paris and, later on, after the remarriage of his mother, to the lycée in La Rochelle. From there he went to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, from which he was graduated in 1929. Sartre resisted what he called “bourgeois marriage,” but while still a student he formed with Simone de Beauvoir a union that remained a settled partnership in life. Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs, Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (1958; Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, 1959) and La Force de l’âge (1960; The Prime of Life, 1962), provide an intimate account of Sartre’s life from student years until his middle 50s. It was also at the École Normale Supérieure and at the Sorbonne that he met several persons who were destined to be writers of great fame; among these were Raymond Aron, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone Weil, Emmanuel Mounier, Jean Hippolyte, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. From 1931 until 1945 Sartre taught in the lycées of Le Havre, Laon, and, finally, Paris. Twice this career was interrupted, once by a year of study in Berlin and the second time when Sartre was drafted in 1939 to serve in World War II. He was made prisoner in 1940 and released a year later.

During his years of teaching in Le Havre, Sartre published La Nausée (1938; Nausea, 1949), his first claim to fame. This novel, written in the form of a diary, narrates the feeling of revulsion that a certain Roquentin undergoes when confronted with the world of matter—not merely the world of other people but the very awareness of his own body. According to some critics, La Nausée must be viewed as a pathological case, a form of neurotic escape. Most probably it must be appreciated also as a most original, fiercely individualistic, antisocial piece of work, containing in its pages many of the philosophical themes that Sartre later developed.

Sartre took over the phenomenological method, which proposes careful, unprejudiced description rather than deduction, from the German philosopher Edmund Husserl and used it with great skill in three successive publications: L’Imagination (1936; Imagination: A Psychological Critique, 1962), Esquisse d’une théorie des émotions (1939; Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions, 1962), and L’Imaginaire: Psychologie phénoménologique de l’imagination (1940; The Psychology of Imagination, 1950). But it was above all in L’Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956) that Sartre revealed himself as a master of outstanding talent. Sartre places human consciousness, or no-thingness (néant), in opposition to being, or thingness (être). Consciousness is not-matter and by the same token escapes all determinism. The message, with all the implications it contains, is a hopeful one; yet the incessant reminder that human endeavour is and remains useless makes the book tragic as well.

Post-World War II work
Having written his defense of individual freedom and human dignity, Sartre turned his attention to the concept of social responsibility. For many years he had shown great concern for the poor and the disinherited of all kinds. While a teacher, he had refused to wear a tie, as if he could shed his social class with his tie and thus come closer to the worker. Freedom itself, which at times in his previous writings appeared to be a gratuitous activity that needed no particular aim or purpose to be of value, became a tool for human struggle in his brochure L’Existentialisme est un humanisme (1946; Existentialism and Humanism, 1948). Freedom now implied social responsibility. In his novels and plays Sartre began to bring his ethical message to the world at large. He started a four-volume novel in 1945 under the title Les Chemins de la liberté, of which three were eventually written: L’Âge de raison (1945; The Age of Reason, 1947), Le Sursis (1945; The Reprieve, 1947), and La Mort dans l’âme (1949; Iron in the Soul, 1950; U.S. title, Troubled Sleep, 1950). After the publication of the third volume, Sartre changed his mind concerning the usefulness of the novel as a medium of communication and turned back to plays.

What a writer must attempt, said Sartre, is to show man as he is. Nowhere is man more man than when he is in action, and this is exactly what drama portrays. He had already written in this medium during the war, and now one play followed another: Les Mouches (produced 1943; The Flies, 1946), Huis-clos (1944; In Camera, 1946; U.S. title, No Exit, 1946), Les Mains sales (1948; Crime passionel, 1949; U.S. title, Dirty Hands, 1949; acting version, Red Gloves), Le Diable et le bon dieu (1951; Lucifer and the Lord, 1953), Nekrassov (1955), and Les Séquestrés d’Altona (1959; Loser Wins, 1959; U.S. title, The Condemned of Altona, 1960). All the plays, in their emphasis upon the raw hostility of man toward man, seem to be predominantly pessimistic; yet, according to Sartre’s own confession, their content does not exclude the possibility of a morality of salvation. Other publications of the same period include a book, Baudelaire (1947), a vaguely ethical study on the French writer and poet Jean Genet entitled Saint Genet, comédien et martyr (1952; Saint Genet, Actor and Martyr, 1963), and innumerable articles that were published in Les Temps Modernes, the monthly review that Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir founded and edited. These articles were later collected in several volumes under the title Situations.

Political activities
After World War II, Sartre took an active interest in French political movements, and his leanings to the left became more pronounced. He became an outspoken admirer of the Soviet Union, although he did not become a member of the Communist Party. In 1954 he visited the Soviet Union, Scandinavia, Africa, the United States, and Cuba. Upon the entry of Soviet tanks into Budapest in 1956, however, Sartre’s hopes for communism were sadly crushed. He wrote in Les Temps Modernes a long article, “Le Fantôme de Staline,” that condemned both the Soviet intervention and the submission of the French Communist Party to the dictates of Moscow. Over the years this critical attitude opened the way to a form of “Sartrian Socialism” that would find its expression in a new major work, Critique de la raison dialectique (1960; Eng. trans., of the introduction only, under the title The Problem of Method, 1963; U.S. title, Search for a Method). Sartre set out to examine critically the Marxist dialectic and discovered that it was not livable in the Soviet form. Although he still believed that Marxism was the only philosophy for the current times, he conceded that it had become ossified and that, instead of adapting itself to particular situations, it compelled the particular to fit a predetermined universal. Whatever its fundamental, general principles, Marxism must learn to recognize the existential concrete circumstances that differ from one collectivity to another and to respect the individual freedom of man. The Critique, somewhat marred by poor construction, is in fact an impressive and beautiful book, deserving of more attention than it has gained so far. A projected second volume was abandoned. Instead, Sartre prepared for publication Les Mots, for which he was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize for Literature, an offer that was refused.

Last years
From 1960 until 1971 most of Sartre’s attention went into the writing of a four-volume study called Flaubert. Two volumes with a total of some 2,130 pages appeared in the spring of 1971. This huge enterprise aimed at presenting the reader with a “total biography” of Gustave Flaubert, the famous French novelist, through the use of a double tool: on the one hand, Karl Marx’s concept of history and class and, on the other, Sigmund Freud’s illuminations of the dark recesses of the human soul through explorations into his childhood and family relations. Although at times Sartre’s genius comes through and his fecundity is truly unbelievable, the sheer volume of the work and the minutely detailed analysis of even the slightest Flaubertian dictum hamper full enjoyment. As if he himself were saturated by the prodigal abundance of his writings, Sartre moved away from his desk during 1971 and did very little writing. Under the motto that “commitment is an act, not a word,” Sartre often went into the streets to participate in rioting, in the sale of left-wing literature, and in other activities that in his opinion were the way to promote “the revolution.” Paradoxically enough, this same radical Socialist published in 1972 the third volume of the work on Flaubert, L’Idiot de la famille, another book of such density that only the bourgeois intellectual can read it.

The enormous productivity of Sartre came herewith to a close. His mind, still alert and active, came through in interviews and in the writing of scripts for motion pictures. He also worked on a book of ethics. However, his was no longer the power of a genius in full productivity. Sartre became blind and his health deteriorated. In April 1980 he died of a lung tumour. His very impressive funeral, attended by some 25,000 people, was reminiscent of the burial of Victor Hugo, but without the official recognition that his illustrious predecessor had received. Those who were there were ordinary people, those whose rights his pen had always defended.

Wilfrid Desan



Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre's Nausea is that rare thing in literary history— a "philosophical" novel that succeeds in both of its endeavors. The novel is at once a manifesto for existentialist philosophy and a convincing work of art. In fact, it succeeds to such an extent that it blurs the distinction between literature and philosophy altogether. Nausea details the experiences of thirty-year-old Antoine Roquentin, a researcher who has settled in the French port of Bouville (a thinly disguised Le Havre) after several years of travel. Settling down, however, produces a series of increasingly strange effects. As Roquentin engages in simple, everyday activities, his understanding of the world and his place in it is fundamentally altered. He comes to perceive the rational solidity of existence as no more than a fragile veneer. He experiences the "nausea" of reality, a "sweetish sickness," a ground-level vertigo. He is appalled by the blank indifference of inanimate objects, yet acutely conscious that each situation he finds himself in bears the irrevocable stamp of his being. He finds that he cannot escape from his own overwhelming presence.
This is a delicately controlled examination of freedom, responsibility, consciousness, and time. Influenced by the philosophy of Edmund Husserl and the literary stylings of Dostoevsky and Kafka, Nausea is the novel that announced existentialism to the world—a system of ideas that would go on to become one of the most significant developments in twentieth-century thought and culture. The notion that"existence precedes essence"is writ large for the first time here, several years before Sartre "formalized" his ideas in Being and Nothingness (1943) and before the horrors of the Second World War had intensified their impact.



Type of work: Novel
Author: Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
Type of plot: Philosophical realism
Time of plot: The 1930s
Locale: France
First published: La Nausee, 1938 (English translation, 1949)


In Nausea, Sartre's first novel, the philosopher-novelist-dramatist delineates his Existentialist philosophy through a minute analysis of the interior life of Antoine Roquentin, a mild-mannered French historian. Roquentin experiences nausea and feels existence to be oppressive when he learns that life has no intrinsic meaning. Finding or making meaning thus becomes the object of Roquentin's life.


Principal Characters

Antoine Roquentin (an-twan' ro-kan-tan'), a philosophical man who has settled down in Bouville, a town by the sea, to write a biography of the Marquis de Rol-lebon, an eighteenth century European politician. During the third year of work on the book, Roquentin notices that he has become the victim of a strange affliction; what he calls "a sweetish sickness" settles over him from time to time. Repelled by the malady, he seeks to rid himself of it by spending time with the few people he knows and by stopping work on the Rollebon book. No one can help him. In despair, he goes to Paris, hoping to be able to write a novel, knowing that he is never to solve the problems of his life.
Ogier P. (6-zhya' pa'), an acquaintance whom Roquentin calls "the Self-Taught Man." To rid himself of loneliness and despair, Roquentin unprofitably spends some time with Ogier P. Roquentin witnesses a scene in which Ogier P., discovered to be a homosexual, is ordered to leave a library.
Anny (a-ne'), an English girl whom Roquentin had known before he began work on the biography. They meet in Paris. She has aged, however, and she insults Roquentin and leaves Paris with the man who is keeping her.
Franchise (frari-swaz'), a woman who operates a cafe called the Rendez-vous des Cheminots. She and Roquentin were once lovers on a purely physical level. When Roquentin visits her to say good-bye before he moves to Paris, he finds that she has a new lover and has no time for him.


The Story

Antoine Roquentin, a thirty-year-old Frenchman, after traveling though Central Europe, North Africa, and the Orient, settled down in the seaport town of Bouville to finish his historical research on the Marquis de Rollebon, an eighteenth century figure in European politics whose home had been at Bouville. For three years Roquentin searched the archives of the Bouville library in order to reconstruct the nobleman's life. All Roquentin's energies were concentrated on his task; he knew few people in Bouville, except by sight, and he lived more in the imaginary world he had created for the Marquis de Rollebon than in the actual world.
In the third year of his residence in Bouville during the winter of 1932, Roquentin began to have a series of disturbing psychological experiences, which he termed the Nausea. He felt that there was something new about commonplace articles; even his hands seemed to take on new aspects, to have an existence all their own. It was then that Roquentin's loneliness seemed a terrible thing to him, for there was no one to whom he could speak of his experiences. His only acquaintances were Ogier P., nicknamed by Roquentin the Self-Taught Man because he was instructing himself by reading all the books in the library, and a woman named Frangoise, who operated a cafe called the Rendez-vous de Cheminots. Francoise, who had become fond of Roquentin, was the outlet for his physical sexuality, beyond which their acquaintance had not gone. Roquentin, in his loneliness, began to think of Anny, an English girl who had traveled with him some years before and whom he had loved; but he had not heard from her in more than three years. Worst of all, the Nausea came more and more often to plague Roquentin; it passed from objects into his body through his hands, and the only way he could describe it was that it seemed like a sweetish sickness.
One evening, shortly after the Nausea had first appeared, Roquentin went to the cafe, only to find that Francoise was gone for a time. He watched four men playing cards and wanted to vomit; for the first time, the Nausea had crept upon him in a place where there were bright lights and many people. As he listened to the music playing on a battered old phonograph, however, the Nausea vanished. He felt as if he were inside the music.
Strangely enough, as the days passed, the Self-Taught Man made an effort be friendly with Roquentin. Learning that the latter had traveled a great deal, he asked to see some of the photographs Roquentin had collected and to hear some of Roquentin's adventures. He even went to Roquentin's room one evening for that specific purpose. These friendly overtures were not entirely welcomed by Roquentin, who was immersed in his psychological problems, but he acquiesced in setting a date to have dinner with the Self-Taught Man a few days later.
In the interval before the dinner engagement, the book about the Marquis de Rollebon came to a halt. One day, Roquentin suddenly stopped writing in the middle of a paragraph and knew that he would write no more, although he had spent more than three years' labor on the work. Roquentin suddenly felt cheated, as if his very existence had been stolen by the Marquis de Rollebon during those years, so that the marquis had been living in place of himself. The feeling was caused partially by the discovery on Roquentin's part that he could never know for certain the truth about the notorious marquis, who had used men for his own ends during his life.
With the discovery that he was going to write no more, Roquentin also found that there was little or no purpose in his life. Indeed, there seemed to be no reason for his existence at all. For three years Roquentin had not reacted to his own existence because he had been working; now it was thrust upon him with disquieting abruptness.
Soon Roquentin received an unexpected letter from Anny, which had been forwarded from his old address in Paris. She wrote that she was to be in Paris for a few days and wished to see him. Roquentin looked forward to seeing her and planned to leave Bouville for the first time in three years to visit with her in Paris.
The following Wednesday, Roquentin and the Self-Taught Man met for their dinner engagement. During the dinner, a rather stiff affair, the Self-Taught Man tried to convince Roquentin that he, like the Self-Taught Man, ought to be a socialist and a humanist, that in the humanity of the world was to be found the true reason for the universe. Roquentin became so disquieted that the Nausea came over him during the discussion, and he abruptly left the restaurant.
When he visited Anny, he found her changed; she had gained weight, but the changes that bothered him the most were those he felt rather than saw. The interview was a dismal failure; Anny accused him of being worthless to her and finally thrust him from the room. Later he saw Anny getting on a train with the man who kept her, and he went back to Bouville with a sense of numbness. He believed that both he and Anny had outlived themselves. All that was left, he felt, was eating and sleeping, an existence not unlike that of an inanimate object.
Roquentin remained in Bouville only a few days more. Unhappy and lonesome, he sought out the Self-Taught Man, finding him in the library reading to two young boys. Roquentin also sat down to read. He never did get to open the conversation, for in the ensuing minutes, the Self-Taught Man revealed himself as a homosexual and was brutally ordered out of the library by a librarian. The only other person to whom Roquentin wished to say goodbye was the congenial woman who owned the Rendezvous des Cheminots. When he went to see her, however, she could give him only a moment, for another man claimed her time.
Roquentin went to the railway station for the train that was to take him to Paris. His only hope was that he might write a novel that would make people think of his life as something precious and legendary, though he knew that the work on such a book, unlike his attempts at the history of the Marquis de Rollebon, could not keep from him the troublesome problems of existence.


Critical Evaluation

Jean-Paul Sartre published his first novel, Nausea, in 1938, just as his existential philosophical system was taking clear shape in his mind. This book, both a work of philosophy and a novel in the form of a diary, explores the relationship of Antoine Roquentin to his reality—his surroundings, his acquaintances, and his relationships. Bound to Bouville (literally, "Mudville") by his research, Roquentin comes to perceive his total alienation from the world of bourgeois falsehoods and self-deceptions, but he is unable to attain an affirmation of his own authenticity. Some readers find existential literature repellent because those who wrote it (such as Sartre himself, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus) often deal with negative attitudes and the failures of their characters to achieve satisfaction and the fulfillment of their beings. Nausea is no exception, for Roquentin thinks of himself as a thing reflected in the trap of a mirror. The Nausea which sometimes overcomes him when he confronts real objects (a stone, a piece of paper) helps to free him from this static conception of himself and sets him on the road to self-discovery.
Sartre's effort to blend philosophy with literature is regarded by most critics as successful: Abstract ideas are exemplified through specific incidents or circumstances, and psychological subtleties are illustrated by the use of precise dramatic details. Roquentin's first perception of his own absurdity, for instance, occurs when he studies the shape of a muddy stone he has picked up from the ground and is unable to throw. The pebble seems to possess more inherent "reality" than he himself does. The stone is, while Roquentin is becoming. Nausea seizes Roquentin as he recognizes his own shapelessness and understands that he must somehow find and establish his own identity and being. Men are not stones; they shape themselves as they wish to become and to appear to others, making philosophical progress as they face moral dilemmas.
Roquentin finds himself more than ill at ease among his fellowmen: He is an absolute outsider. His contempt for the middle class and its values is wittily expressed as he watches the regular Sunday morning parade of prosperous townsfolk on the Rue Tournebride; he laughs inwardly at their greetings and handshakes, their smiles and gestures of courtesy, their superficial self-satisfaction. The irony reaches brilliant heights when he later studies the portraits of the illustrious forebears of the townsfolk and overhears the naive conversation of a couple who are expressing reverence for the dignity of these "great" men. In a long passage of harsh, cynical satire Roquentin mocks and reviles the complacency of those who have not known his Nausea. During his three years in Bouville, Roquentin has not established a significant friendship with anyone. He constantly watches people in public places, seeking in the faces and behavior of these strangers some sign of authenticity, but usually discovers only some form of falseness or self-deception. He endures his existence in a state of unbridgeable loneliness, finding consolation only in his work.
Roquentin's relationship with the Self-Taught Man he meets at the library is curiously indifferent. For a long time their contact is limited to conventional exchanges. Roquentin takes no pleasure in the other's visit to his room to look at photographs; he reluctantly accepts an invitation to dinner, but there, suffering from an illusion of order and meaning in the world, the Self-Taught Man annoys Roquentin with a long harangue extolling the glories of humanism and socialism. Roquentin leaves abruptly in disgust, no longer able to tolerate the mouthing of commonplace ideas. The Nausea comes again shortly thereafter, as loneliness overcomes him.
Pleased at receiving an unexpected letter from his former mistress Anny, Roquentin realizes that he may still love her and can perhaps resolve his spiritual dilemmas with her aid. When he visits her in Paris, however, it becomes obvious that no such thing can happen. He finds her aged, and she has grown weary with life; she no longer seeks to derive "perfect moments" from "privileged situations" (a striving that Roquentin had never understood), for she feels she has outlived herself. In spite of Roquentin's attempt to renew their affair, Anny rejects him, thus shattering his only hope for fulfillment through love. The split is final, and Roquentin, disillusioned, lonely, and alone, fears he too may have outlived himself, with only his work left to give meaning to his life.
His research project, however, has become ever more boring to him as he has sought to discover the "real" Marquis de Rollebon hidden behind the historical documents, the personality behind the facts. Roquentin is unable to discern any unity among the diverse and conflicting impressions furnished by contemporaries who knew the marquis. As Rollebon the man eludes him, Roquentin experiences first curiosity, then frustration, and finally ennui with the task he has set himself. Rollebon seems to be as shapeless as Roquentin himself, and his failure to discover the reality of the eighteenth century politician eventually drives the historian to abandon his project altogether. He comes finally to question the very existence of the past, since everything seems to be in doubt. His own definition of himself as a historian is shattered as he stares at his reflection in a mirror, seeing himself reduced to a mere image, lacking substance and essence.
The only pleasure and joy which Roquentin had ever experienced in Bouville came to him from listening to an old, worn record of an American popular song in one of his favorite cafes. The sound of the saxophone and the black woman's voice singing the banal lyrics had somehow transformed him and carried him into a superior realm, driving away the Nausea temporarily. Now he imagines a Jewish-American in a hot New York apartment creating the music and the black woman bringing it to life with her voice. Though unknown and perhaps ultimately insignificant, these two had saved themselves through artistic creation. He wonders if he might justify his own existence in a similar way, by writing a novel in which he would attempt to clarify his past and rid himself of its repugnance. He is uncertain of the outcome as he prepares to move to Paris, but not without hope: No longer a stone, he senses the possibility, through creative effort, of beginning to become.



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