Authors: Jean-Paul Sartre

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

French dramatist, novelist, philosopher, editor, and critic

June 21, 1905

Paris, France

April 15, 1980

Paris, France

Biography

Philosopher, playwright, novelist, editor, and critic, Jean-Paul Sartre dominated European intellectual life for two decades following World War II. He was born in Paris on June 21, 1905, the son of a naval engineer, Jean-Baptiste, who died when the child was only fifteen months old. His mother, Anne-Marie, took the child with her to live with her parents, the Schweitzers, in Alsace, where, as later recounted in his autobiography The Words, the boy felt that he was the center of the universe. Yet his idyll was dispelled when, at the age of ten, he was sent to a Paris school and, a year later, his adored mother was remarried.

A brilliant and contentious student of philosophy, Sartre was thirty-three years old when his first literary work was published. He taught philosophy in a lycée in provincial Le Havre, where, despondent over aging in obscurity, he began writing the meditation on solitude that evolved into the short, spare, and challenging novel Nausea. This fictive diary of a solitary, unsuccessful biographer traumatized by his discovery of the contingency of any life remained Sartre’s greatest achievement in fiction; however, contemptuous of art’s evasions, he was later to repudiate it, as well as the short stories in The Wall, and Other Stories and the three completed volumes of a projected tetralogy entitled The Roads to Freedom.

Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964.

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(Library of Congress)

Mobilized at the outbreak of World War II and captured by the Germans, Sartre wrote his first plays and began to develop ideas on solidarity and freedom while in prison camp. After his release, Sartre spent most of the war years in Paris, writing prolifically. As editor of Les Temps modernes, the leftist magazine he cofounded in 1944, and as literary and political gadfly, Sartre became the celebrated center of a group of influential Left Bank intellectuals. Not least of these was Simone de Beauvoir, the pioneer feminist he had met before the war who became his devoted companion for some fifty years, though they rejected marriage and each pursued affairs with others.

While France was still under the German occupation, Sartre wrote stage works that dramatized human beings in urgent situations requiring the enlightened exercise of freedom. Though it makes use of ancient myth, The Flies, for example, was a call to French audiences to take responsibility for their subjection to a foreign power. Also produced during the Occupation was Sartre’s most frequently performed play, No Exit, a drama set in Hell about three characters who each choose an inauthentic identity. No Exit became popular abroad as well, being named best foreign play by the New York Drama Critics' Circle for 1946–47. After the war, Sartre continued to use theater to promulgate his philosophical and political ideas.

A prominent public figure who eventually abandoned fiction and theater for polemics and political action, Sartre traveled throughout the world, arousing controversy with his attacks on Soviet and American policies. He supported Algerian and Israeli independence and condemned the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the American war in Vietnam, and South African apartheid. In 1964, shortly after publication of The Words, Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Yet, in a dramatic gesture motivated by scorn for what he viewed as the coercive categories of bourgeois society, Sartre refused to accept the prestigious award. He courted controversy again in 1968, when, during the Paris student rebellion, Sartre defied arrest in supporting youthful radicals. In failing health for the last two decades of his life, Sartre became a living icon. He was still at work on his massive, obsessive biography of Gustave Flaubert when he died, of uremia, on April 15, 1980.

A number of other works of his were published posthumously. These have included a screenplay about psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, a critique of nineteenth-century poet Stéphane Mallarmé, and a book on morality and ethics, as well as volumes of Sartre's correspondence, his diaries from World War II, and collections of his early writings.

Dubbed the Pope of Existentialism, Sartre was the acknowledged leader of an extremely fashionable but elusive movement in modern philosophy. Raymond Aaron, Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty were among others associated with the school, and they were also companions with whom the truculent Sartre eventually had quarrels. Being and Nothingness, his most thorough and systematic statement of existentialist philosophy, is a forbiddingly dense, copious examination of key concepts, including those of contingency, consciousness, and bad faith. Existentialism, originally a lecture Sartre gave to defend and popularize his ideas, is a more accessible version of the existentialist credo. Existentialism attracted fierce devotion from acolytes and vehement rage from others, but Sartre refused to be typecast even in a philosophy opposed to categories. Others of his many writings also blended Marxist and Freudian ideas.

Sartre delighted in his own metamorphoses, his numerous shifts of approach, activity, and opinion. A stubborn man of enormous and varied energies arrayed in battle against the complacencies of middle-class conventions, he was proudly tendentious. Many others, including his detractors, saw him as he saw himself: as the conscience of a nation and an era. Beyond Sartre’s seminal work in fiction, philosophy, and theater, the cunning dialectician and official dissident will be remembered for the range of his accomplishments and for the awesome role of intellectual that he defined for himself and for others.

Author Works Drama: Les Mouches, pr., pb. 1943 (The Flies, 1946) Huis clos, pr. 1944 (In Camera, 1946; better known as No Exit, 1947) Morts sans sépulture, pr., pb. 1946 (The Victors, 1948) La Putain respectueuse, pr., pb. 1946 (The Respectful Prostitute, 1947) Les Jeux sont faits, pr., pb. 1947 (The Chips Are Down, 1948) Les Mains sales, pr., pb. 1948 (Dirty Hands, 1949) Le Diable et le Bon Dieu, pr. 1951 (Lucifer and the Lord, 1952; also known as The Devil and the Good Lord, 1953) Kean: Ou, Désordre et génie, pb. 1952 (adaptation of Alexandre Dumas, père’s play; Kean: Or, Disorder and Genius, 1954) Nekrassov, pr. 1955 (English translation, 1956) Les Séquestrés d’Altona, pr. 1959 (The Condemned of Altona, 1961; also known as Loser Wins, 1960) Bariona, ou Le Fils du tonnerre, 1962 Les Troyennes, pr., pb. 1965 (adaptation of Euripides’ play; The Trojan Women, 1967) Le Scénario Freud, 1984 (The Freud Scenario, 1985) Long Fiction: La Nausée, 1938 (Nausea, 1949; also known as The Diary of Antoine Roquentin, 1949) L’âge de raison, 1945 (The Age of Reason, 1947) Le Sursis, 1945 (The Reprieve, 1947) La Mort dans l’âme, 1949 (Troubled Sleep, 1951; also known as Iron in the Soul, 1950; previous 3 novels collectively known as Les Chemins de la liberté, in English The Roads to Freedom) Oeuvres romanesques, 1981 (Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka, editors) Short Fiction: Le Mur, 1939 (The Wall, and Other Stories, 1948; also known as Intimacy, and Other Stories, 1948) Nonfiction: L’Imagination, 1936 (Imagination: A Psychological Critique, 1962) Esquisse d’une théorie des émotions, 1939 (The Emotions: Outline of a Theory, 1948) L’Imaginaire: Psychologie phénoménologique de l’imagination, 1940 (The Psychology of Imagination, 1948) L’être et le néant: Essai d'ontologie phénoménologique, 1943 (Existential Psychoanalysis, 1953; better known as Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, 1956) L’Existentialisme est un humanisme, 1946 (Existentialism, 1947; also known as Existentialism and Humanism, 1948) Réflexions sur la question juive, 1946 (Anti-Semite and Jew, 1948; also known as Portrait of the Anti-Semite, 1948) Explication de L'étranger, 1946 L'homme et les choses, 1947 Baudelaire, 1947 (English translation, 1949) Qu’est-ce que la littérature?, 1947 (What Is Literature?, 1949) Entretiens sur la politique, 1949 (with David Rousset and Gérard Rosenthal) Situations I-X, 1947–75 (10 volumes; partial translation, 1965–77) Saint-Genet: Comédien et martyr, 1952 (Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, 1963) Critique de la raison dialectique, précédé de question de méthode, 1960 (Search for a Method, 1963) Critique de la raison dialectique, I: Théorie des ensembles pratiques, 1960 (Critique of Dialectical Reason, I: Theory of Practical Ensembles, 1976) Les Mots, 1964 (The Words, 1964) La transcendance de l'égo: Esquisse d'une description phénoménologique, 1965 (The Transcendence of the Ego: An Existentialist Theory of Consciousness, edited by Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick, 1957) Les communistes ont peur de la révolution, 1969 L’Idiot de la famille: Gustave Flaubert, 1821-1857, 1971–72 (3 volumes; partial translation as The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert, 1821-1857, 1981, 1987) Du rôle de l'intellectuel dans le mouvement révolutionnaire, 1971 (with Bernard Pingaud and Dionys Mascolo) Plaidoyer pour les intellectuels, 1972 Un Théâtre de situations, 1973 (Sartre on Theater, 1976) Politics and Literature, 1973 On a raison de se révolter, 1974 (with Philippe Gavi and Louis Vic) Cahiers pour une morale, 1983 (Notebooks for an Ethics, 1992) Les Carnets de la drôle de guerre: Novembre 1939-mars 1940., 1983 (The War Diaries of Jean-Paul Sartre: November, 1939-March, 1940, 1984; also known as War Diaries: Notebooks from a Phoney War, November 1939-March 1940) Lettres au Castor et à quelques autres, 1983 (2 volumes; volume 1, Witness to My Life: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1926-1939, 1992; volume 2, Quiet Moments in War: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1940-1963, 1993) Mallarmé: La Lucidité et sa face d'ombre, 1986 (under the direction of Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre; Mallarmé, or, The poet of nothingness, 1988) Vérité et existence, 1989 (under the direction of Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre; Truth and Existence, edited by Ronald Aronson, 1992) Écrits de jeunesse, 1990 (Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka, editors) La Reine Albemarle, ou, Le dernier touriste, 1991 Bibliography Anderson, Thomas C. Sartre’s Two Ethics: From Authenticity to Integral Humanity. Chicago: Open Court, 1993. This work, while focusing on Sartre’s ethics, provides an explanation of the themes that pervaded his dramatic works. Bibliography and index. Aronson, Ronald, and Adrian van den Hoven. Sartre Alive. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991. Sections on Sartre’s continuing political relevance, rethinking his political and philosophical thought, his fiction and biography, his relationship with de Beauvoir and other writers, and concluding assessments of his career. Aronson and van den Hoven provide a judicious and well-informed introduction. Barnes, Hazel E. The Literature of Possibility: Studies in Humanistic Existentialism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1959. Among the earliest expositions of existentialist thought, this first of several books by Barnes (also a frequent translator of Sartre) that deal with postwar French thought and writing is still noteworthy for its analysis of the short stories, a genre often overlooked by Sartre’s other critics. Using the short fiction as a point of entry into Sartre’s developing thought, Barnes is especially authoritative in her reading of “Childhood of a Boss.” Bloom, Harold, ed. Jean-Paul Sartre. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001. A collection of critical essays on Sartre, with an introduction by Harold Bloom. Bibliography and index. Brosman, Catherine Savage. Jean-Paul Sartre. Boston: Twayne, 1983. An introduction to Sartre’s life and thought; includes chapters on Sartre’s life, philosophy, fiction, and drama. A brief discussion of the five stories in The Wall appears in the chapter on the early fiction. Cranston, Maurice. Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: Grove Press, 1962. A short introductory volume with chapters on Sartre’s life, drama, fiction, and critical theories. Contends “The Wall,” although it along with Nausea made Sartre’s name in France, is one of his least characteristic works of fiction; in fact, with its neat plot and ironical final twist, it belongs to a tradition of fiction typical of Guy de Maupassant which Sartre repudiated. Danto, Arthur C. Sartre. 2d ed. London: Fontana, 1991. A good introductory overview of Sartre’s life and thought. Fournay, Jean-François, and Charles D. Minahen, eds. Situating Sartre in Twentieth Century Thought and Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Sartre scholars offer varied interpretations on the significance of Sartre’s philosophical and literary works. Fullbrook, Kate. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre: The Remaking of a Twentieth Century Legend. New York: Basic Books, 1994. A worthwhile study of the relationship between two important twentieth century philosophers who helped to establish existentialism as an important movement. Gopnik, Adam. "Facing History." The New Yorker, vol. 88, no. 8, 2012, pp. 70–76. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=74207440&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 31 Mar. 2017. Focuses on the friendship between Sartre and fellow novelist and existentialist philosopher Albert Camus. Hayman, Ronald. Sartre: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987. Well written, Hayman’s life of Sartre shows the biographical and historical context of the various works, suggesting how and why Sartre explored various literary genres in search of the most accessible vehicle for his ideas. Hill, Charles G. Jean-Paul Sartre: Freedom and Commitment. New York: Peter Lang, 1992. Discusses Sartre’s quest for freedom and authentic actions as well as his recognition of the ambiguities of commitment. See especially chapter 2, on Nausea. Includes chronology, notes, and bibliography. Howells, Christina, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Sartre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. A comprehensive reference work devoted to Sartre and his life, times, and literary works. Bibliography and index. Howells, Christina, ed. Sartre. New York: Longman, 1995. Howells presents critical analyses of the literary works of Sartre. Bibliography and index. Kamber, Richard. On Sartre. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2000. Although this volume focuses on Sartre as philosopher, it explicates the thought and viewpoints that permeate his literary works. Bibliography. McBride, William L., ed. Existentialist Literature and Aesthetics. Vol. 7 in Sartre and Existentialism. New York: Garland, 1997. This volume, part of a multivolume series on Sartre and his philosophy, examines his literary works and how existentialism was expressed in them. Bibliography. McBride, William L., ed. Sartre’s Life, Times, and Vision du Monde. Vol. 3 in Sartre and Existentialism. New York: Garland, 1997. This volume, one in a multivolume work on Sartre and existentialism, looks at his life, the times in which he lived and wrote, and his worldview. Bibliography. Peyre, Hanri. French Novelists of Today. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. This volume is a revision of The Contemporary French Novel, originally published in 1955. Peyre’s exhaustive survey of then-recent French fiction devotes an entire chapter to Sartre’s narrative prose, including the short stories. Unlike many of Sartre’s commentators both before and since, Peyre sees Sartre’s fiction as forming a significant portion of his total literary statement. Peyre, Hanri. Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968. A brief monograph in the Columbia Essays on Modern Writers series. Peyre asserts there may not be another volume of short stories in French literature of the last hundred years as remarkable as The Wall. He argues that because they are early works, they are not marred by philosophy or obtrusive symbolism, but rather are as concrete as the stories of Ernest Hemingway. Plank, William. Sartre and Surrealism. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Press, 1981. One of the few studies of Sartre to discuss the short fiction at length in detail, Plank’s monograph situates the stories with regard to intellectual as well as political history. Thody, Philip Malcolm Waller. Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. An examination of Sartre as novelist, with some reference to his dramatic works. Wardman, Harold W. Jean-Paul Sartre: The Evolution of His Thought and Art. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992. A critical examination of the literary works of Sartre that traces his philosophical development through his writings. Bibliography and index. Wider, Kathleen Virginia. The Bodily Nature of Consciousness: Sartre and Contemporary Philosophy of Mind. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997. Underscores the emphasis that Sartre places on the embodied nature of human consciousness and relates Sartre’s views to important contemporary theories about the mind-body relationship.

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