Jean-Paul Sartre Biography and Works

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Who was Jean-Paul Sartre? What did Jean-Paul Sartre do? Information on Jean-Paul Sartre biography, life story and works.

Jean-Paul Sartre; (1905-1980), French writer, who won fame as the intellectual and literary leader of existentialism, the philosophy that swept Europe after World War II. In novels, plays, essays, and philosophical works, he expounded his theory that life has no meaning or purpose beyond the goals that each man sets for himself. Sartre refused the Nobel Prize for literature in 1964. He said that it was not fair to the reader to add the weight of such extraneous influences to the power of a writer’s words.

Sartre was born in Paris on June 21, 1905, and graduated from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in 1929. He taught philosophy, mostly in provincial high schools, until he was drafted into the army at the start of the World War II. He was captured by the Germans but escaped and became a leader in the resistance movement. After the war, he devoted full time to writing and political activity. In 1946 he founded a monthly literary and political review, Les Temps modernes.

Works. Sartre’s first novel, La Nausée ( 1938; Eng. tr., Nausea, 1949) expressed the idea that human life has no purpose. The long philosophical essay L’Être et le néant ( 1943; Eng. tr., Being and Nothingness, 1956) linked this idea closely with the concept of man as terrifyifigly free and responsible in anguish for the choices he makes. A more optimistic view of existentialism, a philosophy Sartre did much to make famous in the immediate postwar period, appeared in the play Les Mouches ( 1943; Eng. tr., The Flies, 1946) and in the lecture L’Existentialisme est un humanisme ( 1946; Eng. tr., Existentialism and Humanism, 1948). However, Sartre afterward declared that the lecture was “a mistake,” and his later plays and novels continued to insist upon his early vision of man as a “useless passion.” His failure to complete the intended series of four novels with the overall title Les Chemins de la liberté ( Paths of Freedom )  L’ Age de raison ( 1945; Eng. tr., The Age of Reason, 1947), Le Sursis (1945; Eng. tr., The Reprieve, 1947), and La Mort dans l’âme (1949; Eng. tr., Iron in the Soul, 1950)—confirmed this impression, and his growing interest in Marxism failed to give him an optimistic view of human history. His philosophical work La Critique de la raison dialectique (1960) is an attempt to reconcile Marxism with existentialism, but its main theme is the inevitability of conflict between men.

Aesthetically, Sartre’s most successful works are his first novel, his short stories in the volume Le Mur (The Wall, 1939; Eng. tr., Intimacy, 1949), and his drama. Two plays stand out: Les Mains sales (1948; Eng. tr., Dirty Hands, 1949) and Les Séquestrés d’Altona ( 1959; Eng. tr., The Condemned of Altona, 1960). Both deal with the problem of liberty and responsibility, both end with the suicide of the main character, and both combine exciting drama with the intelligent presentation of moral and political ideas. His one-act play Huis clos ( 1944; Eng. tr., No Exit, 1947) has become a popular theater piece. Sartre’s literary criticism includes essays on William Faulkner (1938), Charles Baudelaire (1946), and Jean Genet ( 1952; Eng. tr., Saint Genet, 1963). His theory that literature must take sides in political issues was expressed in Qu’est-ce que la littérature? ( 1948; Eng. tr., What Is Literature?, 1949). His opinions on political and social issues were aired in essays that appeared in Les Temps modernes. In 1964, Sartre published the first volume of a projected two-volume autobiography, Les Mots (Eng. tr., The Words, 1964).

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