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The Age of Reason

Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre is a noted French philosopher and novelist, who rose to international
fame as one of the main proponents of the French existential movement alongside other
prominent figures such as Albert Camus and Maurice-Merleau Ponty. Sartre was born in 1905 in
Paris, France, and would die in Paris in 1980. Shortly after his birth, Sartres father JeanBaptiste Sartre came down with a fever while on tour with the French Navy and passed away. It
is difficult to say the extent of influence Jean-Baptistes death had on Sartres life and
philosophy. One might expect the death of a father to be a tragic affair, but interestingly Sartre
rejects this notion. In his 1964 memoir The Words Sartre comments that There is no good
father, that's the rule. Don't lay the blame on men but on the bond of paternity, which is rotten.
To beget children, nothing better; to have them, what iniquity. Had my father lived he would
have lain on me at full length and would have crushed me. As luck had it, he died young. Amidst
Aeneas and his followers who carry their Anchises on their backs, I move from shore to shore,
alone and hating those invisible begetters who bestraddle their sons all their life long. Thus
Sartre believes the circumstances of his childhood not a curse, but a gift. It is of my opinion that
this belief was bent into shape later in life, as it is fairly consistent with Sartres philosophy. The
main tenet of existentialism is the notion of free will, and that life has no inherent meaning, it is
up to humans to make choices and define their own paths. I feel Sartre aimed to reject the idea
of his father's death as being formative as that would come in contact with his beliefs.
Nonetheless, after the death of his father, Sartre lived with his grandfather Carl
Schweitzer, a respected author and professor of German at the Sorbonne, a collection of notable
french universities on the site of the defunct University of Paris. Sartre lived a complicated
childhood, cross-eyed and small-statured, Sartre became somewhat of a recluse, a sentiment
also presented in The Words. In 1929, Sartre graduated from the cole Normale Suprieure, a
prestigious French university in Lyon. It was here that he met Simone de Beauvoir, an extremely
influential French existential philosopher and torchbearer of the feminist movement (wrote The
Second Sex), the two would remain companions throughout their lives. Sartre would go on to
become a teacher at Le Havre. During this period, Sartre published Nausea, a canonical novel of
existentialism. Sartres tenure at the school was disrupted in 1939 due to the advent of the
Second World War, in which Sartre was drafted into the French forces and served as a
meteorologist. Sartre was captured as a prisoner of war in 1940 but released the following year,
allowing him to write and publish during the war. It was then that he published perhaps his
most famous work, Being and Nothingness in 1943.
After the war Sartre would continue writing and his relationship with de Beauvoir,
becoming more and more involved in social activism and politics. Sartre joined the communist
party and would meet with Fidel Castro with de Beauvoir in Cuba. As Sartre aged he began to
reject novels. He believed he needed to be a man of action, and turned to plays instead.
Interestingly, in 1964, Sartre won the nobel prize for literature for Nausea. However,
Sartre refused the award, becoming the only person in history to reject the award by their own
conscience (others have been forced to reject). Sartre thought that the Nobel Committee was an
Institution of the Bourgeoisie, and that the institution threatened to define him. Not wanting to
be tied to or associated with such an organization that was not selected by his own will Sartre
Later in his life Sartre would go on to complete plays, novels, and nonfiction works. His
final project was a complete biography of French philosopher and writer Flaubert.
The Age of Reason.

The Age of Reason is the first book in Sartres Roads to Freedom trilogy. The series was
planned as a tetralogy, but Sartre encountered his dissatisfaction with novels after writing the
third instalment, and decided to not continue. The novel revolves around a turbulent three day
period where philosophy professor Mathieu Delarue seeks to raise 4,000 francs to fund an
abortion for his seven year mistress Marcelle. As most if not all works of existentialism, at its
core the novel is about freedom and choice.
In the early stages of The Age of Reason we learn that Marcelle is pregnant, and
that without much thought or conversation between herself and Mathieu, that the baby shall be
aborted. Mathieu and Marcelle contact friends searching for a doctor to perform the operation,
but are faced with a harsh reality, they cannot afford a quality option. The couple visit a women
who resides in the back of a store and performs abortions for a cut-rate cost. Mathieu is
adamant that he will send Marcelle to no such person. By recommendation of Sarah, a friend of
Mathieus, Mathieu finds a qualified doctor, but the man carries a high cost of 4,000 francs.
This sets up the framework of the novel. Mathieu must raise the money for the operation.
As we progress through the book. Mathieu comes in contact with various people and
friends in his search for money. One of the first people Mathieu speaks with is his friend Daniel,
who has the money but will not lend it to Mathieu. Two other noteworthy characters are the
young duo of Boris and Ivich. Boris is a student of Mathieus and Ivich is his sister. Boris is
dating an older woman named Lola who works as an entertainer at a nightclub called Sumatra.
Ivich comes off as a flirtatious youth, and goes through mild flings with Mathieu that do not
amount to anything substantial.
In what could be described as the climax of the novel, if it has one, Mathieu is desperate
for the 4,000 francs. At this point in the book, Mathieu has exhausted his options and is running
out of time as the doctor will be leaving on a trip to America in the near future. Boris,
disgruntled and slightly aloof comes to see Mathieu. He tells him that Lola has died next to him
in their hotel room bed, and that he needs Mathieu to return to the room and steal letters from
Lolas briefcase that may lead authorities to believe Boris had a hand in Lolas death. Mathieu
goes to the room, unlocks the briefcase and finds thousands of francs beneath Boris letters, with
Lolas cold lifeless body adjacent. Mathieu considers taking the money but decides against it. As
he is leaving the room, Lola wakes up. She has not died, and informs Mathieu that she
occasionally becomes comatose when she takes too much cocaine, causing Boris to fear the
worst. Mathieu would eventually betray his earlier decision and steal the 4,ooo francs while Lola
was out dancing. Before Mathieu can return to Marcelle he is informed by Daniel that Daniel
and Marcelle are closer than he could have imagined, and the two see each other often for
company. Daniel informs Mathieu that Marcelle wishes to have the baby, and wishes to marry
Mathieu. Mathieu goes to speak to Marcelle and ultimately realises that he cannot marry her,
doing so would surrender his freedom. Earlier chapters illustrate that Daniel is a homosexual, so
when Daniel informs Mathieu that he is going to marry Marcelle after Mathieus meeting with
her, the human experience is again thrown into question.
Looking at a Sartre from such a plot heavy lens is futile, as the real meaning in his works
lies beneath. The Age of Reason at its heart does not tell the story of a man struggling to raise
money, but that of a man struggling with identity, purpose, and his own conceptions of freedom
as he ages. Mathieu sees himself as a free man. He has not married Marcelle because the
institution of marriage contradicts the principles he lives by. For the same reason, Mathieu is
averse to having a child. He believes these outside sources threaten to dissolve his
independence, the thing he believes he holds most dear. The child brings to head the issues
Mathieu faces in society and forces him to confront and evaluate himself.
An important passage early on in the first third of the book occurs when Mathieu is
asking his brother, Jacques, for money. Jacques and Mathieu engage in an intellectual joust in
which Mathieu is presented with the contradictions in his life. Mathieu believes himself to be a

man at odds with the bourgeoisie. He sees himself as a revolutionary, as a young man rejecting
the society from which he came and living a life on his own accord. Jacques however, has
different ideas.
You are trying, said Jacques, to evade the fact that youre a bourgeois and ashamed of
it. I myself reverted to bourgeoisie after many aberrations and contracted a marriage of
convenience with the party, but you are a bourgeois by taste and temperament, and its your
temperament thats pushing you into marriage. For you are married, Mathieu, said he forcibly.
First Ive heard of it, said Mathieu.
Oh yes, you are, only you pretend you arent because you are possessed by theories. You
have fallen into a habit of life with this young woman: you go to see her quietly four days a week
and you spend the night with her. That has been going on for seven years, and theres no
adventure left in it; you respect her, you feel obligations towards her, you dont want to leave
herWill you tell me how that differs from marriage except for cohabitation?
Mathieu is faced with the perception that he is not who he believes he is in a rather
convincing manner. What separates the union Mathieu lives from a marriage? Merely a word.
Mathieus claims his principals oppose marriage, but essentially he is married. He frequents
Marcelles house, they are comfortable with each other, their relationship spans nearly a decade,
and he believes he has deep feelings for her. Such struggles are the focus of the novel. Is he truly
free or is Mathieus freedom simply a built up facade of his mind. Sartres philosophy shines
through in passages like the aforementioned because they give him a canvas for rumination and
expansion. Mathieu has reached the age of reason. His days as a young and free intellectual are
gone, but he cannot admit this to himself. Instead at this point in the novel, Mathieu blames his
lack of freedom on his situation, he believes that if he can raise the money for Marcelles
abortion that he can be free, this will eventually prove false.
A commonality in Sartres characters is the existential struggle. Each character is in some
way or another condemned to an idea or event in their world. In existentialism, life is not
meaningless. The idea is that life has no inherent meaning. Thus, the characters of the novel
wrestle with what lay before them, as existentialism has more to do with the philosophy that
society complicates the meaning of life than the idea that life has no meaning. It is with these
complications that Sartre is able to weave his philosophy in the novel. Mathieu of course has his
world thrown into turmoil by the advent of his would be childs conception, Daniel struggles
with his homosexualty and comes close to killing himself because of it, Ivich is in poor spirits
throughout the duration of the novel because she believes she has failed an exam needed to
continue school, and Boris and Lola are constantly questioning their relationship, and France
itself is cast in the looming shadow of a World War. In each of these instances, Sartre is sure to
include long often meandering passages of internal conflict. Sartre's characters feel real and
believable not because of conflict, but due to the detail Sartre places into each character's
disposition. Sartre does this so well and with such efficiency that one can understand behavior,
that without such skill, could easily be perceived as erratic.
By the end of the novel, Mathieu has changed to fit into Sartres philosophy. He becomes
resigned to the idea that he has reached the age of reason. Mathieu no longer refuses to
acknowledge the thought that he is the one to blame for his lack of freedom, and accepts that he
is responsible for his life, and not other factors. The final passage of the novel is extremely
telling in that it contrasts so heavily from the character the reader has become accustomed to.
Mathieu has consumed all of the blame he force outwards and placed it onto himself.
No one has interfered with my freedom. My life has drained it dry...
"He yawned: he had finished the day, and he had also finished with his youth. Various
well-bred moralities had already discreetly offered him their services: disillusioned
epicureanism, smiling tolerance, resignation, common sense, stoicism - all the aids whereby a
man may savor, minute by minute, like a connoisseur, the failure of a life.
"It's true, absolutely true: I have attained the age of reason."

Personally, I enjoyed Sartres novel. The book has a sort of effortless nonchalance about
itself. The action is all in conversation, and the most important moments need to be carefully
extracted. The book leaves one with much to consider, however, for one accustomed to the
general theories of existentialism nothing in the novel should come as a surprise, or appear
particularly new. What keeps the book interesting is Sartres writing. He is a wonderful fiction
writer, a talent of his which I was completely unfamiliar with prior to my reading. If I were to nit
pick, I would say certain passages and chapters fell flat to me. In particular, there is a chapter
where one of Daniels cats attacks a visitor in his apartment. Daniel then loads his cats in a
wicker basket and rides the train to the last station. He walks to a river and is about to lower the
cats into the water to drown, then pulls them back up and returns home. To me, this episode
lacked any real significance, and it seemed as if Sartre went back on his idea mid-chapter.
This was an instance where the attention Sartre placed on his characters that had become such a
key ingredient in my enjoyment of the book seemed to get convoluted. I had a similar feeling
when Mathieu returned to find Lola alive, but to a lesser extent as this served a clear function in
the story.
I am not one to label myself an existentialist, as doing so seems rather pretentious in
todays world, and nor do I identify with the philosophy enough to commit to it. However, The
Age of Reason still finds ways to resonate with even the most skeptical readers. To be a
champion of a philosophy like Sartre was, one needs to have a firm grasp on a widespread or
universal human condition. Sartres understanding of morality and relationships, and freedom
emanate through the confines of a single philosophy and provoked a level of reflection I find
rare in literature.