Decoding Sartre’s The Age of Reason – A to Z Challenge

This year, I’ve been making the conscious effort to read difficult and serious books, and to help discipline my mind while educating myself. I’d always wanted to read Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Age of Reason, and I was beyond ecstatic when I finally bought my own copy back in 2012, though I started to read it last year in August, and I finally completed it only this year.

A French philosopher, playwright, novelist, political activist, literary critic and much more, Sartre was and still is a behemoth in the literary, political and philosophical world. A man who lived in an open relationship with renowned feminist Simone de Beauvoir, with whom he challenged the known cultural and social conventions. I’m no academic scholar, but I tried to decode the first book in the ‘Roads to Freedom’ trilogy, and understand existentialism through Sartre’s story.

The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre ends indeed on a sad and desolate note – nothing positive or concrete remains for Mathieu, the main protagonist. Every friend deserts, save Sarah or as I assume, and every lover leaves him. Marcelle and Ivich, Daniel, Brunet, Boris… everyone.

Marcelle to Mathieu – “Your life is full of missed opportunities.” |“That is your ideal: you want to be nothing.”

I quite understand Mathieu in such a situation. People don’t realise the curse of not having a one-true passion. It isn’t easy drifting through life trying to wrack your brains and hoping to stumble upon that one true love that will propel you through day and night, where you’ll keep working to achieve that one goal through prosperity and adversity.

‘It’s certainly a difficult situation to be in, if you don’t know what to wish for.’

When she gets pregnant, Mathieu must borrow money to pay for the abortion. There is no better way to say this. Am I for or against abortion, that is another business altogether. But few genuinely realise how alone a woman feels when she’s ‘knocked up’, especially when she doesn’t want a baby, or circumstances are not conducive to having one. When Marcelle tells Mathieu of her pregnancy, she says, ‘It’s a woman’s business now’, with painful irony. Though both parties having their share of enjoyment, it is the woman who must bear the sole burden, sometimes shame too. A phrase I stumbled upon while reading, ‘a hunted quarry’ is referred to her pregnancy, quite an unsavoury term.

Mathieu is depicted as rather an apathetic character, who always thought (and admired) about Gomez and his trailblazing actions, but could never himself hop on to a plane or a boat and throw himself into the heart of all the action. Even when Brunet, the communist, offered a position in the communist party, for he felt Communism would give his life a meaning, Mathieu turned it down. He wanted it to be inner calling, not because someone offered him a position. He has no clue what to do, where to go. He solicits advice from anyone who would care to give or even listen to him.

Brunet tries to push him. ‘You live in a void, you have cut off your bourgeois connexions, you have no tie with the proletariat, you’re adrift, you’re an abstraction, a man who is not there. It can’t be an amusing sort of life.’

Mathieu is in search of meaning, in fact, he wishes it finds him first.

‘I have nothing to defend. I am not proud of my life, and I’m penniless. My freedom? It’s a burden to me; for years past I’ve been free, and to no purpose. I simply long to exchange it for a good sound certainty.’

When Brunet leaves Mathieu, which the latter thinks it’s forever, he realises how ideologies have separated friends, how they have been divided, even if Mathieu isn’t an outright bourgeois or a capitalist. He’s just a man of inaction. Mathieu is very caught up in his own ideology, in his own quest for complete freedom. Maybe, it’s this very inaction that Brunet dislikes, this aspect of ‘sitting on the fence’ isn’t palatable for him.

Apart from the weird brother-sister duo of Boris and Ivich, the character Daniel intrigued me. A homosexual, Daniel has been denying himself his true identity, is depressed and suicidal, has lots of money but little to no use for it. He is contemptuous of Mathieu. He hates the fact how Mathieu is always in control of himself and his emotions, has neither a care in the world, no responsibilities. No remorse, anger. He simply exists.

Even though Daniel thought it was goodwill to push Marcelle into admitting she wants the baby, I feel it was vengeance. Cold and pure. The real target was Mathieu, he wanted a fight between the two, an argument, some obstacle, a way for Mathieu to shed his life of a bachelor, settle down, live like an ordinary person burdened with responsibilities.

Mathieu is guilty about Marcelle and the baby. He’s constantly worried. He can’t shake the idea loose. If he marries her, he’s got a life. Marriage is like a final death knell for him. Like chains around his ankles. Even though he’s free, he is preoccupied mentally, throughout the book. He could have travelled, but he doesn’t. Even though he loves Ivich, she despises him. When he sees Boris and Ivich together, he realises that these young souls despise getting old, and he’s not really welcome in their company. They’re constantly afraid of aging, getting wrinkles.

A book penned by a man who was known to challenge set norms of society, I’d expected the story to end on a different note. Looking at this strictly as a plot, Marcelle wanting to keep her child, Daniel avoids coming out to his circle and marries Marcelle so she can have her baby and maybe, it’s the easy way out for him. This sacrifice seems honourable at first, but the world of Mathieu suddenly looks duller than when he was worried about money. Those who think of themselves and their own freedom, are isolated and alone after a point in time. Friends of similar age get married and procreate, while younger companions despise you when you’re too old and wrinkled. Geez, the ending is quite depressing.

This post is part of the seventh annual A to Z Challenge that takes place in the month of April. The theme for this month is ‘Every Day Musings’. It’s my first attempt at this. Feedback is most welcome, constructive criticism, even more. Share your experiences and let’s enjoy this month of fabulous blogging. If you want to know more about this challenge, click here.

35 thoughts on “Decoding Sartre’s The Age of Reason – A to Z Challenge

  1. I have never liked Sartre, even though much of what he writes is the truth, his negative view of life is very haunting and very depressing. I find it disconcerting that someone can find no joy at all in the human condition.I chalk it up to being raised in Europe after WW1 and then living through the Nazi occupation of France. I wonder if he forgets that our greatest abilities as humans is that in fact we not only can go on living even when faced with the most dreadful of circumstances, but that we also find a way to celebrate the joys that life holds.


    1. I agree, but I suppose everyone is not made of the same DNA. There are some who are prone to being a little blue everyday, irrespective of occasion. Maybe I have a weird fascination for such depressing stories, but I do connect with the character on some level. Thanks for reading!


  2. I haven’t read any Sartre or de Beauvoir, except the occasional quote hear and there. I may need to tackle one of their works sometime soon. Thanks for sharing!


  3. Such a detailed and well written post. I have been meaning to read Satre for a long time now. Thanks to your post, I shall make sure I pick up a copy of this book sooner than later :)


  4. Well – if you value your freedom and have a passion for something, I’m sure life will turn out fine. It seems that Mathieu didn’t have any passion or conviction – he just wanted freedom, and that doesn’t always turn out well.


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