Review: “The Age of Reason” by Jean-Paul Sartre [1945]; translated from French by Eric Sutton [1947]

I am going to be brave and review Sartre.

Set in Paris on the eve of WWII, during a summer heat wave in 1938, the story follows Mathieu Delarue, a philosophy professor, over two days. Over the course of these two days, Mathieu is trying to procure four thousand francs for a safe abortion for his mistress, Marcel. As Mathieu tries to raise the money through family and friends, he reassesses his life, its meaning and the beliefs he has followed.

Along the way, we meet his circle of acquaintances. We meet Daniel who, out of spite and with curiousity to see Matheiu’s downfall, to see him lose his freedom, lies that he doesn’t have the money. He also plays the go-between between Matheiu and Marcel, who secretly desires the baby. There is Jacques, Mathieu’s older, successful and stable brother who refuses to lend the money to Mathieu but instead, offers him ten thousand francs to marry Marcel. Jacques tells Matheiu:

You are thirty-four years old … your youth has gone, and the bohemian life doesn’t suit you at all. Besides, what is bohemianism, after all? It was amusing enough a hundred years ago, but today it is simply a name for a handful of eccentrics who are no danger to anybody, and have missed the train. You have attained the age of reason, Matheiu, you have attained the age of reason, or you ought to have done so. – p. 108

Mathieu replies that “your age of reason is the age of resignation, and I’ve no use for it”. But his brother’s words has struck something in Matheiu who, for all his life, has believed he could remain free, with personal and sexual freedom, and free to live his life any way he chose without consequences. To attain the age of reason would mean that Matheiu would lost his freedom.

As the day progresses, he meets up with Ivich, the beautiful but cold sister of one of his favourite pupils and friend, Boris. Matheiu is attracted to Ivich but it is not reciprocated. While Ivich is anxiously waiting for her exam results, fearful that if she fails once more she would have to return to her parents in the country, Mathieu tries his best to distract her by taking her to galleries as part of his attempt to teach her to appreciate culture and art.

The novel explores the idea of existentialist freedom and what it means to be free – free from responsibilities, free from expectations and conformity, free from material attachments. Or is the idea of freedom, whatever it may mean to each individual, merely an abstract thought and may not even exist?

The book was a beautiful and, surprisingly, a very accessible read. This is my first attempt to read Sartre after being highly intimidated. There is bound to be comparisons, but Sartre’s writing (or the translation) is highly reminiscent of de Beauvoir’s. There is one striking similarity in the form of Ivich who resembles Xaviere. Must both Sartre and de Beauvoir write such detestable female characters? Apparently, according to wikipedia (…), both Ivich and Xaviere are based on the same woman in Sartre and de Beauvoir’s menage-a-trois. Nevertheless, this is truly a wonderful and enlightening read and provides many points to ponder over. At times, Sartre’s writing is almost poetic and there were many pages that I’d marked. But my most favourite passage of all is this.

The Age of Reason is the first of the The Roads to Freedom trilogy. The next two in the series are The Reprieve and Iron in the Soul or Troubled Sleep.

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9 comments

  1. I really like the sound of this. I’ve been way too intimidated to try out Sarte’s writing, but, your review makes it sound a lot less intimidating.

    I also love that line : You have attained the age of reason, Matheiu, you have attained the age of reason, or you ought to have done so. Am so going to use it on some poor unsuspecting soul! I

  2. Yeah, I was really surprised and pleased at how accessible this book was. I also really love that line too! It’s so poignant but it can be used in so many ways.

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