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Page | 1 Clarke Stevenson June 9, 2014 Jean-Paul Sartre: The Bridge of Existentialism This essay will discuss one of the most recognized intellectuals of the 20 th century: Jean-Paul Sartre. In the wake of a slowly deflating Romantic Idealism from the previous century, Sartre helped shift Western thought into a new perspective through his literature and philosophical expositions. His philosophical treatise, Being and Nothingness, published in 1943, is recognized as his most complete explanation of his beliefs regarding our absurd existence, his theories on consciousness, ethics on freedom, and the concept of inauthenticity in social interaction 1 . And although he wrote an unbelievable amount of noteworthy essays, books and plays throughout his life, like Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), the series of ten critical essays called Situations (1947-1976), or the political plays Dirt Hands (1948), Being and Nothingness is the most idiosyncratic product to his legacy. However, the abstractions in this treatise can be difficult to decipher at times. In order to provide some of the a priori explanations a relatable context to be understood by the general public, Sartre turned to literature and play writing. There are three literary works which best emulate his philosophies on contingency, his ethics on freedom, and his concept of “the Other” proposed in Being and 1 Kenneth and Margret Thompson, Sartre: Life and Complete Works, p. 53

Jean Paul Sartre: Engaged Literature and Existential Philosophy

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Clarke Stevenson June 9, 2014

Jean-Paul Sartre: The Bridge of Existentialism

This essay will discuss one of the most recognized intellectuals of

the 20th century: Jean-Paul Sartre. In the wake of a slowly deflating

Romantic Idealism from the previous century, Sartre helped shift

Western thought into a new perspective through his literature and

philosophical expositions. His philosophical treatise, Being and

Nothingness, published in 1943, is recognized as his most complete

explanation of his beliefs regarding our absurd existence, his

theories on consciousness, ethics on freedom, and the concept of

inauthenticity in social interaction1. And although he wrote an

unbelievable amount of noteworthy essays, books and plays throughout

his life, like Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), the series of ten

critical essays called Situations (1947-1976), or the political plays Dirt

Hands (1948), Being and Nothingness is the most idiosyncratic product to

his legacy. However, the abstractions in this treatise can be

difficult to decipher at times. In order to provide some of the a priori

explanations a relatable context to be understood by the general

public, Sartre turned to literature and play writing. There are three

literary works which best emulate his philosophies on contingency, his

ethics on freedom, and his concept of “the Other” proposed in Being and

1 Kenneth and Margret Thompson, Sartre: Life and Complete Works, p. 53

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Nothingness: the book Nausea (1938), and the two plays The Flies (1942) and No

Exit (1943), respectively.

Sartre’s contributions to Existentialism and phenomenology have

made him an important figure for the twentieth century while his books

and plays act as a bridge for the public to understand his more

abstract philosophies found in Being and Nothingness. The product is his

Engaged Literature. His ability as a writer has emphasized him as a

prominent intellectual and a serious philosopher in history. In these

literary works, Sartre attempts to persuade the reader that our entire

world has no rational reason to exist, using the novel Nausea (1938) as

the best testimony to this point. Of course, we have our own reasons

and values that give meaning to our world, but those are purely

subjective values, varying by each individual. Sartre believes there

is no higher power that determines the way conscious beings behave or

think, and as such, there is no absolute ethic to living. The

subjective rational is then the only manner of living and

communicating. Each person constructs their world based of a free

will that is able to recognize or to ignore any number of

possibilities existing in the physical world. Sartre uses the play The

Flies (1943) to exemplify rationality as variable to each person and how

anyone is able to influence a situation just as much as another

person. Both works, Nausea and The Flies, describe both an “absurd” world

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where the entire structure of our society and thought is based off

nothing but varying degrees of subjective preference, and the

responsibility associated with the freedom for an individual to

fabricate those preferences.

Furthermore, Sartre claims that “the fundamental aim of

existentialism is to reveal the link between the absolute character of

free commitment… and the relativity of the cultural ensemble that may

result from such a choice”2. Our society is intimately connected to

each individual’s decision to act or abstain from the infinite number

of possibilities that consume each situation. Due to this intimacy,

each person is thinking and acting off the decisions and judgments of

another person. As much as a conscious being has an ethic to be free

and to better themselves, they also have a duty to their society

because one’s presence directly influences another – a human being is

a function and a direct product of their environment. Sartre’s

contributions to the beliefs of social interaction become interwoven

with his beliefs on contingency, creating a type of philosophy that

reconstructs the world as an inescapable, vicious circle3. These

thoughts are excellently displayed through his written dialogue,

2 Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, p. 433 Hazel Barnes, Sartre. P. 76

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making plays like No Exit (1944) a remarkable account of social



France started to see a shift in thought in the late 19th through

the early 20th centuries. With the aftermath of the Dreyfus Affair

still lingering on the minds of a divided France and the repercussions

of the First World War that produced a great depression in 1931, the

errors of France’s economic and administrative decisions became

increasingly suspicious. It was in these years of political and

social despair that reduced France to reconsider their foundations,

including their ideas of aesthetic and moral values4. Jean-Paul Sartre

became one of the few intellectuals who arose to shift France into

this new intellectual movement and used his studies abroad in Germany

to do this. Sartre’s development in Germany was pivotal in his life

and when he returned he brought back the complexities of Martin

Heidegger, Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, and Edmund Husserl into the

stagnating French perspective. After returning in 1933, Sartre

adopted a new way of thinking to the narrow-mindedness of France5.

Phenomenology and Ontology became this new method of discourse,

creating a new wave of thought for France to consider.

4 H Stuart Hughes, Obstructed Path, p. 65 Ibid., p. 3-10

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Sartre was born on June 21, 1905. His father died a year after his

birth which burdened his mother to rear him with the help of her

parents who lived in Meudon, France. He was born into a household of

words and in his autobiography, the Words, Sartre said he will leave the

world the same way. Arguably, without the death of his father, Sartre

might not have been the prodigious writer that twentieth century

historians have come to know. Without a father figure, and with a

distant mother, Sartre was left to be free to his thoughts and only

had the teachings of his tenured Grandfather, Charles Schweitzer, to

follow. With an early aptitude for reading and writing he never

suffered much from Schweitzer’s strictly stoic guardianship. In fact

he was raised to believe he was some intellectual prodigy. By an

early age of seven he was reading (less so comprehending) Flaubert’s

Madame Bovary. Some even accredit the meta-aspect of Nausea to

Flaubert’s own meta-writing style in that very same book6. In 1924, he

entered into a school of higher education, École Normale Supérieure,

where he became enamored in Western Philosophy and the study of Georg

Hegel, a German philosopher who dealt with rationalism and arguably

the most influential intellectual for the 19th-20th century7. After

failing to graduate in 1928, he won first place in his examination the

6 Hazel Barnes, Sartre, p. 107 Andrew Leak, Jean-Paul Sartre, p. 19, 90

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following year with an essay on “Contingency and Freedom”. He then

earned a lecturing position at the lycée in Le Havre in 1931 discussing

topics of philosophy and the novel. But this was all before his year

abroad in Germany where he learned phenomenology and launched into a

new perspective on life.

Phenomenology is the method of discourse that seeks to analyze the

relationship consciousness has with a person in a phenomenon.

Attempting to unify the being with their thoughts, phenomenology takes

the ordinary situation and challenges its existence through the

subjectivity of its perceiver8. It is a style of discourse that

considers the person as a creator themselves. There arose a few

variations to this manner of thought that came from Sartre’s

contemporaries: Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Maurice Merleau-Ponty

(1908-1961), Albert Camus (1913-1960), Simone De Beauvoir (1908-1986),

and Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) are a few prominent figures.

His Existentialism became an outrage for religious sect as he

promoted a phenomenology that denied the existence of any divine

transcendental being. His most distinguished essay, Being and Nothingness,

explores the search for an ethics of living in a world without god and

makes an effort to address the “bad faith” of people who reject their

absolute freedom through social interaction and cordial “play-acting”.

8 Joseph Fell, Heidegger and Sartre: An Essay on Being and Place, p. 23-27

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Sartre’s intent to demonstrate that free will exists is illustrated in

his belief that religion is a form of deception. The being in

consciousness is constrained to the morals of the religion, not to

their own morals, and accordingly makes them believe that they are

acting for an Almighty power who has already determined everything.

But Sartre believes religion is just another path to escape one’s

realization of existence.

Sartre’s Atheism became a seed to his legacy, where he regularly

stated a world without God would make no difference. His

phenomenology became a reminder for people to realize that their

consciousness supplies the content of their world and nothing besides

their own virtue will allow them to view their surroundings concrete

or unreliable. However bleak this might seem, Sartre saw this as an

optimistic revelation: we are absolutely free!

Freedom becomes a crucial theme for Sartre. His childhood was

seeded in the havoc of the First World War, he was drafted into the

Second World War, and he was raised under the studies of Descartes’

skepticism. Whether it is to a sense of duty or to the vast question

of existence, Sartre had a personal relationship with the aspect of

freedom. But his view on freedom differs from the conventional.

Immanuel Kant strove to free the rational being from an immoral

virtue. Karl Marx fought to free the working class away from the

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market. However, being a highly-educated philosopher, Sartre

accumulated a survey of knowledge that sought to free people from the

constraints an individual imposes on themselves. Freedom, as follows,

is less so the belief that a person can physically do whatever they

want and more of an assertion that we have a consciousness that can

never be restrained. A prisoner might be physically shackled to the

walls but his imprisonment does not force him to think of anything in

particular. He is free to choose his thoughts and to negate others.

Sartre used his talent as a writer to help get these points across to

the reader and help a generation of people in war and conflict

understand the power of their consciousness.

Although he is acclaimed for the philosophical movement of

Existentialism, his literary works have solidified him as a serious

intellectual and a powerful figure. It is in these novels, plays, and

essays that Sartre really is able to articulate the nuances of

political, moral, and existential dilemmas that console the reader

into an epiphany on existence. Each word carries the philosophical

power of his convictions and each literary work wastes little time in

illustrating the magnitude of what he wants to say. Most of his

writings deal with the effort to break away from the walls of social

reputation, language, and moral obligation while structuring his works

to embody his beliefs drawn out in The Imaginary (1940).

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He used the combination of realistic characters and dialogue along

with fictional scenarios to create a setting for his philosophy to

thrive and to engage his audience. Engaged Literature captivates the

reader into an imaginary world of the familiarly real. The reality of

the setting would compel the reader to question their own lives as

they draw upon aspects they could relate to9. He used his novels,

plays, and essays as a way to influence society on the varying degrees

of contingency and freedom further extrapolated upon in Being and


Nausea (1938)

Sartre’s first book, Nausea, launched him into celebrity as a

philosophical icon and a stylized novelist. He wrote this book

sporadically throughout the late 1930’s and eventually published it in

1938. His fame for the book is based on the philosophical excellence

of explaining his ideas on “contingency” and the ease at which he is

able to write the subtleties of his phenomenology. However, only

students and attendees of his lectures on philosophy at the lycée would

be able to understand the complexities of his writings through this

book, which would be later distinguished his magnum opus Being and

9 Hazel Bares, Sartre, p. 9810 Ibid., p. 92

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Nothingness five years later11. Although some of his passages in Nausea

might be a bit long-winded, his thoughts are fluid and sentences


Sartre uses Nausea as a way to get his ideas of existence across to

the general public. This is his most celebrated book written,

regarding a realization of our absurd being. I will be pointing out

various aspects of Sartre’s “contingency” in order to emphasize how he

uses books as a bridge to existential thought found through Being and

Nothingness. It should be noted that there is much more going on in the

book than Sartre’s view on contingency, but in order to grasp his

other opinions, like social judgment and “bad faith”, one must first

understand the density of the former topic.

Existence is the foundation for the book, and it is the reality of

an absurd existence that gives the main character, Antoine Roquentin,

surging bouts of nausea. Roquentin is struggling with a number of

different issues of his life ranging from sexual frustration to simple

apathy over writing a biography of Marquis de Rollebon. However, he

continually experiences a sort of blossoming “strangeness” to random

moments of his life. In the coffee shop, in the park, or even in his

own apartment, Roquentin is haunted to an over-stimulated sense of

reality. He can’t quite understand the reason for why he becomes

11 Introduction by James Woods, Nausea, p. XV

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immersed in such a stroke of feeling and he uses his diary as a way to

better understand what is happening to him. But his Nausea eventually

culminates to a point where “the words had vanished, and with them the

significance of things…which men had traced on their surface”12. He

finds that not only words, but entire series of thoughts and

situations are completely arbitrary and therefore, unnecessary.

Unnecessary, in this case, would mean a lack of concrete reasons to

why one thing happened over another. He is distraught over the

complexity of existence and struggles to maintain a firm grasp on his


When sketching the early drafts of this book, Sartre was playing

with the idea of a world devoid of objects where consciousness would

consequently have to exist in its own realm. It’s a fairly difficult

world to envision, but Roquentin acts as the person who slowly

transcends into a view that looks beyond his existing environment.

Roquentin realizes that in order to make sense of this world, our

personal rationalization is the only thing to use. Random chores or

anticlimactic situations like walking on the pier, watching the

“unenthusiastic” bourgeois, the gripes of writing a history book, and

even sporadic fantasies of his lost lover Anny, all illicit moments of

sheer superfluity of life. There is no rational reason for these

12 Sartre, Nausea, p. 127

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events to be happening. He is living in an absurd world, one that is

not grounded to anything but a momentary feeling or random strokes of

meaning. However, each situation holds immense importance in

illustrating a sense of unequivocal freedom which leads Roquentin to a

sense of dread and anguish.

Roquentin’s muse over a chair illustrates the idea of language’s

role in an absurd existence. It can be assumed that the only thing a

person may use to sit is a chair, but when Roquentin tries to explain

the chair’s existence, “the word stays on [his] lips: it refuses to go

and put itself on the thing”. The essence of the object eludes the

linguistic representation of its existence. Language only favors a

certain frame of mind over another where objects, such as a chair, are

given meanings that fit a sense of purpose for that object. Yet, its

existence is only defined through our need for its purpose; its

essence, what it actually is, remains hidden beyond words.

Further on in the book, Roquentin compares the chair to a dead

donkey, emphasizing his claim on the role language plays in our absurd

being. He is transfixed at how a chair had a premeditated purpose to

its existence and how a dead donkey would have less of one, yet both

things are just as qualified to sit upon. Roquentin finds that

“things are divorced from their names. They are there, grotesque,

headstrong, gigantic, and it seems ridiculous to call them seats or

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say anything at all about them: [he] is in the midst of things,

nameless things”13. Our language is a structure of communication that

allows our different points of view to be shared by the same

referents. But what are those things? Roquentin is not questioning

the existence of his surroundings but realizing that they do in fact

exist, where the absurdity is drawn from the situation that a person

finds themselves in. How ridiculous it is to be plunged into a

phenomenon that uses arbitrary words to describe existing things! A

chair could have just as well been a dead donkey. It becomes absurd

like a “madman’s raving, for example…in relation to the situation in

which he finds himself, but not in relation to his delirium”14.

Objects are denounced from the words that are assigned to them, or

rather there are objects that exist beyond their linguistic

counterpart. But how does this relate to conscious beings? We have

names, so wouldn’t that mean we have some sort of identity found

through the arbitrariness of language? It be that when Roquentin

confesses that he feels “in the way” he is alluding to the idea that in

his relation to his environment he exist beyond his words15. Things

overflow from their linguistic restraints and exist in the way of other

existing things. The things in reality escape an accurate

13 Ibid., p. 12514 Ibid., p. 12915 Ibid., p.128

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relationship to language as words themselves are arbitrary and can be

interpreted differently:

“Neither ignorance nor knowledge was important: the world of

explanations and reason is not the world of existence. A circle

is not absurd, it is clearly explained by the rotation of a

straight segment around one of its extremities. But neither does

a circle exist. This root, on the other hand, existed in such a

way that I could not explain it.”16

To Sartre, existence was a huge part of his philosophy. He studied

Descartes and his Cartesian duality and at an early age took keen

interest in Henri Bergson’s Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of

Consciousness17. He became concerned with these forms of philosophy even

more so after returning from Germany and studying Husserl which 16 Sartre, Nausea, p. 127. This touches upon another topic of the in-itself existence that deals with Sartre’s idea on the “espousal of nominalism”, more thoroughly defined in the Age of Reason (1945) and the Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960). It states that theorems and abstract existents, like a circle, are precisely definable because they are not real. They are existents that are created with a rationality that exists beyond reality. Much like a circle, theyare perfect, yielding to no defects imposed by the actual world. Furthermore words like “lovable”, “detestable”, or “cowardly” are representations of behavior standards that vary by each individual creating an unattainable imagefor a person to declare for themselves – it is always a judgment for another to make. This concept might be further evinced through other plays, such as Oscar Wilde’s the Importance of Being Earnest where his characters repeatedly claim others as “perfectly boring” or “perfectly pessimistic”, hinting at the idea that there is an idealized personality to achieve. 17 Andrew Leak, Jean-Paul Sartre, p. 17

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provided him with a perspective of consciousness to adopt18. Sartre

agreed that consciousness exists as a duality between the Being-in-

itself and the Being-for-itself. The in-itself represents the

unconscious objects in existence, and the for-itself represents

conscious beings. A German Idealist would say all of reality exists

because of the consciousness, but Sartre suggests that consciousness

is a negative quality, a “nothingness” that is filled up by the pre-

existing “fullness” of the in-itself. The Being-for-itself wouldn’t

understand its own existence without the Being-in-itself, giving the

mentality of German Idealism a different spin epitomized in his famous

statement “existence precedes essence”. Consciousness needs to be

conscious of something! Consciousness does not create the world but

instead just interprets what already exists, then once that object is

understood to be an existing object can we only then detect an

essence. And as such, consciousness wouldn’t exist without first

interacting with an object already existing. Then the pre-existing

in-itself reflects backs on the for-itself consciousness to support

its existence.

The consciousness that recognizes an in-itself existence

simultaneously implies a realization of its own existence apart from

that object. Consciousness comprehends itself through the existence

18 Kenneth and Margret Thompson, Sartre: Life and Complete Works, p. 53

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of another already existing object. In this sense, Sartre’s

consciousness is at the same time also self-consciousness. One must

first interact with the Being-in-itself in order to realize it is a

conscious Being-for-itself. It is a reflexive relationship where the

nothingness of consciousness is constantly being dragged out of its

oblivion through the fullness of inanimate objects, pulling the for-

itself down into a state of mundane living among the unconscious19.

But through this mundane existence, human beings use language as a way

to exist beyond their environment through symbols, metaphors, and

abstract analogies, posing an interesting reality to our state of

relation in the world. Through our use of language, we are obliged to

use our own interpretations of each referent. Our subjectivity is not

only a vital aspect, but it is the chief and singular aspect to

confronting a situation. This means that our individual rationality

to each situation influences the following chain of actions. The

unraveling fray of reality becomes contingent on the momentary

interpretations unique to each person.

Subjective thought composes the world as a collection of personal

rationalities that are all dependent upon one’s own opinion of a

phenomenon. But “the disgust of existing” that sickens Roquentin is 19 The unconscious stated here does not refer to Sigmund Freud’s concept of the subconscious. And although Sartre was well intrigued with Freud’s psychoanalytic analysis, he disapproved of this theory altogether and regardedit as another excuse to ultimately escape one’s responsibility of existence.

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one that realizes there are an infinite amount of possibilities to

negate in order to focus on just one percept when in a phenomenon20. A

situation rides on a momentary inclination to one facet of

interpretation to a point where if a person where to encounter the

same situation further on in life, their opinions will most likely be

completely different. This change in stance makes the world absurd

because there is no correct way, no ration reason for anything one

thing to happen over another.

Everything is contingent because any other situation had just as

much of a possibility of happening. “One cannot define existence as

necessity. To exist is simply to be there; those who exist let

themselves be encountered, but you can never deduce anything from

them”21. As such, Roquentin begins to realize that he hadn’t the

slightest reason to exist. He was living sure, but the reason to why

he came into existence was futile because he knew that he “had

appeared by chance, existing like a stone, a plant or a microbe” (N

84). He goes to the café, a gallery honoring valued presidents, and

even eavesdrops on various bourgeois conversation, demonstrating that

topics of conversation and the memorialization of people are all

contingent on opinions, more or less dependent on a certain linguistic

20 Sartre, Nausea, p. 10021 Ibid., p. 131

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frame of mind. But the essential thing being that “anything can

happen, anything”22. Those portraits of valuable presidents mean nothing

except that they lived up to a set of values that their society saw as

worthy of praise. It is in this manner that Sartre believes that one

cannot achieve any concrete understandings about life, because it is

invariably flexible and absurdly contingent.

Existence is a presence that a being-for-itself can never abandon,

and consequently we find reasons for why different things happen in

different situations. This is where Sartre would agree with

Nietzsche’s critique of metaphysics which stated that beings have an

instinct to explain their situations. Most of the time a meaning

contained in a situation is found that only satisfies the needs of the

person. One’s own inversion on reality is the absurdity of our world

because they have the choice to choose whether or not to interact a

possibility or to nullify it. Furthermore, who is able to define how

one person interacts with their reality over another? Without a God

and a metaphysical standard there is nothing but the freedom of our

consciousness to create our entire world. And through this freedom to

assign any meaning to any thread of reality, we must assume complete

responsibility for who we become and how we act. Roquentin’s nausea

22 Ibid., p. 98

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flares once he recognizes this aspect of life: we must accept the

responsibility of existing in a world that is absurd.

Sartre as a Solider (1939 – captured in 1940 – released in 1941)

Jean Paul Sartre realized the profound effect Second World War

had on him: “the clearest thing about my life is that there was a

break which means that there are two almost entirely separate moments…

before the war and after”23. It was during this time he spent enlisted

as a crudely defined meteorologist that he dedicated an exorbitant

amount of time reading, writing, and questioning his social

surroundings. His task as a man-of-action consisted of sending a

balloon skyward, writing down a few calculations, and finding its

speed and direction. But it was more rigorous than one might assume;

he had to do this twice a day! It’s hard to believe that he never

returned with a purple heart. Sartre seemed to think little of his

leisure as a time for cards and smokes as he spent most of it in

disciplined diligence. He assigned himself to slogging through the

phenomenological texts of Martin Heidegger, Gide, Henri Renard,

Friedrich Nietzsche and Eugéne Dabit all of whom influenced his works

and nascent ideas24. But it didn’t stop there, his reading was

23 Andrew Leak quoting Jean-Paul Sartre (Situations X, p. 175), p. 4124 Ibid., p 42

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indiscriminate against genre and explored vast surveys of history

(especially the rise of Nazism in order to better understand his

context as a solider), second rate detective novels, and most

regularly the letters from Simone de Beauvoir.

It was also in this time of war that Sartre was able to realize

the power of play-writing. It was during his 35th birthday in 1940

when he was captured and taken prisoner. He went to Stalag XIID in

Trier, Germany and in this time felt like he really blended beyond his

former upbringing. He was part of the masses and was stripped from

his elite status that came to insulate him while in France. He found

a liberating identity as a prisoner of war. He arose out of this time

in a rebirth of perspective and declared, himself, that this was the

moment that severed the ‘before-Sartre’ with the ‘after-Sartre’25. In

the Christmas of 1940 he wrote, produced and directed a play in 6

weeks, using the Nativity scene as a veneer to cover up his call for

resistance and hope against their Germany captors. But it wasn’t the

overall message that convinced him to be a life-long play fanatic. It

was seeing his fellow prisoners entranced by the play like a “great,

collective religious phenomenon”26. He saw such a strong bond created

from the actors to the audience that he realized this was the

25 Ibid., p. 5426 Ibid., p. 55

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strongest medium to connect with the public. It launched him into an

undying sympathy for the art. But beyond that, Sartre encountered a

resounding sense of unity with his fellow prisoners and found the

appreciation for humanity that would be a reoccurring theme in a

number of his texts.

The Flies (1943)

Written two years after he returned from war in 1941 and published

in the same year as Being and Nothingness, Sartre’s play The Flies uses

Ancient Greek Mythology to depict a person’s attainment of freedom.

At this time in his career Sartre had begun to shift his concerns to

political sentiment and, most directly, toward the German troops then

occupying Paris27. It parallels the same structure as the play he

directed when a prisoner of war in 1940, using a mythological setting

to conceal contemporary problems. This modern revision to the Greek

myth between Orestes and Agamemnon not only serves as political

pressure for French citizens to find a sense of freedom under the

German occupation but also assumes a theme on overcoming various forms

of oppression through the absolute freedom of our consciousness. But

much more than that, it addresses a vast array of topics, putting into

a realistic and relatable context the assertions Sartre makes in Being

and Nothingness. Following his beliefs on contingency, it is Sartre’s

27 Charles Hill, Jean-Paul Sartre: Freedom and Commitment, p. 10

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intention for this play is to prove his point on one’s ultimate

freedom in life where “even if God were to exist it would make no

difference”28. Our freedom to choose makes up the content of this

world. A transcendental being does not force meanings upon our world,

therefore we must take responsibility for our actions and thoughts,

and if we don’t we are not living “authentically”. One must

comprehend that nothing can save themselves from their own existence

and we are beings who are condemned to be free.

It begins with the protagonist, Orestes, regarded as a stranger to

his birthplace: the city of Argos. He arrives as a wandering student

from Athens, “a mere shadow of a man”29 who had travelled city to city

along the same path as every other traveler both physically and

metaphorically. And although he became “free from prejudice and

superstition” though his tutor’s most earnest education, Orestes feels

detached from his own identity30. Orestes had no sense of

individuality or belonging, being torn away from his birthplace and

ennobled name as an infant. He experiences a type of freedom that

would normally be constrained by the duties and obligations imposed

through family, religion, and social status but, in this, he feels

lost and without motive. He fantasizes about the burdens of growing

28 Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, p. 2829 Sartre, The Flies, p. 9030 Ibid., p. 61

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up as the heir to the throne and the memories of potential failures

and successes that would have molded his character. But Orestes feels

isolated in his “gloriously aloof” mind, free from commitment, and

eventually craves to share the same despair as the people of Argos,

convinced that it would have been a despair that belong to him as

something he could identify with31. He stumbles upon his sister

Electra, and becomes inspired by her rogue passion and her desire to

be free from her demoted role as chamberlain. He pledges to avenge his

fallen father, Agamemnon, King of the Golden Fleet that won the Trojan

War, from the usurper Aegistheus and retake ownership of his

birthright kingdom.

Orestes coincidentally arrived on the very anniversary of his

fallen father, called the “day of the dead”. It is on this day that

the city wallows in their guilty conscious and opens the gates of the

dead to wreak havoc upon the living. Repenting to the gods and

suffering a haunting anguish for being blamed for all deaths, the

people of Argos call out: “Forgive us for living while you are dead”32.

Aegistheus continues to subordinate the people of Argos and detract

their self-awareness into repentance for all the deaths that they have

accumulated: “those who starved to death, and those who hanged

31 Ibid., p. 6232 Ibid., p. 80

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themselves are because of you”33. He does this to prevent a revolution

to his usurped power, masking his subjects in a pit-less despair of

anguish and shame. He distracts the people of Argos from realizing

their freedom and ability to insurrect a change, using the wrath of

the gods as a manner of crowd control. Just like another principal

character in the play, the Greek God Zeus, Aegistheus uses his power

to bind his subjects away from their free will and consciousness.

Zeus feeds off the guilt-stricken citizens trying to atone for

their sins: those people feel indebted to appease the Gods and have

adjusted their attitudes to conform accordingly. They do this by

severing their own values on a situation and substituting the

inhibitions the Gods have created for them. And this becomes the

threat that Orestes has over Zeus. Zeus says that the “bane of gods

and kings is the bitterness of knowing men are free”34. Orestes

realizes he is a completely free man and has the freedom to act and

think against the authority of his creator, Zeus. He acts against the

image that Zeus imposes over him. He knows his freedom to accept all

of his actions and claim all responsibility for his existence. His

conscious being does not deal with the “will of God” as an abstract

standard of living, but rather, within his own existence he constructs an

33 Ibid., p. 7934 Ibid., p. 103

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ethic that is unique to him: “the gods are powerless against him”35. As

Zeus vehemently directs Orestes to realize his blasphemy against the

God of Gods, Orestes responds; “no sooner had you created me than I

ceased to be yours” (F 121). Nothing can determine a being in

consciousness to think or act in a certain manner. Beings derive

their own magnificence and meaning into their world: they are their

own creators.

Religion, to Sartre, indoctrinates a type of moral standard that

differs to the reality of our world, constricting a being’s

consciousness to an existence that is both metaphysical and unsolid.

In his essay, Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre says that “in order for

any truth to exist, there must first be an absolute truth” (exist. Is

a hum. 40). His absolute truth respected the Cartesian claim: “I think

therefore I am”. This truth neither includes God nor a universal

moral standard to Sartre but is rather a point of departure that

concretizes his beliefs on subjectivity. Our thoughts are the only

basis of truth. The foundation of Cartesian philosophy is that

everything in the physical world is a skeptical existence and arguably

a façade of deception. But the only thing that is inarguably clear is

that we have thoughts and those thoughts are unique to ourselves.

That is our subjectivity: varying differences that isolate our

35 Ibid., p. 104

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perspectives from one another. And from our discussion on Nausea, we

understand that human reality has the ultimate freedom to use our

subjectivity however we want. Consequently, our subjectivity is the

only thing that can be relied upon in order for a person to act in an

authentic manner but, like the people of Argos, there are moments

where people try and escape the responsibility of having a free will.

In Existentialism is a Humanism (1946), Sartre responds to one of the

objections to existential thought: “Since all our choices are

arbitrary, you receive into one hand what you grant with the other”

(exist. Is a hum. pg. 45). This objection illustrates the give-and-

take reaction of choices and how we invent values to dictate the order

of our subjective world. Just as arbitrary words and languages are,

so too are values and the systems of rationality, and that is the

cornerstone to our absurd world; we must accept it. Contraries would

say that without a universal ideal to act by, there would be no way to

judge or legitimize the good or bad aspects of a person’s actions or

principals. In a world without determinism or God, “we are left alone

and without excuse” (exist is a hum 29) and we must be responsible for

all the meanings that we invent for ourselves. Here, Sartre claims

that we are condemned to be free. One can only rely upon themselves

and their own knowledge of themselves within a certain phenomenon.

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Religion’s “hegemony” of ideals deconstructs the reality of a

person’s own existence as they start living by the directives of

another existence: the God’s existence. Proverbs and Bible verses

become the alibi to a person’s actions. They no longer are working as

“a consciousness in being, the nature of which is to be conscious of

the nothingness of its being”; they are in a state of self-negation36.

While I don’t believe Sartre would be against reading the bible, he

would say that there are people who justify their actions as an

extension of some almighty power in order to escape the responsibility

of living in a contingent world. They slip out of an authentic manner

of living and avoid the responsibility that accompanies a life of

contingency. This is called “bad faith” or “inauthenticity”.37

Sartre follows the footsteps of his progenitor Friedrich Nietzsche

by reminding the individual to create a new self in this modern age.

A “superman”, as Nietzsche declares, which transcends religion and all

36 Robert Cumming quoting Being and Nothingness (p. 47-70), The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, p.137 37 The reason for this bad faith and inauthenticity can be drawn from the concept that one is existing with ‘the Other’ in mind, presupposing that the existence of ‘the Other’ is more important than the individual-self. One would act in bad faith so they might be able to hide themselves behind the customs of their culture and to avoid being isolated. Isolation, at this point, would be the aversion from people or society, which would only happen if the people around oneself deems that individual as something to avoid – think of Frankenstein. The inauthentic individual projects themselves as something that is acceptable in their society. Thus, they are living off a standard, a social norm that tells them how to act instead of the individual acting from their own conscious being. This concept is immensely infused with Sartre’s perspective of social judgment and interaction.

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of its shackled catechisms where new values are based off one’s own

conscious behaviors instead of the directives of some metaphysical

authority38. The metaphysical aspect of existence cannot be as

absolute as Immanuel Kant assumed (although Kant made a very

convincing effort otherwise). “No code of ethics on record can

answer” an a priori standard, Sartre claims, but rather, “we have no

choice but to rely on our instincts”39. It is our own desire and will,

along with our own measurement of feelings that will ultimately decide

the outcome of a situation and its subsequent actions. In our

ultimate freedom we must avoid acting in a way that negates ourselves

from our own conscious being, and that presumes that there is no

definite manner to act given a situation. The possibilities in a

situation are endless, and our choices are contingent. We must take

responsibility to “seek within [ourselves] some authentic state of

being that will compel [us] to act, any more than [we] can expect any

morality to provide the concepts that will enable [us] to act”40.

Orestes is the caricature of Sartre’s ideal free man that he seeks

to define in Being and Nothingness. He vows to be the “guilt-stealer, and

heap on [himself] all the remorse” of the city of Argos, setting its

town-folk back to the freedom of choice41. He kills Aegitheus. He 38 Charles Hill, Jean Paul Sartre: Freedom and Commitment, p. 539 Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, p. 31, 41 40 Ibid., p. 3341 Sartre, The Flies, p. 94

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feels no remorse and no shame for committing an act of murder and

labels his deed as an act of Justice to “restore to them their sense

of human dignity”42. He has no excuse for his actions but instead

welcomes the mass weight of anguish that falls on his realization of

being responsible for his action and free being. Orestes declares

that “there [is] nothing left in heaven, no right or wrong, nor anyone

to give [him] orders” and pledges to emancipate his people into a

similar freedom43. The end of the play is a drawn out coronation

speech by Orestes telling the citizens of his intentions. He becomes

the King of Argos but rejects the throne and crown saying he “wishes

to be a king without a kingdom, without subjects”44. It is his wish to

leave the citizens of Argos under the freedom of their own decisions,

not the constitution of a ruling king, so the people could reshape

their lives to their own accord.

Sartre encapsulates his themes on the ethics of freedom through

this play and the responsibility of accepting anguish as a way for an

individual to admonish inauthenticity. But he also makes the claim

that freedom is not an individual ambition. Through Orestes’ choice

to free his citizens of Argos, Sartre is exemplifying his proposition

that says, “[we] cannot set [our] own freedom as a goal without also

42 Ibid., p. 10543 Ibid., p. 12244 Ibid., p. 127

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setting the freedom of others as a goal”45. The realm of social

interaction and human relationship is second to “contingency of life”

in Sartre’s philosophical exploits. Social praxis, or the reflexive

relationship theories have with action in a social setting, is a

symbiotic obligation that humans have with each other. “The Other”,

or anyone that is not oneself, depicts an aspect of existence that

must be reckoned with, and more than that, it must be set as a duty in

order to idealize one’s own conscious existence.

No Exit (1944)

Sartre’s own passion for showmanship, along with his strange

upbringing, nurtured his critique on people, social roles, and social

judgment46. Mostly under the guardianship of his grandfather, a German

teacher named Charles Schweitzer, Sartre grew up in a household that

honored the good conscious of the intellectual class and a sort of

sentimental humanism, both of which were the embers for most of his

attacks against “inauthenticity”47. We can see this commentary on

“inauthenticity” infused with most of his works, yet No Exit is seen as

one of Sartre’s best examples of social interaction and an

individual’s relation to their social environment. It is one of the

more linked plays with the philosophical points proposed in Being and

45 Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, p. 4946 Andrew Leak, Jean Paul Sartre, p. 9-4147 H. Stuart Hughes, The Obstructed Path, p. 142

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Nothingness and has be acclaimed as his most preformed play on stage48.

It is also considered one of Sartre’s best depiction of his style of

play writing that had minimal character changes and depended heavily

on character monologue. This play, absent of all the political motifs

that one might assume during the Second World War, was first sketched

out when thinking about how three people would act when trapped in a

bomb shelter.

No Exit was written in the early Forties and first debuted on stage

in 194449. It begins with the setting as both a physical and

metaphorical purgatory for the characters. Sartre eludes actually

defining the setting as Hell but with the introduction to each

character (Garcin, Inez, and Estelle) consistently dreading the fear

of a nameless torturer, the audience gradually comes to an

understanding. Joseph Garcin is the first to be escorted into the

semblance of a hotel room; decorated with three colored couches, a

paper knife, and an immovable bronze mantel piece. There are no light

switches, no windows, no paintings, and a malfunctioning bell that can

be answered by the whim of the valet. It is a completely enclosed

room with no chance of escape.

48 Hazel Barnes, Sartre, p. 10049 Andrew Leak, Jean Paul Sartre, p. 62

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In a room without mirrors the characters must rely on each other

through words and gestures to find their own appearance. This

capitalizes on Sartre’s belief that the human reality is one that is

based off social interplay, where each individual’s identity is one

that is an accumulation of qualities barrowed from other people.

However, our interdependence on others makes us vulnerable and

malleable to judgment. We must understand that our social

relationship to other people is so intimate that the road to self-

discovery and self-identity is simultaneously a road to our fellow

being’s existence.

Garcin, Inez and Estelle find each other in the confines of the

same hotel room, persecuting each other’s position in Hell. And

although each character has their own story to tell, Joseph Garcin’s

story resurrects the most suspense and attention in Sartre’s writing.

Garcin is trying to cope with the shame of being memorialized as a

coward even after a life-long dedication to courage and heroic

behavior. He contemplates the honor and integrity of his death,

hoping that his lingering reputation on earth can be deemed as

anything but the “cowardly” act of running away from his enlistment

into war. He repeatedly asks for the trust and condolence of Estelle

who never abides but rather just goads Garcin about his reasons for

acting. And although he wearily reassures them that he had reasons

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while living, in the vacuum of Hell, a place with no concept of time

or context, he struggles to answer if “they were real reasons…was that

[the] real motive?”50. He attempts to prove to the other two of his

noble character for the rest of the play until he realizes his place

in Hell and welcomes his eternal damnation end with the famous line,

“Hell is other people”51.

Sartre’s main focus behind this play is the topic of “the other”

and an individual’s relation to their social surrounding. Where “the

other is essential to [our] existence, as well as to the knowledge

[we] have of [ourselves]”, Sartre asserts that it is only through our

social interaction that humans become both vulnerable and dependent on

another’s existence in order to sculpt one’s own52. We each contain the

presence of “the other” when going about our day and even in our

solitude. We are always in a state of becoming and we use the aspects

of our fellow human beings as traits to aspire to. This describes the

desire to be god. “The other” is understood through two distinctions

of perspective.

Sartre differentiates between two attitudes that a conscious being

can express: a subject or an object. The subject distinction is where

one interprets a judgment on their situation. The object distinction is

50 Sartre, No Exit, p. 3851 Ibid., p. 4752 Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, p. 41

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where one is the object of someone else’s judgment. Furthermore, if

we attain some emotional or spiritual understanding of ourselves, such

as shame or viciousness, it would only be through another’s

acknowledgement of such a trait and the fact that we can see that

trait existing outside of ourselves in society53. The subject-object

relationship affects each other simultaneously creating a vicious

circle where “nothing remains for the For-itself except to re-enter

the circle and allow itself to be indefinitely tossed from one to the

other of the two fundamental attitudes”54. It is this aspect of “the

other” that Sartre tries to exemplify through his setting. No mirrors

or any sort of way to find their self-identity except for the one that

is extracted by the other two prisoners. The identity of one

character relies on the judgment of another.

Sartre distinguishes the difference between the subject-object

duality through a metaphor of a person spying through a keyhole. A

person hides behind a door and watches a scene unfold through the

keyhole without anybody realizing their concealed existence. This

person spying is subject; everything and everybody is the object of

their consciousness. The spy suddenly hears footsteps approaching and

adjusts into another stance, preparing for social interaction that

53 Ibid.54 Hazel Barnes quotes Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (p. 412), Sartre, p. 76

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doesn’t expose their mischief. The approaching person confronts the

spy and reverses the positions of the situation, or rather, makes the

spy realize the object side of his existence. The spy becomes the

object to another consciousness and embodies just as much of an

existence as the being-in-itself. But we recognize that this object

of our consciousness is also just as free as we are and they “are a

set of values distinct from the material world”55. This claim has a

Kantian flare to it alluding to the idea that we must acknowledge a

person as more than a means to an end. Other people are beings in

consciousness who are just as able to process and perceive the being-

in-itself in a distinctive manner than oneself and they should be

treated as an extension to oneself. The spy looking through the

keyhole realizes that his subjectivity can be judged by another

person’s spectrum of values, unlike some materialistic being-in-

itself, and he attunes his behavior to confront this person in order

to preserve his identity.

One projects “the other” being-for-itself onto themselves to help

solidify their own existence: “we each attain ourselves in the

presence of the other, and we are just as certain of the other as we

are of ourselves”56. Inez, the brash and surly character of the play,

55 Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, p. 4156 Ibid.

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continuously reminds the other two of this aspect of “the other” and

is first to realize that they are each other’s torturer. She ardently

implores for the other two to realize that even in negating each

other’s presence, they are still solidifying their existence: in order

to negate something one must first recognize its existence. She is

the legislator between the Garcin and Estelle, making them both

understand the extent of each other’s presence. We are thrust into a

world where the discovery of the self is an extension of another’s

existence. So when Garcin begins self-doubting his legacy, he is

actually reflecting upon the identity that he has created for himself

in his “cowardly” death defined by the Other’s judgments. He is

ashamed of his death because he has built a life based off courage but

his dying action, the one that people will remember, was based of his

skittish reflex.

Becoming-into-being is an aspect of Sartre’s philosophy that is

influenced heavily by his contemporary, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger

was one of Edmund Husserl’s students, elaborating upon his teacher’s

positions and developing the study of phenomenology into the profound

structure of philosophy people understand today. After reading Being

and Time (1927) by Heidegger, Sartre was enthralled and agreed with

Heidegger’s concept of Dasin and the idea that an individual is always

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in a state of becoming57. Also termed as “secular transcendence”, this

belief says that human beings are in a reality that is always in a

state of transcending towards a trait or standard that they lack but

it is something that one can never apprehend. We all have a “free

project” that we incorporate into our life that we choose for

ourselves to become. And since every action and negation would

suggest an existence, where “to cease to act is to cease to be”, we

are always in the process of becoming into a being58. We choose who we

want to be in such a way that we are the ones to pull ourselves out

the nothingness of consciousness to live in a life that is trivial,

absurd, and contingent.

Sartre says that “human reality is not what it is, and is what it

is not”, meaning that a person is never what they are because they are

always in a state of becoming that person. A person cannot be

expected to anything until that action is completed, only then can

57 At this point there is also another topic called “the Desire to be God” that is at the foundation of Sartre’s perspective of becoming into being. The Desire to be God situates itself among social interaction as an ideal for an individual to strive for. This goal is set by peers or people within the social milieu of an individual. Consequently, “god” to Sartre is manifested through the qualities and attributes that a person desires within other people: it is a trait that an individual does not have and pursues as a standard to follow. This then means that a person has to constantly reflect upon that trait in order to strive for it but the trait is something that can never be accomplished. The person is always in a state of becoming, which is never complete until their life can be fully looked after their death. 58 Thompson, Sartre: Life and Complete Works, p. 264

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another interpret that person as such59. A hero has just as much of a

possibility of acting like a coward, as the coward can raise to heroic

glory. One can never assume any personality to act in a certain way

because we are conscious beings with a free will to impose a meaning

to our ever-changing situations. Life is contingent and can never be

consistently predicted with reason. However, it is the judgment of

the other that congeals a person into a manner of acting, restricting

one’s own freedom in a way to avoid the shame of acting

“inappropriately”. Because words are arbitrary and illicit a

subjective understanding, one’s relation to a word such as

“inappropriate” could be completely different to another’s. But this

is where we must comprehend the Other as a consciousness with a unique

spectrum of values, capable of interpreting another person’s values

and actions. Garcin realizes that it is in this concept of the

Other’s judgment constrains his free will into a Hellish relationship

with Estelle and Inez. People act a certain way because it is only

through another that we are able to find our own existence, and

consequently, how our legacy will be remembered.


Sartre used literature and play writing as a way to provide his

highly complex ideas regarding contingency, theories of existence,

59 Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, p. 19,37-39

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ethics on freedom, inauthenticity and religion, and the gyre of “the

Other” a context in which to comprehend, using his magnum opus Being and

Nothingness as the source to his philosophical propositions. And

although Sartre has been associated with “ignoring beauty and the

brighter side of human nature”, he is first and foremost a humanist,

trying to set human beings free from their own constraints out the

love he has for humanity60. Without Sartre, philosophy, literature,

sociology and many more topics of study would not be what they are

today. He died in 1980 as one of the most recognized intellectual of

the 20th century leaving behind a legacy that will never be forgotten.


1. Barnes, Hazel E. Sartre. Philadelphia and NY: J. B. Lippingcott, 1973. Print.

2. Cumming, Robert Denoon. The Philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre. 3. Daigle, Christine. Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Print.4. Danto, Arthur C. Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: Viking, 1975.

Print.5. Fell, Joseph P. Heidegger and Sartre: An Essay on Being and Place. New York:

Columbia UP, 1979. Print.6. Hill, Charles G. Jean Paul Sartre: Freedom and Commitment. New

York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1992. Print.7. Hughes, Henry Stuart. The Obstructed Path: French Social Thought in the Years of

Desperation, 1930-1960. New York: Harper & Row, 1968. Print.8. Leak, Andrew. Jean-Paul Sartre. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.,

2006. Print.

60 Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism.

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9. Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. New York: New Directions, 1964. Print.

10. Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit (Huis Clos). United States: A.A. Knopf, 1946. Print.

11. Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Flies (Les Mouches). Lond.: H. Hamilton, 1946. Print.

12. Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism is a Humanism. Paris, 1946. Print.

13. Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Human Emotions. New York: Philosophical Library, 1957. Print

14. Thompson, Kenneth and Margaret. Sartre: Life and Complete Works. NYand Bicester: Facts on File Publications, 1984. Print.