Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Age of Reason, his first novel in the Roads to Freedom trilogy, is one of our favourite novels. It’s a brilliant mix of character development alongside Sartre’s philosophical musings – he used the three books to represent France’s (if not the whole world’s) political and social turmoil in the 1930s and 1940s.
Set in Paris in the build-up to WWII, Sartre introduces a set of intriguing characters. Chief amongst these is Mathieu Delarue, who is a bumbling intellectual on a mission to find some meaning in his life. Sartre was a fan of this thing called esitentialism (expounded upon in Being and Nothingness) and it’s largely through this character we’re introduced to life in Paris at a time of great uncertainty. It all makes for one of the author’s great, and most accessible, works.
Sartre’s The Age Of Reason
The plot deals with 34-year-old Delarue, who deems it necessary to raise 4,000 Francs in order to fund his mistresses’ abortion. Although this is introduced early in the story, it becomes secondary as Delarue pursues other interests.
As a philosophy lecturer at a Parisian University, he lusts after the extremely pretty, but emotionally stunted, student Ivich. Whilst this is going on her awesome brother, Boris, worships him, yet he fails to comprehend why Boris should bother and what exactly he should do about it. This is in contrast to his intelligence, which is like a flower drenched in marmite: awesome, but covered in smudge.
Continuously dithering on morality grounds, especially when offered a position in the local communist party, Delarue becomes increasingly distant. Added on top of this, he ponders over his lack of aesthetic appeal (i.e. he looks like shit), not aided when he compares himself to his extremely good looking gay friend Daniel.
In keeping with his ideals, Sartre considers the notion of freedom in its purest form. It is, he belives, the ultimate human goal. The philosophical nature the Age of Reason doesn’t deter from the fact it’s a remarkable piece of writing, however, as the characterisation is what makes this one a winner.
This is particulary the case with the idealisation of youth in the form of siblings Boris and Ivich. Boris believes youth is all that matters and intends to blow his brains out upon reaching 30, whilst Ivich is dithering and unpleasant, but unusually intriguing. They’re a fascinating counterpoint to Delarue’s mid-30s life slump as he waves goodbye to a youth he feels he’s wasted.
In turn, for anyone now having waved goodbye to their 20s, you can only read Boris and Ivich’s antics and fondly remember what you were up to as a young one. In this book, Sartre captures fantastically what it means to be young. And we could enthuse further, but the only way to do justice to this novel is to read it. Do so, or face the consequences!