Book of da Week: Iron in the Soul by Jean-Paul Sartre

Iron in the Soul - Jean-Paul Sartre
Iron in the Soul.

As the unintentional closer to Sartre’s epic Roads to Freedom project, Iron in the Soul marked another significant step in the author and philosopher’s mission. The whole lot was supposed to be a tetralogy, but Sartre abandoned the fourth novel in the series in favour of working at the local KFC (this is a lie, although his intellectual rival Albert Camus was also a goalkeeper).

We’ve covered the Age of Reason and the Reprieve already (and in great detail with the former on our Moonshake Books blog), which dealt with philosophy lecturer Mathieu Delarue’s search for personal freedom, along with France’s political stance whilst fending off war with Hitler’s Germany. In Iron in the Soul, set 21 months after the Reprieve, Delarue’s world has descended into outright warfare and this is where Sartre picks up the story.

Iron in the Soul

In the summer of 1940, France had been defeated and its abandoned soldiers awaiting the Armistice. Covering several days, the novel details the activities of several key characters as they contemplate the fall of France, which, of course, included the triumphant arrival of the Nazis.

Sartre’s evaluation of personal freedom is keenly analysed in the trilogy closer. With the Nazis about to take control, longstanding trilogy characters such as the Machiavellian Daniel, affable Boris, uptight Ivich, and intellectual Mathieu Delarue must come to terms with the loss of their freedom.

Central in all of this is Delarue. In the Age of Reason, he’s depicted as a 34 year old, dithering philosophy professor subconsciously clinging onto his 20s by hanging around with young students Boris and Ivich Serguine (the latter he also falls in love with).

In the Reprieve, he’s a more self-assured character, but in Iron in the Soul his personal advances take a shattering blow when dealing, occasionally with hysterical abandon, with warfare and the collapse of France. Delarue, who essentially represents Sartre, ultimately endures a heroic 15 minute last stand with his compatriots against the invading Nazi army. His fate is left ambiguous.

Concluding the Trilogy

Sartre was, of course, mobilised during World War II and was captured by the Nazis in June of 1940, with his imprisonment fueling many of the novel’s themes of impending loss and panic.

The final chunk of the novel, somewhat unexpectedly, shifts to the communist Brunet (who, up until this point, had only really featured in the Age of Reason) – he has also been captured by the Nazis. It’s at this stage Iron in the Soul becomes a piece of polemical literature, with Brunet cursing the nature of capitalism, misplaced nationalism, how this has led to the war, and how they hinder progressivism.

Sartre was a socialist, so this was very much in keeping with his belief the world would be better off with a collectively beneficial way of managing the class system and economy. We’ve read on other sites, such as the far right Return of Kings, this makes Sartre’s political views “crazy”, but even if socialism isn’t your stance, the efficacy of the author’s statement through Brunet can’t be denied.

The trilogy was experimental in parts and, although some readers will struggle with the use of simultaneity in the Reprieve, the Roads to Freedom is an epic insight into Sartre’s existential theories and the defining years of the 20th century: World War II. It’s a big undertaking, but well worth your time – the trilogy is a classic and Iron in the Soul rounds it off with a profound statement to the world.

For a full analysis: Iron in the Soul

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