After skeptically watching it lie in my rickety, little bookshelf, gathering dust for the last couple of months; I reluctantly picked up Sartre’s ‘The Age of Reason’ on a friend’s insistence. Reluctantly because I had known of Sartre’s fame and I know nothing about post-modernism, but the experience of reading this book turned out to be quite enriching. It is not a comfortable read, it takes you to places in your head, the dusty corners which you carefully avoid to stay away from melancholy. The Age of Reason is the first in a Road to freedom trilogy of novels written by Jean-Paul Sartre that take place in France around the time of World War II. The novel is set in the summer of 1938, over a period of two days in the life of a philosophy professor Mathieu Delarue. I am yet to read the second and third novels in the series – The Reprieve and Troubled Sleep – but after finishing this first part, I sit captivated by Sartre’s sheer genius.
Being essentially a lover of Victorian fiction, the transition to a post-modernist classic wasn’t a comfortable one. The Age of Reason is the only one of Sartre’s fictional works that I have read. Nonetheless, I have reached the conclusion that Sartre is among the most masterful writers of philosophical fiction. It deals with ideas and notions about life and freedom which are of universal importance.
In the novel, the spanish war is visible on the horizon, while the characters are living with their individual notions in an atmosphere of awareness of finite human life. The novel starts with Mathieu’s girlfriend Marcelle informing him that she is pregnant with his child and he is left to manage 4000 francs for a safe abortion for hers in next two days. The novel captures the next two days that follow in the life of Mathieu, who is in the midst of an existential crisis. The reader meets Ivich, a young, beautiful but indifferent girl who Mathieu is attracted to, Boris, her brother who has an almost reverential and homosexual admiration for Mathieu. Lola, Boris’ older girlfriend who battles the insecurities which come with a younger love interest and an increasing age. Daniel who, out of spite and with curiosity to see Mathieu’s downfall, to see him lose his freedom, lies that he doesn’t have the money to lend him. There is also Jacques, Mathieu’s older and successful brother who refuses to lend the money to Mathieu for abortion but, offers him ten thousand francs to marry Marcelle; while questioning his bourgeois existence. The characters of the novel are conscious of limitations of human life and yet look forward to future, they see age encroaching on each other’s faces, are melancholic about the passing time while desperately clinging on to whatever is left of their youth.
The central theme of the novel concerns Mathieu’s struggles as he tries to understand the significance and purpose of his life while growing older and confronting his own freedom to choose between alternative life paths. In the middle of chaos, he is left wondering about what true freedom is and questions his existence while he is threatened by the signs of aging. Mathieu is a non-conformist, who doesn’t believe in the institution of marriage and so does Marcelle, but as she gets pregnant, she wishes to raise the child, in attempt to add some meaning to her otherwise insignificant life. While she wants to marry him and live a bourgeois life, he resists the very thought, quite oblivious to the fact that he is already living a married life with her.
Jacques says it out and clear, much to Mathieu’s chagrin – “You are trying,” said Jacques, “to evade the fact that you’re a bourgeois and ashamed of it. I myself reverted to bourgeoisie after many aberrations and contracted a marriage of convenience with the party, but you are a bourgeois by taste and temperament, and it’s your temperament that’s pushing you into marriage. For you are married, Mathieu,”
Mathieu is a furious man. He doesn’t see himself as a conventional, married man and yet, that is what exactly he is. He pictures himself as a radical philosopher, living anything but a conventional life. Even when he is offered a chance to join the Communist party and fight in Spain he resists. In this situation of his, the reader finds a reflection of his own life. How one thinks of himself as some radical, unconventional rebel while living a conventional, comfortable life. Even when one is faced with an opportunity of living an adventurous life, he ignores it for the sake of security and comfort a conventional life provides. Likewise, Mathieu is not what he claims to be and let’s go off the chances he gets to change his life.
The Age of Reason ends with an unexpected turn of events, breaking away from the monotony which the rest of novel provides. It gains pace as the characters get frantic and take actions which determine their future. This novel is an elaborate expression of the crisis one goes through every day in his head. It lays the bare thoughts of the characters while laying the readers thoughts too, for contemplation.
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