The Age of Reason is a 1947 novel by French writer Jean-Paul Sartre. It is the first of his Road to Freedom trilogy and takes place entirely in Paris over a short period in 1938. Sartre is considered one of the preeminent existentialist philosophers – a philosophical school of thought which here roughly means “being concerned with finding self and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility” – and many critics see Age of Reason as the novel (he also wrote plays and non-fiction) of his that’s most emblematic of his philosophical thought.
The novel’s main character is Mathieu, a 34-year-old philosophy professor living in Paris who never spends much time at all reading, writing, teaching, or performing any other act common to professors. Instead, he wanders around Paris drinking and socializing and obsessing about being free. His circle includes Boris, his student acolyte, Ivich, Boris’ sister, Daniel, the perhaps sociopathic and constantly bemused gay man, and Marchelle, his long-time mistress.
Much of the book feels aimless, which is both a key feature of the current Parisian state of affairs and quite common for philosophical novels from Europe (and all places really). Boris and Ivich are floating just like Mathieu. Boris is engaged in an affair with Lola, a beautiful cabaret dancer, but has little sense of direction or sense of the future’s form. He’s more interested in discovering what he can and can’t do, rather than what he should do and shouldn’t do. Ivich is petrified of failing her exams, as it turns out she has reason to be. If she fails, she will return to her upper-class home outside of Paris to live with her parents. This immediate worry makes her anxious, as it would most, not just because of the prospect of failure but also because of the sense that, even if she succeeds, she will have gained nothing and only held onto what she already had. And the fact that she is in danger of failing out of her current life at all might indicate that it wasn’t so powerful to begin with. She also faces challenges as a woman that are unique from those experienced by Boris and Mathieu. The two of them each have a solid floor, for appearances sake at least, which she must struggle to reach.
Daniel is a foil for the adrift characters, at least on the surface, perhaps not so much beneath it. One of his early scenes is a long journey to the river where he is determined to drown his cats. Throughout the novel he displays a kind of dedication to his actions and lack of uncertainty that plagues the other characters. However, he never does manage to drown his cats. Despite what he wants to believe about himself – that he is a sociopath, that he does understand the world and, thus, can move freely through it – he still comes up dry. Marchelle, Mathieu’s mistress, is the most poorly defined character in the book. The reader doesn’t hear from her much or know much about what she thinks or wants until the end. There is a quality to that mystery and ultimate surprise, but not an enduring one and it’s too bad that she never had much opportunity to speak for herself.
Marchelle exists instead to provide the book its plot. She is pregnant, a fact which horrifies Mathieu (again, we don’t really know much about Marchelle’s feelings until the end). His quest is to procure a high-quality abortion doctor at a discount rate, or, to secure a loan for the procedure if he cannot get a good price. To his credit, a cheap, dangerous abortion is out of the question (though not too much to his credit, Mathieu implies that part of his concern at the back-alley abortion is that it would appear trashy). To have a child, to be attached to a woman to care for children, signifies to Mathieu a loss of freedom too great to bear. This abstract notion of freedom and the idealized absence of constraints or commitments of any kind is his obsession, whatever the cost to those living breathing people around him. It’s quite sad really. One of the book’s bitter truths is that his idea of freedom is only attainable and sustainable if one has a great many things – chief among them money and the unscrupulousness to disregard others. In this, supposedly ideal, freedom it is objects and material that are the most convenient accessories to a life because, unlike people, objects and material ask nothing of us and provide what we expect them to.
Though it’s by and large a poor practice to act as a kind of armchair editor, it’s hard not to with this book, simply because it’s much too long. My Vintage paperback is about 400 pages and the story contained could have been told in a more crisp 250, or perhaps less. There’s only so much of the wandering aimlessly around Paris you can take before everything reads as the same and specific scenes lose their definition. Though perhaps this impression makes an important contribution to the book after all. One of the challenges for most people who have little they’re forced to do is that they can only come up with so much before all the favorite pleasures blend together into one indistinct sensation. This sensation retains power for awhile, but soon it too decays into the predictable and empty. The length of the book and its consistent boredom drains many of the individual episodes of their distinctness.
The title – The Age of Reason – is a trope Mathieu uses throughout the book as an irreverent description for a state of maturity. For much of the book, this refers to Mathieu’s sense that to become an adult, to reach maturity, one must relinquish freedom. To reach the age of reason is to acquiesce and submit to the world because, when reasonably considered, the world is more powerful than you. This explains simply – too simply, like much philosophically-oriented fiction (though this is much better than most) Sartre’s world here is too cut-and-dried, too close to a chalkboard equation than to being a pulsating exotic life force of its own – why Mathieu is so afraid of having a child, of making a commitment to the woman he has been with this whole time because to do so would mean a permanent acknowledgement of his loss of freedom – a bracket around his life.
However, the end of the book is quite good (big spoilers ahead) and is not unlike the punchline of a very clever joke with real intellectual and emotional impact. It sticks. After leading Marchelle to believe that they will forget about having an abortion and instead marry, have the child, and build a life together, (this is out of economic necessity – he can’t find the money – but does have sentimental impact; it does seem as though there will be a happy ending) Mathieu steals the necessary funds for the abortion. Returning to Marchelle he expects her to be happy, but instead she is mortified. She is mortified not just that Mathieu stole money, but also that he so casually tossed aside the promises he had just made to her to get married. She then accepts a marriage proposal from Daniel who, though he is gay, has had a hinted at emotional connection with Marchelle for some time and promises to respect her and take care of her, not an uncommon understanding for a gay man and single older, and pregnant, woman at the time. Mathieu is shocked and saddened that Marchelle is moving on from him. He thought he could have his cake and eat it too. Ironically, he realizes that he is now more free, as he had previously understood freedom, than yesterday. Not only will he not have to raise a child, but he no longer even has a mistress to mind either. But this knowledge does not make him happy or satisfy him. In the book’s last few pages, he understands that what he thought was freedom is not meaningful at all, but instead that “my life has drained it dry.” He deducts that his life came from nothing, continues to be nothing, and will never change. This comprehension, reasonably achieved, is the book’s punchline – “It’s true, it’s really true: I have attained the age of reason,” he concludes, though not by the means he suspected.
Existentialism definition courtesy of AllAboutPhilosophy.org. Though I don’t think it really captures the essence of that particular school of thought, and there are certainly many who would offer different definitions, it suffices to set the stage for this review.