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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Age of Reason

Jean-Paul Sartre

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To purchase The Age of Reason

Title: The Age of Reason
Author: Jean-Paul Sartre
Genre: Novel
Written: 1945 (Eng. 1947)
Length: 397 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Age of Reason - US
The Age of Reason - UK
The Age of Reason - Canada
L'âge de raison - Canada
The Age of Reason - India
L'âge de raison - France
Zeit der Reife - Deutschland
L'età della ragione - Italia
La edad de la razón - España
  • French title: L'âge de raison
  • The first volume in Sartre's The Roads to Freedom-series
  • Translated by Eric Sutton

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Our Assessment:

B- : chatty, and rather overfull with indecisiveness

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Harvard Crimson . 5/8/1947 .
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/6/1947 .
Time . 21/7/1947 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "If the book does not rise to the stature of a great, or even a very good, novel, it at least does not try to show a great panorama of society, and fail. Everything investigated is seen thoroughly, in perfect focus, but there are definite limitations. Only half a dozen characters are seen, representing very little of society, though a good range of neuroticism. But the chief merit of the book lies in the fact that Sartre has put his story ahead of his theme, and whatever abstract ideas of Existentialism he has expressed, he has converted them into the concrete form of dramatic situation." - The Harvard Crimson

  • "The Age of Reason frequently attempts to shock the reader with pointless vulgarity (...). Existentialists may deny that such scenes are introduced for sensationalism's sake, but they have not explained why it is necessary to expound their doctrine solely from a worm's eye view of life. What one of the characters calls "the freemasonry of the urinal" will seem, to many readers, an accurate description of Sartre's own books." - Time

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Age of Reason is set in Paris in 1938. The Spanish Civil War is still being fought, but it's an isolated conflict; the threat of war in the rest of Europe looms larger now after the Austrian Anschluß, but does not feel immediate yet.
       The central figure of the novel is the philosophy professor Mathieu Delarue, though a larger circle of friends and acquaintances also figure prominently in it. Now thirty-four, Mathieu still leads a rather aimless life, and the novel, which covers only a few days, follows him on his peregrinations -- though, for once, he does have something to focus on and is actually goal-oriented: he's knocked up his longtime mistress, Marcelle, and desperately wants to raise the funds to pay for a not-quite-back-alley abortion. He and Marcelle have been together for some seven years, but it's an odd, hidden arrangement of convenience: he sneaks into her house -- careful not to wake her mother -- a few times a week and otherwise is on his merry way.
       Among the others in his circle is his acolyte, Boris (who is having an affair with the nightclub entertainer Lola); the young student from a wealthy family, Ivich, facing her final exams and worried (with good reason) about failing, uncertain about what she can do when the inevitable happens; and the more established Daniel (who would also have the money Mathieu needs, but isn't willing to give it to him).
       Mathieu makes his rounds, asking those who might be able to help him out -- while always inclined to stop off for a few drinks -- and eventually trying to get the money by other means (a loan, a theft), and it is his trying to deal with setting up the abortion that is the main plotline of the novel. Beyond that, however, the various characters all have their own little issues to deal with -- which includes the tragi-comic, as, for example, Boris wakes up to find Lola dead in bed with him (which might not sound very comical, but proves to be, in the end).
       Mathieu is having a mid-life crisis of sorts:

     I'm getting old. Here I am, lounging in a chair, committed to my present life right up to the ears and believing in nothing.
       The war in Spain tempts him -- but only in the most abstract way: he doesn't have anywhere near the conviction to really have a go at something like that. Similarly, he can't be bothered to join a cause like the Communist Party. He's not a man of action, and he's not a joiner -- or, arguably, true believer, as he's not a man of true convictions, either.
       One of the people Mathieu hits up for money is his older brother, Jacques, who went through his own dissolute stage ("he had dallied with surrealism", among other things) but now is entirely prim and proper. He married good money and bought himself into a law practice -- and he pegs Mathieu just right:
you condemn capitalist society, and yet you are an official in that society; you display an abstract sympathy with Communists, but you take care not to commit yourself, you have never voted. You despise the bourgeois class, and yet you are bourgeois, son and brother of a bourgeois, and you live like a bourgeois.
       And, he tells his brother: "You have attained the age of reason, Mathieu, you have attained the age of reason, or you ought to have done so".
     "Pah !", said Mathieu. "Your age of reason is the age of resignation, and I've no use for it."
       On and on it goes, as Mathieu reëvaluates his life, his situation, and his relationship with Marcelle. He finds a reliable but pricey abortionist, but that just increases the time-pressure (the doctor is headed abroad shortly) -- and, of course, that desperate hunt for the money helps keep his mind off the real questions he should be facing, but which he doesn't seem very comfortable entertaining. Should he marry her ? Should he even stay with her, in this comfortable rut of a relationship ? Does she want the child ? (It's not a question he asks himself -- or her -- very hard .....)
       But everything works out, in a way. The Marcelle situation resolves itself in a manner that largely absolves Mathieu from any sort of responsibility (though that resolution comes with one big surprise, as one of the characters makes another revelation that upends things quite a bit, too -- and suggests that maybe Marcelle's best interests are not best served by this particular outcome).
       "But you're free now", Mathieu is told when all is said and done -- but he's not satisfied, of course: "Pah !" he responds. With some resignation he admits he's reached 'the age of reason' (so the novel's closing lines) -- but it's not a happy place for him.
       For a philosophy professor, Mathieu doesn't do much philosophizing, beyond on a very basic level; indeed, there's very little sense of him as either teacher or philosopher at any point in the novel (and he certainly never appears in an actual classroom). The Age of Reason is a very chatty novel, but more on the chit than profound level. Yes, admirably Sartre tries to show, rather than tell -- but he doesn't quite show enough of, or look deeply enough into any of the characters for his fiction to attain much gravity.
       The Age of Reason is also a surprisingly indecisive novel: almost none of the characters act decisively. They all hem and haw and vacillate at various points. Typically, one character bundles his cats in a basket and goes off to drown them. It's a horrible thing to contemplate, but Sartre contemplates it -- but without following through. Sorry: if you're going to propose something like that, you better see it through.
       Sartre shows how difficult it can be to take charge of one's own life -- to accept that one has the responsibilities that come with 'the age of reason' -- and none of his characters achieve it in this volume. (Yes, some do, in the end act, rather decisively -- but it's questionable that they've really thought things through properly; the 'solution' to the Marcelle situation, specifically, sounds like a catastrophe waiting to happen.)
       The Age of Reason is the first volume in a trilogy, and that work should presumably be judged as a whole; nevertheless, it's not a great start. A philosophical, meandering novel, it includes some inspired ideas and episodes, but is rather middling fiction. Sartre mistakes movement -- Mathieu is almost constantly on the go -- for real action, and there's just not enough depth to his characters, in the way they are presented.
       Of some -- but decidedly limited -- interest.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 May 2013

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The Age of Reason: Reviews: Jean-Paul Sartre: Other books by Jean-Paul Sartre under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was awarded (and declined) the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature.

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© 2013-2023 the complete review

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