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Nausea | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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Jean-Paul Sartre | Biography


Family and Education

Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris, France, on June 21, 1905, the only child of Jean-Baptiste Sartre, an officer in the French navy, and Anne-Marie Schweitzer, the first cousin of Nobel Prize laureate Albert Schweitzer. Sartre's father died on a tour of duty when the boy was only 15 months old. He and his mother returned to her family home in Meudon, where Sartre led a solitary and bookish childhood, substituting reading and writing for human companionship.

Most of Sartre's early education consisted of private tutors and his grandfather's instruction. In 1915 Sartre attended Lycée Henri IV and then later attended a school in La Rochelle. He completed his education at the École Normale Supérieure at the University of Paris, graduating in 1929. While at the university, Sartre met Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86), the renowned feminist, philosopher, and novelist. Although they were neither married nor monogamous, the couple maintained a close relationship throughout Sartre's life.

Military Service and Career

After receiving a doctorate in philosophy in 1929, Sartre completed his required military service in France and went on to work as a secondary school teacher in Le Havre, a port city in the northern French region of Normandy. The setting of his novel Nausea (1938) is based on Le Havre. From 1933 to 1935, he traveled to Berlin and Freiburg, Germany, on a stipend from the Institut Français as a research student. In Germany, he immersed himself in the works of German philosophers Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) and Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) and became interested in the branch of philosophy known as phenomenology—the study of human awareness. Their theories shape some of Sartre's most seminal works, including his major philosophical study, Being and Nothingness (1943), and his novel Nausea (1938).

Sartre's career as a schoolteacher was interrupted by the escalation of World War II (1939–45). He was drafted into the French army, serving as a meteorologist briefly until he was captured by the Germans in 1940 and held for nine months as a prisoner of war. He returned to Paris and joined the Resistance, an underground group of activists committed to ending the Nazi occupation of France. During this time he also wrote prolifically, completing not just Being and Nothingness but also his first play, The Flies (1943).

Writing and Activism

Following the war, Sartre gave up teaching to devote himself to writing and activism. He is the author of several plays, novels, works of literary criticism, and philosophy. His best-known play, No Exit (1944), written in wartime, touches on the suffocating banality of social conventions in an extreme situation where life has been extended into a never-ending after-state. Unable to take action to correct their betrayals of others in lives now over, the characters remain trapped in a hell of their own making, a clear illustration of the "bad faith" Sartre discusses in his lecture in defense of existentialism, "Existentialism Is a Humanism." Existentialism, with which Sartre is closely associated, is a philosophical exploration of the meaning of human existence in terms of the self, free will, and moral obligation.

Later in life, with the publication of an autobiography, The Words (1963), Sartre renounced literature as a bourgeois substitute for committed action. The next year Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, for "having exerted a far-reaching influence on our age," an honor he refused.

A man of few worldly possessions, Sartre remained a principled activist throughout his life. He was committed to taking a stand on the important issues of his time, something he felt was the duty of public intellectual figures such as himself. Although his health declined in the last years of his life, he continued to be active in protests, including the Paris demonstrations of 1968, which protested authoritarian political and economic structures. He died from a lung edema on April 15, 1980, and shares a tombstone with longtime companion Simone de Beauvoir in Paris's famous Montparnasse Cemetery.


Sartre's influence was significant in philosophy, literature, psychology, art, media, and the social sciences, and his ideas over time permeated mainstream culture. Sartre's expansion on existentialism has inspired a countless number of significant philosophers, artists, and authors. Existentialism, which examines the human need to create meaning, is the branch of philosophy Sartre is most closely associated with. A few examples of works kindred to Sartre's vision and explorations on existence include French writer Albert Camus's L'Étranger (The Stranger; 1942), Irish playwright Samuel Beckett's En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot; first performed 1953 in Paris), and American screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich (1999). Sartre's reach and influence are too varied and wide to list, and Sartre's thought-provoking work may very well have been an element in expanding human consciousness and bringing forth to humanity new ways of looking at life's mysteries.

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