The Roads to Freedom

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The Roads to Freedom (French: Les chemins de la liberté) is a series of novels by Jean-Paul Sartre. Intended as a tetralogy, it was left incomplete with only three of the planned four volumes published.

The three published novels revolve around Mathieu, a Socialist teacher of philosophy, and a group of his friends. The trilogy includes: L'âge de raison (The Age of Reason), Le sursis (generally translated as The Reprieve but which could cover a number of semantic fields from 'deferment' to 'amnesty'), and La mort dans l'âme (Troubled Sleep, originally translated by Gerard Hopkins as Iron in the Soul, Hamish Hamilton, 1950). The trilogy was to be followed by a fourth novel, La dernière chance (i.e. The Last Chance); however, Sartre would never finish it: two chapters were published in 1949 in Sartre's magazine Les Temps modernes under the title Drôle d'amitié.[1]

The novels were written largely in response to the events of World War II and the Nazi occupation of France, and express certain significant shifts in Sartre's philosophical position towards 'engagement' (commitment) in both life and literature, finding their resolution in the extended essay L'existentialisme est un humanisme (Existentialism is a Form of Humanism), which was criticized from both sides of the existentialist fence.


Sartre's Paris on the Eve of War - "Gaiety...Cafes." An engraving by Iain McNab. (Published in the NY Times, July 13, 1947)

In April 1938, Sartre’s first novel Nausea was published. Three months later in July, he wrote to Simone de Beauvoir, “I have all at once found the subject of my [next] novel, its proportions and its title... The subject is freedom.” Originally it was to be titled “Lucifer,” and written in two parts - “La Revolte” and “Le Serment” (The Oath).[2] In the autumn of 1938, Sartre began writing the novel that was to become The Age of Reason, and continued working on the novel on and off for the next year. In early September 1939, Sartre was called up into the French Army and was assigned to the meteorological unit. Except for some regular meteorological observations, this war work was not exacting, and Sartre had plenty of time to work on his novel, his war diaries, and numerous letters to friends. At one point Sartre produced seventy-three pages of the novel in thirteen days.[3] By December 31, 1939, he had completed the novel, and immediately started a sequel, which he originally wanted to call September (referring to The Munich Agreement of September 1938), and which became titled The Reprieve.[4] He finished writing The Reprieve in November 1943.[5] However, he was constantly editing the manuscripts, and also turned them over to Simone de Beauvoir for critique.

His writing in these novels was semi-autobiographical. His separation from his accustomed life in Paris and the leisure and structure of his war work led him to continued introspection during this period.[6] Matheiu was based upon himself, Ivich was based on Olga Kosakiewicz (a student of Simone de Beauvoir and friend of Sartre), and Boris was based on his friend Jacques-Laurent Bost.[7] Marcelle, perhaps loosely based on Simone de Beauvoir, was the character most removed from the real-life model.[8]

The Age of Reason and The Reprieve were published together after the war in September 1945. Reviews were mixed. Louis Parrot writing for Les Lettres francaises said, “Jean-Paul Sartre has definitely taken his place among the greatest French writers of our day… His powerful talent has affirmed itself with rare brilliance.” Gaéton Picon writing for Confluences said, “If Sartre’s ambition was to force the doors of literary history, he has succeeded.. Like all great novelists, he also enjoys the privilege of having a universe of his own.” However, Louis Beirnart, writing for Etudes said, “If books could smell, one would have to hold one’s nose in front of Sartre’s latest books… Sartre’s objective is, very clearly, to show life through its excrement and lower the value of existence to the level of the gutter and the dump.”[9] Orville Prescott, writing for The New York Times, mentioned “His Cast of Characters Dull.”[10]

Extracts of the third novel in the trilogy, “Troubled Sleep,” appeared in the journal Les Temps Modernes between January and June 1949.,[11] and it was published in book form later that year.

"Although there is much evidence of a fourth novel that was tentatively titled The Last Chance, including Simone de Beauvoir’s mention of if in her conversations with Sartre printed in The Force of Reason, Sartre was unable to finish what many consider to have been the expected ending for the trilogy."[12]

Of the series, Sartre said:

"My intention was to write a novel about freedom. I wanted to retrace the path followed by some people and social groups between 1938 and 1944… I decided to tell The Age of Reason in an ordinary way, by simply showing the structured relationships that link a few individuals. But then come the days of September 1938, and all the barriers collapse… In The Reprieve we’ll find again all the characters of The Age of Reason, but now they are lost in a crowd.”[13]

Overall, "the Roads to Freedom as a trilogy reflects many of Sartre’s best-known existentialist concepts, including bad faith, or self-deception, the acknowledgment of freedom that comes with both anguish and personal responsibility for one’s actions, and how those actions embody the personal and social morality that one promotes."[12]


  • Mathieu Delarue - an unmarried philosophy professor whose principal wish (like Sartre’s) is to remain free
  • Marcelle – Mathieu’s pregnant mistress
  • Daniel – a homosexual friend of both Mathieu and Marcelle - he offers to marry Marcelle
  • Boris - a former student of Mathieu
  • Ivich – Boris’ sister, to whom Mathieu is attracted
  • Brunet – Mathieu’s Communist friend
  • Gomez – a painter, who is fighting with the Republicans in Spain
  • Sarah – Gomez’s Jewish wife

Plot Summary[edit]

"The first novel, L’âge de raison (1945; The Age of Reason), centers on philosophy student Mathieu Delarue’s uncertainty over whether to devote himself to his pregnant mistress or to his political party. The second volume, Le sursis (1945, The Reprieve), explores the ramifications of the appeasement pact that Great Britain and France signed with Nazi Germany in 1938. In the third book, La mort dans l’âme (1949; Troubled Sleep, published in Great Britain as Iron in the Soul), Delarue ends his indecisiveness by attempting to defend a village under attack from the Germans. Although he is killed, Delarue expresses his ultimate freedom through his bravery."[14]

Shifting Viewpoints Within the Novels[edit]

In L'âge de raison, "the perspective changes from chapter to chapter throughout the account of a 48-hour period. In volume 2, Le Sursis, the time-span is a week, but the viewpoint shifts more rapidly, moving sometimes within a single phrase from one character's perspective to another's. This narrative technique... was probably influenced by the American novelist John Dos Passos. The lack of punctuation, the juxtaposition of perspectives, and the intensity created by the single focus of a multiplicity of characters work together to convey the common humanity and intersubjective experience of the French on the verge of war... Volume 3, La mort dans l'âme, reverts to a slower pace of perspectival change."[15]


The novel series was adapted into a thirteen-part television serial by David Turner for the BBC in 1970, with Michael Bryant as Mathieu and directed by James Cellan Jones. The adaptation was nominated for several BAFTA awards for 1970.[16] The entire series was screened at the British Film Institute over the weekend of 12–13 May 2012, attended by the director and several surviving cast members.[17]


  1. ^ Caute, D. Introduction to The Reprieve by Jean-Paul Sartre, Penguin Classics, 2001.
  2. ^ Quoted in Sartre: A Biography by Ronald Hayman (Carroll & Graf, 1987), p. 133.
  3. ^ Hayman, p. 153.
  4. ^ Annie Cohen-Solal, Sartre: A Life (Pantheon Books), p. 143.
  5. ^ See Chronology in Hayman, p. 494.
  6. ^ Hayman, pp. 154-157.
  7. ^ Cohen-Solal, p. 254.
  8. ^ Hayman, p. 158.
  9. ^ These three reviews were quoted in Cohen-Solal, p. 255.
  10. ^ Orville Prescott, "Books of the Times,” New York Times, July 14, 1947, p. 19.
  11. ^ See Chronology in Hayman, p. 496.
  12. ^ a b Article by Tara J. Johnson on "The Roads to Freedom" in The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel, 1900 to the Present, ed. by Michael D. Sollars, p. 671.
  13. ^ Quoted on Cohen-Solal, p. 254.
  14. ^ From the article on Jean-Paul Sartre in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, 1989, p. 372. Available online with library card, retrieved 7/24/2014.
  15. ^ Quotation taken from the article on "Chemins de la liberté, Les" in The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French, ed. by Peter France. Oxford, 1995, pages 159-160.
  16. ^ BAFTA Television Nominations for 1970.
  17. ^ BFI Press Release

External links[edit]