Analysis of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Intimacy

The novel Nausea (Le nausée, 1938) and the collection of short stories and novellas The Wall (Le mur, 1939), which includes Intimacy, brought the French author Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80) immediate recognition and success as a writer and philosopher. Previously, he had been relatively unnoticed, even with the publication of his early, largely psychological studies. Le nausée and Le mur both express Sartre’s early existential themes of alienation and commitment to individual freedom and authenticity. Intimacy, a work included in The Wall, particularly elaborates on the contradictions between the bourgeoisie and existentialism as well as on Sartre’s well-known concepts of bad faith, or self-deception, and how hell is other people, as portrayed in his remarkable play No Exit (Huisclos, 1947). Intimacy is told through the perspectives of multiple characters, a technique that Sartre would use in many of his fictional works, such as the trilogy The Roads to Freedom (Les chemins de la liberté), comprising The Age of Reason (L’âge de raison, 1945), The Reprieve (Le sursis, 1947), and Troubled Sleep (also known in translation as Iron in the Soul; La mort dans l’âme, 1949). The novella deconstructs Lulu’s decision, negatively influenced by her friend Rirette, about whether or not to leave her impotent husband, Henri, with whom she is unhappy, for her lover, Pierre.

UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1966: Jean-Paul Sartre In 1966 – Writer and philosopher. (Photo by Dominique BERRETTY/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

For Sartre, the bourgeoisie came to stand for all that existentialism was not; it was impossible to be an existentialist and a bourgeois in his mind, which Lulu’s actions and decision-making process reflect in Intimacy. When Lulu meets Rirette at the Dome café to tell her that she has left Henri, Rirette painfully observes how Lulu is more concerned with the waiter’s delay in taking her order for a café-crème. While Lulu is sitting at the café with her friend, her valise beside her and her coat on after she has left her husband, she still believes that she deserves better attention and service. She does not care if she runs into her husband after she and Rirette leave the Dome as long as she buys her lingerie at a particular store and location before going to the hotel. During her brief stay at the Hotel du Théâtre, she is more concerned about the shoddy conditions of her room and the untrustworthy Algerian who works at the front desk and, she believes, wants to break into her room.

Although Rirette encourages Lulu to make decisions for herself rather than as Henri’s wife, Rirette’s life is controlled by capitalism and her urge to be recognized as part of the middle class. While Rirette acts concerned about Lulu’s attitude toward their waiter, she believes that the waiters are inferior to the people that they serve, including herself and Lulu. Rirette notes with pleasure how the waiter at the Dome makes conversation with her and hurries to their table when she calls him over for service, not understanding that perhaps his behavior is motivated by the slim monetary allotment that she will give him when she leaves the table. Rirette objectifies their male waiter into a source of sensual pleasure for herself because she is lonely and has no one with whom she shares her life. Although she appears to yearn for the company of a man, Rirette is more proud that she is the best saleswoman at her office and therefore makes more money than the other ladies, and she is glad that she is competing with them for the same commissions.

Bad faith, or what Sartre considers self-deception, clearly drives the thoughts and behaviors of all of the characters in Intimacy. They shift responsibility for their decisions and actions from themselves to outside influences. Lulu believes that Henri’s impotency is the cause of their marriage’s problems, rather than her successive sexual affairs. She does not take responsibility for her behavior as his wife and her decision not to communicate with him, and Henri does not acknowledge his behavior toward her, until the night that she comes over to their house from her hotel to talk about her leaving him. Nor does Lulu take responsibility for not telling her lover, Pierre, that their sexual relationship leaves her unfulfilled, choosing instead to write in her letter to him that she wants to continue meeting with him frequently anyway and that her body is his even though she has returned to her husband. Rirette, even though she claims to be Lulu’s good friend, abstains from telling her that Pierre is attracted to her and acts in an inappropriately sexual manner toward her. Pierre, positioning himself as Lulu’s savior from her difficult marriage, is evidently using Lulu purely for convenient sexual gratification, as Lulu notices that he does not tell her he loves her after she has told him that she has left Henri. Pierre is relieved when Lulu returns to Henri and thus will not be accompanying him to Nice because he has not told her that she will be unable to stay in his mother’s flat. However, he chooses to share this piece of information with Rirette, knowing that she is trustworthy and will not tell Lulu because she is such a good friend.

While hell emerges as the togetherness of other people in Sartre’s play No Exit, published in 1947, Lulu’s relationship with her husband, friend, and lover exemplify Sartre’s beliefs. Lulu’s quandary about whether to stay with her husband, although he is unable to satisfy her sexually, is complicated by the fact that she can only satisfy herself because of her own medical condition; therefore she does not enjoy the sexual relationships she finds outside of her marriage. When, after coming into contact with Henri on the street, Lulu is overpowered by Rirette and pushed into a taxi, she announces that she hates Rirette, Pierre, and Henri. She wonders what each one has against her and why they would want to torture her. Lulu covers her honest admission to Rirette with the excuse that she has been overcome by nerves upon seeing her husband. Her decision to return to her distraught marriage with Henri and continue her unsatisfying affair with Pierre and false friendship with Rirette reaffirms Sartre’s belief that members of the bourgeoisie are incapable of acknowledging their individual freedom and the anguish and responsibility that comes with that freedom.

The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre

Bloom, Harold. Jean-Paul Sartre. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001.
Farrar, Roxanne C. Sartrean Dialectics. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.
McBride, William L., ed. Existenialist Literature and Aesthetics. New York: Garland, 1997.
Poisson, Catherine. Sartre and Beauvoir. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2002.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. What Is Literature? Translated by Bernard Frechtman. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
Wardman, Harold W. Jean-Paul Sartre: The Evolution of his Thought and Art. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1992.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis, Philosophy

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