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Currents: sartre and the square

Analyzing the Characters of 'The Square' through Sartre's View

By Pradipti Bhatta '14

“Existence precedes essence, (Sartre, 20)” is the main belief of existentialism and this is exactly what Sartre writes about in his book “Existentialism is a Humanism.” What he means by this is that “man first exists: he materializes himself in the world, encounters himself and only afterwards defines himself (Sartre, 22). In other words, human beings are born, yet they create themselves. Similarly, “Man is nothing other than what he makes of himself (Sartre, 22).” In simple terms, human beings are the choices that they make.

The main characters of the story “The Square” written by Marguerite Duras are a man and a woman who are unnamed. In this essay, I will use Sartre's views to analyze the characters of these two people.

The man in the story is a travelling salesman who makes a living by selling small things in the outskirts of markets in an open suitcase. The young woman on the other hand is a maid who works in a family of seven. Both these characters are different from each other. The woman wants desperately to get married whereas the man does not. She wants to get married as she thinks that it is the only way she can make her life better, “As soon as I am married, my present life will be quite finished” (Duras, 7).

The man, however, does not think that anybody would be interested in marrying him because of his job. “Of course with a job like mine–one which is so looked down upon – you could say that the opposite would be more true and there is no reason at all why anyone should marry me” (Duras, 7). Other than the different views that they have on marriage, the perspective of the man and the woman is also different when it comes to working to make a change in their lifestyles. Both of them want a change; they want to get new and better jobs. The maid thinks that she can only get this change through marriage and she tries hard to make that possible whereas the salesman simply thinks that it is not possible for him to do anything in order to make that change.

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, Sartre's main theory or belief is that human beings are the only ones who get to make the ultimate decisions as they are the ones who are responsible for themselves. “Man is condemned to be free: condemned, because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free because once cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does” (Sartre, 29).

In the story, the maid and the salesman both are unhappy with what they do for a living. They both seem to agree that their jobs are worthless and looked down upon. The salesman says that, “I never felt that anyone particularly needed my services or my companyso much so that quite often I am amazed that I occupy any place in the world at all” (Duras, 9). The maid says that with a job like hers, “the opposite would be more true and there is no reason at all why anyone should want to marry me” (Duras, 7). According to Sartre, the condition of these people is the result of their own decisions as “man is solely responsible for his own existence” (Sartre, 23).

There might arise a question of human condition here. Sartre does agree that human beings are born with some conditions or limitations like gender, race, class, etc., and this may limit what people choose to do in life. But he thinks it would be meaningless if a man did not “freely determine himself and his existence in relation to them” (Sartre, 43). In other words, he means to say that even though people have limitations, they still get to make choices and have freedom since human universality exists.

Sartre mentions “bad faith” in his book as well. According to him, bad faith occurs when people deny that they have a choice; in other words, when they blame what they do on passions, fate, etc. According to him, “If we define man's situation as one of free choice in which he has no recourse to excuses or outside aid, then any man who takes refuse behind his passions, every man who fabricates some deterministic theory, is operating in bad faith” (Sartre, 47).

The salesman says that he does not see any change in his work coming his way unless a piece of luck came his way. He tells the maid, “I must confess I cannot see much luck coming my way helping me to a decision” (Duras, 6). He also says that, “…If I were to change then the opportunity must come to me” (Duras, 9). I think that he is acting on some level of bad faith here. Similarly, even the maid seems to act that way when she tells the man that she thinks she is incapable of doing anything other than housework (Duras, 28). Although both of them are unhappy with their jobs, they don't seem to try and change what they do. Yes, the maid does go to dances in order to find a man but even though she does this, she is solely dependent on marriage and that shows that she does not seem to have faith in her own strengths whatsoever.

As the man and young woman talk, she tells him about an eightytwo-year old woman whom she looks after. She cannot do anything and nobody in the family bothers with her. She mentions how even if she killed her no one would notice and how it might make her present situation a little better (Duras, 40). She does mention that she would never kill her. But even after she says so, the man says, “…It seems to me that in many cases other people could do something of that nature to make their lives a little easier and still be able to hope for the future as much as before”(Duras, 40). In the same way, when she later tells him about a friend of hers who killed a dog because she was being treated almost equally as the animal, he says, “I think it would have been more unnatural if she had not done it” (Duras, 41). This can be compared to Sartre's thoughts since he believes that there is no final good or evil in the world, but human beings make it up.

Sartre, an existentialist, thinks, that “Man interprets the sign as he pleases and that man is therefore without any support or help, condemned at all times to create man” (Sartre, 29). What he means by this is that although we have religions and moral values in our society telling us what is good and what is evil; in the end all is in the hands of human beings and what they want to believe in.

Although it may seem morally wrong to kill that old lady, it is all in the hands of the maid and she is the one who makes that decision, i.e., she makes her own 'good' and 'evil'. Even if her moral and religious values told her that killing is a bad deed, she does not necessarily have to follow them. When human beings choose themselves, they create an image of what a human being ought to be. Thus, a single individual becomes responsible to all other human beings which make everybody a leader. Since the maid is a leader as well, she can make her own decisions regarding anything.

Sartre says that “… Just because man has poor blood does not make him a coward, for what produces cowardice is the act of giving up or giving in” (Sartre, 39). According to this belief, clearly both the maid and the salesman are cowards. They are mainly so because both of them do not do anything to change and make their situation better. The maid, however, is a bit less cowardly than the salesman since she does try to get a man for which she goes to dances so that he can rescue her from her situation.

Although this may seem ok for the time when this story was written, I think the maid could have done something else rather than waiting to get married. She is a coward mainly because she could have chosen to do some other work and not considered herself to be only capable of doing household chores. She is also not confident in herself and thinks she is incapable of searching for a man and also does not think that any man would like her (Duras, 28 and 29).

The salesman, however, has completely given up. He thinks that an opportunity must come his way and unless that happens he cannot do anything (Duras, 9). He himself says that his job is miserable and he can never marry because his earnings will not be sufficient for another person as it is hardly sufficient for him (Duras, 7). Even though he knows all this, he does not say that he wants to change his job or at least try and make a better living.

As a whole, both the characters of the story, especially the man, can be seen as cowards through Sartre's views. Sartre believes that freedom is the basic value of a person to judg a situation and make choices. He would say that when people make decisions in accordance with the freedom that they have, they will be “willing the freedom of others at the same time when they will theirs” (Sartre, 49).

Since “…freedom depends entirely on the freedom of others and freedom of others depends on our own” (Sartre, 48), when a person gets committed, he is obliged to will the freedom of others at the same time as that individual wills his own (Sartre, 49). He further states that those people who conceal this total freedom from themselves are cowards (Sartre, 49). This thought of his also proves that he wjould see these characters as cowards since both seem to give in and give up their freedom of choice in their situation.