Living with Mother: Sartre and the Problem of Maternity

O'Donohoe, Benedict (2010) Living with Mother: Sartre and the Problem of Maternity. In: Mirvish, A and Van den Hoven, A (eds.) New Perspectives on Sartre. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 178-190. ISBN 9781443822282

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The thesis of this chapter is that Sartre had a pathological misunderstanding, almost a phobia, of motherhood because of his own very peculiar experience of it. Ranging from his enforced premature weaning at the age of a few months (owing to the death of his father), to his mature quasi-conjugal cohabitation with his mother from 1946 to 1962, via their "platonic incest" as "brother and sister" in his childhood, Sartre's filial relationship with his mother was never anything like "normal". Asserting that this bizarre personal background is widely manifest in his creative work, I first survey the catastrophic destiny reserved to mothers in Sartre's theatre, before examining more closely his musings on maternity in his 1945 novel "The Age of Reason". In this, the hero (a transparent and self-avowed avatar of Sartre himself) spends all his time trying to acquire the funds necessary to procure an abortion for his mistress, demonstrating no understanding at all of the possible needs or desires of the woman in question. Consequently, he loses her in the end to the cynical intervention of a self-loathing homosexual rival. Meanwhile, he concentrates his emotional efforts on trying to bed one of his students, an androgynous and probably lesbian young woman who embodies the very antithesis of the burgeoning, viscous fleshiness of the mistress whom he now finds repulsive. Questions are raised, therefore, about the range and acuity of Sartre's insight into issues around sex, sexuality and stereotypical gender roles, at a time when Simone de Beauvoir was about to broach all of these in "The Second Sex".

Item Type: Book Section
Additional Information: This chapter grew out of an invited paper given, in plenary session, at the annual conference of the Society for French Studies, at the University of Leeds in July 2005 (marking the 100th anniversary of Sartre's birth).
Schools and Departments: School of English > Sussex Centre for Language Studies
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Depositing User: Benedict O'Donohoe
Date Deposited: 06 Feb 2012 20:07
Last Modified: 30 Jul 2012 11:18
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