At the end of L'âge de raison, Daniel makes the following confession to Mathieu:

Mathieu, je suis pédéraste.

According to Wiktionary, the word "pédéraste" in French means "pederast" in English, but used to mean simply "homosexual". I am trying to figure out what it means here.

Regarding the context: the book was published in 1944 and was written by Jean-Paule Sartre. It is not explicitly indicated Daniel is only attracted to adolescent boys, but it is implied that he's attracted to younger men. In the discussion following his confession he explains he is disgusted with himself, but doesn't say anything about exploitation of young boys.

Given the context and history of the word, should we understand this instance of it as "pederast" or "homosexual"? The context does not make it very clear.


5 Answers 5


According to the Dictionnaire historique de la langue française the word pédéraste has been used to mean homosexuel (and not a man who has sexual relationships with adolescent boys only) since the early 20th century. But I remember the word being used by André Gide in the early 20th century to mean a man attracted by young boys.

In Being and Nothingness (1943) Sartre - the man and philosopher - uses homosexuel to talk about a homosexual and pédéraste between brackets to refer to exactly the same person, the brackets implying the word is derogatory in Sartre's eyes. But it absolutely clear he does not use the word pédéraste to imply an exclusive preference for adolescent boys.

You will find an extract online here. The word pédéraste is used both times to reflect how other people (not Sartre) see the homosexual.

You must keep in mind that in the novel Sartre puts the words in the mouth of his characters, he writes the words but they are not his own words. In the extract I am pointing to Sartre talks about the shame felt by the homosexual. So you must ask yourself as you read: Who says what ? Is it Daniel? Is it another character? Is it the author?

I do not remember if in L'âge de raison Sartre uses the word pédéraste as Sartre, the author, but if he does, he probably did not try to stress Daniel liked younger men (even if he did). And we must also remember that Sartre fought for gay & lesbian rights (as we say nowadays) and I presume he would not use the words lightly.

The word pédéraste is hardly used nowadays in France. According to the Dictionnaire culturel en langue française it was superseded by homosexuel in the 1950-60s. Only the short form pédé is used nowadays as a very derogatory term and a severe insult.

  • So people did use it at times to mean a pederast, but you think Sartre probably didn't? Thank you, that's very helpful.
    – Salamano
    Sep 22, 2019 at 16:41
  • @Salamano Sartre had a history of fighting for gay & lesbian rights (as we say nowadays) and I presume he would not use the words lightly. In Being and Nothingness he uses the word homosexuel in a "neutral" way and when he uses pédéraste it is between brackets, implying it is a shame word. If you want I will quote a few lines in my answer. But in the novel it is not Sartre talking, he puts the words in his characters' mouth, and that's what you should really keep in mind when you analyse the characters in the novel
    – None
    Sep 22, 2019 at 17:35
  • You are right, when interpreting Daniel's words we must take into account his own point of view; being so ashamed of his orientation, it is likely he would use a derogatory word to mean "homosexual". So you believe that this is what the (informed) reader would take his meaning to be?
    – Salamano
    Sep 22, 2019 at 18:00
  • This is very confusing, because - according to another answer - it seems Daniel really is a pederast, so it makes since this is what he would mean. Then again, Mathieu is surprised he is ashamed, so it sounds like at least he interpreted the word to mean "homosexual" (unless he sees nothing wrong in being attracted to young boys; after all, perhaps they don't actually have to be minors). So, considering your answer, I would guess that both Mathieu and the readers at the time understood that Daniel probably meant "homosexual". (Please correct me if I understood you incorrectly).
    – Salamano
    Sep 22, 2019 at 18:02
  • And yes, I would love to see the quotes you mentioned!
    – Salamano
    Sep 22, 2019 at 18:02

According to Jonathan Webber in Reading Sartre: On Phenomenology and Existentialism, the meaning is pederast:

[...] on 6 August 1942, the Vichy regime made homosexual relations with anyone under the age of 21 illegal. In light of this, a certain terminological drift observable in Being and Nothingness, as elsewhere in Sartre, is worth mentioning. Being and Nothingness uses the terms ‘homosexual’ and ‘pederast’ interchangeably, as does The Age of Reason, but in the latter work it is clear that Daniel – like the Autodidact in Nausea, like Bergère in ‘The Childhood of a Leader’ – is a pederast, in the sense that he is attracted only to adolescents and very young men.

Emphasis mine.

  • Thank you! This is a very interesting passage, I appreciate it. Although it still leaves open the question whether Mathieu (and the reader) understood Daniel's words to mean he was a pederast or not (even if it is clear that he was). Or do you infer from this that this was probably what was understood, by contemporary readers, from this confession?
    – Salamano
    Sep 22, 2019 at 16:42
  • Daniel says shortly later tous les invertis sont honteux. That might mean he was encompassing all variants of homosexuality (i.e. pédérastes, sodomites and invertis as André Gide's wrote) after all. What was understood by the contemporary readers was likely varying depending on them.
    – jlliagre
    Sep 23, 2019 at 0:31

I believe that your comment after your question is catching the main point, but not the whole picture. First of all, it is true that the generally accepted view of homosexuality in these times was to assimilate it to pederasty.

But there is a not-so-subtle addendum, which makes the situation far worse: the social view of homosexuality was so bad that it was a choice of the Society as a whole entity to label it as an infamy and to deliberately assimilate it to crime and exploitation of children. It was not an accidental choice, nor a random mislabelling, it was the social manifestation of disapproval of homosexuality. That awful assimilation was imbedded in the day-to-day language and contributed to the guilt and marginalization of homosexuals.

  • So you think society at the time simply merged these two concepts? That makes a lot of sense and would explain a few things. However, Mathieu is later surprised that Daniel is ashamed of this, which seems to imply that he thinks he means "homosexual" - but not necessarily. This is what mostly intrigues me: When Mathieu is surprised Daniel does not accept his orientation, does he have homosexuality or pedrasty in mind? What do you think?
    – Salamano
    Sep 22, 2019 at 18:05
  • About merging: I would say that the dominant formulation of homosexuality was simply pederasty, which is more than merging the two concepts, but simply replace homosexuality by pederasty. About Sartre's characters: my personal feeling, maybe a little bit unfair to Sartre, is that JPS wanted to find the most awful, most inacceptable, behaviour for his character and this is why he chose for the confession to use the word "pédéraste", a masochistic self-incrimination.
    – Bazin
    Sep 23, 2019 at 19:32

Nowadays in France, one of the most common words used to refer to homosexual is "pédé".

I would refrain from using it though as it is most of the time used in a derogatory manner.

And although most people using the word ignores it, the word "pédé" does indeed come from the word "pédéraste" which has completely fallen out of favor.

While this does not constitute proof that the word "pédéraste" in Sarte's "L'âge de raison" should be taken to mean "homosexual", it is at least a hint.

That being said, I seem to remember that it is made pretty obvious in the book that Daniel is not a "pederast" but is a homosexual. By that, I mean that there is no passage where his potential desire for children is mentioned (I did read that book a long time ago).

As someone already pointed out, the word "pédéraste" has had the meaning of "homosexual" ever-since the beginning of the 20th century.

And this meaning is actually an extension of its original meaning. Even though it only encompasses a male to male relationship while homosexual also include a female to female relationship.


Il est difficile d'affirmer quoi que ce soit dans des telles circonstances ; vu que Daniel n'est pas attitré pour émettre des jugements dans le domaine sémantique, que l'on se doit de concevoir sa déclaration comme celle d'un profane, on peut accepter celle-ci comme les mots de quelqu'un qui s'exprime « à peu près » et ne pas chercher à élucider.
Il faut comprendre tout de même que l'âge maximum des jeunes mâles victimes (ou « complices ») qui caractérise la pédérastie atteint 19 ou 20 ans (réf.), un âge auquel l'être humain masculin, s'il n'est pas encore en possession de sa pleine maturité est un homme adulte. Il faut aussi comprendre que si l'on ne fait jamais cas de considérations taxinomiques dans ce domaine on doit finalement s'en soucier et conclure qu'il est irréfutable que le pédéraste est un homosexuel (réf.). Alors, qu'importe vraiment la recherche de précision dans les paroles de Daniel ?

Enlish version of the above

It is difficult to assert anything in such circumstances; as Daniel is not entitled to pronounce truths in the domain of semantics, as we must understand his assertion as that of a layman, we can then accept it as the words of someone who is speaking in an approximate fashion and not try to make out the exact concept referred to.
It is necessary, nevertheless, to understand that the maximum age of the young male victims (or "partners") that caracterises a sexual or rather pseudo sexual act as relevant of pederasty is as high as 19 or 20 years (réf.), age at which a male human being, if not yet endowed with his full maturity, is a fully grown adult. It must also be realised that if never anyone considers of any importance taxonomic matters in relation with these two appelations, one has finally to contend with that and conclude that without question a pederast is a homosexual (réf.). On the count of these facts, how does really matter a research for precision in Daniel's words?

Note Only the French Wikipédia mentions age limits relative to certain cultures; the English Wikipédia states as a limit age that of becoming legally an adult (ref.).

  • Thank you for the answer :) If you have the time, I'd be happy if you added an English translation.
    – Salamano
    Sep 22, 2019 at 16:44
  • The part about the age limit was very helpful, thank you. I agree with you Daniel might not have been precise, but I imagine that when Mathieu and he discuss the point, and Mathieu asks him if it wouldn't be easier to just accept himself, he (Mathieu) probably has something specific in mind, which might be homosexuality and might be pederasty.
    – Salamano
    Sep 22, 2019 at 18:07
  • @Salamano Yes, if the discussion went on and into a deeper aspect of the question precisions would be bound to become a necessity.
    – LPH
    Sep 22, 2019 at 19:10

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