Analysis of Jean-Paul Sartre ‘s Nausea

Nausea is the first novel by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80), one of the most renowned novelists, dramatists, and philosophical writers in the French language of the 20th century. Sartre received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1964, although he refused to claim it because he viewed such honors as overtly material and bourgeois. The writer was born in Paris, where he lived most of his life. Nausea, which remains one of Sartre’s most important novels, represents the author’s initial manifesto on existentialism, a philosophical doctrine emphasizing absolute individual freedom coupled with responsibility, an attitude that received international popularity following World War II.

Nausea, published during the war, relates the story of Antoine Roquentin, a dejected historian and researcher living in Bouville, a small French town that closely resembles Le Havre, where Sartre was teaching at the time he began writing the novel. The story is written in diary form. The reader discovers that Roquentin has suddenly succumbed to a mysterious malady. He is troubled that he cannot pinpoint the nature of the strange sickness. Roquentin resorts to keeping a diary of the symptoms in the hope that these notes will help clarify the nature of his puzzling illness. Within a few days the affliction worsens. The protagonist is soon overcome with a sensation that he can only call nausea.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir Via The Independent

The malady interrupts Roquentin’s lengthy research of the Marquis de Rollebon, a French aristocrat who lived during the turbulent times of the French Revolution. Roquentin comes to realize that his years of research into the historical subject have left him locked into the past. He longs to live again in the present.

Sartre connects Roquentin’s feeling of nausea to the problematic nature of existence. Living in the past and ignoring the present have left the central character at odds with living an authentic life free from conventional attitudes. As the protagonist resolves to live in the present and not in the past, he discovers that others around him are uncomfortable with their own existence. They live lives based on prescribed restrictions— religious and social restraints—that prevent individual freedom and realization. Sartre viewed this state as a conflict between constrictive and destructive conformity (the philosopher termed this “bad faith”) and an authentic state of existence experienced through freedom and action. People conduct their lives in the hope of some future recompense: receiving grace in an afterlife or enjoying retirement.

Roquentin finally makes Sartre’s famous existential statement: “existence precedes essence.” This aphorism entails that the individual is free from outside influences or forces to choose his or her own life, and the actions one selects in life total up to an essence of existence. This doctrine is an inversion of the notion that humankind possesses an inherent spiritual foundation for existence.

Sartre’s central metaphor in Nausea is the root of a chestnut tree. As Roquentin seeks to realize his actual existence, he comes to understand that his habitual perception of his own life has been false like that of the physical world around him. The physical characteristics of the root of the chestnut tree—color, odor, size, and other traits—elide the true nature of the object’s essence. Behind this apparent world lurks a noumenal, or hidden, world that remains undisclosed to sensory perception. Roquentin’s philosophical idealism leads him to conjecture that these false sensory perceptions are merely a manifestation of the subjective perceiver. His nausea has resulted from his erroneous perception in thinking that what he has accepted as reality is merely a facade of a human creation.

Nausea is an exemplar of the way in which the author injects his novels and plays with challenging philosophical ideas and questions. In recognizing that he is a free individual, Roquentin chooses to live in an existential future. He finally abandons his research of the past and elects to move to Paris to write a novel. Nausea has often been compared to Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925) and Albert Camus’s The Plague (1942), two other prominent existential works that reveal the malaise experienced by characters who choose freedom in an unfree world.

The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre

Analysis of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Intimacy

Bloom, Harold. Jean-Paul Sartre. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001. Farrar, Roxanne C. Sartrean Dialectics. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.
McBride, William L., ed. Existentialist 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 Mellon, 1992.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis, Philosophy

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: