Jean-Paul Sartre Jean-Paul Sartre Long Fiction Analysis

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Jean-Paul Sartre Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Hailed in the immediate prewar years as a rising master of prose fiction, Jean-Paul Sartre soon deserted the form and would leave unfinished the fourth and final volume of The Roads to Freedom, originally announced as a tetralogy. As it turned out, his creative talents were perhaps indeed better suited to the theater; encouraged by the eminent director Charles Dullin, Sartre, between 1943 and 1959, turned out eight original plays, fully half of which survived him and are still included in the world’s repertory. Unlike his onetime friend and colleague Albert Camus (1913-1960), who repeatedly tried and failed to apply his gifts to the stage, Sartre possessed a particularly dramatic imagination that proved especially well suited to theexposition even of the most difficult philosophical concepts originally expounded in his essays. To be sure, a number of his concepts found their earliest, albeit undeveloped, expression in Nausea and in the stories to be collected in The Wall, and Other Stories; nevertheless, Sartre found fiction a comparatively inefficient vehicle for the communication of his ideas.


Completed as early as 1936 under the working title of “Melancholia” (inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Melancholia I, 1514), Nausea proved to be as unconventional in content as it was apparently conventional in form. Cast in the more or less familiar format of a diary discovered after the death (or disappearance) of its author, a convention in turn derived from the time-honored epistolary form, Sartre’s first novel bodied forth a disoriented, disorienting vision of the world as perceived through the eyes of its rapidly changingprotagonist and narrator: Antoine Roquentin, a thirty-year-old historian and former teacher, finds himself suddenly overcome by the sensation of his own existence, a sensation that soon evokes in him the nausea of the book’s eventual, publisher-selected title. Overwhelmed by the evident contingency of his own being, Roquentin soon senses the same contingency in others, and in inanimate objects as well: In one memorable scene, Roquentin watches and describes his own hand as if it were a monstrous creature quite divorced from his existence, a beached crab with hair; in another scene, a glass of beer appears to be spying on him. His eventual and perhaps inevitable conclusion is that he is superfluous (de trop), a quality shared by most of the things and people around him.

Had Sartre limited Nausea to Roquentin’s record of the changes taking place in his own mind, the book might well have been dismissed as an inventive simulacrum of a psychological case history. What assures the viability and power of Nausea is the nature and aptness of Roquentin’s powers of observation, powers that alternately feed on and are fed by the operations of his mind. Even without the record of Roquentin’s depression, Nausea might well have earned a respectable place in French literary history as a rare work of biting yet perceptive social satire in which few conditions of life are spared. To his credit, Sartre in Nausea repeatedly manages portraits that closely approach caricature yet stop short of straining the reader’s credulity.

Trained as a historian, Roquentin is perhaps well chosen as an observer, yet not even he is presented wholly without satire. Dissatisfied with teaching, able to survive (if barely) on a small but regular unearned income, Roquentin probably is superfluous, at least by certain people’s standards; in 1932, when he begins his journal, he has been working for some three years on the study of one Marquis de Rollebon, a minor survivor of the French Revolution whose descendants have willed the Marquis’s papers to the city of Bouville (Mudville, equated by most of Sartre’s commentators with the port city of Le Havre). Roquentin’s daily work at the public library of Bouville has exposed him to a small but highly memorable cast of characters, including the Corsican librarian and especially the...

(The entire section is 3,212 words.)