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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1056

After traveling through Central Europe, North Africa, and Asia, a thirty-year-old Frenchman named Antoine Roquentin settles down in the seaport town of Bouville to finish his historical research on the Marquis de Rollebon, an eighteenth century figure in European politics whose home had been at Bouville. For three years, Roquentin searches the archives of the Bouville library reconstructing the nobleman’s life. All Roquentin’s energies are concentrated on his task; he knows few people in Bouville except by sight, and he lives more in the imaginary world he is re-creating than in the actual world.

In the third year of his residence in Bouville, during the winter of 1932, Roquentin begins to have a series of disturbing psychological experiences that he terms “the nausea.” He feels there is something new about commonplace articles, and even his hands seem to take on new aspects, to have an existence all their own. It is then that Roquentin’s loneliness becomes a terrible thing to him, for there is no one to whom he can speak of his experiences. His only acquaintances are Ogier P., whom Roquentin has nicknamed The Self-Taught Man because he was instructing himself by reading all the books in the library, and a woman named Françoise, who operates a café called the Rendezvous des Cheminots. Françoise, who had become fond of Roquentin, is the outlet for his physical sexuality, but their acquaintance had not gone beyond that. In his loneliness, Roquentin begins to think of Anny, an English girl who had traveled with him some years before and whom he had loved; he had not heard from her in more than three years. The nausea comes increasingly often to plague Roquentin; it passes from objects into his body through his hands, and the only way he can describe it is that it seems like a sweetish sickness.

One evening, shortly after the nausea first appears, Roquentin goes to the café, only to find that Françoise is gone for a time. He sits down to listen to music on a battered old phonograph and, for the first time, the nausea creeps upon him in a place with bright lights and many people; even more horrible, it seems as if the sickness is outside himself, in other objects.

Strangely enough, as the days pass, The Self-Taught Man makes an effort to be friendly with Roquentin. Learning that Roquentin had traveled extensively, The Self-Taught Man asks to see some of the photographs he had collected and to hear some of his adventures. He even goes to Roquentin’s rooms one evening for that specific purpose. These friendly overtures are not entirely welcome to Roquentin, since he is immersed in his psychological problems, but he acquiesces and sets a date to have dinner with The Self-Taught Man a few days later.

In the interval before the dinner engagement, the book about the Marquis de Rollebon comes to a halt. One day, Roquentin suddenly stops writing in the middle of a paragraph and knows that he will write no more, although he has spent more than three years of his life on the work. Roquentin suddenly feels cheated, as if his very existence was stolen by the Marquis de Rollebon during those years, as if the marquis had been living in place of himself. Roquentin realizes that he will never be able to be certain of the truth about the marquis, who all of his life had used men for his own ends.

Once he realizes that he will no longer write, Roquentin finds little purpose in his life. Indeed, there seems to be no reason for his existence. For three years, Roquentin has not reacted to his own existence because he has been working; now his existence is being thrust on him with disquieting abruptness.

One Wednesday, Roquentin and The Self-Taught Man meet for the prearranged dinner, a rather stiff affair, during which The Self-Taught Man tries to convince Roquentin that he, like himself, ought to be a humanist, that in the humanity of the world is to be found the true reason for the universe. Roquentin becomes so disquieted that the nausea comes over him during the discussion, and he abruptly leaves the restaurant.

A day or two later, Roquentin receives an unexpected letter from Anny, which had been forwarded from his old address in Paris. She writes that she will be in Paris for a few days and wishes to see him. Roquentin looks forward to seeing her and plans to leave Bouville for the first time in three years to visit with her in Paris. When the day arrives, he presents himself at her address.

Anny is not the same; she became fat, but the changes that bother him the most are those he feels rather than sees. The interview is a dismal failure; Anny accuses him of being worthless to her and finally throws him from the room. Later, he sees Anny getting on a train with the man who kept her, and he goes back to Bouville with a sense of numbness. He believes that both he and Anny had outlived themselves. All that is left to do, he feels, is eating and sleeping, an existence not unlike that of an inanimate object.

Roquentin remains in Bouville only a few days more. Unhappy and lonesome, he seeks out The Self-Taught Man and finds him in the library. Because The Self-Taught Man is reading to two young boys, Roquentin sits down to read until The Self-Taught Man has finished. He never gets a chance to resume his conversation with his acquaintance, for The Self-Taught Man reveals that he is gay and is brutally ejected from the library by the librarians. The only other person to whom Roquentin wishes to say good-bye is the congenial woman who owns the Rendezvous des Cheminots. She spares him only a moment, though, because another patron claims her time.

Roquentin goes to the railway station for the train to Paris. His only hope is that he might write a book, perhaps a novel, that would make people think of his life as something precious and legendary. He knows, however, that his work on such a book, unlike his attempts at the history of the Marquis de Rollebon, will not keep from him the troublesome problem of existence.

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