Throughout Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, Antoine Roquentin attempts to define the relationship between himself and the world so that he can understand the powerful sense of nausea that overwhelms him. He hopes that in so doing he can define the meaning of his existence. Roquentin, an existential man, is destined to fail in his search. As Sartre’s personification of existentialism, Roquentin cannot but find his own existence abhorrent and ultimately meaningless; his nausea reflects not only the vertigo of existence but also his realization that existence, which is a dispensable element of reality itself, comprises only suffering and despair.
When the novel commences, Roquentin is focused on his historical research in the town library, his frequent visits to cafés, his memory of the past, and occasional sexual trysts with Françoise, the woman who runs one of the cafés he frequents. Other than with Françoise, Roquentin has no contact with anyone except The Self-Taught Man, who “doesn’t count.” By his own account, Roquentin neither gives nor receives anything from anyone; thus, his existence is isolated.
Through the nausea, Roquentin discovers that all of his pleasures and activities are meaningless. Initially, for example, his trips to cafés provide him with some pleasure, and he is safe from the nausea when he sits in the well-lighted, crowded cafés of Bouville. Eventually, however, the nausea invades the café as well, and he is horrified by the people and objects around him. His sexual encounters with Françoise have little meaning to begin with; they merely serve a need that, according to Roquentin, is “mutual.” Whatever pleasure Roquentin may have found in these encounters is lost, however: He is suddenly disgusted by her appearance, her smell, her very existence. The meaninglessness of their relationship is intensified by his final conversation with her before he leaves to board the train for Paris. Françoise barely speaks to him, and she spends Roquentin’s final moments in the café doting on another customer.
Another element of Roquentin’s life is his walks about town, yet these walks eventually serve only to reinforce his perception of the futility of existence. He watches people interact with each other and condemns the regularity and predictability of their lives. They are “idiots” with “thick, self-satisfied faces” and empty lives. Occasionally, he focuses on the self-confidence and purpose that he sees in wealthy men, but their world is completely alien to him. In any case, he knows that they, too, must die, that their lives, too, are ultimately an illusion. Even the beauty of nature becomes abhorrent to Roquentin when he realizes that trees “did not want to exist, only they could not help themselves.” Finally, Roquentin concludes that all that exists, exists “without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.”
As Roquentin realizes the pointlessness of the simple pleasures he had previously enjoyed, he focuses on the remaining significance of his life: his research on the history of the Marquis de Rollebon and the memory of his own personal history, the highlights of which are adventure and love. The primary difficulty that Roquentin has with searching for meaning in the past is that recollection of the past is subjective. As he explores his personal past, for example, he encounters only “scraps of images”; significantly, he is unsure whether they are “memories or just fiction.” In this context, his adventures, which previously held great import, lose their significance. His sense as to whether or not he has even experienced adventures, in the light of his perception of the complexity of truth and memory, begins to waver. Ultimately, he concludes that “things have happened” to him, but that he has had no adventures and that he has deceived himself for years. He then turns his attention to the Marquis de Rollebon, to whom he had lent his own life.
(The entire section is 1,040 words.)