Nausea Critical Overview
by Jean-Paul Sartre

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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

Nausea is considered to be the seminal text of French existential philosophy. The influence of Nausea, along with Sartre’s other writings, on twentieth-century thought has been profound and pervasive. Roquentin’s philosophical dilemma, as expressed in Nausea, has been regarded as representative of the experience of modern life in the twentieth century. As Hayden Carruth, in an introduction to an English translation of Nausea, remarked, “Nausea gives us a few of the clearest and hence most useful images of man in our time that we possess,” adding, “The power of Sartre’s fiction resides in the truth of our lives as he has written it.”

Critics generally agreed that, in Nausea, Sartre effectively utilizes the medium of fiction to explore philosophical ideas that he would later develop in Being and Nothingness. However, critical opinions have varied on the question of how successful Nausea is as a work of fiction in its own right. As Marie McGinn, in an essay in the British Journal of Aesthetics, commented:

[Nausea] remains a collection of striking illustrations of philosophical ideas, but never gels into a unified work of art in which all the parts are motivated by an overriding aesthetic aim.

Critics have debated the philosophical implications of the novel’s ending with Roquentin’s decision to make his life meaningful through the pursuit of an artistic endeavor—the writing of a novel. Many agree with Sartre’s conclusions about the role of the artist—be it a musician, novelist, or painter—in society and the redeeming qualities of artistic endeavor. A. van den Hoven, in an essay in Sartre Studies International, remarked:

Roquentin ultimately favors music and writing because they allow him to entertain the possibility of composing ‘an adventure that can’t take place;’ a story that may redeem his existence retrospectively and shame the readers into recognizing the facticity of their existence.

Whatever the evaluations of Nausea, as a work of philosophy or of literature, Sartre is universally recognized as one of the most profoundly influential thinkers of the twentieth century.