43 pages 1 hour read

Jean-Paul Sartre


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1938

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Summary and Study Guide


Nausea is a philosophical novel by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Originally published in 1938, the novel was first translated to English in 1949. Nausea takes place in the fictional French city of Bouville (“Mud Town”) and follows the day-to-day life of the reclusive historian Antoine Roquentin. Antoine lives completely alone, without friends or family, as he researches and writes a book on an 18th-century French aristocrat, the Marquis de Rollebon. Antoine’s daily interactions with the world around him and his work begin to make him sick and disoriented, a feeling he calls “the Nausea.” Antoine’s alienation becomes increasingly severe as he begins to question his own existence and what existence really means. Antoine’s descent is told as a series of diary entries, presented by a diegetic editor as a real diary.

Nausea is Sartre’s first novel. It is a philosophical novel, perhaps the philosophical novel par excellence, meaning a novel written to explore philosophical ideas. However, the novel also stands as a powerful work of fiction. It was written at the suggestion of Simone de Beauvoir as a way for Sartre to work out his thinking (and his feelings) about the problem of contingency. Briefly put, the problem of contingency asks why there is something rather than nothing. Taken personally, it asks why “I” exist at all. Sartre concluded that there was no meaning inherent in existence. As the novel explores this radical meaninglessness through the character of Roquentin, it touches on some key themes of existentialist philosophy. These themes include Existence Versus Essence, The Loneliness of Freedom, and History and Memory.

This guide uses the 2007 New Directions Books printing, translated by Lloyd Alexander. Pagination may vary in other editions of the book.

Content Warning: Nausea depicts pedophilia, suicidal ideation, self-harm, fatphobia, and ableism. The novel also contains racist stereotypes and language as well as references to sexual assault.

Plot Summary

Nausea begins with a note from “The Editors,” a fictional editorial team who has found Antoine’s diary and presents it to the reader. The first three pages contain undated entries while the remainder of the novel proceeds in daily entries starting on Monday the 29th, 1932. Antoine feels that he must keep a diary to keep track of something that is imperceptibly changing within himself. He is becoming disgusted by the existence of objects around him and hopes that the feelings go away.

Antoine has been in Bouville researching the Marquis de Rollebon for three years. Before that, he travelled the world with his friends and ex-lover, an Englishwoman named Anny. Now, he spends his time obsessing over Rollebon. Antoine frequently cites Rollebon as his only reason for living. Antoine has a detached sexual relationship with a woman named Françoise who runs a café called the Railwaymen’s Rendezvous. Antoine develops his sense of nausea one day when, out for a walk, he picks up a stone and decides to skip it across the water. The stone’s existence in his hand is suddenly too much, and he must put it down because it makes him sick. Antoine regularly talks to a man named Ogier P., whom he calls the Self-Taught Man. The Self-Taught Man is the closest thing Antoine has to a friend, though Antoine keeps him at a distance.

Antoine’s encounter with the stone and nausea begins to spoil his life. The immediate existence of objects and their qualities begins to overwhelm him. He spends his days off strolling around the city and watching people. Antoine becomes hyperaware that people live neatly within the roles they’re prescribed (husband, girlfriend, waitress, etc.). He believes they are unaware that they exist and can do anything at any moment. For Antoine, he feels that others do not understand that these roles are convenient linguistic shorthands that box in the frightening radical freedom of existence—their ability to do anything and become anything. Antoine’s issues with objects, existence, and other people make it difficult for him to indulge in his pastime: walking and watching people.

Soon, Antoine’s nausea begins to invade his work. He realizes that he can never truly understand Rollebon from the objects the aristocrat left behind. To Antoine, Rollebon as a person ceased to exist the moment he died: The objects he left behind contain nothing of the actual man. Antoine grows increasingly frustrated with his work until, one day, he stabs himself while writing to remind himself that he exists. Antoine bleeds on his manuscript and decides that he cannot finish it. However, without his research, Antoine is left without a purpose in life. The sheer scope of what he might do next and where he might go leaves him frozen with indecision.

Antoine’s one hope for reigniting his passion for life is to reconnect with Anny. She sends him a letter asking to meet in Paris in several days’ time. Before then, Antoine agrees to have lunch with the Self-Taught Man. At lunch, the Self-Taught Man confides in Antoine that he is a humanist, which has led him to becoming a socialist. Antoine believes that the two of them are very alike: They are both lost, lonely men without any real connection to the world. Antoine, however, is greatly upset by the humanist assumption that all people are somehow fundamentally good and fundamentally connected. Antoine believes everybody exists alone, horribly isolated, before they decide that they have a fundamental human essence that gives them an identity. Their conversation triggers a bout of nausea in Antoine, who leaves the diner abruptly.

The nausea triggered by Antoine’s lunch with the Self-Taught Man gnaws at him as he waits for Anny to arrive in Paris. Antoine begins believing that existence is the only certainty in the world: Colors, words, and even the first-person “I” become suspect to him as convenient set-dressing used to assuage anxiety about existing. He spends much of his time waiting for Anny in a local park, scrutinizing the existence of the objects around him only to be horrified at the abundance of existence he finds. When Anny arrives, Antoine finds that she is a completely different person since they last met. Antoine believes she may also be suffering from “the Nausea,” but Anny completely disagrees. She believes Antoine hasn’t changed at all, despite his claims otherwise. Antoine hoped to find a kindred soul dealing with nausea, but instead the two have nothing more to say or offer to one another. Anny leaves for London with her new lover, leaving Antoine just as lonely and isolated as before.

Antoine decides to leave Bouville and head back to Paris. He does not know what he will do next, but without his research into Rollebon, he has no reason to remain in Bouville. Antoine meets the Self-Taught Man one more time in the library on his last day in Bouville. Antoine watches, horrified, as he learns that the Self-Taught Man is a pedophile who preys on schoolboys in the library. He tries to save the Self-Taught Man from being caught but must watch on as the librarian assaults the Self-Taught Man and throws him out. Enraged at the violence, Antoine attacks the librarian and is also thrown out. Antoine tries to convince the Self-Taught Man to let him tend to the other man’s wounds, but the Self-Taught Man insists on being left alone. The Self-Taught Man disappears into the city, leaving Antoine completely alone.

Antoine visits the Railwaymen’s Rendezvous one last time while he waits for his train. He says goodbye to Françoise and is struck by how Bouville will continue existing long after he leaves. Antoine feels like the city has already forgotten about him before his departure. A waitress at the café puts on Antoine’s favorite song, an old, unnamed jazz song. Antoine finds comfort in the music and feels a spark of joy before he leaves Bouville forever.