Nausea Essay by JP

Embracing Superfluousness: Sartre’s Existential Outlook Nausea

            In Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, the protagonist Antoine Roquentin frequently experiences physical discomfort while reflecting on certain aspects of his human existence. His discomfort comes in the form of nausea, and is triggered when Antoine reflects on the idea that his existence is unnecessary and ultimately meaningless. He has trouble coming to terms with this fact, but as the novel continues, Antoine becomes progressively accepting of the absurd nature of his existence (he recognizes his meaningless birth and inevitable death). Sartre’s belief in the nothingness that defines existence parallels that of Arthur Schopenhauer, and Schopenhauer’s philosophies at times directly reflect Antoine’s thoughts. Additionally, the existential outlook of Viktor Frankl frequently applies to Antoine’s life, and his ideas explain some of Antoine’s confusion about existence. Through Antoine’s experiences, Sartre conveys the idea that the contingency of human existence is discomforting, yet if one can embrace it, he will become conscious of the freedom he has to define himself.

Antoine’s interest in the constant change of objects represents the beginning of his understanding of the objective nature of existence. From the first few sentences of the novel, he mentions his interest in tracking the changes of himself and the objects around him. He says, “I must finally realize that I am subject to these sudden transformations. The thing is that I rarely think; a crowd of small metamorphoses accumulate in me without my noticing it, and then, one fine day, a veritable revolution takes place” (4-5). This realization represents Antoine’s initial acknowledgement of a distinction between what Sartre called being in-itself and for-itself. The in-itself describes the objective reality that one constantly faces, the one that does not depend on the mind for existence, whereas the for-itself consists of a person’s subjective existence: his perception of himself, the objects around him, and of life itself. Making this conscious distinction causes Antoine to initially express great concern about his earthly presence and even to relate, on a fundamental level, to the objects around him. Consumed by the constant urge to identify with inanimate objects, he often seeks to substantiate his existence, primarily by experiencing new things: “perhaps there is nothing in the world I cling to as much as this feeling of adventure; but it comes when it pleases; it is gone so quickly and how empty I am once it has left. Does it, ironically, pay me these short visits in order to show me that I have wasted my life? (56). Initially, Antoine does not accept the meaninglessness of his existence, and focuses on constantly engaging in “adventures” to provide his life with some meaning. His adventurous desires explain why he spends much of his life traveling, as well as why he believes that he has “wasted [his] life;” he believes that it has no substance, but at this early point in the novel, he believes that it should.

Antoine’s initial experiences with the nausea are the result of his inability to comprehend the contingency of his ever-changing existence. Antoine’s nausea occurs when he contemplates the implications of his human condition, mainly the fact that the future cannot be predicted. However, more simple uncertainties also have the capacity to arouse this feeling: “the suspenders can hardly be seen against the blue shirt… you feel like saying, ‘All right, become purple and let’s hear no more about it’” (19). Even the most basic uncertainties, such as not knowing where one object ends and another begins due to their similar colors, causes Antoine physical discomfort (the nausea). The uncertainty of not knowing which card will be drawn in a card game next to him makes him especially uneasy, even after hearing a familiar song which temporarily removes his nausea. This reflection upon his existence, and the conclusion that he arrives at because of it (the fact that he, like the objects around him, constantly change), only sparks further contemplation about his unpredictable fate, provoking the following quote: “I murmured: Anything can happen, anything” (77). Antoine often reflects on the contingent nature of his being. He murmurs this phrase as a result of his anxiety that stems from the uncertainty of the future. At this point in the novel, the contingency of existence still disconcerts him.

Antoine’s existential outlook shifts as the novel progresses. His mental acknowledgement of the futility of his ambitions and the idleness of his being represents his gradual acceptance of life’s uncertainty and absurdity. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre explains the mental capacity to transcend the body: “consciousness can always pass beyond the existent, not toward its being, but toward the meaning of this being” (lxiii). For Antoine, this never-ending introspection, as well as his continual observation of the inherent change in objective reality, lead him to make the following realization about his being: “the essential thing is contingency. I mean that one cannot define existence as necessity. To exist is simply to be there” (131). Antoine, after contemplative observation of a chestnut tree and other natural objects, comes to the realization that he is fundamentally the same as them, an object among other objects that happens to possess a unique quality to reflect on past and future events. Here he fully acknowledges and accepts his superfluous nature. This provokes him to make this statement: “No one has any rights, they are entirely free… they cannot succeed in not feeling superfluous” (131). This quote stems from the same realization as the one above. By contemplating the essence of his being, and comparing and contrasting it to that of a chestnut tree, Antoine finally accepts the fact that his presence, like that of the tree he sits under, came about by chance, and that the events of his future could not and should not be known before they are experienced. He decisively creates a factual distinction between himself and the objects surrounding him: “I had already scrutinized innumerable objects, with deep uneasiness. I had already tried – vainly – to think something about them: and I had already felt their cold, inert qualities elude me” (130). Antoine’s series of thoughts represents his full understanding of the internal distinction between objective and subjective reality, as well as his comprehension that his existence contains more than the inertness of the objects around him.

After prolonged introspection under the chestnut tree, Antoine decides to move to Paris; in his boredom upon returning to his hometown Bouville, Sartre, like Arthur Schopenhauer, argues his belief that human existence is defined by nothingness. In On the Vanity of Existence, Schopenhauer asserts that boredom represents the essence of the human condition: “boredom is a direct proof that existence is in itself valueless, for boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence” (53). When Antoine arrives in Bouville, he spends much of his time wandering the city; at one point, very much like Schopenhauer, he says, “I am bored, that’s all. From time to time I yawn so widely that tears roll down my cheek. It is a profound boredom, profound, the profound heart of existence, the very matter I am made of” (157). Antoine’s boredom is a result of his acknowledgement of the lack of substance in his life. He only returns to Bouville to retrieve his belongings and complete any last errands there before moving to Paris. While there, Antoine becomes fully aware of the nothingness that defines existence by embracing the lack of significance in his past in Bouville. It is precisely this nothingness that motivates him to shape his essence, the aspect of his being which he has total control over.

Through Antoine’s acknowledgement of the nothingness that defines him, Sartre argues that with existence comes a natural freedom to define one’s essence. During his encounter with his former love Anny, Antoine thinks: “Do I know any reasons for living? I’m not as desperate as [Anny] is because I didn’t expect much. I’m rather… amazed before this life which is given to me – given for nothing” (151). Antoine’s gradual acceptance of the contingency of his existence juxtaposes what Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, might call Anny’s hyper-intention, or over-searching for meaning in her life. Anny refers to this as “outliving herself.” It is in his interaction with her that Antoine truly realizes the freedom that results from the nothingness of his existence, as well as the error in Anny’s search for inner freedom: Frankl writes, “a forced intention makes impossible what one forcibly wishes… pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself” (122). In realizing this, Antoine understands a fundamental truth about existence: “I am free: there is absolutely no more reason for living” (156). Here, Sartre suggests that if one can embrace the superfluousness that inherently defines him, he will experience a sensation of freedom that results from the endless possibilities in life. Frankl also speaks of this concept: “man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment” (131).   This relates back to “Anything can happen, anything” (77) but now Antoine can view it in a positive light because he has embraced contingency.

When reading Nausea, along with many other existential works of fiction, one must understand that the beliefs and introspective capabilities of the protagonist directly parallel those of the author. More specifically, Antoine’s thoughts and actions inherently reflect the existential outlooks of Sartre. Literary critic Edith Kern describes this idea in The Self and the Other: A Dilemma of Existential Fiction: “the existent cannot but profess his own truth, unless he consciously lies or sheepishly repeats ‘objective truths.’ The identification between thinker and speaker, author and protagonist, therefore becomes inevitable for the existential individual… Sartre’s equation between Roquentin and himself is fundamentally an existential one” (332). Sartre supports this concept by having Antoine explicitly state his rationale for deciding to write a fictional novel instead of a history book: “it would have to be a book… but not a history book: history talks about what has existed – an existent can never justify the existence of another existent” (178). Evidently recognizing this himself, Sartre created Nausea, a first-person existential novel, with a protagonist that reflects himself because of the impossibility of truthfully creating any other character. Dominick LaCapra, another literary critic of Sartre, also wrote about this concept, saying that Sartre “may have shared Antoine’s project and felt complacent in the role of apolitical individualist seeking salvation through art” (Sartre and the Question of Biography). Ultimately, Sartre delivers his beliefs regarding existence preceding essence, and the contingency and nothingness that compose existence, through Antoine’s narration to create a truthful and accurate depiction of Sartre’s philosophies.

Nausea inevitably serves as a vehicle of existential thought for Sartre. He presents the concept of nothingness through Antoine in a similar way to Schopenhauer in On the Vanity of Existence. Sartre also presents his concept of existence preceding essence, and the inherent capacity to define one’s subjective reality, in a manner that reflects Frankl’s ideas about man providing meaning in his own life. Antoine’s realization about his capability to define his essence, stemming from the superfluousness of his existence, represents the reason for him to ultimately decide to write a novel, which is an allegory of Sartre’s motive to write Nausea.


Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006. Print.

Kern, Edith. “The Self and the Other: A Dilemma of Existential Fiction.” Comparative Literature             Studies 5.3 (1968). Web. 22 January 2014.

LaCapra, Dominick. “Sartre and the Question of Biography.” Sartre’s Life, Times, and Vision du Monde.            Routledge, 2013. Web. 22 January 2014.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. “On the Vanity of Existence.” On the Suffering of the World. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Simon and Schuster, 1956. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. New York: NDP 1073, 2007. Print.

Nausea Essay by JP

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