Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 novel Nausea follows Antoine Roquentin, a historian suffering under a strange affliction he calls “The Nausea.” As the novel unfolds, Antoine’s Nausea worsens. Slowly, his philosophical diaries expand on his condition, while also exploring concepts like travel, language, memory, and love. The latter half of the novel sees Antoine discover the absurdity of existence, meet his former lover in a tense interaction, and decide to move to Paris to write a novel. Sartre’s first novel, Nausea is viewed by some as his best. It was published five years before his magnum opus, Being and Nothingness, a long treatise outlining of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. Much of what would be developed in Being and Nothingness is prefigured in Nausea, and the novel remains important as another way to understand Sartre’s philosophical enterprise.
Written in the early 1930s, Nausea is set in the fictional town of “Bouville,” likely a recreation of Le Havre, where Sartre was writing and working at the time of the novel’s composition. While Sartre seems to have begun writing the novel during his military service, he finished it while working as a schoolteacher. His experiences both in the military and as a teacher seem to have informed the novel. Originally titled “Melancholia,” Nausea was rejected by the N. R. F, a French publisher. It was accepted by Gallimard in 1937 and given the title we know today.
Sartre’s creative and philosophical writings, including Nausea and plays like No Exit and The Flies, would eventually lead to him being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1964. He declined the prize on political principle, believing the committee to be a bourgeois institution. Yet, Sartre’s writings have not seen unilateral praise. Nabokov, in his 1949 New York Times review of the novel, was highly critical of Nausea for what he saw as its flimsy construction. James Wood, in his introduction to the New Directions edition, finds fault with some of Sartre’s heavy-handedness. But despite any flaws, Sartre’s writings, including Nausea, are read today and remain influential among artists and philosophers alike.