Though many novelists and writers such as David Foster Wallace, Thomas Mann, Anne Carson, and M. NourbeSe Philip integrate philosophy into their writing, very few novels are considered “philosophical novels.” Oftentimes, these novels are distinguished from others on account of the fact that their authors are more renowned for their philosophical works than their creative writing, but there are some distinguishing characteristics that might help one better understand what makes a novel a “philosophical novel” and why that matters to Sartre’s Nausea.
Philosophy and art have long been intertwined; in texts like the Bhagavad Gita, a narrative frame allows for the exploration of moral and metaphysical questions with the same depth as in philosophy. Similarly, Plato’s dialogues are rife with literary devices that complicate and bolster his philosophy. Yet neither would be considered a novel, much less a philosophical novel, by today’s conventions. Thomas More’s Utopia or Voltaire’s Candide, written in the 16th and 18th century respectively, might be considered a more archetypal form of the philosophical novel. These novels established the use of allegory as a central device in the philosophical novel, a convention that opposes them to Sartre’s Nausea, where the philosophy of the book is frequently and directly discussed in the book.
Sartre’s movement away from allegory might be a result of the influence of Nietzsche, who wrote one of the most famous philosophical novels. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is in part a philosophical treatise and in part a narrative, although the narrative largely serves to introduce the aphorisms spoken by Zarathustra, a Christ-like figure. Sartre’s novel, where the narrative influences and shapes the narrator’s philosophy, is likely influenced by Nietzsche’s more direct form of philosophizing in a novel form. Yet Sartre’s novel is more narratively grounded than Nietzche’s, while also eschewing the broad allegories found in Utopia or Candide.
As a sub-genre of the novel, the philosophical novel remains a slippery classification, but one can see how Sartre’s writing was shaped by a history of philosophers acting as artists as well as artists acting as philosophers.