Nausea’s most prominent theme is, unsurprisingly, the titular experience of nausea. The theme is developed as early as the first few pages, when Antoine describes experiencing something that is like an illness. Slowly Antoine analyzes what he calls “The Nausea” more and more deeply, and he begins to understand that it is linked to his realization that he is submerged in an absurd existence. His nausea is often centered around certain objects in the world, all of which make him recognize that he himself is an existent thing. Yet he can’t find any inherent meaning in these things, and though it is never used in the novel, Sartre’s famous phrase, “existence precedes essence,” may help us understand Antoine's predicament. Sartre’s phrase means that any essence or meaning is applied to things after they exist; their essence does not exist before them, nor inherently in them. Antoine’s realization causes him to be both mentally and physically disoriented, suffering a strange mix of psychological and physical symptoms. The nausea is a bodily problem as much as it is philosophical. The only thing that appears to be able to alleviate the feeling is music or art, which Sartre suggests might allow us to move beyond the absurdity of existence to create positive meanings.
Because Antoine is working on a history of the Marquis de Rollebon, he spends much time thinking about history as a concept and as a subject of writing. When his nausea begins to worsen, he loses his hold on both the Marquis and his own memories; the Marquis’ history and Antoine’s history, Antoine decides, are in a way not much different than fiction. Both don’t exist in the present day, and any attempt to describe life in language moves away from the real existence of that life. When he realizes the past is totally dead—and that his attempt to write a history of the Marquis is like an attempt to resurrect him—Antoine gives up on writing his history. Importantly, Antoine also loses his belief in the solidity of memory by the end of the novel. As such, we can see that while Sartre suggests that the past informs the present existence of things, he seems to believe that “history” or “memory” cannot capture that past. Instead, we’re left with a much more ambiguous sense of events: even “the Editors” or Antoine himself can be seen as unreliable narrators who are offering a fictionalized version of events.
Although Sartre was not committed to Marxism at the time of writing Nausea, one can still see that Marxism had a profound impact on Sartre’s political thought. Antoine spends much of the novel criticizing the bourgeoisie, especially on Sunday morning, when many of the town’s wealthy business owners are going to church. We also see Antoine’s criticisms of the repressive nature of the bourgeoisie when he looks at the paintings of Blevigne and others. Through irony and humor, Sartre paints these men and women as typical of those living in “bad faith,” who ignore the basic absurdity and contradictions of their existence. Sartre also shows how the reduction of inequality might help alleviate nausea: when people of all different classes mix near the beach, Antoine’s writing becomes increasingly poetic and beautiful, and his nausea ceases, if only for a moment.
Additionally, we even see how Sartre applies Marxist concepts to his existential philosophy. Early in the novel he states that “a crowd of small metamorphoses accumulate in me without my noticing it, and then, one fine day, a veritable revolution takes place.” Here, Sartre has applied Marx’s theory of how historical change occurs on a small scale. Suddenly, Antoine’s realizations can be seen as one sort of “revolution,” and existentialism can be seen as a philosophy interested in changing individual consciousnesses for the purpose of greater political change.
Antoine’s journals, rather than revealing a stable and concrete self, show us an image of instability and alienation. By the end of the novel, Antoine’s personality, positions, and life has seen a radical upheaval: he no longer believes much of what he once did, he is moving from Bouville, and he has given up on writing history. Antoine’s self also constantly changes on a microscopic scale. One day’s journal entry may be followed by an evisceration of that entry the next morning. Even further, Antoine’s personal history becomes more and more distant and seemingly unattached to the living person; he even refers to himself in the third-person at times. Even when looking directly at himself—or his blood— Antoine describes his body like an alien thing. We then leave the novel with the concept of not of a stable self but of a self that is alienated, mutating, and seemingly fragmented.
Though much of the novel is concerned with the (unstable) existence of the self, Nausea is also concerned with the existence of others. Many of Antoine’s experiences of the Nausea coincide with being observed by or near others. Even when the initial “Ducks and Drakes” nausea occurs, Antoine remarks how the children see him throw a stone and laugh at him. Incidents like this show how one’s consciousness is always being affected by others, whether for good or for ill. Merely being seen—in a mirror or by others—seems to cause Antoine distress. Sartre also considers “the Other” on a larger, cultural scale. Late in the novel, Antoine considers that his favorite song "Some of These Days" was likely written by a Jewish man and sung by a black woman. These two figures could be considered “cultural others”—they are considered different from the white, Christian norm, marginalized, and oppressed. Yet, through music, Antoine is able to recognize these other subjects through art. Art serves as a sort of medium for going beyond the self. Even further, we might see how the beautiful scene by the sea is related to Antoine’s connection to the others watching the sea; we might also consider how the most dramatic event in the novel happens not to Antoine but to the Self-Taught Man, who suffers violence and rejection for being a “fairy.”
Contingency is an important concept in existentialist philosophy and philosophy in general. Defined as “the condition of being free from predetermining necessity in regard to existence or action; hence, the being open to the play of chance, or of free will,” it is in no way foreign to our everyday concept of randomness, although it is used slightly more precisely than saying something is “random.” In his own philosophy, Sartre emphasizes the contingency of all things. In Nausea, rather than believe most things are determined by necessary relationships, Antoine comes to recognize that seeking such relationships is absurd and futile; he comes to realize all existents are contingent. The image of the root in particular focuses on how the root is a contingent, rather than a necessary thing. Similarly, Sartre suggests all of life is subject to this randomness. Antoine depicts his life as “a game” late in the novel (and notably this is a game he thinks he will always lose). Even further, games of chance, like the card game in the café, surround Antoine and appear as one of Nausea’s many motifs. Importantly, while recognizing the contingency or absurdity of existence may cause the nausea, it also provides the opportunity for freedom, one of Sartre’s most persistent concerns.
Because the novel is largely set in a library, knowledge and its limits are always present, even outside of Antoine’s philosophical journaling. The Self-Taught Man’s attempt to gain knowledge and better humanity through it, while admirable, begins to appear slightly comical when Antoine learns that he is moving through the library alphabetically. Humanism and socialism, both popular in France at the time of Nausea’s publication, are scornfully criticized at the lunch between Antoine and the Self-Taught Man. Antoine’s sense of his own knowledge seems to collapse as the novel continues, as both his historical research and his knowledge of his past slip from him. Once even feeling some comfort in the architecture and organization of a library, the way a library structures the future of one’s knowledge, Antoine comes to feel totally and terrifyingly unbound to a predetermined path.
As with most of its themes, Nausea’s explorations of knowledge have a contemporary political edge. The Corsican’s censorship of what young boys can read in the library reveals the way in which institutions and individuals prevent people from accessing forms of knowledge, such as the works of Baudelaire, which critique bad faith bourgeoisie life.
Nausea Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Nausea is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.