Sartre’s Nausea combines phenomenology and existentialism


Nausea is an iconic philosophical novel that reveals Jean-Paul Sartre’s brand of existentialism. It represents a world without God or meaning. It discovers the meaninglessness of existence through an inquiry into the perceptual understanding of the universe. We see Antoine Roquentin confronting his existence in its pre-categorized primordial nakedness prior to his free choice for writing a novel. While going through the book we also record the presence of a number of existentialist preoccupations like the existence-essence relationship, conscious subjectivity, freedom and responsibility, bad faith, superfluity, absurdity, and contingency Based on these observations, we shall attempt to demonstrate how Sartre’s Nausea combines phenomenology and existentialism.  

More Notes: Nausea

Subjective expression of perception   

According to phenomenology, objects do not have natural meaning. We construct for them for our perception. Our perception of a thing is influenced by the ideas we have in our minds. That’s why different people perceive a thing differently. For example, looking at a particular flower, an ordinary person and a botanist come across different perceptions. So, Sartre rightly said, perception is subjective, not objective.  

Reasons for Sartres nausea   

As a phenomenological artist, Sartre connects human consciousness with worldly objects. Normally we control the objects giving them abstract. But if we become uncertain of our existence and fail to indicate the objects, they in turn might hurt our minds. The formed sense of order breaks down producing an anthological uncertainty. Out of this situation arises nausea. Antoine Roquentin, in the novel Nausea visited by such a momentary turn of nausea.  

More Notes: Jean-Paul Sartre

Roquentins conceptual breakdown   

As it is stated in Roquentin’s diary, certain objects in their raw existence lead him to face a conceptual breakdown. The rotting piece of paper on the street and the dirty stone, he holds in his hands. He becomes totally unable to classify and determine exactly what he is looking at.  He looks at a glass of beer and relates,  

“I can no longer explain what I see

While going through these experiences Roquentin calls his free will into question  

“I tried to pick up a piece of paper lying on the ground and didn’t succeed it occurred to me that I was no longer free” 

 However, thanks to the anxiety over nausea, he advances toward acquiring an existentialist understanding of life  

More Notes: Suggestions

The primacy of existence over essence.  

Roquentin’s confrontation with the surrounding phenomena leads us to an understanding of one of the central themes of existentialism: existence precedes essence. Roquentin’s perceptional crisis can be seen as a process of recognition of the primacy of existence over essence. As he looks at objects and people, their essences melt away forcing him to encounter raw existence. He begins to realize that as a conscious being he needs to freely create his essence in order to define his existence.  

What is required, therefore, on the part of an individual is a conscious application of his subjectivity. In Nausea, we are provided with an insight into an individual’s psychology rather than a concern for societal issues. Sartre’s intention is obvious in the very epigraph he picks up for the novel:   

“He is a fellow without any collective significance, barely an individual.” 

Undoubtedly, Roquentin is that fellow who tries to assess his individual significance. Unlike Plato, Hegel, and Marx who look for collective truths, Sartre emphasizes the search for individual truths.  

Free Will of action   

Revolting against all doctrines and institutions that curb individual freedom, Sartre maintains that human beings are free to do whatever they want, but they consequently must accept full responsibility for their actions. The more Roquentin proceeds to acknowledge this existential reality the more seriously he scrutinizes his own actions as well as the way other people behave. When Anny writes in a letter to Roquentin that she is in Paris and desperately wants to see him, he realizes that it is completely his derision what pens next: he can either go to see her or do nothing. But this freedom demands a huge price, as Roquentin admits,  

“I was bowed down under the weight of the weight of my responsibility. 

Bad faith  

In Sartre’s philosophy, the tendency to present oneself as indifferent to one’s free existence is termed bad faith. As Roquentin’s existential examination of the world goes on, we meet a number of people who are in “bad faith”. Monsieur Fasquelle, the manager of the Café Mably is infected with “bad faith, as he seems to have defined himself by his profession. He has forgotten that he has chosen the profession. In the Sartrean world, if you accept the label given by others, you are not exercising your freedom to create essence for yourself. If you think that you are getting wiser because you are aging, you are in “bad faith, trying to hide the painful reality with a comforting facade. This is exactly what happens in the case of Doctor Rogé. Evading the fact that he is getting closer to death, and his body and mind disintegrating, he looks in the mirror and pretends to feel that the creases on his face are signs of his wisdom and experience.  

climactic encounter   

The most crucial existentialist truth is thoroughly understood by Roquentin when he comes across a climactic encounter with the root of a chestnut tree. The root appears to his consciousness in its absolute nakedness, stripped of all essences. The epiphany leads Roquentin to come up with three key ideas in existentialism: superfluity, absurdity, and contingency. After the chestnut-tree vision, it occurs to him that everything is “superfluous in relation to the others”. In other words, nothing is indispensable to anything or anybody. The concept of superfluity is followed by that of absurdity. While thinking trying to grasp existence at a pre-conceptual level Roquentin realizes that absurdity is the key to everything.   


Finally, as a concluding remark, it can be said existentialism in Nausea is different from the existential elements he Kafka’s The Trial and Camus’ The Outsider. Unlike the two other texts, Nausea explores a series of confrontations with phenomena/conceptual constructs rather than with the Socio-political realities. Using a fictional character called Roquentin.  

Rashedul Islam
Rashedul Islam

Hi, This is Rashedul. Researcher and lecturer of English literature and Linguistics.

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