Reading Guide for Sartre's Nausea

May 1990 (revised April 1997)

Several themes of Sartre's philosophy recur in Nausea. Freedom is perhaps the most important thing about being human, for Sartre. But freedom is frightening, and it is easier to run from it into the safety of roles and realities that are defined by society, or even by your own past. To be free is to be thrown into existence with no "human nature" as an essence to define you, and no definition of the reality into which you are thrown, either. To accept this freedom is to live "authentically"; but most of us run from authenticity. In the most ordinary affairs of daily life, we face the challenge of authentic choice, and the temptation of comfortable inauthenticity. All of Roquentin's experiences are related to these themes from Sartre's philosophy. Look for the following kinds of passages:

Passages where Roquentin is alone, and how this makes him feel. Why does he choose to live alone? How does he interact with others? What is his opinion of social existence? The events in the cafe, pp. 61-70, are important here, as is his visit to the Bouville museum. Earlier in the book, notice his statement that he lives alone (p.7f) and his remarks about social class when he watches "the Sunday hat-raising" at Bouville (pp. 40ff).

What actual encounters does Roquentin have with other people, and how does he handle them? Is he ever a participant? Is he a voyeur? What do you make of his reactions to, and his role in, the event in the park with the young girl and the exhibitionist? (pp. 79, 80) Also think about Lucie the cleaning woman (pp. 11 ff) and M. Achille and Dr. Roge’ (pp. 63ff.).

Trace the encounters of Roquentin with the Self-Taught Man. (pp.4, 6, 28-30, 38, 75-77, 103ff, 160ff). The Self-Taught Man represents rational humanism as an approach to the meaning of life. Why does Roquentin reject this approach? (If you get stuck, turn to the introduction for an answer from Hayden Carruth).

Passages about Anny. Why does he keep coming back to their relationship? Why did they break up? (p. 63) Why won't Anny start up with him again? (p. 153) How would you compare his relationship with Anny and his relationship with Francoise, the patronne of the Railwaymen's Rendezvous? Compare the encounters on pages 6-7 and on page 59. What strikes you about each of these encounters? What are Anny’s "perfect moments" and her "privileged situations"; how do they compare to Roquentin’s "adventures"?

Why is Roquentin nauseated? Note the occasions, and ask why in each case. Also note any times when he says that the nausea goes away, and see if you can tell what makes it go away. R. often connects the Nausea with objects rather than with himself. In the undated pages at the beginning he says that "these changes concern objects." Why does he react as he does to the stone on the shore (undated pages), the glass of beer in the café, the formerly familiar objects mentioned on page 9? The climax of this theme about objects and Nausea is the vision of the tree root in the park (pp. 126-135). What is its significance?

On page 20 Roquentin asks Madeleine to play a jazz record for him. He keeps referring to this music, and especially to the female vocalist's song, throughout the book. The music is obviously a positive, hopeful thing for Roquentin, contrasting sharply with most of his other experience. What is it about the music that affects him so strongly? (See especially pp. 38, 176-78)

Compare Roquentin's remarks about the library stacks on page 79 with Plato's ideas about the forms.

What is the "adventure" that Roquentin has on pages 54-56, and what in the world is it about this sequence of events that makes it an adventure? Pay special attention tho his talk about adventrues with the Self-Taught Man that begins on p. 35, and especially on p. 37. One of the central questions of the book is posed here. What is the point about stories on page 39, and what is the connection between stories and adventures? On p. 40, R. says, "I wanted the moments of my life to follow in order themselves like those of a life remembered. You might as well try to catch time by the tail." Is there any connection between this want (which R. says could not be satisfied) and the hope that he has at the end of the book?

How does Roquentin connect his life with the painting of "The Bachelor's Death" and the 150 other paintings in the Bouville museum (82-94)? What does he mean when he says (p. 84): "It was true, I had always known it; I hadn’t the right to exist"? Does he think that the people whose portraits he’s viewing really did have the right to exist, whereas he does not?

Why does his history of M. Rollebon matter to Roquentin? Why does Roquentin decide not to work on Rollebon anymore? (pp. 94-96) What does Roquentin decide, on the last page of Nausea, that he was mistakenly trying to accomplish by his work on Rollebon; and what does he say there that he wants to do instead?

How would you compare Roquentin's "meditation" on pages 94-103 with Descartes' second meditation?

Why does Roquentin feel the need to "justify his existence?" In what ways does he try to do this in the course of the novel? Which ones does he reject, and why? At the very end of the novel he is hopeful that he may after all find a way to justify his existence. How does he think that he might be able to do this?