Literature Study GuidesNauseaEditors Note And Undated Pages Tuesday 30 January 1932 Summary

Nausea | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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Nausea | Editors' Note and Undated Pages–Tuesday, 30 January, 1932 | Summary

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The novel Nausea consists of 32 diary entries, plus an editors' note and some undated pages. To facilitate discussion of the novel, this study guide has combined diary entries together in groups of three and four. Most of the diary entries in Nausea are undated, giving only the day of the week or the time of day. To help orient readers, this study guide has also added dates to the section headings.

Summary

Editors' Note and Undated Pages

The book begins with a note from the (fictional) editors. They remark, "These notebooks were found among the papers of Antoine Roquentin," and the notebooks have been "published without alteration." Before the diary itself starts, there is an undated sheet of paper. The editors think it was written a few weeks before the first diary entry, in early January 1932. The editors mention Roquentin's extensive travels "through Central Europe, North Africa and the Far East." Roquentin then settled in Bouville, France, for three years "to conclude his historical research on the Marquis de Rollebon."

The novel then switches to introductory notes made by Antoine Roquentin that make clear his desire to "keep a diary to see clearly." He wants to give a detailed account of his perceptions: "how I see this table, this street, the people, my packet of tobacco." He makes other pronouncements about how to keep a diary; "otherwise it will slip through my fingers," he writes.

Roquentin attempts to describe a box, and then he gives up, frustrated. He mentions dropping a stone into a pond on the previous Saturday; the children at the pond laughed at him. Then Roquentin remarks, "So much for external things." There have been internal events, but they have "not left any clear traces," he says. He feels something strange has occurred, but he is "not at all inclined to call [himself] insane." Whatever has happened, "all these changes concern objects."

There is a subheading for 10:30; an editors' footnote says this part was written in the evening or perhaps the following day. Roquentin has reconsidered; maybe his recent experience was "a passing moment of madness after all." Now he can't really remember his "odd feelings of the other week." He is finished with diary writing, he says. "In one case only it might be interesting to keep a diary," says Roquentin; "it would be if ..." The undated page breaks off with Roquentin not finishing the thought.

Monday, January 29, 1932

Roquentin returns to his previous certainty: "Something has happened to me, I can't doubt it any more." But it's a subtle experience he finds difficult to describe. Whatever the change is, it's intensifying. "It's blossoming," says Roquentin.

Historians such as himself don't have much use for psychological analysis, says Roquentin. This is too bad because some kind of self-knowledge would be useful in describing what's happening to him. "There is something new about my hands," says Roquentin. He seems abnormally aware of his hands and the objects they touch. For example, it takes him a moment to recognize the "cold object" in his hand is the doorknob. Likewise, at the library where he does his historical research, he hesitates before recognizing someone he has known for years, "the Self-Taught Man." The Self-Taught Man is a clerk named Ogier P, say the editors.

The change might be inside Roquentin, or it might be "this room, this city and this nature." Roquentin starts out by deciding the change is in himself: "That's the simplest solution. Also the most unpleasant." He recalls the abrupt way he tends to change, which gives his life "a jerky, incoherent aspect." He thinks about the six years he spent traveling, and about someone he knew named Mercier, whom he talked to in Vietnam. This Mercier wanted Roquentin to travel to Bengal with him. In the conversation with Mercier, Roquentin was transfixed by objects, "staring at a little Khmer statuette on a green carpet, next to a telephone." Then, "Suddenly, I woke from a six-year slumber." He realized he felt "terribly, deeply bored," and he declined to travel with Mercier. Instead, he sailed for France. Now Roquentin worries about what is happening to him. He is afraid "of what will be born and take possession of me—and drag me—where?" He wonders if this change, whatever it is, will bring him to ruin.

Tuesday, January 30, 1932

"Nothing new," Roquentin remarks in his diary. In the library that morning, he starts writing Chapter XII of his study of the Marquis de Rollebon. This chapter is about Rollebon's time in Russia, "up to the death of Paul I," who was the czar. After his work in the library, Roquentin goes to Café Mably for lunch. There are about 20 customers in the café: "bachelors, smalltime engineers, office employees." Roquentin remarks of them, "In order to exist, they must also consort with others." But not Roquentin: "I live alone, entirely alone. I never speak to anyone, never." He lists the few people he does know, including the Self-Taught Man, who "doesn't count," and Francoise, who runs a bar called the Railwaymen's Rendezvous. "But do I speak to her?" he asks himself. His conversations with her are mostly limited to his asking, "Have you time this evening?" Francoise almost always has time for casual sex, either with Roquentin or with other men.

Roquentin's ex-girlfriend, a woman named Anny, used to occupy his thoughts. "Now I think of no one anymore," says Roquentin. He marvels at young people, who can "tell clear, plausible stories." This kind of narrative order has deserted him now that he lives alone: "The plausible disappears at the same as the friends." However, there is a compensation for this loss of orderly narrative in his life. Roquentin has become very perceptive in his loneliness: "one misses nothing." He goes on to describe little vignettes of people he has seen on the street.

Thinking about the glass of beer on his table at the café, Roquentin realizes he has been avoiding looking at it. None of the bachelors in the café can help him with this struggle. If he appealed to them, they would tell him it's just a glass of beer. "But I know there is something else," says Roquentin. He can't say what that something else is. It's so subtle it's "almost nothing." He realizes he is "slipping ... towards fear." He also has an experience of solitude: "I am alone in the midst of these happy, reasonable voices." He thinks of a mad old man he saw when he was a child. "Is that what awaits me then?" Roquentin wonders.

Roquentin thinks of Anny again. Then he realizes his statement at the start of the diary entry that day, "Nothing new," was a lie. That morning he had seen a piece of paper on the ground. He wanted to bend down and pick it up, but he could not. This failure brought him a realization: "I was no longer free." He rereads his diary entry of today and feels ashamed. He does not want to write about "secrets or soul-states, nothing ineffable."

The failure to pick up the piece of paper still puzzles him. Ordinarily he likes picking up things from the ground: "chestnuts, old rags and especially papers." This habit of his used to bother Anny. Thinking about it, Roquentin declares, "Objects should not touch because they are not alive." Yet objects do touch Roquentin: "But they touch me, it is unbearable." A few days ago, at the seashore, he picked up a pebble. A "sort of sweetish sickness" passed from the pebble to Roquentin's hands. "A sort of nausea in the hands," Roquentin calls it.

Analysis

Throughout the novel, the days of the week Sartre assigns to dates in 1932 do not actually follow the 1932 calendar.

The fictional editors' note is a common literary device to add a sense of reality to a story. Thus English novelist Mary Shelley's (1797–1851) novel Frankenstein (1818) begins with an explanation of how the editors came into possession of the manuscript, and American novelist Henry James's (1843–1916) novella The Turn of the Screw (1898) begins with a story about where the narrator got the story. The fictional editors' note in Nausea implies that Antione Roquentin might be dead, since the diary was "found among the papers." Or perhaps Roquentin is now a well-known novelist who had donated his papers to a library.

The undated pages set up the central focus of the diary: Roquentin's strange experiences and whether they mean he is losing his mind. In the undated pages, Roquentin dismisses his "odd feelings" as a "passing moment of madness after all." But already in the first diary entry he reverses that judgment, declaring "something has happened to me." However, Sartre dissuades readers from understanding Roquentin's diary psychologically, even though Roquentin himself brings up the topic of mental illness. Sartre minimizes the importance of psychologically interpreting Roquentin by having him say he has no "self-knowledge" and that historians don't need psychological analysis. Nausea is not primarily an account of psychological problems. Roquentin underlines this by saying he doesn't want to write about "secrets or soul-states, nothing ineffable." Instead Roquentin finds himself in situations and moods—boredom, isolation, disgust—that reveal something more fundamental than an individual psychological state. These moods and situations reveal to Roquentin the meaninglessness of existence.

Talking to Mercier in an office in Hanoi, Roquentin feels "terribly, deeply bored." The goal-oriented direction of his life is collapsing; he realizes he is done with travel, and he has no goal to replace it. Boredom is usually understood as a state of having no desires. The British psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips (b. 1954) has called boredom "a wish for a desire." There is perhaps something else Roquentin wants, but it's not any of the typical goals: love, success, adventure. However, this is a psychological interpretation of Roquentin's character. Roquentin's boredom might hint at an obscured desire. However, his boredom is also a situation of brokenness or dysfunction that reveals a larger truth about existence; namely, its meaninglessness. When Roquentin finds his goal-oriented, desiring self put out of work, other things come to the fore. The things in the office, such as the carpet, telephone, and statuette, take on an imposing, heavy presence. This is the mood or situation in which Roquentin can begin to see objects have no meaning in themselves.

In the first dated entries of his diary, Roquentin writes more about the "odd feelings" he has been experiencing. When he wonders whether the change is in himself or in "this room, this city and this nature," he decides the "simplest" solution is to locate the change within himself. However, the first entries also undermine this idea. The feeling of "sweetish sickness" of the stone on the beach passes to his hands: "a sort of nausea in the hands." As the weeks unfold, Roquentin will develop a more precise sense of where "the Nausea" is, saying, "The Nausea is not inside me: I feel it out there ... everywhere around me."

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