Literature Study GuidesNauseaFebruary 17 Afternoon Wednesday February 21 Summary

Nausea | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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Nausea | February 17, Afternoon–Wednesday, February 21 | Summary

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Summary

February 17, Afternoon

Antoine Roquentin spends the afternoon in the Bouville museum. He remembers the first time he went there. One particular portrait had seemed a little off: "This deputy didn't seem plumb in his canvas." It was a painting of a historical figure of Bouville, a man named Olivier Blévigne. But earlier that day in the library, he had "caught a glimpse of the truth" about Blévigne, so he rushed to the museum. This truth, which Roquentin reveals later in the chapter, is that Blévigne was very short, and the painter had surrounded him with small furniture to make him look tall in the portrait.

On this visit, Roquentin also spends time looking at a painting called The Bachelor's Death. The greenish skin of the dead bachelor makes Roquentin think of Fasquelle, the café owner. The painting of the bachelor has a moral lesson as the man lived only for himself, and thus he died alone.

Roquentin moves on to the portrait gallery, which displays portraits of "the Bouville élite between 1875 and 1910." None of these people died like the bachelor, Roquentin thinks, childless and without last rites. On the contrary, after death, they were prepared to "claim their share of eternal life, to which they had a right." The men had built Bouville into a port, had broken "the famous shipping strike in 1898," and had sent their sons to serve in World War I. The women were "worthy helpmates of these strugglers," raising children and participating in charitable organizations.

The portrait of Olivier Blévigne seems to judge Roquentin. Under Blévigne's gaze, Roquentin realizes, "I hadn't the right to exist. I had appeared by chance," like "a stone, a plant or a microbe." Blévigne and the others depicted in the gallery had a right to life, it seems to Roquentin.

A portrait of a scientist and educator named Rémy Parrottin also strikes Roquentin. A doctor Roquentin knows, Dr. Wakefield, told him about Parrottin. He liked to surround himself with students and mentor them. He helped young men see the power and the importance of the bourgeois elite.

Roquentin steps back and looks at all the portraits. The painters have removed the "weakness" of the men's faces. Instead, they are all endowed with "the Rights of Man and Citizen." Perhaps not sincerely, Roquentin says, "Without mental reservation, I admired the reign of man."

A couple enters the portrait gallery. They admire the portrait of Parrottin. They also remark on the Olivier Blévigne portrait, with the husband saying, "People must have found him a pretty awkward customer." Roquentin recalls the secret he read, that Blévigne was short. After some more gazing around, Roquentin leaves, concluding his diary entry with the words "Good-bye you bastards!"

Monday (February 19)

Roquentin announces he is not writing his book on Rollebon anymore: "It's finished; I can't write any more of it." But now his question is "What am I going to do with my life?" He then recounts how he came to this decision.

At three in the afternoon, Roquentin had been in the library as usual, going over some files on Rollebon he had stolen in Moscow. While thinking over a contradiction in accounts of Rollebon's life, Roquentin suddenly doubts himself. Since he does not have "the strength to hold to [his] own past," Roquentin wonders how he could possibly "hope to save the past of someone else." He tries to hurry away from this doubt and get back to work, but then he is struck by the words he has written. "Already they belonged to the past," Roquentin thinks.

The present, Roquentin realizes, is what exists, "and all that was not present did not exist." Moreover, "Things are entirely what they appear to be—and behind them ... there is nothing." The pen falls from Roquentin's hand. He realizes "M. Rollebon had just died for the second time," because now Roquentin knows the past does not exist. The words Rollebon wrote are now just words, "a bundle of yellow pages which I clasped in my hands."

"The great Rollebon affair was over," Roquentin realizes. Thinking back, Roquentin realizes he "woke from a dream" three years ago in Shanghai when he declined to travel with Mercier. At that point he gave up being an international man of mystery, but then he took up the dream of the Rollebon book. Rollebon enabled Roquentin "not to feel my existence," and at the same time, Roquentin brought Rollebon to life. "I no longer existed in myself," says Roquentin, "but in him; I ate for him, breathed for him." Now Roquentin asks, "What shall I do now?"

All afternoon, Roquentin has been holding still, trying to prevent something. Now what he has tried to evade happens; he realizes he exists. "I am the Thing," Roquentin thinks. "Existence, liberated, detached, floods over me. I exist."

Roquentin becomes oddly aware of his body: the saliva in his mouth and the appearance of his hand, especially. His hand lying face up on the table looks like "a crab which has fallen on its back." Suddenly, Roquentin jumps up, wishing he could stop thinking. However, he cannot. "I exist because I think," says Roquentin, "and I can't stop myself from thinking." Experimentally, he takes a knife and makes a small cut on his palm with it. Blood drips on his notebook, and he thinks he should write beneath the stain, "Today I gave up writing my book on the Marquis de Robellon."

At 5:30, Roquentin leaves the library "because I have no reason not to." As he walks along, he is still burdened by existing and thinking. He buys a newspaper and reads about Lucienne, a girl who was raped and murdered. For a moment, he identifies with the desire to rape. He drops the paper and continues walking, puzzling over existence. He thinks about the people in the portrait gallery, secure in their right to exist. He thinks about sex: "wet lips, the lips red with pale blood, throbbing lips yawning, all wet with existence." He begins to think of himself in the third person, and he repeats the phrase "from behind." Just as Lucienne was violated, existence takes Roquentin from behind, he thinks.

From a bar, Roquentin hears a record being played, and existence stops tormenting him for a moment. The woman who sang the song exists no more, Roquentin thinks, though the record does and the vibrating air and he himself.

Tuesday (February 20)

Roquentin writes just two words: "Nothing. Existed."

Wednesday, February 21

Roquentin goes to lunch with the Self-Taught Man, as promised. Catching sight of a fly on a paper napkin, Roquentin squashes it while the Self-Taught Man protests. Impatience and boredom afflict Roquentin, but he tries to be a polite lunch guest. He thinks about seeing Anny in just four days.

The Self-Taught Man tells Roquentin he was a prisoner of war during World War I. He survived the bad food in the prison camp because he has "a stomach like an ostrich, I can swallow anything." Roquentin has a hard time picturing the Self-Taught Man this way: younger, a prisoner. He feels the Self-Taught Man is going to divulge his personal problems. Roquentin himself has only one problem: "I exist, that's all." His problem is "vague" and "metaphysical," so he doesn't want to talk about it. He doesn't want "any communion of souls" with the Self-Taught Man.

However, the Self-Taught Man mentions only he has had some problems with "that Corsican" at the library, and he says no more about it. A young couple enters the restaurant. Roquentin notes he is old enough "to be touched by the youth of others. But I am not touched."

The Self-Taught Man wants to discuss his ideas with Roquentin. He takes a notebook and questions Roquentin about the nature of taste and the way it changes over time. The Self-Taught Man asks if Roquentin has ever read anything like his ideas. Roquentin mentions a French scholar, Ernest Renan (1823–92). The Self-Taught Man is overjoyed.

The young couple in the restaurant converse and quarrel. Roquentin is annoyed. "They're going to sleep together. They know it," he thinks. The young couple should just get on with it, Roquentin thinks. Looking around the room, Roquentin sees everyone engaged in avoiding the fact of their existence. Everyone but him: "I don't look like much, but I know I exist and that they exist."

Roquentin tries to explain his thoughts, telling the Self-Taught Man, "There is nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing." The Self-Taught Man mentions he has recently read a book called Is Life Worth Living? "Isn't that the question you are asking yourself?" states the Self-Taught Man. Inwardly, Roquentin thinks that is not his question at all, but he is too weary to explain himself. In the void, the Self-Taught Man keeps rambling on. He explains the book's author advises people to adopt an attitude of "voluntary optimism." Besides, the Self-Taught Man adds, there is a reason to live: humanity.

When the Self-Taught Man was taken prisoner by the Germans, he tells Roquentin, he and other prisoners were sometimes herded into a large, windowless shed. They were kept there in the dark for hours at a time. After an initial feeling of panic, the Self-Taught Man was overcome with "an overwhelming joy." He realized he loved these men, all of them.

After the war, the Self-Taught Man felt lonely. His loneliness was only assuaged when he took up the ideas of communism and humanism. Both give him a feeling of brotherhood, a feeling of togetherness with all of humanity. Roquentin argues the Self-Taught Man's love of humanity is an illusion, an abstract idea with no basis in reality. He says if the Self-Taught Man loves this young couple so much, he should be able to say without looking what color the woman's hair is. In the young couple, the Self-Taught Man loves only abstract notions like Youth and Love, says Roquentin. Worst of all, thinks Roquentin to himself, the Self-Taught Man "doesn't realize his solitude." Roquentin at least knows he's alone in the world, he thinks.

Another wave of the Nausea comes over Roquentin when the cheese is served. "A violent disgust floods me," writes Roquentin. He would like to leave, "but my place is nowhere; I am unwanted." His hand, holding a dessert knife, appears strange to him. He has had a revelation: "I exist—the world exists—and I know that the world exists. That's all." He thinks back to his other experiences of the Nausea. None of them were as strong as today's, he thinks.

Since he has no reason to exist, he could do anything, Roquentin thinks uneasily. He could "stab this cheese knife into the Self-Taught Man's eye." However, his act would add to the existing things of the world, and this thought is tiresome to him. He makes his excuses and bids farewell to the Self-Taught Man. As he stands, he realizes he is still holding the knife. He drops it with a clatter, causing the restaurant patrons to regard him with suspicion. Outside the restaurant, Roquentin is overcome by pointlessness. He thinks about the restaurant patrons looking at him. He must have seemed to them not a man but "a crab running backwards out of this human room." He doesn't like to feel "this stirring of eyes and frightened thoughts" on his back.

Roquentin walks down a beachside boardwalk. The sea is green, but Roquentin believes he sees beneath the green surface: "The true sea is cold and black ... I see beneath it!" He takes a tram. While on the tram, his hand appears alien to him, and so does the train seat. "Things are divorced from their names," thinks Roquentin. He is in a hurry to leave the tram. A conductor tells him to wait until the train has completely stopped, but Roquentin jumps from the slowing train. "I'm suffocating," Roquentin thinks. "Existence penetrates me everywhere, through the eyes, the nose, the mouth." He feels he has had a revelation: "I have understood, I have seen."

Analysis

In the museum, Roquentin notices a disjunction between truth and appearance. However, he knew about the disjunction already, and he went to the museum specifically to experience it. The portrait presents Blévigne as a tall man, but in reality he was short. The other portraits are also less than truthful but in a different way. In all of them, the stuffed shirts of Bouville pride themselves on their rights, but in reality, thinks Roquentin, rights are just another way of evading the fact of existence.

Roquentin does not explicitly state his thoughts about rights until later in the novel. Here, on this Saturday afternoon in the museum, Roquentin relies on verbal irony to express his thoughts. Verbal irony means using words to mean something different than what they appear to mean. For example, he says he "admired the reign of man" when looking at the portraits. However, his statements turn out to have other meanings. In telling of the achievements of Bouville's founders, he notes their role in breaking a strike. Sartre was a leftist who would never admire an industrialist strikebreaker, and Roquentin seems to share his leanings. Thus, the admiration is ironic.

Additionally, Roquentin is also fairly acid about the right to exist. He says he does not have the right to exist, as if he were afflicted with low self-esteem. He also gazes up at a portrait of a Bouville founding father named Jean Pacôme, who "for sixty years, without a halt ... had used his right to live." He dryly notes Pacôme is a "handsome, faultless man, now dead." What did the right to exist avail Pacôme in the end? Nothing; he's dead now. Roquentin returns to the topic of rights later in the novel, and there he reveals his real opinion of rights. The rights of man or the right to exist are just so many ways to flee from existence, Roquentin thinks. "Those bastards ... try to hide from themselves with their idea of their rights," he states. Roquentin's "I hadn't the right to exist" is a kind of humblebrag and is ironic; he is not ensnared in that illusion.

Giving up the Rollebon book means giving up his only goal. More than that, it means giving up his reason for existing. Just the week before Thursday, February 15, Roquentin told himself to remember the book on Rollebon was now his "only justification for ... existence." By giving him a goal, Rollebon gave Roquentin a way to evade the truth of existence: "He needed me in order to exist and I needed him so as not to feel my existence." Without the crutch of Rollebon, Roquentin is faced with two problems. The first is what to do with his life. The second is that nothing stops him now from facing the truth of existence.

"Nothing. Existed." With this short diary entry, Roquentin touches on a big metaphysical problem. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with what is, and yet metaphysics also concerns itself with what is not. Since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers, metaphysicians have asked whether a vacuum is possible, meaning they've been exploring and debating the question of whether "nothing" is even possible, and if so, what is nothingness? In his book What Is Metaphysics? German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) says a fundamental question of philosophy is "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Having asked this question, Heidegger then turns to examine what nothing is. Nothing is "not"; since by definition it does not exist. To offer an idea of what nothing does do, since it doesn't exist, Heidegger playfully formulates the thought "Nothing nothings." Roquentin's brief diary entry also plays with the ambiguity of the idea of nothing. He seems to mean "nothing happened today. I just existed." However, he also touches on the puzzling idea of nothingness having a positive presence: "Nothing existed."

During lunch, Roquentin flatly rejects the Self-Taught Man's ideas about humanity. It is easy to see why; Roquentin's claim that humanity is an abstraction is a sound one. Being shut up in a dark, silent shed with a mass of people, as the Self-Taught Man was, sounds like Roquentin's nightmare. However, it is more difficult to understand why Roquentin disdains the Self-Taught Man's idea that we give our own meaning to life. Roquentin seems to say much the same thing when he claims the meaninglessness of life is what makes us free. In the end, Roquentin does choose a meaning for his life; he takes on the project of writing a novel. It might be the Self-Taught Man's attitude about his ideas that offends Roquentin. The Self-Taught Man happily accepts the freedom of inventing one's own meaning. Roquentin sees freedom as a burden most people try to evade, and he thinks a lot about the grief and confusion that set in when one realizes that "behind [things] ... there is nothing."

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