Nausea | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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Nausea | Symbols



In the entry titled 11:00 p.m. (Monday, February 12, 11:00 p.m.), the narrator, Antoine Roquentin, has sex with the "patronne," the manager, of the Railwaymen's Rendezvous. He falls asleep, either after or during sex, and he seems to dream of a garden, although it is unclear whether Roquentin is actually dreaming. It is possible he is awake and speaking metaphorically. The garden Roquentin sees symbolizes the woman's genitals. He makes this association clear by putting the garden in proximity to the woman's body: "I let my arm run along the woman's thigh," says Roquentin, "and suddenly [I] saw a small garden."

In literature, associations that compare a woman's body to nature's beauty are common. The woman is said to be like a beautiful landscape or a bountiful harvest. In the Bible, in Song of Solomon 4:12, the locked garden is a symbol of chastity: "A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed." However, in Nausea the garden is an apt symbol for the woman's genitals because the garden springs forth from a repellent nature, not a bountiful or beautiful one. The garden Roquentin sees when he runs his arm along the woman's thigh is grotesque: "a small garden with low, wide trees on which immense hairy leaves were hanging." What is more, the garden is crawling with vermin: "Ants were running everywhere, centipedes and ringworm ... horrible animals."

Human existence is characterized by freedom and mortality, according to Sartre's existential philosophy. This leaves nonhuman existences out of ethical consideration. Humankind is free because it can always be otherwise. Each person can make a new decision and make something different of what they have become. However, natural things and nonhuman creatures do not have this way of being. They belong to mute, senseless, pullulating, or constantly replenishing, nature. By associating the patronne with the fetid, infested garden, Roquentin and perhaps Sartre suggest she is not fully human. The patronne is named Francoise, but here she is simply called "the patronne" or "the woman." The lack of her name further depersonalizes her.


At the end of his lunch with the Self-Taught Man, the narrator, Antoine Roquentin, rushes out of the restaurant, fleeing. He feels ashamed and self-conscious because he has just had an experience of the Nausea, and perhaps other people in the restaurant noticed when he flung his knife down with a clatter. As he flees the restaurant, he is upset by "this stirring of eyes and frightened thoughts" on his back. He somehow knows they are looking at his back with "surprise and disgust." They, the other people in the restaurant, thought, "I was a man, and I deceived them." At this point Roquentin claims he ceased to be a man or ceased looking like one: "I suddenly lost the appearance of a man and they saw a crab running backwards out of this human room."

The crab also appears at other points in the novel. In the dream of the horrifying garden, there are animals that "walked sideways with legs like a crab." Also in one of Roquentin's experiences of the Nausea, his own hand appears to him as a crab "lying on its back," dead and with its "claws draw[n] up and close[d] over the belly."

Each time it is used, the crab symbolizes what is not human. It is a living being, but it is nonetheless like a "thing," without the freedom to negate what it has been or to become something else. A more easily anthropomorphized animal, like a horse or a dog, would not have done as well to make Sartre's intended association. In Nausea, the crab symbolizes sinking below the level of human existence.

Questions for Symbols

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From the book Confessions written by Augustine, answer the following: What is Austine confessing, why, and to whom? What book by what author does Augustine read at age 18 that changes his life? What m
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