Study Guide

Nausea

By Jean-Paul Sartre

Nausea Introduction

The time: 1936. The man: a disgruntled university professor named Jean-Paul Sartre. The book: um, rejected.

Our boy Sartre had just turned thirty-one and was feeling like life hadn't gone the way he'd wanted it to. So he put together a draft of a novel of what would become Nausea and sent it to Gallimard Publishing. Despite some encouraging feedback, though, the novel was rejected. Sartre himself would later say of this rejection, "I took this hard: I had put all of myself into a book I worked on for many years; it was myself that had been rejected."

It's probably a good thing that Sartre didn't live in today's world of swiping left and vicious Goodreads reviews. Mr. Sensitive Sartre would have been devastated.

Okay, so he could have bucked up and read Berryman's wisdom on rejection letters, but it's Sartre's sensitivity—to rejection, to the nuances of life, to the ways in which the world operates beyond our control, that made him the Nobel Prize-winning author we know and love.

In any case, Sartre didn't give up just because he got rejected. He edited the book and resubmitted it to the same publisher a year later with success. In April of 1938, the book finally hit the shelves… and it's been a classic of both literature and philosophy ever since.

Nausea is the fictional diary of a dude named Antoine Roquentin, who has enough money to never work another day in his life. He spends most of his free time wondering about the meaning of life and writing a history book about an obscure historical figure from the 18th century. To put it simply, Antoine is a depressed (and depressing) loner, and the longer he lives, the more convinced he becomes that the universe doesn't care about whether he's happy or sad, alive or dead.

Nausea, you see, is filled with the Existentialist ideas that would make Sartre one of the most famous philosophers of the 20th century. To put it simply, the diary of Antoine Roquentin states that we live in an empty, Godless universe.

Sound bleak? Yeah, pretty much. It's this terrifying bleaktastic existential deathscape that makes Antoine feel sick to his stomach (or "nauseous") about just how meaningless life is. So just in case you find yourself thinking similarly to Roquentin as you read this novel, be sure to keep some Gravol and a barf bag nearby. We don't want you ruining your book.

But just in case you were on the fence about reading Nausea and are contemplating not delving into one of the most insanely influential books of the 20th Century because it sounds to depressing to handle, we want you to know that there's a silver lining.

So what's the silver lining? It's that, we alone are responsible for our actions. We are free individuals whose lives only have meaning if we force them to have meaning. This book basically says (albeit it in a loud, scary, booming voice): "Carpe diem! Rise and shine! Your happiness is in your hands and your hands only! So make yourself happy!"

… and if that ain't inspiring, we don't know what is.

What is Nausea About and Why Should I Care?

This is where we could Hulk out, shake you by your lapel and scream frantically "WhatdoyoumeanwhyshouldyoucareaboutNausea? This. Book. Is. Crazy. Important. Read it! Read it! Read it!"

But we're (mostly) mild-mannered Shmoopsters (by day; by night we fight crime) so we won't. Instead, we'll give you a Top Three List. And just so you know, that's Top Three out of a possible Top Gajillion.

1. So, if you're anything like us you a) own a lot of sweaters with elbow patches and b) really love great literature. And this book is capital-G Great. The author won a Nobel Prize, for Pete's sake. 'Nuff said.

2. You also might care about philosophy. Well, this book is a twofer: it's as important a philosophical text as it is a novel. Whether you agree with Sartre's Existentialist philosophical ideas or not—and many don't—you shouldn't underestimate just how much of an impact they have had on modern thought. Nausea shows us the seeds of all the ideas that would later make Sartre a famous philosopher.

For example, Sartre denies that there is any God in charge of the universe, which means that we are totally free and responsible for everything we do. For Sartre, there is only one basic fact that people need to confront in their lives, and that's the fact of brute existence.

This chair you're sitting on, the floor underneath you. These things exist. They are cold material facts, and they don't care one way or the other about what you do with you life. That basically means that you're all alone.

3. Does that depress you? Yeah, it should. But only a little. Because Sartre also states that human beings can make the world mean something if they choose to. Antoine Roquentin, for example, tries to give meaning to each day by writing a book.

So while Nausea is definitely a bit of a downer, it's also more motivating than poster on a college counselor's office wall… or even a Gatorade commercial. Basically, Sartre is telling you "Time's a'wasting. Get busy doing what you love. Get busy crafting meaning for yourself. Don't dilly-dally." (Although we can't imagine Sartre using the phrase "dilly dally.")

So there you have it, Shmoopers. Recap: you should read Nausea because it is both a) a massively important work of literature b) a massively important work of philosophy and c) a book that might just startle you out of watching Terminator 2 again—you've seen it five times already, don't lie—and start concentrating on doing what you love.

Nobody's going to do it for you.

Nausea Resources

Websites

The UK Sartre Society
Formed in 1992, this organization is all about promoting all the amazing ideas you can learn about by studying Sartre's work. What are you waiting for?

Sartre on Biography.com
Sartre's work was heavily influenced by the life he led—it makes most people's lives look insanely dull by comparison.

Sartre and Peanuts
No, this isn't an article about Sartre's allergies. It's actually about the connections between Sartre's work and the cartoon world of Charlie Brown.

Articles and Interviews

Sartre at Seventy: An Interview
Check out this interview for an intimate look at an aging Sartre, who speaks openly about his declining health. Honest 'til the end, that's our Sartre.

"Man Makes Himself" by Jean-Paul Sartre
It's challenging, but totally worth a read if you're interested in learning more about Sartre's existential philosophy.

Video

The Road To Freedom: A Documentary on the Life of Jean-Paul Sartre
If you're feeling a bit tired and want to learn about Sartre without reading any thick books, check out this very watchable documentary about his life and ideas.

Camus Versus Sartre
A great doc about the tensions between Sartre and his good philosopher frenemy, Albert Camus.

Audio

Lecture on Sartre from the "Giants of Philosophy" Series
Sit back, throw on the headphones, and listen to some Sartre-licious goodness.

Images

Sartre Thinks with his Pipe
Lookin' sharp, Sartre.

Sartre's Pin Striped Suit
Even an existentialist has to spruce himself up from time to time.

Portrait of the Sartre as a Young Man
Looking angsty there, Sartre.