Debby Downer, er, Antoine Roquentin spends a lot of this book thinking about how pointless his life is. But one thing that definitely gets his attention is love. He likes knockin' boots, but Antoine knows that he has been a neglectful lover throughout his life because he has never been able to get out of his own head.
As his ex-girlfriend Anny tells him at one point,
"You made absolutely no effort [to get to know me]. You sat beside me like a bump on a log." (29.161)
She says other things like this throughout the book: it's clear that Antoine was no kind of Romeo. In fact, Anny helps us form a pretty clear picture of how neglectful Antoine might be in moments that are important to the people around him. Ugh.
By the time Antoine realizes what a terrible lover he's been, it's too late. Anny tells him as much when she says,
"Poor boy! He never has any luck. The first time he plays his part well, he gets no thanks for it." (29.280)
She follows this statement by promptly telling him to get out of her hotel room. Even though Antoine has supposedly seen the truth about himself, we don't have any evidence to suggest that he would be a better boyfriend to Anny if they got back together. By the end of the book, he seems just as obsessed with his thoughts as he's always been.
And Anny's no fool: notice how she uses the phrase "plays his part well." Antoine is only capable of playing the part of a boyfriend. Or friend. Or son. Or any kind of person who exists— at least in part—in relationship to another.
Point blank: Antoine doesn't like a whole lot of people. In fact, he says on several occasions that he'd rather hang himself than hang out with someone. But that doesn't change the fact that Antoine is a human being who needs to feel connected to others. More than once, he tells us about how lonely he feels, and when he fears losing Anny again, he thinks,
I am not only overwhelmed at leaving her; I have a frightful fear of going back to my solitude again. (29.269)
Solitude, though, seems to be Antoine's curse. His philosophical thoughts completely consume him and leave very little room for anything else. And with that in mind, we turn to a discussion of Antoine as…
It's not easy to figure out just what is upsetting Antoine so much in this novel. He usually describes his problem as a sort of philosophical sickness that makes him want to vomit. More specifically, he has a problem with the material objects that surround him, as he says at one point:
I am in the midst of things, nameless things. Alone, without words, defenceless, they surround me, are beneath me, behind me, above me. (24.296)
Basically, Antoine suggests that language and words are just tools that human beings use to "tame" the world around them the same way a lawn mower tames shaggy grass. When you look at a table or a chair and realize that the words "table" and "chair" are totally made up, you realize that the world around you is just a bunch of stuff that doesn't care one way or the other about what humans think of it. Realizing this means that Antoine has to face the fact that the universe doesn't care at all about what he does with his life.
When he realizes just how empty the universe is, Antoine feels that "suddenly the veil is torn away, I have understood, I have seen" (24.299). He finally discovers that in a world with no God and no larger significance to human life, he is:
[…] free: there is absolutely no more reason for living, all the ones I have tried have given way and I can't imagine any more of them. (31.2)
In other words, the absence of God means that Antoine has total freedom over what he does with his life. The bad news is that now that he has this freedom, he has to confront the fact that nothing he does with it will have any larger significance in the world.
So yeah, freedom is great. Meaninglessness isn't. Meaninglessness the main problem that Antoine has to face by the end of this novel. If you're looking for a reason to live, don't go asking Antoine, because he's honestly not sure if there is one. At best, it's something that each individual has to decide for him or herself.
And at worst? Oof.
On top of his belief that life has no real purpose, Antoine has a ton of regrets about the way he has lived his life. And yes, this makes no sense when you think about it.
After all, if Antoine thinks that there is no purpose to life, then there's nothing he could have done in the past to make life more meaningful. Right? Nonetheless, he can't help but feel that if he could go back in time, he'd do it all differently.
When thinking back to the crummy way he treated Anny, he says, "I know what it cost me" (29.162). On top of that, he often has these short moments where he feels like life is good and he's about to have a great adventure. But when the moment passes, he's left thinking,
Does [the sense of adventure], ironically, pay me these short visits in order to show me that I have wasted my life? (12.175)
By the end of the book, Antoine realizes just how much of his hope he has placed on certain things in his life, like his history project and his relationship with Anny:
I had counted on Anny to save me I realized only now. My past is dead. The Marquis de Rollebon is dead, Anny came back only to take all hope away. (31.2)
There are only two things that have been able to make Antoine feel hopeful in this book: one is the thought of getting back together with Anny, and the other is working on his history of the Marquis de Rollebon. Both have given him a sense of purpose, but he eventually realizes that they are just emotional crutches designed to keep him from seeing the truth of existence, which is that there is no real purpose to human life.