Study Guide

Nausea Themes

By Jean-Paul Sartre

  • Madness

    Antoine is falling down the rabbit hole, but unfortunately there's no Cheshire Cat to tell him that "we're all mad here."

    Our man spends the first quarter of Nausea wondering if he is going insane, since even the most normal day-to-day activities fill him with disgust and paranoia. It's like the whole world of objects (like chairs and tables) is closing in on him, ready to destroy him. Yikes.

    It's not until later in the book that Antoine realizes that his feelings of disgust aren't madness after all, but rather a sign that he has figured out the truth of all existence.

    We'll leave it to you, Shmooper: is Antoine a philosopher or a nutjob?

    Questions About Madness

    1. Do you think Antoine is crazy, or has he really seen a truth that the rest of the world chooses to ignore? Could it be both?
    2. What do other characters (like the Self-Taught Man) think about Antoine's outlook on life? Do they take it seriously or do they think he's crazy?
    3. What situation triggers Antoine's first feelings of "nausea"? Does it give us any insight into Antoine's conflict? Why or why not?
    4. Does Antoine think he's crazy by the end of the book? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    There's no getting around it: Antoine Roquentin suffers from a deadly cocktail of paranoia, self-loathing, and antisocial thoughts. The authorities should get him off the streets ASAP.

    In Nausea, Sartre shows us that it's perfectly possible for one person to be sane in an insane world.

  • Isolation

    It's not easy being green, and it's really not easy thinking that you're the only person in the world who understands the truth about existence.

    As you can imagine, it can also get a little bit isolating. Antoine's feelings of loneliness only make life harder for him, because being isolated from others takes away his options for distracting himself from the depressing conclusions he's made about the meaninglessness of human life. There are several points in Nausea where he tries to reach out to others (especially with his ex lover Anny), but even in these moments, his ideas about life make him unable to connect with people.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. In your opinion, is Antoine responsible for his own feelings of isolation? Use examples from the text to support your answer.
    2. Would Antoine's life be better if he just "snapped out of it" and learned to do things for others instead of always worrying about himself?
    3. If you sat down with Antoine at a café, what would you say to him? How long would you want to be around him?

    Chew on This

    In Nausea, Antoine is a self-indulgent, antisocial jerk who will be a lot happier if he just learns to get over himself.

    In Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre shows us that sometimes we have to isolate ourselves if we want to see the truth about life and existence.

  • Appearances

    Antoine basically believes in two things: stuff that exists and stuff that doesn't exist. No, not like "adorable kittens" (does exist) vs. "a delicious bowl of pea soup" (does not exist).

    For him, the stuff that exists is what's physically real, like the objects he can see and touch. Other stuff like thought and personality aren't real, but are just abstract things invented by the human brain. Because of this, Antoine thinks that one of the most important things he can know about people is their appearance, since this is the part of them that actually qualifies as "real."

    The guy judges books by their covers. Poor choice. If we judged Nausea on its cover, we might this it was a sweet book about a penguin.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Do you agree with Antoine's belief that appearance is the only "real" thing you can know about a person? Why or why not?
    2. How does Antoine cope with having a face that is ugly, according to what people have told him?
    3. How have Antoine's opinions about appearances affected his relationships with other people? Has the effect been positive or negative?
    4. Do Antoine's opinions about appearances change throughout Nausea or do they stay the same? Why?

    Chew on This

    In Nausea, Antoine Roquentin eventually becomes the victim of his own superficial attitude toward the world.

    In Nausea, Sartre shows us that you truly can judge a book (and a person) by its cover.

  • Time

    One of Antoine's many, many issues in Nausea is his messed up relationship to time. Basically, he believes that the world is constantly changing, and that everything is constantly disappearing into the past. Well, yes. True facts, Antoine.

    But according to Antoine, stuff in the past technically doesn't exist anymore, so life to him feels like an endless process of dying. Whoa, Antoine. Whoa. The whole reason he starts writing his diary in the first place is to try and preserve some of his experiences against the acid-like effects of time. But unfortunately, it doesn't sound like his diary is all that successful in achieving this goal.

    Questions About Time

    1. What are some of the reasons Antoine gives for writing his diary? How are they connected to his idea of time?
    2. Is time something you've ever taken the time to really sit down and think about, or something you just take as a given? Does Nausea make you think about it any differently? Why?
    3. Do you agree with Antoine's idea that stuff in the past no longer exists? Does existence only "exist" in the here and now, or do things in the past still live on somehow? Why?

    Chew on This

    In Nausea, Sartre shows us that there's a lot more to time than what clocks tell us. Time is actually something that constantly creates change and death, not something to set our schedules by.

    Antoine's ideas about time just go to show how crazy he is. Any normal person would tell him to get out of his funk and live life to its fullest while he still has the chance.

  • Life, Consciousness, Existence

    From the first page of Nausea, we know that Antoine ain't a happy camper. He's a miserable camper… but at least he's a curious one. This guy has a lot of questions about the meaning of life and existence. He also wonders who he is and how he can learn to survive in a universe that is completely indifferent to all human happiness and suffering.

    As you can imagine, it's not easy for him to answer these questions, and it's downright impossible for him not to think about them. In fact, Antoine spends the majority of his diary writing about his direct experience of the world around him, and the silent, inhuman world that will continue to exist when the last of humanity is gone. Now that's some heavythinking.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, Existence

    1. Does Antoine have a good point about the absurdity of existence, or is he just a pessimist? Why?
    2. What exactly does Antoine mean when he talks about the "pain of existence"? What kind of pain is it?
    3. Is there any upside to Antoine's theory of existence? Does it benefit him in any way to think that human life is absurd? Why or why not?
    4. How does Antoine still manage to go about his daily life when he spends so much time thinking about the nature of existence? How does it affect his relationships with other people?

    Chew on This

    In Nausea, Sartre warns us not to look too deeply into the question our existence, because we probably won't like what we find.

    In Nausea, Sartre shows us that the only way we can move forward in a modern world is if we accept that the universe doesn't care about us and do our best to make life meaningful on our own terms.

  • Mortality

    Hey, what's a good way to make a mopey philosophical treatise like Nausea even more mopetastic? Throw in some death.

    When—like our man Antoine—you have a tough time believing in the meaning of human life, death is even grimmer than usual. Many people comfort themselves with the thought that they'll live on in the memories of their loved ones or through their accomplishments after they die. But not Antoine: he says this is nothing but a fantasy. You either exist or you don't. One day you're here, the next you're not. End of story.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Do you agree with Antoine about there being nothing left of you once you're dead? Why or why not?
    2. Does the thought of death make Antoine feel any more motivated to do something with the time he has, or does it mostly just depress him?
    3. Why is Antoine so quick to dismiss the idea that you can "live on" after your death? Is there any upside to this idea?

    Chew on This

    In Nausea, Sartre shows us the hard truth about death. We don't go anywhere when we die and it doesn't really matter whether anyone remembers us.

    In Nausea, Sartre sometimes sympathizes more with the Self-Taught Man than with Antoine, and he suggests that Antoine needs to find some way of being more hopeful while there's still time.

  • Memory and the Past

    Antoine spills a whole lot of ink thinking about the past. A (hopelessly inadequate) summary of Nausea could be: "Dear Diary, Stuff Happened. Am Sad. Xoxo, Antoine."

    Antoine takes no comfort at all from his good memories. In his mind, there is only existence and non-existence. Everyday objects like forks, tables, and toiles exist; but memories don't. People spend their whole lives trying to build up good memories with the thought that these memories will comfort them in their old age. But for Antoine, memory is for the birds. There is only what exists in the here and now, and memory is just something that people use to distract themselves from the fact that there is nothing meaningful about the present.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Do you agree with Antoine's opinion about memory not "existing," or do you think that the past can actually live on in our memories? Why?
    2. Does Antoine actually take more comfort from the past than he's willing to let on? Use specific evidence from the text to support your answer.
    3. How will writing a novel help Antoine cope with the past? How will it help him learn to "accept himself" according to the end of the book?
    4. What specific memory has caused Antoine to start keeping a diary? Why do you think the memory has had this effect?

    Chew on This

    In Nausea, Sartre shows us that memory is just one of the many distractions we use to avoid thinking about the emptiness of human life.

    In Nausea, Antoine ultimately decides that the only way to be fulfilled is to make the past meaningful through art.

  • Sex

    For many people, sex is one of the most beautiful ways that two people can express their love for each other. But for Antoine Roquentin in Nausea sex can be a completely loveless—and often violent—thing.

    At its best, he thinks, sex is simply a way of distracting ourselves from the realization that human life is totally absurd. We come to realize this in moments of loneliness or boredom, and sex is a way of shooing away both of these feelings. But like raccoons on your back porch, those feelings always come back… and rifle through your garbage.

    Questions About Sex

    1. Why does Antoine think of sex as nothing more than a distraction? Is there anything in his past that might help explain why he's so cynical about sex?
    2. Are there any positive examples of sex in this book? If so, why are they positive? Use specific examples to support your answer.
    3. What does the Self-Taught Man's preference for young boys tell us about sex in this book? Do his sexual preferences tend to devalue sex as a whole, or is he just a bad apple?
    4. Why does Sartre decide to place Antoine in a loveless sexual relationship with Francoise? How does this relationship set the tone for the rest of the book?

    Chew on This

    In Nausea, Sartre shows us that there is no comfort to be taken in the idea of sex. People spend their wholes lives thinking about sex, but it can never create happiness the way people think it should.

    Antoine Roquentin tries to act like he doesn't care about sex. But the truth is that he really loves his ex Anny and would totally be happy if he were able to get her back.