In 1938 Jean-Paul Sartre published his first novel Nausea, which popularized his existential philosophical system. Using the entries in a diary, readers get a clear view of the mental inner life of Antoine Roquentin’s created reality, his absurd view of his surroundings, friends (or lack of them), and relationships.
Tied as he was to his work —for he is an historian doing research on an insignificant historical figure— he spends three years on Bouville ("Mudville" in northern coastal France ), years that in the end become a total waste. And waste turns out to be the emblem of total failure in existential philosophy. This useless historian felt trapped not only by the town, but also by life itself.
Nausea attacks besiege him when he confronts real objects: a rock, a piece of paper, or a tree.
By mixing philosophy with literature, Sartre reduces abstract ideas to events, illustrating thereby psychological nuances in precise dramatic detail. Roquentin first encounter with his own absurdity occurs when he picks up a stone from the ground, but he cannot manage to throw it as would anyone else. The stone seems to have more of a nature ("reality") than he does: the stone represents being, while Roquentin views himself as a temporary insignificant becoming. Nausea overcomes Roquentin, making him feel useless, shapeless, and anonymous.
Soon he realizes that men aren't stones, and that they shape themselves; that they are capable of reasoning and of facing moral dilemmas.
Alienated and feeling like a pariah, his contempt for the middle its values augments when he watches the regular Sunday morning parade of wealthy city dwellers in the Rue Tournebride, laughing inwardly —like madmen do on streets— at their superficial habits. Even worse is his contempt for the portraits of famous ancestors of the villagers as he overhears the conversation of a naive couple who expresses reverence for the dignity of such people.
Although Roquentin looks and observes people in public places, he detects no sign of authenticity in them, but plenty cases of hypocrisy or self-deception. Having failed in his own personal human relations he can only find solace in his work—for a while. Since Sartrean existentialism is an offshoot of atheism, nowhere do we see Ronquentin mentioning God, even thinking about God, nor ever appealing to God redemption.
Roquentin relationship with the self-taught man he met in the library is an example of the frigid indifference among men: their contact is limited and unpleasant. Even when they attempt closeness to each other —as in the visit to Roquentin’s room— their attitudes to life clash, causing them to break what little they ever had of human warmth for each other. The autodidact annoys Roquentin with his platitudes about the glories of humanism and socialism. His nausea returns as loneliness engulfs him. And what of the fact that the autodidact —in a poignant scene— is thrown out of the library, having been found to be a pandering homosexual. Rather than gratuitous, the scene highlights the loneliness, inauthenticity, and lack of identity that render man useless in a world without meaning.
When Roquentin receives an unexpected letter from his former mistress, Anny, he hopes that he can still love her and maybe even find redemption from nausea through her, setting off to visit her in Paris. Soon it becomes obvious that such hope was futile; he finds her aged, fat, and tired, tired of life. Disenchanted, beaten, and alone, Roquentin realizes that salvation through love is an illusion.
Bored with his project —for he failed to discover the "real Marquis de Rollebon behind the historical records— and incapable making sense of the contradictions in his research, Roquentin abandons the project. Just like everything else in his life, Robellon no longer adds any meaning to his life. His own authenticity as an historian is shattered when he stares at his reflection in a mirror to see himself reduced to a simple simulacra that lacks substance and essence.
The only ecstatic pleasure that Roquentin had ever experienced in Bouville came to him from listening to an old, worn record of an American popular jazz song in one of his favorites cafes. The wailing of the saxophone and the black woman's voice somehow transform him, sending him into a zone where his nausea is absent. Wondering if the composer and the vocalist had saved themselves in their art, he catches a glimpse of redemption through art.
Might he be able to justify his own existence in a similar way? Perhaps through an artistic project —writing a novel, for example— his life would find fulfillment, and thus uproot that “sweetish illness” that is nausea. A project after all might bring hope in his godless universe.