Places: Nausea

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: La Nausée, 1938 (English translation, 1949)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Philosophical realism

Time of work: 1930’s

Places DiscussedBouville

Bouville Nausea (boo-VEEL). Dark, cold, rainy, and foggy coastal city, which, in its ambience, stimulates the historian Antoine Roquentin’s growing despair and anger. Bouville is Sartre’s fictional version of the western French port Le Havre. However, Sartre makes an immediately bitter satirical point by setting Nausea in “Bouville.” In French, “la boue” is “mud”–Nausea therefore takes place in gloomy, viscous “Mudville.”

Nausea is essentially Roquentin’s journal of his experiences in Bouville. As Roquentin sees the city, it is dominated by a narrow-minded, self-satisfied, intolerant, oppressive bourgeoisie devoid of culture. Bouville and its people create, then, an appropriate backdrop for Roquentin’s effort to move out of figurative as well as literal darkness into the light of personal truth.

Bouville train station

Bouville train station. The first passages in Roquentin’s diary concern his experience in the city’s railroad station. The trains and their schedules, exercises in strict regularity and predictability, save Roquentin during one of his first crises of contingency. At the beginning of this opening passage, Roquentin is terrified that there is no security in the universe–that anything can happen at any time. This fear is driving him crazy, he thinks. However, when he later considers, from the perspective of the window of his nearby room, the arrival in the station and the departure of the same trains at the same time every day, carrying and delivering the same people, he puts his anxiety to rest–temporarily. Life, he now thinks, is orderly, something one can count on.

Café

Café. Unnamed neighborhood café (known only as “the café”) that Roquentin often frequents. A dull, shabby, working-class milieu, the place is thoroughly typical, with its smoke, mirrors, booths, friendly female proprietress, and men playing cards. What is most important about the café is that it contains a jukebox, which in turn contains a recording of “Some of These Days,” sung by an anonymous African American woman. The recording offers yet another example of new ideas that attract Roquentin’s attention. Like the trains that always run on time, Roquentin observes, the notes of the song follow each other predictably and coherently. The song is always the same, one always knows what to expect; there are no surprises. Indeed, the café is the scene of Roquentin’s definitive enlightenment, and the numerous exemplary qualities of the recording provide a model for his future.

Bouville museum

Bouville museum. Museum containing a portrait gallery that glorifies great citizens of Bouville’s past and their way of life. Roquentin tours the museum occasionally and bitterly comments on the subjects of the portraits. He imagines biographies that seem to match the expressions of the portraits he sees of doctors, businessmen, generals. Such men are Roquentin’s enemies–smug, satisfied, powerful, merciless, anti-Semitic people with only one idea, as Roquentin thinks, by which he means that they were as dead and like things as their portraits are now–and, confident and complacent as they were, they had no sense of contingency. People who never think, in Roquentin’s eyes, believe that Nature is composed of inalterable laws. Roquentin knows better; he knows not to take life for granted.

Park

Park. Roquentin’s final existential crisis takes place in a Bouville park. Before this point in his story, he has had a number of hints regarding the true state of Nature–that things are never what they seem, that people cannot control things any more than they can control events. In the park, Roquentin is stunned by what he calls a vision.

He contemplates the root of a chestnut tree. It is black and ugly, just as the faces in the museum portraits are ugly, as Bouville itself is dark and hideous; brutal, deceptive reality is not pretty. Roquentin sees that he cannot affect the root, that it exists on its own, independent of him or anything else, as pure reality. The root thus clarifies for him the real meaning of “contingency”–that there is no transcendent reason (such as God) why anything (or anyone) exists or ceases to exist. Everything and everyone is terribly, frighteningly free. The importance of this discovery in the park–of humankind’s burden of freedom–is that Roquentin is ultimately converted to taking responsibility for his own life, accepting the fact that he alone can create his own identity.

BibliographyBarnes, Hazel E. The Literature of Possibility: A Study in Humanistic Existentialism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1959. A philosophical and psychological examination of Sartre’s literary output, written by one of his leading translators. Refutes the charge of antihumanism that has been made against Sartre’s work.Danto, Arthur C. Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: Viking Press, 1975. The first chapter, “Absurdity: Or, Language and Existence,” examines Nausea at length and discusses Sartre’s views on language, the analytic “philosophy of mind,” and the structural representation of reality.Magny, Claude-Edmonde. “The Duplicity of Being.” In Sartre: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Edith Kern. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Discusses the experience of nausea as “the sudden revelation” of the mutability and impermanence of existence and existing things. Interprets the characters of Nausea as “cheaters” who attempt a sequential (and hence “fictitious”) narration of their lives. Recommended for more advanced readers.Murdoch, Iris. Sartre: Romantic Rationalist. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959. Includes a well-written introduction to Sartre’s thought. Discusses Nausea in chapter 1, “The Discovery of Things,” and refers to the work throughout. Also contains a bibliography of Sartre’s works (French titles) and an updated listing (through 1985) of English translations. An excellent guide to Sartrean themes.Peyre, Henri. French Novelists of Today. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. An amplified version of Peyre’s earlier The Contemporary French Novel (1955). Chapter 9 covers Nausea and other of Sartre’s novels. Also includes a short but helpful bibliography.
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