Existentialism in “Nausea” and “The Stranger” Essay

September 21, 2021 by Essay Writer

The 20th-century existentialist philosophy considers man a free agent who strives throughout his lifespan to find the self or one’s essence (Solomon 14). In Nausea, the main character is a well-traveled 30-year-old man afflicted with intense feelings of the meaninglessness of his own being, an experience he dubs ‘nausea.’ The main character and narrator, Roquentin, is portrayed as a person without any enthusiasm for his daily living or interest in his work.

His frequent ‘nausea’ attacks, at one time in a street and in a café, depict him as a person filled with “hatred and disgust for existence” (Sartre 81). He feels that the observable attributes of objects are a veil masking the purposelessness of existence.

Roquentin also comes across as a person trying to justify his own existence. He is a man who has come into a realization that existence has no purpose. His decision to compile a story about a mysterious 18th-century French spy called Marquis de Rollebon could be interpreted as an attempt to rationalize his existence (Sartre 78). Roquentin is nauseated to learn that his intense dislike of existence is the driving force of his own being. Towards the end of the story, the narrator appears to get over his antipathy and embraces his own being on realizing that existence has no purpose. Instead of giving up all hope, he relocates to Paris to complete his book.

In The Stranger, the main character is a completely amoral man called Meursault. He comes across as an emotionally detached figure with a view that morality has no rational basis. Meursault does not grieve the death of his mother. His indifferent attitude towards morality does not augur well with the conventional society’s moral foundations and values. For Meursault, life and death mean the same thing. He anticipates his imminent death, which he considers a gratifying option to an unhappy life. His indifference to Marie’s marriage proposal portrays him as a person who does not care about relationships.

On a sentimental level, Meursault is depicted as an unremorseful and unrepentant character. He does not feel any emotional pain or distress after losing his mother. He subscribes to atheistic beliefs and quite unremorsefully murders an innocent Arab man, an action for which he is condemned to death (Camus 21). Meursault could also be seen as an honest and forthright person. He does not pretend to mourn his mother’s death to conceal his lack of remorse.

Psychologically speaking, Nausea’s main character, Roquentin, could be perceived as a person afflicted with a major depressive disorder or mental illness. The ‘nausea’ attacks he claims to experience could be interpreted as a symptom of clinical depression. As a jobless socially isolated man living in degrading conditions, Roquentin was vulnerable to episodes of major depression, i.e., nausea. Furthermore, the narrator is obsessed with a mysterious 18th-century operative and wants to document his activities in a book.

Therefore, Roquentin’s fantasies push him to search for a precise meaning of existence and elicit feelings of being estranged from the world. He does not seem to find meaning in his life or nature, which could explain his distaste for man’s existential condition. According to Cox, Sartre’s mission in the book is to highlight existential forces that manifest as a common mental problem (49). Therefore, his depressive episodes could account for his feelings of fantasy.

On the other hand, Meursault, in The Stranger, lacks a sense of morality. He cannot distinguish between right or wrong. His strong emotional detachment could be interpreted psychologically as subjective distress or psychoneurotic disorder. He feels no emotions, a condition that drives him to kill a person, not because he threatened him, but due to his lack of emotion. Furthermore, he is indifferent to natural human emotions, as he does not care about Marie’s marriage proposal.

In addition, he rejects his “essence as a loving son” to mourn the death of his mother, instead, he remains unmoved and emotionless (Camus 72). He is labeled a criminal after killing a man, but considers his actions to be ineffectual or without any grand meaning to the world. Therefore, Meursault could be considered as a man suffering from a psychoneurotic disorder characterized by a lack of emotions.

Although Meursault and Roquentin converge on their view that life is meaningless, there are certain significant differences that set the two characters apart. First, while Roquentin’s existential condition could be attributed to depression, Meusault’s indifferent attitude towards life could be the outcome of his psychoneurotic problem. In my view, Roquentin has emotional attachments to the mysterious Marquis de Rollebon, which explains his resolve to write a book about him. In addition, his recurring ‘nausea’ attacks could be construed to be bouts of negative emotions towards existence. On the other hand, Meursault displays neither positive nor negative emotions towards Marie’s proposal, the death of his mother, or his ‘criminal’ tag.

The two characters also diverge on the issue of compliance. Roquentin eventually realizes that he does not know much about Rollebon and rejects his existence as a way of getting over his past (Solomon 23). He subsequently moves to Paris to complete his book. In contrast, Meursault conforms to reality due to social pressure. As Solomon writes, social pressure that includes an element of reward or punishment can force a person to comply (31). Meursault complies due to the magistrate’s pressure. He says, “I noticed that his manner seemed genuinely solicitous”, an observation that forced him to agree with the magistrate, albeit pretentiously (Camus 89).

The central idea of Sartre’s existentialist view is individual freedom. Roquentin considers himself a free being without “the slightest reason for living” (Sartre 75). His lack of enthusiasm stems from his view that the world is random, superfluous, and redundant, attributes that he strongly detests. His worldview is shaped by the belief in complete freedom. The existentialist philosophy centers on man’s inherent free will guiding his choices without outside influence (Solomon 24). However, in actuality, Roquentin is not free because the responsibility occasioned by the freedom becomes a burden to him as manifested in his ‘nausea’.

According to Aronson, Sartre uses Roquentin to unmask the erroneous interpretation of free will (61). Roquentin’s freedom serves him no use because he did not give meaning to his own being. In this view, enjoying total freedom means giving meaning to one’s existence and having the drive to assume the accompanying responsibilities. Complete freedom comes with many opportunities, but one must accept the resultant responsibility. In my view, Satre’s representation of existentialism is not clear or straightforward.

In contrast, existentialism in The Stranger is straightforward as exhibited through Meursault’s murder charges, his decision not to hire a defense attorney, and the way he faced his death. His reason for killing the Arab was not to defend himself from the assailant’s knife, but to free himself from the bothersome sun’s rays reflected by the Arab’s sword (Camus 44). This explanation resonates with the existentialist view of free will. Moreover, he refuses the services of a lawyer because he is ready to repay for his actions. He makes an unconventional choice to go through the trial without any defense.

The way Meursault handles his imminent death clearly depicts him as an existentialist. He says, “I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again,” for he believed that life and death are indistinguishable (Camus 91). In addition, he sees no essence or value in marriage and looks forward to dying.

Roquentin is inauthentic because his recognition of his limitless freedom sets him on a nihilist path. Authenticity can be described as living in conformity with the “existential truths of the human condition”, which includes a belief in oneself (Solomon 39). Roquentin appears to have lost faith in his own existence, which makes him inauthentic. In contrast, Meursault embodies the existential truths in his choices to kill a stranger and refusal of legal representation.

On the other hand, bad faith, in a philosophical sense, is the habit of self-deception that one has no free will (Burton par. 5). Satre equates bad faith to existence, which is ‘nothingness’ in itself. Roquentin dislikes his own existence, which could be interpreted as the bad faith. In contrast, though Meursault does not believe in being-for-others and is emotionally detached and amoral, he is honest in his actions. Therefore, Camus presents a picture of good faith in existentialism.

Works Cited

Aronson, Ronald. Camus & Sartre. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Print.

Burton, Neel. Jean-Paul Sartre on Bad Faith, 2012. Web.

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Print.

Cox, Gary. The Sartre Dictionary. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1969. Print.

Solomon, Robert. Dark Feelings, Grim Thoughts: Experience and Reflection in Camus and Sartre. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.

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