Existentialism for the masses

Jean-Paul Sartre’s “La Nausée” (Nausea) is a philosophical work under a literary guise whereas “Huis Clos” (No Exit), is above all a play which happens to demonstrate the principles of existentialism very successfully. This is generally how Sartre himself viewed these two works: “La Nausée” was an experimental work, a way in which Sartre could express his feelings about the human condition – not at this point under the title of “existentialism” proper. “Huis Clos” according to Sartre was “a little play which discusses philosophy” but which repeats nevertheless the ideas first expressed in his great philosophical work “L’Etre et le Néant” (Being and Nothingness). So why did Sartre chose to express his philosophy in a literary format? We must first confirm that these two works in question indeed do deal with “the human condition” or philosophical ideas, whether consciously or not. In fact, as Simone de Beauvoir stated – philosophy and literature were very closely tied together for Sartre “he refused to separate philosophy from literature. In his eyes, contingency was not an abstract notion but a real dimension of our world.”


“La Nausée” is a novel in the form of an intimate diary, which gives us a subjective view of events. We are presented with the thoughts of Roquentin; he recounts other people’s speech. We do have the opportunity to watch the development of this character from first-hand, but we must be a little hesitant to believe everything he says because, as we have already established, this is a subjective viewpoint. Roquentin’s fascination with objects in particular leads to very long, complicated and often-surreal descriptive passages. Roquentin’s “philosophical awakening” is therefore framed by this elaboration.

“Huis Clos” is a play, a theatrical piece in one single act. The fact that there are three characters gives us an objective view and the genre itself requires direct dialogue. There is an absence of complicated description and the stage directions require a very simple décor, “A Second Empire style salon. A statue on the fireplace”, all of which allows us to concentrate wholly on the interaction between the three protagonists. This initial difference between the two works is clear. Already, we could say that one is “complicated” or “intricate” and the other is “simple”.

Structure of the two works

The structure of “La Nausée” is very complex, the styles used change frequently – Roquentin is both a storyteller and a philosopher by turns. Sartre had to set Roquentin’s philosophical discoveries within a conventional genre – in this case the novel. As a result, we see revelations on the human condition intertwined with twists and turns in the plot. For example, the dinner with the Autodidact begins with a relatively normal conversation but this transforms itself into a more philosophical discussion when Roquentin begins to question the humanist beliefs of his dinner companion and the situation that he finds himself in. The general problem with the novel – what causes complexity and difficulty for the average reader – is the experimental style. Roquentin’s language is not an “everyday” language, so it is difficult for the reader to understand. If you were to read an isolated page, you would assume it was the narration of a mad person; the length of the paragraphs and the surreal descriptions, which are often disturbing, underline this idea. But Sartre must have chosen this style on purpose – in order to give us the same feeling of profound confusion that his main character is experiencing.

“Huis Clos” uses a much simpler language. It is, in essence, a conversation between three people, who are all dead – and therefore presented with an unreal situation. Nothing happens, there is no physical action, and yet Sartre maintains a level of interest and dramatic tension throughout. This tension is the result of the bizarre situation the three characters find themselves in, a tension, which reveals metaphysical problems. There is no distinction between philosophical conversation and normal conversation – the characters are not consciously discussing the human condition but the situation itself provokes such questions. As a result, the development is natural, and the philosophical awakening is a gentle one. The structure of “Huis Clos” is uncomplicated; we can describe it as a conversation, even a debate, between three people with different beliefs. We could also say that it is not a conscious discovery that is made, but an inevitable realisation of their very finite and inescapable predicament.


The character of Roquentin, as with the structure of “La Nausée” is complex. In order to express his philosophical musings, Sartre had to create someone with whom we could identify. But is Roquentin really someone that we can empathise with? His situation at Bouville is of an individual on the outskirts of society, his lifestyle seems less than normal, his work gives him no socially recognisable role and he doesn’t have any friends. He is indifferent to most things and his attitudes towards others are often tinged with cruelty. We can maybe accept his criticism of the people of Bouville because of their apparent artificiality, but when he criticises the Autodidact for his lifestyle, we realise that Roquentin is in no better position himself. His cynicism therefore serves to isolate him as opposed to making him likeable to the reader.

The three characters in “Huis Clos” are murderers, so one would assume the same lack of empathy would apply. But despite the fact that these individuals have committed terrible crimes, the reader (or audience in this case) does not dislike them. This possibly comes from the situation they find themselves in – and the obvious vulnerability and human fragility of each character, which is revealed through the course of the play. They are emotional individuals, they regret things that they did during their lives, but they can do nothing about it because it’s too late. This is where the realisation that “L’Enfer c’est les Autres” – “Hell is other people” comes from. Each character needs confirmation from the others. All three characters acted with bad faith during their lifetimes: Innes accepts her situation but Garcin and Estelle attempt to hide their faults. The fact that there is always somebody there to reproach you or reprimand you for what you did leads to the inevitable conclusion – that they must accept what has happened.

Existentialism revealed through the works

The method utilised for revealing philosophical thought is very different in the two texts. “La Nausée” has often been described as the work where Sartre experimented with his perception of the human condition. At that point, existentialism did not exist under its proper title. It is maybe more of a critique on society as Sartre perceived it at the time. It is often said that Roquentin was a representation of Sartre himself – especially with regards to his beliefs – and the presence of Sartre the philosopher is evident throughout the novel. The portrayal of the Autodidact is a good example – he represents “Humanism”, he believes in the value of history; his idea of “culture” is to compile the thoughts of others. It seems to be Sartre that is speaking when Roquentin “forgets” the Autodidact and goes on to paint a general picture of humanists. If we read this part of the text alone, we would assume it was a philosophical theorem and not the individual thoughts of a character in a novel. Philosophical vocabulary is also used giving the impression of a philosopher who is trying to convince by using scientific or mathematical expressions. As a result, we are aware of the presence of “the philosopher” almost constantly throughout the novel – we do not escape it. The organic growth of a realisation – the discovery of ones predicament is somewhat lost as a result.

Sartre, the philosopher does not impose himself in such a way on “Huis Clos”. By creating a situation which automatically demands questioning and reflection, Sartre is able to let his characters express his thoughts in a non-pervasive way. It is a play built around a philosophical premise but one where neither the characters, nor the audience is conscious of it. We become aware of “man’s situation” without realising it, it is not necessary to question and analyse too deeply. It is the apparent absence of the god-like author that makes the play so successful in its intention. Existentialism was a way of living for Sartre and not an abstract idea – this notion translates well in “Huis Clos”.

Garcin: I did not dream up this heroism. I chose it. One is what one wants to be.
Innes: Prove it. Prove that it wasn’t a dream. Only actions determine what you intended.
Garcin: I died too soon. I didn’t have time to prove myself.
Innes: We always die too soon – or too late. And still, life is there – done, finished:…... You have nothing left but your life.

Are these works convincing?

The ending of “La Nausée” seems to have been an afterthought and somehow doesn't connect with the main body of the text – it is too happy – a conventional solution which seems incredible to the reader. But this ending is intentional; when Roquentin questions the value of his non-fiction work on M. Rollebon, he envisages instead writing a work of “pure imagination” – and it is this which saves him at the end. The ending is maybe only optimistic because Roquentin is still alive – he has time left to change his way of life. In “Huis Clos” the ending is the exact opposite – an eternity of misery!

The description of “La Nausée” as a progressive work – leading to existentialism proper seems underlined by events in the novel itself. Roquentin discovers his personal truth by a gradual process and at the end has the opportunity to change his life in order to find happiness. “Huis Clos” was written after Sartre had established the principle of existentialism and represents a more final state of being where there is no longer any hope of changing.

Both works are of great merit, but “Huis Clos” works much better in it’s genre as a play than “La Nausée” does as a novel. “La Nausée” was a sort of experiment, and despite Sartre’s efforts to make it succeed as a novel, we are nevertheless left with the impression that we have read a philosophical thesis. On the other hand, “Huis Clos” is primarily a play which shows existentialism “in action”. From the point of view of the average reader, “Huis Clos” is easier to grasp than “La Nausée”, and it is therefore perhaps more successful in an attempt to make existentialism accessible to the “masses”. In any other measure of success however, you cannot compare the two - one is experimental, and without it the other would probably not have been written at all.

Post Script: I wrote this essay in my final year at University. It was originally written in French, so I hope that it's translation back into English works! The initial essay question had asked whether one of these works was a more successful portrayal of existentialism in the formats chosen - and if so why. I have given it a slightly more succinct and less scary title in this instance - existentialism is frightening enough at the best of times! This does not cover all of Sartre's existential literature. I cannot find a complete list of his works on e2, but will endeavour to add one myself soon.

Sources: La Nausée and Huis Clos by Jean-Paul Sartre. Plus various lecture notes.

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