Relieving Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea: Semiotics, Suicide, and the Search for God in Walker Percy's the Second Coming

By Hamner, Everett L. | Christianity and Literature, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Relieving Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea: Semiotics, Suicide, and the Search for God in Walker Percy's the Second Coming


Hamner, Everett L., Christianity and Literature


Walker Percy's interest in existentialism and especially the work of Jean-Paul Sartre is no secret among literary critics. Kathleen Scullin has argued that Lancelot is "in effect Percy's response to Sartre in fiction" (110); other scholars such as Lewis A. Lawson and Martin Luschei have considered Percy's first three novels--The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, and Love in the Ruins--along similar lines. (1) However, Percy's fifth novel, The Second Coming, has not been examined from this perspective, despite its many references to Sartre's Nausea and its status as loose sequel to The Last Gentleman. (2)

I will argue that Nausea and Sartre's existentialism more generally provide a crucial context for understanding The Second Coming. First, we will see how Percy's own statements in recorded conversations and speeches demand this comparison. Then, close attention to both novels will evoke The Second Coming's presentation of the interdependence of transcendence and immanence, especially as explored in Will's gradual confrontation with his father's suicide, his developing relationship with Allie, and his ongoing query about God's existence. Finally, a comparison of Percy's novel with Nausea will elucidate two widely debated attributes of Percy's fifth novel: its unusually well developed female character, Allie, and its uniquely "happy ending." Ultimately, I aim to demonstrate how The Second Coming honestly and soberly re-presents the "nausea" of Sartre's novel while also offering a more hopeful evaluation of both individual and communal life.

I

Percy's interest in Sartre is regularly apparent not only in his written work but also in speeches and interviews. Among the thirty or more references to Sartre indexed in Lawson and Victor A. Kramer's Conversations with Walker Percy, we find this statement: "Maybe one of the most influential novels I ever read was Nausea. That was a real revelation. It's funny how something can be that important and influence you that much and be that valuable to you, and yet you can diametrically disagree with it" (275). Percy's profound appreciation of Sartre's novel and its unyielding examination of the tenuousness of "reality" is evident here, but we also taste his dissatisfaction with Nausea's ultimate cynicism. Signposts in a Strange Land finds Percy describing Nausea more specifically as an example of the "peculiar diagnostic role of the novel in this century" (147). Percy had a particular regard for Sartre's ability to portray individual experience, and especially Sartre's "onslaught on the 'normal' or what is ordinarily taken for the normal" (147-48). Sharing Sartre's interest in questioning common assumptions about the good life, Percy appreciated that in Nausea "the apparently well are sick and the apparently sick are on to the truth" (150). Nevertheless, his interest in Sartre always remained critical. In his unique "self-interview" in Conversations, for instance, Percy explained his contentment with an obscure life: "If one lived in a place like France where writers are honored, one might well end up like Sartre, a kind of literary-political pope, a savant, an academician, the very sort of person Sartre made fun of in Nausea" (161-62).

Perhaps the clearest historical evidence of Percy's wish to both honor and distinguish himself from Sartre is found in a 1977 lecture at Cornell University. As a conclusion to that address, Percy read and commented on a passage from The Last Gentleman. In this scene a young Will Barrett runs his hand over the bark of an oak tree and wonders about his father's eventually successful suicide attempts. Will quietly asks, "Is there a sign?" As Percy noted to his audience, "He feels he's on to something, a clue or sign, but it slips away from him." Then, Percy said something quite significant about the relationship between The Last Gentleman and Nausea:

   I chose [to read] this passage because of its resemblance to the
   famous scene in Sartre's Nausea--in fact, it was written as a kind
   of counterstatement--where Roquentin is sitting in a park in Bouville
   and experiences a similar revelation as he gazes at the roots and
   bark of a chestnut tree. … 

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Relieving Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea: Semiotics, Suicide, and the Search for God in Walker Percy's the Second Coming
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.