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Isolation of the Protagonist in The Trial and Nausea

 

Kafka and Sartre provide effective settings for their novels by presenting their protagonists in isolated environments. Each character experiences very slight contact with other people, and the relationships they do have with the other characters exist at a superficial level.

In The Trial, Joseph K. is placed on trial for an offense about which he is told nothing. As he attempts to discover the reason for his indictment, he experiences a great deal of inner torment and feelings of estrangement from those with whom he comes in contact.

In Nausea, Antoine Roquentin experiences many of the same nauseating emotions which leave him with many questions and few answers. He is also searching for meaning. Although in a different context, Roquentin is much like Joseph K. in that his circumstances in life have led him to feel quite alone.

In each novel, the protagonist observes a stereotypical societal group from which he attempts to be completely disassociated. The protagonist rejects their actions and what he perceives as their mode of thought. Joseph K. attempts to distance himself from the employees of the court at which his trial is taking place and his colleagues at the bank where he works. When he is offered the chance to meet the high officers of the court, he rejects the opportunity because he begins to feel suffocated by the air that surrounds him and is ashamed that he needs the help of the clerks in the court: "He (Joseph K.) realized too painfully the shame of being delivered into the hands of these people by his sudden weakness; besides, even now that he knew the cause of the faintness, it did not get any better but grew somewhat worse instead" (Kafka 68). This is possibly a subconscious reaction to the bleak reality that might be waiting to confront him. It seems that K. would rather face the torment of ignorance than be forced to meet a fate that may or may not be desirable. This event relates directly to K.'s battle to remain isolated from a world which he does not yet understand. K. also keeps his distance from those with whom he works. He holds a great deal of contempt for his fellow employees. At one point K. is confronted with three clerks who are direct subordinates to him, and he realizes that he hadn't recognized them previously in the meeting. He has removed his thoughts so far from his work relationships that obvious everyday presences often escape his notice.

Antoine Roquentin experiences similar thoughts as he watches the town's "local bourgeoisie" acting out their Sunday rituals in a restaurant in town. He is disgusted at their slightest movement, their superficial conversations, and their collective air of exclusion. As Roquentin watches the masses of people walking down the street after church, he thinks "I think I've had enough: I have seen enough pink skulls, thin, distinguished and faded countenances" (Sartre 45).

As both protagonists try to separate themselves from the groups that irritate them so much, they feel somehow drawn to the groups. In both cases it seems almost as is the protagonists feel left out of these groups, and K. and Roquentin try to tell themselves that they don't want to be included as some kind of defense mechanism.

Placing the protagonist in an isolated setting serves a very important purpose in both The Trial and Nausea. In addition to establishing the protagonist as an observer, the separation also creates an excellent forum for the Existentialist philosophies of the authors to take over. Each protagonist is given the freedom to discover the meaning of his existence without the influence of other people's opinions. The characters summarily discount the validity of others' views, and they avoid the possibility of new and opposing perspectives. If the protagonists had intimate contact with others their thoughts would be skewed, and any conclusion they happened upon about their existence would be much less pure and individual.

 

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