Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

The narrator

The narrator, a middle-aged man, rather neurotic, fascinated, intrigued, and finally obsessed with the relationship between his neighbors, an old man and his daughter. Like a detective, he spies on them constantly. To catch them in unguarded moments, he hides under stairways, peeks through windows, follows them in the street, and accosts them in museums and restaurants. He both delights in and shrinks from the drama between the two. He senses a love-hate relationship between them but experiences a similar, almost magnetic attraction to them followed by repulsion. Following psychoanalysis, he thinks himself cured of his obsession and travels to distract himself. When he visits a museum in Amsterdam and views the Portrait of an Unknown Man, the problem returns in full force. The portrait strikes him as a revelation: The eyes and face are strong and dominating, but the body is vague and indistinct. To him, it is the mirror of the old man and his daughter, seemingly dominant personalities who are actually shapeless, gluey masses of desires and passions. As he renews his spying, he feels an undercurrent of anxiety, unconsciously recognizing a resemblance between the daughter’s parasitic clinging to her father and his own dependent relationship to his parents. He too wears a mask that he calls personality.

The Father

The Father, an eccentric, miserly, self-made man, a sadomasochist, terrorizing those around him with fits of rage but...

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Portrait of a Man Unknown The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The subject of this novel is how to create characters in a literary work. Sarraute started with a situation worthy of a traditional novel, the relationship between a miser and his old maid daughter. This is the same subject, Sarraute points out, as that of Honore de Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet (1833; English translation, 1859). Balzac, however, begins his novel with a thirty-page description of the town, street, and house where his characters live in order to explain their personalities. Then he moves on to describe them psychologically and physically in great detail, including the wart on Grandet’s nose which inspired Dumontet’s bunion.

Sarraute gives very few details of the miser’s house, only a brief description of the wallpaper and an incidental mention of a leaky pipe. With the exception of Dumontet, who is intended as a parody of traditional characters, none of her characters has a name. The protagonists are referred to as “he,” “she,” and “I.” Sarraute’s characters are constantly changing as the narrator gains new insights into their personalities. In the interminable warfare between the father and the daughter, neither the narrator nor the reader is certain who is telling the truth. Possibly the doctors are charlatans and the daughter is trying to pry her father’s substance from him; possibly the daughter is the innocent victim of an egotistical miser. As in life outside novels, the reader can never know for sure.

The narrator longs to know the truth. He wants to give people names, to make them into the characters of a traditional novel—smooth, solid, and finished. He wants to put labels on them, to call her a maniac and him a miser. He suspects, however, that things are not as simple as that, that this solid mass is really a veneer which will crack, or that it is a mask built from the cliches and commonplaces of language. From behind the mask or through the crack oozes the disgusting liquid which is life.

The painting called “The Portrait of a Man Unknown” illustrates how Sarraute thinks characters should be formed: with the unsteady, groping hand of a blindman. Characters should not be pure, smooth, solid, and finished but uncertain, changing, vacillating with the rapid movements called tropisms.Only the eyes of the unknown man are alive. A work of art should shine with the life and power of those eyes.

Portrait of a Man Unknown Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Besser, Gretchen Rous. Nathalie Sarraute, 1979.

Mercier, Vivian. The New Novel: From Queneau to Pinget, 1971.

Minogue, Valerie. Nathalie Sarraute and the War of Words, 1981.

Temple, Ruth Z. Nathalie Sarraute, 1968.

Tison-Braun, Micheline. Nathalie Sarraute: Ou, La Recherche de l’authenticite, 1971.