Tropisms Essay - Critical Essays

Nathalie Sarraute


The difficulty of placing Tropisms in any preexisting category suggests that Sarraute may have invented a whole new literary genre. It is not a novel in any recognized sense of the term, since it shares none of the structural elements—plot, dialogue, characterization—that even the most experimental works tend to display to some degree. Tropisms cannot be called prose poetry either, because the various fragments nevertheless cohere into some sort of a narrative whole by virtue of being variations on the idea contained in the title: Human consciousness is constituted by tropisms, tiny movements “of which we are hardly cognizant, [and which] slip through us on the frontiers of consciousness in the form of undefinable, extremely rapid sensations.” The preceding quote is from Sarraute’s introduction to the 1963 English edition, translated by Maria Jolas, and must count as an important key to the interpretation of the novel itself.

In fact, Sarraute’s work is of great importance to the development of twentieth century literature precisely because it occupies a position on the border separating philosophy from the novel. She begins with an epistemological problem: What element of human consciousness, if any, precedes language? Is there a state of innocence in which humans already exist as conscious entities, but have not yet been contaminated by the meaninglessness and deception inherent in human speech? The quest for such an idealized state...

(The entire section is 604 words.)