Characters Discussed

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A mixed group of voices

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A mixed group of voices, most of them unidentified. This New Novel, as such, does not contain characters in a traditional sense, just as there is no plot in a traditional sense. The text is one long narrative, delineated by shifts in speakers, most not identified well enough to individualize. Most of the speakers are identified only by pronouns. Many are referred to in the third person (he, she, it, they); few have the distinction of a “we” or “I.”

The grandmother

The grandmother, also called Grandmama, an elderly woman with silver and gold hair. Her thin hands are covered with tan age spots, and her eyes look like blue enamel. She is physically frail, though a spark of life still exists within her. When her grandchildren call her “sweet,” she inwardly rebels against such a confining description; her reaction shows only in her eyes, however, and it is up to one of her grandchildren, her favorite grandson, to stop the others from saying the detested word.

The grandson

The grandson, a young boy. He becomes upset when the other grandchildren continually say, as they caress their grandmother, “She is sweet . . . couldn’t you just bite her.” He is teased by her relatives, who say that he is developing an “undershot” jaw and that soon he will be as ugly as his Uncle François.

Mr. Varenger

Mr. Varenger, an old man who walks stooped over. He resents what he sees as the patronizing attitude of the young toward the old.

The young newlywed girl

The young newlywed girl, who suddenly realizes that her husband is a miser. Distraught over whether to leave him or merely ignore this flaw, the girl is goaded by two formless voices into making a decision.

The Characters

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Because Sarraute is not dealing with individual characters, the reader is prevented from making the customary judgments by which any member of the human species is classified. Here, human voices are heard, but the rest of their beings remains amorphous at best. The voices and the ideas that they express can be discussed only in their relationship to one another.

Appearances never cease to provoke questions. Can one’s temperament be deduced from one’s forehead, chin, eyes, nose, or hands? For what traits is one responsible: for those traits perceived and therefore developed, or for those traits which are less practiced but developed against the odds? Can emotional states or stages be deduced from physical appearance? When are children real children and when are they only acting like children? Can one ever know with cats? Can one be sure that they are not simply acting like cats?

Sarraute forces the reader to question the nature of human personality. What is actually known about any individual? How can the endless assumptions and conclusions that are drawn be anything less than ludicrously inaccurate? From a photograph, a personality is perceived; from personal papers, a character is constructed. Everyone knows how to do it, and whatever does not fit or cannot be explained will be ignored. From one slight word or action, a whole character is revealed. A pair of newlyweds is blissful, until she notices the care with which he counts a tip into the waiting palm. She suddenly knows that she has married a stingy miser, and that she has no choice except to divorce him or go through life knowing that people will say, “there goes the poor bride who married a miser.” By one mark of one claw, the lion shall be known.

The false authority of words results in an emotional tyranny from which there seems to be no exit. A grandmother cannot swallow the image of “sweet,” applied to her by her grandchildren, but cannot avoid it, either. When told by his relatives that he will grow to be as ugly as his uncle, a boy knows terror. An adolescent who believed that he was nothing before he was bound by the words of others is incapable of freeing himself, of returning the ball, of saying, “If I’m a fool, you’re another.” He does not know how to defend himself.

If one really believes in perfect equality and is not merely mouthing witty nonsense, one is obviously to be pitied. To retreat with one’s idea, to keep it out of the fray, is to watch it atrophy and die. To decide that one is nothing but a construct built by others is to lose all sense of identity. To find that everything else is moving and that one’s words are incomprehensible is to find that one is invalidated and in need of rehabilitation. One must accept one’s intelligence as less than, more than, or equal to Descartes’. “Different from” will not do. One offends against law and order, if one does not accept an assigned place in the established hierarchies.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 63

Besser, Gretchen Rous. Nathalie Sarraute, 1979.

Bory, Jean-Louis. “Le Sapeur Sarraute,” in Le Nouvel Observateur, December 6, 1976, pp. 86-88.

Davin, Antonia. “Nathalie Sarraute’s ‘Disent les imbeciles’: The Critic’s Dilemma,” in New Zealand Journal of French Studies, May, 1981, pp. 56-79.

Minogue, Valerie. Nathalie Sarraute: The War of the Words, 1981.

Temple, Ruth Z. Nathalie Sarraute, 1968.

Watson-Williams, Helen. The Novels of Nathalie Sarraute: Towards an Aesthetic, 1981.

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