Nathalie Sarraute World Literature Analysis
Sarraute described her first attempts to write as the almost spontaneous expression of certain sensations, or inner movements, that seemed to underlie everyday speech and gestures. Her aim to seize elusive sensations and preverbal impressions before they enter the consciousness led to an exploration of entirely new modes of expression.
Sarraute described Tropisms as a collection of short texts or fragments, containing “all the raw material that I have continued to develop in my later works.” They have been, perhaps more aptly, called prose poems or microdramas. The only unifying link in the series of compact vignettes is the concept of tropisms. Tropisms (a biochemical term) are the instinctive movements of primitive organisms that expand or contract under external influences, such as light and heat. She noted similar impulses on a psychological plane that “form the infinitesimal but complex dramas concealed beneath our overt words and acts.” Sarraute explores human psychology, then, from a new direction. Rather than depicting unique characters or remarkable individual traits, she describes universal drives and impulses that may not be spoken but that motivate communication and behavior.
Tropisms remained an essential element in Sarraute’s writing throughout her career. She presented glimpses of anonymous lives in undistinctive settings and unremarkable situations. Particularities of time, place, and character were absent in Sarraute’s works. To reinforce the concept of generality, Sarraute most frequently used the third person, and often the third-person plural. Characters were not named but were referred to as “he,” “she,” or “they.” They are the representatives and guardians of society’s values. Although some of Sarraute’s sketches may appear as character portraits of certain types of individuals, typical of moral or allegorical tales, it is more accurate to describe her characters as incarnations of a tropism.
In Sarraute’s fiction, there is never a unique individual, and there is rarely a special event. Her fiction does not describe a memorable occasion but a habitual mode of behavior or a repeated experience. Even in her more complex novels, there are no specificities of time or place. Her characters exist apart from any social or historical framework. The settings are usually generalized interiors or dreary urban landscapes. Space is confined, just as the characters are restricted. Natural landscapes, aside from a suburban park, rarely figure in Sarraute’s works. Internal drama is the focus of her works, so that even minute actions or a few hastily spoken words generate an entire series of repercussions.
Satire is a strong element in Sarraute’s writing. The mediocrity of the middle class is most often the target of Sarraute’s irony. The frivolous concerns and useless occupations of women are frequently ridiculed as well. Even educated women, in what may be a gesture of self-directed irony, are depicted as bluestockings. Children are already lacking the will to resist the gray conformity of their elders. Throughout her works, there is an abundance of obedient, docile children, who will eventually grow into self-restrained members of society. They adopt the proper behavior and conventionalized attitudes of the adults who groom them to guard the status quo.
The worldview in Sarraute’s work is generally pessimistic. There are few moments of delight and no open spaces or bright colors. Her characters are completely isolated, each living a compartmentalized existence. The loneliness of the human condition can be mitigated only by social interaction, but this contact often brings frustration and disappointment. The need to communicate often leads to hysteria or to debasement. For Sarraute (and for Fyodor Dostoevski, whom she greatly admired), the subsurface of human relationships is a ceaseless struggle for domination and control. Yet the form of Sarraute’s novels—dialogues, conversations, and subconversations—substantiates the need for interaction.
In almost every sketch in Tropisms, there is an undercurrent of fear and misunderstanding. Misunderstanding results from a breakdown in communication or a failure to envision another’s point of view. The inability to comprehend another person is unavoidable and results in the return of Sarraute’s characters to their own private spheres. Tentative efforts at contact are usually rebuffed. Behavior is a puzzle without pattern or design, and her characters are watchful for threats to their conception of reality and security.
A surface of clichés, trite words, and trivial observations attempt to render the human condition bearable in Sarraute’s work. Language cloaks the truth rather than revealing it. Clichés represent the tacit censorship that people perform on unpalatable or improper issues of human existence, such as sex, illness, and death. Clichés are not what everyone thinks or feels, but rather “what people force themselves to think and feel to avoid the vertigo of reality.” The illusion of exerting control over other people or events is provided by the trite expressions of common consensus. A shared vocabulary reinforces the sense of community and excludes those who do not know the language. Repetition figures prominently in Sarraute’s writing. Her characters, by repeating the same platitudes, shape existence into a “small, gray pellet.” The yearning to escape society’s code of communication is occasionally expressed in frustration or annoyance but is rarely achieved.
Tropisms exhibits much of the same thematic material and narrative method of Sarraute’s later work. Its anonymity of characters, absence of plot, elimination of historical contingencies, and lack of physical description are characteristic of Sarraute’s subsequent works. Furthermore, the ambivalent need for contact, the misunderstandings that complicate relationships, and the clichés that mask existential anguish continue to be of primary importance in her later writings. The concept of tropisms, or the subsurface dynamics of human interaction, unified all Sarraute’s fiction and represented a unique contribution to the development of the novel in the twentieth...
(The entire section is 2558 words.)