Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Claude Lévi-Strauss began Tristes Tropiques as a novel, and among the remnants of his novelistic intentions are the book’s title (literally, “sad tropics”) and a long description of an ocean sunset, a tedious purple passage that illustrates why Lévi-Strauss is not a modern master of the novel. Generally, however, his original intentions seem to have exercised a beneficial influence. Throughout most of the book his style is highly literary and readable, not the abstract scholarly style one might expect from the great structuralist anthropologist, and this engaging style in part explains the work’s history as a best-seller. Another part of the explanation is the work’s equally engaging content, which shows the young Lévi-Strauss finding his vocation as an anthropologist and going on his first (and actually most important) forays into the field—travels among the Indians of Brazil’s Mato Grosso and Amazonia during the 1930’s. Both the style and the content make Tristes Tropiques the best introduction to Lévi-Strauss and his work.

If Tristes Tropiques became an autobiographical instead of a fictional work, it nevertheless retains revealing parallels to fictional form. The overall work is reminiscent of a Bildungsroman, or novel of development of the main character. Tristes Tropiques shows Lévi-Strauss not only finding his vocation but also developing the views that underlie his later achievement, particularly his views on primitive and modern cultures. This development has a retrospective quality, since Lévi-Strauss is narrating it fifteen to twenty years later—a common technique in the Bildungsroman in order to give the work perspective. His later perspective enables Lévi-Strauss to look upon his earlier struggles somewhat indulgently, perhaps romantically, and no doubt with more humor than he felt at the time: His earlier self resembles a Conradian hero setting off into the heart of darkness, only to discover that the more...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Donato, Eugenio. “Tristes Tropiques: The Endless Journey,” in MLN. LXXXI (May, 1966), pp. 270-287.

Geertz, Clifford. “The Cerebral Savage: On the Works of Claude Lévi-Strauss,” in Encounter. XXVIII (April, 1967), pp. 25-32.

Hayes, E. Nelson, and Tanya Hayes, eds. Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Anthropologist as Hero, 1970.

Leach, Edmund. Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1970.

McNelly, Cleo. “Natives, Women, and Claude Lévi-Strauss: A Reading of Tristes Tropiques as Myth,” in The Massachusetts Review. XVI (Winter, 1975), pp. 7-29.

Mehlman, Jeffrey. A Structural Study of Autobiography: Proust, Leiris, Sartre, Lévi-Strauss, 1971.

Pace, David. Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Bearer of Ashes, 1983.