Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Tropisms is a collection of brief, nonnarrative prose pieces. Very little, on the surface, links these two-or three-page fragments together. Upon close reading, however, certain patterns emerge: the almost constant use of the third person, the tension between childhood and adulthood, a deep suspicion and even fear of the spoken word. There are twenty-four such texts, each preceded by a roman numeral like a chapter in a more conventional novel. Each of these texts proposes a distilled version of a phenomenon of human existence: crowds of housewives gathered in front of a store window (number I), an old man taking his grandson for a walk (number VIII), the moment before teatime in a small cottage in the suburbs of London (number XVIII).

The word “tropism” originally refers to the tendency of plants to respond to certain outside stimuli, such as light, but growing (and thereby “moving”) in a particular direction. Nathalie Sarraute applies the word to the human sphere; therefore, she suggests that there is a level of consciousness which is almost plantlike in its simplicity—one might say its primitiveness—yet which underlies all human actions and emotions in the world. The purpose of Tropisms is to encircle, in writing, the almost imperceptible movement that occurs at the point of origin of human consciousness. By so doing, Sarraute tries to reinvest writing with the ability to convey the truth: If language can serve to represent a state of consciousness that precedes a human being’s sense of self in the world, then it will also be purged of the corrupting influence that life in society has upon the written and spoken word.

The theory behind Tropisms is difficult to explain without reference to the work itself and to the means by which it suggests the existence of a latent reality. One of Sarraute’s strategies, for example, is to portray scenes of people who are clearly out of touch with the world that surrounds them. In number III, she describes the lives of the inhabitants of a small neighborhood in Paris, people who are unaware of others except as occasional, phantomlike presences and who do not even know their own past. In very stark terms, she shows how life has radically separated these individuals from the real world, so that they...

(The entire section is 940 words.)