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.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Just as Nathalie Sarraute explicitly resisted being grouped together with other authors and literary trends of any sort, she denied that her work can be associated with a particular political stance, feminist or otherwise. Furthermore, many readers have criticized her way of portraying female characters: Tropism number X, for example, shows women on an outing together, whose behavior and birdlike chatter makes them paradigms of the superficiality of human existence and stereotypical, idle, upper-class women. Similar characterizations abound throughout her work. Under these conditions, one can ask whether it is possible to speak of Sarraute in connection to women’s issues without distorting her work beyond recognition.

As Lucille Frackman Becker proves, however, there are many important interpretations of Sarraute that claim her relevance to the question of women’s writing. By rejecting linear narration and causality, Becker argues, Sarraute successfully developed an alternative to masculine modes of writing. The question that one must address in connection to a novelist as avant-garde and experimental as Sarraute is whether the alternative that she proposes can actually be termed feminine, as distinct from other types of nonconventional (and even anticonventional) prose that do not aspire to the term “women’s writing.” To phrase the question differently, what is specifically feminine, or feminist, about Sarraute’s search for a style which...

(The entire section is 518 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Becker, Lucille Frackman. Twentieth-Century French Women Novelists. Boston: Twayne, 1989. This overview of contemporary French women’s writing places Sarraute in the broader literary context of her time. By constantly emphasizing a feminist theoretical viewpoint, Becker brings the question of women’s writing in connection to Sarraute into clear focus.

Besser, Gretchen Rous. Nathalie Sarraute. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Part of a series on world literature, Besser’s book is a very good introduction to Sarraute’s life and work. She particularly emphasizes Sarraute’s role in the origin and development of the New Novel in France, while at the same time demonstrating her independence and individuality in comparison with other contemporary writers. Contains a useful chronology and a bibliography.

Cohn, R. “Nathalie Sarraute’s Sub-Conversations.” Modern Language Notes 78 (1963): 261-270. The notion of “sub-conversation,” or the true dialogue that takes place implicitly within actual exchanges of words, is an important concept for the understanding of Tropisms. Cohn’s article is one of the better analyses of this phenomenon, along with Sarraute’s own piece on the subject contained in The Age of Suspicion.

Fleming, John A. “The Imagery of Tropism in the Novels of Nathalie...

(The entire section is 461 words.)