Todd Coffin

Adrianna E. Frick

Rachel Gibson

Jenny Lee

Christy Rodgers

Erica Weitzman


Sharing the Universally Subjective Experience
in Nathalie Sarraute's Martereau and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse

Rachel Gibson
San Francisco State University

In her 1956 essay "Conversation et sous-conversation" (Conversation and Sub-Conversation), Nathalie Sarraute challenges the critics of the nouveau roman who see the literary movement as simply a stylistic experiment that lacks the psychological inquiry traditionally expected of great works of literature. Given the non-traditional and distinctively disjointed narrative of most of Sarraute's work, her novels were categorized as "anti-novels," a name that lead to many misconceptions of her work in the mid-century French literary community. Critics of the nouveau roman often viewed her style as an attempt to arrogantly undermine the widely accepted structure of the traditional French and Russian novelists of the late 19th century. However, to correct this misconception and explain her interest in the progression of literary style imbedded in her work, Sarraute turned to the legacy of two experimental modernist authors she admired for their work in advancing literature from the traditional 19th century novel: Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust. In this essay I will examine the stylistic, thematic and philosophical heritage between Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927), and Sarraute's Martereau (1953), but it will first be useful to briefly look at Sarraute's own perceived place in the evolution of literary history, and in particular the tradition she has inherited from Virginia Woolf herself.

In "Conversation et sous-conversation" Sarraute places herself as the successor to the experimental literary tradition Woolf and Proust began, and she challenges the belief that an examination of human psychology in the modern novel is seen as passé and antiquated in the face of a new stylistic movement. As a founding member of the nouveau roman movement, Sarraute sees her work as a contribution to the healthy evolution of the novel as opposed to the reproduction of the traditional novel with which readers are most familiar and comfortable. Her works seek to contribute to the stylistic shift and return to the art of psychological inquiry pioneered in works by authors like James Joyce, Proust, and Woolf. However, in the spirit of progression Sarraute places the utmost importance on her work in advancing the art of writing into a new era in literature, beyond the vision of the modernists, with a style that communicates her characters and situations with a better representation of reality. In "Conversation et sous-conversation" she writes of the accomplishments of the modernists who sought renewal for the genre:

Et il est bien vrai qu'on ne peut refaire du Joyce ou du Proust, alors qu'on refait chaque jour à la satisfaction générale du Stendhal ou du Tolstoï. Mais n'est-ce pas d'abord parce que les modernes ont transporté ailleurs l'intérêt essential du roman? On ne se trouve plus pour eux dans le dénombrement des situations et des caractères ou dans la peinture des moeurs, mais dans la mise au jour d'une matière psychologique nouvelle. (L'Ère 94)
And it is true that we cannot repeat what Joyce or Proust did, even though Stendhal and Tolstoy are repeated every day to everybody's satisfaction. But isn't this, first of all, because the moderns displaced the essential interest of the novel? For them it ceased to lie in the enumeration of situations and characters or in the portrayal of manners and customs, but in the revelation of a new psychological subject-matter. (104)1

Like the modernists, Sarraute seeks to take this evolution of style and psychological subject matter to a new level where character depiction (the situations, emotions and conversations of the novel) mirrors the reader's real-life experience more vividly, and therefore the act of reading is enhanced through increased emotional familiarity. In a letter defending "Conversation et sous-conversation," which had often been misinterpreted as an attack on the modernists, Sarraute writes that her quest is much like theirs, which will "suppose la destruction de tout la gangue des conventions romanesques que Virginia Woolf dénonçait elle-même dans ses essais critiques," (involve the destruction of all that hard casing of novel-conventions that Virginia Woolf herself denounced in her critical essays), and that for the contemporary writer, the most important thing is "en se délivrant d'un formalisme encombrant, de parvenir à saisir une réalité. Cette réalité, je la cherche dans les mouvements psychologiques à l'état naissant, la sous-conversation, ce que j'ai appelé les 'Tropismes.'" (by liberating oneself from a cumbersome formalism, to grasp a reality. I seek that reality in the nascent stages of psychological movements, sub-conversation, and what I have called 'Tropisms') (Minogue 193-95). To Sarraute, the most effective literary device in portraying life "realistically" is the exclusive use of interior monologue and dialogue as the structure for the narrative. With these tools, Sarraute seeks to renew the exploration of human psychology in the novel through a method that represents the thoughts, motivations, and psychosis behind outward appearances through a narrative stemming from the perspective of a single character. The narrative style used in Martereau works to suggest the natural, unedited and realistic flow of thought within an individual who often finds himself navigating through complex family dynamics, reacting to various situations outside his control, and reasoning through events in an attempt to gain control of himself, the people and the world around him.

It is Sarraute's project to further the evolution of the novel through a changed narrative, and in doing so she gives traditional dialogue "le plus rude coup qu'il ait subi jusqu'ici" (the worst blow it has received so far) (L'Ère 124/120) as she feels the modernists did before her. Yet despite her role in the radical stylistic movement of the nouveau roman, there is also evidence of the legacy that Sarraute sought to preserve between the modernists and her own work which can be brought to light by studying Sarraute's novel Martereau and Woolf's To the Lighthouse. These two novels share an analogous choice in stylistic method which is tied to a similar philosophy of the individual, the collective and the value of the self in 20th century society. While Sarraute's style can be seen as a highly abstracted version of Woolf's narrative technique in To the Lighthouse, Sarraute and Woolf both draw upon this style to question similar themes in their works: the narrative function of the outsider in the family, the impact of work on the social and personal value of an individual and the blurry lines that demarcate the motivations and identity of the self from the other. Through this study, the parallel themes in both novels and the evolution of Sarraute's work will become more evident and will further define the influence of the modernists on her contribution to the progression of French literary style and the nouveau roman.

At the core of both Martereau and To the Lighthouse is an examination of human psychology — the way one interacts with their closest family members and friends, and the effect the subjective view of an outsider will have on one's identity. Both Sarraute and Woolf use a similar character to bring these interactions to light. In both novels the writers have placed an "outsider" or character who is not a member of the immediate family at the center of the novel, but one who is close enough to feel both included in the complex interactions of the family and simultaneously removed from the dynamic to which they play witness. It is the nameless, nephew-narrator of Martereau and Lily Briscoe of To the Lighthouse who function as similar devices to allow the reader a level of access to these families, as well as to enlighten the reader to the complex psychological forces and power struggles that play out and affect the development of one's identity within the family.

In To the Lighthouse, Woolf's narrative moves among the interior monologues of a number of characters, alternating perspective to give the reader a panoramic view of what transpires between the Ramsay family and their guests. Both Mrs. Ramsay's and Lily Briscoe's perspectives tend to dominate the narration, but ultimately it is Lily who stands out as the leading and final voice of the novel. She is an outsider, a guest of the family living in the shadow of Mrs. Ramsay, yet as André Viola observes, "Lily does function as an adopted, but marginalized, daughter" (272). Her character eventually dominates the latter chapter of the novel, for "as To the Lighthouse is a kind of Künstlerroman, it is fairly easy to follow Lily's progression and setbacks from the morning of her return to the island in part III" (272), as well as her growth as a character throughout the entire work. Lily functions as a witness to the husband/wife dynamic between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay as well as to family's interaction with the guests and the world around them. She asserts her judgment of the family throughout, both seeking acceptance from Mrs. Ramsay and keeping a distance between herself and this dominating female character. The ambiguity of Lily's position in the family gives the reader a sense of the familiar, if not universal desire for human intimacy, as well as what Woolf sees as the inability to really achieve that sort of deep connection. Lily's thoughts illuminate this struggle:

What art was there, known to love or cunning, by which one pressed through into those secret chambers? What device for becoming, like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored? Could the body achieve, or the mind, subtly mingling in the intricate passages of the brain? or the heart? Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs. Ramsay one? for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge, she had thought, leaning her head on Mrs. Ramsay's knee. (Lighthouse 54)
Despite her effort to really know Mrs. Ramsay, to achieve an understanding of her through this "mingling" that would essentially make them like liquid, or two individuals merged into "one jar," Lily knows she will always be unable to fully know this woman without personally experiencing her thoughts or life from her perspective. As her train of thought continues, she is unable to achieve this intimacy she longs for, as she does not merge in spirit with this woman or gain true knowledge of her soul: "Nothing happened. Nothing! Nothing! as she leant her head against Mrs. Ramsay's knee [. . .] How then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were?" (54). In these moments of the book, Lily embodies the outsider, for she is literally outside the family, but at the same time she is an archetype for those who find themselves without true access to the knowledge of another.

In Martereau, this belief is at the center of Sarraute's philosophy, and through the character of the nephew-narrator, her narrative style works to convey these inaccessible interior thoughts for the reader as faithfully as possible. Like Lily Briscoe, the nephew-narrator plays the role of the outsider, the nephew and blood relation of the family at the center of Martereau, but forever an outsider seeking access to and approval from the aunt and uncle with whom he interacts. Unlike Woolf's narrative style in To the Lighthouse, in which the reader has direct access to the thoughts of a few characters, Sarraute limits the reader's perspective to the nephew-narrator's interior monologue throughout the entire novel and gives the reader full access to his thoughts. Mimicking the role of the author, the nephew-narrator provides self-fabricated and questionable interior monologues for each of the other characters in the book which in turn result in an instability of character throughout the novel. The interactions he dreams up are biased, changing and completely constructed from his subjective point of view. In particular, his shifting perspective on Martereau, the family friend he once admired and eventually grows to distrust, underlines the failure of his ability to really know the people around him. As Valerie Minogue notes of a scene in the book which is re-played in the narrator's mind in four variations:

The apparent solidity of Martereau disintegrates to the point where, faced by Martereau's now multiple possibilities, the narrator interprets in several different versions Martereau's reactions after a visit from the uncle [. . .] Because of the uncertainty of the narrative, Martereau's petrification by the phrase homme de paille (man of straw) is as much a linguistic event as a psychological one. To whose psychology can we assign it? To Martereau, playing a role in one of many dramatic versions of a scene projected by the narrator? To the narrator, projecting his own feelings and experience into the dubious interpretation of a clearly elusive figure? (77)
Just as Lily Briscoe's limited perspective isolates her from understanding others, the instability of the nephew-narrator's perspective emphasizes the isolation of the individual. However, Sarraute also isolates the reader from the thoughts of the other characters, and her technique takes this theme to another level by illuminating humanity's inability to truly judge the motivations of another, as well as the author's inability to accurately portray a character other than one's self.

In "Conversations" Sarraute speaks of the narrative dilemma for authors, who are naturally limited in their ability to portray characters other than themselves with any accuracy: "Ces hommes qu'il voudrait tant connaître et faire connaître, quand il essaie de les montrer se mouvant dans la lumière aveuglante du grand jour, lui semblent n'être que de belles poupées, destinées à amuser les enfants." (These men whom he would so like to know and make known, when he tries to show them moving about in the blinding light of day, seem to him to be nothing but well-made dolls, intended for the amusement of children) (L'Ère 88/101). Through the flawed perspective of the nephew-narrator, this inability to represent another person adds a layer to the complexity of the narrative and reinforces this theory behind Sarraute's work as well as her ongoing pursuit for accurate representation of reality in the novel.

Another effect of the nephew-narrator's limited perspective in Martereau is the constant feeling of distrust and uncertainty he projects through his dealings with his family and Martereau. As Minogue points out of the narrator's eroding trust in Martereau, "the sequence effectively underlines the fact that Martereau is no longer for the narrator a haven of stability, but has been assimilated into the shifting and dangerous narrative world of the family" (81), and the family world of Martereau as seen by the nephew-narrator is certainly dangerous. He is forever on his guard in speaking with his aunt: "Elle perçoit, elle présent tous les mouvements, recroquevillements, de la petite bête apeurée qui se terre du mieux qu'elle peut au fond de son trou." (She catches, she foresees all the movements, all the attempts to curl up in a ball, on the part of the frightened little animal that hides as best it can deep down in its hole) (Martereau 23/15)2, and he takes the same posture with his uncle, from whom "je plie l'échine, je rentre la tête dans les épaules," (I cower, I duck my head) (Martereau 35/25). He is further intimidated by the bond between his female cousin and her mother (his aunt), observing "c'est d'elles que j'ai peur, plus peur de lui...c'est en elles qu'il y a quelque chose que pour rien au monde je ne voudrais déclencher, quelque chose de redoutable, d'implacable, quelque chose qui va s'éveiller, se dérouler lentement..." (I'm more afraid of them than I am of him...there is something in them which, for nothing in the world, I should like to set going, something dreadful, implacable, something that will awaken and get underway slowly...) (Martereau 33/24). Through the nephew-narrator's timid and highly guarded interactions with his family, Sarraute portrays a dangerous playing field within the family where insecurities are heightened, relationships are manipulated, and no one can be trusted.

However, this game of manipulation is in large part just a construct of the imagination of the nephew-narrator, a device which once again underscores the fragility of the first-person narrative of the nouveau roman versus the less abstract (albeit experimental for the period), alternating narratives of To the Lighthouse. In both works the authors represent the origins of manipulation within these modern families where, as Minogue points out, nothing is ever neutral. While Lily Briscoe's experience at the Ramsay family dinner is far less threatening to her individual will than the nephew-narrator's experience within his family, she feels the same pull to appease Mrs. Ramsay as the nephew-narrator feels to gain approval and protection from his uncle. While Lily caves to Mrs. Ramsay's imploring look, which begs of her, "I am drowning, my dear, in seas of fire. Unless you apply some balm to the anguish of this hour and say something nice to that young man there, life will run upon the rocks" (Lighthouse 94), the nephew-narrator undergoes a similar experience during his countryside walk with his uncle. Here too, the nephew-narrator must give up control of the conversation and his own desire to avoid the usual subject of business, so as to make his uncle comfortable. Though his uncle is the dominant of the two, the nephew feels his attempt to make his uncle aware of the beauty around them has backfired, and he must make amends to save his uncle from this embarrassment:

J'ai des remords. Je l'ai arrache de sa coquille, de sa carapace, ou il était en sûreté, oú il se sentait partout chez lui, dans laquelle il se transportait sans crainte d'un bout à l'autre du monde... Mais ce n'est pas cela, cela n'est rien. J'ai fait bien pis: c'est de moi que je l'ai arrache.
I am filled with remorse. It was I who dragged him out of his shell, out of the carapace in which he had been secure, in which he felt everywhere at home, in which he betook himself, unafraid, from one end of the world to the other...But it's not only that, that's nothing. I did even worse: it was from me myself that I tore him away. (Martereau 42/32)
Sensing this, the nephew-narrator quickly returns the subject of conversation to something his uncle can comfortably discuss. Much like Lily Briscoe, he feels he is socially obligated to protect what he perceives to be the weaknesses and insecurities in his family members while his own are under attack. However, as Minogue notes, "The narrator recognizes an impulse to launch into a conversation which will satisfy his uncle's needs. The feeling that his is the initiative, and that he is humoring his uncle, is, however, soon displaced by the feeling that he is only responding, like a well-trained dog to minimal signs from his master" (69). In contrast, while Lily Briscoe recognizes that her actions can be used by Mrs. Ramsay to create an air of comfort and harmony among the guests at dinner, the nephew-narrator's actions function to create discord as he passively participates in a greater game of manipulation within his surrogate family.

Sarraute's choice of the limited first-person perspective through the nephew-narrator's character tends to leave open the questions of motivation behind the interactions of the family, as well as the ability of individuals to connect on an intimate level, in a way Woolf's narrative does not. By alternating between multiple perspectives of the main characters in To the Lighthouse, Woolf allows the reader to find some basis for truth in the assumptions Lily makes of each character, and thereby allows both the characters and reader, to really "know" the motivations behind an individual. However, Sarraute's narrative confines the reader to the perspective of the nephew-narrator who is forever floundering in his own mind. The effect is that both the nephew-narrator and the reader are never sure if he is really helping the business dealings between his uncle and Martereau, or if he is just being manipulated by his family to falsely see deception in a truly honest man. With the limited first person perspective, Sarraute creates a more recognizable depiction of the family dynamic which relates to her audience how difficult it is to understand the motivations and identity of another based on interaction alone.

There is another notable trait both Lily Briscoe and the nephew-narrator contribute to the function of these narratives, and that is the androgyny or lack of gender their characters bring to their respective family dynamics. Both Sarraute and Woolf have greatly emphasized the importance of writing from a perspective that lacks a strong gendered voice in their own works. In A Room of One's Own, a published series of speeches delivered in the year following the release of To the Lighthouse, Woolf speaks of the importance of writing from an androgynous point of view saying, "it is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly...Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the act of creation can be accomplished" (104). Similarly, with the goal of writing from a universal standpoint, Sarraute avoids engendering her work altogether, observing "Quand j'écris, je ne suis ni homme ni femme ni chien ni chat" (When I write I am neither man nor woman nor dog nor cat) (Jefferson 96). While both writers have placed similar characters at the center of their works to function outside of a strong gender stereotype, the effect these characters have on the works differs greatly in theme and structure on Martereau and To the Lighthouse.

The function of the genderless or androgynous perspective can be seen in Lily Briscoe and the nephew-narrator, the main characters through which Sarraute and Woolf speak to the reader most directly. For instance, a narrating character whose identity is essentially grounded in a gender role, as are Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay or the aunt and uncle of Martereau, might present a tough challenge to the author who wishes to argue in favor of a universal commonality of character. Both To the Lighthouse, and Martereau to a more exaggerated extent, are full of these characters. As Minogue points out of the aunt in Martereau, she is surrounded by "a reckless proliferation of glamorous clichés," (69) as fabricated by the nephew-narrator, continuing on to observe: "The everyday world of social 'reality' is riddled with such stereotypes — the envious poor, the idle rich, the indulgent father, the spoiled child, the practical man, the sensitive soul, the worthless dreamer — instant typologies that arrange experience into crude patterns, but constantly give way to other typologies" (71). The nephew-narrator and Lily Briscoe work to neutralize these common typologies. Both characters observe the couplings around them from a distanced perspective, one that is not as defined by the typologies of gender, and on a basic level this perspective allows the author to shed light on the similarities between humans underneath the assumed gender roles.

However, the differences between Lily Briscoe's androgyny and the nephew-narrator's genderlessness affect the works differently. Lily Briscoe is androgynous in the sense that she has rejected the societal expectations of a woman, that of marriage and motherhood, for the life of a single woman and an artist. She is regularly referred to as unfortunately plain with Chinese features, and she tries to eschew her social obligations of nurturing and entertaining the men around her. As Mary Lou Emery observes of Lily, ". . .her position as she paints in the garden, between the feminized house and the masculinized lighthouse, suggests an androgynous space or perhaps a feminized public sphere" (229). In her role as an artist, Lily embodies Woolf's idea of woman-manliness that works most effectively at communicating the reality in Woolf's own art. Lily's androgyny functions for the reader as a neutral perspective, one that represents what is at the core of human identity before it becomes overly engendered by the passing expectations of society, and this combination of genders works to positively support Lily's development as an individual.

In contrast, Sarraute's narrator-nephew seems to be written from more of a genderless perspective, and to establish his ambiguity, Sarraute gives the reader around 25 pages of his interior monologue before revealing the nephew's gender. This first impression is supported throughout the novel as Sarraute gradually reveals a narrator struggling to fill the traditional role of the young man of the 1950's without any natural ability. His lack of business sense is highlighted by his inability to complete his uncle's transaction with Martereau properly; he tends to feel more at home and included in the company of the women of the novel; he often feels alienated by his uncle, who mocks his artistic leanings; and he is in general a passive, physically and emotionally weak character who does not embody the social norms for masculine behavior. This is not to say he acts in a feminized way either; it is as though he is situated outside both genders — easily pliable to the situation and the whims of the people around him. His lack of a strong gendered identity can be placed parallel to Lily Briscoe, yet unlike the stability of the androgynous Lily, the nephew-narrator's perspective cannot uphold a pure, detached perspective under the influence of those around him, and he eventually succumbs to instability. In lacking any definitive qualities, his character works, as Minogue points out, to "display and undermine, to persuade and deceive, so that his narration, persistently ambiguous, is undone as fast as it is knitted. It thus avoids establishing an authoritative narrative which would be the negation of Nathalie Sarraute's convictions" (72). In his flexibility of character, the nephew-narrator embodies a fluidity of self and identity beneath typology that both Woolf and Sarraute have addressed in their respective ways, yet with an instability that is the opposite of Lily's strength in androgyny. While Lily finds strength of character in what can be seen as the marriage of both genders within herself, Sarraute has given this a more complex treatment with the nephew-narrator's character, who shows an instability and fluidity at the core of an individual which precedes all gender roles.

When it comes to questions of identity in Martereau and To the Lighthouse, and in particular, the validation of one's identity in middle-class society, both authors seem to place a similar emphasis on the role of one's work as the ultimate claim to usefulness of an individual in a bourgeoisie family. Work, the lack of work, the changing perspective on one's work as well as the quality of the work itself seems to often lie at the heart of a character's confidence in the self. The men in To the Lighthouse — Mr. Ramsay, Charles Tansley and Augustus Carmichael — all share an internal battle regarding their work: Mr. Ramsay feels his work as a philosopher falls short of genius; Charles Tansley is still struggling to make his mark in academia; and Augustus Carmichael's career in poetry has plateaued in the first part of the novel. Likewise with the prominent female characters: Mrs. Ramsay's work as a mother is all engrossing and leaves her little time for herself, and Lily Briscoe's relationship with her work (and rejection of Mrs. Ramsay's role as a mother and wife) dominates the third section of the book.

In To the Lighthouse, work factors prominently in each character's identity, and how one evolves with their work greatly affects their individuality in the novel. While Mr. Ramsay struggles to deal with his imposed role as social, caring and actively involved father, he would prefer to focus on his stalled academic work. Throughout To the Lighthouse he avoids taking his son James to the island's lighthouse, seeing it as a distraction to his work and unnecessary to his son's happiness. Yet he is eventually forced into the role of an actively involved father after Mrs. Ramsay's death. Through this change, he is able to adapt and become more engaged with his children, and he finally sees the value in taking his children to the lighthouse.

Likewise, Charles Tansley seeks to make his mark in academia as Mr. Ramsay has, yet he is crippled by his disdain for those in the Ramsay's social class. In a similar change of perspective in the final chapter of To the Lighthouse, Tansley is able to rise above this and evolve into the role of a husband and educator, raucously "preaching brotherly love" (200) to a packed lecture hall. Even the ornery old poet Augustus Carmichael, who never really liked Mrs. Ramsay, is able to revive his career in the aftermath of World War I — by embracing change through the destruction of the war and the shocking, human loss of Andrew Ramsay, he finds inspiration to write the most powerful poetry of his career and reaches a level of fame. In this way these three male characters are able to achieve wholeness through the evolution of their work and a deeper connection to the people around them. Despite her characters' struggle with self-perception through work, Woolf offers a solution which can be found through balancing work with the interpersonal interactions among family and friends. While one will probably never really know the other, the characters must still try to make this connection as the realm of the domestic is tied directly to the realm of work. The novel ends on this balance in the individual where Lily is able to find wholeness in her abilities, and she can successfully complete her work by drawing a line down the center.

Similarly, Lily Briscoe's and Mrs. Ramsay's work define them throughout the novel, yet here it is only Lily's work that evolves and finds this balance. Mrs. Ramsay's work remains in the home, and, as Jane Duran points out:

Mrs. Ramsay does not have a project in the male sense — this is, in fact, one of the foci of the novel. But she has her own capacity for questioning, reflection, and self-absorption, and just precisely because she has that capacity, she is already engaged in a project of her own[. . .]Mrs. Ramsay is not simply a parent, she is a caretaker and one who nurtures. (303)
Yet Mrs. Ramsay's project does not change, and she often feels trapped in this role where she has little opportunity or encouragement to blossom intellectually due to the needs of her husband, who Woolf depicts thinking of his wife in this manner: "Go on reading, You don't look sad now, he thought. And he wondered what she was reading, and exaggerated her ignorance, her simplicity, for he liked to think that she was not clever, not book-learned at all. He wondered if she understood what she was reading. Probably not, he thought. She was astonishingly beautiful" (Lighthouse 123). Her fatigue with this role intrudes at certain moments of the book, giving her a sense of loneliness, particularly in the opening scenes on the porch where she contemplates the lighthouse and focuses inward: "She looked up over her knitting and met the third stroke and it seemed to her like her own eyes meeting her own eyes, searching as she alone could search into her mind and her heart. . ." (66). It is here Mrs. Ramsay finds a solace in the life she has chosen and the work she does, yet even when her work is accomplished, as with the end of the dinner party she orchestrated, she sees it as "a scene which was vanishing even as she looked. . .and it had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past" (113-14). Just as this scene vanishes into the past, so does Mrs. Ramsay with her death in "Time Passes," and the reader is left with Lily Briscoe struggling with her identity as an artist and single woman.

In her study of the woman's Künstlerroman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis notes, "For bourgeois women, torn between their class values and the subset of values historically affirmed for their gender caste, the figure of the female artist expressed the doubled experience of a dominant ideology that was supposed to be muted in them and that therefore became oppositional for their gender" (84). Lily's character embodies the artist figure of the female Künstlerroman, both struggling for something beyond the role society expects of her (as embodied by Mrs. Ramsay) and struggling to discover the role of art, her work, in her life. Yet it is the acceptance of both aspects that allows her to complete her work, as Emery observes, "By linking Lily Briscoe's vision as a painter with her re-vision of the traditional wife and mother, Mrs. Ramsay, Woolf suggests the infusion of one woman's artistic creativity with that of another woman's more domestic activity. . .only after seeing Mrs. Ramsay knitting again and at a distance can Lily complete her painting" (225). Yet she also looks to the masculine element, the artist Augustus Carmichael, for inspiration and guidance, and by accepting both sides of herself, she is able, in this androgyny, to create. Lily, like the men of the novel, is able to complete her work and find personal meaning only when she is able to find a way to accommodate both the societal and domestic expectations, and her personal interests in her work.

Like Woolf, Sarraute places emphasis on the role of work on the development and self-confidence of the individual, yet with a very different result. Rather than finding identity in their work and graduating to a meaningful life, Sarraute's characters are constantly plagued by doubts or challenged by others based on the nature or lack of work in their lives. Much like Mr. Ramsay, the uncle in Martereau has established for himself a traditional role as the hard-working father of the household. He is a savvy businessman and founds his inner strength on his accomplishments, for the family is wealthy due to the fortune he has amassed. He criticizes Martereau, his peer, for being a jack-of-all-trades without ever settling on one career. He speaks condescendingly towards the nephew-narrator because the boy is sickly, artistic, currently unemployed and living with the family. Yet for all his superiority, the uncle's role as the patriarch is eventually undermined by both Martereau and the aunt, for the nephew-narrator believes he has discovered them having an affair. Sarraute presents a seemingly stable concept of self that is quickly undermined by the actions of another within the family. Despite the uncle's attempts to criticize Martereau behind his back for not having a stable career — perhaps the defining quality of a man in the 1950's — in the mind of the nephew-narrator the uncle has lost authority to Martereau who has emasculated him by sleeping with the aunt.

Similar to the tactics of the uncle to establish superiority in the family, the aunt flaunts her former life as an artist and her temporary abandonment of the uncle twenty years earlier over the heads of both her husband and nephew, feeling that this work gave her an independence and sense of self they cannot compromise. Like a parody of the heroines of the Künstlerroman, in the opening pages of the novel the aunt describes to the nephew-narrator her temporary self-liberation from the charmed life into which she married, flaunting her bohemian, artist's life of the 1930's and her financial independence. Yet in her nephew's eyes, she uses this little story to assert her superiority of character, as he is unable to prove himself through his art due to his sickness. Despite his scorn, he hides the reaction he feels to her smug anecdote, which she also uses to control the uncle:

Il y aurait bien un moyen pour moi, héroïque, désespère, le moyen le ceux qui savent qu'ils n'ont plus rien a perdre. Ce serait de me laisser aller complètement, de tout lâcher, tous les freins, de leur crier que je ne suis pas dupe, moi non plus, que je vois leurs lâches petites manoeuvres...lâches, cruels...je ne la gagne pas, moi, ma vie, et j'en souffre, ils le savent bien...je suis malade, je lui crierais cela...c'est pour ça que je croupis ici, a écouter vos radotages stupides...
There would of course be one way for me, a heroic, desperate way, the one used by people who know that they have nothing to lose. That would be, to let myself go completely, to give up everything, to release my brakes, and shout at them that I am no fool, either, that I see through their cowardly little game...cowardly and cruel...I don't earn my living, I don't, and I feel uncomfortable about it, which they well know...I'm ill, I'd shout at her...That's why I'm stagnating here, listening to your stupid twaddle. (Martereau 24/16)

Here Sarraute gives the reader a young man whose confidence and self image disintegrates, not only as a result of the self-praise he perceives as an attack from his aunt, but also by his own internal struggle and self-punishment. For the nephew-narrator, work becomes a tool of superiority between members of the family, and the perceived independence work brings to an individual is used to shift the power dynamic within his family. It gives his aunt and uncle a type of leverage the nephew-narrator himself does not possess. His financial dependency on his uncle's family is his main source of insecurity; it is often at the root of his suspicions directed in turn at Martereau, his uncle, and his aunt. One also wonders if these created dramas would play out so powerfully between this relatively wealthy family if they were really well occupied with some form of employment rather than the manipulation of each other. Regardless, the work or lack of work in Martereau functions to create the constructed identities each character projects to the other, whether it is real or fabricated. Like Woolf's To the Lighthouse, work takes a prominent place in Martereau in the construction of identity. However, while the characters of To the Lighthouse eventually benefit from a balanced approach to family relations and work, whereas the characters in Martereau use their "work" as a false and constructed façade to protect themselves from the constant attacks of another to gain superiority.

While the structure of the two novels and the roles of the main characters seem to point to a similar belief in the collective origins of the individual, or at least a shared isolation and subjective experience, Sarraute's and Woolf's works are clearly speaking on different levels when it comes to the psychology of character. As we have seen, Lily Briscoe and the nephew-narrator both originate as the genderless or androgynous observer, contributing to an idea of a universal experience between individuals, yet functioning in different ways. They are useful in this capacity as it seems necessary to have a main character that can make these observations and bring these ideas to light from a neutral ground, rather than from a highly gendered perspective, yet while Lily gains strength in her androgyny, the nephew-narrator struggles for identity and works to underscore Sarraute's belief in the instability of character at the foundation of all individuals. Similarly, while both authors use the role of work as a definer or protector of identity, Martereau lacks the uplifting quality of work for the individual as in To the Lighthouse, and Sarraute's characters only use it as a means of destroying the confidence of the other, rather than progression towards self-knowledge.

Despite these differences, Sarraute and Woolf have both chosen a style that seeks to create, or re-create, an accurate depiction of life through the narrative. In doing so, they support the idea that there is a shared reality among their characters as well as their readers — a belief that we all interact in the world on the same level. As Jefferson notes of Sarraute, "The basic premiss of Sarraute's work is that this subjectivity is a universal. . .Yet while the condition of subjectivity is universal, the nature of experience as it is actually lived condemns all subjects to encounter others as characters rather than equals in subjectivity" (40). This idea can be seen in both the nephew's perceptions of the people around him who are all exaggerated in their flaws, as well as in the characters of To the Lighthouse who constantly question the foreignness of the actions of those around them and struggle with mutual alienation.

In both of these works, this universal subjectivity tends to bring up questions regarding the boundaries between individuals. As Ethel Cornwell has noted of Woolf, "...her belief [was] that personal identity is an illusion — a necessary illusion, but an illusion nonetheless. In reality, one is part of the general mass of humanity, one of the waves that emerge, separate and distinct for a time, then dissolve into the sea mass again" (4). Similarly, Jefferson has asserted that in Sarraute's work, this universal subjectivity "...seems to introduce a constant and thorough-going uncertainty about where the boundaries between subjects lie" (41). The ambiguity of boundaries can be seen in Martereau where the nephew-narrator is the subject through whom the reader knows the other characters; he is the filter of their identities, and they cannot be represented but through his highly subjective and flawed perspective. All the reader knows of these characters is tinged by the imagined interior monologues of the nephew-narrator, an experience as impossible to escape as the constancy of one's own perspective. Extending this observation further, these characters pass through yet another filter, that of the author herself, a layer of the art Sarraute was keenly aware of and which is at the heart of her work. Above all, Sarraute was aware that the author will always be limited by her own perspective, and thus she chooses a style of narration that lacks any self-deception about her abilities to portray characters. She gives the reader one character who perceives life and the people around her as she does.

While Sarraute's and Woolf's portrayal of the subjective experience among characters in these two novels tends to diverge when questioning how well one can really know another, the basic idea of shared subjectivity directly affects the choice in the narrative formats of both Martereau and To the Lighthouse. Woolf pioneered this use of dialogue and interior monologue to examine the shared subjective experience, while Sarraute sought to refine the style and enhance her representation of reality, laboring under the philosophy that, as Jefferson puts it, "the novel is an inherently evolutionary genre, and that signs of change in its form are symptoms of its overall health rather than portents of its imminent demise" (119). Sarraute's nouveau roman still sought to explore many of the same questions the modernists addressed, yet as if following Ezra Pound's modernist proclamation to "Make it new," her style stays true to her vision of reality by building on and changing the perspective of the subjectivity of character once explored by Woolf with Sarraute's vision of the limited, purely first-person narrative.


1 All cited English translations of L'Ère du Soupçon are from the 1963 edition of Tropisms and The Age of Suspicion, translated by Maria Jolas. Page numbers for the English translation will follow that of the original text.
2 All cited English translations of Martereau are from the Maria Jolas, 1959 English translation. Page numbers for the English translation will follow that of the original text.

Works Cited

Blau DuPlessis, Rachel. Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Cornwell, Ethel F. "Virginia Woolf, Nathalie Sarraute, and Mary McCarthy; Three Approaches to Character in Modern Fiction." The International French Review 4 (1977): 3-10.

Duran, Jane. "Virginia Woolf, Time, and the Real." Philosophy and Literature 28 (2004): 300-308.

Emery, Mary Lou. "Robbed of Meaning: The Work at the Center of To the Lighthouse." Modern Fiction Studies 38 (1992): 217-234.

Jefferson, Ann. Nathalie Sarraute, Fiction and Theory: Questions of Difference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Minogue, Valerie. Nathalie Sarraute and the War of the Words: A Study of Five Novels. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981.

Sarraute, Nathalie. Tropisms and The Age of Suspicion. Trans. Maria Jolas. London: John Calder, 1963.
---. L'Ère du Soupçon. Paris: Gallimard, 1956.
---. Martereau. Paris: Gallimard, 1953.
---. Martereau. Trans. Maria Jolas. New York: George Braziller Inc., 1959.

Viola, André. "Fluidity versus Muscularity: Lily's Dilemma in Woolf's To the Lighthouse." Journal of Modern Literature 24 (2000/2001): 271-289.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Orlando: Harcourt, 1927.
---. A Room of One's Own. San Diego: Harcourt, 1929.

Back to top







home | back issues | store | links | submissions | about | contact

© 2007 Comparative Literature Student Association at San Francisco State University
design: landisdesigns.com