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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The art of dialogue in The sacred fount by Henry James and Martereau by Nathalie Sarraute Burns, Nancy Jane


Conversation in Martereau is largely an affair of platitudinous and banal statements masking the antagonistic content of the subconversation. Consisting mainly of dialogue, The Sacred Fount presents the polished talk that evolves as the characters attempt to unravel an enigma. Though the aims of both authors are very different in many respects, Sarraute and James share a common fascination with the way in which language constitutes a means of dissimulation rather than communication. Dialogue is consequently a problematic element of both novels, registering the drama of the unspoken through commonplace remarks, echoes, and pauses which suggest the presence of a discrete psychological reality. In seeking to renew the dialogue form in the novel, both authors depict dramatic situations in which speech functions as a means of manipulation. The nature of reported discourse in the two novels will be discussed using Jakobson's six-part model of communication, examining in detail the constitutive elements of Jamesian and Sarrautian conversation. The stylistic traits of each author will be considered as a function of the specific constraints of indirect and duplicitous communication. In juxtaposition to the "trompe-l'oeil,” or illusory, reality presented in the dialogue, a pattern of repetitive social exchanges becomes apparent as characters make contact in conversation. While James is most interested in the way in which covert strategies are expressed in speech through implication and allusion, Sarraute examines the effect of speech upon the listener: in both cases, indirect language is perceived as accomplishing certain acts and producing unpredictable effects. The interplay between hidden strategies in James or tropistic activity in Sarraute and dialogue becomes more evident in the narrative discourse, which develops the suggestions and possibilities inherent in the reported speech. The polyphony of the dialogue form is dominated in the narrative discourse by an obsessive observer, who, in the case of The Sacred Fount, is patently unreliable, or at best, unduly sensitive, as in Martereau. An examination of the various forms of narrative intervention, from sporadic inquit interpolations to sustained commentary, suggests the contribution of each novelist in innovating the dialogue form. The post-Victorian experimental novel of Henry James is considered in relation to the nouveau roman, the latter illuminating the autonomous play of language in The Sacred Fount, which documents—if not "l'aventure d'une ecriture"—the adventure of the creative imagination. Placed in parallel with the more traditional dialogue form, Sarraute's work is seen to exemplify the subconscious impulsions generated by the nature of the dialogue. Each author sheds light on the artistic project of the other: incipient, subconscious motivations are brought to light in the Jamesian text, while reported speech is revealed as having a major significance in Sarraute's fiction.

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