When Nathalie Sarraute depicts a knitting woman in her 1932 novel Tropismes, a figure “silent and apart, her head bowed modestly, counting her stitches under her breath” (31), I argue that she points to such a woman as a means of thinking through ideas about the texture and materiality of a woman’s interiority. Meditatively counting her stitches, the knitting woman appears to turn within, using her handicraft to gain access to her interiority while building fabric on her needles. Taking an interest in this and several other examples of women engaging with fiber arts, fabric, and textiles in Sarraute’s novel, my paper examines the link between these activities and the French word tissu. In an effort to illuminate connections between Sarraute’s depictions of women using fabric and Sarraute’s simultaneous fascination with the female body, I contend that the dual nature of the meaning of tissu becomes crucial, first in its understanding as cloth or fabric and second in its understanding as bodily tissue. Like a spider, weaving a web from its own secretions, the knitting woman takes control of the substance akin to bodily tissu emerging from her interior. Engaging both feminist and psychoanalytic approaches, my paper foregrounds Sarraute’s tissu as a way of thinking about the novel itself as a secretion of its author’s interiority, an embodied web of ideas and images over which its female author has agency and power in the act of her weaving.
Olivia Carpenter is a second-year PhD student in the English department at Harvard. Her work primarily focuses on race and gender in the long eighteenth century in literature from Great Britain and beyond, though she maintains broader interests in feminist literary criticism and the novel.