Analysis of André Breton’s Nadja

Written when the French writer André Breton (1896–1966) was 32 years old, Nadja is a novel that lies between poetry and fiction and thus embodies, as do all of Breton’s writings, what he set out to reveal in his Manifesto of Surrealism (1924). Nadja expresses his quest for a new direction that he labeled “the new spirit” (l’esprit nouveau). This in part came out of his estrangement and dissatisfaction with the existing order in early 20thcentury France, primarily with the bourgeoisie. Breton defined surrealism as “pure psychic automatism, by which an attempt is made to express, either verbally, in writing or in any other manner, the true functioning of thought. The dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by reason, excluding any aesthetic or moral preoccupation.” As a true expression of the surrealist ideal, Nadja, in its composition, themes, and “story” reflects the dreamlike reality that Breton called “surreality” (surréalisme), a reality that was more than an idea but an ideology.

The novel is written in a style that is part diary and part philosophical musings. With its mixture of fact and fiction and no discernible plotline, it can appear at first reading to be almost incoherent. Its ambiguous nature is reflected not only in the style but also in the content of the work, which one critic describes as being due to the fact that Nadja tends “to state rather than to explain.” According to Roger Cardinal, Nadja might have better been called “an exercise in ‘Enigmatics’ ”—enigmatics being a curious discipline that seeks to come to terms with phenomena that resist ultimate clarification. Beginning with the question Who am I? we are led by our protagonist and narrator, Breton, who wanders aimlessly through an ephemeral Paris, a Paris of chance encounters that seem to lead to nothing concrete, but to a curious list of “signs.” In addition, the first-person narrative is supplemented by 44 photographs of places and objects that inspire the author or are connected to the mysterious figure of Nadja. Through this maze of arbitrary signs, a new order is revealed that creates a feeling of coherence despite the lack of plot. In turn, these signs and photos all add up to create a feeling of dream and, like the unconscious, lead us to a new, deeper perception of reality, which was the effect Breton was aiming for. For Breton life and philosophy were one, and Nadja as an attempt to be the “surrealist novel” par excellence thus becomes a living text, another surrealist manifesto, a true, living expression of the surrealist ideal.


The narrative is told in the first person and is divided into three parts. The first part is a factual explanation of Breton’s position and beliefs, an introduction to the purpose of his writing and to the principles of surrealism in general. Here, Breton relates his new direction in art and life but only “the most decisive episodes” of it, and only those parts that are “at the mercy of chance . . . temporarily escaping my control, admitting me to an almost forbidden world of sudden parallels, petrifying coincidences, and reflexes peculiar to each individual . . . flashes of light that would make you see, really see.” He conceives that this world will reveal itself to him (and to any other observer who, like himself, undertakes the same challenge) through a series of “signals” (signaux) that he well relate but not altogether decipher. Finally, he explains that as he will be on foot, he names his point of departure as “the Hôtel des Grandes Hommes,” for which we are also given the first in the series of photos and drawings that appear throughout the novel. The fact of naming and seeing (hotels, theaters, apartments, streets, people) allows the reader both literally and metaphorically to follow his footsteps through Paris and thus into the new world of surrealism.

The narrative features not only places, but also people. These people are again not inconsequential. They are also on the surrealist path and are thus revealed and able to be seen due to this fact. We might recognise Breton’s “chance” encounters with other agents of surrealism: Paul Eluard, Robert Desnos, Benjamin Péret, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Phillipe Soupault, Max Ernst, among others. Not only are their pursuits decidedly “surrealist,” but they point us to seek out their more “surrealist” works outside the text. For example, Breton’s description of Desnos’s automatic writing and his trip to the theater to see the obscure play Les Détraquées by P. L. Palau are to name but two.

The second part of the novel, in the form of diary entries, represents surrealism in practice. It is here that Breton first meets and has encounters with the novel’s heroine, Nadja. Through conversations with her, chance encounters, and an exchange of drawings and secrets, she becomes the key to Breton’s surrealist revelation. Nadja’s symbolic, enigmatic drawings are littered throughout the text and feature captions such as “who is she?” (qui est elle?), a question that again links to Breton’s quest for finding himself. This is a woman who assumes many guises—magician, medium, ghost—a woman-enigma whose strange movements juxtapose with Breton’s factual way of telling. In fact, for surrealists “woman” personified “the muse,” and thus the character of Nadja as the personification of this ideal leads him from one reality into another. Nadja has been described as “the quintessential surrealist romance.” But this is no ordinary romance, rather one that lies between artist and muse, Breton and Nadja, a love that leads to surrealist truth.

The opening question therefore, “who am I?” is one of the key questions in the novel and seems to lead from the 19th century French writer Arthur Rimbaud’s statement, “I is an other” (‘je’ est un autre) and Descartes’s statement, “I think therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum). Breton’s philosophical meditations on life and identity follow Rimbaud in that he tries to locate him self initially by looking outside himself into the world that surrounds him, with one of his most poignant signs being, of course, his female-muse, Nadja. Descartes’s “thinking man” is also reflected in the way that Breton “reads” the signs he finds in his exterior world, attaching significance to them that he hopes will eventually lead to revelation. Nadja therefore, as the quintessential “sign” brought to him by the powers of “objective chance” (le hazard objectif, a term coined by Breton that helps him on his quest to find surreality), is the “other” that Breton seeks. For Breton then, “I” really does lie in “the other,” and Nadja, whose very name, significantly, “is the beginning of the word hope in Russian and because it is only the beginning” offers the key with which to find himself. Naming the novel after Nadja again reinforces all these elements for the reader, who, Breton hopes, will follow in his and Nadja’s footsteps into the surrealist world.

The final part of the novel returns to the style of the first part: Breton is now reflecting on everything he has learned through his encounters with Nadja, with his attempt to “live” in the “surreal.” He traces his way back through the narrative again to try and decipher it. The very act of writing it down creates it anew and gives him (and the reader) a record, or evidence, of a world that he has lived, seen, and experienced. Breton’s quasi-novel is thus in a sense another addition to his long line of writings, all of which are a continuation of his “surrealist manifesto.” The question remains for readers to decide whether through reading they have entered into this world too.

Breton, André. Manifestes du Surréalisme. Paris: Folio, 1985.
———. Nadja. Paris: Gallimard, 1928.
———. Poems of André Breton: A Bilingual Anthology. Translated by Jean-Pierre Cauvin and Mary Ann Caws. Boston: Commonwealth Books/Black Widow Press, 2006.
Durozoi, Gerard. History of the Surrealist Movement. Translated by Alison Anderson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Polizzotti, Mark. Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995. Le Surréalisme: Anthologie. Paris: Flammarion, 2002

Categories: French Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: