Alain Robbe-Grillet Short Fiction Analysis - Essay

Alain Robbe-Grillet Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In the 1950’s and 1960’s Alain Robbe-Grillet was the spokesperson for a group known as the New Novelists, writers who were reacting against traditional French literature. Even such novelists as André Malraux and André Gide were rejected by the New Novelists, particularly Robbe-Grillet, in their explorations of the inner movements of the mind and the outer, objective realities of the world.

In the style of the New Novel, Robbe-Grillet’s collection of short stories, Instantanés, is a kind of “objective literature,” to borrow a phrase from Roland Barthes, one of the critics who championed the New Novelists. At the same time the collection rejects traditional realism. Characters, for example, are stick figures and have no development; the stories are about pure, precise, and repetitive description, and there is no plot. Themes are simple and include a coffeepot on a table with a dressmaker’s dummy nearby, a walk on an island about to be engulfed by the rising tide, and an escalator in the Paris subway. The descriptions of these scenes or objects are repetitive and at the same time minimalist, and at no time does the reader enter into the private thoughts of the characters. Robbe-Grillet had a horror of sentiment, and his stories are clearly objective and meant to show an expressionless world.

Only one story, “La chambre secrète” (“The Secret Room”), breaks somewhat with the others. It has the element of a pornographic mystery: a nude body, murder, violence, and a mysterious caped man, all of this in a darkened, dungeonlike room.

“The Dressmaker’s Dummy”

One of the most famous lines in New Novel fiction begins the first story of the collection Instantanés: “The coffeepot is on the table.” The story is typical of Robbe-Grillet in this collection; in fact, “story” is a misnomer for most of his short pieces of fiction, as there is no plot. Robbe-Grillet starts by describing the coffeepot on the table, the square ceramic tile beneath it, then moves to the reflection of the window in the mirror. The whole effect is of a room, silent, waiting for something to begin.

The story is like the panning of a camera through the field of vision of an anonymous viewer. The eye of the omniscient narrator moves from coffeepot to mirrored reflection to dressmaker’s dummy, of which there is at first one, then three. There are no human figures in this setting, no human presence, except perhaps toward the end of the extended description, when the narrator mentions the smell of freshly brewed coffee, thus implying a character who brewed it. In sum, this short piece of fiction, which cannot really be called a story, summarizes and epitomizes Robbe-Grillet’s style: no plot, little human figuration, no character development, pure description.

“The Way Back”

This story adds several elements to the pure description of the first story: first-person narration, characters, dialogue, and tension. There is still no plot, but there are the stirrings of one: Three men, Legrand, Franz, and the narrator, are stuck on an island, entrapped by the rising tide. In fact, nearly the only lines of dialogue...

(The entire section is 1313 words.)