Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 626

In his collection of essays Pour un nouveau roman (1963; For a New Novel, 1965), Robbe-Grillet states that the hero of the New Novel is not to be seen as a person in the traditional sense but as the “simple subject of the action expressed by the verb.” Robbe-Grillet also derides the notion that the novel must contain psychological truths. According to him, the most ridiculous thing that critics say is that author so-and-so has something to say and says it well. Could one not maintain, asks Robbe-Grillet rhetorically, that the true artist has nothing to say, only a way of saying it? Robbe-Grillet also says that the true work of art does not contain anything, message or other, as a box might contain something foreign to itself. To the contrary, he states that writing is an art and must be sufficient unto itself and that it is time to stop fearing art for art’s sake. In this vein, if there is a scene in The Erasers that is admired both by Robbe-Grillet’s supporters and by his detractors, it is the one describing a slice of tomato. The description of the tomato has the absolute precision of an anatomical plate and has nothing to do in any way with the novel itself. Its very gratuitousness would seem to bear witness to Robbe-Grillet’s seriousness about his theories on the art and goals of writing. (It should be mentioned that the passage is much more impressive in French than it is in English.) Critics dismiss Robbe-Grillet’s critical writings as unimportant or as totally exaggerated. Regarding The Erasers, however, a case can be made for such an interpretation, that is, of art for art’s sake.

First, Robbe-Grillet does not identify Wallas as being or not being the son of Dupont, and such an omission is contrary to the normal practice in a detective novel, in which there is a definite answer to every given problem. Second, Wallas is still young (encore jeune), that is, in his forties, and therefore much too old to be that son, since Dupont was fifty-two when he died. There are also the warnings about reading too much into the “evidence,” and also Wallas’ interview with a Mme Bax who, when he suggests what she might have seen or heard, tells him not to add too much detail for fear that he will make her think she “saw the whole thing,” when she saw only a man who stopped in front of Dupont’s gate.

The most important argument against an Oedipal interpretation, however, is the fact that most elements of any importance in The Erasers, other than the erasers themselves, and certainly including all the Oedipal clues, (and indeed, the very name Wallas), seem to have been taken bodily from A Gun for Sale: An Entertainment (1936; published in the United States as This Gun for Hire: An Entertainment) by Graham Greene, a book for which there is no possibility of giving an Oedipal interpretation. (Note also that, again besides the eraser, the major elements found in The Erasers serve as the basic elements in the construction of Dans le labyrinthe (1959; In the Labyrinth, 1960). Therefore, if Robbe-Grillet has been faithful to his theories, he has taken a number of elements from a novel by Greene and created another work from them, a work that stands on its own as a work of art and that contains nothing external to its own writing. Robbe-Grillet does note, however, that the individual reader is perfectly free to interpret any work according to his own interests or preoccupations but adds that such a reading will be only a reflection of that reader’s mind and will have nothing to do with the novel as it stands.

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