Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1024

In the usual understanding of the term, there is no “story” in this novel. The author’s method of narration is deliberately designed to challenge conventional reader expectations. Events in the novel do not follow in a straight line from beginning to end; the pattern is more a convolution of episodes repeated again and again with minor variations, out of which there emerges a partially realized story.

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A synopsis of Jealousy, therefore, sounds strange, with good reason. The type of novel exemplified by Jealousy, and of which Alain Robbe-Grillet is both the principal theorist and practitioner, is termed New Novel or “antinovel.” Even considering the innovations in the novel by major twentieth century novelists such as James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and William Faulkner, the New Novel is, in many ways, without precedent. From the 1950’s through the 1970’s especially, it represented an extremely provocative, internationally influential approach to the craft of fiction by French writers such as Michel Butor, Natalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, and Robbe-Grillet.

Born in 1922, Robbe-Grillet came to intellectual maturity in a mid-twentieth century France divided by vicious political antagonisms and shattered by war but also animated by tremendous artistic and intellectual creative activity, such as the Theater of the Absurd, abstract expressionist painting, and existentialist philosophy—especially the last. Existentialism’s main assertions—that the human is a radically free agent; that the universe has no meaning; that “meaning” itself is a perceptual construct validated only by action—became articles of faith for the French intellectual left during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Many writers derived themes of alienation or despair from such premises, but for Robbe-Grillet, the meaninglessness of life is simply a neutral fact. Meaning is the pattern imposed by consciousness upon experience; reality cannot be understood apart from our perceptions of it, which are always subjective no matter how objective they may seem. For Robbe-Grillet, the role of the novelist is not to seek out truths on such subjects as life, character, or morals but to challenge the reader’s uncritical acceptance of such myths. The meaning of a Robbe-Grillet novel is to be sought in the techniques by which he subverts the very notion of meaning while creating an intriguing fictional structure that shimmers like a mirage with enigmatic significance.

The most basic and profound of these techniques is the fragmentation of linear time-sequence. This is a central feature of all his fiction and is especially prominent in Jealousy. Narrated entirely in present tense, the action consists of a repetitive pattern of the narrator’s principal impressions: A . . . ’s brushing her hair and writing a letter; several possibly flirtatious interactions between her and Franck at dinner and lunch; her departure and return; and the killing of the centipede. Repeated in the manner of a fugue, with small but noticeable variations, they describe a circle, or better a Moebius strip, in which the events of the beginning, middle, and end are parts of a constantly unfolding present.

Complementing the absence of a linear plot is the foregrounding of minor incidents and details. Among the many examples, the killing of the centipede is the most significant: Trivial though it is, this is the most dramatic and memorable event in the novel—the one outbreak of intuitive action, or impropriety, or violence. The narrator’s consciousness records, with cameralike objectivity, the minute details of A . . . ’s and Franck’s gestures; the comings and goings of servants; the stain left by the centipede; various other stains and surface blemishes, such as a bit of peeling paint on the veranda rail; the exact layout, row by row, of the banana trees; and the shadow cast by the southwest corner column of the veranda, which, by its variations, marks the passage of time. The detailed, geometric precision of such descriptions is the most arresting feature of the novel—so much so that it may seem that Robbe-Grillet is concerned more with objects than with people. His early critics in France were inclined to praise him for just such an objectivism.

To an extent, his preoccupation with objective description grows out of his radical critique of fictional form. He has no use for the conventions by which the character is made to seem convincing, the events real, and the story true. For him, the form and purpose of a novel begin and end with structure. The intricate pattern of such descriptions, with their repetitions and serial permutations, thus constitutes a kind of meaning, in the manner of a modernist musical composition or an abstract painting. Much of Robbe-Grillet’s critical acclaim, for this novel and for others, reflects the extent to which he has apparently succeeded in displacing humanist concerns with purely formalist ones.

Although Jealousy is not exactly a slice of life, it nevertheless creates a memorable and disturbing impression of human psychology. The title in the original French, La Jalousie, is a pun that links the narrator’s psychology to the mode of narration. The tropical plantation house does not have glass windows, but blinds, or “jalousies,” to keep out the sun while allowing the circulation of air; it is through the slats of these blinds that the narrator spies on his wife. The ingenuity of Robbe-Grillet’s formal designs partly explains their artistic power, but not entirely. Filtered through the narrator’s consciousness, they leave no imprint. The reader cannot be objectively sure that any impropriety occurred: The narrator’s descriptions are cool and detached but also obsessive—the objective correlatives of a mind given to fantasy, infinite regression, and paranoid suspicion. Thus, without anything remotely resembling characterization, a kind of silhouette image of a morbidly jealous man emerges from the text by tone and implication.

Robbe-Grillet said of his narrators that they generally are men engaged “in an emotional adventure of the most obsessive kind, to the point of often distorting their vision.” Much of his power as a novelist lies in just this ability to create unsettling psychological portraits out of ostensibly neutral, objective material—perhaps not camera images so much as images projected by a magic lantern from the unconscious and framed ironically by the most lucid, elegant prose.

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Critical Context