Characters Discussed

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A lone soldier

A lone soldier, a figure who arrives late at night in a snowy northern French city, just ahead of invading enemy troops. He has no name, and no physical description is provided. He spends one night in a barracks, or aid station, where he exchanges his wet uniform for a dry one. The number on the new uniform, now his only identifying mark, is 12,345. He also is treated for fever by an army medic. He is carrying the effects of a dead comrade and is to give them to a man about fifty years old who may or may not be the dead soldier’s father. He sees a man of approximately the right age but is fearful of speaking to him. He spends much of his time either looking for a street whose name he cannot remember or in a café. Hanging on the wall of the café is a graphic representation of a café scene. The soldier is able to pass with ease from one to the other. It is in the café that he sees two people who will be part of his story: the boy and the woman.

The woman

The woman, a figure who has dark hair and lives in an apartment building into which the soldier stumbles while looking for directions for how to find the street where he is supposed to meet his dead comrade’s father. She is also a barmaid, or waitress, in the café and the mother of the boy. She takes pity on the soldier and gives him bread and wine. In the same apartment lives a lame man. In the original French, the woman and the lame man use the formal vous when speaking to each other, instead of the more informal, and normal, tu. The lame man addresses the soldier as tu.

The lame man

The lame man, a man old enough to be in active service, particularly so because it is wartime. He probably is feigning lameness to avoid military service. He cannot help the soldier find the street he is seeking but tells him about the barracks, or aid station, where he can spend the night. He offers the boy’s services as a guide.

The boy

The boy, a youth approximately ten to twelve years old. He wears a beret and a cape. He already has met the soldier and is willing to guide him, even against his mother’s wishes. He questions the soldier about everything but receives no answers.

The doctor

The doctor, a man in his fifties who could be the dead comrade’s father. He is bald and carries a combination cane and umbrella. He saw the soldier during the soldier’s wanderings but never spoke to him. His only actual contact with the soldier, other than simple recognition by sight, is when he gives medical aid to the soldier after the latter is shot by an enemy patrol.

The narrator

The narrator, who is impossible to identify textually. The narrator speaks in the first person only at the very beginning and the very end of the novel.

The Characters

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The reader knows least about the central character, the narrator. He (or she) cannot be described in psychological terms, since it is only as an observer and as a maker of stories that the narrator is available for scrutiny. The narrator is, in turn, the subjective inventor of the other characters in the book, giving them external traits and stances, clothing them, perhaps even adding occasional dialogue, but avoiding any internalization or explication of their motives. Of the woman,...

(This entire section contains 332 words.)

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the reader learns that she wears an apron; that, unlike her neighbors, she does not run at the sight of the injured soldier; that she has a son; that her husband is feigning his lameness. From this information, the reader is free to draw conclusions.

Because of the objective description of every detail, the narrator’s view is extremely subjective, since everything available to the reader is filtered through this one sensibility. If the narrator could be considered a reliable one, several inferences about the characters could be drawn, but the narrator himself reverses his observations, “erasing” with a “no” the twist or turn that leads nowhere. Thus the soldier may or may not be a spy, a traitor, a coward, or a hero, depending on the narrator’s description of his overcoat, its insignia, and other details of the soldier’s experiences, all of which must be either conclusions drawn from the detective-like observations of the narrator or purely fictive constructions created to fill in details where no evidence is present.

In either case, the term “character” is inaccurate when discussing the traits of a person seen only from the outside and in a convolution of the time frame that disallows even a cause/effect relationship leading to analysis of character. Robbe-Grillet has succeeded in writing a novel without characters in the traditional sense, while at the same time “photographing” in excruciating detail a small group of figures possibly embroiled in subversive activities or possibly living out their lives in helpless innocence.


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Carrabino, Victor. The Phenomenological Novel of Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1974.

Morrissette, Bruce. Intertextual Assemblage in Robbe-Grillet, 1979.

Morrissette, Bruce. The Novels of Robbe-Grillet, 1975.

Robbe-Grillet, Alain. For a New Novel, 1965.

Stoltzfus, Ben F. Alain Robbe-Grillet and the New French Novel, 1964.




Critical Essays