The Planetarium has often been called Sarraute’s masterpiece and has certainly been her most popular work. The novel is the most approachable of her works for several reasons. There is more evidence of a plot than in her other works, and the progression of the action is linear. There are also recognizable characters who can be identified not only by name but also by personality and relationships. Although there are several narrators, the shift in narration occurs at the beginning of each chapter, making the thoughts of the characters easier to apprehend.
The novel is structured around Alain Gumier’s attempt to gain possession of his aunt’s apartment and to ingratiate himself with the writer Germain Lemaire. This may seem to be very unpromising material for a novel, but Sarraute succeeds in extracting a range of emotional possibilities from the banal concerns of daily living. The disproportion between the insignificant events and the enormity of the tropisms that emerge from them is apparent from the opening chapter. In the opening pages, Alain’s Aunt Berthe excitedly anticipates the installation of an oak door only to become distressed by the cheap nickel-plated knob and by the nonchalance of the workmen. Typical of the primitive emotions characteristic of tropism, the trivial event assumes cataclysmic proportion, and the workmen become an advancing army of conquerors. Material objects, like the oak door or the leather chairs that Alain’s mother-in-law later tries to give him, acquire symbolic importance and bring the tropisms to life.
Alain’s maneuvering to ingratiate himself with Lemaire acts as a counterpart to his machinations to acquire the apartment. After a visit at his in-laws, where he unsuccessfully narrates the story of his aunt’s oak door and is pressured to accept the leather chairs, which represent the mediocrity and established social code of his wife’s parents, he visits Lemaire. Although he feels insecure, he repeats the story of his aunt’s oak door to the appreciative response of the famous writer. Alain triumphs by attaining the friendship of Lemaire and the possession of his aunt’s apartment.
The omniscient narrator provides information necessary for a reader’s understanding, but the reader of The Planetarium must learn to recognize each character by his or her emotional states. Because the story is told by several characters, there is no single objective reality but a multiplicity of subjective responses. Certain psychic responses, however, are common to all of them: the desire for approval and acceptance, the need for security, and the wish to dominate rather than be dominated.
Stereotypes become modes of classification in an attempt to achieve stability. Ultimately, ideals and stereotypes alike disintegrate. By the end of The Planetarium, Alain loses faith in Lemaire and the symbol of the planetarium becomes clear. Alain had constructed an artificial universe in which Lemaire was a stellar figure surrounded by a cluster of satellites. Seen from a distance, she seemed fixed and perfect. A closer perspective brought change and motion. The planetarium Alain describes late in the novel was a false ideal, a shadowy projection of the real world.