Themes and Meanings

As an antinovel, a work of fiction whose avowed purpose is the virtual annihilation of standard plot and characterization, The Planetarium nevertheless makes a statement about the fragility of human relationships and the difficulty, if not impossibility, of direct communication between people. None of the characters makes a commitment, none acts in a positive way. Instead, each questions personal perceptions, evaluates feelings, anatomizes observations, appearances, and statements, until all the characters seem almost paranoically insecure. At best, such insecurity is merely stabilized by a concern for material things. In an attempt to anchor themselves to the only solid ground of which they are certain, the characters preoccupy themselves with the trivial, the worldly. Spiritual values do not exist; only physical sensations exist.

In this context, the novel may be observed—as through a telescope—as a sort of comedy of manners, each character marshaling his or her inchoate actions and conversations in pursuit of a particular goal: the acquisition of goods, the wheedling of an apartment, the palliation of a wounded ego. Such comedy permits the reader brief views of the world of the literati, a closed society of would-be writers with nothing to say. It also allows the reader to glimpse the nearer world of shallow bourgeois values.

Social Concerns / Themes

The Planetarium, Sarraute's longest novel and her most popular one in English, is often thought to be her masterpiece. The reader approaching this writer for the first time is frequently advised to read this work because it is the "easiest." This judgment is probably based on its surface resemblances to the conventional novel. There is more plot than in Sarraute's other books, with events arranged and developed in a linear rather than a circular pattern, and there are more characters identifiable by name, personality and relationships. The apparent conventionality is deceptive, however, and the unsuspecting reader who thinks the novel is realistic will find himself misled. As always, plot and character are not as significant as are what Sarraute calls "tropisms." Scientists use the term tropism to refer to the responsive growth or movement of an organism toward or away from an external stimulus; for Sarraute, the term refers to the subtle and subconscious reactions to environment that are "at the origin of our gestures, of our words and of the emotions we believe we feel."

The twofold action centers on Alain Guimier's ultimately successful efforts to possess his aunt's apartment and to gain the attention of the writer, Germaine Lemaire. Such trivialities would scarcely interest the reader were it not for the novelist's ability to reveal a whole gamut of primitive emotions through the tropisms exposed underneath the banalities of daily life. There are no crises or adventures in Sarraute's novel, only humdrum existence. The greater the discrepancies...

(The entire section is 644 words.)