‘‘The Replacement’’ by Alain Robbe-Grillet was collected with other sketches and published in 1962 under the title Instantanes (translated as Snapshots). ‘‘The Replacement,’’ along with the other sketches in Snapshots, is a classic text of the New Novel movement, which originated in France in the 1950s. The movement was made up of a group of writers that included Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, Robert Pinget, Marguerite Duras, and Michel Butor. These writers rejected literary traditions of plot, action, narrative, and characterization in their works, and created a new literary form that presented an objective record of objects. As the movement quickly became popular throughout the literary world, Robbe-Grillet became its most famous writer and spokesperson.
‘‘The Replacement,’’ an intricate interweaving of three plot lines, continually confounds readers’ efforts to piece together a coherent and definitive explanation, which is exactly the goal of the writers of the New Novel movement. Their point is that authors should not impose meaning on a literary work, that instead readers should be left to decide for themselves how to come to an understanding of it.
The plot of ‘‘The Replacement’’ centers on the interaction between a frustrated teacher and his bored students, the story they are reading in class, and a schoolboy just outside the classroom window. Seen as a whole, the sketch becomes a fascinating statement on the philosophy of this innovative movement, offering an exploration of how to ‘‘read’’ a text.
The narrative weaves together three separate scenes. The first involves a schoolboy who is standing by a tree, peering intently at something in the branches. He repeatedly tries to reach a branch that seems within his grasp. After failing to grasp it, he lowers his arm, appears to give up, and continues to stare at something in the leaves. He then returns to the foot of the tree and resumes the same position he took at the beginning of the story. The narrator describes the position of the boy’s body as he peers up at the branches. He holds a book satchel in one hand while the other hand is obscured, probably because he is using it to balance himself against the tree. His face is pressed to the tree and turned in such a way that it would not be visible to an observer. The boy scrutiT nizes something unidentifiable about a yard and a half above the ground.
The narrative then shifts to the second scene, which is inside a classroom. There a boy who has been reading aloud suddenly pauses, probably, the narrator concludes, because he has come to a period. The boy makes an effort, which is not described, to indicate that he is at the end of a paragraph. Here the narrative abruptly shifts to a one-sentence description of the schoolboy outside changing his position so that he can ‘‘inspect the bark of the tree higher up.’’
Back in the classroom, the other children are whispering. When the schoolmaster looks at them, he notices that most of them are not following the reading in their books, but are instead looking toward his desk ‘‘with a vaguely questioning, or fearful, expression.’’ He then asks the reading boy in a severe tone, ‘‘What are you waiting for?’’ The boy resumes his reading ‘‘with the same studious voice, expressionless and a bit too slow.’’ The narrator shifts again to the schoolboy, this time linking the two scenes together by indicating that he is across the street from the classroom peering at the leaves on the lower branches of the tree. Immediately the reader is pulled back into the classroom as the teacher slaps the desk with his hand, correcting the boy’s reading of the story and telling him to pay attention to what he is reading.
The boy starts reading again in the same monotone but stops abruptly in the middle of a sentence. The other students, who had been looking at a paper puppet hanging on the wall, immediately return their eyes to the book. As the teacher angrily instructs the boy to continue reading, the boy looks behind the teacher at the paper puppet. When the teacher demands to know whether the boy understands what he is reading, the boy pauses, glancing around the room, and then replies that he does. Yet when the teacher asks him the definition of one of the words he is reading, he cannot respond.
The teacher enters into a discussion with another pupil about the story and its meaning. The student understands that the characters ‘‘wanted to go somewhere else and make people think they were still there.’’ The narrator then relates part of the story that is being read in the classroom.
The teacher concurs with the boy’s assessment and asks him to summarize the story for the rest of the students, which he does ‘‘almost coherently.’’ Yet he does not hit all the main points of the story, stressing instead minor details. The boy also does not discuss the motives behind the characters’ actions. As he speaks, the teacher looks out the window and apparently sees the schoolboy, who has returned to his spot below the tree branch and is ‘‘jumping up and down, stretching one arm upward’’ to the leaves. When the schoolboy fails to reach the leaves, he again stands motionless staring at them.
The narrator again inserts a part of the story being read in the classroom, noting that all of the students are staring at the puppet. The teacher stops the boy reading and finds a new reader, who reads with a similar lack of interest as the children return their attention to the text. As the reading resumes, the teacher again looks out the window where the boy is gazing intently at the bark. The students glance up at the teacher as he looks out the window, but they cannot see out of the frosted glass and so their attention turns back to the paper puppet.