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Silence Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Central to Sarraute’s work is the desire to communicate and the exploration of language as a vehicle for this communication. Words and silence can trigger an entire range of reactions. In a novel, the silence of a character may not be noticeable, but the prolonged silence of an actor is obvious and disturbing to an audience. In Silence, the nonparticipation of one person brings up an entire realm of uncertainties.

As the play opens, M.1 has interrupted himself in the midst of describing an unspecified, exotic locale. He suddenly becomes embarrassed by his romantic effusion and believes that he hears the laughter of Jean-Pierre. Jean-Pierre, however, has been silent throughout the story and continues to remain speechless. Although M.1 is the first to feel intimidated by Jean-Pierre’s silence, the group of anonymous spectators begins to feel uncomfortable as well. The force of M.1’s reactions to the silence awakens their unease.

During the course of the play, M.1 variously interprets Jean-Pierre’s silence, often in a contradictory manner. Jean-Pierre is alternately described as timid, arrogant, sensitive, anti-intellectual, or stupid. In this way, M.1 is transformed into a potential creator who composes and revises a personality for his spectator. The personality he devises for Jean-Pierre arises out of his imagination rather than his observations. M.1 is also keenly aware of aesthetic form, suggesting that his story might have been more acceptable if it were presented differently, for example within a beautifully bound book.

All of M.1’s maneuvering is part of a desperate attempt at communication and approval, but he repeatedly confronts a wall of silence. His attentions to his audience shuttle between pleasing Jean-Pierre and courting the rest of his audience. The others gradually mirror M.1’s obsession with the silence of Jean-Pierre. Whereas they first tried to distract him, they later attempt themselves to induce Jean-Pierre to speak. His silence eventually develops into perceived superiority.

The silence of Jean-Pierre serves, however, as the impetus for discussion and speculation (and is, after all, the basis of the play). In the play, there is a compulsive need to fill the silence even if it is with hackneyed expressions and clichés. It is only through words that individuals emerge from their isolation. Jean-Pierre remains an enigma and, therefore, an outsider. For that reason, he comes to instill fear and anxiety in the group.

When Jean-Pierre finally speaks, his words are so trivial that he in effect says nothing. Instead of...

(The entire section is 599 words.)