Born in Brest, France, into a family with a strong background in the sciences, Alain Robbergrillet (1922–2008) was an agricultural engineer by training but became one of the leading exponents of what was known as the nouveau roman, or “new novel.” The term was coined in the late 1950s to describe the work of a group of French writers who rejected the conventional features of the novel, dispensing with traditional methods of plotting and characterization in favor of concentrating on an objective representation of the world’s details (the physical things in the novel’s story). Robbe-Grillet has been a leading figure in the movement and has written theoretical pieces on its behalf, in addition to fiction; Jealousy is seen as a particularly representative distillation of the movement’s main concerns, with its methodical, geometric, and repetitive descriptions of objects replacing the psychological portrayal of its characters.
The action of Jealousy takes place in and around a house on a colonial banana plantation, and is narrated by a voice that may be that of a jealous husband. What creates this doubt is the fact that the first-person pronoun does not appear in the novel, attributing to the narrator an altogether vague and mysterious presence. Because no “I” is present, the reader cannot be quite sure whether the accumulation of details is taking place within the mind of an obsessive narrator or whether it is an objective description of external reality. Though this indeterminacy is a feature of one of the central preoccupations of the nouveau roman, the absolute incompatibility of subjective and objective experience, there are many details in the novel that encourage the identification of the narrator as the jealous husband, suspicious that his wife (who is referred to throughout as A . . .) is having an affair: There is an extra place setting at the dinner table, an extra chair on the veranda. Nothing is made explicit, however, and this identification depends to a large extent on the reader’s expectations and assumptions. When A . . .’s cheerful greeting is described as that “of someone who prefers not to show what she is thinking about—if anything—and always fl ashes the same smile, on principle; the same smile, which can be interpreted as derision just as well as affection, or the total absence of feeling whatever,” the objective style of the narrative voice remains, though it is tempting to attribute a certain tone of resentment therein to the husband.
The jealousy implicit in the repetitive detail of the narrative is directed toward two of the other protagonists: the narrator’s wife, A . . . , and a local plantation owner, Franck. Much of the novel’s signifi cant detail is revealed through observation and remembrance of fragmentary encounters between these two characters, though there is equal space devoted to minutely detailed descriptions of objects, the house, and the banana plantation. Franck comes to visit for dinner and drinks, and he squashes a centipede against the dining-room wall; he and A . . . sit on the veranda and discuss a novel they are reading and engine trouble that Franck is having with his car; they plan a day trip to the nearest town; the trip goes ahead, but an apparent fault with the car means that they stay overnight in a hotel in the town: These are the details that are presented in the narrative a number of times from a number of different viewpoints as they are seen and remembered by the narrator. As the accumulation of details continues, additional pieces of information are yielded, such as a letter that apparently passes between A . . . and Franck, yet there is nothing conclusive to convince the narrator or the reader that adultery has taken place.
At one point the narrative refers to a song that is sung a number of times by a laborer on the plantation: “Yet these repetitions, these tiny variations, halts, regressions, can give rise to modifications—though barely perceptible—eventually moving quite far from the point of departure.” Though the catalogue of details continues to grow, A . . .’s husband is ultimately left undecided about whether his wife is having an affair, and this is an appropriate reflection of the central question posed by the curious style of the novel: Can anything be learned from a repeated examination of material detail, or is reality simply a series of meaningless phenomena with no underlying significance? For Robbe-Grillet, the rigorously materialist writer, to postulate any kind of emotional relationship between human beings and the material world is fraudulent and illusory. He condemns the use of what John Ruskin called the “pathetic fallacy,” where in natural phenomena are described in art as though they can feel emotion in the manner that humans do, to refl ect the artist’s mood.
Robbe-Grillet’s writing owes a debt to earlier French existentialist novelists Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, though he once criticized them for compromising their vision by yielding to the sentimentality of the traditional novel. To avoid this, Robbe-Grillet eradicates the use of metaphor in Jealousy, considering its use to be the beginnings of capitulation and the pathetic fallacy. Human consciousness and the material world are irreducibly distinct, and to learn anything from the latter is to foist the workings of the former upon it. For example, jealousy is just one way in which the mind seeks to impose order on the chaotic meaninglessness of objective reality. In the novel, the narrator’s jealousy is a result of his struggle to impress meaning upon the series of exchanges that he witnesses between his wife and Franck. The repetition of these scenes in the narrative might then be seen as the jealous husband’s concern growing into an obsession, as he repeats the details in his mind, trying to elicit meaning from them; the repetition intensifies up to the sixth chapter, when A . . . and Franck have gone to town, and the narrator supposes the adultery is taking place.
Symbols play an important role in the novel and draw further attention to Robbe-Grillet’s assertion that an unmediated relationship with reality is impossible. One of the windows of the house is made from a pane of flawed glass, and looking through it, the narrator can make objects outside appear and disappear according to the angle at which he is looking. This is essentially what is happening throughout the novel: Different viewpoints create different versions of the same scene, none of which is its truly faithful or accurate reproduction. The narrator thus struggles to glean meaning from a disinterested reality.
The French title of the novel, La jalousie, offers another clue that is lost in its English translation: It can mean both jealousy and Venetian blind. On a number of occasions, the narrator views a scene through one of the house’s window blinds, and the subsequent implication is that both jealousy and a Venetian blind can obscure an objective view of reality. By the end of the novel, neither the reader nor the narrator can be sure that anything has actually happened since the novel’s beginning. Jealousy creates something of a void, one in which the very conventions and traditions of the novel are brought into question in a most remarkable and arresting way.
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Smith, Roch C. Understanding Robbe-Grillet. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
Stoltzfus, Ben. Alain Robbe-Grillet: The Body of the Text. London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1985.