Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Robbe-Grillet, Jealousy

After the middle of the 20th century, Alain Robbe-Grillet warned of the death of the novel if it could not progress beyond what he felt were essentially 19th-century features. He started writing novels that challenged or eliminated traditional narrative conventions in plot, setting, and character, and that offered innovations in point of view and time. This artistic movement is known as the nouveau roman or New Novel. (The term “anti-novel” undesirably privileges an implicit “novel” being written against.) Typical features of the New Novel include the absence of emotion; detailed, objective, sometimes repetitive and sometimes geometric descriptions; and the absence of a narrator’s commentary. Roland Barthes claimed that “the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text” (S/Z 4). The New Novel typically messes with space and time in ways that force the reader to reconstruct the story.

“Robbe-Grillet’s aversion to allegory, symbol, and concealed meaning is fundamental” (Morrissette 6). One might productively think in terms of metonymy instead of symbolism. Also, consider this work in light of other 20th-century philosophical and art movements: phenomenology, cubism, surrealism, existentialism. Postmodernism is a relevant consideration too since Robbe-Grillet emphasizes surfaces and space, and meaning is irredeemably elusive. You can’t escape from the “thingness of things,” said my grad school professor about these works.

In Jealousy, as in many New Novels, “objectification of mental images, its use of psychic chonology, … its refusal to engage in logical discourse or analytical commentary” is suited to the filmic mode (Morrissette 12). Indeed, the New Wave movement in cinema runs parallel to this literary movement.

Jealousy (1957)
The French word “jalousie” = jealousy, or venetian blind.

Robbe-Grillet chooses a limited point of view through a narrator who never refers to himself, never uses the personal pronoun (“I”). So the “I” is dislocated; its absence creates an empty center. “A first-person narrator who, however, never says ‘I’ and whom one never sees or hears, draws us into an identification with him, installs us in the ‘hole’ that he occupies in the center of the text” (Morrissette 9).

But is the character of the narrator anywhere? The attempt to locate him is frustrated by the Robbe-Grillet’s “absence of any attempt at psychological analysis or any use of the vocabulary of psychology, total rejection of introspection, interior monologues, ‘thoughts,’ or descriptions of states of mind; and a systematic use, almost like that of music, of ‘objective themes,’ including a network of stains” (9).

Instead of plot, the book is propelled along by the compulsive energy to observe, “keeping to the surface of things, examining without emphasis” (Barthes 14). But the narrator can see only indirectly, from angles. The failure of perception is highlighted against “the dispersion of concrete substance, the high-pressure volatilization of a supersaturated universe, and over-constructed space” (Barthes 21).

The narrator is obsessively objective, reporting only what he can see, like a camera. He offers no judgment or ruminations, nor does his tone itself distinguish between lizards staring, paint peeling, numbers and arrangements of banana trees, or observations that might indicate an affair between his wife and neighbor. Staccato sentences resist the normal rhythms of a psychologically realized character. The style is appropriate because “the narrator seeks to convince himself of his own objectivity” (Minor 32); “perhaps, too, he is merely trying to divert himself, to exorcise an idée fixe, to give himself something to do” (33). A subjective mind is trying to be purely objective. But realize that even a seemingly objective camera has someone behind it, aiming it and therefore selecting what we see. So it’s a selective objectivity.

How far can you go without referentiality?

In any case, for all this high-flown abstraction, consider this: when you began this work (with the title Jealousy and a map), what did you think was going to happen? And why do you think it didn’t…?

“this, in fact, is the place which offers itself most readily to inspection, the place over which surveillance can be maintained with the least difficulty…” (11).

A similar technique appears in the 1892 work, The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman:

“I suppose when this was used as a playroom they had to take the nursery things out, and no wonder! I never saw such ravages as the children have made here.
The wallpaper, as I said before, is torn off in spots, and it sticketh closer than a brother — they must have had perseverance as well as hatred” (7).

“How those children did tear about here!
This bedstead is fairly gnawed!
But I must get to work.
. . .
This bed will not move!
I tried to lift and push it until I was lame, and then I got so angry I bit off a little piece at one corner — but it hurt my teeth” (15).

“At the edge of the patches, new scales of the paint are easy to chip off; it is enough to slip a fingernail beneath the projecting edge and pry it up by bending the first joint of the finger” (18). We don’t need an instruction booklet on picking paint chips; the point is that the narrator has been doing it.

“Inside the writing-case, the green blotter is covered with fragments of handwriting in black ink: tiny lines, arcs, crosses, loops, etc….; no complete letter can be made out, even in a mirror” (81). Here’s a more crucial example than paint-picking.

“the shirt itself is irreproachably white” (14) — interesting phrase for a “neutral” description of Franck’s shirt.

“She says ‘Hello’ in the playful tone of someone who has slept well and awakened in a good mood; or of someone who prefers not to show what she is thinking about — if anything — and always flashes the same smile, on principle; the same smile, which can be interpreted as derision just as well as affection, or the total absence of any feeling whatever” (24).

“It’s no use making up contrary possibilities, since thing are the way they are: reality stays the same” (43).

“After a moment she raises her head again while the song resumes, from the direction of the sheds. It is doubtless the same poem continuing. If the themes sometimes blur, they only recur somewhat later, all the more clearly, virtually identical. 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” (51).

What happens to the centipede? (64f).

“It is useless to expect her. In any case it is useless to expect her at dinner” (70).

“But the lamp prevents any such sound from being heard because of its constant hissing, of which the ear is aware only when it tries to hear any other sound” (71).

“Then a silence. But a fainter sound, something like a hum, makes the ear strain…. It stops at once. And again the lamp’s hissing can be heard.
Besides, it was more like a growl than the sound of a car motor” (71-72). Eventually the motive for straining to listen emerges.

“They are merely particles in motion, describing more or less flattened ellipses in horizontal planes or at slight angles, cutting the elongated cylinder of the lamp at various levels” (72). Bugs, whose presence registers only in absences.

“Shrill and short, an animal’s cry sounds quite close, seeming to come from the garden, just at the foot of the veranda. Then the same cry, after three seconds, indicates the presence on the other side of the house” (73). Another absence as presence.

“The road is in such bad condition that an important part of the car’s engine might be damaged, if the car is going too fast: shock-absorber broken, axle bent, crank case split…” (75). Rationalizing morphs into wishful thinking violence.

“This striped effect is reproduced on all four sides of the square bedroom” (77). A prison?

“The body is curved toward the bottom: its anterior part is twisted toward the baseboard, while the last joints keep their original orientation — that of a straight line cutting diagonally across the panel from the hall doorway to the corner of the ceiling above the closed pantry door” (79). The centipede defies the grid.

“From one corner of the window, a dark liquid has flowed down over the wood, crossing the boards one after another from ridge to ridge, then the concrete substructure, making an increasingly narrow streak which finally dwindles to a thread, and reaches the veranda floor in the middle of a flagstone, ending there in a little round spot” (78).

“The shadow of the column, though it is already very long, would have to be nearly a yard longer to reach the little round spot on the flagstones. From the latter runs a thin vertical thread which increases in size as it rises from the concrete substructure. It then climbs up the wooden surface, from lath to lath, growing gradually larger until it reaches the window sill. But its progression is not constant: the imbricated arrangement of the boards intercepts its route by a series of equidistant projections where the liquid spreads out more widely before continuing its ascent. On the sill itself, the paint has largely flaked off after the streak occurred, eliminating about three-quarters of the red trace” (100).

“On the log bridge that crosses the stream at the bottom edge of this patch, there is a man crouching: a native, wearing blue trousers and a colourless undershirt that leaves his shoulders bare. He is leaning towards the liquid surface, as if he were trying to see something at the bottom, which is scarcely possible, the water never being transparent enough despite its extreme shallowness” (22; cf. 41).

Works Consulted

Barthes, Roland. “Objective Literature: Alain Robbe-Grillet.” In Jealousy. Alain Robbe-Grillet. NY: Grove Press, Inc., 1981. 13-27.

Minor, Anne. “A Note on Jealousy.” In Jealousy. Alain Robbe-Grillet. NY: Grove Press, Inc., 1981. 29-33.

Morrissette, Bruce. “Surfaces and Structures in Robbe-Grillet’s Novels.” In Jealousy. Alain Robbe-Grillet. NY: Grove Press, Inc., 1981. 3-12.

Robbe-Grillet, Alain. Jealousy. 1957. NY: Grove Press, Inc., 1987.