Prior to the twentieth century, writers structured their works to reflect their belief in the stability of character and the intelligibility of experience. Traditionally, novels and stories ended with a clear sense of closure as conflicts were resolved and characters gained knowledge about themselves and their world. Many writers during the twentieth century challenged these assumptions as they expanded the genre’s traditional form to accommodate their characters’ questions about the indeterminate nature of knowing in the modern age, a major thematic concern for these writers. Through their works they raised the epistemological question, “how do we know we really know what we think we know?”
Alain Robbe-Grillet continues this inquiry in “The Replacement” as he explores different methods of gaining understanding of an experience or an object. Through his meticulous shaping of the story, he presents an intriguing metaphor for the act of reading a text. As a result, the story becomes a statement on the difficulties inherent in the process of gaining absolute knowledge not only of a literary work, but also of human experience.
“The Replacement,” an intricate interweaving of three plot lines, continually confounds readers’ efforts to piece together a coherent and definitive exegesis, which is exactly the goal of the writers of the New Novel movement. These writers challenged traditional notions of meaning and identity and so created texts that reflect the indeterminate nature of reality and the difficulties inherent in coming to a clear understanding of that reality.
John Fletcher, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, notes that as a result of this philosophy, Robbe-Grillet creates literature “that is all ‘on the surface,’ postulating nothing about what may or may not lie behind phenomena.” He does this by refusing to place characters in a historical moment or to identify them by name, and by disrupting the chronology of the text. Fletcher concludes that, as a result, Robbe-Grillet produces narratives that are not “afraid of being inconsistent and reflecting a reality that has its own recurring bafflements.”
Laurent Dechery in “Turning Words into Colors: Robbe-Grillet’s Visual Language,” comments that Robbe-Grillet’s subversion of conventional narrative structures in all of the sketches in Snapshots reveals the author’s “attempt to achieve the ultimate transgression while staying within the traditional framework of verbal text.” As a result, Dechery concludes he “leaves readers in a situation of undecidability concerning their own status as readers and the cognitive process which takes place while reading the story.” They also become confused about “the status of the author, the narrator, the plot, and the characters.”
In his Pour un nouveau roman (translated as For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction), Robbe-Grillet writes,”The world is neither significant nor absurd. It simply is.” In addition,”our concept of the world around us is now only fragmentary, temporary, contradictory even, and always disputable. How can a work of art presume to illustrate a preordained concept, whatever it might be?” In “The Replacement,” Robbe-Grillet illustrates his concept of the indeterminate nature of reality as he focuses on a class full of students struggling to read a story.
Robbe-Grillet, however, does not begin with the main story; he instead starts with an objective description of an unnamed schoolboy trying and failing to reach a tree branch. The narrator does not place him in any specific setting or suggest any motivations for his actions. Nor does he appear to be linked to the main plot line, other than through the fact that he is identified as being across the street from the school. At a few points in the story, the teacher looks out the window, but it is not clear whether or not he sees the schoolboy.
The third plot line, the unfolding action of the story the students read in the classroom, also appears not to have any relation to the other two plots other than the fact that the students are reading it. Yet Robbe-Grillet does link the three plot lines in a figurative sense. The interweaving of fragments of each plot line becomes an adept illustration of the problematic nature of gaining knowledge, especially in regard to understanding a text.
In the main plot, everyone in the classroom struggles with the story they are reading. The first boy reading the story aloud pauses at punctuation marks, “making an effort to indicate the end of the paragraph,” but he does not appear to understand what he is reading. Perhaps his inability to understand results from his obvious and complete lack of interest in the material.
His boredom becomes apparent in his monotonous reading of the text and his pause, at one point, to study a paper puppet hanging at the front of the classroom. Yet his problems with the text could also have resulted from the teacher’s instructions on how to read. When the boy stops reading in the middle of a sentence, the teacher demands, “All right, go on! There isn’t any period there. You don’t seem to understand what you are reading.” He may have thought a pause was necessary there, even though there was no punctuation, based on the instructions the teacher had given him. Readers cannot make a clear judgment on his motive since the narrator does not offer any insight into his character. Later, the boy reveals that he has not understood the reading when the teacher questions him about specific words.
The next boy who reads appears to have a better understanding of the text, but it is not complete, at least according to the teacher. He knows the meaning of the word “alibi,” but when the teacher asks him to give a summary of what they have read, the boy does so “almost coherently.” The narrator notes that he “stressed unduly a number of secondary matters, while hardly mentioning, or even omitting, certain crucial events.” The narrator also does not include an analysis of the characters’ motives, a traditional tool for readers to gain understanding of a text.
The rest of the students seem to have difficulty understanding the text as well, since the next boy chosen to read does so in the same monotonous tone as the others, “although conscientiously indicating the commas and the periods.” All of the students express their boredom openly as their attention continually shifts to the paper puppet rather than their books.
Robbe-Grillet’s interweaving of lines of the story into the main plot line also illustrates the students’ lack of understanding. The first line of the story read by the boy early in the sketch is,”Therefore, that evening, Joseph de Hagen, one of Philippe’s lieutenants, went to the Archbishop’s palace on the pretext of paying a courtesy call.” A few more passages are read periodically throughout the sketch until the final passage, which ends with that same sentence. The repetition of the line could have been caused by the student’s confusion about his place in the text, or from a memory of another class, or from an imaginative creation of a class. Robbe-Grillet does not provide a motive, which confounds the reader’s effort to understand the story.
The narrator suggests that part of the problem lies with the teacher, who cannot understand why his students are having so much difficulty with the story. The students alternate between boredom and another emotion that the narrator identifies as “vaguely questioning or fearful.” The classroom is filled with obvious tension, evidenced by the teacher’s anger over the students’ inability to read “correctly.” He apparently has spent time showing them how he wants them to read the text, but they have not been able to satisfy him. During the teacher’s outbursts, the children quickly return their attention to their books, suggesting that they are afraid of further reprimands.
Robbe-Grillet adds a new dimension to this scene when he introduces the description of the schoolboy studying the tree. This description— which includes precise, objective, and often repetitious details—presents a situation that starkly contrasts that of the students in the classroom. This boy cannot take his attention away from the tree, parts of which continually fascinate him. He struggles to “know” the tree and even tries to grasp the leaves so he can study them more closely. However, repeated attempts to reach the leaves end in failure. The narrator notes that the leaves are “inaccessible” to him. Robbe-Grillet links the two plot lines as he notes that, just like the children in the classroom, the schoolboy ultimately fails to completely understand what he is “reading.”
The story of the schoolboy and the tree works as a metaphor for indeterminacy on another level. When Robbe-Grillet weaves this plot into the others, he declines to show readers any temporal or spatial links between them. The teacher could be watching the schoolboy out of the window to alleviate his frustration over his students’ inability to properly read and understand the story, or the schoolboy could be a memory or an imaginative creation for the teacher or for the students. At one point, the narrator notes that the students cannot see out the frosted windows. Perhaps the schoolboy is their imaginative rendition of what is on the other side.
This last interpretation could be supported by one of the boy’s explanation of how “alibi” is used in the story that is read aloud. He determines that the main characters “were really there … only they wanted to go somewhere else and make people think they were still there.” Perhaps he, or the other children, created the schoolboy as an alter ego, imagining what it would be like to be experiencing something truly interesting, while his physical self remains in the classroom as an “alibi” for the teacher.
Ultimately, readers are left with no clear understanding of what exactly is occurring in the story or what motivates the characters’ actions. Like the students in the classroom, readers of “The Replacement,” have failed to “read” the story in the traditional way. But the reader’s lack of understanding stems from Robbe-Grillet’s intentional disruption of narrative conventions. His goal in “The Replacement,” like that of others associated with the New Novel movement, is to force readers to arrive at their own understanding of a text without being influenced by the author’s intentions. His achievement in “The Replacement” has been to present a compelling illustration of the indeterminate nature of texts and of the world.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Published by Gale, 2002.
Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on “The Replacement,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.