The main theme in “The Replacement” focuses on the attainment of knowledge. The story is about how people perceive the world and how they often become confused when they try to interpret it. Robbe-Grillet reveals this theme through the interweaving of three plot lines. The central story, that of the interaction between the teacher and his pupils, centers on communication problems. The teacher apparently has instructed the students on how to read a text by pausing for the punctuation. Yet when the students do this, the teacher is not satisfied, due to their monotone readings. The teacher has not been able to communicate his idea of how one should read a story.
The students’ lack of understanding could be due to their apparent boredom in the classroom. Every chance they get, they whisper among themselves and glance around the room, especially at the paper puppet that hangs in the front, instead of actively concentrating on the text.
The second plot line, of the schoolboy peering intently at the tree, does not seem to relate to the first. The boy is outside, across the street from the classroom, but he does not interact with anyone in the room and it is not clear whether the teacher is looking at him when he glances out of the window. The third piece, the story that is being read in the classroom, also appears to have no relation with the other two plot lines. Thus, it is confusing to try to piece the plot lines together by determining a relationship between the scenes in order to arrive at an understanding of the whole story.
This theme reflects the main focus of the writers of the New Novel movement, who discarded traditional literary structures, which they found to express unrealistic views of experience. They construct their works, instead, to promote the idea of the indeterminacy of existence and so refuse to impose on the reader any subjective points of view. They try to achieve objectivity by fragmenting the text, as Robbe-Grillet does in “The Replacement,” so that readers can reconstruct the pieces of descriptions of objects and direct experiences, and therefore the reality, for themselves.
Another theme that relates to the problem of gaining knowledge is the use of the imagination. One possibility for interpreting the relationship between the stories of the students and the schoolboy looking at the tree is to suggest that the schoolboy is a figment of the teacher’s or the students’ imagination. Everyone inside the classroom is bored by the material and upset by the obvious tension between the teacher and the students. As a result, they could have escaped by conjuring up the figure of the schoolboy, unencumbered by the classroom walls and the demands of the teacher or the curriculum, focusing intently on something that interests him. The narrator, however, does not impose this interpretation on the story, and so the reader is left with only a tentative conclusion.
One way the two stories could be linked is through the theme of perseverance. The schoolboy exhibits this quality as he intently gazes at the tree, trying to extract some information from it, and as he repeatedly tries to reach the leaves. The children in the classroom persevere with their studies, trying but failing to respond to the work in the way the teacher demands. The teacher, however impatient, also refuses to halt his efforts to communicate his directions to the students. The narrator never offers insight as to why all persist in such dogged ways.
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.