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Alain Robbe-Grillet: La Jalousie (Jealousy)

It has been suggested that it is this novel that should have been called Le Voyeur (The Voyeur) as it is almost exclusively about voyeurism. Though translated into English as Jealousy, this is not quite accurate as the French title is a play on words with jalousie meaning both jealousy and Venetian blind, which is what the unnamed narrator uses to spy on his wife.

The unnamed narrator is married to a woman known only as A. He is a planter in a foreign country. Their neighbours are Franck and his wife. Franck’s wife, at the beginning of the novel, is ill. The narrator suspects A of infidelity with Franck, particularly after Franck’s wife becomes ill, and spies on them. But, as this is Robbe-Grillet, it is all impersonal. Though he is the first person narrator, he does not use the I form. He shows no emotion and no psychological insight into what is going on. In particular, though he is jealous, this is merely described by his observation of A and Franck. There is no emotion, no outburst with his wife, as you might expect in a novel of presumed infidelity and jealousy. In short, he primarily reports. And, as you would expect from Robbe-Grillet, this novel does not end up with one or both parties leaving but merely subsides into normality. The point of the novel is not whether A is sleeping with Franck and whether she is going to leave the narrator and how the narrator is going to react. Indeed, the arrangement of the banana trees, the peeling of the paint or the killing of centipede are far more important, as they are the surface. They are what we see.

French critics did not particularly like this novel when it first appeared, though it is now accepted as a major work. Nor did I particularly like it when I first read it but I now recognise that Robbe-Grillet was trying to move the novel away from the traditional nineteenth century form into a new form. That he succeeded is certain. That it was a viable form is still up for debate.

Publishing history

First published in 1957 by Editions de Minuit
First English translation 1959 by Grove Press