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Reading for the Subject: Plots of Desire in the Work of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras

Hodges, Patricia (2014) Reading for the Subject: Plots of Desire in the Work of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent,. (doi:10.22024/UniKent/01.02.42900) (KAR id:42900)

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The purpose of this study is to explore literary representations of the human subject in the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922–2008) and Marguerite Duras (1914–1996), and to do so using a modified, updated version of Peter Brooks’s influential theorization of plot in terms of desire. Both ‘subject’ and ‘representation’ will receive critical attention; in particular, the relation of ‘subject’ to ‘character’ will be explored. Post-Cartesian traditions tend to ground definitions of the subject in particular concepts of its relation to knowledge. As far as Descartes’s shadow extends, the individual is seen as coherent, self-aware and exercising freedom of choice. Throughout the nineteenth century, theories of social and medical determinism reflected in Realism and Naturalism posed new challenges to the belief that individuals are self-determining; but whilst they eroded certain assumptions concerning subjecthood in this way, they did not pose radical questions concerning the ability of art accurately to represent the relation of the individual to the (social) world. The assumptions underlying the writing of novels remained rooted in a concept of literature as mimesis. The classic nineteenth-century realist novel aspired to offer a plausible representation or imitation of the real world and, in spite of subsequent radical movements including the nouveau roman, it has left an enduring legacy.

The 1950s and 1960s were a time of self-conscious experimentation with the novel: when Robbe-Grillet, Duras and others were writing their most celebrated works, the anti-realist novel – the nouveau roman – with its radical break from conventionally mimetic storytelling was only just beginning to develop a set of conventions and descriptions. Roland Barthes confidently proclaimed the ‘death of the author’ and celebrated the ‘birth of the reader’. During and after the nouveau roman movement, Robbe-Grillet and Duras attempt very different writing experiments, but there are clear parallels to be made. In Pour un nouveau roman, Robbe-Grillet initially presents his work as breaking with realism and mimesis, and ultimately concerned with (self-reflexive) ‘écriture’ alone. Accordingly, he claims that his works cannot be read in terms of their ‘representation’ of the world, or related to conventional notions of character; he seems to distance himself, in particular, from readings that assume a coherent, analysable ‘psychology’ in the (post-Cartesian) character. Similarly, Duras has often been assimilated with the nouveau roman movement, as she is held to write experimentally from the early 1950s in ways that subvert and challenge the traditional, male-authored novels of the literary canon as it was constituted in mid-twentieth-century France. Indeed, she has been held up as a rare example of écriture féminine.

Peter Brooks’s argument that plot is driven (as if) by desire is a valid and exciting one that allows narratology and psychoanalysis to be brought into conjunction. But the desire he invokes is (stereotypically) ‘masculine’, being the desire of a male subject for a (passive) female object; and he allows this ‘plot of desire’, which might be termed ‘desire in the masculine’, a normative status. Using close readings of Robbe-Grillet and Duras, this thesis modifies Brooks’s thesis by asking what a plot of ‘female’ desire might be, besides a softened or more passive version of the ‘male’ plot. This allows us to reassess each writer’s break with traditional notions of representation and subject by reviewing their writing practice in terms of desire. In spite of his claims in Pour un nouveau roman, Robbe-Grillet clings tenaciously to a ‘masculine’ plot throughout his writing; and whilst Duras initially deploys a similar structure, she increasingly problematises it, though without breaking from it altogether, and so offers possibilities for representing desire ‘in the feminine’.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
Thesis advisor: Fowler, Dr James
Thesis advisor: O'Meara, Dr Lucy
DOI/Identification number: 10.22024/UniKent/01.02.42900
Additional information: The author of this thesis has asked that this thesis be made available on an open access basis under the licence displayed. 13/08/21
Uncontrolled keywords: Le nouveau roman; Narratology; Post-Freudian psychoanalitic literary theory;
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PC Romance philology and languages
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of Culture and Languages
Depositing User: Jacqueline Martlew
Date Deposited: 10 Sep 2014 15:11 UTC
Last Modified: 17 Aug 2022 10:57 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

Hodges, Patricia.

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