The Play of Language and Spectacle: A Structural Reading of Selected Texts by Gabrielle Roy


123 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-920763-02-2





Reviewed by W.J. Keith

W.J. Keith is a retired professor of English at the University of Toronto and author A Sense of Style: Studies in the Art of Fiction in English-Speaking Canada.


Gabrielle Roy is, without question, the most distinguished writer of fiction in French-speaking Canada. The book under review is in English and is presumably intended for English-speaking readers. Since it is a scholarly study, however, all quotations are from the original French. I should assert from the outset that, though I read French, my familiarity with Roy’s writings derives from translations, and that I write from the perspective of English-speaking Canada.

There are various reasons why all this needs to be made clear. First, Ellen Reisman Babby offers a firmly structuralist study of Roy’s work. This highly categorized and supposedly “scientific” approach to literary texts has always appealed more to French than to English sensibilities. Its terminology is predominantly French and tends to come across as starkly abstract when anglicized. Indeed, The Play of Language and Spectacle often reads as if it had been translated; I even found myself wondering why it had not been written in French. One chapter opens: “In examining the variants of the spectacle paradigm as paroles, or ‘realizations’ of the systemic spectacle langue, it is fitting to begin with the most easily recognizable parole, the semantic message itself’ (p.21). If you are comfortable with this kind of prose, you may find the book useful. I have to confess that I am not.

The shadow of the academic dissertation hangs heavily over this whole study. Babby begins from previous categorizations: “Literary anthologists [why “anthologists”?] …categorize [Roy’s] works among those of the realistic movement” yet “her texts are not as far removed from the Age de la parole as generally believed” (p.2). But only a naive view of realism would assume the absence of any linguistic concern, and no one reading Roy sensitively would express surprise at her fascination with language. Babby then identifies her own “line” on Roy’s artistry, her “marked preoccupation with the act of looking” (p.4), and proceeds to connect this with a similarly conspicuous concern with the act of writing. She pursues this thread doggedly through a number of Roy’s stories, placing most emphasis on Alexandre Chenevert and La Rivière sans repos. But instead of comprehensive readings we get discrete categorizations of narrative devices.

Babby has some interesting insights, but they tend to get swamped by her schema. A pity, because Roy deserves further scholarly attention: however, this should surely focus upon the delicacy and subtlety of her perceptions. Standard structuralism seems too blunt an instrument for the task. In short, Babby’s work belongs on the specialist academic’s shelf but not, I fear, on that of the general reader.



Babby, Ellen Reisman, “The Play of Language and Spectacle: A Structural Reading of Selected Texts by Gabrielle Roy,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed February 22, 2024,