Stripped down to its most basic plot summary, the premise of Henri Barbusse’s 1908 novel Hell, or L’enfer, sounds like the plot of a cheap porno: a man discovers a peep hole in his hotel room and proceeds to spy on the private lives of the people next door. Indeed, the novel obsesses over the erotic; yet, this obsession is often just as unsensual as it is pleasurable, as descriptions of sex become increasingly disillusioning, and the characters, unsatisfied. Moreover, the narrator does not spy on others for a strictly sexual thrill, but because he believes seeing people as they truly are in their private lives is the only way to come to an understanding of human nature. As the novel progresses, his fixation on discovering the truth increases, and he becomes so consumed with watching others that he eventually loses his job because he cannot tear himself away from his hole in the wall. The narrator frequently describes himself as a truth seeker or a witness, a description that most scholarship takes at face-value. Although this scholarship does explore the concept of witnessing in the novel, it always does so with the assumption that narrator is, in fact, a witness. In this paper, I want to challenge this assumption. I argue that even though the narrator claims to bear witness to the human condition, he never achieves this goal of becoming a true witness.
"Witnessing and the Gaze in Barbusse’s Hell,"
Tête-à-Tête: Vol. 1, Article 13.
Available at: https://repository.lsu.edu/tete_a_tete/vol1/iss1/13