The great French novels of the nineteenth century in particular, Balzac’s first of all, are crammed with houses, furnishings, costumes, exhaustively and scrupulously described, not to mention faces, bodies, etc. This setting was already the image of man: each of the walls or the furnishings represented a double of the person who inhabited it–rich or poor, severe or vainglorious–and was in addition subject to the same destiny, to the same fatality. The reader overly concerned to know the story could even consider himself justified in skipping the descriptions: they involved only a frame, which moreover happened to have a meaning identical to that of the picture it was to contain.
Obviously, when this same reader skips the descriptions in our books, he is in danger of finding himself, having turned all the pages one after the other with a rapid forefinger, at the end of the volume whose contents will have escaped him altogether; imagining he has been dealing hitherto with nothing but the frame, he will still be looking for the picture.
This is because the place and the role of description have changed completely. While the preoccupations of a descriptive order were invading the entire novel, they were at the same time losing their traditional meaning. Description once made us see things, now it seems to destroy them, as if its intention to discuss them aimed only at blurring their contours, at making them incomprehensible, at causing them to disappear altogether.
Alain Robbe-Grillet, Time and Description in Fiction Today