John Fowles The French Lieutenant’s Woman Paper

Published: 2021-09-10 14:25:09
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Category: Novel

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According to Nelson Vieira, John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman:
‘falls under the rubric of what is commonly known today as metafiction. Metafictional writers thus operate and function with a freedom of exposing illusion for what it is- a device used to mask narrative as a construct and a figment of one’s imagination.’1
John Fowles has no qualms about admitting that literature is, in fact just an illusion. This is most noticeable in his telling the reader that ‘The story I am telling is all imagination. The characters I create never existed outside my own mind’2. It seems then, that John Fowles, in destroying the reader’s illusion, and also destroys the ‘suspension of disbelief necessary in following a story told by an omniscient narrator’3
Fowles’ destruction of this suspension of disbelief in reminding us of the fictitious nature of all characters and events taking place creates a gulf between himself, or his story, and the reader. To be drawn into the world of fiction, we must feel that it is true, and that we are a part of a real world, and not merely some illusion or magic trick.
It is also impossible for the reader to take ownership of the story when the author is so insistent at writing himself into the novel. Fowles not only intrusively reminds us that he writes a fiction and not a truth, but appears himself in the shape of the man in the railway carriage- we are, however, further confused as to whether, perhaps, his story is based in reality, as he observes Charles and asks ‘now what could I do with you?’4 This brings us to the conclusion that, perhaps, Fowles truly observed a man on a train, and, in doing so, brought the character of Charles, and so the story, into being, and so confuses the story from reality.
It becomes nearly impossible to distinguish reality from the artificial when Fowles suggests that he is perhaps ‘writing a transposed autobiography; perhaps I now live in one of the houses I have brought into the fiction; perhaps Charles is myself disguised.’5 We feel that if the author himself cannot decide to which depth his story is, in fact a reality, then we cannot hope to engage with it either as a piece of fiction or a factual document.
Palmer points out that:
Fowles intrudes in chapter thirteen in order to jolt the reader who, reading this seemingly traditional historical novel is becoming too passively comfortable in his over-stuffed arm chair. He wants to start a dialogue with his reader.6
Whilst this is indeed most probably, in fact, almost certainly, Fowles’ intention, it does interfere with storytelling. A story is ‘any narrative or tale recounting the sequence of events’7, and Fowles’ interruption only interrupts the story, although it may give the reader a more mental exercise. Palmer also claims that Fowles is attempting to ‘free the reader from the traditional role of passive, uninvolved observer’8, but one must wonder whether the reader wishes to be so liberated. He certainly does free ‘himself and his characters from the tyrannising roles of the traditional novelist god-character relationship’9, but rather than freeing his readership, he has enslaved them. Rather than being at liberty to enjoy the narrative, they are forced into a realisation that the world constructed around them is merely that, a construct.
However, having forced his reader into a realisation that they have been living in a world of mere make-believe, Fowles taunts his audience, in telling them that ‘my characters still exist, and in a reality no less, or no more real than the one I have just broken.’10 Whilst this may seem a confusion, and confusion most certainly is an alienation of the reader, problematising the role of both the author and the story, he is, in fact referring to the ‘reality’ he has just broken, which, as he has just told us, is no reality at all, but a mere construct. Fowles seems to torment his reader with unsure statements whilst keeping them from the narrative, the purpose of a novel.
Fowles has been described as ‘a writer stalking himself, or better, he is a novelist writing into a mirror so that each or his works reflect back upon his own mind and vision’11. The reader is never sure what to believe of the novel, just as we are never sure where two mirrors reflecting in on themselves may end. It is in just this way that we cannot tell where Charles will end: indeed, even Fowles seems not to know, hence his triple ending. This too, could present a barrier for his readership: if Fowles, as the author and creator of the text, cannot discern the direction of a narrative, how then, is his readership supposed to manage such a feat? We are given the impression that Fowles is perhaps remarkably indecisive, which brings us out o our suspension of disbelief almost as much as the authorial interruptions.
This confusion over plot in his inability to come to a conclusion could be rooted in Fowle’s determination to rewrite the Victorian novel. Even character is at time confused- we are unsure as to Fowles’ intentions for Charles, or even Charles’ origins as a literary figure.
Palmer claims that the novel ‘hangs in…suspension: between the traditions of Victorian fiction, with its attendant restrictions, and the experimental, intensely-self conscious novel of the mid-twentieth century.’12 He also reiterates that ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman is, in one of its many aspects, Fowles’s dramatisation of his own theory of the novel. It is a metatheatrical work of literary criticism.’13 It is this idea of the ‘metafiction’ that provides the complexities of the novel, but also draws the reader away from the characters, creating a barrier between them and the story. We feel that we are, perhaps, guinea pigs for Fowles’ experiments with literature.
The same could be said of Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. It has been described as ‘Woolf’s most consciously experimental novel’14, as so much of the modernist movement is an attempt to break away from the Victorian style that Fowles attempts to recreate. She shies away from the normal, and particularly the narrative- Zwerdling cites her as claiming to want to ‘do away with exact place and time, this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner: it is false, unreal, merely conventional” 15.
In doing this she cuts out much of the tedium of the Victorian novel, but yet has a good chance of leaving her reader floundering: we may feel at the end of the novel that we do not truly know even Jacob, let alone the peripheral characters. He has been described as ‘far too shadowy a figure’ who ‘fails to come to life.16 There are few reference points within the novel: Woolf has indeed succeeded in her goal of doing away with typical narrative. We see only ‘brief but typical vignettes chosen seemingly at random,’17 and have little means of stringing them together to form a picture of his true character and experiences. Joan Bennett claims that the novel ‘builds up no whole that can be held in the mind’18
As such, Jacob’s Room seems not so much to problematise storytelling as to obliterate any concept of story. Zwerdling describes Jacob’s Room as ‘a surgical excision of clogged detail.’19 However, we must consider the meshing of art and science in this idea. A ‘surgical excision’ seems very far from the constructive art of writing, and, whilst surgery is an exacting, science-dependant field, writing, surely, is a free art, the bounds of which are only the farthest reaches of the imagination, not the facts of textbooks.
Whereas Fowles makes us wonder as to the true reality of his characters and story, especially Charles, suggesting that he sees much of Charles in himself, Woolf admits to actively disliking Jacob. Zwerdling suggests that this is largely thanks to his sex, quoting Woolf in Jacob’s Room- ‘granted ten years seniority and a difference of sex, fear of him comes first’20. Frank Kermode, in the biographical preface to Jacob’s Room suggests that this might be ‘possibly related to the sexual molestation of which her half-brother, George Duckworth is accused.21 He also puts points out that ‘there have been many accounts of the marriage very hostile to Leonard Woolf’22. Indeed, Woolf gives Jacob thoughts that she, as a woman in the twentieth century, surely could not agree with- he compares the presence of women at the Kings College service to the presence of dogs:
No one would think of bringing a dog into church. For though a dog is all very well on a gravel path, and shows no disrespect to flowers, the way he wanders down an aisle, looking, lifting a paw, approaching a pillar with a purpose that makes the blood run cold with horror (should you be one of the congregation- alone, shyness is out of the question), a dog destroys the service completely.23
As educated as she was, although not having attended university, Virginia Woolf could not have agreed with such ideas. As a modern reader, these ideas grate on our sense of equality. In an age where education is available regardless of gender, moments such as these create a distance between the writing and the reader and prevent a true feeling of connection with the text.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman too has some anti-feminist moments, which could present a barrier between the text and a potential readership- Charles believes that Ernestina, as a woman could no possibly hold the same value as a man:
He could not be angry with her. After all, she was only a woman. There were so many things she must never understand: the richness of male life, the enormous difficulty of being one to whom the world was rather more than dress and home and children.24
However, this could also represent the other side of the argument- whilst Fowles may alienate a segment of society which was active at the time of the novel’s publication; he was also attempting to echo the Victorian novel, in which this would very much be a recognised and accepted viewpoint- the ‘Victorian icon- the ‘angel in the house’… the presiding hearth angel of Victorian social myth’25. Charles expects women to stay the same, and to be reliant on men- he expects Sarah to rely on him, and seems to find her making her own way in the world faintly repulsive. In one way, therefore Fowles is problematising his storytelling in possibly alienating a part of his readership, but also moving his story closer to the goal he set out to achieve.
As I earlier pointed out in relation to The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the purpose of ‘storytelling’ is for entertainment; therefore making a stilted or confusing narrative will certainly problematise the process of storytelling. Jacob’s Room is very much a metaphorical text: McNichol points out that there has been too much concentration on ‘what the novel is not’26 largely because of ‘a failure to grasp the originality of Virginia Woolf’s new conception of a novel’27 However; she also notes that it is, in fact, ‘an abstract and theoretic work’28, and so we must wonder how much of a ‘story’ it is, or whether it is, in fact, ‘a challenge to the nature of fiction itself’29, and as such, more an academic treatise than a novel.
The metaphorical nature of the text is made clear in the relation of the title to the work: the ‘room’ of the title is in fact in the context of ‘the space, metal and physical, which is occupied by Jacob Flanders’30 rather than the physical rooms in which we see him in the course of the novel: asleep in Cornwall with his sheep’s jaw, at Cambridge, and at Lamb’s Conduit Street, among others. As a metaphorical text, the novel is designed not so much for the process of storytelling as to make a statement on the accepted structure. Virginia Woolf is a far more solid presence in the text that any of her characters; indeed, McNichol presents Jacob’s Room as being full of ‘authorial dialectic’31, just as The French Lieutenant’s Woman is full of authorial intervention.
It seems that the role of the author and the role of storytelling are, to an extent, mutually exclusive. For the author to have a role in their text, it seems they must take a presence in it, as Fowles does in chapter thirteen, and as Woolf does in making Jacob’s Room more about an experiment conducted by her than about her characters and plot, and so her readership. As I have pointed out, this concentration on the experiment disrupts the idea of ‘storytelling’: for a reader to fully appreciate a story, they must be able to view it as a reality, which the readership of both texts cannot truly do, as the author refuses to give up their place in the piece.
Whilst the author is present, we are aware that the constructed world is just that, a fiction, where we would prefer to believe if as a reality, at least for a time. It seems that for storytelling to be effective, therefore, the role of the author must only extend as far as the writing of the story, not featuring in it. As such, storytelling in these texts is problematised by the role of the author, and the role of the author is problematised by storytelling.

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