Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The French Lieutenant's Woman

I've been wanting to share this next one with you for some time now, and it's the perfect follow-up to my post about Metanarrative.  It's been a while since I read The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles, but I still remember how much I loved it upon my first reading.  I've now reexamined the story and am eager to add it to my list of Classics.

The main character of the story is Charles Smithson, a Victorian gentleman who begins the story with a suitable fiance.  The title character is Sarah Woodruff, a social outcast due to her past relationship with a lieutenant who abandoned her and tarnished her reputation.  As fate would have it, Charles is captivated by this mysterious woman and eventually enters into an affair with her.  In many ways, the characters and setting of the story fit into a typical Victorian design.  Based in England in 1867, it is reminiscent of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and other authors of that era.  However, Fowles is clearly satirizing Victorian literature and fashioning a Postmodern work of brilliance in this Victorian mold.

The primary method of satire is Fowles' unique and amusing narration.  The narrator constantly breaks in and out of the story in metanarrative, dispelling the fantasy.  Eventually, he confesses that he is actually writing the story in 1967, yet he claims to have no authority over his characters.  In a truly unique move, Fowles actually places himself temporarily in the story.  Near the end, he describes a man who is sitting on the train across from the main character and studying him quizzically.  He reveals that he, the narrator, is the mysterious man on the train and as he looks at Charles, he says, "What the devil am I going to do with you?"  Then, he proceeds to weigh the possible outcomes of the story.  Memorably, he eventually settles the matter by offering three alternative endings, which he suggests are all equally valid.

I thoroughly enjoyed this narrative style.  I love the ways he poked fun at Victorian literature, and I often chuckled at the narrator's subjective comments that balk from a tradition of "narrator as god."  He also filled the text with countless literary allusions, which I, as a fellow lit lover, absolutely loved.  Every chapter begins with at least one quote from a famous piece of literature, and at times he directly explains its connection to the story.  His characters are equally well read and frequently refer to various works of their time, such as Madame Bovary and Persuasion.

Another important aspect of this story is the ambiguity, which plays a critical role in the novel.  Fowles pushes readers to consider that things cannot always be separated into distinct categories.  It is not always a matter of right or wrong, good or bad, yes or no.  Sarah is the best example of this in the novel.  Through gossip in the town, we hear many explanations and opinions about her relationship with the French lieutenant, but none of them are ever confirmed.  Moreover, the shame she bears from this relationship is presented at times as her source of victimization, and at other times, it's her source of power. But perhaps the greatest ambiguity of all these possible motives is that they do not necessarily contradict each other.  It is conceivable that they may all be true, or at least partially true.  Moreover, there is an implicit suggestion that one explanation does not exist, that there is not one “true” reason for Sarah’s actions.  This essentially borders the Postmodern theory of "truth" and "untruth," in which there are multiple dimensions we perceive rather than one set guideline.

Publishing this in 1969, Fowles was ahead of his time.  I believe that his work was monumental in the transition from Modern to Postmodern literature, and his brilliance is even more striking in consideration of the innovation it brought.  The French Lieutenant's Woman is about so much more than its plot.  In fact, the plot is the least memorable aspect of the story for me.  Instead, Fowles challenged the boundaries of what a story can be and ushered in a new era of writing.  This novel is lightly entertaining and deeply philosophical at the same time, which is not an easy thing to accomplish.  I highly recommend it to all!


Andrew Shaughnessy said...

I like what you said about the plot being the least memorable part of the story for you. I felt the same way - which in itself leads to interesting questions about the nature of fiction when the author seems more concerned with himself and the process rather than the tale itself. Sometimes this works out really well. Sometimes the fun of just having a good tale to listen to gets lost in the mix.

Jillian said...

This sounds fascinating!!! I have just added it to my wish list. :D

Amy said...

Jillian, this is a great book to start with for metanarrative. And it's a transitional book from Modern to Postmodern, which you mentioned might be useful in your comment on the Metanarrative description. Andrew, who wrote above you, is a friend of mine who is really knowledgable about this stuff, so I support his recommendations for further study if you're interested as well. Hopefully, I'll get him to write a more full-length post on some of this stuff because he knows much more about it than I do.