LITERARY TREND AND AUTHOR CANON
- Fowles is a novelist of outstanding imaginative power and a self-conscious postmodernist author who emphasizes the artifice in the act of writing;
- Postmodern narrative techniques (the pastiche of Victorian fiction, the device of alternative endings);
- The author is a figure within his own books and enters the narrative to comment on the action and to explain how things might have been different;
- The novelist acts like a magician whose tricks may all be bogus;
- The novelist has a relative authority that mirrors the concept of authority in the contemporary age.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman (published 1969)
- Genre: postmodern historical fiction
- The novel explores the fraught relationship between a gentleman and amateur naturalist, Charles Smithson, and an independent woman, Sarah Woodruff. The novel is a historiographic metafiction, a work of fiction that mimics the structure of historical fiction using intertextuality, thus acting by the rules of parody. At the same time, historiographic metafiction is self-reflexive. The novel mimics the structure of Victorian novels and romantic characters but does this in a parodic and self-reflexive manner.
- Lyme Regis, a small English town set on a rocky shore;
- Victorian England, 1867.
Main theme: the artificial nature of fiction
The novel is modelled on the genre of the Victorian novel, with many stylistic and formal similarities to history books. The author constantly shows the reader that the Victorian way of life was shaped and limited by the ideology of the era and draws parallels to his present (1969). Fowles uses an unconventional narration, which discloses the fact that the characters and the action are figments of the author’s imagination. The author also makes his presence known throughout the text, asking questions, and addressing the reader directly. The story offers three endings, which underline its artificial nature because none is invested with the quality of absolute truth (in the postmodernist perspective, truth is a relative concept). The author slips from one illusion into another, making them equally important.
- Social class
Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman meet Sarah Woodruff, a young woman who has been seduced and abandoned by a French lieutenant in the coastal city Lyme Regis, in the middle of the 19th century. Slowly, Charles becomes fascinated with Sarah’s story and tragedy. He urges her to leave Lyme Regis and find a new life. At the same time, he is going through financial turmoil, as he loses his inheritance from his rich uncle and is threatened to being financially dependent on his fiancée, Ernestina. Charles convinces Sarah to move to Exeter. He visits Ernestina’s father to talk about his financial situation.
The narrator breaks into the story and offers three possible developments.
1. Charles never visits Sarah in Exeter, and he goes on to marry Ernestina and live a dull life in which he never admits to his feelings for Sarah.
2. Charles and Sarah have a brief sexual encounter. After realising that she was a virgin (and the French lieutenant story was fake), he sends her a letter and proposes marriage. His servant never delivers the letter, and Charles breaks off the engagement to Ernestina. Charles leaves the country and for two years, he searches for Sarah in Europe and America. Finally, he finds her and learns that they are the parents of a child. In the end, he is hopeful that the relationship can be rekindled.
3. The narrative in which Charles and Sarah have a sexual encounter is preserved. He still breaks off the engagement to Ernestina and still searches for Sarah. When they meet, they don’t get along and he is not certain that the child is his. He chooses to leave, wondering if Sarah was just using him.
Characters presented in the analysis of the literary fragment should be adapted to the fragment itself.
- The narrator – appears sporadically as a disembodied narrative “I”. Twice, he appears as an actual character and suggests that he is also the writer of the story and comments on his process of writing. However, he is not Fowles, as the author is writing in the 1960s, and the narrator appears as a Victorian man. Thus, the narrator figure is a means through which the author, Fowles, satirizes himself and writers in general and reminds the reader that the fiction is a construction of the author’s mind, not a true occurrence.
- Charles Smithson – an amateur palaeontologist who believes in Darwin’s theory of evolution and considers himself as living proof of the theory. He lacks faith in himself and is lazy about putting his ideas into practice. He is guided by the Victorian sense of morale and decides to break off his engagement to Ernestina and marry Sarah because it is the right thing to do, although he knows that he will be judged for his decision. He struggles to understand Sarah, who becomes the destroying puzzle of his life.
- Sarah Woodruff – the character in the title. She is modelled after the Victorian trope of the mysterious woman. She never has clear reasons for her actions, and she behaves unexpectedly. She doesn’t belong to the lower class or the middle class, as she is a farmer’s daughter, educated above her station. She is lonely and an outcast, but throughout the novel, it becomes clear that she has manipulated people’s perceptions to be an outcast. Breaking the rules of society gives her a sense of freedom. She deceives Charles, with the ultimate purpose of being her authentic self and control her destiny.
POINT OF VIEW
- Elements of 3rd person omniscient point of view – the narrator is external to the action;
- Elements of 1st person narrative perspective. The narrator intrudes into the action; he identifies himself as an author and highlights certain facts about the writing process. He also identifies his time as being the contemporary period.
- As a historical metafiction circumscribed to the postmodernist aesthetic, the book has a mixed point of view.
- Playful, due to the multiple perspectives of the narratorial voice;
- Makes fun of the Victorian values and the hypocrisy of the characters.
The style and narrative techniques are a combination of Victorian and post-modern elements;
Ambiguous identity of the story-teller;
Postmodern narrative techniques:
- Pastiche (the novel imitates the great Victorian novels)
- Fragmentation (the three distinctive narrative voices rearrange the narrative);
- Intertextuality (re-making of the Victorian novel, with an added sense of parody; use of epigraphs from Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, Charles Darwin, etc.);
- Metafiction (the author intrudes into the narrative structure to make the reader aware of the fictionality and presence of the author);
- Historiographic metafiction (the process of re-writing history through a work of fiction).