The French Lieutenants woman

Reading John Fowles The French Lieutenants woman after George Elliots masterpiece was an excellent decision.

Its quite easy to see how they’re comparable- both take place during the same time period and in a way are quite similar in what they aim to do. Elliot and Fowles both have stories that take place in Victorian England and a ensemble of strong male and female characters. So what difference do you find between an 20th century American man and a 19th century woman who write on similar themes?

The obvious and cosmetic similarities first. Both use references/extracts from other authors/poets to give context to chapters. Elliot uses Classical literature apart from poets and authors from her time, Fowles uses scientists  apart from poets and authors from his time. Both involve love, marriage and ideas about righteousness. Both include slightly tasteless remarks about Jews and  seem a bit orientalist.

The most obvious differences are the ones that arise due to the fact that the author of the French Lieutenants woman is someone who is looking back on what is to him – history. He ,unlike Elliot, is able to look back without as much attachment or biases that arise from living during a particular age. So unlike Elliot he is not restricted to the niche that she is [That of the upper class]. This is not to say that Elliot is oblivious to the poorer sections of society, but she is more comfortable and concerned with the gentry,the clergy and merchants. Or maybe Fowles is just able to see things that would not have been though of being worth mentioning back then.  Fowles has the ability to look back, knowing what is going to happen and is aware of statistics and facts about the Victorian era that might have shocked most Victorians.

The most important tools he seems to have in his possession are his understanding of science and Marx. Science is used to address the way of life, religion, lifestyle and various Victorian habits. Since the novel is set in a time of change where technology was uprooting old styles of life, Fowles use of science is essential to let the reader know about the world the story revolves around. Fowles incorporates everything from evolution to psychology in a love story. A no mean feat.

Fowles is also able to sneak in some criticism of science, psychology in particular, arguing for the need to be more humane in its approach. He makes a good case for why not everything can be chalked up to insanity or hysteria.

There’s a lot of talk on morality and changing social hierarchy too. This is where Fowles seems to use Marxism the most. I think it was rather brave of Fowles to quote Marx and go about talking about class divisions during the era of McCarthyism. He uses it effectively adding his already excellent description of Victorian England. The differences between lower and upper class, the attitudes of the employers and social hierarchy are all elaborated on using Marxist critic.

Both authors are rebels- or nonconformists if your feeling really miserly. Elliot is breaking away from the expectations of the stories that women were supposed to write, from popular morality,happy endings, and criticized certain aspects of society. I’d say her novel is better because of characters and a story so intresting its almost hypnotic. However Fowles is clearing trying to do more with his novel. Elliot seems a softer rebel, she does break away but not radically.

Fowles regularly breaks the third wall, appears in the story [literately] and is at the mercy of where his characters want to go. Fowles is able to say a lot about the role of the novelist in a story, the way he/she plays god and what the novelist must do. The novel includes three very different endings.

The first is a very safe and Victorian one, the one you might have seen coming. The second is not as expected since it does involve quite a lot of moral decisions [and sex] Victorians disapprove of. It is still a very pleasant ending. The final ending is the one that seems to break from tradition the most. It isn’t a very happy one and you wonder if Sarah was crazy,Charles bitter or deluded etc. The last two endings are equally likely according to Fowles.

Offering the reader endings to choose from could be called lazy from any other author. Here it is done masterfully. You realize the book was only disguised as a Victorian novel. The author enters the story and explains his position, the traditional endings he is expected to write, the godlike role he occupies and he plays/ experiments with all these rules. Each ending throws up questions about authorship, traditional styles in writing.

Sex and women empowerment are the most important themes in the novel. Sarah is clearly struggling to cope with the rigid formality and repression in Victorian society. She longs for more freedom and her affair with the French lieutenant is an act of rebellion. Historical anecdotes repeatedly make it clear that few Victorians where as chaste as they claimed to be. Fowles at times seems to suggest that the Victorians had better sex than anyone in his century, I don’t think that’s really true. But it is interesting to see why he makes the argument. Sarah whatever her intentions is clearly a very strong woman who is an intellectual equal to Charles.

Watching Charles ,a Gentleman who exists in an age where Gentlemen are quickly dying out, deal with the rebellion against gender roles that Sarah causes is both an engrossing story and a very accurate description of the outlook towards changing Victorian morality during the time period.

The only real weakness I saw was his description of America. It seemed a little too idealistic and reeked of patriotism. It doesn’t really harm the novel it just makes you roll your eyes a little too often.

The French Lieutenants Woman is a fascinating read. It is a Victorian love story but more, it is a story about an Gentleman  in the 19th century but the story is driven by the strong female characters, its can be both a tragedy or a pleasant happy ending. Fowles has done quite a bit with a simple story and has done it masterfully.

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