Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Fowles and Hawthorne

(I wouldn't read this post if you haven't read The French Lieutenant's Woman, but would like to).

It is by chance that I am re-reading John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman just after reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, but I can't help linking the two. The 19th century novelist looks back on the repressive 17th century Puritans, his heroine not quite modern but ahead of and outsider her time and society. The 20th century novelist looks back on the repressive 19th century Victorians, his heroine not quite modern but ahead of and outsider her time and society.

But as both are period novels of a sort, the successive readings are helping me to further explore how Fowles innovates his narrative. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne often comments on those Puritans, and his introduction makes clear he is examining it from a later perspective. In The French Lieutenant's Woman, Fowles brings the authorial "I" to a much fuller reality than Hawthorne would. But even before he injects himself in the 13th chapter, or writes himself into the book as a physical character, he is playing on the period novel convention of commentary. He frequently injects himself to comment on the Victorian age, but with much more explicit comparisions between that and his own age. Often in his injections, he warns the contemporary reader not to judge the Victorians too harshly, comparing the zeitgeist of the 1860s and 1960s, with some incisive commentary of his (our) own age. And though sometimes Fowles says "you" to the reader, he often uses "we," "our," "us:" he is quite explicitly a contemporary writer looking at the Victiorian period with a contemporary audience.

So reading Hawthorne shows me that Fowles' early intrusions in The French Lieutenant Woman, while more explicit, forceful, and deep, are not necessary new to the novel. Such intrusions do, however, prepare the reader for what is coming in chapter 13--that shouldn't come as a complete punch to the head. Though I'm not sure anything can quite prepare a reader for Fowles' later metafictional flourishes. His physical entry into the text of the novel is inspired, and his two endings take the concept of an ambiguous ending into its most explicit--and artificial--exploration yet.

I also can't help feeling a bit of irony. While Fowles is rather more sympathetic to the Victorians than Hawthorne is to the Puritans, it is amusing that while a 20th century English writer looks back to 19th century England for a repressive, rigid social ethos, a writer from that same century looks back further to find his epitome of the restrictive, judgmental society. The concept of "duty" really besots both Hawthorne's vision of 17th century Puritans and Fowles' vision of 19th century Victorians. Without feeling any affections for either the Puritans or the Victorians, I can't help but wonder whether either group was really quite as bad as the two authors present them.

Hawthorne recognized just how influential and formative the Puritans were on America. Fowles recognized just how influential and formative the Victorians were on England, and the world (The French Lieutenant's Woman is in some ways about Darwin, about how the great scientific discoveries of the Victorian period affected the Victorians, and how such discoveries have formed us). Both writers recognize an era and a people that built their (our) world--but both writers recognized culture, an attitude, an order, that needed to be shattered.

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