Sunday, August 10, 2008

Rereading "The French Lieutenant's Woman"

Something new stands out for me in my rereading of John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman. In the metafiction of the novel, Fowles may seem to explore the limitations of the omnipotent narrator. But that is hardly the case: Fowles is in fact asserting, reclaiming, and celebrating the omnipotent power of the author. To Fowles, some 20th century theorists and artists were denying the place or significance of the author to the work of literature. The French Lieutenant's Woman is written in the third person, and Fowles has injected himself into the text as fully as one can imagine a third person narrator possibly could. There are the obvious points: the 13th chapter when Fowles says he doesn't know what Sarah is thinking, the inauthentic dream ending in which Fowles parodies the ending of a novel, later in the book when he first enters the scene as a physical character, in the contrived double-ending, in the final philosophical commentary that concludes the novel. But even beyond those brilliant and enjoyable bits of metafiction, Fowles' voice powerfully controls the text. He injects his own comments and opinions, frequently compares the 1860s to his own era, talks about literature and the conventions of fiction, and seems to stop to chat with the reader while telling the story. Fowles critically examines Victorian England with the 20th century reader, but he's also speaking to the reader a bit like a teacher (or preacher).

The book is a rich and expansive exploration of Victorian England (the ideas, the culture, and the material conditions), and the conventions of the Victorian novel. It is also very, very funny. Fowles' tone is often hilarious, as he comments on characters, conventions, and eras. And there are many other interesting things about the book (the way Fowles forces readers to consider the ways they read or fictionalize, the theme of existential freedom). But in all that and above all that, in The French Lieutenant's Woman Fowles is showing the enduring significance and importance of the omnipotent author.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't reread this novel in a long time but your comments make me want to. For one thing, what you say about Fowles's intrusive narrator reminds me very much of Thackeray's, and I don't think I knew Vanity Fair very well back when I last read FLW. All the meta-fictional stuff we get in so many 19thC novels has always made me wonder why so many people seem to cling to the stereotype of the Victorian era as the heyday of naive mimetic realism!