The French Lieutenant’s Woman and the Possibility of Feminism

May 3, 2019 by Essay Writer

The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a 1969 postmodern historical fiction novel by John Fowles, written in a double narrative form alternating between the Victorian era and the present day. Currently, some literary debate surrounding the novel concerns its validity as a Feminist text. There are various obstacles in the novel in terms of character definition, the plot itself, and the authorial methods used by Fowles. The novel fails to realise certain aspects of traditional Victorian feminist writing, the style in which the writer intended it to be interpreted. Sarah Woodruff is a clouded central figure as opposed to a strongly defined protagonist usually featured in Feminist texts.

Can Sarah be said to be an “independent female protagonist”? Given that the narrator acts in an almost manipulative voyeuristic way, this leads us as readers to believe that Sarah is never autonomous as her thoughts remain outside of the novel. In doing this, I feel the narrator is not reliable since we are never fully given the opportunity to empathise with her due to the absence of her point of view. Magali Michael, an anti-feminist critic of the novel, claims “if the novel is created within a masculine ideology and only masculine perspectives are allowed inside the text, then it necessarily follows that its characters cannot transcend that male ideology” Supporting Michael, in terms of our image of Sarah, the novelist fails to define her as a character, a human being; Fowles, the narrator, is male and chooses Charles as his real protagonist, therefore how can the novel be reflective of a “real feminist perspective”?

The male dominance within the novel, in terms of creation and story, deliberately mirrors the male dominance of Victorian society when only men were found in occupations such as scientists, engineers and members of Parliament, positions of real power. Fowles chose to challenge Feminist Literature traditions in his novel in which he suggests a male author is never able to properly capture the voice of a woman. Sarah’s elusiveness is deliberate because of this, which forces me to question: are we convinced by her? She lacks definition and thus it is difficult to interpret her story to define feminist goals in the way that feminist literature is known to do.

The true protagonist is Charles. The role of a protagonist encourages the reader to empathise, and often sympathise. Like Charles, we find a sense of fascination in the mystery of Sarah causing us to empathise far more with him, which also makes the concept of the alternative endings more exciting and intriguing for the reader. Sarah could be argued to be more of a technique than a protagonist; a central figure that drives the plot forward, sparking a similar interest in Charles as do his fossils, causing the reader to have an urge to ‘study’ her in the same way as Charles with his palaeontology. He appears to learn from Sarah in the form of emotional growth; he travels from ignorance to understanding by following the woman he believes he is helping and she acts as a mentor to his self-realisation. For example, we as readers are instantly as drawn to Sarah in Chapter 2 as Charles, when Fowles describes the sorrow in her face to have “welled out of it as purely, naturally and unstoppably as water out of a woodland spring.” While there is juxtaposition in the “sorrow” being compared the purity and beauty of nature, the nature is described as harsh and violent. The use of the adjective “unstoppable” in its connection to Sarah could be indicative of Charles’ fascination to be similarly unstoppable. Like Charles, as readers this intrigues us, forcing us to question why her sorrow is so visible in her appearance, emphasising Charles’ protagonist role due to us as readers empathising with him in fascination as opposed to Sarah with her sorrow.

Connecting the novel to the Victorian era, Charles could be described as a representation of modernism, described to “always ask life too many questions”. This metaphor of questioning the non-tangible noun of “life” enforces the intense fascination with mystery Charles has. To describe him as a philosophical thinker about the unknown of “life” and to ask “too much” emphasises the yearning to study and learn, to the extent of unravelling a mystery further than necessary. This could foreshadow his relationship with Sarah, in that it may have been better for their story to be left unknown. Charles sees himself as a rebellious, new thinker with his interest in Darwinian studies, his scientific academia in palaeontology and his anti-religious beliefs. He finds “English society too hidebound, English solemnity too solemn, English thought too moralistic, English religion too bigoted.” This leads me to further disagree with the question given that the novel seems to be almost challenging the style of a Victorian novel as opposed to following it, since its true protagonist seemingly goes against all the typical ideals of a Victorian male.

Another authorial method that brings the Victorian society to our attention is the character foil to Sarah of Ernestina. Ernestina is the idealised woman of the Victorian era yet unable to satisfy the longing for mystery that Charles has, seen in his fascination for Sarah. Fowles’ use of the opposite female characters proves Sarah has a sense of power over Charles, despite society deeming her as damaged. Linking this to another fantastic piece of literature by John Fowles, his second novel The Collector, published in 1963, also explores the male and female dynamic. In The Collector, Frederick expresses a sinister desire to kidnap Miranda as his butterfly and force her to fall in love with him. While this doesn’t correspond to the motive of Charles, Sarah doesn’t choose to be involved in Charles’ life in the same way that Miranda’s involvement is against her will. The similar sense of being out of control that is seen in Miranda and Sarah emphasises that Sarah is not an independent female protagonist, rather a technique that brings Charles’ self-realisation to the surface in a similar way to Frederick in The Collector. Sarah does however demonstrate that she has already arrived at an awareness that she cannot escape the constraints that society has imposed on her. Her choosing to simply accept being an outcast for love, as proved by the novel’s title and her nickname of ‘The French Lieutenant’s Whore’, goes to show the damage that Victorian society had on women. Fowles uses Ernestina to show the Victorian society valued ideals and if you didn’t fit them then women were forced to become outcasts, deemed unworthy of the future that women like Ernestina were entitled to. This forces me to disagree that Sarah is “independent” as she has no control of her own life and future. Therefore, she cannot make her own independent decisions as the circumstances Sarah faces are strictly because of what Victorian society drove her to experience in her “outcast” position, which can be emphasised by the reader’s responsibility to decide her fate with the alternative endings. However, looking further into the second ending, while it is not representative of an idealistic Victorian ending, the Feminism could lie in the way she rejects Charles, defining her underlying possession of trivial independence.

The major structural technique Fowles uses to make this novel unique is the use of the double narrative. The constant, yet cleverly embedded, intrusions of the narrator are reflective of the 20th century, which in turn gave him opportunity to comment upon Victorian conventions. The constant interjections of the narrator create a second layer to the novel, and later when Fowles joins the narrative as he writes in Chapter 55 “the conventions of Victorian fiction allow, allowed no place for the open ending; and I preached earlier of the freedom characters must be given.” The bearded character he becomes is explaining a dilemma, wanting to conclude the story but Victorian Literature would not allow an almost unfinished ending. Yet he feels as the manipulative narrator, he should allow them freedom to close their story, emphasising the meta-fiction style of the novel which certainly does not adhere to the traditional Victoria style.

Fowles’ strategic use of the double narrative strengthens a potential message Fowles was encouraging: that the patriarchal society seen in the Victorian era continues to be as big a problem in the present day. Therefore, one could argue that even though the novel doesn’t present a ‘real feminist perspective’ in the absence of the female point of view, it can still be deemed valued in terms of Feminist Literature. Another authorial method that makes the reader aware of Victorian society is the use of each chapter having an epigraph taken from Victorian Literature. This highlights to us as readers the forthcoming multiplicity of the Victorian voices in the novel, in the form of Fowles including several narrative presences and choosing himself to remain ambiguous. Structurally, Fowles’ use of alternative endings emphasise the modernity of the novel despite its Victorian setting, allowing the responsibility to lie with the reader, yet this continues to cloud the already present ambiguity of Sarah, deciding what they want to happen. Thus, the novel deserves recognition as both a postmodern text of the 20th century, yet also following a tale of Victorian life. Fowles’ narrative technique has a thought-provoking impact on the reader giving them responsibility in forcing them to connect the epigraphs to the following chapter; consistently remaining ambiguous as a narrator; and the alternative endings.

By definition, feminist literature establishes and defends the rights of women, identifying women’s roles as unequal to those of men, particularly in status and power generally portraying consequences as undesirable. The French Lieutenant’s Woman does identify a sense of inequality, especially through the structural techniques under the surface that Fowles has chosen to use. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Fowles adheres to some of the criteria to be considered a piece of Feminist text, yet he fails to assert the theme of feminism due to the absence of female perspectives. Despite this, what makes The French Lieutenant’s Woman such a valued piece of literature is Fowles’ ability as narrator to manipulate and allow the reader to realise many preconceptions and myths about women. Its value lies in its adherence to the realisation of a traditional Victorian novel style, yet there is an interesting juxtaposition in its protest against this; demonstrated in the double narrative that reflects the modernity of the novel. Sarah cannot be defined as an independent female protagonist due to the absence of her point of view and a lack of autonomy. While she drives the plot forward, she remains an outsider, ambiguous in the way that the reader is given a lot of responsibility in their interpretation of her, which is only achieved through the prism of male perspective.

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