All entries for Wednesday 29 November 2006

November 29, 2006

The Intelligence of the Clumsy.

John Fowles:
The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
The intelligence of the clumsy.

John Fowles was born on the 31st March in 1926, in Essex. He studied at Edinburgh University before going to New College, Oxford, where he concentrated on getting a BA degree in French. In 1968 he moved to Lyme Regis in Dorset, which would become the setting for one of his most famous novels, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which he wrote in 1969. This novel was inspired by a novel by the French eighteenth century writer, Clare de Duras (1777 – 1828). Her novel was called Ourike and was written in 1823, when it was revolutionary, as it was seen as the first earnest attempt for an author to associate herself with a racial and national critique that she was not directly a part of. It was based in the era of the French revolution, and controversially dealt with issues of race, nationality, exile, inter-racial love and kinship. Fowles translated this novel after he had written The French Lieutenant’s Woman, in 1977, although he was undoubtedly well acquainted with it well before he published the translated version. In 1981, The French Lieutenant’s Woman was made into an award winning film, starring Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep. Fowles died on the 5th November in 2005.

The most interesting aspect of this startlingly well-written and absorbing book is the matter of the multiple endings. Indeed, it is this that has for many people, made the book so famous, especially after the release of the 1981 film in which they cleverly managed to incorporate both of the main endings.

He provides us, at the end of the book, with three possible outcomes for our hero and heroine – the Victorian gentleman, Charles, and the mysterious, passionate Sarah. First, Charles can marry his boring and conventional fiancée, Ernestina, but their marriage will be unhappy and unfulfilling, and in this ending, Fowles makes no reference to Sarah’s fate. The second ending, the “happy” ending, sees Charles giving in to his subdued passion and having sex with Sarah, and then returning home to break off his engagement, which sees him disgraced and disowned. Meanwhile, Sarah flees to London, and Charles spends years trying to find her – eventually he does, and she is living with a house of artists, with his child. We are left with the expectation that they can find reconciliation and build a life together. The final ending, the “sad” ending, finds their reunion unhappy, and Charles finally sees how Sarah has used and manipulated him. In this version she does not tell him of the child, and the reader knows that there can be no hope for them to be happy with each other.

Fowles broaches the problem of these multiple endings in chapter fifty-five (six chapters from the end), through his authorial intervention, as he claims he takes on a character in the story, a man watching Charles sleep on a train. He says “what the devil am I going to do with you? I have already thought of ending Charles’s career here and now; of leaving him for eternity on his way to London”. He appears to discuss with the reader the problems of having these different endings, the difficulty of appearing impartial as to which is the “favourite”, or the “true” ending, as in the format of a novel, one of them MUST come first. And indeed, he did have to make this decision- the “happy” ending comes first, and the novel ends with the “sad” alternative. In light of Fowles’ freely expressed concerns in chapter fifty-five therefore, the reader is forced to ask how the order in which they are presented effects the individual’s reading. In conventional literature, it could be considered odd that Fowles chooses to end the novel on an unhappy note, when an author who was seeking to please their readers would end on a “happy” ending, with Sarah and Charles reaching an understanding and looking forward, towards the future. However, it must be remembered that simply by the technique of the double endings, the novel is breaking with “conventional literature”, and therefore does not need to conform to expectations. It is important to consider that if Fowles had ended the novel on a hopeful note, would we as readers simply have dismissed the previous unhappy conclusion in preference for something more satisfying, idealistic, and, ultimately, fictional?

This device of the multiple endings also brings up the question of authorial intervention; is this an acceptable technique in literature, does it provoke thought and critique, or is it simply laziness on the part of the author, finding an escape from the completion – whether “satisfactory” or not – of their novel? Fowles is lucky in that he has the literary skill and the clever manipulation of language that enables him to pull this off successfully, as he manages to keep a certain sense of irony in his tone that eliminates the possibility of pretension. However, it is important to remember that this has been done by Fowles, and it has been successfully; to repeat the technique again would be mere clumsiness and would show an unacceptable level of ignorance and lack of originality, and ultimately, talent.

However, it must be questioned, as to whether it is merely the talent of the author that allows the double ending to be acceptable; does the story of The French Lieutenant’s Woman lend itself to a double ending? It is possible to answer in the affirmative, or at least to say that it is not a story that is adverse to the technique Fowles imposes upon it; Sarah’s constant aura of mystery, and Charles’ inability to think independently, mean that it is almost necessary for Fowles to step in and lay out the options, not only for the readers but for his characters themselves. It is almost as though he is saying to them, these are your possible paths, now you must decide which you will take. It is debatable as to whether they will be able to choose; perhaps despite Fowles’ best efforts, Charles will remain asleep on the train, and Sarah will remain lost in London, simply because they do not have the independent will to move forward. These observations lead automatically onto the question of whether this indecision is no more than an echo of the situation of the author, for he can decide for them. He is a novelist who has fallen in love with his characters and cannot bear to let them go, and places them in a limbo, refusing to allow them to live their lives if he cannot be their manipulative God.

This novel therefore raises interesting questions of the intentions of an author, and the idea that authorship is no more than a desperate, psychological need for control and power. In their novel, the author is able to create their own characters and situations and manipulate them to their own whims, making the entire facility of the imagination no more than a display of the individual victory of control and power.

However, it cannot be ignored that this is effected by the readers, for do not they have the ability to interpret the novel in their own individual way, a way that is outside of the control of the author? Therefore, in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, is Fowles acknowledging this weakness, or is he securing against it by detailing our possible interpretations of the ending for us – he is giving us both “happy” and “sad”. Is he therefore underestimating the intelligence and ability of independent thought of his readers? Or does he have an accurate understanding of the principle concerns of the majority of the reading public; “this is a happy story” versus “this is a sad story”.

It is important to remember when considering Fowles’ manipulation of his readers, that he is doing this throughout the novel, constantly mixing the nineteenth century stereotypes with a twentieth century perception, creating a world that would normally struggle to exist, even within the realms of fiction, as he is constantly creating twists and contradictions that again, survive only through his talent as a writer which makes the reader blind to the historical and contextual inconsistencies. Indeed, it can be argued that these even enhance the quality of the novel, as it enables a twentieth century readership to relate more closely to this novel, apparently set firmly in the nineteenth century.

Fowles’ use of endings in this novel, and the questions it raises have long been debated by critics, who endlessly attempt to find answers to the questions he raises. However, Fowles warns against this in his final sentences of the novel, where he reminds us of the fluxuating nature of the world, whether contemporary, past, real or fictionalised, and our understanding can never be truly complete, never truly resolved; “He [Charles] has at last found an atom of faith in himself; has already begun… to realise that life is not one riddle and one failure to guess it, is not to inhabit one face alone or to be given up after one loosing throw of the dice; bit it is to be, however inadequately, emptily, hopelessly, into the city’s iron heart, endured. And out again, into the unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea.”


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