The French Lieutenant's Woman as a Postmodern Novel

If the fundamental principles and assumptions about the nature of fiction is questioned and challenged, postmodernist elements are supposed to exist. In The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles questioned the fundamental Victorian principles and assumptions. In The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles has made a contrast between Ernestine and Sarah Woodruff. Ernestine stands for a superficial womanhood.

John Fowles (1926-2005)

She had interest only in a trivial and superficial things only. She is just a pampered daughter of a rich middle class merchant. She had none of her own independent cast of mind. For her father's craving for faded aristocracy, Ernestine accepted an engagement with Charles Smithson. On the other hand, John Fowles has included a very, very different sort of character, Sarah Woodruff. Sarah has an existential view. She believes in the constant evolution of human self and personality. She prefers freedom to happiness. She appears profound and solemn in her act and belief. Her love for Charles was intended from Charles evolution. Charles, at his mental level, puts Ernestine and Sarah beside and Judges. In his act of judging between Ernestine and Sarah, Charles finds Ernestine hollow and superficial. On the contrary, he finds Sarah Woodruff very, very deep and profound. It is Sarah rather than Ernestina, who helped Charles to achieve the existential level of maturity. John Fowles himself appreciated the mysterious nature of Sarah. By putting Sarah (as an embodiment of a postmodern cast of mind) against Ernestine (as representative of a Victorian cast of mind) John Fowles is questioning and challenging a set of fundamental Victorian principles and assumption.

The happy ending is the nature of Victorian text. The dominant nature of Victorian text is a happy ending and the happy ending is the structural requirement of the Victorian text. This structural nature of Victorian novel is questioned here. Charles Smithson, the hero of the novel, is shown condemned to live alone throughout his life.

A Victorian novelist claims to have written his/her novel from the throne of literary omniscience. No character in any Victorian novel is unknown to the writer of that fiction. Victorian authorship claims to have known his/her character inside out. But this omniscient authorship is questioned by John Fowles. John Fowles himself has said that my own creation Sarah is mysterious to me. I don't know her completely. Victorian point of view is questioned. The Victorian narrative structure is challenged. The Victorian trend of happy ending is questioned. The traditional nature of the text is questioned. The moment traditional nature of a text is questioned, elements of postmodernism get introduced in the novel.

Postmodernism in fiction subverts the master-narrative. Master-narrative is a narrative of emancipation. In The French Lieutenant's Woman had Sarah accepted Charles the novel might have been a master-narrative. But Sarah rejected Charles. Consequently, it became an existential narrative of the protagonist's evolution of personality and progression of self. Any experimental world anxious with elements of postmodernism subverts all traditional components of the narrative. To achieve the purpose of subverting the following devices are used: Parody, Irony, Distortions of narrative time, Discontinuity, Anachronism, Blurring of genres and Ambivalence.

All these above-mentioned experimental devices are used by John Fowles in 'The French lieutenant's Woman'. The clearest example of parody can be seen if we see Fowles's citation from Dr. Grogan's medical hypothesis on the head of each chapter an epigraph is put. Each epigraph differs from the other. Some epigraphs are from Darwin, some from Amold. Different rising Victorian voices are mingled. Several choices are mingled. This mingling of voices, this fusions of Victorian utterances are a brilliant example of pastiche. This technique of pastiche is used by Fowles as a device to subvert the monolithic dominion of a single dominant voice.

Irony is also a device practiced by John Fowles to subvert the traditional assumptions and values. Dr. Grogan claims with countless instances of medical melancholia that the Sarah Woodruff is prone to melancholic situation. But the real fact is, she alone is that sort of girl who has an independent on the evolutionary cast of mind. All other characters are somehow or other hypocritical or immature. Sarah alone is that kind of girl who can sacrifice everything for freedom. She sacrificed even her love for freedom. She took delight in her lover's evolutionary progress via lifelong loneliness. Charles Smithson sympathized her. But ironically, it is she who had to show pity to him. Through the device of irony Fowles subverts Charles Smithson's shallow and deflected interest in Darwinian evolution. Charles Smithson appears keenly interested in Darwinian Theory of evolution. But ironically enough, he had to be taught by Sarah in the line of existential evolution. By the agency of ironic device John Fowles happens to achieve the experimental success of subverting Victorian elitism thinly embodied in the paleontologist Charles Smithson.

The third important experimental device to achieve subversive goal is the distortions of narrative time. In chapter thirteen Fowles interrupts into the line of narrative progression. He interrogates the notion of literary omniscience. Fowles asserts he is free to give whatever twists he likes to his characters. He adds that he can freely walk in the universe of his fiction without being constrained by the narrative conventions of the Victorian ages. Not only in chapter thirteenth elsewhere in, The French Lieutenant's woman John Fowles enters into the narratives and broods over the destiny of his characters. At the time of his intrusion into the narrative structure Fowles talks about the power of authorship to change the inevitable destiny of his characters. John Fowles's intrusion (forcible entry) into the narrative structure of The French Lieutenant's woman distorts the narrative. Since this distortion of narrative time has added new crucial elements in the structure of The French Lieutenant’s woman, it is a postmodern novel.

This distortion of narrative time produces discontinuity and gaps and holes in the line of narrative progression. These gaps and holes in narrative development are called Anachronism. Since there scatter elements of discontinuity and anachronisms in the narrative progression of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, it is postmodern meta-fiction.

Ambivalence and blurring (nearly mixing) of genres are two subversive strategy to introduce elements of postmodernism in fiction. In The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles is ambivalent. If asked whether he completely knows who Sarah is, his answer is somewhat ambivalent. If asked why did Sarah reject the man she thinks she loves? Fowles Says to help him to evolve. If again asked why did she intend Charles to evolve? His answer will be because she loved him, she intended him to evolve. That much only.

Even the ending of the novel is somewhat ambivalent. If readers want Victorian mode of happy ending, Fowles ends the novel by showing Sarah accepting Charles. If the readers want postmodern ending, Fowles certainly ends the novel by showing Charles as a rejected lover, a jilted lover condemned to evolve existentially in the sphere of freedom. Besides the strategy of ambivalence there is another strategy of blurring of genres.

John Fowles has added chapter-wise epigraph to make a parody of many Victorian voices. While reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman it seems as if it is a document. It is an anthropological and sociological record of those who avoided the rigorously moralistic Victorian society and came to the bay of Lyme Regis. After reading Dr. Grogan's several examples of melancholic patients we feel as if Sarah is a poor victim of melancholia. We feel as if we are reading a medical treatise with an element of wonder. Having seen recurrent emphasis upon the Darwinian theory of evolution, we feel as if we are reading a geological or paleontological account. The French Lieutenant's woman presents an account of rampant prostitution in London and the rapid rise of the middle class. It brings into foreground several facets of the urbanized London life. Moreover The French Lieutenant’s woman is not a piece of fiction, it is meta-fiction. As a meta-fiction, it questions the generic convention of fiction. If possible, it blurs several generic conventions.

Thus, John Fowles has introduced elements of experimental postmodernism by making an experimentally subversive use of all these devices. Hence, it would be no exaggeration to say that The French Lieutenant's Woman is an experimentally postmodernist meta-fiction.