Narrative Devices and Structure in the French Lieutenant’s Woman Essay Example
Narrative Devices and Structure in the French Lieutenant’s Woman Essay Example

Narrative Devices and Structure in the French Lieutenant’s Woman Essay Example

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‘Writers often experiment with narrative devices and structures in order to challenge readers’ expectations of genre and their view of the outside world’ Compare and contrast your two texts in light of this comment Genre is generally defined as a category of composition, characterized by a number of similarities in form, style or subject matter. Naturally with genre, expectations arise, as the reader or an audience come to expect certain things either when reading text or watching a play.

Writers who choose to write within a chosen genre therefore are expected to write in a particular style, so any writer who operates outside the typical boundaries of their genre will naturally challenge a reader’s future expectations of that genre. Writers may choose, whether they operate within the genre or a


ttempt to stretch its limitations, to deliver a message to the reader on a certain topic. The aim of that message is to influence the reader’s view on the subject matter of which they speak.

A successful writer will therefore be able to change a reader’s view on the outside world. ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ is a novel written by John Fowles in 1969. It is one of his best and most loved novels and is set 100 years before the time he wrote it, giving the immediate impression that is a Victorian novel. At the time, writing was heavily influenced by gothic and romantic ideals; writing tended to have a very melodramatic plot, a central moral message and an idealized portrait of difficult lives in which hard work and love ultimately prevail.

However, writing did become more complex as the

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Victorian period continued and an estimated 1869 setting means Fowles would have probably been thinking of this more complex Victorian writing. Similarly to Fowles, Timberlake Wertenbaker set ‘Our Country’s Good’ long before her time, setting it in the 18th century. The genre is historical play as it is essentially a rewriting of the novel ‘The Playmaker’ by Thomas Keneally and is also based on events outlined by Robert Hughes in his historical account ‘The Fatal Shore’.

This would suggest it is based on real events, is told in chronological/sequential order and also displays typical features that distinguish a play from a novel; for example an emphasis on speech and character, as well as more dramatization than a novel. ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ is narrated by Fowles himself, who immediately takes the position of a typical intrusive and omniscient Victorian narrator; he uses the comment ‘the local spy – and there was one’ to refer to the reader, but it could just as much refer to the way that Victorian writers knew everything about their characters.

His position of narrator gives him the freedom to talk to the reader, a freedom that Wertenbaker does not enjoy as a playwright; instead, Wertenbaker utilises one of the main features of a play – character’s speech – to put across both her story and her message to her audience. Liz’s attack on her ‘crapped’ life at the beginning of Act 2 can be seen as a personal attack from Wertenbaker, while Ralph Clark’s lazy counting of the lashings as early as the opening scenes (and in fact the opening lines of the play) is Wertenbaker bitterly pointing

out society’s lazy mistreatment of others.

Fowles also narrate his story through different ‘characters’; in his case, different narrative persons. That switching from first to third person is one of the first signs of deviation from typical Victorian novel norm. Both Fowles and Wertenbaker do a lot within their writing to suggest that it conforms to the style of writing to which it is most likely to be associated with, i. e. the Victorian novel and historical play style mentioned earlier. ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ is a typical Victorian love story and many similar novels would have featured the same basic set-up.

As well as Fowles’ Victorian narrator stance, he also gives us very typical Victorian characters. Charles is more focused on the idea of science than religion; he often refers to Darwin’s theories, once describing himself as a ‘titled ape’. Ernestina is presented as obedient and demure, with an deep fear of sexuality – the ‘payment’ she would have to make to have children seemed ‘excessive’ to her, showing her attitude (and what was widely considered to be the typical Victorian attitude) to sexual activity.

Finally, Sarah is the typical evil character, easily identifiable by those who read the gothic fiction of the time yet unidentifiable due to her many nicknames – ‘Tragedy’ or ‘The French Loot’n’nt’s Tenant’s Hore’. In Our Country’s Good, rather than typical characters, Wertenbaker’s characters are very closely related to the people she bases them on. This is despite the fact that the play itself is based on the novel ‘The Playmaker’ by Thomas Keneally – there is evidence to suggest that very similar people to her

characters actually existed.

A historical play does not rely on typical characters, but does rely on typical features, such as an explanation of the main message through speeches – this is clearly evident as Wertenbaker bases her entire play on the power of speech; ‘Wertenbaker questions the power of language, but also celebrates the beauty of language’. However, both ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ and ‘Our Country’s Good’ also challenge the associations naturally made through the genre they supposedly conform to, mainly through their narrative devices.

FLW is generally acclaimed to be ‘the best-loved of John Fowles’ novels’ but is also noted for its ‘power to disturb’, arising from ‘its experiments with narrative limits’ – Fowles consistently challenges the style of a Victorian novel. The before mentioned switching between first and third person is an example of this – Fowles constantly interrupts his own narrative, most unlike a typical Victorian narrator. Fowles also admits to having little control over his characters – for ‘it is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live’.

He is constantly deviating from typical Victorian writing, even as early as the opening chapter when he mentions a ‘person of curiosity’, referring to the reader. Fowles is not telling the reader anything, rather he is allowing them to deduce for themselves – something no Victorian writer would have done. Indeed, it is unlikely that Darwin would have stepped down from the omniscient pedestal that most Victorian writers assumed in order to question his own ability to give the facts, instead telling the reader to work it out for themselves.

However it

is important to note that Fowles is not attempting to pretend that FLW was written in Victorian times, in fact he makes it quite clear that he isn’t. This idea is emphasised by him mentioning the ‘incisively sharp and blustery morning in the late March of 1867’. Now to use two adjectives in regards to the morning is not dispelling his Victorian credentials, in fact the concern for detail is very typically Victorian, but the actual naming of the date is.

A Victorian narrator would not find it necessary to refer to the date, so Fowles is simply letting the reader know that he is equally aware that he is not writing it at the time, but rather about the time with a modern hindsight; a hindsight that indeed involves the illusions to modern day devices, to the extent that as early as chapter three he has completely broken the Victorian illusion with the mention of ‘the aeroplane, the jet engine, television, radar’.

In fact, amongst Fowles’ immaculate attention to detail in regards to the Cobb lies the first modern illusion, as the Cobb is compared to a contemporary Henry Moore sculpture. Russ Hunt wrote of OCG that ‘it's a wonderful, uncompromising and powerful script, bringing together ideas about colonialism, prisons and punishment, and the nature and power of theatre’. However, what he didn’t praise it for was its historical quality – rather it is universally praised for its powerful messages.

This is what separates ‘Our Country’s Good’ from the typical historical play – the events of the play did not actually happen, they are just closely related to writing Wertenbaker had

read. For example, Wertenbaker uses her opening scene to add to the emotional feel of her play by having her characters look back over the events of the play in an almost mournful manner, immediately setting a melancholy manner; however this interrupts the sequential order that usually accompanies historical writing, which serves to deviate it from a typical historical play.

The play then continues to move about; scenes jump from one to another to follow the action, as the audience are treated to convicts playing the parts of ladies and gentleman – ‘We’re ladies now, wait till I tell my husband I’ve become a lady’ – alongside military officers, all the while being commented on by the heavily metaphorical Aborigine. It could be argued that the Aborigine plays a very similar part to Fowles; such is his position (i. e. overlooking them) in regards to the events that go on.

Further narrative devices exist in both ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ and ‘Our Country’s Good’ which serve to challenge the reader’s or audience’s views on the outside world. Whilst a sense of affectation may appear to exist in ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Bob Goosmann found Fowles to be a man whose ‘friendliness and lack of affectation’ stood out in particular; this suggests that while Fowles appears to mock Victorian society for its seriousness and prude ideals in his novel, he is in fact looking to expose it with a serious mindset, coupled with moments of light-natured writing in order to appeal to the reader.

Fowles plays around with the balance of Victorian and modern, expanding on Victorian England with a modern hindsight to

show how similar it is to now. The opening epigraph, which Hilda Spear commented ‘is designed to prepare our emotional reactions’ suggests that Fowles is about to embark on a gloomy, gothic Victorian tale, yet the relationship between epigraph and chapter becomes weaker as the book progresses; this suggests that the Victorian age was capable and successful in moving away from the gothic and romantic ideals that had dominated it.

The similarity is built on when Fowles comments that ‘Laziness was, I am afraid, Charles’ distinguishing trait’. This is a typically Victorian comment, yet Fowles expands that into the whole of the ‘new Britain’, taking a Victorian ideal and using some historical background to expand it beyond his own fictional creation.

Once again the transition (in this case from the typical Victorian comment to the modern illusion) suggests a strong relation between modern and Victorian. Meanwhile, Fowles also chooses to further explore the topic with the more taboo subject of sexual activity; Charles’s affection to Sarah regardless of her past shows the modern reader that they are a lot more related to their Victorian counterparts that they may have imagined.

Sean McEvoy presents the view that Ralph Clark assumes the ‘dominant viewpoint’ in ‘Our Country’s Good’ and this is justified in his presence in regards to the key issues that Wertenbaker tries to put across; it is he who lazily counts the lashings in order to represent a lazy society and it is he who assumes the position of leader as the audience watches these convicts and criminals transform into real people, proving the power of the theatre.

Wertenbaker’s presentation of

these topics, also evident in moments such as Wisehammer and Mary’s conversation on language, either challenge the audience’s view on the outside world – in regards to their previously held views on society in the time that Wertenbaker writes about – or give them new topics to consider/make judgement on – the power of the theatre. This point is emphasised by Wertenbaker’s ‘play within a play’ and obvious dramatisation; i. . the titling of scenes, similar to the epigraphs of ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’. Dabby’s comment that she has become a lady is a further reminder to the audience of the power of the theatre; it is being suggested that it has the power to change society. However, the audience never do get to see the play that is put on by the convicts, suggesting that while society has the potential to change it has not happened yet.

The fact that Wertenbaker chooses to draw so much attention to the artificialness of the play makes it clear to the audience that her interest is not to create a historical play but to convey her opinions as a message to the audience against a historical background; the background provides structure but also provides material for her to back up her points with.

In conclusion, both ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ and ‘Our Country’s Good’ are examples of writing in which the writer has experimented with narrative devices to both stretch the limitations of the genre they adopt and convey a message to the reader or audience that challenges previous views and expectations they may have held prior to their experience of the novel or play.

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