The Deception of the Reader in "The French Lieutenant’s Woman" by John Fowles

Term Paper 2014 11 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Wolfgang Iser’s aesthetic-response criticism

3. Deliberate deception and the narrator’s appearance in The French Lieutenant ’ s Woman

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

John Fowles is a postmodern writer who was born March 31, 1926 in Leigh-on-Sea and who died in Lyme Regis, England in 2005. He was greatly inspired by the works of the French existentialists Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, which is often mirrored in his narrations. Fowles is one of the most well-known authors of Postwar British Fiction and has published his famous book (a pastiche of the Victorian novel) The French Lieutenant ’ s Woman, which has won several awards, in 1969. Due to its popularity the book has been made into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons in 1981.

The novel takes place in Lyme Regis, England during the Victorian era in 1867 and is about the young gentleman Charles Smithson who, already engaged to a successful haberdasher’s daughter, falls in love with Sarah Woodruff, who is disdained by the society of Lyme Regis for her alleged affair with a French lieutenant.

John Fowles uses a postmodern narrator to tell a story that visibly has a very conventional Victorian framework. This narrator presents the love story of Charles and Sarah through a mixture of plot and personal comments by playing with the features of postmodern literature in order to deceive the reader and to challenge him into finding his own reality in the narration. The way the story is told shows a great interplay between the information the narrator gives to the reader and the information that is left out in order to mislead him. This technique therefore raises the question of how the reader is to understand the wholeness of John Fowles’s novel when he is deceived throughout its plot.

In this paper I am going to answer the question of how the reader is to understand the meaning of the book first, by giving a brief overview on Wolfgang Iser’s reader-response theory and its importance in the reading experience of The French Lieutenant ’ s Woman and second, by analyzing the different appearances of the narrator by using postmodern features like the creation of suspense, deception and illusion that Fowles used to manipulate the reader.

2. Wolfgang Iser’s reader-response theory

Wolfgang Iser is a German literary theorist whose work focuses on the reading experience of fictional texts just like Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant ’ s Woman. His main theory on reader-response criticism was published in his book The Act of Reading in 1976 and centers around the importance of the reading experience and “what the text [does] to the reader, how the text [does] it, and what … the nature of the interaction between text and reader [is]” (Schaffer, Brady 19).

Hence, Iser’s theory describes the interaction between the reader, his ability of imagination and the text. The meaning of a literary work cannot only be found within the text or the reader’s way of interpretation but “must be situated somewhere between the two” (Iser “The Act of Reading” 21). The intermingling of these both sides is a very dynamic process and Iser describes it as the way to understand the text as a whole. But there are not only the author and the reader that are necessary to determine the meaning of a text. Iser describes four main perspectives that are significant for producing meaning, namely the narrator, the characters, the plot and the implied reader. The implied reader signifies the audience which the author has in mind while creating and writing the story. Every author, who is not to be confused with the narrator, is aware that he has some sort of audience in mind while working on a text. The problem that is depicted through this generalization of an implied audience is that every reader is completely different and that consequently the implied reader and the actual reader are almost never the same. So there is no such thing as an ideal reader who fully shares the author’s intentions of the text. Therefore, the mixture of these four perspectives “provide[s] guidelines originating from different starting points [that are] continuously shading into each other and devised in such a way that they all converge on a general meeting place. We call this meeting place the meaning of the text” (Iser “The Act of Reading” 35).

Here the reader plays indeed a very important role and has to be regarded as an individual - a unique personality - whose imagination and perception is activated through the text in order to adjust or change his focus according to the events in the narration. Every reader’s involvement in the text’s meaning is exceptional and hence always a creation of something new. The reader is contributing to the story through his imagination and becomes in a way an author himself because he creates his own meaning of the text. This is of course only the case if the narrator of the story does not give away all the information because “the more explicit the text, the less included [the reader] will be” (Iser “The Act of Reading” 46).

In that case the reader becomes passive. Wolfgang Iser refers to this phenomenon, which also occurs in The French Lieutenant ’ s Woman, as ‘blanks’ or ‘gaps’. These blanks appear in the middle of the story and have to be filled by the reader’s capacity of imagination thus, the reader becomes involved in the understanding and the creation of its meaning. The gaps allow the reader to read something into the text, which is crucial to understand what might be missing. Moreover, this way of creating blanks within the story should not be understood as a missing page or chapter but more as a well-considered inserted feature to the text by the author in order to create suspense, confusion or disappointment in the reader. An example for this is chapter thirteen in The French Lieutenant ’ s Woman. The previous chapter ends with the questions “Who is Sarah? Out of what shadows does she come?” (Fowles 94), and leaves the reader curious for the information that will follow in the next chapter. However, what follows in chapter thirteen is far from an explanation about Sarah Woodruff but a unique and surprising comment from the narrator who interrupts the plot. The narrator, who has created a fictional reality in the earlier chapters, now visibly breaks the conventional framework of the Victorian novel and brings himself to the fore. He starts the chapter with the words “I do not know. This story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind” (Fowles 95) and literally runs the reader off the course. Unfortunately the reader has to wait for Sarah’s next appearance until chapter 16 where he will not be given the answers to the prior questions of chapter twelve but where he realizes that his thirst for knowledge is being disappointed. This creation of suspense followed by the revelation of deception is what Iser therefore calls ‘blanks’ through which the reader is being forced to shift his viewpoint and is supposed to activate his imagination. Although this confirms the author’s total control over how the text is structured and expressed, it does not determine the way the text is conceived by actual reader. As long as the reader is willing to fill the gaps that were left on purpose, “communication begins. The gaps function as a kind of pivot on which the whole text-reader relationship revolves” (Iser “The Act of Reading” 169). Therefore, the production of meaning in correlation with the reader’s own interpretation of the set text is like a game between the two components. A game for which the reader needs to be animated and activated through the blanks and needs to be fed with as much information as possible to keep him reading but as little as possible to keep him imagining. Iser explains in his book The Act of Reading that “only participation - as opposed to mere contemplation - can bring the reader the hoped-for satisfaction” (48). Since the reader takes an active role and is connecting the gaps within the text, the solution should not be given so that the reader can develop his own attitude towards its meaning. The reader has to combine his experience and knowledge with the text in order to resolve its conflicting aspects and to find a solution that fits to his own way of thinking. The meaning of the text that is acquired by the different readers leads further to subjective judgments about the text. Whether the reader comes to the conclusion that the text is good or bad, these judgments are not the same as the meaning of the text.

Iser states clearly that a separation of author and reader is necessary as to the fact that the author’s intention for the text’s meaning and perception will never be wholly the same. He states: “A text cannot adapt itself to each reader it comes into contact with. The reader, however, can never learn from the text how accurate or inaccurate his views of it are” (Iser “Literary Anthropology” 32). The way in which the reader does interpret a text will always find its justification within the written work because his experience is directed by the text only. Hence, there will constantly be various interpretations of the same text because each and every reader perceives it so very differently. This causes an inability of the reader to know if his interpretation is correct and the same as intended by the author. Of course if lucky, the text’s writer can be consulted as it happened in the case of John Fowles, who was interviewed many times on his postmodern Victorian novel. Unfortunately, that does not mean that the reader will receive a satisfying answer to his questions. In an interview in 1970 he stated “’I meant the first ending to be a little sweet to satisfy people’s ideas of reality. But I thought they would choose it over the ending without reconciliation. Curiously enough they seem to recognize that reality is more important than sweetness’” (qtd. in Barnum 73), whereas in a conversation with Margaret Reynolds in 2002 he said: “’I prefer the happy ending’” (16). The reasons for these two contradictory statements can have various reasons, but will remain speculations. Nevertheless, this shows clearly the unreliability of the author himself and the fact that eventually it is up to the reader to choose an ending that he sees fit in order to complete the reading experience from his own creative point of view. As we see in John Fowles’s novel, the absence of determination leads to various ways of text interpretation.



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University of Freiburg – Anglistik/Amerikanistik
John Fowles Postmodern The French Lieutenant's Woman Reader Narrator




Title: The Deception of the Reader in "The French Lieutenant’s Woman" by John Fowles