March 17, 2003

Glasses Half Empty and Glasses Half Full

The Victorians were optimistic in their epistemology. They believed that objective reality could be known and that there were “right” ways and “wrong” ways to interpret it. Given this worldview, it is no surprise that the Victorian author wrote in an omniscient voice—as he pretended to “stand next to God” and to, therefore, “know all.”[i] John Fowles is less optimistic in his epistemology. Writing in the Post-modern tradition, he believes that there is no one “right” way to view reality, but, instead, an infinite number of equally valid perspectives. For this reason, he disapproves of authors who write in the omniscient voice. Such “fight-fixers,” he claims, manipulate their stories so as to make reality appear the way they perceive it to be. As Fowles writes, “Fiction usually pretends to conform to the reality: the writer puts the conflicting wants in the ring and then describes the fight—but in fact fixes the fight, letting that want he himself favors win.”[ii] Contrary to “fight-fixers,” Fowles refuses to impose his view of reality upon his readers; instead, he tries to encourage his readers to view reality from their own perspectives. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, he accomplishes this in at least two ways.

One way Fowles accomplishes this is by making Sarah’s character ambiguous. As readers, we never really get to know Sarah. We learn about her actions, but we are confused about her motivations. Why is Sarah attracted to Charles? Why does she lie to him about being with the French Lieutenant? Why does she refuse to answer his newspaper advertisements? Fowles never adequately answers these questions. In so doing, he forces readers to fill in these blanks and interpret Sarah for themselves. As Thomas C. Foster writes, “The rightness of their interpretation is determined not by the narrator stepping in with a ‘final’ version of Sarah but, rather, by how completely each reader’s interpretation fits the facts of the narrative and explains her actions to that reader’s satisfaction.” Foster notes that there are “numerous possible Sarahs in the novel” and that “different readers will undoubtedly reach different conclusions about her, many of them equally valid in the context of the novel.”[iii] For instance, one can focus on Sarah’s passionate readings of the Bible to Miss Poulteney and view her as a pious Christian, or one can focus on her latter association with Dante Gabriel Rosetti and view her as a Pre-Raphaelite radical; one can focus on her lies to Charles and view her as malicious, or one can focus on her claim that she deceived so that she could experience love and view her as well-intentioned; and so forth.

Another way Fowles encourages his readers to view reality from their own perspectives is by giving the book two endings. During his tirade against fight-fixing, Fowles writes that the “only way I can take no part in the fight is to show two versions of it.”[iv] In other words, by giving the novel two different endings, Fowles allows his readers to choose how they perceive the universe. Readers who choose the first ending—in which Charles and Sarah seemingly get back together—are perhaps choosing to perceive the universe in teleological terms: their universe is a benevolent place that loves to dole out happy endings. On the other hand, readers who choose the second ending—in which Sarah rejects Charles—are perhaps choosing to perceive the universe in more of an existentialist framework: life is an absurdity but humans, nevertheless, have an obligation to go on and, despite life’s harshness, to continually better themselves. Although one may criticize Fowles for only allowing the reader to choose from two different endings, it can perhaps be argued that there are only two main basic ways to look at the world: either the universe is rational or irrational, purposive or non-purposive. Although there may be an infinite number of varieties within each of these worldviews, it seems that one is stuck within one of them.

[i] The French Lieutenant’s Woman 95.

[ii] Ibid., 406.

[iii] Thomas C. Foster, Understanding Fowles (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994), 85.

[iv] The French Lieutenant’s Woman 406.