Waste Land French Lieutenant the Essay

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  • Subject: Literature
  • Type: Essay
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Excerpt from Essay :

(Eliot, 1971).

The Subjective over the Objective

Modernism was a reaction against Realism and its focus on objective depiction of life as it was actually lived. Modernist writers derived little artistic pleasure from describing the concrete details of the material world and the various human doings in it. They derived only a little more pleasure from describing the thoughts of those humans inhabiting the material world. Their greatest pleasure, however, was in expressing the angst, confusion, and frustration of the individual who has to live in that world. (Merriam-Webster, p. 1236).

Modernist writers used novel means for expressing these newly intense emotions. They did not always express the individual's confusion and frustration by relating the inner discourse of the individual. Instead, they manipulated the structure, style, and content of their works to cultivate a certain effect on the reader. (Baym, Vol. D, p. 17). They wanted to convey the experience of the individual in a hostile, disconnected, and dehumanized world.

The Wasteland is not characterized by one particular style or rhyme scheme. Some would type the poem as free verse, but it is not totally unstructured. Rather, the Wasteland was a pastiche of different literary conventions. Eliiot uses famous styles and quotes from literary history to illuminate the problems of the modern world.

Eliot juxtaposes a number of different modes and tones, drawing from the bible, classical antiquity, Renaissance, Symbolist, and more exotic sources from the East. He switches between different speakers, locations, and time. In the first section, he switches from a biblical tone in prophetic mode to the fragments of a dialogue between the narrator and a romantic interest to whom he had given a hyacinth, an idyllic scene reminiscent of the Romantic period. (the Wasteland, I.35-39). Later, he discards English altogether and quotes Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in German, "Od' und leer das Meer."(the Wasteland, I.43).

The French Lieutenant's Woman

The French Lieutenant's Woman is a novel written by John Fowles in 1971. (Fowles). It is a romantic novel set in Victorian England, depicting a love triangle between an idealistic aristocrat, his nouveau riche fiance, and a mysterious social outcast, who is educated, but destitute. It is marked by numerous interruptions of the story by the author himself, who reflects on the story as it progresses comments on the process of writing the story. It has a very ambiguous ending, presenting three possibilities for the fate of Charles, that he stays with his fiance, reunites with the mysterious woman, or is rejected by the mysterious woman.

The Post-Modernist Context of the French Lieutenant's Woman

Post-Modernism is even harder to define than Modernism. Actually, it is probably more accurately described as a time period than a coherent artistic movement. Post-Modernism, like Modernism was partly a response to the end of a war, but in this case, World War II instead of World War I. Post-Modernism as an artistic movement is now considered to have started sometime in the 1940's. However, at the time of the French Lieutenant's Woman, the term Post-Modernist literature as a genre had not yet been conceived.

Response to Modernism

Post-Modernist literature was both a continuation of Modernism as well as a response to Modernism. In many ways, the French Lieutenant's Woman echoes the Modernist period of literature. Like the Wasteland, it is concerned with the oppression of the individual by a hostile and unreflective society. Charles and Sarah are heroes because they are sensitive individuals, not because they are strong, know what they want, and eventually get what they want. In fact, it is possible that they both end up miserable at the end of the novel. However, both individuals are strong enough to resist the dictates of Victorian society as well as literary convention. (Fowles, Chapter 10 / p. 30).

The French Lieutenant's Woman is love affair set in Victorian England and France. It is written as a Gothic romance novel, with a heroic, virtuous male protagonist attempting to rescue the beautiful, young female protagonist. (Brantlinger & Rothblatt, 341). The female protagonist is typically stuck in some unfortunate situation, usually controlled by a malicious lord of some sort. (Brantlinger & Rothblatt, 341). Instead of focusing on the effects of industrialization and alienation on the individual, as Modernist authors did, Fowles highlights the absurdity of class and social conventions and its effect on society's perception of individuals.

Fowle's novel can be seen as a throwback to popular pre-Modernist literature. Certainly, it would be hard to imagine any Modernist writer choosing to write in the genre of Gothic romance. (Brantlinger & Rothblatt, p. 341). Fowles, however, does not mean to rehash the Victorian Gothic romance. Nor does he mean to parody it. He uses the flat and rigid format of the Victorian Gothic romance novel to highlight the roundness and complexity of the main characters, especially Charles and Sarah. It is not clear that we truly know Sarah and it is also unclear that Charles knows himself.

Heterogeneity in Themes

With the end of World War II, artists were no longer responding to common political events that had dominated public discourse during the first half of the century. There was no longer a Zeitgeist which all artists had to react to, or at least acknowledge. Thus, artists were able to pursue lines of thought and ideas that would not have occurred to them during the Modernist period.

Post-Modernist literature discarded the Modernist view of industrialized society as bereft of literary value, as Eliot expressed in the Wasteland. In fact, some Post-Modernist works reassess the Victorian society which preceded the Modernist period, the society against which the Modernists were reacting. Post-Modernist authors, such as Fowles, noticed unrecognized literary value in the rigid, subdued Victorian society of the 19th Century.


The absence of a universal Zeitgeist made the Post-Modernist period more heterogeneous than the Modernist period in regards to themes. Avant-garde writers no longer felt compelled to convey the individual's frustration and alienation from society, though some did. Such alienation and frustration were seen as normal by now, most felt numb to it. Without a Zeitgeist to react to and criticize, many artists turned inward. They began to use themselves and their craft as subject matter, examining their work with a new sort of cynicism, as well as playfulness. (Lewis, p. 97).

Indeed, the most conspicuous distinction between Fowle's novel and Modernist literature was the Fowles' explicit self-consciousness as a player in his story. Modernist authors were self-consciousness as well. However, in their works, this self-consciousness took the form of opinions and commentary, expressed by the characters themselves, usually the protagonist. The characters were meant to teach certain lessons by expressing the author's sense of angst and frustration.

In Fowle's novel, however, the characters are not the author's mouthpiece or his pedagogical instruments, as they were in Modernist works such as Joyce's Ulysses or Eliot's Wasteland. In Fowle's novel, the thoughts of the author are clearly demarcated from the thoughts of the characters. Fowles, as the author himself, appears in the novel as an observer and self-conscious narrator, commenting on his characters, the historical context, and the creative process in general. (Fowles, Chapter 11 / p. 33). Before the French Lieutenant's Woman, such commentary would only be found in the author's own notes, such as the notes found in the annotated edition of the Wasteland. (Eliot, 1971). This self-reflexivity was to become a defining feature of Post-Modernist literature.

Fowles demonstrates the influence of the author's self-consciousness through highly intrusive metafiction. Fowles appears in the novel, unbeknownst to the characters, who look at him in puzzlement. He meets Charles as the author of the novel on a train while Charles travels to London. (Fowles, Chapter 55/p. 172). While Charles is asleep, Fowles analyzes him as a character, considering the possibilities for the ending, finally flipping a coin to decide between the endings. (Fowles, Chapter 55/p. 172). Through this method, Fowles explicates the self-consciousness of the author as a transparent element of the story, with just as much effect on the story as the protagonist's own personality.

Rejection of a Dominant Narrative

The mood of the post-World War II world was much different than the post-World War II world. Instead of shock and concern about the future of Western society, as occurred after World War I, there was a feeling of relief and hope in the future as the United States rose to prominence and the United Nations was created. However, the Imperialist policies of the United States, represented by the Vietnam war, dashed the optimism of the previous decade. (Lewis, p. 95-96).

As a result of increasing political cynicism, authors were recognizing the importance of perspective on our conventional view of history and of our own world. They rejected the notion of absolute, objective truth, emphasizing subjectivity and moral relativity. (Lewis, p. 100). They were concerned with the voices that were left out of the dominant narrative, the people who were neither the tyrant nor the…

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