The French Lieutenant's Woman Questions and Answers
by John Fowles

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How does the first paragraph of chapter 13 in The French Lieutenant's Woman relate to the thematic, poetic, and ideological concerns of the novel and to the broader idea of postmodernism?

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The first paragraph of chapter 13 of The French Lieutenant's Woman signifies many of the thematic, poetic, and ideological concerns of the novel. In doing so, the paragraph also signifies the broader concerns associated with Postmodernism. In its entirety, the paragraph reads,

I do not know. This story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind. If I have pretended until now to know my characters’ minds and innermost thoughts, it is because I am writing in (just as I have assumed some of the vocabulary and “voice” of) a convention universally accepted at the time of my story: that the novelist stands next to God. He may not know all, yet he tries to pretend that he does. But I live in the age of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Roland Barthes; if this is a novel, it cannot be a novel in the modern sense of the word.

The passage cited above is telling because the narrator not only directly addresses the reader but also admits that he has very little actual knowledge of the characters and their “minds and innermost thoughts.” This is significant because The French Lieutenant's Woman thematically plays on the Victorian romantic novel, which typically features an all-knowing narrator who does have insights into the minds and thoughts of individual characters. John Fowles hence draws the reader’s attention to a literary convention typical of the Victorian novel and subverts it by presenting a narrator who not only doubts his own knowledge but also emerges as a character of the novel. Even more importantly, the narrator also acknowledges that he mimics the voice, vocabulary, and poetics of the Victorian novel but falls short of pretending to be invisible and all-knowing.

In the last sentence of the paragraph, Fowles uses intertextuality when he mentions Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922–2008) and Roland Barthes (1915–1980). Alain Robbe-Grillet was a writer and filmmaker who became known as a representative of the Nouveau Roman (new novel), whereas Roland Barthes was a French literary theorist. Both Robbe-Grillet and Barthes were significant figures in the cultural movement that is known as postmodernism. Intertextuality is one of the key characteristics of postmodernism; however, the fact that the narrator mentions Robbe-Grillet and Barthes also makes it unmistakably clear to the reader that the narrator has been deceptive and that this deception was intentional.

Overall, one could argue that Fowles’s use of Victorian themes and poetics is an instance of pastiche, which also is a common feature of postmodern literature. In doing so, Fowles seems to undermine and criticize many of the ideological assumptions about authorial intent, the role of literature in society, and gender.

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