Narrative Devices and Structure in 'the French Lieutenant's Woman' and 'Our Country's Good'

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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 attempt 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 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...
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