- The French Lieutenant's Woman and Pierre:Echo and Answer
Although Early Inquiries into the Sources of The French Lieutenant's Woman have revealed some useful parallels to the matter and manner of the Victorian novel and have underlined correspondences that Fowles suggested in the text, few have probed deeply enough to discover the purposes behind Fowles's ironic echoing of the nineteenth-century realistic novel. Efforts to link the work to specific novels by Hardy and by others have proved, for the most part, disappointing.1 Although most critics saw the lively parody of Victorian conventions as innovative, Walter Allen dismissed the novel as basically historical, failing to analyze how subtly and to what purpose it played upon its prototypes (66). More recent studies have explored how Fowles has manipulated the tacit assumptions of realism to expose, even to undermine, them and to confront us with our own unconscious expectations. Johnson sees Fowles as purposely jolting us into awareness, forcing us "to renegotiate the terms of our understanding of realism" (302). Fowles confronts us with our [End Page 115] collusion with an author posing as omniscient truth-teller, a stance acceptable to the nineteenth century but an anomaly in the twentieth.
Fowles himself has lent a hand in the search for influences and sources, naming Baring-Gould's Mehalah, an almost forgotten heroine of his native Essex marshes, as one sharing qualities of the outcast Sarah, like Mehalah, a strong, dark, passionate woman who eclipses a wealthy pink and white heroine.2 Far more important, however, is his essay on Hardy's The Well-Beloved, which he sees as an exercise in psychic self-laceration and a harsh repudiation of the suspect enterprise of novel writing ("Hardy" 34). Fowles sees this strange little novel as a confession of Hardy's disgust with his self-deluding fantasies about women that, along with his despair over his audience, silenced him as a novelist. Fowles's Mantissa also reveals even more clearly than his longer works how passionately he shares Hardy's love and hatred of the powerful anima within, his treacherous muse, without which he cannot create and which is both his victim and his tormentor. Although Mantissa (a word meaning "an addition of comparatively small importance, especially to a literary effort or discourse") seems playfully conceived, it nonetheless confronts the struggle of the artist who must abandon the luxury of shame, who cannot conceal even his most wanton fantasies if he is to allow the creative process of his unconscious free rein. Fowles shares with Hardy a concern for the problems of truth-telling in the novel as well as an understanding of the novelist's use of his own unconscious as a playground for wish fulfillment, shared concerns that have given power to their novels.
In all the explorations, no one, to my knowledge, has named one nineteenth-century novel that also addresses these themes of truth-telling and the forbidden areas of the unconscious that an author uncovers in his creative self-revelation, a novel that parallels The French Lieutenant's Woman in setting, plot, and character and, similarly, uses a recognized genre while pointedly mocking it. That novel is Pierre, or The Ambiguities. Fowles has called Melville one of his American "grandfathers," naming Pierre as the "failed novel" that interested him most (Latham E4). Fowles must surely have linked this savage attack on the novel—which preceded Melville's abandoning of novel writing and closing himself off in thirty years of silence—with The Well-Beloved, which preceded Hardy's long silence. For in Pierre Melville's hero is writing a novel that the hero himself derides as a "detected cheat" (349), attacking himself as a counterfeiter and a self-imposter. Pierre followed the Leviathan Moby-Dick, just as The Well-Beloved followed Hardy's great work Jude the Obscure, and both short novels seem to violate all the lessons in technique these [End Page 116] masters had learned. Both novels seethe with self-hatred. Both show a scornful anger at the audience as both authors refuse to pander to its rampant sentimentality. It can hardly be an accident that Fowles confronts us...