Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Loose Ends in 'Roxana' and 'The French Lieutenant's Woman.'

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Loose Ends in 'Roxana' and 'The French Lieutenant's Woman.'

Article excerpt

In Defoe's Roxana the Dutch Merchant devises a cunning plan whereby, he thinks, he can overcome Roxana's reluctance to marry him: he will inveigle her into bed with him and then offer to make an honest woman of her. Neither the plan nor its novelty is lost on Roxana. Nor is its likelihood of success "with any other Woman in the World." So, with the plan executed and Roxana still refusing to consent to marriage (alleging an unwillingness to give up her liberty), the Dutch Merchant is understandably perplexed: "Come, my Dear, you are the first Woman in the World that ever lay with a Man, and then refus'd to marry him, and therefore there must be some other Reason for your Refusal."(1) Roxana is perhaps not the first woman to refuse to marry the man she has just lain with; she is certainly not the last. In The French Lieutenant's Woman, for example, Charles Smithson is also baffled when Sarah likewise refuses to marry him after he has just lain with her. This time it is Sarah who has inveigled Charles into bed with her, but Charles, even after Sarah's duplicity is revealed, cannot take seriously her refusal to jump at the chance he offers. In the letter he writes her after sober reflection (and his supper), he proclaims: "Let me say no more now, my sweet enigma, than that you will have to provide far stronger proofs and arguments than you have hitherto adduced I cannot believe you will attempt to do so. Your heart knows I am yours and that I would call you mine."(2)

Both Sarah and Roxana eventually offer quite a few good reasons for refusing to marry the man they have just lain with, though both novels also suggest that the reasons offered are not quite to the point--whatever that point may be. For while Charles and the Dutch Merchant are at a loss to understand what a woman wants if she does not want marriage, they are not alone in finding a woman's mind unfathomable, and there is considerable doubt as to whether the woman herself is any the wiser. Nearing the end of the The French Lieutenant's Woman, Fowles's narrator comments that what Charles wants is clear, "but what the protagonist wants is not clear" (p.389), and her proceeds to offer two endings, at least one of which supposedly addresses what the protagonist (that is, Sarah) wants, but only by default. The second-last ending give us what Charles wants, the last ending what he doesn't want, and we simply have to assume that, one way or the other, Sarah is satisfied. In Roxana the story also ends twice, the first time with Roxana's arrival safely in Holland, apparently getting what she wants (the husband she had earlier rejected, a tidy fortune of one hundred thousand pounds, and a secure haven in Holland). But then, inexplicably, she abruptly succumbs to a hysterical collapse that renders her "Hag-ridden" by fear. And then the story ends again as Roxana backtracks over the events prior to her departure from England, events that have triggered precisely that state of abject despair she has spent the greater part of her life trying to escape.

The "second" ending of Roxana is not so much an alternative to the first as another way of arriving at it, and, unlike the ending of The French Lieutenant's Woman, it is not heralded as an audacious narrative coup. But, like Fowles's double ending, the doubling back at the end of Roxana betrays weaknesses in the narrative that have their origin in the conception of a protagonist who is not just unknowable, but who does not herself know her own mind. The incomprehensibility of woman, even to herself, may be a time-honored representation of a woman's character, durable enough still to resurface in romanticized notions of the mysterious Other. But, even when elevated, as in the The French Lieutenant's Woman, to the status of an essential heuristic device, the problem of not knowing what the woman wants when the woman herself does not know provides not simply an intriguing lacuna that enhances the problematic status of textuality and its resistance to interpretation. …

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