Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Genetic and Cultural Selection in the French Lieutenant's Woman

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Genetic and Cultural Selection in the French Lieutenant's Woman

Article excerpt

John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman asserts that cultural evolution, like genetic evolution, is a horizontal process involving elements of hazard and causality, so that history is partly inherited and partly contingent. It is only through apparently insignificant impulses or whims that individuals achieve anything close to existential freedom.


John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman has been read, with reason, as a testament to existentialism: Sarah functions as the moral impetus that propels Charles into an existential freedom. Robert Huffaker, for example, asserts that "The French Lieutenant's Woman is about freeing modern humanity" (92). Barry Olshen describes Sarah as an existential character (78) whose authenticity shocks Charles into a transformation of his own (88). Fowles says himself, in "Notes on an Unfinished Novel," that he "is trying to show [in The French Lieutenant's Woman] an existential awareness before it was chronologically possible" (17).

The nature of freedom is an important theme running through all of Fowles's works. As he says in Daniel Halpern's "A Sort of Exile in Lyme Regis," "'Freedom, yes. How you achieve freedom. That obsesses me. All my books are about that. The question is, is there really free-will? Can we choose freely?'" (45). One can argue, however, that, although The French Lieutenant's Woman expresses an existential philosophy, it does so in the negative rather than in the affirmative. Fowles says as much in a letter to Huffaker: "'My philosophy of life [...] is much more biological than existentialist, [...] though I certainly think the latter is a useful sort of do-it-yourself kit for getting out of one or two biological dilemmas (such as free will). Most writing about me overlooks the fact that my major private interest in life is natural history, especially in its behaviouristic aspects. I really do take an ethologist's, or bird-watcher's, view of the human condition"' (qtd. in Huffaker 17). In this letter, Fowles indicat es that existentialism is an easy way for explaining away free will.

A cultural application of Darwin's theory of natural selection provides a better illustration than existentialism of Fowles's "revisionist" concept of freedom. By "cultural application," I am not referring to social Darwinism, a concept introduced by Herbert Spencer and rejected by Darwin. Nor am I referring to behaviourism such as that described by Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, B.F. Skinner, and other behavioural psychologists. I refer, rather, to a horizontal process of cultural selection that involves, as does its genetic counterpart, elements of both causality and hazard so that history is both partly inherited and contingent. This means that part of a given individual's essence does precede his or her existence (genetic and cultural inheritance); but it also means that the individual, despite that inheritance, has chance moments that are authentic. Thus, history is not determined but, rather, contingent. Ellen Pifer makes a statement that is very Darwinian: "Fowles does not appear to believe that human beings c an live in a condition of absolute, or pure, freedom. [...] Between the lure of freedom-enhancing mystery [hazard] and the order of established laws [causality], the human being strives to achieve his intellectual, moral, and psychological balance" (40).

Fowles uses The French Lieutenant's Woman as a testament to a concept of freedom that is Darwinian in nature, despite the fact that the epigraph that begins the novel is from Karl Marx: "Every emancipation is a restoration of the human world and of human relationships to man himself" (Zur Judengrage, n.p.). David Landrum observes an "ambivalence [in Fowles] toward the subject of Marxist revolution" (5). He suggests that the description in the novel of Marx in the London library whose works would bear "bright red fruit" (Fowles, French 12) "refers to the red chosen as a symbol of revolution by many communists nations, but also suggests blood and violence. …

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