Postmodernism in Arcadia and The French Lieutenant’s Woman

John Smith
5 min readNov 24, 2021

Postmodernist texts are defined by a shift in perspective beginning after World War 2, building on the previous movement of modernism. I believe that The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Stoppard’s Arcadia are both postmodern texts, in addition to this, they are comparable in their literary techniques. In Arcadia, the play shifts between the past Victorian era and present time. Similarly, John Fowles explores the history of traditional Victorian novels from a metafictional view in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Throughout both texts, many similar concepts can be found. Time distortion between the past Victorian age and present allows Fowles and Stoppard to break the flow of the narrative, a key trait of postmodern fiction. Irony is a postmodern technique used in both works as a way to subvert expectations in The French Lieutenant’s Woman and contrast the two time periods in Arcadia. The endings of each novel are compared through their open and multiple endings. These key characteristics are what make these two works of fiction similar as postmodern texts.

Arcadia uses the two contrasting time periods as a unique way to present irony to the audience. By allowing the audience to understand the characters from past and present, they are able to be aware of what is happening while the characters are still kept in the dark. In Act 2 Scene 5, Bernard declares that “If we seek the occasion of Ezra Chater’s early and unrecorded death, do we need to look far? Without question, Lord Byron … quit the country in a cloud of panic and mystery, and stayed abroad for two years at a time when Continental travel was unusual and dangerous. If we seek his reason — do we need to look far?” In this scene, Stoppard uses dramatic irony as the audience knows that Bernard has come to the incorrect conclusion about what truly happened to Mr Chater and Lord Byron, after experiencing the events themselves in the past. This is contrasted by Fowles who uses irony in The French Lieutenant’s Woman to subvert the traditional assumptions of the Victorian time period. In chapter 19, Dr Grogan affirms that “It was as if the woman had become addicted to melancholia as one becomes addicted to opium. Now do you see how it is? Her sadness becomes her happiness. She wants to be a sacrificial victim, Smithson. Where you and I flinch back, she leaps forward. She is possessed, you see … Dark indeed. Very dark.” While Dr Grogan believes that Sarah is afflicted with melancholy, the reader later realises that Sarah desires to be truly free, sacrificing everything she has for freedom including her social perception, moving against the traditional constraints put on women during that time. Through the use of irony, we can see that both Arcadia and The French Lieutenant’s Woman are similar in their postmodern techniques.

In Arcadia, Stoppard uses a non-linear narrative through the use of time shifts in order to break the flow of the story. Thomasina says to Septimus: “But if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?” Similarly, Valentine says in the present: “Well, it is odd. Heat goes to cold. It’s a one-way street. Your tea will end up at room temperature. What’s happening to your tea is happening to everything everywhere. The sun and the stars. It’ll take a while but we’re all going to end up at room temperature.” Stoppard uses the different time periods to show the effects of the past on the present such as when Thomasina discovers the second law of thermodynamics and Valentine rediscovers it in her notes. Fowles uses a metafictional approach in his novel to disrupt the flow of the novel. In chapter 13 Fowles inserts himself stating “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 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.” Fowles questions the narrator’s omniscience breaking away from the narrative conventions of the Victorian age, his forced entry into the novel interrupts the narrative structure. Both of these methods are uses of post-modernist literary techniques and an example that these two novels are similar.

In the endings of Arcadia and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the reader is left to decide what happens after the story contrasting the ‘closed’ endings of Victorian novels. Arcadia ends with Hannah and Gus dancing, “I was looking for that. Thank you. (Gus nods several times. Then, rather awkwardly, he bows to her. A Regency bow, an invitation to dance.) Oh, dear, I don’t really . . . (After a moments hesitation, she gets up and they hold each other, keeping a decorous distance between them, and start to dance, rather awkwardly.” The play comes to a dead end as the action of the play has finished and finishes without a satisfying or closed conclusion. On the other hand, The French Lieutenant’s Woman offers multiple endings, allowing the reader to choose what ending they desire. Fowles presents two options, a classic Victorian ‘happy ending’ where Sarah is shown to accept Charles and an open ending where Charles is rejected and moves on. While Arcadia is limited to only one ending, the two texts are similar in their use of an open ending, in addition The French Lieutenant’s Woman combines the open and closed endings into the postmodern hybrid ending.

Throughout both works, we have seen examples of literary techniques used to build on the past modernist movement and deny the traditional narrative. Time distortion in Arcadia and The French Lieutenant’s Woman present a way to break the flow of the narrative through the use of timeshifts or by metafiction. Irony is used to contrast the past and the present or to provide a way to subvert the Victorian traditional values and assumptions. While the texts differ in their endings, they follow the pattern of an open ending set by modernism and The French Lieutenant’s Woman evolves it into a postmodern technique using multiple endings. In conclusion, the literary techniques used by Stoppard in Arcadia and by Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman are similar and they can both be considered postmodern literature.


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