Delaying Info

Delaying revelation and withholding information are techniques sometimes used by writers to sustain the readers’ interest. In at least two works you have studied, show how writers have been able to employ such strategies in varying ways and with differing or similar effects.

[Pride and Prejudice and The French Lieutenant’s Woman]

John Fowles and Jane Austen, the authors of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and “Pride and Prejudice” respectively withhold information from their readers and delay revelations to allow us to see their characters in different lights, and to sustain our interest in the moving plot. Fowles does so by taking full advantage of his benefit of historical hindsight and choosing to reveal events as and when he sees fit, moving backwards and forwards in his narrative and exercising his flexibility as a modern (20th Century) author writing a Victorian novel. Jane Austen, on the other hand, wrote about her layer of society in the Regency period, utilising a very different narrative style in creating her characters and weaving her plot. The delay of revelation, specifically of her protagonist Elizabeth’s revelations, is used as a plot device to challenge the conventional views of marriage. In this manner, the withholding of information is used as a technique by both authors to aid them in challenging and critiquing their societies.

Fowles notably never fully reveals the character of his central figure, Sarah Woodruff. Sarah is an enigma; throughout the novel, readers find themselves asking (as even the narrator asks midway through the novel): “Who is Sarah?” Sarah herself tells Charles: “I am not to be understood,” and it is this mystery that keeps Charles, the society of Lyme, as well as us as readers fascinated. Fowles shows us Sarah’s unique character through her interactions with Charles and other characters, but rarely allows us insight into her thoughts or intentions. She is depicted as a “fallen woman” – a disgraced outcast of society, her reputation ruined by her alleged affair with the French sailor Varguennes. However, she is shown to almost revel in her role of “poor Tragedy” (as we find out later, she never gave herself to Varguennes), as it “keeps her alive knowing she is truly not like other women.” Fowles intentionally does not allow the society of Lyme to understand her, as her mystery, and her “shame” is her freedom and independence from conformity. Having felt oppressed by the conformity of his own era, Fowles had sought to explore and represent the conformism of the even more stratified Victorian era – the epitome of conformism and oppressiveness. In this way, Sarah is portrayed as an enigmatic spirit, a symbol of independence that overtly challenges the conformism of the Victorian age. She accepts her label but gains “a freedom that no other woman can understand.” This mystery and distance not only augments her position as a different, or in Charles’ words, a “remarkable woman,” but also helps us as readers to associate her with what she is – a “New Woman” that pushes against the limits of society and pursues her own self-fulfillment, thus elucidating Fowles’ true belief in the autonomy of the individual.

In contrast, the protagonist of “Pride and Prejudice”, Ms. Elizabeth Bennet, is very much a ‘real’ character; Austen allows us access to her thoughts and point of view – she is not at all an enigma like Sarah Woodruff. As readers, we immediately warm to her “lively, playful disposition” and “sparkling wit.” However, the delay of revelations also prove instrumental to Austen’s novel: it is the possibility of the Elizabeth-Darcy union and the delay of Elizabeth’s acceptance of Darcy’s proposal that spurs the plot. Austen withholds the revelation of Elizabeth’s feelings for Darcy; in fact, from very early on in the novel, her dislike for him is evident, and “his character was decided the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world.” This disdain is reciprocated; during the first ball, Darcy calls Elizabeth “tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” It is no surprise that Elizabeth rejects Darcy’s first proposal – in full consideration of his then “improper pride,” his presumptuous and affronting manner of proposing (in his “sense of her inferiority”), it would have been a disappointment to the readers and contradictory to Austen’s message had Elizabeth agreed to marry him then. Instead, Austen does not allow Elizabeth to accept his proposal – both have to overcome their pride and prejudices to come to understand the true virtues in each other’s character. It is only after Elizabeth’s rejection of Darcy that he is able to overcome his social prejudices, and, in Elizabeth’s words, “behave in a more gentleman-like manner,” and that she is able to appraise his character and review her prejudices in light of the Wickham-Lydia and Wickham-Georgina affairs. By withholding the union of the two characters, Austen preserves Elizabeth’s self respect and is able to advocate choice, love, and true compatibility as the purposes of marriage against the convention of marrying for wealth or social status. It is only quite some time after that Austen lets Elizabeth realise that Darcy was “exactly the man, who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her,” ultimately constructing a satisfactory marriage that would not have been possible earlier on in the novel. Ironically, it is only after visiting Pemberley that Elizabeth starts to acknowledge her attraction for Darcy, perhaps showing us that even our heroine Elizabeth is susceptible to the appeal of wealth and social statues. However this is not to be misconstrued as such; what is more likely is that Pemberley appeals to Elizabeth as it functions as an indicator of Darcy’s good character, where “a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance.” This shows that indeed, Darcy has no “improper pride” and that his reserve is perhaps a sign of his integrity. In this manner, the delayed revelation of Darcy’s character and Elizabeth’s willingness to marry him allows Austen to challenge traditional views of marriage, just as it allows Fowles to challenge conformism.

Another effect of this delayed union is that Austen is able to let her characters grow and develop, sustaining her readers’ interest in her three-dimensional characters. Elizabeth and Darcy are the two characters in the novel that are capable of penetrating self-analysis – they exhibit that they are willing to see the flaws in their own characters and reflect on their own behavior, gaining the readers’ sympathy and affections. Indeed, Elizabeth declares, “till this moment I never knew myself,” demonstrating an applaudable willingness to acknowledge her own faults and change them. This is strikingly similar to in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”, where Fowles intentionally withholds the revelation of Charles’ feelings for Sarah (and intentionally shrouds the nature of Sarah’s feelings for Charles in mystery and ambiguity) to similar effect, allowing us as readers to appreciate the growth and development of the two characters. When Charles agrees to meet Sarah to listen to her story of her affair with Varguennes, he regards his motive as merely “altruistic” – his plan was to “be sympathetic to Sarah and establish a distance,” refusing to acknowledge, or perhaps just completely oblivious to his emotional and sexual attraction to her. However, Fowles writes: “Charles was at one and the same time Varguennes enjoying her and the man who sprang forward and struck him down […] Sarah was to him both an innocent victim, and wild abandoned woman.” Fowles withholds the explicit acknowledgement of Charles’ feelings, not only to sustain the readers’ interest, but also to illustrate the underlying tones of sexual repression that was so prevalent in the strict, confined, convention-bound Victorian era. It is this repression and conformity that Charles has to overcome, just as Darcy has to overcome the prejudices of his social class and the conventions of the Regency Period. Despite the fact that Charles “liked to think of himself as a scientific young man,” progressive in his views (“Charles called himself a Darwinist, but did not truly understand Darwin”), Charles was far from emancipated from Victorian convention. He found “an ordiliness in existence […] immensely reassuring,” and is still, at this stage, bound by the views of his society. It is his interactions with (and feelings for) sarah that lead him towards individuation and freedom. By delaying Charles’ realisation of his “love” for Sarah, and later on his understanding that “she had manipulated him” and that he must leave to discover himself, Fowles captivates his readers interest in Charles’ development as a character, as well as propounds his belief in existentialism.

To this end, Fowles’ unique narrative and his provision of three different endings also contribute to this effect. By providing us with two endings first, and delaying what is arguably the “correct” ending, or at the very least, in Fowles’ words, what is “not the less plausible ending,” Fowles piques the readers’ curiosity, illustrates Charles’ development as a character, and is also able to contrast a traditional Victorian ending with what he believes to be a more satisfactory ending. In the first ending, Charles returns to Ernestina after he visits his uncle in London, and does not stop in Exeter to meet Sarah. However, Fowles tinkers with contingency and tells us: “the last few pages you have read are not what happened,” and takes us back in time to illustrate the two separate responses and their consequences. In the second ending, Charles reunites with Sarah and the two presumably marry and live together after; however, Fowles utilises these two endings as contrasts against his delayed final ending – where Charles leaves, “never once looking back.” Fowles’ employment of this technique is vastly different from Austen’s; as an author steeped in the early 19th Century, Austen did not have this same flexibility to tamper with the temporal elements of her novel or adopt this postmodern narrative – she can only give one ending, that of Elizabeth and Darcy’s happy union. However, what both authors give us is the sense that understanding and fulfillment is a journey of growth and development. It is only in this delayed final ending that Charles “find himself reborn,” gaining “an atom of faith in himself, a true uniqueness on which to build.” Fowles shows us that Charles has finally started to embark on an existentialist journey towards understanding away from the conformist ideals of his society. He has been led by Sarah, whose transformation, unlike Charles’, is predominantly physical, for now she has the “full uniform of the New Woman, flagrantly rejecting all formal contemporary notions.” Fowles’ withholding of information about Sarah’s character, as well as Charles’ struggles with his feelings for Sarah, serves to develop both Cahrles’ and the readers’ understanding of this notion of existentialism.

Both Austen and Fowles withhold or delay information from their readers by employing varying plot devices, different narrative techniques, as well as delaying the personal revelations of their characters. This not only allows them to explore the growth and development of their characters in relation to specific events in their plots, but also aids the communication of their message, whether in satirising society and challenging conventional functions of marriage as in Austen’s novel, or in representing conformism in the Victorian era and presenting existentialism as an alternative as is the case with Fowles. It is their use of delayed information and unexpected revelations that disrupts their novels’ “fixed voyage to a known place,” captivating their readers’ interest.


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