How These 2 Authors Destabilised Reality (Comparison between TFLW and Arcadia)
What is reality? Reality in simple terms is everything that is known to exist or have existed. I have always been drawn to the thought of just how fragile our perception of reality is. So when I was asked to read and compare two texts, ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles and Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’, I was surprised by how they were able to make me question what I thought I knew about the past and existence. So in this article I will be comparing how both Stoppard and Fowles confronted the foundation of the way we comprehend truth and history.
If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’ve either read or know the plots of both pieces, so I will not be going over the plots.
I would like to first bring your attention to Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, where the premise of the entire story is hinged on the idea that the characters in the present have an incorrect understanding of the past. It is the fact that, despite having the evidence, the past is not fully understood and it is the bias of the characters that leads them to false conclusions. While reading Arcadia, this theme of bias caused me to ponder about how much evidence our current world has, and just how much of it we may have misinterpreted.
There are phrases littered through the book, of Stoppard’s thoughts on life and the point in chasing the truth of the past. I believe a message Stoppard is trying to push onto the audience is that the pursuit of history has meaning and is necessary for current civilisation to grow. “We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind”. In this quote by Septimus, Stoppard is trying to convince the reader that history is worthy because the important parts of the truth will be found. He does admit that a lot of truth is lost and distorted but the small fragments of real truth make it an important and necessary pursuit.
“It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter”. Here Stoppard further delves into this idea that our purpose is to discover the undiscovered, that it is “when we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, will we be alone on an empty shore.” Stoppard appears to contend that while our purpose is to continue discovering and to keep uncovering more of the past, one we theoretically attain all that knowledge, will there be nothing left to accomplish. As someone who has always been interested in history and stories of the past, Stoppard caught my attention with what he wanted his characters to say.
I would like to take a break from quotes and evidence to discuss confirmation bias, and it’s role in Arcadia. Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret information in a way that supports your belief. In Arcadia, the character of Bernard is used to display how confirmation bias affects the understanding of history. He finds the pieces of evidence we are shown from the past but his desire for his theory about the older time to be correct clouds his judgement. Bernard is made to be a seemingly ridiculous but realistic character and Stoppard uses him to have the reader question our current comprehension of history. It is the thought that maybe people like Bernard existed or exist in our world and are affecting the way history is presented.
Let’s move onto the other novel, this is a comparative after all. The French Lieutenant is an interesting text, with Fowles taking an active role as the Author/self proclaimed God of the world he has created. It is in the chapters where Fowles purposefully breaks the ‘realism’ (I use this word loosely) of his story to remind the reader that he is the one in control, that he is the one who created these characters and that they all bend to his will. He literally creats a realistic world and pulls the reader in it, only to turn the tables on us and breaks the illusion. I think the premise in itself speaks for itself in regards to my topic.
Seeing as though I have a word count to fill, I guess I’ll delve further. Fowles intentionally crafted a real world and filled it with realistic character, which allows the readers to make the connection between our world and his fictional one, especially when he states “we are just as real as them”. He wants his audience to draw the comparison and question if a world as real as his existed to us a few seconds before he broke it, just how real is our own. Fowles utilises his characters to make us believe lies, namely Sarah’s lie about the titular French Lieutenant. For a majority of the novel, the reader is made to believe Sarah’s story and when many of our main characters (Charles), actions are due to that specific story, it comes a shocking surprise when it is revealed that Sarah is a virgin. Fowles beckons the reader to look back at what we thought was the truth of the past, and how easily he manipulated us to believe it. He draws the reader to think about how easy it is to tell a lie and for it to be passed along as a truth, completely changing the narrative.
Fowles even attacks our own perception of our past. “You do not even think of your own past as quite real; you dress it up … fictionalize it”. That quote right there is what sparked this entire discussion. When we are caught off guard by Sarah’s lie it’s a surprise, sure, but it’s the idea that our past is as fake as Sarah’s past. Fowles is directly addressing the audience, when we are no doubt hurt by Sarah’s lie, saying that if our own memory of our past has been editted so heavily we have no way of truly knowing if we know the truth. Another line that hit me hard was “We are all in a flight from the real reality. That is the basic definition of Homo Sapiens.” I couldn’t agree more with this statement. It’s because humans don’t want to face reality that we bury ourselves so much into social media and the online world. Reality is scary. Existence is terrifying. So we lie. We lie to ourselves and we lie to others, but why. Reality is everything that is known to exist and lies aren’t real, so in itself lying is an escape from reality, and thats what Sarah’s lie did for her. It allowed her to escape reality and gain her freedom and I wholeheartedly believe Fowles intentionally crafted his story with that premise in mind. As an atheist who consistently splits the tension and refers to himself as “God”, I find it hard to think he didn’t have some kind of agenda with relation to disrupting perceptions of reality.
Arcadia and The French Lieutenant’s Woman are two texts which try to destabilise truth in order to make the reader question actuality, but through different methods. While they both attempt to shatter our trust in the past and just how much truth is littered in it, TFLW takes a more direct approach confronting the reader, and Arcadia utilises it’s characters and plot to indirectly relate to the readers situation.