Language in Literature – English Essay

Language in Literature – English Essay
Refer to Toolan (2001) and conduct a trait analysis of a least three of the characters in Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Specify a list of what you take to be the most crucial features/attributes that distinguish

particular characters. What are the most important ways they differ? What are the narratively significant differences? Would you say that Fowles prefers indirectness in presenting a character, or an authoritative ‘telling’ of how a character is? Are there differences between the characters in the mode of presentation? How do you explain this?

The French Lieutenant’s Woman : main characters and secondary characters. The theory of the trait analysis as the departure point of a complete literary investigation.

A literary text appears to the reader as a mysterious world, as a walk in the fog and sometimes it seems very difficult to escape from that darkness. A superficial approach to a book or a text in general, may obviously create some effects of unfamiliarity with the topic of the book. The main aim of the reader is to find out the light in that darkness and rebuild the logic road the writer is trying to give us . What I am going to focus on, in this essay, is: the analysis of The French Lieutenant’s Woman that represents a good example of complex novel with a very articulated story, the concept of main characters and secondary characters , the ways they differ and their relevant peculiarities, referring to Stockwell’s two levels of the text to find some analogies between the concepts of main and secondary characters and the division between ground and figures, and in conclusion Toolan’s trait analysis and if there could be any restriction to applying it to different characters.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman is one of the greatest Fowles’ works. It is set in Victorian England and deals with the love affair between a former governess, Sarah Woodruff and Charles Smithson, a nobleman. Charles is already engaged with Ernestina Freeman, who is the daughter of a rich shop owner. They were planning their life together and their marriage, but Sarah seduces Charles. He does not realise completely her true personality and that she is still virgin and what kind of secret she is keeping. The story of the French soldier, in fact, was only a lie to emancipate her from the Victorian age. Sarah is a very persuasive figure and convinced, in the second part of the book, Charles to forsake the position and the honour the Victorian society planned for him. Fowles’ novel is a faithful imitation of the typical Victorian novels, such as T. Hardy’s ones . It also represents a good example of complex literary text.

A complex text, such as Fowles’s one, with an articulated story is defined a novel.
A novel is composed by some elements; one of them is the setting. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman the setting is constituted by the social Victorian background. This social situation is characterised by some conventions everyone has got to follow, but also by all those characters that are not fore grounded through remarkable features and for this reason are the part of the background, as passive elements. The men are expected to be real gentlemen with a very high knowledge and good skills, interested in a lot of subjects and clever. From the relational point of view, a real Victorian gentleman must be cold enough but brilliant at the same time, for brilliant I mean a mixture of skills and nuances in order to appear always learned, polite, and a man who always knows what to say and to do in each life situation. If we take into consideration Charles’ uncle, we can draw a very easy analysis of his crucial points, features, and attributes: he is the typical Victorian man, proud of his successes, cold, learned and that kind of man who shows everyone his own knowledge and life culture. The author presents him boring as well ‘His uncle bored the visiting gentry interminably with the story of how the deed had been done’ .

Another crucial feature in a literary text is the concept, the peculiarities and the role of the characters. They are the central element in a story because thank to them everything changes, moves and every situation develops. As a consequence, since they are the principal first movers of the story-telling mechanism, the complete comprehension will be linked to their comprehension. Thus the importance of the role of the characters is that they occupy a central position because they have got the power of creating changes, and movements and all the narration develops around them. To understand a character means to analyse it very particularly from all the points of view. The characters may also be influenced in their decisions and actions by the setting, and realise their actions taking into consideration the setting background . For example, Sarah, in the second part of the book, appears strong, persuasive and courageous. The point is that the situations require that and she has to follow the stream of the story.

The relation with the setting may lead to a categorisation of two types of characters: main characters and secondary characters. The main characters are those who are highlighted in the story through the attribution of remarkable features or are strictly linked to those ones who have such features8. The secondary characters are linked to the setting and occupy quite static roles. Sometimes they could be included in the setting. It would be wrong to consider Sarah as a secondary character because the categorisation of the two types of characters must be justified on the base of the effective kind of link between the character and setting, and not on the base of what the stream of the story implies.

Stockwell’s theory of the two levels8 is very useful to justify this difference between the main characters and the secondary characters. Two levels in the narration can be distinguished: The level of the ground, occupied by static elements such as the setting and the secondary characters, and the level of the figures, occupied by all those features that are fore grounded in a text, and these figures are the main characters. In the story, for example, who has got the control of the situation is Sarah that reveals her to be the protagonist with her strength and the great quantity of skills she can use, such as persuasive skills, argumentative skills, courage and humility. Further, she is the mover of the story who changes the situations from the static and boring development towards a dramatic end. The fore grounding of Sarah is perfectly created by Fowles by the attributions to her of some specific features and by creating at the beginning of the book (in which the straightforward side of Sarah does not appear yet) a mysterious halo around her figure . A good analysis of a literary text implies the distinction between: The ground level and the figures level. What Stockwell has mentioned is this real separation of the two levels, but what he has not specified in an explicit way, is that these two levels intersect each other as it is explained in Toolan’s trait analysis theory , creating, this way, a complication of the text. Actually Sarah presents some attributes but if not put those in the setting, the basic level of characterisation would be sterile and the fore grounding absolutely absent. But also if the reader confuses the two levels or he has not got a clear vision of what features distinguish one level from the other one, he would fall down in a misunderstanding of the text

The French Lieutenant’s Woman offers itself a good example of the characteristics of the ground and the figures. At the beginning of the book we can note that almost all the characters have the same features. Only Sarah is out of this scheme, which appears deeply shy, in need, and absolutely anonymous. But these points, in relation with the ground, make her relevant and fore grounded from the common features background. Charles, his uncle, Mrs. Poulteney, Ernestina appear as the incarnation of the Victorian principles: lazy, bored, and extremely cared about their social position. This flattening of the characters with the setting background permits to categorise them as secondary. In Chapter six, Mrs Poulteney is deeply superficial, she is interested in Sarah’s education, her behaviours and her social level, rather than in helping her. Charles’ uncle appears cold and superficial as well, for example, when he has to recover his kindness of heart . Ernestina is the typical young lady of the Victorian age, who would like to escape from her reality composed only by coldness and conventions, but she has no strength to realise it. It is very clear this attitude of her at the beginning of the book where Fowles says: ‘Ernestina had exactly the right face of her age’; the main characters differ from the secondary one for the grade of fore grounding in the story.

When we read a literary text we face a reality that sometimes might seem us very difficult to understand, confusing and in some cases deviant. What is the reason of these estrange feelings? Taking into consideration The French Lieutenant’s Woman, at the beginning of the book we find a presentation of all the characters, their crucial features, and the most relevant attributes. Going on with the reading we consolidate those ideas that we have created about some or all the characters and we start having some considerations about them, their behaviours, their ways to approach the life. In the second part of the book, we find a shifting in the narration of the events and we can find ourselves in a state of confusion: the characters do not look like as at the beginning and maybe someone might think to have lost some parts of the narration. This phenomenon is very common reading a literary text, above all if approached to complex texts with articulated stories. This happens generally with a superficial reading, which does not permit us to assimilate all those relevant points that constitute the logical key of interpretation. Interpretation in fact means to assimilate, to understand deeply. The interpretative key in a literary text is constituted by understanding different elements such as the ground and the figures. These elements are the product of a very cared process of creation that involves very strict rules.

A novel, actually, represents a creative process of a sort of reality that is strictly linked to the one of the reader.
That is the possible world of the fiction, a world that has got a lot of analogies with the real one . The reader, generally, tends to categorise all the fictional features in some real categories. This process is originated from the simplifier spirit of the human mind. The problem is if that categorisation is useful for the complete comprehension of a text or it is only a deviant and apparently simplifier process. There are two contrasting positions among the analysts: the psychological one that claims to extend a psychological analysis to the characters of one book as real people, and the structuralist one that considers the characters and the features of a book as literary products. It should be useful and easier to adopt, by contrast, the theory described by Toolan, which assumes that the literary reality is modelled on the basis of the author’s perception of the real world . Surely it is linked to the real world but not dependant on it. A good comprehension of a book is linked to these differentiations between real and fictional world. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the reader should distinguish the link with the real Victorian reality. The setting, the characters, the background are created only on the basis of the author’s vision, an idealised vision. Only after categorising the author’s vision of that reality in the reader’s own knowledge background, there can be a valid and acceptable comprehension.

We can understand, at this stage, that a literary text is characterised by several double levels. Double level of importance for the characters and double level for the possible world.
Toolan’s theory can merge the two double levels and solve the discrepancies that can rise comparing each level. The trait analysis theory involves a supervisor, which, in the case of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, is the narrator. He has got the power of giving the characters more or less predominance, through the features and the attributes. When the reader approaches the characters, has to identify the attributes referring to them (basic level of the analysis). After a general consideration of the features, he has to link those attributes to a common background. The background could be the readers’ own knowledge about the topic of the book or the setting background of the story. Linking those features to his own background, the reader obtains a resolution of the discrepancies between the reality and the fictional world. Connecting, on the other hand, the characteristics to a setting background, the reader can achieve the solution of the problematic comprehension about who is the main or the secondary character.

If extended to The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the trait analysis reveals very interesting points. Taking into consideration characters such as Ernestina and Mrs Poulteney, first the reader should list all the crucial features and attributes. Ernestina appears as a conformist, deeply weak, and without any psychological strength, she is overwhelmed by all the events and accepts everything the destiny planned for her without any hesitation. Mrs Poulteney appears conformist and really cared about her social position and what people may think about her as well. By contrast, she is deeply different, compared to Ernestina. She has got a social position and the support of the society. Her only worry is to keep such a good reputation. Yet, Charles’ uncle is conformist as well, lazy and without any strength to contrast the Victorian conventions.

Once listed the crucial attributes, if categorised in the reader’s knowledge background about the topic, the link and the interpretative key could be found easily in order to understand the different levels and not to confuse them. The reader, through the trait analysis, is able to do a separation between the characters’ features and the real world reality, taking into consideration that the characters’ features are only the product of an idealised vision of the author . By the contrary, if the reader connects those characteristics to a setting background he will find that the main characters are highlighted in the plot and the secondary one are on the same level of the setting.

The only one deviant element in the comprehension process could be the way the author describes the characters. Fowles, in fact, uses an authoritative ‘telling’ about the characters’ peculiarities. For example, in chapter three for the description of Charles’ uncle, in chapter six for the description of Mrs Poulteney, and in chapter twelve for the characteristics of Ernestina. His authoritative telling can make the reader think that his thoughts are not an idealisation of the Victorian society but an absolutely-right truth. Fortunately, the trait analysis is capable to solve this problem as well.

In conclusion, the trait analysis is the most complex technique, but also the most interesting and useful, to conduct an analysis of a literary text, starting from the analysis of the characters. It could seem very difficult at the first sight because it implies a lot of care towards all the most important narrative elements. Before starting conducting the most important part of that analysis, the analyst should analyse very carefully the attributes and the peculiarities of the setting, the characters, the style, the way the author presents the plot in general. In fact, it analyses the text in two moments: the basic moment, in which all the clear attributes are listed and highlighted and the more specific one that involves the categorisation of them. The categorisation involves, in its turn, two levels, the one referring to the importance of the characters and the one referring to the distinction between the reality and the fictional world. From the analysis of The French Lieutenant’s Woman it results obvious how this investigation can be extended to all the narrative features, both main and secondary characters, all the kind of settings and even to the narrative strategies the narrator adopts. The trait analysis does not imply any restriction in this sense. The main and the secondary characters differ, each other, on the basis of the role they play in the plot. The secondary characters are part of the static background, but that does not mean that they have less importance, from the point of view of the organisation of the narrative material. The composition of the figures of the secondary characters requires a lot of care. The analysis just conducted, can evidence that even the secondary characters are important, maybe more important than the main ones because only taking into consideration their features the reader can draw the crucial trait of the main characters and highlight them. The trait analysis, to conclude, involves different narrative features of a literary text and it is able to link them and to find connections among them to investigate in a detailed way the organisation of the literary material.

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Fowles, J. (2004) The French Lieutenant’s Woman London: Vintage.

Semino, E (1997) Language and World Creation In Poems and Other Texts. Longman

Stockwell, P. (2002) Cognitive Poetics: An introduction. London: Routledge

– The literary encyclopaedia, available at []

– Toolan, M. (2001) Narrative, a critical linguistic introduction. London: Routledge