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Narrative, in the way it is written, has the potential to create a different meaning depending on how it is put together and how different factors of a narrative are put together. Both ‘A Kiss Before Dying’ and ‘Fantomina; or love in a maze’ are examples of this. Narrative, however, generates meaning not only through the way it is written but factors such as genre and context can also change the way something is received. In addition, the audience that receives a narrative can change over time.
As time changes the narrative changes with it due to the variance of audiences over time.
‘Fantomina; or love in a maze’ depicts a woman who as an experiment creates a persona which rejects her social status at the time- her name being ‘Fantomina’. As such we see ‘Fantomina’ to be a relatively independent persona acting as a prostitute with no rules surrounding her; a ‘freedom’ which we would not see regarding women during the 18th century.
As a result of this we can view ‘Fantomina’ as a feminine hero of the time which corresponds to the popularity of Haywood’s works amongst the women of the 18th century. We can assume due to this that Haywood’s works was viewed as an escape from injustice for these women as they seemingly idealised an unnatural aspect of a woman which we see in ‘Fantomina’. Despite this presentation of power and curiosity, we see in ‘Fantomina’ she becomes enamoured with a man, ‘Beauplaisir’, who woos ‘Fantomina’.
‘Beauplaisir’ meaning ‘fair pleasure’, is a character who seems to present men as a villain, by constantly seeking pleasure with no regard who it is if the woman is beautiful. This negative light with which he is portrayed carries through out the novel with each of ‘Fantominas’ personas. As Beauplaisir loses interest in one love, ‘Fantomina’ objects by producing another persona to keep him occupied and quench her growing love for him. Despite the similarities that the personas share he does not realise each is the same person and happily abides to following his own lust. The ‘fair pleasure’ which his name represents is seemingly only fair towards himself and disregards the insecurities and suffering the titular character goes through. As a result, painting him in the villain’s light despite the protagonist’s obsession with him. With this we are conflicted to how we are supposed to react, do we want Fantomina’s goal to come true and her love be answered with his or do we want ‘Fantomina’s’ obsession to end. In this sense the text makes not only the direction of narrative ambiguous but also confuses us with what is right and wrong.
Despite the conflict we are presented with in regards with ‘Fantomina’s’ relationship to Beauplaisir it is not the only conflict in the text. The character of ‘Fantomina’ is itself a conflict as we never truly find out her name but only know the names of her personas, as a result we can never truly see the true persona of ‘Fantomina’ as her own character but a collection of others. We don’t truly know who she is apart from the fact she is of high status. This fact alongside the manipulative force of ‘Fantomina’ we are presented with leaves us conflicted whether it is only Beauplaisir who is the villain of the novel as she herself projects her own antagonistic ways to lead her to her goal. Despite this, her own lack of identity attracts us to place ourselves into her identity as she is reminiscent of a blank canvas and her personas are there just to hide this fact. Perhaps, her own lack of identity is what makes ‘Fantomina’ a potentially likable character. The possibilities, however, act as the conflict as we may not know who true ‘Fantomina’ is and whether she is likable or not since her own identity isn’t there to be found. Haywood’s presentation of ‘Fantomina’ is a likely presentation of the women of the 18th Century without a voice and almost always without an identity but rather a repressed individual regarded to as a ‘lady’ or a ‘wife’. Power in the 18th century was almost always exclusive to the patriarch as a sign of a patriarchal society.
Presentation of identity is very important, as discussed before, in the novel, especially in regards with the 4 different personas of the protagonist. Each was created after the last failed at capturing Beauplaisir’s love ultimately all of them failing in reaching their goals. The variety of the identities seemingly acts to represent all social standings of women of the 18th Century. The prostitute, the maid, the widow, incognita and the original ‘Fantomina’; they all have different standings in society however they all fail in the end- symbolising a woman’s failure in the society and since we are presented with four different characters of which all of them fail it only adds to the pity we feel for ‘Fantomina’. The plight of women is seemingly the focus through the narrative we are presented with by Haywood- who as a woman has faced injustice in her life. As the Jonathan Swift has written in a letter she is ‘a stupid, infamous, scribbling woman’, she isn’t taken seriously despite her success as an author. This reinforces the idea that women no matter their social standing suffer as a victim of society. Through this we can see that the narrative is what creates meaning however, the factors surrounding the narrative is what shape it.
Another major character within the narrative of ‘Fantomina’ is the mother, who despite her fleeting appearance towards the end of the novel, has a major impact on the plot of the novel. When the mother was away ‘Fantomina’ found it in herself to pursue her curiosities which resulted in her development of love and obsession towards Beauplaisir which answered not only with a failure but also a pregnancy out of marriage. The mother, who’s name we also do not know, acts as a final barrier between ‘Fantomina’ and Beauplaisir and she is the one character who represses ‘Fantomina’s’ dream of love by sending her to a French monastery as punishment for her actions at trying to woo Beauplaisir and also due to her adultery which resulted in a child. Due to her actions, I believe, she is meant to be the true antagonist of the novel as Beauplaisir ultimately shows interest in ‘Fantomina’ due to her baby, however, he was unable to act on his interest due to the mother turning him away. She is seemingly a representation of society punishing what’s unacceptable according to societal norms and isolating those who don’t abide by them ‘Fantomina’, who represents women in the society, being her biggest victim; as such was the fate of women in the 18th Century. Haywood very effectively plants the seeds of society within her narrative to act as a commentary of her age and all the injustice that was present within it. ‘Love in a maze’ is aptly named as ‘Fantomina’ is stuck within the ‘maze’ of society trying to escape it using all her personas but ultimately being stopped by her mother the personification of society itself whilst the personification of man goes unpunished despite his own transgressions despite his ironic name which represents ‘fair love’.
Another novel which heavily relies on narrative to place meaning in the story is ‘A Kiss Before Dying’ which, as a mystery thriller, shrouds a lot of its plot with uncertainty and ambiguity. The story follows the story of ‘Bud’ whose name isn’t revealed or linked to his character until much later in the novel and three sisters ‘Dorothy’, ‘Ellen’ and ‘Marion’ who are romantically pursued by Bud for their social standing and their fortune. With each girl ‘Bud’ builds a relationship with and manipulates but as soon as his plans go awry, he attempts to murder each one, succeeding with the murder of both ‘Dorothy’ and ‘Ellen’, however, when he attempts to manipulate ‘Marion’ his plans are discovered which leads to his death.
Bud as a character is presented as a sociopath, with his loving and caring personality on the outside; he is cruel and cunning on the inside. Orchestrating the murder of his ‘loved’ ones in cold blood just to climb socially and financially. He, seemingly, doesn’t care how he makes a fortune if he can get it, he is shown to be capable of doing everything and anything for his own benefit. However, as we see him, he is shrouded in mystery throughout much of the novel. Even within his description at the beginning of the novel he is only referred to as ‘he’, the author hiding his identity from us. This is later used in the second part of the book where ‘Ellen’ tries to investigate the murder of ‘Dorothy’. Without his identity known to us we are led around the suspects not knowing who the murderer really is, in the end this lack of knowledge results in the death of ‘Ellen’ as her lover ‘Bud’ was ultimately the killer. The mystery surrounding ‘Bud’ continues through the third part of the novel as we know he is the murderer, but ‘Marion’ does not. This results in the mystery within the novel turning into suspense as we ponder whether ‘Marion’ will realise that ‘Bud’ in fact is the killer of both her sisters. The way Levi shrouds ‘Bud’s’ identity in mystery works as both us, the readers, and ‘Ellen’ have no knowledge of who the killer is which adds to the shock when both us and ‘Ellen’ realise it, in fact, is her lover. Levi’s plot twist acts as both a shock factor but also as a way for us to realise the ‘Bud’ is extremely manipulative as a character- even tricking us into believing he wasn’t the killer despite our advantage as readers.
Despite the manipulative nature of ‘Bud’ he is still a likable character he is the character we see the most within the novel and follow his journey to climb the social ranks, because of this he isn’t just a normal villain but also a protagonist of the story despite his vile nature subconsciously I wanted ‘Bud’ to realise his dreams. The way Levi wrote the character into the narrative made him believable and a character you want to relate to. As with ‘Fantomina’ there is a conflict in the book where on one hand the mystery and crime need to be solved but at the same time his charming ways and the introduction of the character of his mother make us want to root for him and even pity him when he dies in such the pathetic way Levi presents us with. ‘Bud’, despite being born into a poor, family only ever wanted to be something more, to have money and status. He wanted to be something he isn’t and despite his greatest efforts and cunning plans he was unable to. Society is cruel and Levi shows this, similarly to how Haywood showcased society in her novel. The ones less fortunate can’t have power as society works by punishing those who try not to abide by the societal norms set in place.
Whilst ‘Bud’ has redeeming qualities and is somewhat likable, the presentation of the major women in the novel is the opposite. ‘Dorothy’ is na?ve, weak and obsessed with ‘Bud’ not realising his goals and loving him until her death. These qualities are unlikable as a character she lacks the normal charisma of a protagonist and her identity is somewhat blurred by her dedication towards her lover. On the other hand, we have ‘Ellen’ who is extremely determined to find the killer of her sister, her hot-headed nature and lack of care for her own safety leads us to dislike her as rather than investigating quietly she forces her way into dangerous situations without thinking about the repercussions of her actions which ultimately leads to her death. She is the seeming opposite of her sister ‘Dorothy’ but whilst she is more of a character with a seemingly more defined identity her lack of care leads us to also dislike her as her actions are, through out, the second part of the novel questionable. Lastly, we are presented with ‘Marion’ who similarly to ‘Dorothy’ is also na?ve and admittedly weak. Even though she is seemingly the ‘smart’ sibling she is ultimately manipulated by ‘Bud’ as he almost succeeds in his plans to gain the money he so yearns for. It is only when male characters are involved in finding out ‘Bud’s’ motives and crimes that the mystery is solved. ‘Gordon Grant’ and the father of the three girls ultimately find ‘Bud’ to be the murderer and struggle to convince ‘Marion’ of this fact. The powerlessness of the women of the novel makes them unlikable, however, this, I believe, is done purposefully by Levi. They, similarly, to ‘Bud’ are seemingly at odds with society as women they are powerless without the men surrounding them. The focus of ‘Bud’s’ dreams is never the women or love but their father’s money- this trivialises them as characters presenting them only as devices to further the plot of the novel, to ‘Bud’ the aren’t people but rather money bags that he can use.
This is similar to how women are portrayed in ‘Fantomina’, as identities are blurred and ‘Fantomina’s’ power is non-existent, similarly to the three daughters of ‘Leo Kingship’ who are all powerless in the face of ‘Bud’ who manipulates them into loving him. The social commentary is apparent showing that women’s power in both 18th Century and 20th Century is seemingly lacking with both presentations showing them as hopeless when they should be powerful- with the plight of women and the inequality of society being clear.
In conclusion, the meaning that the author wants to portray is done by how a narrative is written whether it is through characters and how they are written or by events that are seen in a narrative. As seen with injustice of society in ‘Fantomina’ and ‘A Kiss Before Dying’. The events of both texts and their characters are written in order to portray a certain meaning ‘Bud’ was written in a way to manipulate the reader and trivialised female characters to emphasise this whilst ‘Fantomina’ presented us with a woman who had no true identity but created personas to manipulate a man into love. Despite the plot of the story the ultimate meaning is their commentary on the society of their ages, and both masterfully present this by showcasing both the social issues within the novel and the characters that surround it. However, meaning in its purest sense is an interpretation as no novel explicitly say what it is trying to portray, and it is up to the reader to decide what meaning the narrative generates.
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