If God Had a Face - Do Authors Feel Like Creators - Discussing Ian McEwan's Atonement, John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman and Paul Auster's Man in the Dark

If God Had a Face

Do Authors Feel Like Creators - Discussing Ian McEwan's Atonement, John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman and Paul Auster's Man in the Dark

We often think of authors as creators. They create worlds, stories, lives and events. With their imagination they are able to control the fates of their characters and give them good or bad endings, as they see fit. This might be true, as the story is written by the author only, but do authors themselves feel like creators? What is the meaning of this role, does it liken the author to God? What is the author's responsibility towards the characters? Can fiction change fact?

Ian McEwan's Atonement, John Fowles' The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Paul Auster's Man In The Dark all debate this issue, each from a different point of view. While McEwan uses his character Briony as the author of the story and Auster uses his character Brill, Fowles discusses his role as writer and creator very directly and at great length. Fowles goes as far as to write himself into the novel and gives himself a deciding role in achieving the outcome of the story. As the man who moves time backwards, Fowles takes control of the story both as author and as character.

Is the author all-controlling, then? Briony seems to think so. “How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?” (479) Briony admits to having written several drafts of the story before arriving at the final one we are presented with. This final draft is not, we are told, historically accurate. Still, she decides on this ending as the one she will present to her reader. She “can't think what purpose would be served” (478) by telling the story as it actually happened. She has, after all, an “absolute power of deciding” the outcome. “When I am dead, and the Marshalls are dead, and the novel in finally published we will only exist as my inventions” (478), she claims. It is perhaps futile to seek the so-called actual story, since as the only witness willing to tell the story, Briony will always present the story filtered through her own perception of the events.

This filtering might be what compels Fowles to abstain from taking a stand on what the outcome of his story should be. He compares the story to a fight, where “the writer puts the conflicting wants in the ring and then describes the fight – but in fact fixes the fight, letting the want he himself favors win” (317). This description of the author seems to fit Briony to a tee. History did not provide her with the ending she would have liked, so she wrote a new one. Of all her drafts, the one where the want she favors wins is the one she decides to publish.

Fowles does not intend to behave like Briony. “[I] see no reason this time for fixing the fight.” (318) He claims that he is unwilling to decide his character's fates. “what Charles wants is clear... but what the protagonist wants is not so clear” (317). Even if he wished to “put the conflicting wants in the ring”, he claims, he doesn't actually know what it is that Sarah wants. Therefore, he says, “The only way I can take no part in the fight is to show two versions of it”. This is questionable, since there are many different ways in which the story could have ended. Still, it does boil down to the two basic options – either Sarah and Charles end up together or they don't. There are endless ways in which either of the two options could have come about, but each version presented in the novel gives only one explanation and both stem from the same one plot. Only the conversation between Charles and Sarah is different. The first leads to the revelation that they have a child together, and ends with the two characters united and in love. The second reveals Sarah as a manipulating woman, causing Charles to leave with a feeling of complete rebirth. In this way, then, contrary to what he would like us to think, Fowles does take charge by choosing which explanation to give. Also, the very conversations in the two endings reveal Sarah as either good or evil. Thus it is not only the ending that changes, but the whole story changes in retrospect. With each outcome, the story is itself different. Fowles might claim that he does not know what Sarah wants, but what he wants is fairly clear, despite his apparent refusal to take a stand.

This notion of not knowing what the character wants is not picked up by either Briony or Brill. Brill is very aware that his characters originate from him, and that he controls them. “I put him in a hole” (2) is the way he begins Brick's story. Even so, Brick is vehement about what he wants – or doesn’t want. “Brick has no intention of killing anyone” (10). And he doesn't. He doesn't, because Brill is not willing to kill himself, even in his own story. He is unwilling to kill himself in real life as well. The character's wants are his own wants. Debra Shostak says that Brill is “in the arrested time of trauma, inventing fictions that simply repeat and displace the violence he has known” (Shostak, 8). Brick seems to be a reflection of Brill himself, a character doomed to suffer so that Brill can come to terms with his own suffering. His trauma is too difficult to think about, so he writes stories instead. “They might not add up to much, but as long as I'm inside them, they prevent me from thinking about what I would prefer to forget” (2). This is an act of self-preservation, protecting himself from himself. Suicide, then, is not an option, even by proxy. Therefore, his character can't agree to kill him. That can't be one of his wants.

Briony takes a slightly different approach. She seems to feel that as author, it is her duty know every thought in every character's mind. She must know every motive. Even as the child described in the book, she was constantly driven to find out everything that was happening around her: “It was right, is was essential for her to know everything” (144). But does she know everything? All she knows is what she sees; the rest is interpretation. She was only thirteen when the events described in part 1 of the novel occurred. How much of what she wrote is extrapolation? How much is based on educated guesses? Having read the letters between Robbie and Cee, she feels she knows what happened between them and how they felt towards each other. Having done extensive research, she writes about Robbie's experiences in the war. This is plausible to a point, but she doesn't stop there. She writes abut events she was not part of, such as Marshall's conversation with Lola or Cee's conversation with Leon, giving no indication that these were a only product of her own mind. They exist only as her own inventions.

Briony describes her mother's thoughts and feelings as well, in great detail. Her mother is similar to her: lying in her bedroom and hearing all the sounds in the house, she's sure she controls it from afar. “She lay in the dark and knew everything” (86). This is interesting, as she obviously did not perceive the most significant events that happened while she was in bed. The fountain scene, Lola's attack in the bathroom, Briony's distress and confusion about the letter, the meeting in the library. The expression “in the dark” is often used to describe ignorance, and it's interesting to see it coupled with “knew everything”.

The title Man in the Dark might also have a double meaning. In fact, not too far into the book, Brill turns the light on. It doesn't stay on, but we understand that the darkness is not forced on him. It's his choice. He's in the dark, and so is Brick. Brick has no idea of what he's doing, what's going on, what happened to him. Flora and Molly seem to be in the dark as well. Brill himself was definitely in the dark about Katya's breakup with Titus. He might also feel in the dark about his own story's outcome. An author ignorant of the course his story will take.

Fowles seems to be “in the dark” quite often. In many different points in the book he claims that he is not all knowing. “Whether they met the next morning... I do not know” (110).”What happened to Sarah, I do not know” (264). It seems rather strange that the author should not know what happened to one of the most important characters of his book. He later explains that this ending was only imagined by Charles, and “The “I” entity... was not myself; it was merely the personification of a certain massive indifference to things – too hostile for Charles to think of as “God”- that set its malevolent inertia of the Ernestina side of the scale” (267). Fowles claims that this ending was Charles' invention, separate from Fowles' own narrative of the story. He then picks the story up and continues narrating with his own voice.

Even narrating as himself, Fowles is very aware that the story is entirely his own: “The story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind” (80). This situation is different from Briony's, who is trying to tell a story about actual people and events. Unlike Briony, though, Fowles does not assume that he knows his characters as well as Briony does. “If I have pretended until now to know my character's 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” (80). Though he states very directly that these characters were never real, he claims that they must be free of him: “A genuinely created world must be independent of its creator; a planned world is a dead world. It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they become real” (80). The idea to go to the dairy, he claims, came not from him but from Charles, the character. “It is not only that he has begun to gain an autonomy; I must respect it, and disrespect all my quasi-divine plans for him, if I wish him to be real” (81).

Auster treats his character Brill in much the same way, though more subtly. Brill imagines his story with a Kafkaesque beginning, reminiscent of Metamorphosis, where a man wakes up and is completely transformed, no reason, no explanation, no sin to atone for. Suffering for the sake of suffering. Or for the sake of dealing with trauma. Brill begins with a dismal image – a man down a deep hole with no way out. But it seems like he doesn't have a fixed plan for Brick. “Put a man in a hole and see what happens when he tries to crawl out” (3). “what happens” is obviously what Brill wills, but he himself doesn't appear to feel that way. He puts the man in the hole, making sure that he has no way of getting out, and waits for events to take place. “And so it happens. The man comes to his senses” (3). The way it is described gives the impression that it happened of its own accord, as though there is no man behind the narrative.

The man behind this narrative is carried along by his own story until it reaches its violent end. His mind leads him towards violence as a roundabout way of dealing with Titus' horrible death. “Does it have to end this way? Yes, probably yes, although it wouldn't be too difficult to think of a less brutal outcome” (118). He is aware that as author he is not limited in choosing the end, but he chooses this one. He seems to agree with Briony about having the “absolute power of deciding outcomes” (479).

Both Brill and Briony feel that their endings are the right ones, the logical conclusions to their stories. Each has an ulterior motive, a selfish reason to choose the ending they wrote, but from a narrative point of view the authors appear to think that the stories led to these specific endings and no other would be as good. Briony lists her reasons for inventing an optimistic ending: no one will want to believe the truth, no one will care if she changed the truth for the novel, people will need to be persuaded of the truth. “I no longer have the courage of my pessimism” (478), she confesses. The truth is too hard to bear, especially because she blames herself for the outcome. She writes a happier ending, believing that this might in some way atone for her “crime” (199): “As long is there is a single copy, a solitary typescript of my final draft, my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical prince survive to love” (479). The ending doesn't have to be bleak, after all.

Briony believes that in writing something, she can somehow make it real. “The lovers survive and flourish” (479), she insists. What, then, is the responsibility of the author towards the characters? Briony seems to shrink from giving her characters a “pitiless” (478) outcome, although pitiless is what the outcome actually was. Auster's Character, Brill, seems to feel uneasy about killing Brick off as well. But unlike Briony, he insists that his pessimistic ending is the right one. “It wouldn't be difficult to think of a less brutal outcome. But what would be the point?” (188), he asks, just as Briony says “I could no longer think what purpose would be served if, say, I tried to persuade my reader that Robbie died... that Cecelia was killed” (478). These authors seem feel that their characters are the tools with which they express themselves and can be manipulated in any way the author wishes. It is justifiable.

Fowles speaks out against this view: “perhaps you suppose that a novelist has only to pull the right strings and his puppets behave in a lifelike manner” (81). He goes on to insist that “Possibility is not permissibility” (81), a statement which sums up his feeling of responsibility for his characters. It is entirely possible for Fowles to claim that he knows all of Sarah's secrets, but he insists that he doesn't. “[God] may not know all, yet he tries to pretend that he does”. Fowles' statements about God do not seem atheist per se. He simply rejects the notion of an omnipotent God, calling it “absurd” (317). “There is only one good definition of God: the freedom that allows other freedoms to exist” (82). Fowles treats his characters as “freedoms” independent from himself. “I do not fully control these creatures of my mind” (82).

In contrast, Brill is more like Briony in his views. The story is his, entirely. “He owns the war”, Tobak says of him. “He invented it, and everything that happens or is about to happen is in his head” (10). “you make him sound like God” (10), responds Brick. He does sound like God, if that is how you define God. But Tobak has an interesting definition. “Not God, Corporal, just a man... whatever he writes comes true” (10). What a contradiction. He is not God, but he can create worlds – and destroy them – by writing. Even by thinking. Brill seems to believe, to a greater extent than even Briony, that his stories are becoming real as he writes them. “There are many worlds, and they all turn parallel to one another, worlds and anti-worlds, worlds and shadow-worlds, and each world is dreamed or imagined or written by someone in another world. Each world is the creation of a mind” (69). What is Brill, then, if not an omnipotent God? Giordano Bruno's multiverse theory is based on the argument that “if God is infinite, and if the powers of God are infinite, then there must be an infinite number of worlds” (68). As the creator of another world, then, and having full control of it, Brill is by that definition a God. Based on this, every human being is God, able to create infinite worlds in their minds. Fowles agrees. “the novelist is still a god, since he creates; ...what has changed is that we are no longer the gods of the Victorian image, omniscient and decreeing; but in the new theological image, with freedom our first principal, not authority” (82).

Fowles sympathies with Brill's desire to escape by telling stories: “we wish to create worlds as real as, but other than the one that is... we are all in flight from the real reality. That is the basic definition of Homo Sapiens.” (81). The phrase “real reality” seems to contradict the multiverse theory, because if this is a “world that is” than there is only one “real reality” and the rest is all fiction. The church scene, though, has a moment where the one realty theory doesn't seem to fit. “It was as if a rejected part of Charles himself had walked away” (282). this is very possible, as the novel itself ends in two, even three different ways. Fowles does not claim that these are different realities, though. He claims that “conventions of Victorian fiction allowed no place for the open, inconclusive ending” (317). He is compelled to give the story a conclusive ending, though he would have preferred to leave Charles “for eternity on his way to London” (317). And so the novel comes to two ends, and the rejected Charles from the church walks away. We are not given any further explanation for that rattling of the door.

In contrast, Briony's walking away is not revealed until the postscript. The novel is written in a way that leads the reader to believe that she did actually go to visit Cee and insist on righting the wrong she did. Here, we follow the second, imaginary version of her, unlike the church scene where the rejected Charles simply walked away. The description of Briony's splitting off into her imaginary self is similar to Fowles' description: “as she walked along the common she felt the distance widen between her and another self, no less real, who was walking back towards the hospital. Perhaps the Briony who was walking towards Balham was an imagined or ghostly persona” (425). ‎‎The reader reads on, believing that Briony did walk on and not away, until they reach the confession in the postscript: “a cowardly Briony limped back to the hospital, unable to confront her recently bereaved sister” (478).

It's interesting that Briony states that her other self was “no less real”. We discover that it was actually the real self. This might suggest that Briony feels that her imaginary self is the one that is “no less real” than the real self who walked away. This is consistent with her idea of the author's ability to change history, or at least to provide an alternate reality for it. And if her imagined self is in some way real, then the story that follows is no less real than the actual events that took place. The optimistic outcome might have happened, just as the actual outcome happened. If this is the case, than writing does atone for her “crime”. This has many interesting implications. For example, Brill also feels that his character Brick is actually a living person created by himself. Brick might be Brill's other self, “no less real” than himself. If this is the case, then killing him was a form of suicide. If Brick is a person that does actual exist somewhere, then killing him was murder.

Kathleen D’Angelo writes: “Briony’s attempts to make amends for her crime through fiction will inevitably fail; in fact, this seems to be the point. Although atonement is only possible through the act of writing, the result of that writing remains limited by the restrictions of fiction. To put it simply, fiction cannot absolve or undo transgressions that have taken place in the real world.” (D'Angelo, 2). According to this, despite Briony's feeling that her two selves were equally real, the are not. Brill has nothing to feel guilty for. No one was killed. Briony has much to feel guilty for. The one thing she could have done, clearing Robbie's name, she didn't do in real life but in a book. The book has no legal status as a statement from a witness. All it is is a work of fiction, one which admits to being historically inaccurate. There is no world created by it, no atonement to be had.

The author might be the God ruling over his or her world, but they cannot change reality. Giordano Bruno's multiverse theory might be correct, but we can't know that from our personal experience. The only world we know is real is the one we experience as real. We have to take responsibility for our actions in this real world. It seems that Brill learned this lesson: he decides to live. He kills off the character that represented his own suicidal drive. He tells Katya everything she wants to know, sticking to the truth. He finally confronts Titus' death, the trauma that kept him awake telling stories all night. “The weird world rolls on” (180), he quotes. He seems to accept it. The world is weird, yes, and cruel and unfair, but it rolls on. And so will he.

Briony takes a very different approach. She writes her optimistic ending and leaves it at that. She will not publish it, she says, until the Marshalls are dead. She doesn't want them to ruin her publishing house. “You may only libel yourself and the dead” (477). She never went to a lawyer to try and retract her statement, even if only to give Robbie's mother some peace. Not to mention comforting Cee, and exonerating Robbie in her parent's eyes. All she did is write her novel and wait for the dementia to take over, for the Marshall's deaths and for her own.

Briony might feel that she's being punished enough by knowing she will become “ a dim old biddy in a chair, knowing nothing, expecting nothing” (457). She, who always had to know everything, will know nothing. “No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists” (479). No atonement for Briony, either, although there might have been a favorable nod at an attempt that took place in this real world. “The attempt was all” (479), but the attempt is not enough. She might be the God of her book, but that doesn't make her God in this world or even give her any extra benefits. She had her responsibilities as a human being communicating with other human beings, and she shirked them.

McEwan seems to be making the same point that Fowles makes, in presenting the plot as if it happened one way and then revealing that it did not. Both authors challenge their readers to question the reality the are presented with. Fowles demonstrates this very point with a clever manipulation in the description of the trail of Lieutenant Emile de La Roncière. The reader is outraged at the Lieutenant’s wrongful conviction. Other schemes masterminded by women for the destruction of men are quoted. The reader is then happy to read that the case was reopened and La Roncière was released. Then, much like Briony, Fowles adds a final note that changes everything he has convinced the reader of – a “final twist” (17) revealing that La Roncière did, actually, attack and cut Marie, having seduced her maid and broken into Marie's room through hers. This attack, if revealed in court, would be considered sexual molestation that would justify severe punishment. The reader is now outrages at this violent and perverted man who took advantage of Marie and was then released, leaving Marie with the reputation of a crazy, scheming girl. The reader was manipulated into thinking, and feeling, one thing – and then feels the opposite when the truth is revealed.

In presenting the plot in a way that manipulates the reader, the novelist does finally play God. Briony lets the reader believe that her story is one thing, then another. Brill holds back on vital pieces of information, such as the nature of the trauma that he keeps referring to. Even Fowles, who rejects the idea of full control, plays with controlling his reader. The fact that the first false ending is presented as the real ending is an example of this as well. In the end, the novel is written by the novelist. The novelist has full control.

Should readers let themselves be carried along by these manipulations? Kathleen D’Angelo says that “McEwan presents an implicit argument about the ethical responsibility for readers of contemporary fiction. Readers hold the final power of interpretation, judgment, and atonement; to meet these aims, they must maintain a stance toward the text that involves both critical assessment and empathetic identification” (D'Angelo, 3). The author cannot control the reader completely. The readers are free to question everything. It seems as if they are being encouraged to. Don't just follow blindly. Know thyself, we are told, because yourself is really the only thing you can really know.

Works Cited
Auster, Paul. Man in the Dark. NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2008.
Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman. MA: Little, Brown and company, Inc., 1970.
McEwan, Ian. Atonement. NY: Anchor Books, 2007.
D'Angelo, Kathleen. “To Make a Novel": The Construction of a Critical Readership in Ian McEwan's Atonement”. Studies in the Novel, Volume 41, Numbers 1, Spring 2009, pp. 88-105 (Article)
Shostak, Debra. “In the Country of Missing Persons: Paul Auster's Narratives of Trauma”. Studies in the Novel, Volume 41, Numbers 1, Spring 2009, pp. 66-87 (Article)