The French Lieutenant's Woman

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The French Lieutenant's Woman

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Media Adaptations
Topics for Further Study
Historical Context
Compare & Contrast
Critical Overview
What Do I Read Next?
Further Reading

John Fowles


One morning, in 1966, at his home on the outskirts of Lyme Regis, John Fowles awoke with a vision of an enigmatic, solitary woman, standing on the Cobb, staring off into the distant sea, a woman who clearly belonged to the past. In an article for Harper's Magazine, he writes, "The woman obstinately refused to stare out of the window of an airport lounge; it had to be this ancient quay." The image of the woman haunted him. He notes that she had "no face, no particular degree of sexuality. But she was Victorian." In his vision, she always had her back turned, which to him, represented "a reproach on the Victorian Age. An outcast." He claims, "I didn't know her crime, but I wished to protect her. That is, I began to fall in love with her. Or with her stance. I didn't know which." This mysterious woman would become the inspiration for Fowles's third novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman (Boston, Toronto, 1969), an international popular and critical success and the most highly acclaimed work from this prolific author.

The story traces the relationship between a woman, caught between the Victorian and modern ages, and a man drawn to her independent spirit. Charles Smithson, a young English gentleman, becomes fascinated with Sarah Woodruff, a social outcast in the coastal town of Lyme Regis, who is known as "Tragedy," or in a more pejorative sense as "the French lieutenant's woman." Rumors suggest that she gazes continually at the sea, waiting for the sailor who seduced her to return. Charles eventually risks his own social ostracism when he breaks off his engagement to a perfectly respectable young woman to pursue Sarah. Readers are never given a definite conclusion to the story as they are left to choose among three possible endings.

Fowles's innovative narrative technique, which allows readers to become an active part in the creation of his novel, provides the framework for a fascinating story of passion, the constraints of class, and the struggle for freedom.

Author Biography

John Fowles was born on March 31, 1926, in a suburb of London. Ellen Pifer notes that Fowles characterized his hometown as "dominated by conformism—the pursuit of respectability." His early opposition to conformity would grow into a strong sense of individuality, a subject that emerges in many of his works. He attended Bedford School in London where he admits, he became adept at wearing masks. Pifer writes that Fowles insists the English "very rarely say what they actually think. That could derive from Puritanism—hiding emotions and wearing a public mask." Fowles concludes, "I suffer from it like everyone of my type and background. I've played the game all my life." Pifer argues that this theme emerges in his fiction as his characters "share their author's facility with masks, and their success at masking their real feelings often proves a hindrance to their internal development."

World War II was raging while Fowles was attending Bedford. He took time off to follow his family to the Devon countryside during the blitz, where he developed a love of nature. Upon graduation, he served as a lieutenant in the Royal Marines. When the war ended, he began studies at Oxford, where he was heavily influenced by the existentialist authors Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, a subject that would also emerge in his works.

After Oxford, Fowles taught English in Europe and began to write. A few years later, he returned to England where he continued to teach and to work on a draft of The Magnus. His first published novel, however, was the popular and critically acclaimed The Collector (1963), which enabled him to retire from teaching and devote himself to writing.

After he and his wife moved to Lyme Regis in 1968, he enjoyed continued success as a novelist, especially after the publication of his third novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman in 1969. His writing career ended in 1988 after he suffered a stroke. The French Lieutenant's Woman earned Fowles the Silver Pen Award, presented by the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists, and the W. H. Smith and Son Literary Award in 1970. In September 1981, a celebrated film version of the novel was produced.

Plot Summary

Chapters 1–33

The narrator opens the The French Lieutenant's Woman with background information on Lyme Regis, where the story is initially set. He then introduces Charles Smithson, a thirty-two-year-old gentleman and his young fiancee, Ernestina Freeman, who are taking a walk along the Cobb, made famous by Jane Austen in her novel Persuasion. The action begins in 1867, but the narrator often breaks into the narrative, noting that the story is being related in the twentieth century. He does this initially by comparing the Cobb to a contemporary Henry Moore sculpture.

Charles and Tina's walk is interrupted by the presence of a woman in a dark cape, standing alone at the end of the Cobb, staring out to sea. Tina explains to a curious Charles what she has heard about the woman, known as "Tragedy" and "the French lieutenant's woman," and her status as a social outcast. Rumors suggest that Sarah Woodruff was seduced and abandoned by a French naval officer who was shipwrecked off the coast. As she nursed him back to health, he reportedly made promises to her that he did not fulfil. Destitute and rejected by most of the Lyme Regis society, Sarah is taken in by the pious Mrs. Poulteney, who plans to "save" the young woman in order to assure her own status as a worthy Christian.

The next day, Charles, whose hobby is paleontology, walks through the Undercliff searching for fossils while Tina visits her Aunt Tranter. The narrator introduces Sam, Charles's servant, who has his eye on Mary, Aunt Tranter's maid. During his walk, Charles comes across Sarah sleeping in a clearing. She awakens with a start, and, after apologizing for disturbing her, Charles departs.

The narrator notes Charles's growing obsession with the mysterious Sarah. After stopping at a farmhouse to refresh himself, Charles again sees Sarah on the path. She rejects his offer to escort her home and implores him to tell no one that she has been walking there, an activity that Mrs. Poulteney has forbidden her. The next day, during a visit to Mrs. Poulteney's, Sarah silently observes Charles and Aunt Tranter's support of the relationship between Sam and Mary. Charles assumes that he has made a connection with Sarah, but the next time their paths cross on the Undercliff, she rebuffs his efforts to help her escape Mrs. Poulteney's control. When she insists that she cannot leave the area, Charles assumes that her feelings for the French lieutenant are the cause. After she admits that the lieutenant has married, her mystery deepens for Charles.

Charles's curiosity concerning Sarah causes him to think about the comparatively one-dimensional Tina and his own needs and desires. During another walk, Sarah finds him, presents him with two fossils, and begs him to hear her story. After determining that listening to Sarah would be a kind act and a useful study of human nature, Charles agrees to meet with her. Sarah admits that Lieutenant Varguennes proposed marriage and seduced her, even though she knew he was not an honorable man. The shame that she has embraced as a result has enabled her to separate herself from a society that would not accept her, due to her common birth. Her education had awakened her to the inequities of social class and gender, and thus her status as an outcast prevents her from having to conform to conventional roles.

During their conversation, Sam and Mary appear, and Sarah and Charles hide themselves. As she watches Sam and Mary embrace, Sarah turns to Charles and smiles. Charles, noticeably disconcerted at Sarah's open expression of her interest in him, abruptly leaves.

That evening Charles discovers that he is in danger of losing his inheritance and title, which causes tensions with Tina. He later asks his old friend Dr. Grogan to advise him about his relationship with Sarah, who has just been thrown out of Mrs. Poulteney's home for disobeying her orders. Grogan rightly guesses that Sarah engineered this dismissal so that Charles would come to her rescue. Charles, however, chooses not to follow Grogan's advice to stay away from her and meets her the next day on the Undercliff. Charles breaks off an embrace and rushes off, but not before he stumbles upon Sam and Mary who have seen them together. The two servants promise not to tell anyone of the meeting.

Chapters 34–54

Sarah moves to Exeter, aided by money Charles has given her. Charles tries to direct his thoughts to his engagement with Tina, but feels as if he is being trapped by her father who wants him to become his business partner. He is tempted to go to Sarah in Exeter but instead returns to Tina. The narrator provides the first of three endings here—Charles and Tina marry, along with Sam and Mary, and both couples prosper in a contrived Victorian conclusion. Immediately, however, the narrator insists that this ending is only what has taken place in Charles's imagination.

Media Adaptations

  • The film version of the novel was produced in 1981 by Juniper Films, directed by Karel Reisz, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. Meryl Streep starred as Sarah, with Jeremy Irons as Charles.

Charles does in fact go to Exeter to see Sarah, who seduces him. Charles discovers that she had not been intimate with the French lieutenant. After returning to his hotel, he writes to Sarah of his plans to marry her, but Sam intercepts the letter. After breaking off his engagement with Tina the next day, Charles returns to Exeter but finds that Sarah has disappeared.

Chapters 55–end

Charles hires private investigators to find Sarah and departs for America. Sam, who has married Mary, spots Sarah in London and notifies Charles. Sarah greets Charles at Gabriel Rosetti's home and explains that she has she has been working as the painter's model and secretary. Charles is shocked at how easily Sarah has fit into the scandalous Pre-Raphaelite group. After Sarah insists that she will never marry, Charles prepares to leave. When Sarah introduces him to their daughter, Lalage, however, the three embrace, suggesting that they will become a true family.

The narrator then reappears, sets his watch back fifteen minutes, and provides the last conclusion to the story. Sarah reasserts her decision not to marry but suggests the two might remain friends and lovers. Charles rejects her offer and leaves, devastated and alone.


Ernestina Freeman

The narrator introduces Tina, Charles' pretty fiancee, as a typical Victorian woman—obedient and demure, with an intense fear of sexuality. Yet she also displays an uncommonly strong will and a sense of self-irony, along with a sense of humor, without which "she would have been a horrid spoiled child." She reveals her shallowness in her petty response to the news that Charles may lose his inheritance and title.

Dr. Grogan

Dr. Grogan is Charles' old bachelor friend and confidant. He encourages Charles to view Sarah as a fascinating study in human behavior but tries to dissuade him from entering into a relationship with her.

Mrs. Poulteney

Mrs. Poulteney takes in Sarah to prove her own pious, charitable nature. She is "the epitome of all the most crassly arrogant traits of the ascendant British Empire," with her unwavering assurance that she is always right. She refuses any limits to her authority over those with whom she comes into contact.


Sam, Charles's servant, enjoys a friendly, trusting relationship with his master. Sam, however, betrays that trust when he discovers Charles' relationship with Sarah and determines to blackmail him. His better nature emerges when his guilt prompts him to help Charles find her.

Charles Smithson

Charles is a young, English gentleman whose distinguishing trait is laziness. The narrator describes him as an "intelligent idler" who sets his sights high, "in order to justify [his] idleness to [his] intelligence." His laziness allows him to become engaged to Tina, who does not demand anything but loyalty from him. Yet, his intelligence will not permit him to ignore her shallowness especially as contrasted with Sarah's depth. He also recognizes that "what drove the new Britain was increasingly a desire to seem respectable, in place of the desire to do good for good's sake."

While he wrestles with his position in the world, he turns his attention to science, specifically to a study of fossils. He eventually allows Sarah to pull him away from the confines of his Victorian world, but not without a struggle. He shows his conservative nature in his shock at her behavior—her open expression of her sexuality and her nonconformity. Yet he cannot resist the freedom of the world she reveals to him.

The three endings trace the development of his character during the course of the story. He ultimately discards his more conservative nature, which would lead to the first ending and its happily ever after resolution with Tina. In the second ending, he shows his independence by turning his back on his social class but follows his romantic nature when he reunites with Sarah and their child. In the third ending, he becomes an existentialist hero when he refuses to give himself totally to Sarah and her world and instead chooses a lonely but more authentic life.

Aunt Tranter

Aunt Tranter is a fitting contrast to Mrs. Poulteney. In her role as confident and advisor for both Charles and Tina, she brings out the best in their natures.

Sarah Woodruff

Sarah acts as a counter to Tina, the model of Victorian womanhood. She mystifies everyone, including the narrator in his conventional guise, by her behavior. The modern narrator and reader, however, understand that her actions are governed by her refusal to follow tradition and by her quest for freedom. She rejects the subservient role her society tries to force on her, determined to get what she wants and express her desires freely.

She has been a misfit all of her life, born into the working class but educated like a lady, caught between both worlds, neither of which can offer her the independence she craves. When she determines that she wants Charles, she continually manipulates situations to her advantage. She allows herself to be caught in the Undercliff, which has been forbidden by Mrs. Poulteney, knowing that her actions will cause the old woman to throw her out and thus be able to turn to Charles for help. She feigns a sprained ankle when Charles arrives in Exeter, requiring him to come up to her room to see her. In an effort to help spark Charles' curiosity and desire for her, she remains enigmatic about her relationship with the lieutenant.

In the last two endings, Sarah's need for freedom conflicts with her love for Charles. The first ending suggests that Sarah will be able to remain outside the confines of Victorian society while still being able to establish a family with Charles. Yet, her final emotional state, which causes her breast to shake with "a mute vehemence" when Charles asks her whether he will ever understand her, indicates that marriage will exact its own conventions which will be difficult to escape. The final conclusion focuses on her total freedom but also her estrangement from the man she loves. Fowles never resolves the conflict through his presentation of these two viable conclusions. Yet Sarah has enabled Charles to experience transformation, giving him the strength to break from convention and helping him to discover an authentic selfhood.


Social Constraints

Each character in the novel is constrained in some way by Victorian society. Tina has never been encouraged to explore her sexuality and so she is afraid of any intimacy with Charles. As a result, Charles gravitates to Sarah, who exhibits a more sensual nature.

Charles is caught up by his comfortable position as an English gentleman, which affords him the opportunity to leisurely dabble in his scientific pursuits and to be in control of his romantic relationships. Yet, he risks banishment from his class if he loses his wealth or behaves in a socially unacceptable way. He sees evidence of the former in Tina's response when his inheritance is threatened and experiences the latter as a result of his relationship with Sarah. His social ostracism begins when he breaks his engagement to Tina, and is cemented when he aligns himself with the bohemian Sarah.

Sarah has faced social constraints throughout her life. Born into the working class but educated as a lady, she fits into neither world. She becomes a social pariah, however, when rumors surface that she has been seduced by a French lieutenant and are reinforced by her daily position on the Cobb, gazing longingly out to sea.

Topics for Further Study

  • Research the treatment of women in England in the 1860s. How does Fowles depictions of Ernestina and Sarah reflect and challenge Victorian notions of the proper behavior of women?
  • Read Fowles The Collector (1963) and compare its focus on male/female dynamics to that of The French Lieutenant's Woman.
  • View the film version of the novel and discuss the changes in Pinter's screenplay as compared to the novel. Explain whether or not you think the film stays true to the thematic import of the novel.
  • Investigate British class structure of the period in which the novel is set. What changes were taking place? What rules were maintained? How are these changes and rules reflected in the novel?


Fowles writes in The Aristos that if we strive to be free, the "terms of existence encourage us to change, to evolve." This dominant theme in his work becomes most apparent in The French Lieutenant's Woman. Tina never experiences freedom since she does not allow this evolution. Her nature is not strong enough to stand up to the conventions of her world and take a more active part in the determination of her future. She is ultimately controlled by Charles' actions—his proposal of marriage and later his breaking of their engagement.

Charles eventually recognizes the confines of his world and finds the strength to rebel against them, stirred by his interest in Sarah. During a talk with Tina's father, who insists that Charles come into business with him after the wedding, he gains a glimpse of the suffocating life he would have to endure if he married Tina. Attracted by Sarah's open expression of sensuality, Charles breaks his ties with Tina and pursues Sarah, which pushes him to the margins of his society. The last two endings reveal the change that has occurred in Charles's character. In the first, he accepts Sarah's bohemian lifestyle with the Pre-Raphaelites and determines to stay with his family. In the final ending, he gains absolute freedom from social and marital constraints as he refuses to follow the standards of his class or to be possessed by Sarah.

From the beginning of the novel, Sarah resists the restrictions of her age. She allows others to believe that she has been seduced by her French lieutenant, which pushes her outside the boundaries of respectable society. Her search for independence leads her to the bohemian Pre-Raphaelites in London. She refuses to let others dictate her future, deciding when and if she wants to enter into a relationship with Charles.



The novel's narrative is postmodern in that it focuses on the self-conscious act of the author telling a story. Fowles discards the traditional, omniscient, Victorian narrator who knows everything about the characters and shares this information with the readers. The narrator in The French Lieutenant's Woman, who identifies himself as the author, breaks into the story continuously, providing background information, but also confounding readers' expectations about narrative continuity and clarity. He often moves back and forth in time. For example, he interrupts his description of Lyme Regis by mentioning Jane Austen's use of the Cobb in her novel Persuasion, which was written approximately fifty years before The French Lieutenant's Woman's setting date, and by mentioning a twentieth-century Henry Moore sculpture.

He also refuses to give us a clear portrait of Sarah, who remains enigmatic throughout the novel. This more modern narrative sensibility suggests that no one can ever know anyone completely, that some mystery always remains, and that knowledge of others is based on individual perceptions, not universal truths.

As he continually breaks into the narrative, identifying himself in the role of storyteller, the narrator interrupts the reader's suspension of disbelief by continually calling attention to the fictional nature of the tale. This interruption is heightened by the three endings he provides.


The first ending is a traditional Victorian conclusion. Charles marries the sweetly conservative Tina, deciding that she would provide him with more stability and thus he would retain a secure position in society. He would have risked social ostracism if he had pursued Sarah. The narrator, however, refuses to end in such a conventional way, and so has Charles only imagine this ending.

The narrator reappears after he discards the first ending just as Charles begins his search for Sarah. He sits with a dozing Charles on the train, considering his character's fate and eventually constructing two possible conclusions.

The second ending offers a more modern, albeit still romantic, conclusion, as Charles and Sarah reunite. Refusing to end there, the narrator reappears, this time as an impresario, sets his watch back fifteen minutes, and constructs the final ending, in which Charles is alone. The presentation of these alternate endings forces the reader to recognize the fictional nature of the work and also ultimately to participate in its construction.

Historical Context


Existentialism is a school of philosophical and artistic attitudes that investigates the nature of being. Its basic tenet is that existence and experience rather than essence should be emphasized. The beginnings of existentialism can be traced to the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard and early twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

After World War II, existentialism reflected on an absurd world devoid of a benevolent creator/protector, where humans must create meaning through their actions and take sole responsibility for their fates. This freedom and responsibility can, however, cause an overwhelming sense of dread. Existentialism has been expressed as a dominant theme in the literary works of Franz Kafka, Dostoevsky, Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Samuel Beckett.

Compare & Contrast

  • Late Nineteenth Century: A new term, the "New Woman" is used to describe the population of women who challenge traditional notions of a woman's place in society, especially the role of wife and mother. These challenges are seen by much of the current society as a threat to the fabric of the family.

    1970s: Those who fight for gender equality are called feminists, and feminism gains respectability and ground as an area of intellectual and academic study.

    Today: The label "feminist" has fallen out of favor, for feminism is spread over a spectrum of conservative and liberal proponents. Women now do have the opportunity to work inside or outside of the home or both. However, those who choose to have children and a career can face difficult times balancing the often conflicting needs of family and workplace, in part due to inflexible work and promotion schedules.

  • Late Nineteenth Century: In 1882, the Married Woman's Property Act passes in England, granting women several important rights. In 1888, the International Council of Women is founded to mobilize support for the woman's suffrage movement.

    1970s: In 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment Bill, which proposes that gender equality be protected by the Constitution, is passed by the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, but is not ratified by the required thirty-eight states, so it does not become law.

    Today: Women have made major gains in their fight for equality. Discrimination against women is now against the law. However, the Equal Rights Amendment is still not ratified, although it has been presented to each session of Congress since 1982.

  • Late Nineteenth Century: Feminist Victoria Woodhull embarks on a lecture tour in 1871 espousing a free love philosophy, which reflects the women's movement's growing willingness to discuss sexual issues.

    1970s: The phrase "free love" becomes one of the cultural buzz words—meaning extramarital, noncommittal affairs—as women take birth control pills in order to gain sexual freedom.

    Today: Women engage in premarital sex and have children out of wedlock without experiencing the social stigmas imposed in the previous century. The issue of single parenting causes a furor in the early 1990s when Vice President Dan Quayle criticizes the television character Murphy Brown for deciding not to marry her baby's father. Today, however, single parenting has become more widely accepted.

The New Woman

In the last half of the nineteenth century, cracks began to appear in the Victorians' seemingly stable universe. In 1859, Charles Darwin's Origin of Species sparked debates on religious ideology and the development of the human. In 1867, Karl Marx published the first volume of Das Kapital, which would challenge notions of class structures and their economic underpinnings. Robert Huffaker writes, "These eminent Victorians, steadily and without any violent action, helped to shatter the age in which they lived—its faith, morality, confidence." During this period, feminist thinkers contributed to the shattering of traditional social mores as they began to engage in a rigorous investigation of female identity as it related to all aspects of a woman's life. Any woman who questioned traditional female roles was tagged a "New Woman," a term attributed to novelist Sarah Grand, whose 1894 article in the North American Review identified an emergent group of women, influenced by J. S. Mill and other champions of individualism, who supported and campaigned for women's rights. A dialogue resulted among these women that incorporated radical as well as conservative points of view.

The most radical thinkers in this group declared the institution of marriage to be a form of slavery and thus recommended its abolition. They rejected the notion that motherhood should be the ultimate goal of all women. The more conservative feminists of this age considered marriage and motherhood acceptable roles only if guidelines were set in order to prevent a woman from assuming an inferior position to her husband in any area of their life together. This group felt that a woman granted equality in marriage would serve as an exemplary role model for her children by encouraging the development of an independent spirit. Chopin's works enter into this dialogue, exploring a woman's place in traditional and nontraditional marital unions.

Critical Overview

Soon after its publication in 1969, John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman became a critically acclaimed best seller in England, America, and France. Critics enthusiastically praised its rich storytelling along with its innovative style.

Literary scholar Ian Watt, in his review of the novel for The New York Times Book Review, declared it to be "immensely interesting, attractive and human" and expressed "awe, at such harmonious a mingling of the old and new in manner and matter." He found the themes "both richly English and convincingly existential." A reviewer for Life enjoyed Fowles mixture of existentialism with the previous century's sensualism, which results in "a novel of such riches that it meets the oldest, simplest, and least fashionable test of excellence. You never want it to end." The New York Times review insisted it "signals the sudden but predictable arrival of a remarkable novelist."

The novel continues to receive critical attention and high praise. Ellen Pifer writes, "Fowles's success in the marketplace derives from his great skill as a storyteller. His fiction is rich in narrative suspense, romantic conflict, and erotic drama." She praises Fowles's ability, so evident in The French Lieutenant's Woman, "to sustain such effects at the same time that, as an experimental writer testing conventional assumptions about reality, he examines and parodies the traditional devices of storytelling."


Wendy Perkins

Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, Perkins examines the dual endings and the role of the reader in the novel.

Several scholars, including Barry Olshen and Elizabeth Rankin, have commented on the problem of the dual endings in John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman. Even though the novel's narrator insists that each ending can be perceived as a plausible conclusion to the story, critics have argued that thematic and stylistic textual elements undercut the first ending and support the second. A close examination of the text will prove, however, that such clear determinacy is not possible; the novel's textual elements, in fact, suggest the plausibility of both endings: the possibility of both the union and separation of Charles and Sarah. As Wayne Booth has noted in A Rhetoric of Irony, readers will attempt to find meaning in a work that suggests alternate planes of reality by determining a hierarchy of perceptions. Thus, in an analysis of The French Lieutenant's Woman, readers will ultimately choose one ending over another in their attempt to establish meaning. In this way, they can actively participate in the creation of the novel's vision.

The second, more contemporary ending, focuses on Charles and Sarah's final separation. When both choose their independence over the confines of marriage, they become models of existential freedom, an important theme that runs through the novel. The narrator notes in the final paragraph that Charles "has at last found an atom of faith in himself, a true uniqueness, on which to build," and Sarah retains her individuality. In order to accept this ending as a satisfying resolution to the novel, certain elements in the first more conventional ending must be plausibly neglected.

The first element that must fade into the background is Charles's love for Sarah, which has become quite evident by his actions in the novel and by the narrator's statement in the first ending, "Behind all his rage stood the knowledge that he loved her still." When, however, in the contemporary ending, Charles recognizes the reality of the arrangement Sarah offers him, he chooses his freedom and dignity over his love for her, recognizing that if he stayed, "he would become the secret butt of this corrupt house, the starched soupirant, the pet donkey." As a result, he feels "his own true superiority to her which was . . . an ability to give that was also an inability to compromise. She could give only to possess; and to possess him." Although his decision to leave tosses him metaphorically "out upon the unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea," his experience has enabled him to discover a firm trust in his own character and abilities.

Sarah's love for Charles, another element of the first ending, is not quite as evident in the text. Sarah admits, in her own words, that she is "not to be understood," a valid statement since neither Charles nor the reader is privy to her thoughts. Yet while the motivations for her behavior remain enigmatic, she ultimately cannot deny her feelings. When Charles entreats her to admit that she never had loved him, she replies, "I could not say that."

The reality of Sarah's love for Charles can be plausibly neglected in the second ending when Sarah realizes her wish that she had earlier expressed to Charles. She explains, "I do not want to share my life. I wish to be what I am, not what a husband, however kind, however indulgent, must expect me to become in marriage." Thus Sarah gains her freedom, but her final reaction to this condition is unclear; from the narrator's ironic vantage point, Sarah is too far away for him to see whether or not there are tears in her eyes.

While critics have overwhelmingly accepted the validity of the second ending, they just as resolutely have denied the validity of the first on thematic and stylistic grounds. The major argument critics have supported is that the first ending is anti-existentialist because it denies to both Charles and Sarah the power of choice, and thus it is a false "Victorian" resolution to the book. One such critic, Ellen Pifer, in her article on Fowles in Dictionary of Literary Biography, argues that "the second ending proves more convincing because the artistry is more complete," and it has "a greater impact." She suggests that in the first ending, Fowles is "giving us a taste of old-fashioned assurances . . . in order to brace us for the harsh and lonely realities of the second." Robert Huffaker, in his article on Fowles for Twayne's English Authors Series Online, insists that the "final ending is the one supported by the vast thematic network which has woven into the novel the concepts of man's isolation and his survival through the centuries by evolving."

While it is apparent that an anti-existentialist ending would be thematically false, it must be noted that Fowles has already provided and discarded one such ending. Charles would have been guilty of acting in bad faith, something no true existentialist would do, if he had conformed to the pressures of his Victorian society and married Ernestina. Recognizing that fact, Fowles has the narrator reveal that Charles had only been imagining this ending, which can be considered the true Victorian conclusion.

If we acknowledge Jean-Paul Sartre's description of an existentialist as one who may choose anything if it is on the grounds of free involvement, we must also acknowledge that Charles and Sarah are given the power of choice in the conventional ending as long as their decision is not made in bad faith.

In this ending, Charles takes personal responsibility for his child, an action that would be commended rather than condemned by existentialists. Also, it is not Lalage's presence that ultimately determines Charles's decision to stay with Sarah. For immediately after Charles's discovery of his daughter, he still cannot resolve his feelings toward Sarah, as the narrator notes, "Still Charles stared at [Sarah], his masts crashing, the cries of the drowning in his mind's ears. He would never forgive her."

A more troublesome element in this scene is Charles's insistence that his reunion with Sarah "had been in God's hands, in His forgiveness of their sins," an image he had previously rejected during his visit to the church. This scene raises three important questions: Is the intervention of God an anti-existentialist turn? Does this ending mean that Charles will not experience the concept of "terrible freedom," a necessary requirement of an existential hero? And does the union of Sarah and Charles suggest the overtly romantic notion that love conquers all? These must be satisfactorily answered in order to accept both endings as plausible.

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Awakening (1899) is Kate Chopin's masterful novel of a young woman who struggles to find self-knowledge and inevitably suffers the consequences of trying to establish herself as an independent spirit.
  • Kate Millet's Sexual Politics (1969) studies the history and dynamics of feminism.
  • In Anna Karenina (1877), Leo Tolstoy chronicles the passion and tragic fate of his married heroine as she enters into an affair with a dashing officer.
  • In the play A Doll's House (1879), Henrik Ibsen examines a woman's restricted role in the nineteenth century and the disastrous effects those limitations have on her marriage.
  • The Collector (1963) is John Fowles's debut novel. Using a butterfly collector as his narrator, Fowles demonstrates an already mature style as he explores issues of class conflict.

In the first ending, immediately before Charles's declaration that God has forgiven their sins, he reveals that the stumbling block to his union with Sarah is his own inability to grant this forgiveness. By shifting the responsibility of forgiveness from himself to God, Charles rationalizes in an inauthentic way; however, he ultimately gains what he truly wants. Thus, although his means are existentially inauthentic, the end result is that he has made an authentic choice. Evidence that it is Charles who finally decides to reconcile his feelings for Sarah can be found in his immediate reaction to his declaration that God has forgiven their sins. When Charles asks Sarah, "and all those cruel words you spoke . . . forced me to speak in answer?," Sarah replies, "Had to be spoken." It is apparent from Charles's question that he and not God will have the final responsibility in deciding whether or not to accept Sarah.

The question dealing with the necessary experience of "terrible freedom," defined by the narrator as "the realization that one is free and the realization that being free is a situation of terror," can be answered by examining Charles's reactions while traveling through Europe. Even though during those twenty months he has not been free of his obsession with finding Sarah, he has experienced a certain terrible freedom from the social ties that had previously bound him. As a result, Charles begins to realize his selfhood. He decides that there is "something in his isolation that he could cling to"—his label as an outcast—"the result of a decision few could have taken, no matter whether it was ultimately foolish or wise." Thus, he concludes, "however bitter his destiny, it was nobler than that one he had rejected." It can also be argued that since Charles and Sarah would experience a certain social exile from the community of England, especially if they remained in the notorious Rossetti household, their union would embody the same "pure essence of cruel but necessary . . . freedom" Charles would have experienced with Sarah "on his arm in the Uffizi."

The final element—love conquering all—has been considered by Pifer and others to be one of the major weaknesses of the first ending. However, while there can be no disagreement that the last line of the first ending ("a thousand violins cloy very rapidly without percussion") does suggest an excess of melodramatic, romantic sensibility, we must remember that the violins play in Charles's mind—an imaginative creation that is an immediate reaction to his obtaining something he truly wanted. Here Charles is taking romantic pleasure in the moment, not necessarily in the future.

While this scene does end on a romantic note, it is not quite as closed an ending as critics determine it to be. Charles's final words to Sarah in this scene—"Shall I ever understand your parables?"—suggest that they will face future obstacles. Sarah's silence and her vehemently shaking breast provide evidence that she ultimately will remain inscrutable to Charles and that she will retain some measure of independence.

The action of the novel traces Charles's difficulties in becoming the perfect exemplar of existential freedom. While the placement of the model of existential realization at the end of the novel could be considered the most effective arrangement, we must question the possibility of anyone's achieving this goal. In an interview quoted by Pifer, Fowles has noted the difficulties in obtaining such perfect or absolute freedom with the questions "is there really free will? Can we choose freely? Can we act freely? Can we choose? How do we do it?" Pifer notes that Fowles has admitted that his presentation of the existential man in The Aristos, which introduces the major theses of his fiction, is "the ideal model, not a real person. He is a goal, a potential toward which anyone may strive and which in some cases he may realize."

Acknowledging the difficulties in achieving this model or norm, we could argue that the second ending should be considered a wish fulfillment on Fowles' part. Ultimately, however, Fowles is not suggesting that one ending should be chosen over the other; instead he is suggesting the possibility of both. As Pifer notes, Fowles in his role as narrator, "overtly tells the reader that he does not exercise absolute authority over his characters." In essence, he rejects "the notion of a universal creator" and announces in the novel "his abdication from the throne of literary omniscience." Thus the final existentialist exemplar is the reader who recognizes the ambiguity of the text and, as a result, refuses to be manipulated by the author, the narrator, or the critics.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on The French Lieutenant's Woman, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Richard P. Lynch

In the following essay excerpt, Lynch examines social and narrative freedom and their complicated renderings in The French Lieutenant's Woman.

John Fowles has always been concerned with the general issue of human freedom, by which he usually means the freedom of individuals from the constraints of society and its institutions. In the 1960s, he defined this freedom in the context of existentialism, but even after his interest in the broader philosophy of existentialism declined in the 1970s, he maintained a concern with the achievement of "authenticity," the result of the individual's successful struggle with society. The French Lieutenant's Woman is probably the best of Fowles's works to examine closely on this subject, but it presents some difficulties, situated as it is on the edge of his change in thinking, perhaps about existentialism and certainly about the novel itself. Fowles experimented with narrative form to some extent in The Collector and The Magus, but his third novel is his first openly metafictional work—particularly in its double ending and in its use of a twentieth-century narrator for a novel set in the Victorian period. In itself, the latter would not necessarily constitute an innovation, for as Kerry McSweeney points out, George Eliot's Middlemarch, set in the early 1830s, is narrated from the perspective of 1867—not a 100-year gap but an enormous distance in terms of social and historical concerns. In The French Lieutenant's Woman, however, we have a narrator who also claims to be the creator of the novel's characters and who makes cameo appearances in the narrative.

The novel is further complicated by the presence of different varieties of freedom, the effect of which, for a reader, can be equivocation on a large scale. Fowles is dealing in particular here with three different kinds of freedom: social, existential, and narrative, though in his statements outside the novel, he does not appear to distinguish between the first two. In The Aristos, for instance, he declares, "All states and societies are incipiently fascist. They strive to be unipolar, to make others conform. The true antidote to fascism is therefore existentialism; not socialism." In Fowles's thinking, existentialism is primarily a response to social and political pressures on the individual to conform. His novel can be more clearly understood, however, if the two kinds of freedom are distinguished. Social freedom, a concept that will be elaborated on below, is the opportunity to choose between alternative social "realities" or support groups, which confirm and strengthen one's identity. It is a way, therefore, of choosing an identity. There is some overlap between social and existential freedom in the sense that both give the individual the opportunity to choose, but existentialism necessitates a choice independent of any sustaining community. Sartre says that in choosing our own essence we are choosing, in a way, for all humankind, but he also states that "every man, without any support or help whatever, is condemned at every instant to invent man." There is a certain eventual reassurance, even comfort, that comes with social freedom; the emotions associated with Sartre's existential freedom, in contrast, are anguish over our responsibility in choosing and despair because we know we may rely only on "that which is within our wills."

Narrative freedom, the "freedom" of fictional characters (or the illusion of it) from their authors, is a metaphor for freedom from God, a precondition for existential freedom in Fowles and Sartre. It is the freedom the narrator speaks of when he asserts that a "genuinely created world must be independent of its creator . . . It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live." Such freedom is always difficult to claim, for although Fowles may not have a God who limits his freedom by determining his "essence" before his "existence," his characters do. Sarah Woodruff does achieve a kind of social freedom in this novel, and she is the primary example of narrative freedom, to the extent that such a thing can be attained. But existential freedom within the possible world of a novel set in the Victorian period is more problematic for its characters, in spite of Fowles's statement in "Notes on an Unfinished Novel" that the Victorian age was "highly existentialist in many of its personal dilemmas." If Charles Smithson, often seen as a potential existential hero by critics, finds a road to freedom in this novel, he does so by learning his own narrative strategies.

Sarah and Charles can be judged, first of all, in terms of their reactions to the social conventions of the late Victorian period. Critics have generally agreed that Charles is a somewhat "conventional" rebel for much of the novel. John Neary, for instance, argues that, rather than achieving or even attempting freedom, Charles has merely replaced Christianity with "Duty, Culture, and Science," which become substitute determiners of his character and actions. And Katherine Tarbox concludes that Charles never does, within the confines of the narrative, shake off the limitations imposed on him by his language and his Victorian assumptions about gender roles and conduct, although she holds out hope for the future Charles. Sarah, on the other hand, is generally perceived as a more genuine rebel against social constraints. Thomas Foster, in fact, calls her a "female Heathcliff," someone who ignores social convention. In spite of this apparent superiority, however, something funny happens to Sarah on the way to the endings: she becomes a catalyst in Charles's development, a secondary character. Both Neary and Foster ultimately see her this way, and McSweeney, in an interesting comment on the narrative that will be discussed later, calls Sarah the "narrator's surrogate," deceiving Charles for his own good. Almost all who have written about the novel see Sarah as a "mystery," but few have any trouble identifying what they see as her function in the novel.

Sarah may not be mere catalyst, though. She may represent a kind of social freedom that has been largely ignored or discounted by critics, perhaps because of Fowles's emphasis on existential freedom. In The Social Construction of Reality, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann describe the possibilities for attaining what they term "individualism," which they explain as a combination of awareness of choices among discrepant "realities" and identities, and the ability to construct a self out of the choices available (171). (Again, "constructing a self" may appear to be identical with the existential "choosing" of a self, but, as will be explained below, both process and product are substantially different.) Such individualism is made possible by unsuccessful socialization, a situation that may result from any number of causes.

According to Berger and Luckmann, all humans are born into "symbolic universes" (96), social structures a society has institutionalized as "reality." Socialization is the process by which the new individual internalizes that society, making it his or her reality, too. This socialization is accomplished primarily through the mediation of significant others (the parents in childhood; friends, coworkers, and others later on), with whose roles and attitudes, and ultimately with whose world, the individual identifies. In identifying with the significant others and their world, the individual acquires a coherent identity.

Sarah's socialization has been very imperfect, although she is in some respects a type often found in Victorian fiction: the educated woman of limited means who finds respectable employment as a governess. She is different from the type, however, in that she is educated beyond her class at the insistence of her father, a tenant farmer as obsessed with his ancestry as Mrs. Pocket is in Great Expectations. Sarah's education is, the narrator tells us, the second curse of her life, the first being an ability to see into others and understand their true worth. She has nothing in common with the other students at the boarding school and, far from internalizing their society and accepting it as "reality," internalizes instead the fictional worlds of Walter Scott and Jane Austen, judging others as fictional characters. Nor does the role of governess suit her. In her happiest employment, as governess for the Talbot children, she does not understand why she cannot be Mrs. Talbot. She sees no equivalent social position for herself, only the position of outsider, forbidden to enjoy the paradise she sees around her. In a sense, Sarah identifies with Mrs. Talbot—they are the same age—but she cannot enter her world or form an identity for herself based on it. She feels condemned to solitude, "As if it has been ordained that I shall never form a friendship with an equal, never inhabit my own home, never see the world except as the generality to which I must be the exception."

Simply living in the Victorian age is enough to render socialization an unsteady process. Successful socialization requires a close parallel between objective reality (the prevailing version of reality established by the society) and subjective reality (the individual's perceptions and identity). As Berger and Luckmann put it, "Identity, then is highly profiled in the sense of representing fully the objective reality within which it is located. Put simply, everyone pretty much is what he is supposed to be" (164). This is very much the sort of society Thomas Carlyle constructs in Past and Present around the figure of Gurth, the swineherd from Scott's Ivanhoe. Gurth was happy, asserts Carlyle, because he had a definite place in society and a clear relationship to others—in other words, Gurth had no problem with identity: Carlyle laments the absence of such certainty in his own time, and if it was a problem in 1843 (the date of Past and Present), it was far more so in 1867, the date not only of John Stuart Mill's attempt to persuade Parliament to grant voting rights to women (calling into question assumptions about gender) and the publication by Marx of the first volume of Das Kapital (calling into question assumptions about social class) but also of the Second Reform Bill, which gave the vote to workers in the towns and virtually doubled the total number of voters. Carlyle compared the Reform Bill to "shooting Niagara," and there were fears that Victorian society itself might become radicalized to the point of losing its social and political identity. Sarah, from a social perspective, is one of Carlyle's victims. She is not what she is "supposed to be," either as the daughter of a tenant farmer or, in her own mind, as a governess. She asks Charles, "Where am I not ill placed?"

Conditions sufficient to undermine Sarah's socialization existed, then, both in the world of reference that provides the background to the novel and in her personal life in the narrative, but until the end of the novel, there is no alternative social "reality" available to her, no counterworld within which she could have a counteridentity. There is only the option of pretending to be what she is not (the French lieutenant's woman) as a means of rejecting socialization in a social reality she cannot accept as a verification of her identity. Her role as the "fallen woman" is no threat to society (or to Charles), any more than the roles of other socially stigmatized types, such as those with physical deformities or those born out of wedlock. We can see this in the ease with which Sarah is written off by authority figures: as a social reclamation project (and an opportunity to demonstrate her charity) by Mrs. Poulteney, as a textbook case of the unbalanced woman by Dr. Grogan, and as the sexually exciting "mystery woman" by Charles. She may be more than that to him, but that she assuredly is.

In a society as complex as Victorian England, however, there is bound to be a more complex distribution of knowledge than in, say, the imagined society of Gurth, allowing for the possibility of "different significant others mediating different objective realities to the individual" (Berger and Luckmann 167). The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood provides just such an alternative set of significant others for Sarah. Two years earlier, she had made a desperate attempt to discover whether, in other circumstances, she might have had a "gentleman" like Charles—desperate because in fact, as she tells Charles, she never believed there was any chance he would marry her. Indeed, her experiment, if that is a reasonable word for it, had only the effect of expanding the universe within which she was a "nothing." When Charles discovers her two years later, she is manifestly not the Sarah he thought he was seeking. She is, as the young woman who greets him initially says, "no longer a governess." This piece of information is given in response to a question from Charles that is more assumption than question. What else could she be, in her circumstances? But the woman who shows him in reacts to his question with "amused surprise." In social terms, Charles has entered an alternative universe, one in which there are genuine options for intelligent women. Sarah need no longer suffer Victorian stereotypes because she has found that universe and the significant others she needed: "The persons I have met here have let me see a community of honorable endeavor, of noble purpose, I had not till now known existed in this world . . . I am at last arrived . . . where I belong." Sarah is "anchored," as she puts it; she has a secure identity, and it does not appear to be existential in nature, as a number of critics have claimed, but a quite conventional social identity—although no less hard won in the circumstances.

Tony E. Jackson, in an essay on evolutionary theory in The French Lieutenant's Woman, makes an interesting case for Sarah as a "suddenly occurring new kind of self" that "secures its survival" by reproducing itself as a type. Sarah does this, Jackson argues, by causing Charles to reenact her own story and become a social outcast like herself. There could be parallels between such an evolutionary reading of Sarah and the social process described above, but in that process conditions must exist to cause the discontent or "unsuccessful socialization," and Sarah cannot have been from the start "naturally isolated and alienated," as Jackson insists. In Berger and Luckmann's scheme, such alienation can only exist initially as a result of an accident of birth that renders the individual a social outcast, or by the mediation of a significant person other than the parents—a nurse, for instance, who may represent a different social class with a different world view. Neither of these situations applies to Sarah. Her alienation occurs for the very concrete social reasons given earlier, and not "naturally" (a term that begs too many questions). Further, Jackson views Sarah in the final, "existentialist," ending as "the type who is at home with contingency, uncertainty, and anxiety." I would maintain that she is simply "at home." The contentment she expresses with her present situation in the passage quoted above exists in both endings, since the final ending does not begin to displace the one before it until well after that passage. She betrays there neither uncertainty nor anxiety.

Sarah's description of her new community, one "of honorable endeavor, of noble purpose, I had not till now known existed in this world," raises questions about Charles's own options. Should he not have been a member of just such a community, pursuing its own "noble purpose" in the area of science, as the Pre-Raphaelites were in art? Charles likes to see himself as different, "not like the majority of his peers and contemporaries," and he revels in the idea that he and a select few others—Dr. Grogan, for instance—are advanced thinkers. But he wears his Darwinism as comfortably as Ernestina wears the latest fashions, and later in the novel, when Mr. Freeman uses the Darwinian principle of adaptation to changes in the environment to support the idea that "gentlemen" might find it necessary to go into trade, evolution becomes something Charles can do without. The terms intellectual or Darwinist have about the same reality when applied to Charles as governess does when applied to Sarah: they are convenient constructs for those who do not quite fit into mainstream Victorian categories but who are also not regarded as threats to it—as subversive "realities."

This is not to say that Darwinism was not regarded generally as a threat to conventional thinking but that Charles's version of Darwinism is the naïve variety Jackson describes as all too similar to Linnaeus's "ladder of nature"—a comforting reaffirmation of the rightness of one's position at the top of the evolutionary scale. When he goes to visit his uncle at Winsyatt, the estate and its attributes "evoked in Charles that ineffable feeling of fortunate destiny and right order which his stay in Lyme had vaguely troubled." For Charles, unlike Sarah, existence is just, and the order of things seemingly permanent. His satisfaction with Winsyatt as his inheritance "seemed to him to explain all his previous idling through life, his dallying with religion, with science, with travel; he had been waiting for this moment . . . his call to the throne, so to speak." His "real wife," Charles thinks, is "Duty"—the preservation of this order. The scene, like others in The French Lieutenant's Woman, contains the intertextual ghost of Great Expectations—in this case the scene in which Pip returns to the forge at the end of the novel with the idea precisely that it represents a peace and order he had not recognized earlier, and with the intention of proposing to Biddy (another previously unrecognized destiny). Like Pip, Charles is greeted by empty rooms and changes he did not expect to see—in particular a marriage (his uncle's) that forestalls any return to the past.

In terms of social freedom, Charles is a work in progress at the end of the novel. During his dialogue with himself in the church, where he goes to sort out his thoughts after having become Sarah's first lover, he identifies the age as his enemy, with its

iron certainties and rigid conventions, its repressed emotion and facetious humor, its cautious science and incautious religion . . . That was what had deceived him; and it was totally without love or freedom . . . but also without thought, without intention, without malice, because the deception was in its very nature; and it was not human, but a machine.

Charles reads a social phenomenon as "nature," something nonhuman that has no choice but to act the way it does. As Berger and Luckmann explain, there is nothing natural or "logical" about such realities; social reality is a purely human, construct. Once it exists, however, reification of the social reality—perceiving it as if it were a "thing" existing independent of humans—is likely. In addition, Charles, as an amateur scientist, is in the habit of objectifying social realities (making them "things") through scientific metaphors. So the idea that women were brought into creation for the purpose of being wives and mothers is a "natural law," and the continuing descent of a "fallen woman" is determined by "gravity." Perhaps if the oppressions of the age could be read as "nature," as nonhuman, Charles might be seen as a budding existentialist, but even at this stage he has yet to shake off the Victorian conventions he has helped to perpetuate.

Sarah, then, has found an alternative symbolic universe, a social frame of reference within which she is able to choose an identity, but Charles has not. He has been forced to resign his identity as a Victorian "gentleman," but what he will replace it with is not at all clear at the end of the novel. In fact, although Charles is an adult in years (32 at the beginning of the narrative, 34 at the end), the novel has many of the elements of the bildungsroman, or parodies of those elements, and given the many false steps he has made in his development, it is appropriate to see Charles as "starting over." So, in the second ending, the narrator tells us, "It was as if he found himself reborn, though with all his adult faculties and memories . . . all to be recommenced, all to be learnt again!" Fowles claims in his foreword to the revised edition of The Magus to have been surprised when a student at Reading University found similarities between The French Lieutenant's Woman and his favorite Dickens novel, Great Expectations, a classic bildungsroman, but one wonders how much of a surprise it really was. I mentioned above the parallel between Pip's imagined return to the forge and Charles's imagined return to Winsyatt; Fowles's novel is filled with reminders of the Dickens work, even if one discounts the most obvious one: the existence of two endings. The scene at the end of chapter 17, in which Mary holds Sam's hand to keep it from "trying to feel its way round her waist" is taken directly from Dickens's description of the same interplay between Wemmick and Miss Skiffins. Connections with Great Expectations in particular may be less important, however, than the bildungsroman category it falls into: a type of narrative that, especially in its emphasis on escape from the effects of primary socialization (the influence of parents and other conservative institutions), deals heavily with the protagonist's attempt to gain social freedom.

The characteristics of this kind of novel are conveniently identified by Jerome Buckley. The four basic elements are the loss of the father (by being either orphaned or alienated), the flight from provinciality (small town to city—usually London), the making of a gentleman (a moral test, since it involves deciding what a "gentleman" is), and trial by love (another test, revolving two love affairs: one dangerous and debasing, the other rewarding). All of these elements can be seen easily in The French Lieutenant's Woman. The breakaway from the "father," or an equivalent representative of tradition or conservative values, is parodied in Charles's pseudo-Darwinism, which allows him to see himself as an advanced thinker, in opposition to the narrow-minded views of his time. His actual father, we are told, died of "pleasure" in 1856, and Charles shares no values with the remaining father figure—the foxhunting turned claret-swilling uncle from whom he stands to inherit wealth. The alienation between father and son in this subgenre is frequently a result of a hostile attitude on the part of the father toward the young hero's new ideas, which are often acquired through reading. One of Charles's faults, we are told, was a "sinister fondness for spending the afternoons at Winsyatt in the library, a room his uncle seldom if ever used." The "immortal bustard," the rare bird Charles mistakenly shot one day on the estate, is a kind of objective correlative for their relationship, evoking different emotions from each: Charles is angry with himself for having helped to nudge the species closer to extinction; his uncle is delighted and has the bird stuffed and placed in a glass case in his drawing room.

The journey from the country, where the protagonist feels stifled intellectually and socially, to the city, where, according to Buckley, the hero is both liberated and corrupted, is also parodied. No doubt Charles feels limited (or just bored) by the provinciality of Lyme, but his "liberation" at the club and the brothel in London is ironic to say the least, and the corruption goes without saying. Buckley notes that the city almost never lives up to the hero's expectations of it, and that is certainly true of Charles's visit to London. He abandons the brothel to go looking for Sarah and ends up with a prostitute (ironically named Sarah) who, on closer inspection, looks disappointingly unlike the original. The third element—the making of a gentleman—is parodied as the unmaking of a gentleman. Charles in fact is forced by Ernestina's father to sign a document stating that he has "forfeited the right to be considered a gentleman."

The two love affairs are with Ernestina and Sarah. The relationship with Ernestina could very well be described as "dangerous and debasing," if our concern is with Charles's social freedom, or establishment of a self-chosen identity. His marriage to her would be the most conventional of arrangements, suggested in his "dreamed" ending to the novel. As the narrative explains,

It was simple: one lived by irony and sentiment, one observed convention. What might have been was one more subject for detached and ironic observation, as was what might be. One surrendered, in other words; one learned to be what one was.

The Ernestina connection could also be "debasing" in a comic sense (though not comic from Charles's point of view) if he had to accept Mr. Freeman's offer and go to work in "trade." To the extent that Sarah saves Charles from that surrender and puts him on the road to potential freedom, she represents a "rewarding" relationship, though she is not a reward in herself.

At the end of the bildungsroman, the protagonist is almost always on the road to some undefined destination, with an old identity left behind and a new one still in the process of forming, and that is certainly an accurate description of Charles. There are other parallels with the form—notably the several mock "epiphanies" Charles experiences—and Fowles was quite familiar with most of the novels Buckley discusses. In fact, as he notes in the foreword to the revised Magus, he was teaching Great Expectations at the time he was writing The French Lieutenant's Woman.

Most of these parallels are in the form of parody, and so they appear to bode ill for Charles's development, but as parody they are of a piece with the game-playing antics of the narrator who claims to be author. In the larger context of the narrative and its model author, there is still hope for Charles, whose own socialization has become unsettled, and it is a measure of Sarah's power to affect him that she has been the primary agent of that unsettling. He does not know what she is, but he knows that she is not what she is "supposed to be"—the governess, the fallen woman, or whatever other convenient categories society has assigned her to. And to adapt a phrase from Berger and Luckmann, if fallen women "can refuse to be what they are supposed to be, so can others; perhaps, so can oneself." Unsuccessful socialization begins with such questionings and opens up the essential question, "Who am I?" Once that question has been raised, individualism, as defined above, becomes a possibility. Charles is not there yet when he has his dialogue with himself in the church, but he has taken the first steps.

The conditions necessary for Sarah's social freedom are not available earlier in the novel, so she must rely on a kind of narrative freedom until they are, although the latter freedom remains vital to her even at the end of the narrative. It is much easier for an author to give existence to characters than to give them their narrative freedom. In a 1974 interview with James Campbell, Fowles states that he does try to give his characters freedom, "but only as a game, because pretending your characters are free can only be a game." It is an important game in his third novel, however, which straddles two ages with different attitudes toward the novel, and in which Fowles, or at least the narrator, is concerned with Robbe-Grillet's argument that the true modern novelist does not attempt to pass traditional characters off on the reader, and that authors who do so give us mere "puppets in which they themselves have ceased to believe." The only way to avoid the charge of being a puppeteer (a designation Thackeray so cheerfully adopted) is somehow to free the characters in this novel set in a time period conspicuous for the absence of narrative freedom.

Source: Richard P. Lynch, "Freedoms in The French Lieutenant's Woman," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 48, No. 1, Spring 2002, pp. 50–61.

Thomas C. Foster

In the following essay excerpt, Foster contrasts the characters of Charles and Sarah, exploring Fowles use of Victorian and post-Victorian elements as part of character development.

Modern readers may be particularly attracted to Sarah because of her existentialist suffering. Although she cannot recognize them (being born a century too early), she exhibits the symptoms of existentialism as delineated by Sartre and Camus. She is alienated from herself, from God, and from society. She has her moments of absurdist recognition and suicidal despair. Her life is without essential meaning, and ultimately she must take charge of her life and invest it with meaning, must create her being as she goes. Like Sisyphus, she has been condemned to a certain life, in her case not rolling a rock up a hill but, instead, living singly in a society that values only wedlock for women, and, after wallowing in misery through the first half of the novel (to the point of contemplating suicide), she chooses the heroic option of embracing that condition and making something positive of it. Unlike Nicholas Urfe, who revels in the poses of existentialism, Sarah is genuinely trapped in an existentialist situation without the knowledge or skills that would provide a guide out of that trap. Her struggle to find her own way out, along with Charles's fascinated observation, forms a large part of the novel's plot.

Charles's own grappling with existentialist realities serves as the other major focus. Charles moves from a comfortably conformist role in society, despite his protestations of being his own man, to being an outsider who must confront his own lack of authenticity. While he believes himself to be a Byronic loner and skeptic in the beginning of the novel—and his tweaking of the middle class by following Darwin is his chief supporting evidence—Charles is very much a product of his time and class. He lives on a private income, with expectations of further inheritance of money and title when his uncle dies. He is a nonproductive member of society, and even his fashionable scientific interests are dilettantish, pursued without system or rigor. When he breaks his engagement with Ernestina he is forced outside society, both by Mr. Freeman's threats of exposure and by his own growing sense of alienation, largely brought on by his inability to find Sarah. In "Notes on an Unfinished Novel" Fowles asserts that the Victorian age was profoundly, if unwittingly, existentialist. Certainly, in its fiction, Dickens, Eliot, and Hardy in particular, the age embraced the same concerns as Sartre and Camus and company. Pip's struggle to become a "gentleman" in Great Expectations shares many elements with existentialism—that meaning and value must come from within, for instance. Both Hardy's Tess and Jude are tormented by alienation from God and man. The chief difference between their situations and Charles's is that his creator possesses an adequate terminology to discuss his plight.

That plight is central to the novel, for, despite the title and the occasional authorial references to Sarah as "the protagonist," Charles stands as the main figure in the novel. Feminists have rightly noted that Fowles typically concerns himself with male protagonists and male dilemmas, that female characters play secondary roles, and this novel is no exception. This twist, of course, reflects the age; it may be termed the Victorian era, but it is dominated primarily by such men as Lyell and Darwin, Tennyson and Browning, Marx and Mill, Disraeli and Gladstone, Dickens and Thackeray and Hardy. Even the Pre-Raphaelites, who figure in the novel tangentially, with their fetish of sacred and mythic womanhood, were totally dominated by men—William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones. Women were figures of great interest and mystery for the Pre-Raphaelites—in fact, almost the only fit subject for painting—but chiefly because of their Otherness, their foreignness, rather than because of any great understanding on the part of the artists. So, too, with The French Lieutenant's Woman: Charles is brought to consciousness through the agency of a woman he admires but does not understand. That woman appears to be miles ahead of him in her own coming into being, yet her presentation in the novel is sufficiently limited that such an appearance may be illusory.

As the novel opens, Charles is the typical wealthy Victorian bachelor on the verge of marriage. Considerably older than his fiancée, he treats her condescendingly, while she behaves like a coquettish and sometimes petulant schoolgirl to his suave Oxford man. He drifts along in what the narrative calls "tranquil boredom," playing his role as young aristocrat. He playfully teases his valet, Sam Farrow, who responds with cockney indignation, both of them conforming carefully to preset roles. His relation with Ernestina is chaste and slightly distant; neither of them ever says anything meaningful or revealing, and even their proposal scene is sealed with a ludicrously asexual kiss. He has followed Ernestina from London to Lyme Regis in an age-old courting ritual of hide-and-seek: if he will follow, then he must be serious. It is, naturally, a game only the wealthy can afford to play.

It is as happily betrothed strollers that they come upon Sarah Woodruff standing at the end of the Cobb, where she rebuffs and attracts Charles with her gaze. He subsequently encounters her on one of his fossil-finding expeditions to the Undercliff, the steep, eroded cliff beyond Ware Commons. When he discovers Sarah sleeping his first impulse is to turn away and not disturb her. But then, prompted partly by the memory of a sleeping prostitute in a Paris hotel, he continues to watch, another of Fowles's voyeurs. Like his counterparts Nicholas Urfe in The Magus and David Williams in "The Ebony Tower," he is paralyzed at the brink of action, torn between sexual desire and fear at the risks desire carries with it. And, like them, his voyeurism represents the larger struggle between the impulses of engagement and isolation, of active involvement in life and passive observation of it. She wakes, however, and catches him watching her, and again their gazes lock, with a kind of inevitability: "Charles did not know it, but in those brief poised seconds above the waiting sea, in that luminous evening silence broken only by the waves' quiet wash, the whole Victorian Age was lost. And I do not mean he had taken the wrong path." Readers will instantly recognize the rhetoric of sexual seduction in this passage, with its breathless pause, its lapping of waves—long the cinematic cliché for sexual climax—and in the overstatement of an age being lost. Charles has most certainly started down a different kind of wrong path.

Yet on another level Fowles means exactly what he says about the Victorian age being lost. What is at stake in the novel is nothing less than a way of life. The existing power structure of Victorian society is present throughout the novel, from the odious Mrs. Poulteney and her henchwoman, the misnamed Mrs. Fairley, to the self-made success Mr. Freeman, to Dr. Grogan and his adherence to the best medical opinions of the day, to the Methodist dairyman, to the pert yet orthodox Ernestina. Charles is in danger, as the novel progresses, of becoming merely another pillar of the Victorian establishment. He occasionally displays the humorlessness that passes for moral rectitude, or he wears the mask of "Alarmed Propriety" in dealing with Sarah, or he takes his class privilege too much for granted. The peril is both personal and cultural, since falling into the habits of one's society leads to an ossification of both the individual and the society.

The dichotomy Fowles sets up is between the structures of society, which he feels are inherently fascistic in their efforts to inflict conformity, and the self, which is inherently revolutionary in its insistence on its individuality, in its refusal to conform:

All states and societies are incipiently fascist. They strive to be unipolar, to make others conform. The true antidote to fascism is therefore existentialism; not socialism.

Existentialism is the revolt of the individual against all those systems of thought, theories of psychology, and social and political pressures that attempt to rob him of his individuality. (Aristos, 122)

One of the attractions of the Victorian society as subject matter for Fowles is its strong impulse toward unipolarism, toward unthinking conformity. The presence of Sarah, then, as one who refuses to conform is not a mere affront to that society but an active threat, since assertion of the Self thwarts totalitarian impulses. The novelist, however, is interested less in this historical insight than in its modern parallel. The history of the twentieth century has been one of constant assaults on individuals by a host of totalitarian schemes, among which Hitler is the representative figure. Fowles makes this point clear in his repeated analogies and references in the book to the Nazis and those who fought against them. Yet Fowles writes The French Lieutenant's Woman in the midst of a decade that stands as one of the premier assertions of selfhood in the history of any century, and he knows that the battle between Self and society is eternal and constant and not yet lost. When Charles loses his way as he gazes into Sarah's eyes, he begins to lose his conformity, begins to see the possibilities of the radical Self.

Those possibilities reside, apparently, in her eyes, for each time they meet Charles is aware of her eyes. When next they meet he notices her eyes are "abnormally large, as if able to see more and suffer more." On this occasion she begs him to tell no one that he has seen her on the Undercliff, thereby implicating his own eyes in her secret. She is forbidden by Mrs. Poulteney, who has what Fowles calls a Puritan fear of nature, from visiting Ware Commons and the Undercliff. During an audience at Mrs. Poulteney's, to which Charles has been dragged by Mrs. Tranter and Ernestina, Sarah and Charles exchange a secret look unnoticed by the others, who have averted their eyes. Sarah's eyes are far-seeing, unlike those of the myopic Ernestina, as she gazes out to sea. She often seems to look through Charles, or past him. Her stare is almost otherworldly; that world, of course, is the twentieth century. If the shortsighted Ernestina represents the present as weighted down by the received ideas of the past (she unpleasantly echoes Mrs. Poulteney during the interview), then Sarah's fixed stare represents the pull of the future.

These two women, then, represent as well as produce the dilemma Charles must struggle with: Will he remain a creature of his own time or move into the future? Ernestina, with her love of bright colors, her adherence to the latest fashions, and her rejection of some of the more outmoded Victorian strictures, stands as a thoroughly "modern" young woman, vintage 1867. Yet her modernity is very much of her time; that is to say, she is as up-to-date as a girl could manage to be while remaining firmly in her own era. Her activities, her speech, her clothing, her taste, are all firmly informed by the culture that contains her. In no measure does she challenge or reject the basic demands and assumptions of Victorian society. Marriage to her would mean ossification for Charles: his tendencies toward stiffness, toward propriety, toward conventionality, would overcome his countervailing impulses toward flexibility, independent thought, and individual action.

Sarah, on the other hand, embodies values more closely associated with the twentieth century, and her influence, her ability to mesmerize Charles, has a great deal to do with the strangeness of that future time. Curiously, Sarah's plight is entirely Victorian in nature: the marital impasse she faces, the ostracism because of her scarlet past, her occupation as governess, and the lack of career paths available to her are all nineteenth-century impositions on her liberty and autonomy. Yet she maintains that autonomy, insists on that liberty, in the face of overwhelming social forces. Even her appearance suggests modernity. Fowles describes her as lacking anything like conventional prettiness yet having a beauty that the High Victorian era could not recognize—full lips, dark eyebrows, dense and wavy hair, and, of course, those astonishingly frank eyes. Modern readers can recognize the features as those of Elizabeth Siddal, Jane Morris, and Alexa Wilding, the favorite models of the Pre-Raphaelites, and the directness as that of our own century. Her look is frequently described as naked, as the narrator emphasizes the eroticism connected with her and also the freedom from conventionally "clothed" responses. This tendency also manifests itself with literal clothing. Repeatedly, Charles encounters Sarah in various degrees of shedding garments: her bonnet, her cloak, and, in the fateful scene in Endicott's Family Hotel in Exeter, her day clothes entirely. He finds her seated in her room in her nightgown, all of the ordinary restraining garments removed. Significantly, when he meets her after their separation she is dressed in a simple shirt and skirt, not at all in the trussed and layered manner of Victorian fashion. The simplicity of her ensemble approximates that of the century to come, in which female modes of dress would become simpler and, ultimately, more masculine.

Sarah's final garments underscore her tendency to usurp what her society views as masculine prerogatives. She often contradicts Charles or else speaks out of turn or too frankly for his comfort. Indeed, she scarcely takes his feelings into account except to manipulate them (or so it seems to him), never to defer to them. She acts toward him, in other words, very much as a woman might act toward a man in the 1960s, not in the 1860s. When the narrator describes her mix of "emotion and understanding," he does so in terms of the past, saying those qualities would have made her "a saint or an emperor's mistress" in an earlier day, yet he cannot say what she might have been in our own day. Nevertheless, readers will recognize in her the beginnings of the liberated modern woman: she thinks her own thoughts, shapes her own identity (the French lieutenant's whore is, after all, her creation), and ultimately pursues her own destiny. Her one sop to her own time is her deferential posture, which she assumes when commanded or corrected, yet even that she typically undercuts with a look or a statement that suggest a less than total submissiveness.

Charles, naturally, sees the choice not between centuries but, rather, between women. His decision is not any easier for that, since he knows so very little of women; indeed, Charles's mystification throughout the novel is largely a product of the Otherness of women. Like many of Fowles's heroes, he has grown up and lived in an all-male environment. His parents are deceased, and his one elder influence is his lifelong bachelor uncle, Sir Robert. The public school and Oxford experience, of course, would have been entirely male in Charles's youth, and among his confederates at his club the only contact with women is with prostitutes and entertainers, two types shaped by men's fantasies of women, rather than by the genuine articles. His chief contact with females has been on the basis of superior power. His class, his masculinity, his educational status, all confer on him the upper hand in contact with women. With such women he is glib and self-assured. Even Ernestina, his intended, is a marked inferior on the basis of age, gender, and class (her father is nouveau riche, a commoner to Charles's aristocrat). Their conversations are shallow, if sometimes sincere; Charles routinely assumes superiority, while Ernestina, who can be quite petulant, consistently defers to him in important matters. When she does contradict him, during their meeting with the abominable Mrs. Poulteney, it is on the subject of the unreliability of domestic servants, an area of supposed female expertise. Even then she realizes her transgression and apologizes immediately when they are alone. What Charles lacks, then, is any knowledge of a woman as a complete person, someone with views, feelings, and a history that are hers alone, rather than a concoction brewed up to please the dominant male power structure.

Because of his lack of information, Sarah poses a significant problem of interpretation for Charles. He becomes the readers' representative within the novel, trying to decode and understand Sarah, just as the readers on the "outside" of the text must try to interpret each character. Some critics, like Mahmoud Salami, have seen her as a creator of texts, of stories and parables that teach. It is perhaps more accurate, however, to understand Sarah herself as a text to be read. Not only her narratives but her sheer presence require active reading by Charles, as well as by others in the novel. Such a view of the novel can be quite fruitful, since it gives readers a means of understanding the different Sarahs presented to different audiences. The general public of Lyme Regis is presented with a very simple text: Sarah as fallen woman, ruined by a wicked foreign seaman, sensual and unrepentant. To Dr. Grogan she is another text, a case study of an unbalanced woman. In fact, he turns her literally into a text by presenting Charles with the medical documents pertaining to a similar case revolving around another young French officer, a Lieutenant La Roncière, falsely charged with raping the young daughter of his commanding officer. Grogan attempts to explain Sarah's behavior in terms of Marie, the girl in the case study.

To Charles, however, Sarah presents another, very different, text: constantly shifting, sometimes contradictory, unpredictable, unfinished. Each time they meet she produces some new bit of information, some new slant on her personality. She is occasionally the wanton, more commonly the damsel in distress (a role made more plausible by living in the house of Mrs. Poulteney, a reasonable facsimile of a wicked stepmother), borderline madwoman, solitary, villain, victim, lover, betrayer. She places herself in his path by going repeatedly to Ware Commons and the Undercliff, where she knows he goes to pursue his fossil collecting, then asks to be left alone. Making sure he sees her, she asks him to tell no one that he has seen her, thereby implicating him in her secret. She seeks out his help but does so clandestinely, appealing both to his gallantry and his ego (he is special, he alone can help her). She reveals progressively more of her story, yet it is not always consistent, and the main point, as he discovers, is untrue. When Charles finally goes to Endicott's Family Hotel and they make love, he finds to his shock that she is a virgin. She has never made love to the French lieutenant. His reading of her moves from victim of romantic impulses to victim of a narrow-minded society to manipulative, selfish marriage wrecker. That last image settles in more firmly when, having broken his engagement and returned to Exeter, he discovers that she has vanished.

Yet even then he is not satisfied with his interpretation, like a reader who finds a novel missing its last, most critical chapter. He waits for two years while his agents search for her, partly out of love and partly out of an anxiety of uncertainty: he wants to know why she has done what she has done. Unlike ordinary readers, Charles gets his chance to question this extraordinary author. If the text of Sarah is radically unstable, it is sufficiently provoking to spur him to action. The search for her authentic text is complicated by Charles's construction of a fantasy text, onto which he projects his desires. That alternative text, as Salami notes, is a "masculine narrative" in which Sarah is "a mystery, a dangerous Eve, and a contradictory subject." Charles can never understand, or "read," Sarah until he learns to accept her feminine narrative without bending it to the will of his masculine desires and prejudices.

Throughout Charles's search for the "real" Sarah, readers are confronted with an analogous search for the real novel. The French Lieutenant's Woman has become famous for its twin endings, yet they stand as merely the final instance of narrative gamesmanship in a long catalog of slippery practices. The most obvious example is the use of the nineteenth-century novel form itself, for, while Fowles makes faithful use of the elements of that form, he never pretends to be writing a Victorian novel. Carefully assembling the elements of such a work—the story of Charles and Sarah could easily be by Eliot or Hardy—he repeatedly violates the illusion of reality by intrusive comments and stratagems. From the outset he insists on the differences between the nineteenth century and the twentieth, and he compares characters and situations to literary examples from the major Victorian novels. He compares the valet Sam Farrow, for instance, to Dickens's Sam Weller and, at another point, asks if he is a Uriah Heep. No Victorian, and certainly not one of the great realists, would risk damaging the presentation of their illusion with such an artful reference. Elsewhere he compares gentlemen of Charles's day with those of our own, again reminding readers of the artifice of his creation. His crowning moment, though, is chapter 13. Having asked, in closing the previous chapter, who Sarah is and what drives her, he opens this new installment by saying frankly: "I do not know. This story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind." He goes on to discuss the conventions of Victorian storytelling, including the omniscient, godlike narrator. He says, however, that that mode can never be his own, since he lives in the age of Alain Robbe-Grillet, the driving force behind the New Novel, and Roland Barthes, the French structuralist and narrative theorist.

His assertions put him firmly and consciously in the postmodernist camp, exploring its concerns, especially those of self-conscious narrative, distrust of realism, exploitation of previous forms, and narrative indeterminacy or unreliability. The effect of these concerns is to thwart the readers' desire for story, even while fulfilling it. If a writer believes that realism is essentially false, that it is an effect produced by a series of devices designed to trick the reader, among them the pretense that the writer is not making it all up, then his response may be, like Fowles's, to call attention to the artifice of his enterprise. The self-consciousness he displays in chapter 13 is characteristic: he reminds the reader that none of this is literally true or that it is true only in imaginative terms. In fact, Fowles chooses chapter 13 very carefully, on the basis of two well-known antecedents. One is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, the first thoroughgoing treatment of literary theory in English. In his chapter 13 Coleridge discusses, in what is probably the most famous passage in the work, the distinction between fancy and imagination. George Eliot's Adam Bede includes, in chapter 17, "In Which the Story Pauses a Little," a discussion of her theory of novel writing and her views on imitating reality in her works. Fowles, then, conflates these two preoccupations into his profession of artifice, reminding readers that they should not confuse the action of the novel with real life and inviting their complicity in pursuing this view of the novel. What he finally argues for is the aesthetic consistency of fiction: it need not imitate any external reality so long as it provides an aesthetically satisfying whole.

And if the novel's wholeness is internal—that is, the narrative is true only to its own principles, not to any outside "standard"—then the readers' perceptions of those principles, and that truth, is as important as anything imposed on the narrative by the author. What he begins to argue for in chapter 13 is the aesthetic autonomy—the self-containedness—of the novel as well as the primacy of imagination in its creation. Aesthetic autonomy, however, is a function not only of the writer's creation but also of the readers' perception: How do readers view and understand the wholeness, the integrity, of the novel? The novel is a transaction between the two parties, then: the creator and the audience. For instance, the narrator is unable to fill in all the details of Sarah's motivations and internal life, so readers must surmise for themselves what drives her. The rightness of their interpretation is determined not by the narrator stepping in with a "final" version of Sarah but, rather, by how completely each reader's interpretation fits the facts of the narrative and explains her actions to that reader's satisfaction. There are numerous possible Sarahs in the novel, and different readers will undoubtedly reach different conclusions about her, many of them equally valid in the context of the novel.

Source: Thomas C. Foster, "The French Lieutenant's Woman: Postmodern Victorian," in Understanding John Fowles, University of South Carolina Press, 1994, pp. 72–85.

Katherine Tarbox

In the following essay excerpt, Tarbox examines the often "deceptive appearances" of the characters and the narrator, and the resulting effect on perceptions and actions in The French Lieutenant's Woman.

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Robert Huffaker

In the following essay excerpt, Huffaker examines the historical aspect of The French Lieutenant's Woman and the novel's narrative technique, including narrative intrusion.

III The Novel's Historical Quality

At its elementary level, The French Lieutenant's Woman is a magnificent historical novel. It is the story of a Dorset farm girl whose strange revolt against Victorian convention frees her for a womanhood among the Pre-Raphaelites in London, while toppling an intelligent young gentleman from the upper class into exile. It is also the story of a city valet and a provincial housemaid who succeed in marriage and mercantilism, of a scholarly old bachelor physician, of a kind old spinster aunt, of a frivolous London girl whose wealth has barely failed to spoil her, and of a bigoted old widow who thinks Heaven operates on the points system. The novel's panorama of Victorian England bears close-ups of such specialized activities as London whoring and legal negotiating. The book documents discussions of Victorian science, politics, economics, and social custom, and it describes both urban and pastoral England. Such illumination is expected of a historical novel, and this one provides it. But The French Lieutenant's Woman is far more than a historical novel. Fowles denies interest in that genre and does not consider this book part of it. He compares it to other artists' using earlier form and technique: "Stravinsky's eighteenth-century rehandlings, Picasso's and Francis Bacon's use of Velasquez. But in this context words are not nearly so tractable as musical notes or brush-strokes." Prokofieff's Classical Symphony ran through his mind as he wrote the novel, and he must feel his technique's kinship to Prokofieff's early twentieth-century renovation of mid-eighteenth-century classical style. Both Fowles and Prokofieff handled forms of previous centuries with loving irony. Fowles describes the central painting in "The Ebony Tower" as growing out of "a homage and a kind of thumbed nose to a very old tradition," a phrase he might also have applied to his own earlier book. Such artistic use of outmoded form is not purely parody or pastiche, terms implying some disrespect for the model; nor is such reworking simply imitation or emulation, words suggesting parasitic cribbing. The French Lieutenant's Woman, like the Classical Symphony, is an original modern expansion upon older traditional forms. Written both admiringly and ironically, both works pay tribute to past techniques while gently spoofing them.

Because some of Fowles's effects blend epochs a century apart, there is temptation to call them anachronisms. His technique occasionally resembles Bernard Shaw's sicking ancient Egypt's Ra upon his British audience or Mark Twain's transporting his Connecticut Yankee back to Camelot. Fowles's narrator, in many ways a character as well, is part Fowles himself and part device. Since this author-persona is a modern novelist who slips into his own created past, his time-linking effects appear deceptively anachronistic. But his appearances in the novel are more synchronistic than anachronistic, since he remains obviously the twentieth-century novelist, merely disguised as Victorian for trips into the book—complete with contemporary transportation and timepiece. Such synchronic elements establish the perpetuity of existence and carry the theme of evolution: "Mary's great-great-granddaughter, who is twenty-two years old this month I write in, much resembles her ancestor; and her face is known over the entire world, for she is one of the more celebrated younger English film actresses." The narrator carries out this sense of sempiternality by including such specifics as Ernestina's birth in 1846 and her death on the day the Nazis invaded Poland (1 September 1939). Such references link fictional characters to known reality in recent history, and the device is neither anachronistic nor hard to believe, since people often live ninety-three years. The author's toby jug which once belonged to Sarah, the Undercliff from the air, Mrs. Poulteney as inhabitant of the "Victorian Valley of the Dolls," today's public urinal replacing yesterday's Assembly Rooms—all such details destroy the separateness of the two ages and support Fowles's attitude toward existence as a horizontal concept without beginning or end. Such linking elements not only demonstrate his concept of time but also intensify the authenticity, the reality of his story.

IV The Intrusive Author

Fowles fuses the old ingressive and omniscient point of view with his modernity as another way of showing the continuum of time. He also uses that traditional narrative technique to accomplish feats unavailable to contemporary novelists who refuse the old omniscience. In the process, he makes considerable fun of the tradition which has in recent decades come to insist that the author himself be ousted from his own fiction. Fowles ironically protests that the modern novelist (in the age of Robbe-Grillet and Barthes, leaders in the form-obsessed nouveau roman school) must give his characters freedom; then he rides smugly into his own fiction as novelist-god to parody the notion of an intervening deity. He is intervening in the name of nonintervention.

The question of the novelist's role is inseparable from the idea of God's, and this book's central concern with narrative point of view is as theological as it is literary. His ironic treatment notwithstanding, Fowles is quite serious about the godlike function performed by creators of fiction. Whatever narrative technique an author uses, it is ultimately impossible for him to avoid being omniscient and omnipotent in his own fiction; he knows his own creation and may share it as he likes. But because twentieth-century man no longer sees himself as manipulated by an intervening god, the modern novelist who hopes to create a believable world must avoid the appearance that he as creator can know and control that world. Since an omnipotent god no longer pulls the strings, today's novelist considers himself presumptuous if he seems to do so. Such was not the case in the Victorian novel, as Thackeray's conclusion to Vanity Fair illustrates: "Let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out." Fowles directly contradicts Thackeray's metaphor:

Perhaps you suppose that a novelist has only to pull the right strings and his puppets will behave in a lifelike manner; and produce on request a thorough analysis of their motives and intentions . . . The novelist is still a god, since he creates (and not even the most aleatory avant-garde modern novel has managed to extirpate its author completely); 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 principle, not authority.

Although Fowles mentions the leaders of the nouveau roman, his antipathy to their style-consciousness is well known. And his return to Victorian narrative is partly a mockery of their transmitting novels almost entirely through sensory perceptions of their characters. As if to emphasize that the modern novelist does exist in his fiction, Fowles returns unreservedly to the previous century's intrusiveness—editorializing, footnoting, quoting prose and poetry at will, taking every license of omnisience, even surpassing Trollope by writing himself into the plot, complete with physical description.

Nonetheless, in his jarring thirteenth chapter, Fowles also preserves his own theological image of god-novelist by rejecting omnipotence and refusing to trespass upon Sarah's inner mind: "There is only one good definition of God: the freedom that allows other freedoms to exist. And I must conform to that definition." Fowles could have chosen not to conform to that image; his refusing to do so betrays the seriousness behind his irony. In The Aristos, he presents the same theology: that "god" is a situation rather than a power, being, or influence—and that man's freedom proves the situation's sympathy despite its general indifference to the individual: "Freedom of will is the highest human good; and it is impossible to have both that freedom and an intervening divinity."

One reason The French Lieutenant's Woman succeeds is Fowles's using the old omniscient and intrusive point of view with such grand style. Having established theoretical freedom of his characters, Fowles proceeds to assume the older technique with boldness which uses its best qualities. The result is so pleasant as to cast doubt upon some of today's avant-garde techniques. The current aversion to authorial involvement, especially as seen in the nouveau roman, has so limited narrative technique that such critics as Wayne C. Booth and Norman Friedman question its validity and defend advantages of omniscient narrative. Today's proponents of authorial detachment defend their principles in the name of artistic illusion, as if the reader is supposed to forget he is holding a book, which someone must have written. Fowles, using the intrusive method unavailable to them, anticipates their criticism of his old-fashioned approach; his narrator discusses his own technique.

In chapter 13, Fowles drops his own fictional pretense: "This story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind. If I have pretended until now to know my characters' minds and innermost thoughts, it is because I am writing in (just as I have assumed some of the vocabulary and 'voice' of) a convention universally accepted at the time of my story: that the novelist stands next to God. He may not know all, yet he tries to pretend that he does." By exposing his own mechanism, Fowles defies both Victorian preoccupation with the illusion of omniscience and contemporary fixation upon the illusion of detachment.

Bradford Booth defends the Victorian intrusive author on the basis of nineteenth-century reality: "It is charged that he does not maintain a consistent point of view. What matter, if his characters live? It is charged that he sees human nature only from the outside. What matter, if his view be not distorted?" Fowles defends his simultaneous breach of Victorian omniscience and twentieth-century detachment with contemporary philosophy nearer, for example, Joyce's:

I have disgracefully broken the illusion? No. My characters still exist, and in a reality no less, or no more, real than the one I have just broken. Fiction is woven into all, as a Greek observed some two and a half thousand years ago. I find this new reality (or unreality) more valid; and I would have you share my own sense that I do not fully control these creatures of my mind, any more than you control—however hard you try . . . your children, colleagues, friends, or even yourself.

In essence, Fowles presents a reality akin to such as that of Joyce and Durrell, whose artist characters create their own existence. He says of himself and his fellow novelists, "We wish to create worlds as real as, but other than the world that is. Or was." With modern aesthetic reality entirely different from the Victorian kind, Fowles can flout both the nineteenth-century author's pretense to all knowledge and the contemporary one's obsession with impersonal narration.

Fowles is not the first novelist to dispel his own illusion. There are two particularly notable Victorian precedents. A near parallel to his fiction-shattering chapter 13 is Trollope's conclusion to the fifteenth chapter of Barchester Towers: "But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here, perhaps, it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales . . . [T]he author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other. Let the personages of the drama undergo ever so complete a comedy of errors among themselves." Perhaps the classic breach of illusion in the Victorian novel is the one George Eliot commits in her seventeenth chapter to Adam Bede, entitled "In Which the Story Pauses a Little":

"This Rector of Broxton is little better than a pagan!" I hear one of my readers exclaim. "How much more edifying it would have been if you had made him give Arthur some truly spiritual advice. You might have put into his mouth the most beautiful things—quite as good as reading a sermon." Certainly I could, if I held it the highest vocation of the novelist to represent things as they never have been and never will be. Then, of course, I might refashion life and character entirely after my own liking.

Eliot, like Fowles, devotes her entire chapter to this extended aside. And also like Fowles, she pleads for truth in portraying characters. That argument for reality is one reason Fowles insists that his characters are free. In addition to establishing a metaphor for his theology, he is explaining that he cannot violate today's informed ideas of human behavior. But the characters of Trollope, who has, perhaps, "disgracefully broken the illusion," are not free in the same sense of realistic probability. In contrast to Fowles, Trollope gains the reader's confidence at the expense of his characters. By conferring metaphorical freedom upon his characters, Fowles gives the opposite impression—seeming to protect his characters from the reader. Earlier parallels to Fowles's declaration of character independence are not unheard of; Fielding, two centuries earlier, protests in Tom Jones that he is obliged to divulge certain information himself because he cannot prevail upon any of his characters to speak. To Fielding, the characters are "actors," and unmistakably his; their taciturnity is only the author's whimsical humor.

Fowles's often playful intrusions are sometimes as near to devices of Fielding and Sterne as to techniques used by their Victorian successors, but his personal appearance in the novel is more extreme than most inventions of either century. In older traditions, the author sometimes steps into the presence of his reader, but Fowles keeps the reader at some distance and actually joins his characters. Fielding climbs into a coach with the reader of Tom Jones, and Dickens yanks the reader of The Old Curiosity Shop away by the hand on a cross-country trip, but neither ever barges into a character's railway compartment.

However much Fowles's showmanship may resemble his capriciously introducing the film of The Magus or Hitchcock's popping up in his own cinema, a seriousness underlies this novel's wit and humor. Fowles uses his unconventional techniques purposefully as well as effectively: both his intrusions and his self-limited omniscience are essential to his themes and plot.

By establishing himself candidly as a twentieth-century novelist writing of the preceding century, Fowles assumes the unique vantage point to command the necessary historical view. The narrator needs such perspective to understand Charles's confronting evolution's particular segment which made the twentieth century what it is. Omniscience enables Fowles's narrator to step into pre-1867 past as well as into twentieth-century present and to summarize extensive plot material with economy. And the reader must consider the narrator qualified to make the judgments he proposes and to depict reliably the events, people, and places he describes. The omniscient viewpoint further enables Fowles to expose various characters' thoughts without elaborate technical ruses. Omniscience would not have been the only way to do so, but it effectively gives the reader insight to such internal feelings as Charles's misgivings about involvement with Sarah, Ernestina's longings and sexual inhibitions, Sam's class-conscious resentments and schemes, and Mrs. Poulteney's rivalry for a first-class seat in Paradise. Such mental processes could have been revealed through an objective omniscience which exposed without comment. But Fowles's editorial interpretations make possible his Victorian irony, an important part of the book's humor. This point of view is also the simplest way to accomplish the job of narration—just as the easiest way to solve problems and know reality is to believe in the Victorian God, another irony in Fowles's technique.

Interpolating essay material serves the same kind of double purpose, making the plot believable while widening the reader's perspective. Sometimes the essay comprises an entire chapter, in the manner of Fielding and George Eliot. Chapter 35, an essay on lower-class sexual freedom and the problem of incest in Thomas Hardy's life, informs the reader and removes all doubt about why Sam and Mary appear together at the hay barn. The history of the gentleman, interpolated within the thirty-seventh chapter, also informs the reader historically, while explaining Charles's antipathy to Mr. Freeman's offer of a mercantile career.

Fowles exults in all available Victorian devices to link the epochs and show history's horizontality: brief authorial comments, footnotes, essay materials, and epigraphs foreshadowing the chapters they precede. By using these conventions as a Victorian novelist might have, he forcefully connects past and present. To heighten suspense, he abruptly shifts scene, once leaving Charles peering over a barn partition for an entire chapter. Except in Sarah's case, he reveals character through direct narration. He sprinkles his text with documents, stories-within-stories, and personal letters: the Freeman attorneys' legal paper, Grogan's case histories, Ernestina's sentimental novel, the eighteenth-century account of a London brothel, and written correspondence between Charles and other characters—to mention several. The narrator's intrusions often control the reader's sympathy for characters: the term "catatonia of convention" increases one's distance from the jilted Tina; and the comment on Charles's first poem, "to get the taste of that from your mouth," moves the focus away from his character's aching heart. Fowles's sometimes clinically probing his characters' minds is another way of keeping the reader's sympathy at proper distance.

But Sarah is the novel's one thoroughly modern character, and Fowles strengthens her contemporary quality, along with her mystery, by making her the only one whose mind he will not enter. In the Darwinian sense, she is the cultural "missing link" between the centuries—more modern than Victorian. By voluntarily limiting his Victorian omniscience in her case alone, Fowles adds another dimension to the evolution theme. His other restriction of Victorian narrative technique—his demurral over authorial omnipotence—further links by showing the evolution of the novelist's role, especially as it applies to man's evolving concept of a god. The narrator's appearing as character and the reader's choosing between multiple endings emphasize concepts of literary, theological, and social evolution.

V The Novelist as Character

The novelist enters his book in three appearances—first like an owl who becomes human beneath Sarah's window. And he gives the novel three endings—the first of which damns Charles to a lifetime of reading that maddening verse Ernestina has stitched on his watch pocket, then more justly, plummets Mrs. Poulteney into Tartarus. But that tongue-in-cheek denouement is only how Charles dreams things might have turned out, with each winding of his watch reminding him indeed of love: the love he had missed. The last two endings—one Victorian, the other contemporary—are the ones which determine the book's final impact, just as do the narrator's diverse personae on his two more blatant trips into the novel.

When the narrator first intrudes upon Charles's railway compartment, he is incognito as the archetypal Victorian novelist. Like Thackeray, he is "prophet-bearded," the bullying "tabernacle" preacher, his top hat squared, "aggressively secure," with the look of an omnipotent god—"if there were such an absurd thing"—who wonders of his character, "Now could I use you? Now what could I do with you?" But his habit and demeanor are only a disguise; he is still the contemporary novelist, who is really wondering what the devil he is to do with Charles in a novel whose Victorian conventions forbid an open, inconclusive, ending and whose contemporary views preclude "fixing the fight." Having vowed to take neither Charles's nor Sarah's side, he decides upon two endings to their story and is caught tossing a florin to determine which will be the last, and therefore the more powerful.

When the narrator at last reappears to effect that final ending, his new disguise clarifies why the toss has gone to the contemporary, open, ending. No longer done up as the preaching, Victorian, omnipotent-god novelist, he is now the successful novelist-impresario (notorious "fixers" of their dramatic enterprises, despite their respectable pose). He, "as he would put it, has got himself in as he really is. I shall not labor the implication that he was previously got in as he really wasn't." Now he has "an almost proprietary air," dandified clothes, a "foppish and Frenchified" beard, the look of a "tycoon." Contrary to protests of nouveau roman stylists, the modern novelist is no less in control of his own fiction than the Victorian who acknowledged his omniscience: "In this he has not changed: he very evidently regards the world as his to possess and use as he likes." As the contemporary novelist carried grandly into his unique, part-Victorian novel, the dandified narrator is making his point about the evolution of both theology and literary technique: the Victorian novelist, in the context of Victorian reality, could assume the omniscience which his age attributed to God; but the contemporary novelist, in the context of twentieth-century reality, must maintain the illusion of nonintervention, in this age which no longer believes in a controlling deity. But both Victorian and modern authors have always controlled their own fiction, as Fowles's contemporary impresario-novelist demonstrates. Although he refuses the role of intervening god, he accepts the role of novelist with all of its dramatic manipulations. The Victorian novelist might have tossed a coin, but the contemporary writer can control his novel's time. And this one does—thus giving the existential perspective on events which themselves cannot be controlled, i.e., changed. It is his florin (a two-headed one, perhaps) which has determined the final ending; now it is his watch (a Breguet, the finest) which effaces the previous quarter hour to make way for that final and contemporary ending.

VI The Endings: Victorian and Modern

From its ancient beginnings in magic, then religious, ritual and drama, fiction was characterized by closed endings: victories, sacred marriages, births, and deaths. If the hero lost, his defeat grew out of some tragic flaw—some misunderstanding with the gods which alienated their affections. If he won, his victory came from the gods as a reward for his virtue. For centuries, fiction's closed endings assured the accomplishment of divine justice—however miraculous and improbable the deus ex machina necessary to bring it about. Even well into the Victorian Age, the novel's closed ending remained a function of divine intervention—although often, at this stage, a sort of secularized version in which the hero was rewarded with the girl and the wealth. However materialistically, the novelist-god gave the protagonist justice—at least until Dickens dropped Stephen Blackpool down a mineshaft and Hardy's heroes began to suffer from their author's deterministic views.

Except for such writers as Hardy and the later Dickens, the novelist in the epoch of the decreeing Victorian god had no qualms about intervening in his story to effect the closed ending of his choice. And to make his ending happen, the novelist frequently relied upon the most improbable of coincidences. Infants abandoned in railway stations miraculously reappeared years later to claim inheritances; long-lost relatives were reunited across continents and oceans; and heroes were catapulted from poverty to wealth by convergences of the most unlikely circumstances. Although today's novel usually shuns even the barely coincidental, the Victorian novel's closed endings often defied all natural law and mathematical probability. And Lalage, the child whose birth to Charles and Sarah provides the denouement for the first, the closed, ending, is one of those improbable Victorian devices. Lalage is the conventional deus ex machina—or more accurately dea ex uno coito—whose birth is believable enough in a Victorian context. But the modern reader who knows his physiology would, however willing, require a block-and-tackle to suspend disbelief. Although it is certainly possible that Sarah might have conceived from a single union, the odds against that eventuality are better than five-to-one, even under the best of conditions. The conditions, however, are not optimum. The brief consummation of Charles and Sarah may be literature's definitive premature climax: its ninety seconds include not only Charles's feverish undressing but also his travel time—for two-and-a-half round trips between sitting room and bedroom. Charles attributes the happy ending to "God's hands." And rightly so, since biological probability weighs against Lalage's birth, which might have been prevented by variations in ovulation, spermatogenesis, sperm motility, and other factors—not the least of which is genetic mutation, the evolutionary process mentioned in the final chapter's first epigram: "Evolution is simply the process by which chance ['hazard,' in British usage] (the random mutations in the nucleic acid helix caused by natural radiation [gamma-ray particles]) cooperates with natural law to create living forms better and better adapted to survive."

Fowles instructs the reader, "But what you must not think is that this is a less plausible ending to their story. For I have returned, albeit deviously, to my original principle: that there is no intervening god beyond whatever can be seen, in that way, in the first epigraph to this chapter; thus only life as we have, within our hazard-given abilities, made it ourselves, life as Marx defined it—the actions of men (and of women) in pursuit of their ends."

Not only is this final ending not less plausible, it is by far the more probable—biologically, as well as psychologically. For, in protesting that his impresario-novelist is "as minimal, in fact, as a gamma-ray particle," Fowles links him to the Gardner epigraph and shows him to intervene as chance, hazard—natural radiation, the evolutionary agent which might have inhibited Lalage's birth.

The final ending is thus true to Fowles's biological view. But it is also true to his sense of mystery, for even biology cannot explain it completely. Even in this final ending, there is an unidentified child. Lalage, perhaps? We shall never know.

But this thoroughly contemporary final ending is the one supported by the vast thematic network which has woven into the novel the concepts of man's isolation and his survival through the centuries by evolving. Finally, even the reader himself must choose whether to evolve: if he takes the final ending, he has chosen evolution. But if the accepts the happy ending, he must accept along with it its Victorian intervening God, its biological and psychological improbability, its heavy-handed rendering, and its wretched musica1 accompaniment—the "untalented lady" attempting a Chopin mazurka.

Source: Robert Huffaker, "The French Lieutenant's Woman," in John Fowles, Twayne Publishers, 1980, pp. 98–108.


Fowles, John, The Aristos: A Self-Portrait in Ideas, Little Brown, 1964.

—, The French Lieutenant's Woman, Signet, 1970.

Huffaker, Robert, "Chapter 4: The French Lieutenant's Woman," in John Fowles, Twayne's English Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall, 1999; originally published as Twayne's English Author Series, No. 292, Twayne Publishers, 1980.

Pifer, Ellen, "John Fowles," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 14, British Novelists Since 1960, edited by Jay L. Halio, Gale Research, 1983, pp. 309–36.

Review of The French Lieutenant's Woman, in Life, May 29, 1970, p. 55.

Review of The French Lieutenant's Woman, in New York Times, November 10, 1969.

Watt, Ian, Review of The French Lieutenant's Woman, in the New York Times Book Review, November 9, 1969, pp. 1–2.

Further Reading

Brantlinger, Patrick, Ian Adams, and Sheldon Rothblatt, "The French Lieutenant's Woman: A Discussion," in Victorian Studies, Vol. 15, March 1972, pp. 339–56.

In their discussion of the novel, the authors conclude that all the endings suggest Charles is "left between Victorian repression and modern freedom, having lost Ernestina but not clearly having gained Sarah."

Olshen, Barry N., John Fowles, Frederick Ungar, 1978.

In his section on the narrative structure of the novel, Olshen rejects the first ending as "traditional, romantic wish fulfillment."

Palmer, William, The Fiction of John Fowles: Tradition, Art, and the Loneliness of Selfhood, University of Missouri Press, 1974.

In an examination of the novel's endings, Palmer suggests that the introduction of the child is "an anti-existentialist resolution that runs against the grain of Fowles's intentions as expressed in his own voice within this very novel."

Rankin, Elizabeth D., "Cryptic Coloration in The French Lieutenant's Woman," in Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 3, September 1974, pp. 193–207.

Rankin argues that the first ending should be seen as an "imperfect stage in the evolution of an existentialist," and so the second ending should be considered the novel's true conclusion.

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