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The French Lieutenant 39 s Woman

“The French Lieutenant's Woman”
by John Fowles
John Fowles
“Writing is the most difficult thing in the world and takes great courage.”
John Fowles was born on March 31, 1926, to middle-class parents living in a small
London suburb—died November 5, 2005, Lyme Regis, Dorset.
O Following the World War II , Fowles studied French and German at New College,
O He served as a lieutenant in the Royal Marines for two years, but World War II ended
before he could go into combat.
O He taught English at the University of Poiters and then to Spetsai, a Greek island,
where he taught at Anorgyrios College.
O His first published work, The Collector (1965), allowed him to retire with his wife and
her daughter to Lyme Regis in Dorset.
O In 1969 John wrote and published The French Lieutenant’s Woman followed by The Ebony
In 1978 and 1982, Fowles wrote some books that he came to release later on. Some of
the notable ones include The Tree, Island, The Enigma of Stonehenge and Mantissa.
Fowles had a keen interest in natural history, art, gardening, and local history.
The Book
•The French Lieutenant's Woman is a 1969 postmodern historical
fiction novel by John Fowles. It was his third published novel, after
The Collector (1963) and The Magus (1965). Of all John Fowles'
novels The French Lieutenant's Woman received the most universal
acclaim and today holds a very special place in the canon of post-war
English literature. From the god-like stance of the nineteenth-century
novelist that he both assumes and gently mocks, to the last detail of
dress, idiom and manners, his book is an immaculate recreation of
Victorian England. Not only is it the epic love story of two people of
insight and imagination seeking escape from the cant and tyranny of their
age, 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' is also a brilliantly sustained
allegory of the decline of the twentieth-century passion for freedom.
Set in the mid-nineteenth century, the narrator identifies the novel's protagonist as Sarah
Woodruff, the Woman of the title, also known as "Tragedy" and as "The French Lieutenant's
Whore". She lives in the coastal town of Lyme Regis as a disgraced woman, supposedly
abandoned by a French ship's officer named Varguennes who had returned to France and
married. She spends some of her limited free time on The Cobb, a stone jetty where she
stares out to sea.
One day, Charles Smithson, an orphaned gentleman, and Ernestina Freeman, his fiancée and a
daughter of a wealthy tradesman, see Sarah walking along the cliffside. Ernestina tells
Charles something of Sarah's story, and he becomes curious about her. Though continuing to
court Ernestina, Charles has several more encounters with Sarah, meeting her clandestinely
three times. During these meetings, Sarah tells Charles of her history, and asks for his
emotional and social support. During the same period, he learns of the possible loss of place
as heir to his elderly uncle, who has become engaged to a woman young enough to bear a
child. Meanwhile, Charles's servant Sam falls in love with Mary, the maid of Ernestina's
In fact, Charles has fallen in love with Sarah and advises her to leave Lyme for Exeter.
Returning from a journey to warn Ernestina's father about his uncertain inheritance, Charles
stops in Exeter as if to visit Sarah. From there, the narrator, who intervenes throughout
the novel and later becomes a character in it, offers three different ways in which the
novel could end.
Sarah Woodruff – the main protagonist according to the narrator. Formerly a governess, she becomes disgraced after an
illicit, but unconsummated, liaison with an injured French naval merchant.
Charles Smithson – the main male character. Though born into a family with close ties to nobility, Smithson does not possess
a title but has a sizable income and considerable education. Early in the novel he is described both as a casual naturalist and a
Ernestina Freeman – Smithson's fiancee and daughter to a London-based owner of department stores. Unlike Sarah, Ernestina's
temperament is much less complex, and much more simple-minded.
Sam Farrow – Charles's Hackney servant with aspirations to become a haberdasher. Throughout the novel, Sam becomes the
narrator's model for the working class peoples of Victorian Britain, comparing Sam's identity with Charles's ignorance of that
Dr Grogan – an Irish doctor in the town of Lyme Regis who both advises the various upperclass families in the town, and becomes an adviser to Charles.
Mr Freeman – the father of Ernestina, he earned his wealth as an owner of a drapery and
clothes sales chain of stores. He "represents the rising entrepreneurial class in England"
which stands in stark contrast to the old money which Smithson comes from.
Mrs Tranter – a prominent member of Lyme Regis society who is friends with Grogan and, as
her maternal aunt, hosts Ernestina during her stay.
Mrs Poulteney – a wealthy widow and, at the beginning of the novel, the employer of Sarah
Mary – stereotypical lower-class servant to Mrs Tranter and future wife to Sam Farrow.
Montague - Charles Smithson's family lawyer of a firm which has been around since the
eighteenth century. 2–3 years older than Charles, he helps his client in search of Sarah
towards the end of the novel.
Central Conflict
The major conflict of the novel could be categorized as man versus
himself, or man versus society. Charles, although he is engaged
to the pretty and rich Ernestina, finds himself fascinated by
Sarah, the "French Lieutenant's Whore." Several things are
preventing him from being with Sarah. For one, society would
frown upon such a match, and Charles is very acutely aware of
his 'Duty' to his family name and to his social class. Secondly,
Charles is already engaged, and he feels a strong sense of duty
toward the young woman whom he has promised to marry. Thirdly,
Charles will not admit to himself for the majority of the novel
that he is actually in love with Sarah, and it isn't until they
consummate their relationship in Chapters 46-47 that Charles
realizes the depth of his feeling for her.
The novel is written in the first person, although it attempts to make us believe that it is
written in the omniscient third. The narrator is not really a character in the action for
the majority of the novel, which allows him an objective third-person view - but he is a
minor character, as we see later in the story. Throughout the first fifty chapters or so,
the narrator makes himself a part of the story - the dramatic narratorial of Chapter 13
is an example of this, when he admits that "this story [he is] telling is all imagination"
(80). Our author admits to being the narrator, and continually reminds us that he is not
only narrating the story, he is also imagining it: he definitely doesn't try to hide the fact
that, as he says, "I am a novelist" (81). The narrator playfully inserts himself into the
text in other ways, as when testifies that he has bought the same jug that Sarah
purchases in Exeter, "a year or two ago for a good deal more than the three pennies
Sarah was charged" (220). In Chapter 55 and Chapter 61, the narrator appears as a
physical character in Charles' and Sarah's world - he is a minor character who plays the
important role of winding back his pocket watch by 15 minutes, to allow the second ending
to occur. This, of course, is a physical representation of what he is doing as the author
outside the bounds of the story, which is manipulating the narrative. The narratorial voice
is present throughout the novel, bursting through in certain places to remind us that the
narrator is the author, and that the story is a fiction.
Postmodern literature, romance novel, historical fiction, historiographic
metafiction, pastiche.
Part of the novel's reputation is based on its expression of postmodern
literary concerns through thematic focus on metafiction, historiography,
metahistory, Marxist criticism and feminism. Stylistically and
thematically, Linda Hutcheon describes the novel as an exemplar of a
particular postmodern genre: "historiographic metafiction." Because of
the contrast between the independent Sarah Woodruff and the more
stereotypical male characters, the novel often receives attention for its
treatment of gender issues. However, despite claims by Fowles that it is
a feminist novel, critics have debated whether it offers a sufficiently
transformative perspective on women.
As an amateur paleontologist, Charles spends much of his free time in Lyme searching
for fossils. On a basic level, fossils represent the past and the experiences of living
creatures throughout time.
They act as a record of every being’s struggle to survive and
thrive in spite of the forces stacked against them, which is
just what Charles deals with in this story.
Fossils also constitute much of the proof for Darwin’s theory of evolution,
which Charles often applies to his own life, feeling that he is part of a
select, “fit” group that contributes positively to the evolution of the human
race. In some sense, he sees himself as a superior, almost ideal product of the
fossils he seeks out. However, as the story goes on, Charles begins to
identify more with the fossils themselves, feeling that he’s a victim of the
machine of society and history, a helpless being who might as well already be
dead considering how little control he has over his destiny.
The Brooch
When Charles goes to London to speak to Mr. Freeman, he buys a brooch
that he intends to give to Ernestina.
In the first ending, he does just this, and the brooch acts as a symbol of their enduring
relationship. However, this ending is false. In reality, Charles sends the brooch to Sarah
with his letter telling her he’s going to break off his engagement to Ernestina. Thus, it
symbolizes his infidelity to Ernestina, as he’s giving a gift meant for her to someone else.
However, Sarah never receives the brooch. Instead, Sam keeps it and gives it to Mary. In
this context, the brooch represents the fact that their prosperity is based on deception that
has hurt others. In all of its appearances, then, the brooch acts as a symbol of deceit:
Charles’s deceit of himself, his deceit of Ernestina, and Sam’s deceit of Charles.
The crumbling cliffs of Lyme Bay
What the cliffs symbolize to Charles is the stately and
monumental nature of time, in which nature builds on top of what
exists to create huge edifices. He also sees the cliffs as
symbolizing "the survival of the fittest and best," a subset of
humans to which he feels he belongs.
Ware Commons
Much of Charles and Sarah's initial interactions take place on the wild Ware Commons,
which is used as a symbol of a world outside of the Victorian sphere of harsh morality and
prudery. Typically conservative characters like Mrs. Poulteney are aware of Ware
Commons' significance. Ware Commons symbolizes all the things that she would prefer not
to think about, like sex and crime and immorality.
There is no supervision of Ware Commons, and so
it is one of the only places in the novel that is
free from society's rules - it is likened to
"Sodom and Gomorrah" at one point, which
underscores the seedy sexual connotations the
place has for Lyme residents.
Major themes of Fowles’s writing
There are four major themes:
The contrast between the masculine and the feminine
2. The problem of the Few and the Many
3. The importance of freedom
4. Links to the existentialist philosophy
5. The domain
The first two themes are obviously of primary importance in any work of fiction, while the later
three themes belong to the personal style of Fowles (and some other existentialist fictions) and
not to fiction in general. More important is the fact that the male-female relationship lies at the
very core of the other primary themes in Fowles's fiction.
Major themes of the novel
One of the novel’s central themes is Darwin’s theory of evolution, in
several ways: firstly, it links Victorian era and modern times, being still
valid today. Secondly, it profoundly influences the novel’s characters,
particularly Sarah and Charles. Finally, it gives a deeper meaning to the
novel, as Fowles establishes Darwin’s ideas as correct and acceptable.
Charles firmly believes in Darwin’s ideas, and should thus be expected to
be able to recognize the challenges imposed on him in the course of the
novel, but the narrator informs the reader of Charles’ incapability to fully
understand Darwin
Victorian England in „The French
Lieutenant’s Woman“
Fowles often informs the reader about facts that
only a narrator of the twentieth century could have
known, e.g. when the narrator states that Ernestina
died on the day that the Nazis invaded Poland, or
when he pardons the Victorians for not obeying the
rules of existentialism, since that school of
philosophy had not yet come into existence.
Convention vs. Freedom
The Victorian era was a particularly
socially restrictive period, and one of the
main conflicts of this novel involves the
characters struggling against the social
conventions that keep them bound to certain
pathways in life. Charles and Sarah share
the goal of finding a way to live as they
wish in their society, and they constantly
fight against the restrictions they find
imposed on their free will.