Charles Smithson’s rather ordinary name is appropriate to his portrayal as a conventional Victorian gentleman who, because of his encounter with Sarah, undergoes a radical transformation. As an amateur paleontologist and an advocate of Charles Darwin’s new theories, Charles is a bit of a freethinker, but only in the socially sanctioned manner of his feckless mentor, old Dr. Grogan. When Charles does genuinely challenge the codes of his place, time, and class by courageously embracing the outcast Sarah, he is ostracized and dispossessed.
Sarah Woodruff is less a fully developed character than an absence onto which Charles and others project their fears and fantasies of the feminine. Her name suggests the kind of wildness, the passionate self-assertions, that Victorian repression was not entirely successful in subduing. She is a vivid counterpoint to Ernestina Freeman, whose last name mocks the respectable young woman’s conformity to her community’s dour attitudes. Yet the character who most embodies the sense of late nineteenth century England’s social constraints, its embodiment of duty and guilt, is Mrs. Poulteney, a hypocritical despot who, in a public display of charity, lets the homeless Sarah live with her but then will not let her live.
John Fowles, however, is less interested in fully rounded characterizations than in providing through these people a sense of the past and in developing his themes of human servitude. He is also intent on challenging novelistic conventions of realistic characterization and on championing the freedom of characters from their authors as much as the freedom of individuals from social custom. To that end, he is forever intruding into his narrative in such a way as to remind the reader that these are, after all, fictional creations. Fowles himself even appears briefly within the story, mingling with his characters in such a way as to confound ordinary distinctions between author and artifice.