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.
Charles Smithson, the protagonist, thirty-two years old in 1867, an amateur paleontologist and a gentleman of leisure. He lives somewhat passively and complacently in the expectation of inheriting a baronetcy from his uncle and marrying the daughter of a rich middle-class businessman. He unexpectedly falls in love with the mysterious Sarah and has an affair with her that jars him out of his conventionalized view of the world. He breaks off with Ernestina, who sues him for breach of promise and ruins his reputation, only to find that Sarah has disappeared by the time he returns to their meeting place. After searching fruitlessly for several years, he finds her, at which point the novel offers two different endings. In the first, she introduces him to the daughter conceived at the time of their one sexual encounter; the implication seems to be that they will have a future together. In the second, they part after a bitter argument that convinces Charles that he had been manipulated from the start and that she had never really loved him.
Sarah Woodruff, the mysterious and melancholy “French lieutenant’s woman,” about twenty-five years old, who becomes Charles’s obsession. Born into a farming family of modest means, she nevertheless had obtained a sufficient education to make her living as a governess but is now a social outcast because of the affair she is supposed to have had with a French officer. In fact, she did not have an affair and is still a virgin but allows the rumors about her to persist for reasons that are never fully made clear to the reader. The narrator’s pretended inability to read her mind (he is “omniscient” with regard to all the other characters in the novel) makes it impossible for the reader to determine whether she was genuinely in love with Charles and forced apart from him by circumstances, or simply using him in some way. The novel’s multiple endings support both hypotheses.
Ernestina Freeman, Charles’s fiancée, who...
(The entire section is 2,186 words.)