The French Lieutenant's Woman Critical Evaluation
by John Fowles

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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The French Lieutenant’s Woman became a best-selling novel both in England and America when it was first published. It was also the novel that made John Fowles’s work of interest to academic critics because of its experimentation with narrative structure and style. The book is not only a historical novel, it is also a self-reflexive work about the Victorian novel, on which it is patterned. Although the primary action focuses on a triangle love relationship taking place in 1867, it is clear from the beginning that the narrator of the novel is a twentieth century man familiar with the conventions of the late nineteenth century novel genre as well as the cultural and intellectual changes that have taken place in the one hundred years between 1867 and 1967, when Fowles began writing the novel. Exploiting this historical perspective, the narrator, who places himself within the novel’s action, parodies the conventions of the Victorian novel and creates a tension between the past and the present as well as between the nature of reality and the nature of fiction.

Much of the importance of this novel depends on its parody and play with novelistic conventions, including the many asides in which the narrator interferes with and comments on the action. A plot summary of the novel’s nineteenth century story does not truly reflect its multilayered structure and sophisticated point of view. Not only does the narrator refer to the action from the perspective of having known such twentieth century figures as Sigmund Freud, Adolf Hitler, and Marshall McLuhan, he purposely places himself—a twentieth century man—within the story as an observer-voyeur, beginning with the first chapter, when he appears as a spy, looking through a telescope at Charles and Ernestina walking on the quay, and continuing to the last chapter when he sets his watch back fifteen minutes and creates an alternate ending to the novel, so that the book ends both conventionally and unconventionally. At one point in the novel, he even justifies his breaking of the illusion of reality by reminding readers that reality is not so real as they think; they do not even believe that their own past is quite real, he says, for it is dressed up, censored, fictionalized, and put away on a shelf. He concludes that the basic definition of human beings is that they are all in flight from reality.

In addition to the two alternate endings in the last two chapters, the novel also has a third possible ending that occurs in chapter 44, more than a hundred pages before the actual conclusion of the book. In this first ending, Charles does not go to Sarah’s hotel and end up in her bed. Instead, he goes back to Ernestina and they get married and Charles never hears of Sarah again. The narrator says that although this may be a very traditional ending, it is not what “really” happened, only what Charles imagines happened. Indeed, this first ending is the most conventional ending, satisfying all the Victorian expectations of morality and social responsibility.

The central figure in The French Lieutenant’s Woman is the mysterious Sarah, although Charles is the character caught in a moral, ethical, and social conflict. The basic question the narrator poses about Sarah is: “Who is Sarah? Out of what shadows does she come?” He says Charles is attracted to her not for herself, but for some emotion or some possibility that she symbolizes, that Sarah is more like a figure from myth than from actuality. Sarah is a symbol of the kind of woman who was not allowed to exist in...

(The entire section is 909 words.)