The French Lieutenant's Woman Essays and Criticism
by John Fowles

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Critical Essay on The French Lieutenant's Woman

(Novels for Students)

Several scholars, including Barry Olshen and Elizabeth Rankin, have commented on the problem of the dual endings in John FowlesThe 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 antiexistentialist 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...

(The entire section is 17,915 words.)