The French Lieutenant’s Woman
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467
While in Lyme Regis to visit his fiancee, Ernestina Freeman, Charles Smithson, a 32-year-old paleontologist, becomes fascinated by the mysterious Sarah Woodruff. A fallen woman said to have been jilted by a French officer, Sarah is a pariah to the well-bred society that Charles and Ernestina are a part of. While searching for fossils in a wooded coastal area, Charles encounters Sarah alone, and his curiosity and pity for her soon evolve into other emotions.
It is not clear who seduces whom, but when another opportunity presents itself, Charles embraces Sarah passionately. Shortly thereafter, Sarah disappears, having been dismissed from domestic employment by the tyrannical do-gooder Mrs. Poultenay. Charles finds her in a room in Exeter, where he declares and demonstrates his love.
Inspired by his image of Sarah as a valiant rebel against Victorian conventions, Charles rejects the constricting, respectable life Ernestina represents for him. He breaks off their engagement and is harassed with legal action for breach of contract. Meanwhile, Sarah vanishes again, and Charles spends 20 months scouring the world for her, finally tracing her to the lodgings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in London.
Consistent with the author’s playful intrusions throughout the novel, Fowles provides three possible conclusions to his story. He is intent on celebrating his characters’ independence of the oppressive institutions of Victorian society, but he also concedes them freedom from their author, refusing to restrict them to any single plot he invents.
Through his wealth of literary allusions, digressions on 19th century England, and mocking anachronisms, Fowles also liberates his reader from imprisonment within either of two eras and within the author’s own literary contrivance. When he shows himself sharing a railway compartment with one of his characters, Fowles flaunts the emancipated imagination. Even while borrowing its themes and techniques, he ridicules the limitations of the 19th century novel.
Conradi, Peter. John Fowles. New York: Methuen, 1982. A general introduction to Fowles’s fiction. Brief discussion of the novel’s technique and themes.
Huffaker, Robert. John Fowles. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A general introduction to Fowles’s fiction. Focuses on the intrusive author, the novelist as character, and the alternative Victorian and modern endings of the book.
Olshen, Barry N. John Fowles. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. An introduction to Fowles’s fiction, focusing on the basic themes in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, including that of the breakup of Victorian culture and the rise of existential modernism.
Palmer, William. The Fiction of John Fowles: Tradition, Art, and the Loneliness of Selfhood. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1974. Brief discussion of Fowles’s fiction, focusing on technique and the novel tradition.
Wolfe, Peter. John Fowles: Magus and Moralist. Cranbury, N.J.: Bucknell University Press, 1976. Provides a useful summary of the critical reception of the book and discusses how the mystery of Sarah is crucial.