The French Lieutenant's Woman

by John Fowles

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What symbolism is used in The French Lieutenant's Woman?

Quick answer:

Sarah Woodruff herself is a symbol in this novel. The way that her character is presented draws Charles Smithson to her and makes him aware of the fact that he longs for something more in his own life.

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One example of symbolism in this fascinating novel is the way that Sarah Woodruff herself functions as a symbol, a symbol that powerfully attracts and intrigues Charles Smithson and draws him towards her, inspite of her pariah status in the society that he is so much a part of. Note how Charles himself explicitly draws the reader's attention to this symbolic status that Sarah Woodruff has in the novel:

He said it to himself: It is the stupidest thing, but that girl attracts me. It seemed clear to him that it was not Sarah in herself who attracted him--how could she, he was betrothed--but some emotion, some possibility she symbolized. She made him aware of a deprivation.

Sarah, in her mystery, strangeness and defiance of social conventions, symbolises what is forbidden to Charles. This symbolism of course works on many levels. Not only does it include physical lust and desire, but it also encompasses what Charles comes to realise as a deep, unsatisfied yearning for freedom that he comes to understand springs up deep within him. Sarah, in short, symbolises everything that Charles does not have in his socially restricted and acceptable life.

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