The French Lieutenant's Woman Themes
by John Fowles

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The possessive in its title points to the theme of emancipation that pervades The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Fowles has fashioned a richly detailed evocation of a particular time and place that happen to precede the period in which he was writing by exactly one hundred years. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is not only a historical novel, providing a convincing excursion back into mid-Victorian England, but also a novel very much about history, about the relationship of the individual to the forces of a particular time and of time.

In providing a confrontation between 1967 and 1867, two moments he portrays as possessed by remarkably similar preoccupations, Fowles is intent on providing a double liberation: from the claustrophobic confines of his fictive 1867 and from what he sees as the parochialism of 1967. Most of The French Lieutenant’s Woman is deliberately set in the Wessex area that Thomas Hardy used a century earlier in naturalistic novels portraying the individual as a helpless victim of vast, indifferent forces. Fowles’s novel is a throwback to earlier literary styles in its chattiness and in its fatalistic mechanisms. As a pseudo-Victorian novel written in 1967, it seeks to transcend the residual tyranny of Victorianism.

As omniscient, and irreverent, narrator, Fowles flaunts his independence of space and time, his ability to move freely back and forth through history and into and out of the fictional world. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is filled with footnotes, epigraphs, and authorial commentaries that make the work seem almost as much a treatise as a narrative. At one point, the author expresses a desire to introduce a baby carriage into his story, though he admits that they were not to be invented for another decade. A profusion of self-conscious anachronisms as well as references to twentieth century figures such as Henry Moore, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marshall McLuhan, and JeanPaul Sartre defy historical sequence and assert the kind of freedom, for the author and for his readers, that is sadly lacking for the characters imprisoned in the novel’s Victorian world.

Its playful movements into and out of particular contexts prevent the novel’s readers from being stranded in either 1867 or 1967. Its imagination sets readers free, not only of the social constraints of a particular era, but also, through the novel’s mockery of its own fictional devices, of the conventions of literature. The French Lieutenant’s Woman remains open-ended. “It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live,” proclaims the author, who delights in the possibility that he will lose control of his own fictional creation. The novel’s final words leave Charles by himself, to contend on his own with “the river of life.” The rivers that Fowles celebrates are not frozen. Declaring war on stasis, The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a moving experience in its allegiance to movement, in and out of fixed points in time and in and out of the illusions of fiction.


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

To be free, Charles Smithson must break out of the mold of conventional society, a society in which he is well placed and well born, break his engagement to Ernestina Freeman, and suffer the consequences of freedom of choice. The year is 1867, a pivotal year in Victorian history, in which society was at its most restrictive and yet new ideas were bubbling to the surface from Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and others.

Charles, priding himself on his skill as an amateur archeologist, must become an explorer of himself. The fossil echinoderms he collects represent his fate, trapped in the tidewaters of Victorianism, if he does not break free to the "unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea" of freedom. This theme of the quest for self-knowledge, the knowledge of one's lack of freedom, and the desire to choose freely so as to be a whole person, imbues all of Fowles's fiction.


(Novels for Students)

Social Constraints
Each character in the novel is constrained in some way by Victorian society....

(The entire section is 1,155 words.)