A masterful postmodern plot set in the repressive backdrop of the Victorian era is what a reader will get in John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The convoluted contrivance is amply justified by introduction of existentialism and a truly inventive multiple endings by which the author leaves a huge scope of interpretation for the readers and critics. This treatise will attempt to give an explanation to such an ending and its effect on the readers. The key literary element in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, barring the multiple endings, is the characterization.
John Fowles digs deep into the mind of the characters to unravel mysteries, confusions and intrigues, and lets the readers ponder over the outcome of the story. Charles Smithson, an amateur paleontologist and a wealthy Victorian gentleman, is the male protagonist of the novel. The most intriguing and multi-layered character, however, is Sarah Woodruff – an inscrutable face of womanhood, who bears the name ‘Tragedy’ because she is cast out by the society for supposedly having an affair with a French sailor. The third character is Charles’ fiancee Ernestina Freeman – a pretty, coy and intelligent Victorian lady.
The author himself introduces him as the fourth character and almost like a voyeur. Quite curiously, the narrative structure of the novel remains ambiguous throughout the story as the readers are kept guessing about who is actually telling the story. Innovative illusionary techniques have been deployed to move back and forth in time of events, and to hide the true identity of the story-teller. The most effective literary device that has been used in The French Lieutenant’s Woman is the multiple endings. While the novel begins with a primarily sentimental Victorian approach, the reading becomes fascinating as the plot unfolds.
The liaison between Charles and Sarah is a typical Victorian art of storytelling in which the theme of ‘love triangles’ is a predominant one. The characters play a secondary role to the narrative in Victorian style of writing. But as the inferior motives of the characters become apparent with the turn of events, the readers’ minds are illumined with postmodern narrative methods. Readers are engaged as an active part of the story, and thus the postmodern narrative techniques provide a framework for a magnificent story of passion, class distinction and human kind’s struggle for freedom.
(The French Lieutenant’s Woman Summary / Study Guide, 2009) Traces of existentialism are evident in the penultimate hour of the novel where an anonymous character appears in the midst of events (presumably the author himself) and turns back his watch (again, a hint of moving back and forth in time). According to many critics, John Fowles deliberately makes three plausible endings because he lets himself get lost in the complexities of thought processes which are reflected in the characters, especially in Sarah. The existentialist philosophies of Jean Paul Sartre are entwined with Victorian morals and traditions.
The Godlike image of Charles is shattered in the end as he experiences an ethical ‘fall’ when he gets smitten by Sarah (chapter 48). His dilemma and conscience makes him feel miserable for what he thinks has happened to him due to no wrongdoing of his own. If we revert back to the existentialist philosophies of Sartre, we’ll find that human beings are responsible for their lives. There is no God involved for what happens to us. Again, the introduction of an eccentric character like Dr. Grogan (chapter19) acts as a potent literary tool to unmask the social pretences of the Victorian era.
His observations of Sarah open up a newer horizon in terms of sensibility and pragmatism. The apparent banalities in Sarah’s verbal tone expose her sexual repression which was so characteristics of upper class women in the Victorian times. Dr. Grogan also warns Charles of the hysteric traits Sarah possesses. Fowles masterfully blends these Victorianisms with postmodern complexities when we know that Sarah is fully aware of her cognition and thus, quite pitiably, has laid herself open to self-punishment for her actions (chapter 20 & 21).
(The French Lieutenant’s Woman, 2000) As mentioned earlier, the main factor that leads the author to conclude the novel with three probable endings is his own confusion. It is also suggested that he is overpowered by the intensity of passion expressed for each other by Sarah and Charles, and at the same time he cannot deny Ernestine’s emotion of feeling betrayed and rejected by Charles. So the second reason behind such an unconventional ending may be Fowles’ humility as an author who leaves it to the readers to choose which ending conforms to their own liking.
However, the other ending, and perhaps the one with existential notions of life and uncertainties about the future (refer to Charles’ note to Sarah and Sam’s interception of it) compels the readers to ask questions and make assumptions about Sarah’s true nature. Is she a deceitful, lying woman who manipulated Charles for her own interest? The appearance of a mysterious bearded character, who rolls back the time strikes a shocking punch to our preconceived notions of a happy Victorian ending.
In a nutshell, The French Lieutenant’s Woman deals with a less conspicuous theme expressed in a strongly satirical yet somber approach (Sauder, 1997 – 1999). The prevalent social dogmas and sexual repression are brought out with the sensitivity of a modern day philosopher. The novel is in fact a welcome digression from the literature of the Victorian era that proclaimed it to be pure and ideal. The fact that social changes also brought about moral changes is pinpointed by the twists and revelations in the plot.
The character analysis goes deeper into psychological aberrations that are so typical of an alienated postmodern society.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman Summary / Study Guide. (2009). Retrieved February 7, 2009, from http://www. enotes. com/french-woman/ Fowles, John. (2000). The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Retrieved February 7, 2009, from http://www. litnotes. co. uk/french_lieutenants_woman. htm Sauder, Diane. (1997 – 1999). The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles 1969. Retrieved February 7, 2009, from http://lib. store. yahoo. net/lib/monkeynote/pmFrenchWomanSample. pdf