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Structure, Style, and Technique in The French Lieutenant's Woman

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In The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles does not merely recreate a
Victorian novel; neither does he parody one. He does a little of both, but also much
more. The subject of this novel is essentially the same as that of his other works: the
relationship between life and art, the artist and his creation, and the isolation resulting
from an individual's struggle for selfhood. He works within the tradition of the Victorian
novel and consciously uses its conventions to serve his own design, all the while
carefully informing the reader exactly what he is doing. His style purposely combines a
flowing nineteenth-century prose style with an anachronistic twentieth-century
perspective.
Fowles is as concerned with the details of the setting as were his Victorian
counterparts. But he is also conscious that he is setting a scene and does not hesitate
to intrude into the narrative himself in order to show the reader how he manipulates
reality through his art. Like Dickens, Fowles uses dialogue to reveal the personalities of
his characters and often he will satirize them as well. For example, Charles' attitudes
toward Sarah and Ernestina are revealed in the way he talks to them. He is forever
uncomfortable with Sarah because she won't accept the way in which he categorizes
the world, including his view of her. Sarah's responses to the world around her, as seen
through her words and actions are consistent, for she is already aware of herself as an
individual who cannot be defined by conventional roles. However, Charles changes,
depending upon whom he talks to, because he really does not know who he is yet, and
he sees himself as playing a series of roles. With his fiance, he is indulgent and
paternal; with his servant Sam, he is patronizing and humorous at Sam's expense, and
with Sarah, he is stiff and uncomfortable. When he attempts to respond to Sarah's
honesty, he hears the hollowness of his own conventional responses.
Fowles does not recreate his Victorian world uncritically. He focuses on those
aspects of the Victorian era that would seem most alien to a modern reader. In
particular, he is concerned with Victorian attitudes towards women, economics,
science, and philosophy. In this romance, Fowles examines the problems of two socially
and economically oppressed groups in nineteenth-century England: the poverty of the
working and servant classes, and the economic and social entrapment of women.
While the plot traces a love story, or what seems to be a love story, the reader
questions what sort of love existed in a society where many marriages were based as
much on economics as on love. This story is thus not really a romance at all, for
Fowles' objective is not to unite his two protagonists, Sarah and Charles, but to show
what each human being must face in life in order to be able to grow.
While Fowles has titled his book The French Lieutenant's Woman, Sarah Woodruff is
not really the central character. She does not change greatly in the novel as it
progresses, for she has already arrived at an awareness that she must go beyond the
definition of her individuality that society has imposed upon her. Because her situation
was intolerable, she was forced to see through it and beyond it in order to find
meaning and some sort of happiness in her life. In the early chapters of the novel, she
perhaps makes one last effort to establish a life within the norms of Victorian society.

She chooses the role of the outcast, the "French lieutenant's whore," and also falls in
love with Charles or causes him to fall in love with her. But even as she draws Charles
away from his unquestioning acceptance of his life, she finds that she does not want to
be rescued from her plight. She has already rescued herself.
Charles, it seems, is the actual protagonist of this novel, for he must travel from
ignorance to understanding, by following the woman whom he thinks he is helping, but
who in fact is his mentor. He must discard each layer of the false Charles: Charles the
naturalist, Charles the gentleman, Charles the rake, and perhaps even Charles the
lover, in order to find Charles the human being.
Fowles has taken two traditional romantic characters, a young hero and a mysterious
woman, and has transformed them into human beings.
There is no French lieutenant to pine after, and Sarah's life is not a tragedy that echoes
her nickname in Lyme. Charles' gift of marriage is not a gift at all. While the novel could
have ended with the couple's reconciliation, as it might have had it been a traditional
romance, Fowles does not end it there. In the second ending, Sarah rejects the familiar
security that Charles offers and both are forced to go on alone. Fowles' novel echoes
the doubts raised by such novelists as Thomas Hardy, and by such poets as Matthew
Arnold and Alfred Lord Tennyson, about the solidity of the Victorian view of the world.
The world was changing and old standards no longer applied, though they lingered on
long after many had discarded them in their hearts. This theme that was approached by
writers in the nineteenth century is picked up again by Fowles and carried to a logical
conclusion. The novel is therefore actually a psychological study of an individual rather
than a romance. It is a novel of individual growth and the awareness of one's basic
isolation which accompanies that growth.
Fowles as Postmodernist/Existentialist
The postmodern tactics employed by
Fowles in The French Lieutenants Woman reveal his personal disdain for Victorian
England as well as his espousal of existentialism. A.A. DeVitis and William J. Palmer
explain that Fowles twentieth century perspective is looking back upon a period that is
dead; Fowles, unlike his characters, knows there is a world beyond the Victorian world.
This detached, informed perspective confers knowledge that there are possibilities other
than the ones offered within the confines of Victorian ideology.
This act of recounting a Victorian tale with a contemporary perspective gives the
narration a heightened consciousness. If an author was writing a Victorian novel while
living in the Victorian age, he or she would be more likely to accept implicitly the
practices and conventions of the time with an unquestioning certainty. While within the
parameters of a specific framework, it is difficult to displace oneself and objectively
consider the merit of that framework. In The French Lieutenants Woman, Fowles
projects his consciousness onto a period rife with dogmatism and unreflected beliefs.
From his vantage point, it is easier to see the shallow propriety of being a gentleman,
the hypocrisy of professing piety and then viciously judging others, and the oppressive,
unnatural views people held about sex. By reflexively narrating a story set in Victorian
England, and more specifically the provincial town of Lyme Regis, Fowles shows how
unexamined lives can have such non-existent foundations.
In the Victorian Age, the characters of a novel were particularly shaped by the
will of the author. Every event in the novel was ineluctableout of the myriad of
possibilities, whatever actually happened was regarded as the only possibility that could
have happened. The Victorian novelists, like the belief sets of the age they lived in,

operated from an unreflected position; the authority they accorded themselves allowed
no room for alternative possibilities. The conventional Victorian romance novel
frequently ended in marriage. After the marriage, it is implied that a state of perpetual
marital bliss ensues, and thus there is nothing left to narrate. Fowles subverts these
Victorian conventions by investing his characters with the freedom to make their own
decisions, allowing for the numerous possible conclusions explained in my introduction.
Fowles is careful not to contradict himself in his conviction that humans do not
have a preordained path which will reveal itself over time;
In post-modernist writing the accepted codes and conventions of the text genre are often
brought to the surface for re-examination by the author. This illumination of the creative
process can be seen as an attempt to break down the rigid rules of modernism including
those of linear narrative and historical viewpoint.
In the book The French Lieutenants Woman1 the descriptions of the lyme Bay setting,
in the first two chapters, creates a realistic setting of Victorian Britain. After setting the
scene in the first chapter, the author John Fowles goes on to recreate a realistic and
plausible Victorian era dialogue between Charles and Ernestina. Fowles creates the
illusion of historicity with references in their dialogue to the radical theorist of the time,
Charles Robert Darwin (1809 1882), and his recently published theory of evolution The
Origin of Species 18592.
The text of The French Lieutenants Woman, however, is not simply a period drama
since the voice of the narrator also depicts information from other historical perspectives
creating a feeling that the linearity of time has been broken down, bursting the bubble of
historical exclusivity. The historical backdrop of Victorian Britain is constantly interwoven
with comments and references to life at the time of John Fowles writing of the book in
1967.
Much of the Victoria perspective in The French Lieutenants Woman is generated
through the language Fowles uses. His self consciously exuberant turn of phrase
conjures forth a romantic spectacle from the dilapidated and grim English coast-line. For
example, his comparison of the decrepit cob to a sculpture by Henry Moore (1898 1986)
in which he ends; a paragon of mass. I exaggerate?(Ch 1 P7), seems to suggest to me
a dual narrative comprised of Fowles overly floral nineteenth century descriptions and a
gentle mockery of the modernist artists work, which was very popular a decade before
Fowles writing in the nineteen fifties. Overall this creates a text bristling with potential
historical perspectives.
The French Lieutenant's Woman: Theme Analysis
1
2

John Fowles, The French Lieutenants Woman (Uk: Panther Books, 1977)
Charles Robert Darwin The Origin of Species (1859)

Class Differences
The stringent demarcation between classes - and sexes - in Victorian England is one of
this novels central themes and is scrutinized and deconstructed constantly. Charles,
who is one of the main protagonists, is cast as a gentleman and is deemed by society
(and often by himself) to be superior to his servants, his bride-to-be, Ernestina, and
Sarah. He is ranked higher due to the chance of birth and just misses out on reaching
nobility when his uncle marries and produces an heir.
Each of the characters is shown to be aware of the rigid class distinctions and the
narrative uses this theme to undermine the naturalization of these barriers. Charles, for
example, is characteristically less intelligent than his supposed inferiors Sam and
Sarah. He blanches at the thought of working in commerce for his future father-in-law
as this is regarded as being below him by consensus in this class-bound society.
Both the class system and patriarchy confine Sarah. Although her education moves her
up the social ladder away from her father who was a farmer, this serves to leave her in
the limbo world of being fit for the role of only governess or companion. The society she
is born into effectively marginalizes her twice: for being a woman and for being born
into the working classes.
Convention
The French Lieutenants Woman uses an overtly twentieth-century perspective to
critique this representation of Victorian England where duty and conformity take
precedence over kindness and honesty.
The belief that one should adhere to convention is put into question by the hypocrisy of
many of the main characters. Apart from Sarah, who is depicted as attempting to live by
her own codes of behavior rather than societys, others, such as Charles, Mrs Poulteney
and Ernestina, are more concerned about how they appear to the outside world than in
acting on their desires. The sense of duty, which in some measure is shown to be
admirable, has become twisted as duty becomes more valued than the Christian ethos
that informs it.
Loss of faith in authority
As though to undermine the strong thematic concern that exposes the adherence to
conformity in this described society, there is a parallel theme that questions authority.
This is brought about in a range of small ways, from Sam disobeying his employer
Charles, to the depiction of Charless growing interest in Darwinism. The preference for
evolutionary theories over creationism implies a questioning of the authority of the
Bible. Sarahs decision to be an outcast, rather than another governess who knows her
place, also exemplifies this challenge to dominant thinking as does the insertion of the
author in what appeared to be a realist text.
Further to this, the use of two endings also undermines authority as the tradition of
closure is demolished. The authority of the novelist is invoked by his appearance in the
novel, but this role of God is simultaneously undermined as he refuses to decide the
ending. The readers are empowered as they are left to choose the one they prefer. The
novelists toss of the coin to decide which ending comes first is an ostensible means of
showing that this is a work of fiction and the ending or endings are arbitrary.
Techniques Fowles playfully uses the techniques of the Victorian novelist in his socalled Victorian novel to advance the action and comment from a "god-like" authorial
perspective. At the same time, he breaks the mold of the Victorian form by giving not
one absolute (and predictable) ending, but three. In the first ending, which comes
improbably in the middle of the book, Charles makes the right, if not altogether happy,
choice of turning his back on Sarah and marrying Ernestina. In the typical Victorian

novelist's world view, Charles and Ernestina's life is played out along with the lives of Dr.
Grogan, the servants Sam and Mary, Mrs. Poulteney, and others. Having given the
Victorian ending, Fowles then steps in to inform the reader that it was a myth.
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 fofreedom 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