"The French Lieutenant’s Woman" - Themes, narrative perspective, and the meaning of the main characters’ relationship

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2006 18 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. The influence of Darwinism on Charles

3. Victorian England in „The French Lieutenant’s Woman“

4. Narrative Perspective

5. The alternative endings

6. The characterization of Sarah and Charles
6.1 The development of the relationship between Sarah and Charles

7. The relationship considered as a godgame

8. Résumé

9. Works Cited

1. Introduction

One of John Fowles’s most famous works, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (abbreviated FLW in the following) is remarkable in many ways. The author combines an intriguing story, narrated in the typical Victorian manner, with a detailed account of Victorian England. Moreover, Fowles also manages to convey to the reader his actual conviction of how a novel should be written from the modern author’s stance, while criticizing both the “form-obsessed noveau roman school” (Huffaker 99) and the shortcomings of Victorian writing-techniques.

This research paper will examine some aspects of FLW, mainly the central theme of Darwinism, and the accurate depiction of the Victorian age while maintaining a certain critical distance. Also, the narrative perspective and the alternative endings while be discussed, and finally the development and meaning of the central relationship between the protagonists Sarah Woodruff and Charles Smithson.

2. Darwinism

One of the novel’s central themes is Darwin’s theory of evolution, in several ways: firstly, it links Victorian era and modern times, being still valid today. Secondly, it profoundly influences the novel’s characters, particularly Sarah and Charles. Finally, it gives a deeper meaning to the novel, as Fowles establishes Darwin’s ideas as correct and acceptable (Oertel 37-38).

Charles firmly believes in Darwin’s ideas, and should thus be expected to be able to recognize the challenges imposed on him in the course of the novel, but the narrator informs the reader of Charles’ incapability to fully understand Darwin (53).

The fact that Charles shot one of the last bustards of the Salisbury plain serves as a proof for his superiority, as he “contributed to the extinction of an ‘inferior’ species” (Conradi 74). Hence, he himself must belong to a species (if the Victorian gentleman is to be accepted as an own species) not doomed to suffer extinction. His firm belief in his own affiliation to an elite leads to his arrogance towards members of lower classes, which is displayed when he interrogates his servant about his relationship to Mary (110-111), and also very directly when Sam confesses his intentions of going into trade himself:

“Charles stared at Sam rather as if the Cockney had decided to

turn Buddhist. …

I warn you, Sam, once you take your ideas above your station

you will have nothing but unhappiness.” (314-315)

Obviously, there is much irony in this: Charles, the “infallible master” (315), firmly believing himself to be one of the ‘fittest’ selected for survival, fails to adapt in the end. On top of this, his “fallible underling” (ibid) Sam, who probably has never heard of Darwin’s theory, manages to adapt and advance in the end, at Charles’s expense, to some extent.

Here lies Charles’s central problem: he is unable to develop; he cannot change to overcome what he is. This is either due to the fact that Charles really does not understand Darwin’s theory or due to his inability to change.

The second possibility his much more likely, because Charles is an intelligent man, and Ernestina’s father, Mr. Freeman, points out the exact solution when acknowledging the Darwinian principle of adaptation in order to survive (277). One should think that Charles, as much as he hates the idea of working in commerce (or even working at all), must realize his problem and accept its solution at this point.

Nevertheless, Charles must have understood some part of Darwinism, since he does not blame Sarah for the character she was born with and the influences that have shaped her; thus following the principle of genetic determination and social influence established by Darwin (Oertel 29).

The gentleman, as defined in the Victorian age (basically someone who was born into the upper class and is wealthy enough to spend his life as an idle rich), is an obsolete species, unable to survive in a time marked by what Mr. Freeman defines:

“This is a great age of progress. And progress is like a lively horse.

Either one rides it, or it rides one. […]

But this is an age of doing, great doing, Charles. […]

You must reflect on this.” (278)

But again, the narrator, calling Charles a “poor living fossil” (281), hints at his inability to adapt, which also becomes clear when Charles feels uncomfortable in a corridor decorated with contemporary art and longs for Winsyatt’s “‘wretched’ old paintings and furniture; its age, its security” (278). Obviously, Charles does not reflect upon it, at least not sufficiently, he remains unable to meet the challenge imposed on his ‘species’ by progress.

Other characters, such as Mr. Freeman, Sarah, and Sam, adapt successfully to new circumstances or shape their own future by being proactive, but Charles cannot change. However, the open ending, which will be dealt with later on, does not completely rule out the possibility of evolution.

3. Victorian England in „The French Lieutenant’s Woman“

The question of whether or not Fowles’s work can be called a historic novel has been put by critics such as Wolfe (124), and Huffaker. While the latter attests the book historical qualities “at its elementary level” (98), Wolfe points out that Fowles himself rejects this category, as does Conradi (59), who accentuates the classical Victorian characteristics of the novel.

Katherine Tarbox does not bring up the question but classifies FLW as a “parallelism” consisting of “a parody of the Victorian novel” and a “modern novel” (80), explaining which tokens of both genres are found in FLW. The following analysis of how the Victorian age is portrayed and used in the novel will show that the novel indeed is a mixture of a modern approach to novel-writing and a historic scaffold. The plot is set at the height of the Victorian age, which is ideally suited for Fowles’s intentions.

However, Fowles did not settle the plot in these times to write a historical novel, but did so to be able to compare them to modern times, and to give a vivid and most authentic depiction (Oertel 10), while keeping his necessary distance in order to deliver what Peter Wolfe calls “a critical portrait of an age” (124).

The usage of this frame alone does not make FLW a historical novel, as Wolfe stated (124); it exceeds the boundaries of a historical novel (Huffaker 98).

Fowles often informs the reader about facts that only a narrator of the twentieth century could have known, e.g. when the narrator states that Ernestina died on the day that the Nazis invaded Poland (33), or when he pardons the Victorians for not obeying the rules of existentialism, since that school of philosophy had not yet come into existence (Conradi 75, compare Huffaker 93).

These devices can be seen as anachronistic and break into the façade of the historical account, but they also establish a link between modern times and the Victorian age, improving the novel’s authenticity, which makes them rather “synchronic”, following Robert Huffaker’s line of argumentation (99). The reader does not have to adapt to a completely extrinsic age about which he may not know anything, but is given comparisons and critical remarks about both the Victorian age and modern times. This enables him to perceive the story told from a point of view that allows a critical approach as well as an understanding one.

By mentioning contemporary issues out of the fields of “science, politics, economics, and social custom” (Huffaker 98), the novel gains further authenticity; this is largely due to the epigraphs Fowles uses ahead of each chapter. These epigraphs are written by authors such as Hardy, Arnold, Tennyson, Marx, and Darwin; who mainly lived in the Victorian age and contributed to its greatness in their field, but were also limited by it (McDowell, qtd. in Wolfe, 129).

Not only do these epigraphs give an idea of the era’s most important ideas in sciences and arts, but they also inform the reader about the darker sides of Victorian England, i.e. through citing a report on child labor and a letter to the Times by a prostitute (258, 288).

A hint of what is about to happen in the following chapter is usually also given through the epigraphs.

The accurate depiction of characteristics of Victorian England includes the usage of different types of language, dependent on the social class the speaker belongs to; Sam Farrow e.g. has a strong Cockney accent. This is best demonstrated by the dialogues between Sam and his master Charles:

“It’s that there kitchen-girl’s at Mrs Tranter’s, sir. I ain’t ’alf going to …”

“Kindly put that instrument down. And explain yourself.”

“I sees her. Dahn out there.” (44)

The same applies to Ernestina and Mary; the latter one also has the language profile of a servant (talking to Mrs. Tranter):

“It’s Sam, m’m. ’E’s downstairs. ’E’s ’ad bad words with Mr Charles, m’m, an’ given in ’is notice ’n Mr Charles woan’ give’un no reffrums now.” (F377)

In spite of her position as governess and her low social profile, Sarah proves to be an intelligent and somewhat educated woman, which is initially hinted at by her language: she does not speak a dialect and does not make any mistakes, in addition to this, she speaks French (202).

The use of language as an agent to gain authenticity is extended to the use of very detailed slang; Fowles describes Karl Marx as the “beavered German Jew”, using a contemporary word for ‘beard’, while placing Charles (who is ignorant of Marx’s work) next to an influential academic of his time (Conradi 73).



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
465 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
French Lieutenant’s Woman Themes Hauptseminar Novel Film




Title: "The French Lieutenant’s Woman" -  Themes, narrative perspective, and the meaning of the main characters’ relationship