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Finding freedom from Sexual Repression in the Victorian Era Essay

The issue of human freedom can and maybe seen or perceived in so many different layers. It may be intellectual, social or political. Varied and yet somehow it similarity lies on the same level it attempts to liberate itself from the constraints of the society or the institutions. It is in from this very nature that English novelist John Fowles rooted most of his famous literary novels. His third, critically acclaimed masterpiece, The French Lieutenant’s Woman touched on the controversial issue of sexuality and female emancipation.

In his novel, these issues were explored in both the historical as and socio –political level. Written in the Victorian tradition, Fowles open the narrative of The French Lieutenant’s Woman with an epigraph: “Every emancipation s restoration of the human world and of human relationships to man himself” – a quote from Karl Marx’ Zur Judenfrage. However, no revolutionary triumph takes place in the novel. Instead the liberation, takes into a different form. Fowles, takes on the issue of freedom in three different levels – social, existential and narrative.

It is in this framework he classifies existentialism as primarily a response of an individual to conform brought about by social and political pressures. Social freedom on the other hand, is the opportunity to choose between alternative social “realities” which fortifies one’s individuality. Somehow, it is a way of deciding into an identity. The opportunity to choose is a similar inherent nature of social and existential freedom, and that is the opportunity to choose. However, in the existential context, every choice is independent of a sustaining community.

(Lynch, 2002) In the further discussions, a deeper understanding of human freedom through the characters in John Folwes novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman will be studied and analyzed via issue of sexual repression and emancipation as placed in the Victorian era. Thesis Despite the magnificent changes and transformation that man has had throughout the years, sexual repression has never ceased to exist. A long history that might have been greatly influenced by the social mores and practices of 19th century England, during the Victorian era.

This paper, aims to examine the characters of John Fowles’ period novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman and present how the moralistic and classist Victorian society cultivated sexual repression and that furtive debauchery in the era was plainly covered by sheer hypocrisy of the period especially the upper class. Discussion Her Story…History: A Background on the Victorian Era What was it like to be a woman in 19th Century England? What was behind the intricate garb, shy but well made up faces and fabulous coiffures? Queen Victoria’s long reign began in 1834 and ended with her death in 1901.

It starts as Kitts and Clark so graphically epitomized it “with gentlemen fighting duels, it ends with gentlemen playing golf. ” (Long, 2006) In the Victorian era, the perfect English woman was brought up to be perfectly innocent and sexually ignorant. Yet, maternal desire was considered to be innate. Her social status was dependent on the economic status of her father and once married, of her husband. She basically is confined to family and friends since the very foundation of the Victorian society was the family.

In fact, the perfect lady’s only purpose was marriage and procreation. On the other side of the social sphere, Economic and social circumstances made it impossible for the working class woman to obtain the ideal of a perfect lady. The more privileged, practiced prudence and embraced premarital chastity because they knew the dangerous consequences at stake. One wrong move and the family’s reputation was lost. In essence, moral purity had an added economic edge somewhat different from the market value of virginity in the middle class.

(Long, 2006) It is therefore quite obvious that women were a secondary lot in the set up, whether it be seen in the social or economic viewpoint. In this confines shall we find Sarah Woodruff, Charles Smithson, Ernestina Freeman, and the rest of the characters of The French Lieutenant’s novel. Sarah, The French Lieutenant’s Woman She is also referred to as “Tragedy”. In the novel, Sarah Woodward was the scarlet woman of Lyme. Labeled as such by society because of her past—an illicit affair with a French sailor.

Sarah is indeed different from the women of her times. She was mysterious, isolated, independent and imaginative. She is also very passionate and is often misunderstood. “You do not understand. It is not your fault. You are very kind. But I am not meant to be understood” (Fowles,1969) These attributes, however are the same attributes that drew Charles Smithson to Sarah Woodward. A fascination that became attraction and then infatuation and then towards the end, passion. Charles, The Victorian Gentleman

Heir to a title and definitely born of the aristocracy, he seemed to be the epitome of the “perfect” man. He was conventional and smart and was, during those times, one of the few who held scientifically advanced ideas. He was extremely smart and even sensitive. He is engaged to be married to a woman of good character and yet Charles Smithson was still unhappy with the way his life was unfolding before him. In one of his teasing remarks to her fiancee Ernestina, Charles somehow obliquely reveals how he actually lives his life, often in contemplation and almost, fossil-like:

“I am a scientist, if you smile like that, I will devote my time to the fossils and to none of you…” (Fowles, 1969) The fossils, which attract Charles to the blue lias cliffs are symbols of his own existence. The kind of satisfaction in the way he lives his aristocratic life, his feudal relationship with Ernestina are levers of “orderliness” of selfhood that in fact does not exist. (De Vitis and Palmer, 1974) In the last parts of the novel, Charles attempts to ease himself out of fossilization.

He backs out of his engagement and admits to his feelings for Sarah. Ernestina, the typical Victorian Woman The epitome of the lady, Ernestina, is smart, innocent and youthful. She thinks of herself as the modern woman and yet she behaves in the typical Victorian fashion. Somehow, in the course of the story, it becomes questionable as to whether, Ernestina really have truly “loved” Charles, or she was merely in love with his position in society, his properties, and the prestige of being married to a gentleman.

And then the rest of the characters that represent the punishing and moralist Victorian community — Mrs Poulteney, seen as the a “plump vulture” with an “eagle eye”; she is the cruel woman and the perfect example of hypocrisy with her put on Christian virtues; Mrs Fairley as a “weasel”, who is as pretentious as her employer; Sam, the deceptive and ambitious valet who would eventually blackmail Charles in his hope of pushing forth his desire to marry Mary and change his life. Conclusion

Seeing through the character placements of Folwes, we get a clearer picture of the very stereotypical chauvinistic set-up. Therefore it obviously raises the bar of sexual repression, not only among the women but also of men. In this times, we come to realize how women even of age, have very little knowledge at all of their sexuality and that their first rite of passage is possibly marriage. In the novel however, Folwes created the character of Sarah who has defied Victorian conventions and somehow became a sort of representation of “social freedom”.

In fact as the story concludes, Sarah manage to find her “alternative universe” where in she was able to choose her identity while Charles, who chose to resign to his fate as the Victorian gentleman. (Lynch, 2002) Seen in the feminist perspective, Sarah was more than just a rebel in the Victorian context. She was a woman intelligent, unafraid and who was ready to face whatever consequence lies for her being different. Towards the end of the novel, readers will find Sarah telling Charles of her two simple desires: “…to be who she is and to be happy as she is. ” (Fowles, 1969)

To be clearly defined, in a way, creates a bigger risk being determined. (Lynch, 2002) This somehow is manifested strongly in the existentialist nature of the character of Sarah who after having enamoured Charles, disappeared and lived another life away from him. To articulate further that sexual repression did not only boxed women but also male sensibilities, Fowles took an unexpected and almost comic twist with a reversal of sexual roles between Sarah and Charles. In the scene where Sarah reveals her selfhood to Charles, he turns into a frightened virgin. (De Vitis and Palmer, 1974) .

This switching of roles define possibilities that in that age was almost close to impossible for women in that era are refused of opinion and are merely wives and ladies of the household. In a way, this scene is symbolic of the experience that Sarah, has already found herself in the context of the restrictive society and is on her way to inviting Charles. However, Charles, bound by his baggages: as an aristocrat, as the soon to be married man to Ernestina, as the man of position and economic power; retreats to his safe position as the “gentleman”. This as a consequence, can make him the more “fossilized” character that he already is.

He however comes to realize in the end that he does not want to succumb to this mind-numbing and dreary state and that he must overcome his concern for reputation and the dictates of the morally upright Victorian society. Ultimately, The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a defining novel that bravely posts the issues of sexual repression and asserts the major issues of the male female dynamics that brought about such. Revelations made through each character identifies the pitfalls of the social mores of the times and allows us to pinpoint the major flaws especially when it comes to gender relationships and stereotypes.

Also it confronts the issues of freedom from sexual repression by asserting individuality, regardless of social and economic status…of course not without the consequences. There can possibly be decisions in life that will bring us to liberation and yet also take us to isolation. Either which way, the path to freedom is full of choices. Fowle also takes the novel to a more challenging and surprising ending with an open ended and choice laden conclusion for the reader to decide. At the same time, however, The French Lieutenant’s Woman endorses the idea that restoration of human relationships is the nature of true emancipation.

(Landrum, 1996) The image of Sarah as the representation of the hope and change helps us see a kind of evolution and revolution in the narrative. In her discovery of her “new self”, the “newness” is the version of the evolution…at the same timeis is a release form the bondage and sexual reprieve of the era. Recent Darwinism continually stresses that the new can only be known with hindsight. Dennett says of the beginning of a new species that “you can’t tell that it is occurring at the time it occurs!

You can only tell much later that it has occurred, retrospectively crowning an event when you discover that its sequels have a certain property” . Newness of this kind, like Lyotard’s postmodern art, can only be the origin for “what will have been done” in the history of the self. (Jackson, 1997) The passing of old to new is highly significant in the quest for sexual liberation. Breaking away and finding individuality and identity can seem to be an arduous task for evolution and revolution to take place.

References Lynch, Richard (2002) “Freedoms in The French Lieutenant’s Woman”, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 48 No. 1, pp. 50-76 Long, Robert (2006) “Sexuality in the Victorian Era”, Presented to Innominate Society, http://www. innominatesociety. com/Articles/Sexuality Folwes, John (1969) “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” De Vitis, A. A and Palmer, William (1974) “A Pair of Blue Eyes flash at the French Lieutenant’s Woman”, Contemporary Literature, Vol. 15 No. 1, pp. 90-101 Landrum, David (1996) “Rewriting Marx: Emancipartion and Restoration in The French Lieutenant’s Woman” Jackson, Tony (1997) “Charles and the Hopeful Monster: postmodern evolutionary theory in The French Lieutenant’s Woman”, http://findarticles. com/p/articles/mi_m0403/is_n2_v43/ai_20563363/pg_5


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