John Fowles’ novel “The French Lieutenant’s woman”

Categories: Novel

John Fowles’ novel “The French Lieutenant’s woman” is seen as a postmodern text, by the author himself. He is considered to be the first postmodernist in the English literature, even though the postmodernist features were less explicit in British literature than in American. The novel resembles a Victorian text, but actually it is a critical rewrite of the happy-end Victorian novels. The issue of human freedom has always been an interesting subject to James Fowles. Some say that “The French Lieutenant’s woman” is one of his best novels which examine this issue.

The action in the novel takes place in a small village in Southwest England – Lyme Regis. The reader meets the main characters in the very beginning of the novel. The author beautifully describes the little village which is very famous with its fossil and geology finds. At the beach, we find the three main characters – Ernestina Freeman, spending some time alone with her fiancee Charles Smitson, and Sarah Woodruff – a mysterious woman, who everyone calls the “French lieutenant’s whore”.

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Sarah’s first appearance in the novel is when she is spotted walking on the beach, watching the stormy sea. Everyone could see that there is something mysterious about her. She appears to be a bit strange and unable to communicate properly with other people, because she has constantly been called “the French lieutenant’s whore”, or even a “tragedy”. She is different, she is smart, brave in a strange way, not to mention beautiful and doesn’t care what others talk about her – at least that’s the face she is showing the world.

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Because of the departure of the French lieutenant with whom she had fallen in love, Sarah suffers from deep melancholy. But when we compare her with Ernestina, we could easily see that, Sarah is the exact opposite of Ernestina. Ernestina Freeman is the typical Victorian female character. She is revealed to be conventional but pretty, young woman. Ernestina like the other people sees Sarah as the “whore”. She has no interest of knowing the truth about Sarah; she accepts the rumors as being the truth. In a way Sarah lives a life of a social outcast.

Sarah appears to be known by everyone and, actually no one. According to Dr. Grogan, she just wants to be a victim and invents stories about herself in order to distinguish herself from the conventional society. But she never actually opened up her soul to anyone and she closed her self to the world, so no one could know for sure what she wants, and what actually happened with that foreigner. Sarah, in fact has two faces – the face she shows to others – The French lieutenant’s whore, and the other one – the over educated, intelligent woman who can’t seem to find herself.

She is trying to escape from time; she has never felt exactly at home, no matter where she was. Her only way to survive is to think of herself as “nothing”, when actually that means she is a lot more than other people. Her only option is to pretend to be someone she is not, as a verification of her identity. When Charles first meets Sarah he is immediately drawn by her mysterious charm. The story everyone tells about her, the names they call her, just made him more curious to know what is this all about it. She manages to open up her soul and reveal her secrets to him.

In the beginning he hardly understands her, he cannot see why she was still bearing the feelings for some foreigner, who was never going to come back to be with her. Her soul is crushed, she is hurt, she finds happiness only in sleep, but when she wakes up, the nightmare continues to destroy her every single day. But Sarah actually manages to transform her misery into art. She takes advantage of the situations she has fallen in and makes the usually tough reality seem more likeable for her. In a way Sarah may be considered to be a rebel against the social conventions.

She is a governess – intelligent, not married, “abandoned” woman. She is educating other people’s children because she doesn’t have her own. Unfortunately Sarah lives in a Victorian times and she is called a whore, just because she had fallen in love and the man left her. She does not say anything to defend herself, she does not confront townspeople to stop calling her a whore, she accepts her faith and therefore she might be considered also to be a victim of the circumstances. Her social status is of an abandoned, broken-hearted governess, who somehow manages to live through the mocking and rumors about her, day by day.

In the Victorian time there was a kind of lifestyle, a scheme that must be followed, or else certain woman could be condemned by society and labeled as a whore. People from that time followed explicit rules in life, and when they notice someone who is against the rules, like Sarah, they try to crush that person in every possible way. We can easily see how townspeople treat Sarah – like a mental sick woman by Dr. Grogan, or a reclamation project by Mrs Poultney or even as a sexually exciting and mysterious woman by Charles. After their affair in London Sarah leaves, without leaving further address.

After years of searching for her, Charles finds her in London - changed. She is still Sarah, but not the Sarah he knew, "no longer a governess" (346), she says to him. This is entirely different and peaceful person. Her time spent with Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of avant-garde artists helps her somehow to find the missing piece in her life, to find some purpose, to enjoy herself and the life she is living. Through art she realizes how much ahead of this time she is, and that she possessed a modern view of the world. Some critics even say that the character of Sarah Woodruff is a primary example of achieved narrative freedom.

John Fowles’ novel seems very complicated, not only because it includes the three types of freedom, we can easily find them - the social, the narrative and existential freedom, but also because the author decided to write three different endings of the novel. The first one appears to be Charles’ dream – he goes back to Ernestina and they get married. According to the second version Charles finds Sarah, and she decides to tell him that she has a child from him. Chapter 60 ends with the possibility of their happy future together. Then in the third version Charles again finds Sarah in London, but their reunion is sour.

She does not tell him about their child and expresses no interest in continuing their relationship. In the end Charles leaves her and decides to go back to America. The author does not make it easy for the readers to completely understand the nature of the characters. The third ending expresses the main idea of the novel - it is a critical rewrite of the happy-end Victorian novels. It represents the concept of passionate love – it can’t last forever. Charles and Sarah were separated for so long, they experienced so many things on their own, and they have so many secrets, that they just forgot how to love each other.

Updated: Apr 19, 2023
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John Fowles’ novel “The French Lieutenant’s woman”. (2016, Oct 27). Retrieved from

John Fowles’ novel “The French Lieutenant’s woman” essay
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