The French Lieutenant’s Woman and the Possibility of Feminism

The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a 1969 postmodern historical fiction novel by John Fowles, written in a double narrative form alternating between the Victorian era and the present day. Currently, some literary debate surrounding the novel concerns its validity as a Feminist text. There are various obstacles in the novel in terms of character definition, the plot itself, and the authorial methods used by Fowles. The novel fails to realise certain aspects of traditional Victorian feminist writing, the style in which the writer intended it to be interpreted. Sarah Woodruff is a clouded central figure as opposed to a strongly defined protagonist usually featured in Feminist texts.

Can Sarah be said to be an “independent female protagonist”? Given that the narrator acts in an almost manipulative voyeuristic way, this leads us as readers to believe that Sarah is never autonomous as her thoughts remain outside of the novel. In doing this, I feel the narrator is not reliable since we are never fully given the opportunity to empathise with her due to the absence of her point of view. Magali Michael, an anti-feminist critic of the novel, claims “if the novel is created within a masculine ideology and only masculine perspectives are allowed inside the text, then it necessarily follows that its characters cannot transcend that male ideology” Supporting Michael, in terms of our image of Sarah, the novelist fails to define her as a character, a human being; Fowles, the narrator, is male and chooses Charles as his real protagonist, therefore how can the novel be reflective of a “real feminist perspective”?

The male dominance within the novel, in terms of creation and story, deliberately mirrors the male dominance of Victorian society when only men were found in occupations such as scientists, engineers and members of Parliament, positions of real power. Fowles chose to challenge Feminist Literature traditions in his novel in which he suggests a male author is never able to properly capture the voice of a woman. Sarah’s elusiveness is deliberate because of this, which forces me to question: are we convinced by her? She lacks definition and thus it is difficult to interpret her story to define feminist goals in the way that feminist literature is known to do.

The true protagonist is Charles. The role of a protagonist encourages the reader to empathise, and often sympathise. Like Charles, we find a sense of fascination in the mystery of Sarah causing us to empathise far more with him, which also makes the concept of the alternative endings more exciting and intriguing for the reader. Sarah could be argued to be more of a technique than a protagonist; a central figure that drives the plot forward, sparking a similar interest in Charles as do his fossils, causing the reader to have an urge to ‘study’ her in the same way as Charles with his palaeontology. He appears to learn from Sarah in the form of emotional growth; he travels from ignorance to understanding by following the woman he believes he is helping and she acts as a mentor to his self-realisation. For example, we as readers are instantly as drawn to Sarah in Chapter 2 as Charles, when Fowles describes the sorrow in her face to have “welled out of it as purely, naturally and unstoppably as water out of a woodland spring.” While there is juxtaposition in the “sorrow” being compared the purity and beauty of nature, the nature is described as harsh and violent. The use of the adjective “unstoppable” in its connection to Sarah could be indicative of Charles’ fascination to be similarly unstoppable. Like Charles, as readers this intrigues us, forcing us to question why her sorrow is so visible in her appearance, emphasising Charles’ protagonist role due to us as readers empathising with him in fascination as opposed to Sarah with her sorrow.

Connecting the novel to the Victorian era, Charles could be described as a representation of modernism, described to “always ask life too many questions”. This metaphor of questioning the non-tangible noun of “life” enforces the intense fascination with mystery Charles has. To describe him as a philosophical thinker about the unknown of “life” and to ask “too much” emphasises the yearning to study and learn, to the extent of unravelling a mystery further than necessary. This could foreshadow his relationship with Sarah, in that it may have been better for their story to be left unknown. Charles sees himself as a rebellious, new thinker with his interest in Darwinian studies, his scientific academia in palaeontology and his anti-religious beliefs. He finds “English society too hidebound, English solemnity too solemn, English thought too moralistic, English religion too bigoted.” This leads me to further disagree with the question given that the novel seems to be almost challenging the style of a Victorian novel as opposed to following it, since its true protagonist seemingly goes against all the typical ideals of a Victorian male.

Another authorial method that brings the Victorian society to our attention is the character foil to Sarah of Ernestina. Ernestina is the idealised woman of the Victorian era yet unable to satisfy the longing for mystery that Charles has, seen in his fascination for Sarah. Fowles’ use of the opposite female characters proves Sarah has a sense of power over Charles, despite society deeming her as damaged. Linking this to another fantastic piece of literature by John Fowles, his second novel The Collector, published in 1963, also explores the male and female dynamic. In The Collector, Frederick expresses a sinister desire to kidnap Miranda as his butterfly and force her to fall in love with him. While this doesn’t correspond to the motive of Charles, Sarah doesn’t choose to be involved in Charles’ life in the same way that Miranda’s involvement is against her will. The similar sense of being out of control that is seen in Miranda and Sarah emphasises that Sarah is not an independent female protagonist, rather a technique that brings Charles’ self-realisation to the surface in a similar way to Frederick in The Collector. Sarah does however demonstrate that she has already arrived at an awareness that she cannot escape the constraints that society has imposed on her. Her choosing to simply accept being an outcast for love, as proved by the novel’s title and her nickname of ‘The French Lieutenant’s Whore’, goes to show the damage that Victorian society had on women. Fowles uses Ernestina to show the Victorian society valued ideals and if you didn’t fit them then women were forced to become outcasts, deemed unworthy of the future that women like Ernestina were entitled to. This forces me to disagree that Sarah is “independent” as she has no control of her own life and future. Therefore, she cannot make her own independent decisions as the circumstances Sarah faces are strictly because of what Victorian society drove her to experience in her “outcast” position, which can be emphasised by the reader’s responsibility to decide her fate with the alternative endings. However, looking further into the second ending, while it is not representative of an idealistic Victorian ending, the Feminism could lie in the way she rejects Charles, defining her underlying possession of trivial independence.

The major structural technique Fowles uses to make this novel unique is the use of the double narrative. The constant, yet cleverly embedded, intrusions of the narrator are reflective of the 20th century, which in turn gave him opportunity to comment upon Victorian conventions. The constant interjections of the narrator create a second layer to the novel, and later when Fowles joins the narrative as he writes in Chapter 55 “the conventions of Victorian fiction allow, allowed no place for the open ending; and I preached earlier of the freedom characters must be given.” The bearded character he becomes is explaining a dilemma, wanting to conclude the story but Victorian Literature would not allow an almost unfinished ending. Yet he feels as the manipulative narrator, he should allow them freedom to close their story, emphasising the meta-fiction style of the novel which certainly does not adhere to the traditional Victoria style.

Fowles’ strategic use of the double narrative strengthens a potential message Fowles was encouraging: that the patriarchal society seen in the Victorian era continues to be as big a problem in the present day. Therefore, one could argue that even though the novel doesn’t present a ‘real feminist perspective’ in the absence of the female point of view, it can still be deemed valued in terms of Feminist Literature. Another authorial method that makes the reader aware of Victorian society is the use of each chapter having an epigraph taken from Victorian Literature. This highlights to us as readers the forthcoming multiplicity of the Victorian voices in the novel, in the form of Fowles including several narrative presences and choosing himself to remain ambiguous. Structurally, Fowles’ use of alternative endings emphasise the modernity of the novel despite its Victorian setting, allowing the responsibility to lie with the reader, yet this continues to cloud the already present ambiguity of Sarah, deciding what they want to happen. Thus, the novel deserves recognition as both a postmodern text of the 20th century, yet also following a tale of Victorian life. Fowles’ narrative technique has a thought-provoking impact on the reader giving them responsibility in forcing them to connect the epigraphs to the following chapter; consistently remaining ambiguous as a narrator; and the alternative endings.

By definition, feminist literature establishes and defends the rights of women, identifying women’s roles as unequal to those of men, particularly in status and power generally portraying consequences as undesirable. The French Lieutenant’s Woman does identify a sense of inequality, especially through the structural techniques under the surface that Fowles has chosen to use. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Fowles adheres to some of the criteria to be considered a piece of Feminist text, yet he fails to assert the theme of feminism due to the absence of female perspectives. Despite this, what makes The French Lieutenant’s Woman such a valued piece of literature is Fowles’ ability as narrator to manipulate and allow the reader to realise many preconceptions and myths about women. Its value lies in its adherence to the realisation of a traditional Victorian novel style, yet there is an interesting juxtaposition in its protest against this; demonstrated in the double narrative that reflects the modernity of the novel. Sarah cannot be defined as an independent female protagonist due to the absence of her point of view and a lack of autonomy. While she drives the plot forward, she remains an outsider, ambiguous in the way that the reader is given a lot of responsibility in their interpretation of her, which is only achieved through the prism of male perspective.

The Conclusions of The French Lieutanant’s Woman and the Author’s Clear Preference

In general, we as humans like a sense of closure in regards to literature; ambiguous endings are usually seen as an easy way out of a novel. However, in John Fowles’s novel The French Liutenant’s Woman, ambiguity does not stem from a lack of an ending, but rather two endings for the same plot. At first, it would appear that Fowles simply could not make up his mind and decide on one ending, and the simplest solution seemed to be to add yet another. Upon further examination, though, one cannot help but ask why he would, seemingly out of nowhere, tack on another ending when the first is perfectly adequate and would have been more than enough to satisfy a reader. It is clear, though, that Fowles obviously does not approve of this overly cliché and stereotypical Victorian ending to his novel, and therefore feels the need to add a second outcome to the lives of Charles Smithson and Sarah Woodruff, the “French Lieutenant’s…Woman” (9). This somewhat needlessly inserted ending poses a question to the reader: does Fowles truly believe in the possibility of his first ending? If he does, then what is the point of adding the second? Quite simply, because of the insertion of the second ending as a complete juxtaposition to the first makes it clear that Fowles favors the latter conclusion over the former. In essence, he clearly “fixes the fight” between the two endings in favor of the more Existential of the two. Throughout the novel, Charles faces several difficult choices in regards to his personal life. Upon that first fateful sighting of Sarah at the end of the Cobb, Charles must deal with the conflicting feelings that arise within himself about his present situation with his fiancée, Ernestina Freeman. It is clear that everything is not ok between him and his wife-to-be, though, when he tells his uncle, “I too have been looking for the right girl. And I have not found her” (17). Why does Sarah, a woman he does not even know, seem to have such a profound effect on his emotional state? Charles feels strongly for her, and through a few chance (and a few not so by chance) encounters, the pair seem to develop even stronger feelings for each other. Eventually, though, their infidelity is uncovered and Charles feels that he and Sarah should no longer see each other. It is through this separation that the two different endings come into play. The narrator, portrayed as a passenger in the same train car as Charles, reveals that there are two possibilities that could occur, and we as readers must thus deal with both.The first ending is presented as a very Victorian representation of lost love that has resurfaced through Charles’s dedication to his search for Sarah. His lawyer and friend, Montague, relays the message that Sarah has been found in London, and Charles, upon receiving her apparent address in the mail, immediately makes every effort to go and find her. She now goes by the name of Mrs. Roughwood, and is living in “A respectable family residence” where “She is presumably governess there” (439). He ventures to the house, and his recognition of Sarah is unmistakable: “Charles stood stunned. For this was the face he knew; a face he had even once listened to for an hour or more with Ernestina beside him” (442). The two begin conversing about their past selves and the progress they have made in each other’s absence. Charles fears that Sarah has moved on from him, but she unorthodoxly reveals that this is not the case when she presents him with their child, a girl named Lalage. When Charles realizes the child is his and that Sarah has remained relatively steadfast in her feelings towards him, he is overwhelmed with emotion:At last [Sarah] looked up at him. Her eyes were full of tears, and her look unbearably naked. Such looks we have all once or twice in our lives received and shared; they are those in which worlds melt, pasts dissolve, moments when we know, in the resolution of profoundest need, that the rock of ages can never be anything else but love, here, now, in these two hands’ joining, in this blind silence in which one head comes to rest beneath the other” (459). The pair does not marry, but seem to have come to a consensus that they will live their lives together as a loving family with their daughter. This ending is very Victorian in the sense of ending on a clichéd, happy note.The second ending to the novel, however, is a bit more interesting concept to grasp. It begins as the first, but instead of Charles and Sarah going on to lead a happy life together, Charles seems to see through Sarah’s façade and refuses any more contact with her: “And he saw finally that she knew he would refuse. From the first she had manipulated him. She would do so to the end. He threw her one last burning look of rejection, then left the room” (465). This ending is a total juxtaposition to the former ending. Existentialism plays an important role throughout this ending. Charles, now finally freed from the psychological and emotional holds of his relationship with Sarah, is able to make a conscious effort to find himself, and define who he is as a person. He realizes that he must go back to America to live out his life on his own. The way this ending plays out is strongly related to the epigraph by Karl Marx presented at the beginning of the novel: “Every emancipation is a restoration of the human world and of human relationships to man himself.” Charles emancipates himself from Sarah, and anything holding him back in England in general, to find himself anew in America. In the simplest way possible, Fowles clearly prefers this ending to the former; if he was satisfied with the first ending, he would not have even needed to conjure up another one to place after it. It would not be absurd to assume that Fowles wants his novel to be an existential one, because in the preferred ending the protagonist does end up departing on a journey of self-discovery and self-realization of his place in the world.Though one would love for all stories to end “happily ever after” and have the characters go on to live long and happy lives together, in all actuality, this is not the case. Fowles clearly realized this principle, and thus added a second ending to The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Through this addition, it is safe to assume that Fowles prefers the second, more existential, ending of his novel to the first, overly Victorian, ending. Though there is no definitive evidence for an authorial preference in regards to the conclusions of the novel, analysis of the final chapters of the book reveal that Fowles must indeed prefer the second ending to the first.