The French Lieutenant's Womanis certainly an unconventional novel in terms of its determination to constantly remind us that it is exactly that - a novel, a work of fiction. Novels traditionally try to convince us to suspend our disbelief and plunge ourselves into the narrated world, so that we come to sympathize with the characters as 'real people' going through real trials and tribulations. How can we feel affected or moved by a story if we're absolutely certain while reading it that it never happened?
There is literature in the novel that the characters read and interact with, and in these interactions, fiction is always portrayed as false on some level, especially when compared to the depiction and explanation of nature that science offers us. Charles is a "despiser of novels" because he likes to view himself as rational and scientific man (15). In contrast, Sarah's ex-employer Mrs. Talbot reads highly sentimental and melodramatic "romantic literature" that has nothing to do with reality, and plants outrageous images in her mind (47).
The author's interjections into the narrative keep reminding us that there is a consciousness behind the novel, an author who is creating it as a work of art. He comments on the "novelist's craft" in Chapter 61, nothing that he is breaking the rule of not introducing new characters toward the end of a novel (361). Other authors may well have similar thought processes lying behind the final piece of literature that they produce, but most keep this scaffolding hidden. Not Fowles: he comments liberally on all aspects of writing the novel, down to remarking that he is "overdoing the exclamation marks" (167) or "mixing metaphors" (153). We are continually reminded that what we are reading is a piece of fiction that has artificially produced, according to conventions of writing.
The double ending is the last dramatic trick that Fowles employs to break his readers' illusion. We are provided with two endings between which the narrator explicitly decides, and flips a coin to choose which goes first - we cannot continue to pretend that everything in the novel is true, because the two endings directly contradict each other. There is also an element of the supernatural involved, when the author-character takes out his watch and rewinds it to allow the second ending to occur. The author refuses to let us believe that what happens is reality, and he makes us choose which ending we prefer - even though we know neither ever actually happened.
So, The French Lieutenant's Womanis a fiction, and Charles and Sarah are "figments" of the author's imagination and never existed in "real life" (317). But the question Fowles is posing is the following: does it matter? The narrator is asking us if we should care whether something is fiction or not, and he seems to suggest that we can still stay invested in the story even when explicitly told that it is only a story. Fiction is powerful, regardless of its reality, and there is a difference between something being 'real' (existing in the world) and 'true' (having the potential to exist, and being able to affect us on an emotional level). As the narrator points out in Chapter 19, "Genesis is a great lie, but it is also a great poem" (130). The fact that the Bible is probably fiction does nothing to mitigate the powerful impact it can have on its readers. The conclusion we seem urged to draw is the following: "naked beauty matter[s] far more than naked truth" (143). In other words, the aesthetic and emotional value of a piece of art is less important than whether or not is subject matter is real or imaginary.
In a 1977 interview with the BBC, John Fowles said the following about his unconventional narration in The French Lieutenant's Woman:"I don't really consider that the games I played in The French Lieutenant's Woman are games. You know, I gave two endings or three endings possibly. I did at one point step out of the sort of illusion of fiction, into another illusion. I don't really feel that those are games. I think those are in fact literary truths, which can be stated. The ones I've just mentioned in The French Lieutenant's Woman are in my view truths about the artificial nature of fiction, but that has nothing to do with other kinds of truths in the book, which really are about feeling, and which of course do express opinions about life."
We can split the theme of 'freedom' in The French Lieutenant's Womaninto different types of freedom - some large, some small, some within the context of the novel, and some on the level of meta-fiction.
Let's start with a relatively narrow type of freedom: social freedom, or the freedom to act as one wants in a social environment without fear of negative consequences. Victorian society is famously rigid and constrictive, but not quite so bad when compared to earlier eras. Charles and Ernestina are mutually happy that they are so free compared to a millennium before, and can be more flirtatious than at other points in history (90). Of course, compared to our contemporary society, they are actually very constrained. Sarah manages to break out of this narrow social world to some extent, because she intentionally chooses to go against what is acceptable and thereby ejects herself from the social sphere, essentially becoming a pariah. The intentional and deliberate nature of this choice is key: Sarah says that she "owed it to [her]self to appear mistress of [her] destiny" (141).
But not all the characters feel free to act on the world around them, and some doubt that they can shape their own destinies at all through their willpower. Typically, people throughout history have felt some degree of free will, but this period is interesting, because it sees the introduction of Darwinism. Although a scientific theory, Darwinism also can be interpreted philosophically: it seems to imply determinism and therefore lack of freedom (99). We are what we are because of millions of years of evolution, and to think that our actions are the products of our own unique consciousness and will is a delusion.
Charles is aware of this implication, although he spends much of the novel trying to ignore it. He would like to think that he has "total free will," and it is on this assumption that he congratulates himself for his own behavior (152). If he was merely acting out a series of actions that he was evolved to do, then he wouldn't be able to be proud of himself, since he isn't making any difficult choices - he in himself has no special willpower.
Although he can sometimes convince himself that he has free will and can act freely, Charles' deep fear, is that he is the human equivalent of "an ammonite stranded in a drought": stuck in time, helpless in the face of fate and forces beyond his control (167). In Chapter 25, Charles comes to the terrifying conclusion that time doesn't exist and that everything is happening in a single moment, "caught in the same fiendish machine" (165). Obviously, this leaves no room for free will - his sense that he is acting of his own accord and shaping the world around him must therefore be an illusion. He develops an awareness of this later in the novel: in Chapter 38, for example, he feels a "sense of freedom" from the possibility of sinning without consequences in London, but immediately afterwards admits to himself that "in reality" he hasn't got the freedom he thinks he has (231).
Sarah the prostitute has a "determined" fate, and Charles also feels as though his fate is "sealed" - although interestingly, he ends up escaping from the encounter without having sex with her (246, 245). And yet although Charles has apparently accepted the fact that he is being pushed by "God" or a "malevolent inertia" along his path like a train track, with no freedom to get off the train or change his destination, he actually fights back against this sense of inevitability and realizes that he does have freedom. We therefore see a seesaw in the novel between two schools of thought: one saying that we are free, and one claiming that we are not. What Charles feels as he makes the crucial decision of whether to go back to Ernestina or visit Sarah is "really a very clear case of the anxiety of freedom - that is, the realization that one isfree and the realization of being free is a situation of terror" (267).
Academic Naomi Rokotnitz has argued that the conclusion that Fowles seems to draw about the characters' freedom to make choices through free will is this: "while accidents cannot be foreseen, choices are often predetermined—not by external forces but by the connective chain of events that leads up to any given moment." According to this view, there isn't an external force like fate or God pressuring the characters to make decisions, but that the decisions they make become inevitable thanks to the sequence of events that has led up to the moment of choice. This is a post-Newtonian way of viewing the world: the choices we make determine the next choices, and so on and so on. Rokotnitz cites the love story between Charles and Sarah Woodruff as an example of this type of limited freedom: Charles and Sarah are often described as (or literally) standing on top of a high place, off which they may fall accidentally or throw themselves willfully. We might think of Sarah standing at her window at the end of Chapter 12, wondering if she should throw herself off. The characters could turn back, but they are already entrapped in a way by virtue of their repeated chance encounters, that throw them together and make the turning-back much more difficult.
Of course, there is an even larger type of freedom that the characters aren't even aware of: the freedom accorded to them or withheld from them by the novelist. The novelist compares himself to "a god" in Chapter 13, and it's easy to see how he might draw this parallel: he and God both are creators of a world, in a way, and they have some degree of control over what happens in that world. Fowles occasionally comments on what he allows the characters to do or not do; for example, he writes of Sarah fixing her hair that this is "the first truly feminine gesture I have permitted her" (221).
But the novelist's control isn't full, because God gave human beings free will. Fowles writes in Chapter 13 that "[t]here is only one good definition of God: the freedom that allows other freedoms to exist" (82). Thus there is another bizarre kind of freedom treated in the novel, one step larger than the ones we have already discussed. Fowles, far from always portraying himself as an all-powerful God-figure, often discusses the limits to his own freedom. Of Ernestina's spirit and strong will, he writes: "she leaves me no alternative but to conclude that she must, in the end, win Charles back from his infidelity" (202). In Chapter 61, he says that he "did not want to introduce" himself as a character in the novel, suggesting that he doesn't have full control over what even his own character does (361). At one point, he ruminates about the difficulty of knowing what is on Sarah's mind: "I preached earlier of the freedom characters must be given. My problem is simple - what Charles wants is clear? It is indeed. But what the protagonist wants is not so clear, and I am not at all sure where she is at the moment" (317). This isn't the tone of a fully omniscient and powerful God - the view we are left with of freedom and fate in the novel is a complicated one, both on the level of the amount of freedom we experience in our lives as characters in God's creation, and the amount of freedom that a novelist has over his characters.
Love and sex
Love and sex are treated from an almost sociological perspective in this novel: through his descriptions of the various' characters attitudes toward sex, the author hopes to create a portrait of Victorian sexuality.
When we think of the Victorians, we tend to think of an extreme prudery - in fact, the adjective 'Victorian' is basically synonymous with puritanical censure of sexual activity and feelings. Certainly, there are examples of prudery in this novel. The fact that Sarah has such a bad reputation because of her rumored sexual encounters is a product of this prudery, and the lack of sexual contact between the 'lovers' Charles and Ernestina is another result of Victorian denial and willful ignoring of sex. However, Fowles shows us in the novel that Victorian prudery is more complicated than we might initially think - it isn't by any means universal, and it depends heavily on class and gender.
Denial of sexual feelings and interaction is primarily the business of the upper classes, whether they are nouveau riche like Ernestina or aristocratic like Charles. Charles and Sarah have been taught to suppress their sexual instincts for their whole lives, and this proves a problem when they are trying to embark on a romantic relationship together. Physical contact between them is unnatural and forced, as in the scene following their engagement, when we expect them to be thrilled to finally be allowed to kiss each other, and Ernestina ends up crying. The narrator explains that they "did not kiss. They could not. How can you mercilessly imprison all natural sexual instinct for twenty years and then not expect the prisoner to be racked by sobs when the doors are thrown open?" (71).
The lower classes seem to take a healthier view of sex, or at least a less repressed one. Mary incarnates female sexual attractiveness, and she "invite[s] male provocation" and enjoys being looked at and flirted with (64). She seems to be much more comfortable with her own body than Ernestina is; although she cries a little after having sex with Sam Fuller, we might remember that Ernestina bursts into sobs at the mere idea of kissing Charles. Premarital sex is much more common and even accepted in the lower classes, although it ends in disaster as often as it does in a marriage (214). We have a few examples of both cases provided through the characters of the novel: Mary is an example of someone who has sex before marriage, but who marries her partner and lives happily ever after, although it does cause her some tears along the way (204). Sarah the prostitute is an example of premarital sex among the lower classes gone wrong - the father of her daughter paid for her delivery, but then went to India to be a soldier and has left her to take care of the child. The only viable option for her is prostitution.
There is a huge difference in how women and men view sex and are expected to engage or refrain from engaging in it. It's difficult for a modern day reader to imagine certain aspects of this gendered attitude toward sex: for example, the narrator reminds us that the prevailing consensus at the time was that women feel no "carnal pleasure" and therefore cannot physically enjoy sex (128). Charles believes, like many Victorian men, that women cannot "enjoy being a receptacle for male lust" (277). This has obviously been disproved; nowadays we are much more educated about the female sex drive and orgasm. However, we can see that other aspects of sexual culture have persisted: for example, the Victorian culture shames women who engage in premarital sex, or who are thought to be enjoying sex too much - and this kind of shaming of female sexuality is very much alive and well today, in a society where girls who have sex are often labeled 'sluts,' just as Sarah is labeled the French lieutenant's "whore."
Neither gender is particularly well educated about sex in the Victorian period, but the difference is that the men are allowed to gain knowledge about sex through experience, whereas the women must stay ignorant until marriage. This may be another similarity with our modern world: although sex education has vastly improved in many parts of the United States and Western Europe since 1867, in some more conservative places sex education is still not required to be taught in schools. The consequences of a lack of sexual education are clear in The French Lieutenant's Woman: Ernestina knows almost nothing of what sex actually consists of. Her imagination produces "dimly glimpsed" embraces based on animals' coupling, and she is terrified by how brutal the act of sex must be (29). Her lack of education makes her hate the idea of sex, which she considers a "bestial version of Duty" that is a necessary but terrible price to pay if she is to get what she really wants out of her relationship with Charles: love, stability, and children (29).
The dynamics between women and men in terms of soliciting sex tend to be quite gendered as well, and are closely linked with power. In Ernestina and Charles' relationship, Charles is the one who tends to ask for physical contact, and Ernestina is put in the position of accepting or refusing his advances. For example, Charles has to "steal" kisses on Ernestina's eyelids, and can only do so when she is feeling sorry enough to grant him the privilege (90). In the first sex scene between Sarah and Charles, Sarah is "passive" while Charles is penetrating her (274).
Scientific progress and discovery
It is rare that novels deal with science as a major theme - art and artistic creation tend to be much more popular themes, for obvious reasons. But Fowles has built science into the fabric of The French Lieutenant's Woman, so much so that to not address science would be to give an incomplete analysis of the work.
First of all, the concept at the center of the novel is, as mentioned several times already, Darwinism. This is a famous scientific theory by Charles Darwin, who is writing and publishing a little before the characters of the novel are experiencing their personal dramas, claiming that species evolve over time by a process of natural selection: the individuals in a species who are best adapted to their environment's changing conditions survive and reproduce, and eventually their genes become dominant in the species' gene pool. This was a very controversial theory at the time (as we are told from Chapter 1, when Ernestina's father and Charles quarrel about whether humans can really be descended from monkeys).
Darwinism is controversial partly for the reason that its implications are huge, and extend beyond the realm of biology. Thanks to Darwin's ideas, the Victorians are beginning to realize that everything "is in reality a continuous flux," and species that we recognize have changed and will continue to change over time (45). Nothing is stable, and soon nothing will be quite as it was. Of course, the Victorians do not like this idea, since they are very attached to their traditions, and are very conservative in many ways. There are many huge social changes taking place during this era: changes in the position of women, in the traditional class system structure, and in people's attitudes toward religion, sex, and a host of other things. It seems that the shift to the Darwinian perspective precipitates and mirrors other shifts in the Victorian consciousness.
Charles, who is arguably the protagonist of the novel but is certainly the character on which the narrator most frequently dwells, is a scientist - or, at least, an amateur paleontologist. Darwinism is one of the main threats to Victorian society; it's ironic, then, that Charles, who is such a Victorian gentleman, should be a supporter of Darwin. Its implications menace the fabric of 'respectability' that the Victorians so value; the narrator of the novel notes that Darwinism could lead to a way of looking at the world in which morality is reduced to "hypocrisy," and duty "to a straw hut in a hurricane" (99). Charles initially thinks of himself as the "naturally selected," and appreciates the explanation that Darwinism seems to give for his heightened social status: he is simply the fittest, the smartest, and the most suited to be on top of the social pyramid (132). Later, though, Charles begins to doubt whether this is true. When he is actually in nature, Charles feels "excommunicated," not like a fit example of life (192).
In different interviews, Fowles has expressed various views on scientific progress. In a Paris Review interview, he highlights the importance of Darwinian thought in the Victorian age: this was when "rational science began at last to cast off the shackles of obscurantist religion, when reason began to triumph over myth." This seems to be a positive portrayal as science as a force for enlightenment and social good. However, Fowles mitigates this by claiming that "[o]ur present scientific world...has its faults and problems, of course, and perhaps the pendulum has swung too far." Seemingly, Fowles is suggesting that there is a limit to what science can achieve, and that more science isn't always the answer to society's problems, even though it did a lot of good for the backward Victorians.
In a BBC interview in 1977, Fowles casts doubt on the ability of science to answer all our questions, saying that to think that science "has solved all our problems" is just an "illusion," and that science will never be able to explain everything. What is left, when science has explained all it can, must be tackled by something else - maybe spirituality; maybe art. Science isn't as joyful as an unscientific appreciation of nature - when overwhelmed by the beauty of nature in Chapter 10, Charles is "forced...into anti-science" (60). Only art can truly capture the perfect loveliness of scenes like this, the narrator comments, and in particular only the art of the Renaissance era. Furthermore, in Chapter 29, science seems to deny the secret that Nature clearly conveys to Charles: that all life is equal.
Mystery and uncertainty - the unknowable
In a 1977 BBC interview, John Fowles claimed that "all art also is really bound up with (1), the idea of the unknown and (2), the idea of the unknowable, the impossible." This may explain why mystery is a major theme of The French Lieutenant's Woman.The novel emphasizes the importance of mystery in an age where science can't quite give us all the answers to the questions we really care about. Doctor Grogan says of Sarah's incomprehensible sadness that Charles' "ammonites will never hold such mysteries as that," suggesting that the emotional realm of humanity is far less penetrable than science would have us think (127).
Sarah in the novel is mystery personified. Initially, the reader cannot even tell what gender she is, and it takes a few chapters for us to learn her real name. Not till she has sex with Charles in the Endicott Hotel do we learn that she is actually a virgin, and we never seem to learn her true motives for having acted as she has. Sarah has "darker qualities" (99), she is always dressed in black, and when Charles sees her he describes her as a "dark movement" in his field of vision (98). She contrasts strongly in this way to Ernestina, who often appears in pretty, light-colored dresses, and had no real secrets to hide.
Sarah's mysterious nature is certainly part of her attraction; Charles is fascinated by her "unpredictability" (153). In the same BBC interview, Fowles commented that he doesn't "think certainty makes for happiness in a human being," and we definitely see Charles longing for an element of mystery in a high-society life that is sometimes too banal and predictable for his liking. In his love letter to Sarah in Chapter 49, Charles dwells on her mysterious nature, calling her his "sweet enigma" and "sweet and mysterious Sarah" (290). It is interesting how he can feel so strongly about her despite knowing so little about her, and he does recognize that she is "a being he yet but scarcely understands" (290). Her mystery attracts him - but is this attraction sustainable?
It would seem that there is a sort of barrier between them that is born of this lack of mutual understanding. Their relationship is very unbalanced in this way: Sarah knows Charles even better than he knows himself (she knows that he loves her before he realizes it himself), while Charles "scarcely understands" Sarah (290). At the close of the novel's first ending, Charles asks Sarah: "Shall I ever understand...?" and Sarah shakes her head—she is never meant to be understood (360). Charles wants to be tender and intimate with her - he loves her, after all - and yet she will always be "a stranger" to him (290). Charles' love for Sarah is largely speculative, because he knows so little about her. He imagines "unknown Sarahs" who dance and laugh and sing (291). He imagines what it would be like to be married to Sarah (287). When he is separated from her, traveling Europe as an exile from British society, he slowly realizes that he can't really tell the difference between the "real Sarah and the Sarah he had created in so many such dreams" (336). Sarah's totally mysterious nature leaves her a blank canvas on which Charles can project his dreams, and create his perfect woman, "Eve personified" (336).
The dark side of mystery in The French Lieutenant's Womanis deception and concealment. Sarah is referred to as "the Sphinx," which hints at the potentially dangerous nature of her secrecy (344). Montague jokes - a joke that cuts too close for Charles - that Charles must remember "what happened to those who failed to solve the enigma" (344). Under Sarah's happiness in the first ending of the novel is a great concealed and continued sadness, which she is willing herself not to perceive: she claims that she is "not to be understood even by [her]self" and that her happiness depends on her "not understanding" (354). Here, as Charles eventually realizes, what she doesn't want to understand is that her "supposed present happiness [is] another lie," and that she actually is still suffering (255). Here, deception is necessary for life to continue.
At the end of the novel's second ending, Charles comes to the conclusion that "life...is not one riddle" (366). This is an incredibly important realization for him to have - he has spent so long trying to unlock Sarah's mysteries, thinking that to do so would give him the key to a happy and fulfilled life - and here he realizes that there is no 'quick fix' and no one riddle to solve that will give him the secret meaning of life. Even though he was happy chasing the illusion that mystery would bring him happiness, he was ultimately deluded: life is meant to be "endured," not solved (366).
Duty is described by the narrator of The French Lieutenant's Womanas "a uniquely Victorian trait" that creates the order and morality that the Victorians so valued (29). Duty, rather than passion, is the motivating force behind many of the characters and behind the era as a whole.
All the characters seem to experience the sense of duty, except for the modern woman Sarah, who is motivated by "passion" (153). Ernestina feels the burden of the "bestial...Duty" to have sex with one's husband as a payment for all the enjoyable things that marriage brings (29). Uncle Robert expects Charles to be more "dutiful" toward him as a father figure (172). Mrs. Poulteney feels a duty to give charity - although her charity must necessarily be false and hollow with Duty as its primary motivator, and it is not an adequate substitute for compassionate morality; Mrs. Fairley similarly takes a perverse joy in doing her harmful "duty" and telling on Sarah (178).
Charles feels a very strong sense of duty to many things. He feels a "duty towards Ernestina" which requires him to spend time with her and make sure that he follows the proper conventions that an engagement requires of him (60). These duties can become "onerous," but Charles is imbued with a sense of purpose in following them, so he takes some pleasure in making sure he is doing his duty (49). Even though he is merely a scientific amateur, Charles feels a duty toward the pursuit of scientific knowledge, as we can see from Charles' serious approach to fossil-hunting in Chapter 8, when he dresses with a "methodicality" that was typical of the time period but which seems excessive and pleasure-killing to us now (43).
Charles relies on it to provide him with purpose and guidance. In Chapter 33, Charles is relieved when "Duty, as so often, [comes] to his aid" and dictates what actions he must take in a given situation (204). Pleasure and duty, far from being mutually exclusive, are often wrapped together in Charles' mind, as when he tries to justify his helping Sarah by saying that there is an "element of duty" as well as an "element of pleasure," and that his course of action is justified by the "element of duty" - no one would expect him as a gentleman not to do his duty (134).
But duty is yet another treasured Victorian value that is threatened by a Darwinian interpretation of the world, since Darwinism, when its full implications are considered, seems to "reduce...duty to a straw hut in a hurricane" (99).
Throughout the novel, Charles experiences a loss of a sense of duty, although he keeps trying to hold on to it as a justification for what he does. Charles' tragedy, he says, is that he no longer feels any "real sense of duty to anything" and this makes him lack a "moral purpose" (180). In the scene in the church after he has sex with Sarah, Charles tells himself that "duty" requires him to go back to Ernestina and fulfill his engagement vows to her (283). However, his "better self" knows that "Duty is but a pot" that can hold either evil or good, and that duty isn't necessarily good (283). Duty is not an objective value to strive toward; Charles has been willfully misinterpreting it and clinging onto the idea of duty. It is rather a "prison" in which Charles is "comfortably safe" and feels no urge to leave, because what is outside the prison is too frightening to contemplate (284). This ridiculous attempt to hold onto duty is what distinguishes Charles from a "modern man," who understands that there are more important things in life (288).
Social mobility and revolution
The main themes of The French Lieutenant are all interlinked in some way, and the theme of social class and the changing social situation in Victorian England is intimately bound up with Darwinist thought. Charles can recognize that he lives in an era of change: he exclaims to himself that his time is "such an age of change!" in which so many "orders" are "beginning to melt and dissolve" (259). He cannot act on this knowledge, though, and adapt himself to the new social order - other classes are able to make the most of the changing times and begin to rise through the ranks of society.
Charles believes in Darwinism, and he believes that he can apply its principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest to his own life. Throughout the beginning of the novel, he refers to himself as being the "naturally selected" (132). In Charles' mind, he is "undoubtedly" one of "the fittest" specimens that humanity has to offer (134). It isn't clear why he believes this, but apart from his good looks and his intelligence, one of the major factors that contribute to his self-confidence is his social status. Charles is an aristocrat, and he thinks that nature has put him on top of the social hierarchy because of some merit in himself and his ancestors - why else would he be so blessed as to never have to work for his food and shelter?
However, the events and the commentary of The French Lieutenant's Womanseem to suggest that Charles is deluding himself. He may be on top of the metaphorical 'food chain' in Victorian England, but part of what makes an organism the "fittest" is its ability to adapt to changes in the environment. If a living thing cannot adapt to new circumstances, it will not survive and reproduce, and will eventually die out. We see in the novel that Charles is incapable of the sort of change that is necessary for survival in his rapidly changing environment. In his interview with the businessman Mr. Freeman, Charles is offered a lucrative position of partnership in his father-in-law's business, and yet he feels he cannot accept the offer because "he was a gentleman and gentlemen cannot go into trade" (227). Despite Charles being a Darwinist, he is unable to break free of the conventions that would allow him to build his own fortune and keep up with the times. To survive and prosper, money is needed - but Charles does not want to be interested in money, because he is a gentleman and he feels "the pursuit of money [is] an insufficient purpose in life" (233). Charles is therefore a "victim of evolution" (228). Like the "ancient saurian species" of dinosaur to which Charles' social class is compared later in the same chapter, Charles will soon be a relic of a bygone era (230).
Who will replace him? There is a sort of class revolution - or at least softening of traditional social rules - at the top of the social scale, where the nouveau riche (like Ernestina's family) are appearing in abundance for the first time. Previously, the top of the social hierarchy was only accessible to those who were born aristocratic, like Charles; now, we can see "the beginnings of a plutocratic stratification of society" - in other words, money can now buy you "social standing" more than ever before (67). There is an element of meritocracy here, as well: "good money" can be supplemented by "good brains," and in combination these can provide a lucky few with "a passable enough facsimile of acceptable social standing" (67).
It is also important to remember that the philosophy of Marx is being developed in the same year as the novel's setting. Marx is mentioned - though not by name - in the third chapter of the novel, as the "German Jew quietly working...in the British Museum library," whose thoughts would produce "such bright red fruit" (16). Marx would like to have the working-class take over from the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, and we do see some indications of upward mobility for a few of the lower-class characters in The French Lieutenant's Woman.In Chapter 7, we meet Charles' manservant Sam Farrow, who is described as less satisfied with his low status than previous generations of working-class men, and who works tirelessly throughout the novel to achieve his dream of opening a clothing store and entering the middle class. Charles warns Sam that "once you take ideas above your station you will have nothing but unhappiness," but the fact that Sam is ultimately successful may make us doubt Charles' advice, and give us hope for increased social mobility (257).
Similarly, servant-girl Mary envies Ernestina her dresses and her fiancé, but actually lives a happier life than the bourgeois Ernestina. She is not plagued by Ernestina's consuming fear of sex - in fact, she enjoys flirting with and kissing the boys who woo her - and she is too busy and lively to be gripped by the sulky ennui which Ernestina sometimes wallows in. Ernestina also, in fact, envies Mary - she is jealous when Mary talks to Charles, and she is jealous of Mary's prettiness. Just as her future husband Sam Farrow is less than content to be ordered around by Charles, Mary feels "a flash of defiance" when Ernestina tries to control her life (67). Ernestina may be right when she complains internally that "servants were such a problem, as everyone said. Were not what they were, as everyone said," but it is difficult to sympathize with her, and easy to cheer on the rise of a new, hard-working middle class (67).
There are, of course, lower-class people who are born into greater poverty than Mary and Sam, and who never achieve their middle-class dream. True poverty and its social effects are incarnated in Millie, Mrs. Poulteney's maid. Her destitute home life is "too bitter to describe," and a world away from the idealized images of peasants that art and literature at the time were trying to promote (129). The narrator declares that he hates the "walls" that the elite of society build around their "Versailles," especially when the wall is made of art - he intends to show us the true state of the poor as well as the rich (129). Sarah the prostitute is another example of how terrible conditions for the lower class can be, as she has to sell sex in order to care for a child that she conceived accidentally with a man who left her.
The upper-class is actually frightened of the lower classes, which is surprising because we assume that they have so much more power and money that they need not worry about insurrection, but less surprising when we consider the sheer numbers of lower-class families in England at the time, and the amount of resentment and anger that they might legitimately feel. In Chapter 19, during Dr. Grogan and Charles' discussion, Dr. Grogan remarks that the British government "fears the mob" (124). We also learn later that Charles actually is also "frightened by...those below his own class" (233). He may play with the idea of being a socialist, but as the narrator tells us, "Charles was no early socialist," and that he is not fully conscious of his economic and social privilege, but has a vague fear that someone will steal these from him (230). His delusional revelation in London in Chapter 38 is ridiculous: he claims that "the lower orders were secretly happier than the upper" and are "happy parasites" living off the rich (231).
Fowles paints the Victorian era as a time of great social upheaval and change; by including characters from all social castes in the text and depicting their ambitions and fears, he clearly shows us which sort of people are rising in status, and which sort of people are failing to adapt to the circumstances around them, and will eventually lose ground in the war of the classes.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The first estate consisted of the religious leaders who were in charge of the Church. Regardless of the fact that these church leaders represented a mere 1% of France's total population, they controlled almost 10% of its land in France. These...