Though a bestseller, the novel has also received significant scrutiny by literary critics. Especially during the 1960s and 70s, a novel with great popularity and significant academic scrutiny is unusual; in literary study, the canon and its academic defenders often focused on "high literary" works that didn't have large popular followings. In her study of postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon described The French Lieutenant Woman's binary of popular and academic interest as a paradox similar to the postmodern thematic binaries produced within the novel's content. Because of its prominence since publication, the novel has received a variety of different academic re-examinations in light of numerous critical and thematic approaches. Some of the most popular concerns for the novel are its discussion of gender, especially questioning "Is the novel a feminist novel?", its engagement with metafictional and metahistorical concepts and its treatment of science and religion.
The novel creates a number of binaries between men and women. Michelle Phillips Buchberger argues that The French Lieutenant's Woman, along with Fowles two earlier novels The Collector (1963) and The Magus (1965), portrays a fundamental a binary between the male and female characters: the female characters act as an elite set of "creators" or "educated, visionary, and predominantly female" characters who provide the facilitation for evolution "in existential terms" of the male "'collectors', whose traits are present in all of Fowles's flawed male protagonists." Though acknowledging such binaries in the role of the characters, critic Alice Ferrebe does not treat these binaries as necessary thematic elements. Rather, the binaries demonstrate what she calls a gendered "scopic politics", or a politics created by a gaze (not dissimilar from the "male gaze" noticed in cinema studies), that constructs an artificial gender binary within Fowle's early novels (as opposed to a multiplicity of socially constructed genders). For Ferrebe, this binary creates a tension, especially with Sarah, who becomes a violently fetishised and objectified "other", differentiated from the male characters like Charles.
A number of critics have treated the novel as a feminist novel. The novel's narrator demonstrates and proclaims a feminist approach to women: Sarah is presented as a more liberated and independently willed woman as compared to the other model female characters, such as Ernestina and her aunt. In a 1985 interview by Jan Relf, Fowles declared himself a "feminist".
Magali Cornier Michael criticises this reading of the text, saying that the novel's overwhelming reliance on male perspectives on women and feminism prevents the novel from meeting feminist objectives. Similarly, Michelle Phillips Buchberger argues that The French Lieutenant's Woman, along with Fowles' two earlier novels The Collector (1963) and The Magus (1965), proclaimed a "pseudo-feminism" while advocating some feminist ideas; but, she says, they are permeated by a "fetishism [of women that] perpetuates the idea of woman as 'other'". Alice Ferrebe also notes that, despite Fowles' attempts to critique masculine values, his novels remain male fantasies demonstrative of the "compromises and contradictions" created by the gendered situation in which he was writing. Other literary critics, such as William Palmer, Peter Conradi, Bruce Woodcock and Pamela Cooper, have also critiqued Fowles' claims to a feminist perspective and representation.[notes 1]
Metafiction, historiography and metahistory
In her important study of postmodernity and its poetics in literature, Linda Hucheon describes this novel as definitive of a genre she calls "historiographic metafiction". She defines this postmodern genre as "well-known and popular novels which are both intensely self-reflexive yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages." Typically postmodern, this genre of fiction blends the creation of imagined narratives with critique on the various modes in which we create knowledge, such as history and literature. Important to her discussion of the genre's post-modern style, The French Lieutenant's Woman's self-reflexive narration bridges different discourses that usually remain separated, such as academic history, literary criticism, philosophy and literature.
The text's representations of the past introduce anachronistic perspectives on the time and the characters. For example, in her queer studies-based article, "Historical Romance, Gender and Heterosexuality", Lisa Fletcher argues that The French Lieutenant's Woman, by relying on a "good love story" as the central means of representing the past, projects a contemporary hetero-normative sexuality on the history of Victorian England. For Fletcher, Fowles' paradoxical treatment of Sarah as both a Victorian character and as a desirable "modern woman," through feminist gestures and sexual tension between Charles and Sarah, confines the historical set characters and their experience to stereotypical heterosexual romance. Fletcher believes that overall the text creates a stereotypical and limited perspective on the past, essentially "heterosexualising the passage of (and relationship to) history".
Science and religion
Emphasis on a conflicted relationship between science and religion frequently occurs in both historical studies of Victorian history and Neo-Victorian novels. In his chapter on The French Lieutenant's Woman in his book, Evolution and the Uncrucified Jesus, John Glendening argues that Fowles' novel is one of the first neo-Victorian novels to handle the dynamic created between science and religion in Victorian identity. Glendening notes that more generally "Christian ideas and conventions become appropriated in the service of a secularist and extensional version of truth."
Glendening says that Fowles uses commentary on Darwinism "to comment on characters and their experience and to forward a view of natural and human reality opposed to Christian doctrine, and, within limits amenable to existentialist philosophy. " In general, Glendening sees ideas of science and religion as central to the personal and social identities that develop within the novel, but creating symbolically conflictual binaries. He suggests that Fowles manoeuvres these conflictual forces to favour an existential self-revelation exhibited through the main character of Smithson, leading to a conclusion that "the freedom implicit in accepting alienation should be exercised in overcoming it."