The French Lieutenant's Woman

The French Lieutenant's Woman Essay Questions

  1. 1

    The narrator of The French Lieutenant's Woman is positioned in the twentieth century, but is writing with a keenly ironic voice about the nineteenth century. He makes use of some tropes in the Victorian novel, but presents us with a hugely modified 'twist' on this conventional form of fiction. In what ways does this novel employ and yet reinterpret or distort elements of a traditional Victorian novel?

    Some of the themes treated by the novel are similar to those that appear in much Victorian fiction: love, marriage, and sex. The characters' psychology is detailed in a realistic way, and internal monologues are employed frequently in Victorian fiction as well. In Chapter 44, we are given a 'traditional ending’ that is full of marriages and children. However, the novelist is very self-aware, and keeps reminding us that we are reading a work of fiction - most Victorian novels try to preserve the illusion, and often contain a 'frame' that serves to heighten the reader's suspension of disbelief. The constant interjection of anachronistic imagery, like the "computer" in Sarah's heart, and of details of events from the 20th century, also remind us constantly that the narrator is not operating from a Victorian point of view. The second ending that the narrator provides is not at all traditional, due to its ambivalent tone and the lack of closure in the relationship between the main characters.

  2. 2

    Fate and free will are two major themes of this novel, and appear in many forms. Write an essay which addresses the effect of the following types of freedom: the freedom the characters experience, the freedom that the narrator gives them, and the freedom that the narrator feels or feels that he lacks. To support your argument, refer to the effect of the narratorial voice, and any metaphors or similes that are used in the novel to help our understanding of what the characters and narrator mean by 'freedom' or a lack thereof. (Hint: a good starting point might be to discuss how Darwinist philosophy affects Charles' understanding of freedom. You should also analyze the analogy the narrator draws between himself and God.)

    See the "Freedom" section under "Themes."

  3. 3

    What is the role that minor characters play in this novel? Pick one or two characters, or a group of characters, and explain how they contribute to an important stylistic or thematic feature of The French Lieutenant's Woman. (Hint: you could discuss characters that act as foils to the main characters, characters that represent a certain social class or stereotype, or characters that have other symbolism in the novel.)

    Mary and Sam are included to show that lower-class characters have their own unique emotions, hopes, and fears - they are not the caricatures of servants that so many Victorian novels present us with. In fact, they rise in status over the course of the novel, showing that social mobility is increasingly possible in this world, and that upper-class characters like Charles may soon be obsolete.

    Mrs. Poulteney is included to show the worst implications of Victorian morality - she pretends to be a kind and charitable woman, but follows "charity" and "duty" and "religion" for all the wrong reasons. As such, she does more harm than good, and the narrator takes every opportunity to make fun of her in his signature ironic tone.

  4. 4

    Sarah is an unusual character, and is referred to as a 'modern woman' more than once. What makes her a modern woman? What symbols or imagery does Fowles use to highlight her anachronistic nature? What is the effect of her modernity on the other characters and on the novel as a whole?

    See Sarah's section under the "Characters" list for a discussion of her modernity. The effect of her modernity is to throw the ridiculous old-fashioned values and sense of "duty" in Victorian society into relief, and make us realize that a society that casts out a character merely because she is different is a society full of hypocrisy.

  5. 5

    Which ending of The French Lieutenant's Woman do you prefer, and why? Which best illuminates the story's central themes, and which is truest to the characters and their relationships? Which best fits the tone of the novel?

    Readers may prefer the first ending, because it brings the love story of Charles and Sarah to at least some sort of closure. Such readers may argue that the whole novel has been set up to bring these characters together, and so the first ending is the best because it allows this union to finally take place, providing a perfect denouement to the novel.

    Others may prefer the rather bleaker second ending, because it is more in keeping with the ironic tone of the novel. Readers may also find the second ending more 'realistic,' because it is not likely given Victorian society's strict rules and views that Sarah and Charles would ever end up together, coming from such different backgrounds as they do. The first ending is too far away from the "traditional ending" that the narrator gives us in Chapter 45, so it doesn't ring as true as the second ending does.

  6. 6

    Comment on the last line of the novel: "And out again, upon the unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea." Why does Fowles use this quote to close the second ending? What is the effect of the imagery used, and what does it say about Charles' state of mind by the end of the novel?

    The last sentence removes us from a specific setting - the narrow world of Victorian London - and takes us "out again, upon the unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea" (366). This is a quote from a poem "To Marguerite," which Fowles quoted in Chapter 58. The wild imagery associated with the mysterious sea contrasts with Victorian society, and by including this as the last line of the novel the narrator suggests that Charles is inspired to go on and endure the struggles of a strange and "estranging" world (366).

  7. 7

    Sarah and Charles have a tumultuous relationship, which the author describes with lots of different recurring images. Comment on these images, and what they reveal about the relationship between the two protagonists.

    Often, animalistic imagery is used to describe their relationship - sometimes Sarah is the prey and Charles is the predator, and sometimes vice versa. The danger of their relationship is also highlighted through images relating to fire and to water, and to images of standing at a height and fearing falling.

  8. 8

    What does The French Lieutenant's Woman reveal about sexuality and sexual relations in the Victorian period, and how are these relations portrayed?

    See the "Love and Sex" section in "Themes."

  9. 9

    Who is the protagonist of this novel? Is it Sarah, Charles, both, or neither? What does the author say about this? What is the effect of the possible uncertainty of who the protagonist is?

    The protagonist seems to be Charles, because we spend most of our time in his head, and we know his thoughts very well. However, the author says in Chapter 55 that Sarah is the protagonist. This brings up the interesting question of whether Sarah can be a protagonist if we know so little about her compared to Charles - the book is named after her, of course, but she is largely a mysterious character. The effect of this uncertainty is that we are invested in both characters, and both characters need their character arcs brought to a satisfying conclusion - whether that has them romantically linked or not. The second ending is valid partly because it allows both characters to come to an independent concluding state, even though they are not together.

  10. 10

    One of the major themes of the novel is the changing class system, which the narrator links explicitly to Darwinism. What sort of literary devices are used to establish this connection, and what effect does the changing class system have on the characters in the novel?

    See the "Social Mobility and Revolution" section under "Themes."