The French Lieutenant's Woman

The French Lieutenant's Woman Literary Elements


Historical fiction

Setting and Context

The novel starts in the coastal town of Lyme Regis, in the Victorian period (1867). The characters move from Lyme to the big cities of London and Exeter; at one point Charles leaves England altogether and spends time traveling Europe and America.

Narrator and Point of View

The novel is written in the first person, although it attempts to make us believe that it is written in the omniscient third. The narrator is not really a character in the action for the majority of the novel, which allows him an objective third-person view - but he is a minor character, as we see later in the story. Throughout the first fifty chapters or so, the narrator makes himself a part of the story - the dramatic narratorial of Chapter 13 is an example of this, when he admits that "this story [he is] telling is all imagination" (80). Our author admits to being the narrator, and continually reminds us that he is not only narrating the story, he is also imagining it: he definitely doesn't try to hide the fact that, as he says, "I am a novelist" (81). The narrator playfully inserts himself into the text in other ways, as when testifies that he has bought the same jug that Sarah purchases in Exeter, "a year or two ago for a good deal more than the three pennies Sarah was charged" (220). In Chapter 55 and Chapter 61, the narrator appears as a physical character in Charles' and Sarah's world - he is a minor character who plays the important role of winding back his pocket watch by 15 minutes, to allow the second ending to occur. This, of course, is a physical representation of what he is doing as the author outside the bounds of the story, which is manipulating the narrative. The narratorial voice is present throughout the novel, bursting through in certain places to remind us that the narrator is the author, and that the story is a fiction.

Tone and Mood

The tone is often very playful, thanks to the narratorial voice. Nothing seems to be too sacred to be mocked: he makes fun of the Victorian values of Duty, Civilization, and more. The narrator pokes fun of the hypocrisy of Mrs. Poulteney, the foolishness of Charles, and the pettiness of Ernestina. The mood shifts throughout the novel depending on the character whose point of view we are seeing the action from: Charles is often introspective, Sarah is mysterious and melancholic, and the other minor characters are more business-like and pragmatic.

Protagonist and Antagonist

The protagonists of this novel are Charles Smithson and Sarah Woodruff. There is no single person who is an antagonist, although there are unsympathetic characters (like Mrs. Poulteney). Instead, the antagonist seems to be the restrictive Victorian society that Charles and Sarah live in.

Major Conflict

The major conflict of the novel could be categorized as man versus himself, or man versus society. Charles, although he is engaged to the pretty and rich Ernestina, finds himself fascinated by Sarah, the "French Lieutenant's Whore." Several things are preventing him from being with Sarah. For one, society would frown upon such a match, and Charles is very acutely aware of his 'Duty' to his family name and to his social class. Secondly, Charles is already engaged, and he feels a strong sense of duty toward the young woman whom he has promised to marry. Thirdly, Charles will not admit to himself for the majority of the novel that he is actually in love with Sarah, and it isn't until they consummate their relationship in Chapters 46-47 that Charles realizes the depth of his feeling for her.


There are several scenes that could claim to be the anticlimax, but the two major contenders are the two endings of the novel (Chapter 60 and Chapter 61). In Chapter 60, we get one vision of how the reunion scene between Sarah and Charles plays out, and their intense discussion ends with Charles meeting his baby daughter and the family sharing a tender moment on the rug. The other vision of the ending of the novel is in Chapter 61, in which the intense discussion becomes a passionate argument, which ends with Charles storming out and leaving Sarah forever. One might consider these scenes denouements rather than climaxes, but they are crucial to the plot, and allow the conflict to be resolved (each in their own way), and they happen at a heightened emotional pitch.


There is a lot of foreshadowing inherent in the narrator's position in the modern era, looking back, but none of it is particularly relevant to the characters' lives; it pertains to the future of society as a whole. For example, the narrator predicts the birth of communism in Chapter 3, and discusses the future of "feminine emancipation" in Chapter 16 (95). As a modern-day writer, information about what happened in England's history is readily available to Fowles, and he liberally sprinkles his text with hints of what is in store for post-Victorian Britain.

Foreshadowing regarding the characters' lives is harder to come by. The narrator can be very devious - for example, he claims that Ernestina is so willful that "she leaves [him] no alternative but to conclude that she must, in the end, win Charles back from his infidelity" (202). Is this foreshadowing? It doesn't align with the first ending of the novel, in which it seems as though Sarah and Charles will begin a new life together with their child. It may or may not foreshadow the second ending - or rather, the events after the rather inconclusive second ending. Perhaps Charles will get back together with Ernestina, but it seems unlikely - we have to conclude that Fowles' earlier comment about Ernestina winning Charles back was likely false foreshadowing - but we cannot be sure.




The text is liberally peppered with allusions, most of which are included by the narrator to make some comment on the time period of the novel, often by comparing it to our own era. Charles is a very learned character, and certain stimuli provoke connections in his mind between what he is experiencing and what he has read about. For example, when the beauty of Nature overwhelms him, Charles - and by proxy, the narrator - are sent into ecstasies of allusion, comparing the beauty of the scene to Renaissance (60, 191).

Charles' women also inspire allusions in the text, mostly relating to ancient mythology. Ernestina is a "sugar Aphrodite," an allusion to the goddess of love that highlights Ernestina's beauty and her sweet attempts to impress Charles with her appearance (207). Sarah the prostitute is so passive and statue-like that Charles is compared to Pygmalion, her sculptor (248). In order to explain why Charles does not run from Sarah Woodruff as she tries to reveal her secrets to him in Chapter 18, an allusion to Homer's Odyssey is employed: Charles has "too fixed an idea of what a siren look[s] like" and therefore is taken aback by Sarah, who does not fit this Homeric image (117). Charles is expecting women who will seduce and derail him to appear in certain circumstances, and so he is taken off guard here in the Undercliff. Sarah is also connected to Madame Bovary in Charles' mind, because she is such a modern woman and there isn't a proper example from classical literature that will explain her in his mind. In this case, the narrator comments that "[s]uch allusions are comprehensions; and temptations" - this hints at the power that allusions contain (100).


The novel is full of imagery, which makes sense: it is the business of a historical novel to evoke the period in which it is set.

Some of the most common types of imagery that appear are natural imagery - in the description of Ware Commons in Chapter 10, for example, or in the elemental imagery that is often used to describe the relationship between Charles and Sarah in terms of fire and water and so forth. There is also religious imagery that mixes interestingly with scientific imagery, for example when Charles imagines a tiny wren as "the Announcing Angel of evolution" (191).

There is also a recurring piece of imagery that compares Charles to a wild, predatory animal when he is sexually aroused. For example, he is compared to a "lion" when he is feeling "debased" (228). In Chapter 31, when Charles comes across Sarah sleeping for the second time, he realizes that "the tiger [is] in him, not in her" - in other words, he has been projecting his sexual and animalistic desires onto her, but he is undoubtedly the source of the sexual tension between them (196).


The most evident paradox in the novel, which is explicitly detailed, is that of sexuality in the Victorian age. The narrator notes with wryness that to the Victorians, "woman was sacred" but "you could buy a thirteen-year-old girl for a few pounds" - a seeming paradox, because something which is sacred should also be priceless, or at least worth more than a few pounds (211). Other paradoxes related to sexuality in the Victorian period follow: the abundance of both churches and brothels, the huge output of both very chaste literature and salacious pornography. The ability to contain conflicting factors and impulses is an interesting trait of the Victorians, and perhaps has something to do with the "schizophrenia" that the narrator claims is characteristic of the era (288). He writes that "every Victorian ha[s] two minds," and this might explain how they are able to tolerate what seems like total hypocrisy to us.


There is an interesting example of false parallelism in this novel: the stories of Marie and of Sarah are presented as analogous cases by Doctor Grogan in Chapter 28, and the apparent similarities make Charles and the reader suspicious of Sarah's motives, since Marie lied outrageously in order to manipulate those around her and have an innocent man condemned by society and in court. The uncertainty caused by this parallel lingers in Charles' mind throughout the rest of the novel, and since Sarah's motives are never clearly elucidated for the reader, we cannot tell how valid the supposed parallel may be.

Metonymy and Synecdoche



Charles and the narrator both often personify nature, often in order to make humans seem small, stupid, or insignificant in comparison. For example, in Chapter 18, when Charles and Sarah are engaged in stilted conversation, unable to express their feelings, the narrator comments that "a woodpecker laughed in some green recess, mocking those two static bipeds far below" (117). Similarly, in Chapter 29, Charles is so paranoid as he searches for Sarah on Ware Commons that he starts to believe that "the trees, the flowers, even the inanimate things around him were watching him. Flowers became eyes, stones and ears, the trunks of the reproving trees were a numberless Greek chorus" (192).

Charles also personifies duty at one point when he notes that "Duty...was his real wife" (159). This personification serves to show the strength of his dedication to what he views as his duty - no matter what the duty consists of, he will stick with it.