‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ by John Fowles [Book Review]

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This is one of those novels that I found really difficult to properly get into because it keeps calling attention to the fact that it is a work of fiction. This is a common trait in postmodern novels and metafiction in general but it certainly does pull you out of the story. The timeline parallels itself and doubles back to change past events, which calls into question what the real story is, and suddenly you have a novel that’s not only difficult to follow but even more difficult to immerse yourself in as a reader. Add to that the fact that one of the main characters is named Sarah and I’m all kinds of uncomfortable while reading this novel. Still, there’s a lot of really interesting things that are happening once you start to look back on what you’ve read.

Goodreads Summary

The scene is the village of Lyme Regis on Dorset’s Lyme Bay…”the largest bite from the underside of England’s out-stretched southwestern leg.” The major characters in the love-intrigue triangle are Charles Smithson, 32, a gentleman of independent means & vaguely scientific bent; his fiancée, Ernestina Freeman, a pretty heiress daughter of a wealthy & pompous dry goods merchant; & Sarah Woodruff, mysterious & fascinating…deserted after a brief affair with a French naval officer a short time before the story begins. Obsessed with an irresistible fascination for the enigmatic Sarah, Charles is hurtled by a moment of consummated lust to the brink of the existential void. Duty dictates that his engagement to Tina must be broken as he goes forth once again to seek the woman who has captured his Victorian soul & gentleman’s heart.

One of the most interesting things about the narrator in the story is that the narrator is telling a story about the past but still has a perspective on their present. This means that there is a lot of commentary on contemporary society. Fowles wrote the novel to parallel modern events and beliefs with a Victorian society. I do want to make it clear that the narrator in this case probably isn’t Fowles himself. It might come off as such because the narrator is very aware that they are making up a fictional story but if you narrow down this narrator to simply Fowles breaking that fourth wall and directly addressing his reader and I think it takes away from the ingenuity with which this narrator is constructed.

It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live.

A lot of the mimicry of Victorian novels comes off with a kind of irony within the novel. Fowles is really playing with not only the stereotypes and archetypes of Victorian novels but the very way that dialogue is described and the expectations that readers have when reading that genre novel. This comes off best at the end of the novel (which I won’t get into because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t actually read it) but the ending does some really interesting things with playing around with what the reader expect are.

And this all comes back to Fowles basically using the narrator as a way of shifting responsibility for storytelling from himself to the reader. There are multiple points within this novel in which the reader has to make a decision about what is real within the context of the story and what is not–having two make a personal decision on who the characters are regardless of the rumours, especially with the character of Sarah.

You do not even think of your own past as quite real; you dress it up, you gild it or blacken it, censor it, tinker with it…fictionalize it, in a word, and put it away on a shelf – your book, your romanced autobiography. We are all in the flight from the real reality. That is the basic definition of Homo sapiens.

The narrator’s tendency to directly address the reader and ask them to participate is a very jarring experience. It means that you can never truly believe that the world you are putting yourself in could be real even though it feels like it could be real. Same with the characters. If you are an avid reader you definitely have found yourself in a position where characters feel as if they are real people and you become so immersed in their lives that you become incredibly attached to them. Fowles rejects the readers’ ability to do this. The moment we start to get into a character and sympathize with them he knocks us out of it.

I think this is deliberately about how we tell stories of the past. History is very selective in what it talks about and how it talks about it, especially when recording history from a future perspective. In the Victorian era especially, if you look at it through the literature, there is an idealized feel to it. Everything ends up working out and characters end up in the happy endings they deserve, even if the plot has to get somewhat convoluted to get there. (Remember that when you get to the end of this novel and question why it is you feel the way you do about how it should end).

Image from Dimitris Vetsikas

The biggest mystery of the novel I find is The French Lieutenant’s Woman herself, Sarah. the narrator refuses to go into Sarah’s head stating that they cannot claim to know her thoughts. This makes Sarah more of a mystery within the context of the novel as the narrator has very pointed remarks to make of the other characters involved.

My personal opinion, Sarah is one of those characters who is determined to have choice in her life. This is especially prudent given that the novel is set in the Victorian era and she is a woman. We don’t need to go into the politics of gender that was going on during the Victorian era–needless to say that women didn’t exactly have a whole lot of choice on how they were going to live their lives. Whether or not I enjoy Sarah as a character is besides the point because the reason she makes the decisions that she does is because she wants it to be a decision. Being seen as this tragic woman is her way of building an identity of her own that is separate from what everyone else in her life has decided her Image should be. In this desperation to create her own self identity, she ends up making a lot of really convoluted decisions. A lot of the time, the decisions seem to contradict themselves and this makes it harder for readers to figure out who exactly she is.

I think that’s the point both for Fowles writing this character and for Sarah as a character herself. To be seen as ordinary or conventional goes against everything of who Sarah is. She has to make the decisions that go against people’s expectations of who she is. In a lot of ways this makes her a very dynamic character even if it makes her very convoluted at the same time. I spent most of this novel not only trying to figure out why the title referred to her but also exactly how I felt about her. There are moments when I felt a kindred spirit with her and other moments when I couldn’t figure out why she was being so difficult.

Overall, a decent read and I’m glad I’ve read it. However, I doubt if I will ever return to this novel know that I have all the answers it can give me.

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