French lieutenant's woman

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1st Jan 1970 English Literature Reference this

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The French lieutenant’s woman

The setting throughout the novel is predominantly Victorian. Most of the novel’s action takes place at Lyme Regis, Dorset and England. Lyme Regis was one of many small villages in southwest England scattered along the coast. It consisted largely of small houses surrounded by hills on one side and the sea on the other. The Cobb was built along the shore and it is a promenade where people could enjoy the sea air while taking a walk. A section of the hills, known as the Ware Commons, was a meeting ground for most young couples and where Charles and Sarah met each other clandestinely. Lyme’s community was close-knit and provincial. Unlike the larger metropolitan areas such as London, here people upheld the prevailing social norms. Unconventional behavior is seen as an aberration and often times a sign of mental illness. The repressive norms and the people’s insensitive attitude towards Sarah succeed in driving her to Exeter.

In the nineteenth century, Exeter served the same purpose as London does today. Exeter was notorious for providing all sorts of wicked entertainment. Brothels, dance halls and gin palaces thrived there. It served as a haven for “shamed” girls and women, namely unmarried mothers and mistresses who were victims of sexual abuse or social rejects. Due to its scandalous reputation, many upstanding English kept their distance from such like these places. Social norms were virtually non-existent.

For a brief moment the action shifts to London where Charles signs his statement of guilt. It is also here that Charles and Sarah meet, after a two-year separation, at the Rossetti residence. The action tends to move back and forth between the Victorian and the modern age as Fowles tends to make intrusive comments about the past and the present. He has deliberately recreated a Victorian world so that he can criticize those aspects of the Victorian era that would seem alien to a modern reader. It is interesting to note the different social conditions prevalent in these places and their effects on individuals.

In this novel, Fowles is interested in the literary genre of the nineteenth-century romantic or gothic novel and succeeds in reproducing typical Victorian characters, situations and dialogue. But Fowles perception of the genre is touched with typical twentieth-century irony. His thematic concerns range from the relationship between life and art and the artist and his creation to the isolation that results from an individual struggling for selfhood.

Fowles’ aim is to bring to light those aspects of Victorian society that would appear most foreign to contemporary readers. Victorian attitudes towards women, economics, science and philosophy are tackled as minor themes within the main plot. Both women and the working-class are two groups that are revealed as being oppressed both economically and socially in a society that inhibits mobility for anyone who is not middle or upper-class and male. These are the social issues that Fowles explores within the guise of a traditional romance.

The general mood throughout the novel is somber and turbulent. From the initial chapter, the mood is set. A strong easterly wind is blowing and a storm is coming in. It is in such a setting that Charles and Sarah meet. The atmosphere suits Sarah’s enigmatic personality. Throughout the novel, she is presented as a dark, mysterious and intriguing figure. The reader are unconsciously aware that the lovers, Charles and Sarah, are doomed from the beginning. In several sections, the mood changes to one of irony and realistic recording of details. Fowles tends to comment on several unknown aspects of the Victorian era (e.g. prostitution) in an ironically realistic manner.

Until today, the Victorian Age was seen to be a Golden Age where Reason and Rationality were proclaimed as dogma and faith. People were beginning to question the claims that religion made about the existence of God and the beginning of man. Anything that could not be proven through experimentation and science was immediately treated with suspicion. With Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) the biblical myth of Adam and Eve and the origins of man were shattered. Darwin’s work created quite an uproar as it succeeded it in shattering the Victorian people’s unquestioning religious faith.

The narrator opens the The French Lieutenant’s Woman with background information on Lyme Regis, where the story is initially set. After that he introduces Charles Smithson, a thirty-two-year-old gentleman and his young fiancee, Ernestina Freeman.

Charles Smithson is a male protagonist of the novel. He is a wealthy Victorian gentlemen and heir to a title. He is interested in Darwin and paleontology and considers himself to be intellectually superior to other Victorian men, as he is one of the few who holds scientifically advanced ideas. He is engaged to Ernestina Freeman but he is attracted to the mysterious Miss Woodruff. He is unhappy with the way his life is unfolding, yet he is extremely sensitive and intelligent. He is an insecure man constantly analyzing his life.

Ernestina Freeman is Charles’ fiancĂ©e. She is pretty, coy and intelligent, but at times she tends to reveal her youth and naivete. She likes to think of herself as a modern woman but her attitudes are similar to most of the young Victorian women who behaved in a proper manner. She is Aunt Tranter’s niece and she is vacationing in Lyme when the story begins.

Aunt Tranter is Ernestina’s mother’s sister. She is a kind woman who is loved by her domestic staff because she treats people with respect. She offers to help Sarah when the rest of the town rejects her. Aunt Tranter is an honest woman and lacks hypocrisy of any sort.

The action begins in 1867, but the narrator often breaks into the narrative, noting that the story is being related in the twentieth century. He does this initially by comparing the Cobb to a contemporary Henry Moore sculpture.

The novel starts with Charles and Tina’s walk, which is interrupted by the presence of a woman in a dark cape, standing alone at the end of the Cobb, staring out to sea. Tina explains to a curious Charles what she has heard about the woman, known as “Tragedy” and “the French lieutenant’s woman,” and her status as a social outcast. Rumors suggest that Sarah Woodruff was seduced and abandoned by a French naval officer who was shipwrecked off the coast. As she nursed him back to health, he reportedly made promises to her that he will return back to Lyme and marry her. Destitute and rejected by most of the Lyme Regis society, Sarah is taken in by the pious Mrs. Poulteney, who plans to “save” the young woman in order to assure her own status as a worthy Christian.

Mrs. Poulteney is a a cruel old woman, who takes great delight in harassing her domestic staff. Her temperament is exactly opposite to that of Mrs. Tranter’s. She believes herself to be an upholder of Christian virtues yet in reality, she is a hypocrite who reluctantly helps people only out of a show of charity. Sarah in employed by her in the position of a companion. She succeeds in making Sarah’s life miserable by constantly reminding her that she is an outcast.

After that Charles has seen Sarah Woodruff at shores while he was walking with Ernestina, the next day, he, whose hobby is paleontology, walks through the Undercliff searching for fossils while Tina visits her Aunt Tranter. During his walk, Charles comes across Sarah sleeping in a clearing. She awakens with a start, and, after apologizing for disturbing her, Charles departs. In this moment he does not understand himself that why he was staring and watching at her. Those few seconds appeared for him for a long time, and he did not want to go away from that secret place. His departure was because of Sarah’s awakening. In my opinion Charles was scared of himself, because he had a specific feeling when he was looking at Sarah. In this scene we can feel that something has changed in Charles or just start changing inside his soul.

The narrator notes Charles’s growing obsession with the mysterious Sarah. After stopping at a farmhouse to refresh himself, Charles again sees Sarah on the path. She rejects his offer to escort her home and implores him to tell no one that she has been walking there, an activity that Mrs. Poulteney has forbidden her. The next day, during a visit to Mrs. Poulteney’s, Sarah silently observes Charles and Aunt Tranter’s support of the relationship between Sam and Mary. Mary is the maid in Aunt Tranter’s house. She is a free-spirited, down-to-earth soul. Sam Farrow, Charles’ man-servant falls in love with her. He is not content with his present status and wants to climb the social ladder. He is ambitious and he is determined to secure his future with Mary even if he has to blackmail Charles.

Charles assumes that he has made a connection with Sarah at the visiting, but the next time their paths cross on the Undercliff, she rebuffs his efforts to help her escape Mrs. Poulteney’s control. When she insists that she cannot leave the area, Charles assumes that her feelings for the French lieutenant are the cause. After she admits that the lieutenant has married, her mystery deepens for Charles.

Charles’s curiosity concerning Sarah causes him to think about the comparatively one-dimensional Tina and his own needs and desires. During another walk, Sarah finds him, presents him with two fossils, and begs him to hear her story. After determining that listening to Sarah would be a kind act and a useful study of human nature, Charles agrees to meet with her. Sarah admits that Lieutenant Varguennes proposed marriage and seduced her, even though she knew he was not an honorable man. The shame that she has embraced as a result has enabled her to separate herself from a society that would not accept her, due to her common birth. Her education had awakened her to the inequities of social class and gender, and thus her status as an outcast prevents her from having to conform to conventional roles.

During their conversation, Sam and Mary appear, and Sarah and Charles hide themselves. As she watches Sam and Mary embrace, Sarah turns to Charles and smiles. Charles, noticeably disconcerted at Sarah’s open expression of her interest in him, abruptly leaves.

While I was reading this part of the novel, I did not understand that why Sarah’s attitude has changed. At the beginning she rejected Charles’s help and did not want to talk to him. But everything has changed in this part. In my opinion it is because of Charles. Sarah observed him and realized that he is a real gentleman who has travelled a lot all over the Europe, he has seen several and different cultures, so he is not only a knowledgeable man, but also sensitive and smart. All these reasons lead to the Sarah’s claim. She needs a person who can not only help her but also understand and feel with her. In this case we can say that Sarah is innocent woman, who needs help and a considerate person, but also we may think that she only wants to exploit Charles and organize her life with his help.

Charles discovers that he is in danger of losing his inheritance and title, which causes tensions with Tina. He later asks his old friend Dr. Grogan to advise him about his relationship with Sarah, who has just been thrown out of Mrs. Poulteney’s home for disobeying her orders. Dr. Grogan is an intelligent, friendly man who befriends Charles. The younger man finds him to be a sympathetic listener. Dr. Grogan empathizes with Sarah but finds her behavior too outrageous to be taken seriously. He is refreshingly unconventional in his views for a Victorian although he belongs more to an earlier age that was more liberal in many ways.

Dr. Grogan rightly guesses that Sarah engineered this dismissal so that Charles would come to her rescue. Dr. Grogan sympathizes with her situation but believes that Sarah wants Charles’ constant attention. He diagnoses her condition as a mental illness called melancholia and wants to get her institutionalized. Charles, however, chooses not to follow Grogan’s advice to stay away from her and meets her the next day on the Undercliff. Charles breaks off an embrace and rushes off, but not before he stumbles upon Sam and Mary who have seen them together. The two servants promise not to tell anyone of the meeting.

Meanwhile, Sarah has come to depend on Charles who is himself going through a change. He is beginning to question his age’s conventions and questioning himself. He urges Sarah to leave Lyme and go to Exeter where she will have more freedom to live an unconventional life. Sarah takes his advice but Charles cannot forget her. At the same time, he feels guilty for even thinking about her. He does not love Ernestina and is marrying her solely for her wealth. He thinks their relationship is nothing more than a facade.

The Victorian society imposed a great deal of repressive conventions and norms on its people, especially women and the working class. Victorian women were socially conditioned to believe that their rightful place was at home with their husbands and children. A Victorian woman was expected to accept the patriarchal norm unhesitatingly. Her duty was to her husband and children. Only if she toed this social line would she be deemed a proper young Victorian lady. The institution of marriage was often a contract agreement. Money often married into a titled family as in Charles and Ernestina’s case, thereby reinforcing the dominant society’s power. Money and nobility were often the main criteria for a Victorian marriage.

The practice of prostitution was a topic that Victorian archivists rarely touched upon. Most historians up until recently thought that the Victorian age was known for its virtuous and pure qualities yet Fowles’ novel reveals that even during the Age of Propriety prostitution flourished and consequently women were often victims of sexual abuse or social rejects. By giving prostitutes a mention in his novel, Fowles is attempting to be realistic about their situation. He is obviously concerned about the role of women in Victorian England and society’s treatment of them. As is apparent women of all classes right from the aristocracy to the prostitutes were exploited by society which was largely patriarchal and this practice continues even today.

Fowles constantly interrupts the narrative by making authorial comments with a twentieth century perspective. The narrative action digresses back and forth from the Victorian Age to the twentieth century in time. Fowles is writing a novel set in the nineteenth-century romantic literary genre but with a twentieth century perspective. Charles finds the prospect of living a life as a dutiful husband and son-in-law unappealing. He wants to have a more meaningful life, unrestricted by traditions.

After that Sarah has moved to Exeter, aided by money Charles has given her, Charles tries to direct his thoughts to his engagement with Tina, but feels as if he is being trapped by her father who wants him to become his business partner. He is tempted to go to Sarah in Exeter but instead returns to Tina. The narrator provides the first of three endings here. Charles and Tina marry, along with Sam and Mary, and both couples prosper in a contrived Victorian conclusion. Immediately, however, the narrator insists that this ending is only what has taken place in Charles’s imagination.

Charles does in fact go to Exeter to see Sarah, who seduces him. Charles discovers that she had not been intimate with the French lieutenant. After returning to his hotel, he writes to Sarah of his plans to marry her, but Sam intercepts the letter. After breaking off his engagement with Tina the next day, Charles returns to Exeter but finds that Sarah has disappeared.

Charles hires private investigators to find Sarah and departs for America. While he was touring America, he receives word that Sarah has been found. He hurries back to England and finds Sarah living with the Rossettis. She has changed drastically, and Charles finds this difficult to accept. Sarah greets Charles at Gabriel Rosetti’s home and explains that she has been working as the painter’s model and secretary. Charles is shocked at how easily Sarah has fit into the scandalous Pre-Raphaelite group. After Sarah insists that she will never marry and Charles prepares to leave. When Sarah introduces him to their daughter, Lalage, however, the three embrace, suggesting that they will become a true family. It is a conventional ending, which ends happily, but there is another one ending, which is unconventional. The narrator then reappears, sets his watch back fifteen minutes, and provides the last conclusion to the story. Sarah reasserts her decision not to marry but suggests the two might remain friends and lovers. Charles rejects her offer and leaves, devastated and alone.

The first element that must fade into the background is Charles’s love for Sarah, which has become quite evident by his actions in the novel and by the narrator’s statement in the first ending, “Behind all his rage stood the knowledge that he loved her still.” When, however, in the contemporary ending, Charles recognizes the reality of the arrangement Sarah offers him, he chooses his freedom and dignity over his love for her, recognizing that if he stayed, “he would become the secret butt of this corrupt house, the starched soupirant, the pet donkey.” As a result, he feels “his own true superiority to her which was . . . an ability to give that was also an inability to compromise. She could give only to possess; and to possess him.” Although his decision to leave tosses him metaphorically “out upon the unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea,” his experience has enabled him to discover a firm trust in his own character and abilities.

Sarah’s love for Charles, another element of the first ending, is not quite as evident in the text. Sarah admits, in her own words, that she is “not to be understood,” a valid statement since neither Charles nor the reader is privy to her thoughts. Yet while the motivations for her behavior remain enigmatic, she ultimately cannot deny her feelings. When Charles entreats her to admit that she never had loved him, she replies, “I could not say that.”

The reality of Sarah’s love for Charles can be plausibly neglected in the second ending when Sarah realizes her wish that she had earlier expressed to Charles. She explains, “I do not want to share my life. I wish to be what I am, not what a husband, however kind, however indulgent, must expect me to become in marriage.” Thus Sarah gains her freedom, but her final reaction to this condition is unclear; from the narrator’s ironic vantage point, Sarah is too far away for him to see whether or not there are tears in her eyes.

I believe that in every women there is a power, which they can use it in two ways: in a right way and in a wrong way. Not all women can discover it inside their souls, it needs capacity and ability. In a conventional ending, I think Sarah used it in a right way because everything ended happily. In the unconventional ending Sarah in my opinion used it in a wrong way because she trapped Charles and exploit him and ruined his life. If she had wanted to be with him, she would not have gone away from Exeter. I think she could wait for him and everything would be all right, but she did not do that. It explains everything: her behavior, her thoughts and her uttered words.

There are women, who uses their power to do good things, to change our world and make it better. By coming together to support each other’s goals and dreams, women not only enhance their own lives, they empower others. The true Power of Women is that we have within us the power to change the world.

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