The French Lieutenant's Woman, by John Fowles: Book Analysis

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The French Lieutenant’s Woman
“Perhaps I am writing a transposed autobiography; perhaps I now live in one of the houses I have brought into the fiction; perhaps Charles is myself in disguise. Perhaps it is only a game. Modern women like Sarah exist, and I have never understood them.” (p. 85, lines 11-15).

This quotation is the epitome of what John Fowles’ multi-layered novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman from 1969 is mainly about. The twentieth-century author’s unconventional reflections upon his own fictional work, revolving around the relationship between a Victorian gentleman and a female outcast in the local community, is used not only to cast a different light on a variety of themes relevant for the period, but perhaps more importantly also to comment on the writing process itself and the interpretation of fiction.

The male protagonist of the story is Charles Smithson, a gentleman of noble heritage and an amateur paleontologist, who is engaged to Ernestina Freeman, the young, spoiled and somewhat naïve daughter of a wealthy shop owner. At the start of the novel Charles is portrayed as an intellectual and independent man, but still he seems to find himself at a loss regarding his greater ambitions in life and has seemingly been pushed into proposing to Ernestina, seeing as their engagement is more of a contractual nature than it is a result of love. However, after having encountered Sarah on the Cobb, Charles is intrigued and develops a strong curiosity and concern for her, which later turns into a life-defining pursuit of love, during which he is forced to undergo a re-examination of his motives and feelings towards both Sarah and Ernestina, the latter of whom he decides to break his engagement to in spite of of the negative consequences. This marks the culmination of his growth throughout the story – he completely abandons the conservative morals and beliefs (which the author is clearly critical of) that society attempts to impose on him as a...
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