The French Lieutenant's Woman  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The French Lieutenant's Woman is a 1969 novel by John Fowles. The book was inspired by the 1823 novel Ourika by Claire de Duras, which Fowles translated to English in 1977 (and revised in 1994). In 1981, the novel was adapted as a feature film. Fowles was a great fan of Thomas Hardy and in particular likened his own work to that of Tess D`Uberville in Hardy's popular novel, Tess of the d'Urbervilles. The novel has three three alternate endings.

Plot summary

The novel's protagonist is Sarah Woodruff, the Woman of the title, also known unkindly as “Tragedy” and by the unfortunate nickname “The French Lieutenant’s Whore”. She lives in the coastal town of Lyme Regis, as a disgraced woman, supposedly abandoned by a French naval officer named Varguennes — married, unknown to her, to another woman — with whom she had supposedly had an affair and who had returned to France.

She spends her limited time off at the Cobb [sea wall], staring at the sea. One day, she is seen there by the gentleman Charles Smithson and his fiancée, Ernestina Freeman, the shallow-minded daughter of a wealthy tradesman. Ernestina tells Charles something of Sarah’s story, and he develops a strong curiosity about her. Eventually, he and she begin to meet clandestinely, during which times Sarah tells Charles her history, and asks for his support, mostly emotional. Despite trying to remain objective, Charles eventually sends Sarah to Exeter, where he, during a journey, cannot resist stopping in to visit and see her. At the time she has suffered an ankle injury; he visits her alone and after they have made love he realises that she had been, contrary to the rumours, a virgin. Simultaneously, he learns that his prospective inheritance from an elder uncle is in jeopardy; the uncle has become engaged to a woman young enough to bear him an heir.

From there, the novelist offers three different endings for The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

  • First ending: Charles marries Ernestina, and their marriage is unhappy; Sarah’s fate is unknown. Charles tells Ernestina about an encounter which he implies is with the “French Lieutenant’s Whore”, but elides the sordid details, and the matter is ended. This ending, however, might be dismissed as a daydream, before the alternative events of the subsequent meeting with Ernestina are described.

Before the second and third endings, the narrator — who the novelist wants the reader to believe is John Fowles himself — appears as a minor character sharing a railway compartment with Charles. He flips a coin to determine the order in which he will portray the two, other possible endings, emphasising their equal plausibility.

  • Second ending: Charles and Sarah become intimate; he ends his engagement to Ernestina, with unpleasant consequences. He is disgraced, and his uncle marries, then produces an heir. Sarah flees to London without telling the enamoured Charles, who searches for her for years, before finding her living with several artists (seemingly the Rossettis), enjoying an artistic, creative life. He then learns he has fathered a child with her; as a family, their future is open, with possible reunion implied.
  • Third ending: the narrator re-appears, standing outside the house where the second ending occurred; at the aftermath. He turns back his pocket watch by fifteen minutes, before leaving in his carriage. Events are the same as in the second-ending version but, when Charles finds Sarah again, in London, their reunion is sour. It is possible that their union was childless; Sarah does not tell Charles about a child, and expresses no interest in continuing the relationship. He leaves the house, deciding to return to America, and sees the carriage, in which the narrator was thought gone. Raising the question: is Sarah a manipulating, lying woman of few morals, exploiting Charles’s obvious love to get what she wants?

En route, Fowles the novelist discourses upon the difficulties of controlling the characters, and offers analyses of differences in 19th-century customs and class, the theories of Charles Darwin, the poetry of Matthew Arnold, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and the literature of Thomas Hardy. He questions the role of the author — when speaking of how the Charles character “disobeys” his orders; the characters have discrete lives of their own in the novel. Philosophically, Existentialism is mentioned several times during the story, and in particular detail at the end, after the portrayals of the two, apparent, equally possible endings.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The French Lieutenant's Woman" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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