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Freedom in the French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

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“Lock up your libraries if you like, but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” ― Virginia Woolf, A Room Of One’s Own (p.96)

Defining freedom as a concept that exists on the restricted field of the novel is most fascinating, as the concept of freedom itself has many layers. The philosophical approach towards freedom has been changing throughout history and consequently affecting diverse areas of life and art. The philosophical approach towards freedom dates back to ancient Greece and continues to develop, still inspiring further examination. Therefore, when it comes to literature, this multidimensional variety of freedom creates an opportunity for the author to experiment on form and inspires him to shape the realm of the novel more freely. John Fowles’ most famous novel “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” is a broad and multilayered exploration of the theme of freedom in the Victorian period. The study of liberty is presented from a modern perspective and refers to such highly important contexts as: social escapism, the character’s individual path to self-consciousness, nothingness, moral standards as well as novelistic codes.

Furthermore, the complexity of both the abovementioned contexts and the concept of freedom itself, set in the particularly rigid times of Victorian England, require a multidimensional analysis. The explorations are to be crowned with the interesting and innovative achievement in the field of narration, since the transgression from novelistic Victorian codes is also a vital form of freedom. In fact, John Fowles intentionally becomes a meta-narrator and through the stream-of-consciousness he considers renaming his work “The Aetiology of Freedom”. This significant and symbolic example demonstrates to what extent Fowles depicts the profound and deliberate illustration of freedom within the conventional Victorian paradigm. According to Prof. Dr. Theo D’Hean: “The negation of social and cultural norms (…) all point to a singular “pragmatic meaning” of the novel: to make the reader aware of freedom as an issue.” (p.25).

Socio-literary background of the Victorian age.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman concerns the freedom of the individual, the one that liberates from the imposed social conventions and expectations, regardless of the status or the role that one undertook. D’Hean states that the most significant theme of the book is the denial of sexual freedom in Victorian times, but it is only one instance of the book’s negation of puritanical morality, as “it is intimately linked to the negation of other Victorian constraints, in the first place those upon economic and social freedom.” (p.26). The protagonists appear in the reality, which was constructed on a highly hierarchical system with precisely described and socially accepted role models. The narrowness of possibilities, especially considering the possibilities for women, can be seen most efficiently in the numerous publications at that time, written by both men and women.

According to Sarah Stickney Ellis, Victorian writer and founder of Rawdon House, female education should have been focused on domestic skills only. She wrote The Women of England and other highly popular guides to female conduct The Daughters of England, The Wives of England, works that unfortunately did not represent the voices in defence of female intellectual advancement (Black, p.96). To the contrary, those novels were promoting the role of a woman as an implement for male development and pleasure. A comparable illustration of a perfect wife was depicted by male author, Coventry Patmore, in his famous sentimental poem The Angel in the House. It is commonly believed that this “angel” was the epitome of dreams and wishes of many Victorian men. The following excerpt shows manifestly enough the commendation for wife’s limited free will, but more crucially for female enslavement.

Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself.
How often flings for nought, and yokes
Her heart to an icicle or whim,
Whose each impatient word provokes
Another, not from her, but him;
While she, too gentle even to force

His penitence by kind replies,
Waits by, expecting his remorse,
With pardon in her pitying eyes;
And if he once, by shame oppress’d,
A comfortable word confers,
She leans and weeps against his breast,
And seems to think the sin was hers;

Or any eye to see her charms,
At any time, she’s still his wife,
Dearly devoted to his arms;
She loves with love that cannot tire;
And when, ah woe, she loves alone,
Through passionate duty love springs higher,
As grass grows taller round a stone.

(Black, p.104)

Having regard to this imprinted, highly stereotypical and profoundly discriminating model, “Virginia Woolf famously instructed her audience that “part of the occupation . . . of a woman writer” was to kill the “Angel in the House” (NALW2 p.246).” (Gilbert, overview)”.

Selected supporting characters of the novel in the context of freedom.

John Fowles continues the abolition of the model and condemn this type of misogynistic thinking, for instance by creating the most abominable character of old, puritanical Mrs. Poultney and by multiplying those utterly negative features of her. She is a great believer of Ellis’s and Patmore’s philosophy, “the pillar of the community” (Fowles, p.19), the embodiment of social conventions and of the tyranny of class prejudice. Evidently, by criticizing Mrs. Poultney’s bigotry Fowles implies a praise for free thinking, toleration, respect and humility.

Furthermore, to promote acceptance and freedom the author creates a strong group of varied characters who manage to deal with the social constraints of the late Victorian period. For instance, Dr. Grogan, who was under no obligation to pay homage to Mrs. Poultney, knew precisely how to tame her ruthless behaviour and gain some peace and liberation for Sarah, both by prescribing “more fresh air and freedom” (Fowles, p.60) to the sinner, and by ordering afternoon sleeps to the lady. His intelligence, education and respect among the community, for being a genuinely good doctor, gain him a permission to share his individual beliefs and ignore some aspects of strict social standards and class segregation. Even the way in which Grogan expresses his opinions is more direct and free than it would have been required for respectable gentlemen.

Charles Smithson – an intriguing rebel; his way towards existential and social freedom.

Nevertheless, the abovementioned example of pursuit of social escapism seems to be less heroic than it is in the case of Charles Smithson and Sarah Woodruff. Critics have generally characterised Charles as a type of rebel who is conventional to some extent, relatively comprehensible in his behaviour, however, brave and profoundly suffering from social pressure. To my mind, this character is wonderfully created and represents more ambiguous type of rebel than it used to be believed, as he lives in an illusion of freedom, strongly perceiving himself to be ideologically independent. This makes his intellectual evolution more spectacular and surprising even for him. As it was put by the author: “Laziness was (…) Charles’s distinguishing trait” (p.17) and this feature let him justify the life he led. On one hand, in his dreams he strive for a creative discoveries, on the other, he is aware of his limitations and resigns from the opportunity to stand out. Due to the fact that Charles initial freedom was illusionary, one can observe the holistic process of the birth of the true form of liberation, with his moral dilemma and his profound analysis of the Victorian rigidity. The following excerpt demonstrates Charles delusive state of mind after a visit to Dr. Grogan,

“(…)and in Charles especially,(…)was one of exalted superiority, intellectual distance above the rest of their fellow creatures. Unlit Lyme was the ordinary mass of mankind, most evidently sunk in immemorial sleep; while Charles the naturally selected (the adverb carries both its senses) was pure intellect, walking awake, free as a god, one with the unslumbering stars and understanding all. All except Sarah, that is.” (Fowles, p.163)

At the same time, Charles is thirty-two-year-old English gentleman, engaged to conventional beauty Ernestina Freeman (“it is no coincidence that her name is Ernest-ina”(D’Hean p.134) and her surname is an antonymous word), the daughter of an extremely wealthy shop owner. The juxtaposition of two ways of perceiving Charles, first his own and second the real one, proves how deeply ingrained in subconscious the social constrains were. Charles marriage with Ernestina would mark the end of his self-chosen identity and would be the most conventional of arrangements, suggested in the chapter forty four in the first ending of the novel,

“It was simple: one lived by irony and sentiment, one observed convention. What might have been was one more subject for detached and ironic observation; as was what might be. One surrendered, in other words; one learned to be what one was.” (Fowles, p.339)

In this way, the appearance of Sarah Woodruff functions as a moral drive that saves Charles from the surrender that was described above. She becomes a catalyst in his development. However, the road towards potential freedom is full of economic dilemma supported by Victorian upbringing. These problems make Charles reactions more comprehensible for the reader. As it is described earlier in the novel, Charles being under strong influence of acquaintance with Sarah misjudges his emotions. His thoughts are tangled to such extent that leaning more on duty than on free will, he suppresses all sympathetic physical feelings towards Miss Woodruff. This internal struggle is described in following excerpt,

“By the time he came in sight of the White Lion, he had free-willed himself most convincingly into a state of self-congratulation … and one in which he could look at Sarah as an object of his past”. (Ibid., p.190)

From fear of exposing the truth of his limitations he is escaping Lyme, where he feels stifled intellectually, towards London “a city of the blind”, where he could be hidden from his own impractical, romantic and “dutiless” feelings. After a strong struggle, evoked by “the three-word letter”, Charles finally comes to the point where there is no escape from freedom. He is given a genuine right to choose between ignoring the letter, thus, leading the life of conventional English gentleman and accepting this subtly provocative invitation, thus, following the mystery – his destiny. The author, by playing the role of the omniscient novelist, reads wonderfully through Charles mind disclosing the fact that, ” what he felt was really a very clear case of the anxiety of freedom—that is, the realization that one is free and the realization that being free is a situation of terror.” (Ibid., p.343)

Afterwards, Charles achieves an ironic version of freedom through rejection of “Freemanism” and through negation the pursuit of money as a sufficient purpose in life. Fowles also emphasises the fact that Charles abovementioned refusal had also noble elements and results in,

” queer sort of momentary self-respect in his nothingness, a sense that choosing to be nothing (…) was the last saving grace of a gentleman; his last freedom, almost.” (Ibid.,p.297)

Finally, by the end of the novel, Charles gains a kind of “nothingness” equal to individual liberation. It is Sarah’s final refusal that propels him into freedom. He walks towards some undefined destination, thus, leaving behind his old identity and imposed duties. But what is worth mentioning in terms of his intellectual evolution is a statement, by some critic, saying that Charles never does shake off his limitations ultimately. The fact is disclosed in the formal language of the lost letter to Sarah, and in the gender model, as he continues to believe in male domination and can hardly understand his rejection.

Sarah Woodruff’s role in creating the realm of freedom.

Next element of the investigation is an examination of “one of the major advocates of freedom”(coursework.info), the main female character, Sarah Woodruff, who is considered to be more genuine and superior rebel against social and economic constraints than Charles. For Charles Sarah was an embodiment of, “himself freed from his age, his ancestry and class and country; in the assumption of a shared exile. He no longer much believed in that freedom; he felt he had merely changed traps, or prisons. But yet there was something in his isolation that he could cling to; he was the outcast, the not like other men, the result of a decision few could have taken, no matter whether it was ultimately foolish or wise.” (Ibid.,p.430)

Thus, her role as a symbol of constant pursuit of freedom, with its courageous and highly controversial acts, is enriched by the author with the role of a spiritual leader who awakes Charles from his illusion. Nevertheless, this secondary function is not a burden for Sarah and does not resemble any traits of Victorian heroines. She evokes Charles’s spiritual quest by her complexity, consciousness and uniqueness. The next aspect is the fact that the need to create a woman with multilayered personality and an accompanying aura of mystery, so strongly contrary to the established Victorian model, provides a reader with blurry illustration of an intriguing, unhappy woman. Unhappy, primarily due to her two curses in life, first being “fine moral judge of people” and the second being educated “above her status”(Ibid.p.53). D.’Hean notices that, “by birth and possessions she should have been a peasant woman, course of life her genteel education has made unpalatable to her. At the same time, her lowly birth and lack of fortune preclude her marrying into higher class” (p. 28).

Nevertheless, the fact that she is socially uprooted by no means is able to stop her from being genuine and to address her opinions to puritanical Mrs. Poultey, in a humble but direct way. This act of extreme bravery is shared only by those individuals who are free and self-conscious enough, since Mrs. Poultney has her ways to impose limitations and conventions on everyone. What is worth noticing is the fact that having defined individual freedom as a situation in which a person can retain oneself, regardless of discrepancy between expectations and realities, it can be easily stated that the female protagonist permanently protects herself from conventions. This self-defence from being determined in any form prevents Sarah from being understood, even by herself. Therefore, Fowles portraits his protagonist in such a way that her actions are barely comprehensible by other characters. During one of her first encounters with Charles she presents herself, saying,

“What has kept me alive is my shame, my knowing that I am truly not like other women. I shall never have children, a husband, and those innocent happinesses they have. And they will never understand the reason for my crime. (…) Sometimes I almost pity them. I think I have a freedom they cannot understand. No insult, no blame, can touch me. Because I have set myself beyond the pale. I am nothing, I am hardly human any more. I am the French Lieutenant’s Whore.” (Ibid., p.176)

Through this self-denial and the constant pursuit of “nothingness” she achieves freedom. But Fowles by means of this character emphasises also the crisis of sexual freedom and the lack of any literary description of intimate closeness in general. At the same time he drafts the vast problem of prostitution in Victorian England in order to make the reader aware of hypocrisy of that times. It is as if the author tries to prove that by avoiding the sexual aspects of the relationship one leads to its distortion. In the novel both hypocrisy and tragedy of this topic is highlighted in the character of a prostitute whose name happens to be Sarah as well. This occurrence in London is also a form of illustration of Victorian haunting destiny of many poor, unmarried women.

However, the same shameful vocation seems to be in no means a threat to Miss Woodruff independence, despite of her low social and economic status. Furthermore, in terms of economic security, Sarah Woodruff’s brief sexual encounter with Charles is a form of resignation from whatever possibility of being governess or married to a noble man. Her gratuitous act of forsaking her virginity means that she clearly rejects the very option of prostitution. It is an open act of defiance against Victorian conventions and conformity. Finally, by fictionalizing her future and her past she manages, to some extent, to take control of her life and to reduce herself to work of art as a way of achieving social freedom. At last she finds such a social environment in which she can keep her identity and at the same time cultivate her strive for “nothingness”.

Fowles types of narration as a form of liberation.

The last aspect of freedom, which is worth focusing on, is leaving behind Victorian narration, the process wonderfully described in the novel. Although, the most fundamental liberation from moral standards has already been mentioned, it is also significant in terms of narration analysis. Sexual intimacy in literature was largely taboo in Victorian novel, however, Fowles manages to free himself from these conventions. Nevertheless, if it hadn’t been for Thomas Hardy this liberation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman wouldn’t have occurred. Fowles indebtedness is significant for the novel, while it provides the reader with profound description of Victorian sexual mores in chapter thirty five and implicates that the novel was patterned after Hardy’s “A Pair of Blue Eyes”. After all, Hardy was a forerunner of a struggle with rigidity of novelistic codes. For these reasons, while examining the concept of freedom, Fowles is motivated to use more direct way of communication.

The focal point of the minimization the distance between the narrator and the reader revolve in awakening from the omniscient Victorian narration. This exceptional innovation, represented by the transition from chapter twelve to chapter thirteen, could jeopardise the readers’ trust, however, paradoxically the narrator manages to establish even closer relation. The following excerpt opens chapter thirteen, “I do not know. This story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind. If I have pretended until now to know my characters’ minds and innermost thoughts, it is because I am writing in (just as I have assumed some of the vocabulary and “voice” of) a convention universally accepted at the time of my story: that the novelist stands next to God. He may not know all, yet he tries to pretend that he does. But I live in the age of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Roland Barthes; if this is a novel, it cannot be a novel in the modern sense of the word.” (Ibid., p.95)

Needless to say that in this game of giving the characters their narrative freedom, the author tries to liberate himself, in some way, from the role of a sheer puppeteer. He achieves this goal by ridiculing the omnipotent narrator who can manipulate novelistic time to such extent that two endings are possible. On the other hand, the type of narration in which Fowles uses first person, easily overcomes the distance between the previous omniscient narrator and the reader. In his meta-novelistic interventions the author uses historical writing or the language of journalism, hence makes the opportunity for the reader to identify with him. Furthermore, Robbe-Grillet’s achievements in the field of a new novel, with a type of psychoanalytical approach towards a character, equip Fowles with varied means to achieve freedom from Victorian novelistic codes; for instance with the plot fracture, natural flow of thoughts or disruptions of free associations. By these means the novel gains additional meanings and interpretations.

In a following excerpt the author shares his own serious thoughts about telling the story, but what is crucial, is the fact that Fowles reflections are told in a confidential way and therefore gain credibility, “That is certainly one explanation of what happened; but I can only report—and I am the most reliable witness—that the idea seemed to me to come clearly from Charles, not myself. It is not only that he has begun to gain an autonomy; I must respect it, and disrespect all my quasi-divine plans for him, if I wish him to be real. In other words, to be free myself, I must give him, and Tina, and Sarah, even the abominable Mrs. Poulteney, their freedom as well. There is only one good definition of God: the freedom that allows other freedoms to exist.

And I must conform to that definition. The novelist is still a god, since he creates (and not even the most aleatory avant-garde modern novel has managed to extirpate its author completely); what has changed is that we are no longer the gods of the Victorian image, omniscient and decreeing; but in the new theological image, with freedom our first principle, not authority.(…) My characters still exist, and in a reality no less, or no more, real than the one I have just broken. Fiction is woven into all,(…). 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 flight from the real reality. That is a basic definition of Homo sapiens.” (Ibid., p.97)

According to Richard P. Lynch the narrative freedom of character from its author is compared to human freedom from God. It is a concept similar to Plato’s cage in which we are deceived by our minds and only through encountering “the Sun”, hence shaking off the limitations, we can experience intellectual illumination that reveals the true reality. The role of “the Sun” represents Sarah Woodruff who reveals highly different perspective in front of Charles Smithson, since Plato also stated that philosophers should try to unchain others by bringing them closer to “the truth.” This truth, in case of The French Lieutenant’s Woman is in “nothingness” and liberation from social norms, rigid morality, novelistic Victorian codes.


French Lieutenant’s Woman is a profound analysis of social, existential and narrative freedom. The achievements and the message of the novel can be applicable in modern times, as the struggle for freedom and toleration is still current. The moral dilemma of the characters and the need to remain self-conscious is a form of insightful psychological study of the phenomenon of freedom. Fowles work is a multilayered novel full of open meanings and different interpretations. He investigates freedom from many angles and allows the reader to reach one’s own conclusion and learn one’s individual moral lesson.


• Black, Joseph Laurence. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian era. Broadview Press, 2006.

Coursework Info. Intertextuality in John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

23 Jan. 2004. Web. 18 June 2012. http://www.coursework.info/AS_and_A_Level/History/British_History__Monarchy___Politics/Intertextuality_in_John_Fowles__The_Fren_L50252.html

• D’hean, Theo. Text to Reader: A Communicative Approach to Fowles, Barth, Cortázar and Boon: Tom 16 z Utrecht Publications in General and Comparative Literature. John Benjamins Publishing Company,1983. http://books.google.pl/books?id=e_k_zwWEmL4C&hl=pl&source=gbs_navlinks_s

• Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman. London: Vintage Books. 2004, print

• Gilbert, Sandra, Susan Gubar. “Killing the Angel: Anxieties about Motherhood for Women Writers”. The Northon Anthology of Literature by Women. Third Edition. W. W. Norton & Company

• Lynch, Richard P. ” Freedoms in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”.” Twentieth-Century Literature, Vol.48, No.1, Hofstra University, (Spring, 2002), pp.50-76 http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3175978?uid=3738840&uid=2129&uid=2134&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=21100852344221

• Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Broadview Press, 2001. http://books.google.pl/books?id=858oEyeN1N8C&dq=Virginia+Woolf,+A+Room+Of+One’s+Own&hl=pl&source=gbs_navlinks_s

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