In Fowles novel, The French Lieutenants Woman, the author is concerned with the manner in which the societys perception of an individual affects the individuals perception of self. The manner in which the perceptions of society and awareness of the perceptions plus their impact on an individuals life are examined. In this context, Sarah Woodruff is the main protagonist whose conflict arises from the pariah status society accords her and she in turn plays the role. The conflicts in the story arise from the clash between expectations of society, and expectations of individuals. Charles Smithson is a man from a respected background, and he is engaged to be married to Ernestina Freeman. However, chance encounters with the mysterious Sarah Woodruff increase his attraction towards her and away from his fiance. Sarah Woodruff in turn is affected by her secret relationship with Charles that it prompts her to stand up to her employer. Society expects Charles to do the right thing by them that is marry Ms. Freeman as earlier expected and have a family as is the norm. However, Charles attraction to Sarah disrupts everything in both their lives. The expectations of Sarah, Charles and society, are in constant turmoil.
The characters in the story interact with their unique characteristics to give the story its blend. Aunt Tranter is the kindly aunt to Tina and employer of Mary, the bubbly servant. Mary gets into a relationship with Sam, who is Charles' manservant. Tina, as depicted in the story, is somewhat a spoiled child. Mrs. Poulteney is a hypocritical and judgmental woman who as the author informs us would have been in the Gestapo if born into the generation. Sarah Woodruff is a central character whose understanding of her character is mainly drawn from her interactions with Charles in particular. Charles is drawn to Sarah despite the advice from people like Dr. Grogan. The characters in the story are well developed where it matters. The reader can identify the reasoning of a character and the basis for their actions. However, Sarah remains a mystery as the reasons for her actions are shrouded in mystery.
In the story, Sarah Woodruff is a symbol. Her pariah status creates an aura of mystery that attracts Charles to her. Charles is mainly intrigued by the mystery that Sarah pariah status holds he finds himself being a part of it increasingly. At the chance encounter he has with Sarah when he stumbles on her sleeping, the author informs that the Victorian Age had been lost with this meeting.
Charles did not know it, but in those brief poised seconds above the waiting sea, in that luminous evening silence broken only by the waves quiet wash, the whole Victorian Age was lost. And I do not mean he had taken the wrong path. (Fowles 10)
Fowles uses the meeting to symbolize the change that had started taking place in Charles mind. In their first meeting at the beach, he saw a forlorn face. In the hills, he was faced with a beauty that lingered in his mind.
Sarah in her strangeness and defiance of social conventions symbolizes the forbidden to Charles. Charles has a physical lust and desire for Sarah despite his engagement to Ernestina. At the same time, Sarah symbolizes the freedom that Charles secretly desires. Charles feels bound by the conventions of society. In simple truth he had become a little obsessed with Sarah ... or at any rate with the enigma she presented. (Fowles 54)
Patriarchy is an evident theme throughout the story. Tina is submissive to Charles and Mrs. Poulteney is submissive to God. In the same way, Sarah was submissive to the French Lieutenant. There is a general submissiveness about women in the story. Charles feels weighed down by the need to adhere to conventions of society.
Class differences are also evident in The French Lieutenants Woman. Sam is manservant and not expected to at similar to Charles who is considered a gentleman. Mary is a servant, and Tina does not expect her to talk more than is necessary to Charles. Sarah is marginalized for being born into the working class and for being a woman. She is intelligent, but the structures do not allow her to move up the social ladder. Charles, on the other hand, is privileged due to rank of birth. He is hesitant at the thought of joining his father-in-law in trade.
The French Lieutenants Woman also carries a lot of betrayal. Charles betrays Tina by pursuing Sarah in spite of their engagement. You have broken your promise. There is a remedy for members of my sex.
You have every right to bring such an action. I could only plead guilty.
The world shall know you for what you are. That is all I care about. (Fowles 163)
The French Lieutenant betrays Sarah. He uses her for his pleasure and leaves her emotionally scarred. The betrayal arises from the different needs of the characters that conflict. Sam blackmails Charles after getting wind of the affair between him and Sarah. Sam used the opportunity to secure a future for him and Mary. Sam leaves Charles employ having gained materially from the affair despite Charles' having to contend with the social and financial loss.
Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant's Woman. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969. Print.
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