Why Does John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”?

Category: Novel, Women
Last Updated: 20 Apr 2022
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The novel “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” was made possible because of the haunting image of a woman in John Fowles’ imagination at the dock looking to the sea. The main character of the novel is Sarah Woodruff who is an impoverished former Victorian educator. Sarah was labeled in the territory as “Tragedy” or the “French Lieutenant’s Whore” because she was thought to loss her virginity to the departed sailor Varguennes. In the story, there is a noble Englishman named Charles Smithson who happened to saw Sarah while he was walking along the shore with his fiancé Ernestina Freeman.

Ernestina was a daughter of a wealthy shop owner. In the long run, he has a ploy to help Sarah as shown in his multiple meetings with her. In due course, he became attracted to Sarah until he pursued her. Unable to overcome his desires, they made love for the first time in a hotel room and he was shocked to his discovery that she was still a virgin. The history of her seduction on Varguennes as the one who got her virginity was therefore a lie. Charles became beguiled to Sarah. He realized that this lie had alienated Sarah from the society where she belongs and which is of paltry morals and fickle-minded that Sarah learned to detest.

Charles then broke his engagement to Ernestina and offers marriage to Sarah instead. Sarah declined the offer and runs away. The lost of Charles’ engagement made him isolated and estranged from the Victorian society and Ernestina’s affluence as well. He looked for Sarah and found her as a model for the pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti in London. From this, John Fowles offered multiple endings.

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The multiple endings style presented by John Fowles in his novel is a capturing technique to the readers’ attention. He offers variable choices of ending to the reader because as we all know every book has its own group of diverse readers. To satisfy this and to acknowledge the readers of your work, offering them a several endings is professional enough to recognize their patronization of your work. Another reason why John Fowles offered multiple endings is to develop critical thinking to readers and to know their selves better through knowing what they want. For readers who intend to develop their skills as writer, Fowles give different options of how to make an ending.

Through the ending, the façade of the characters behind the story and the purpose of the story are being more defined and delineated. This also gives us an idea that a story is a story that in fact starts in the beginning and ends only in the ending. Sounds irony as it is, it means that the extremes of the story tells us of what to expect and how to supposedly read the novel. It tells us that story has its twists and turns but may still be straight ahead depending on the focus of the reader.

The novel offered a blissful and joyful ending and a futile and wasted ending. From these, I preferred the blissful and joyful ending as the whole course of the novel is full of tragedy and showing a hopeless case. The happy ending affirms a reunion of Sarah and Charles together with their daughter. The hopeless ending is they decided to part forever after all the sacrifices. Also, the character of Sarah if this is the ending is being detested because she is portrayed as a deceitful and fraudulent woman and as a whore she really is though she was a virgin to Charles.

As an affectionate satire under Victorian plot and setting, the curiosity of the reader to the ending of the story must be satisfied and sultry at the same time. The narrative manner of the story is self-referencing and the characters Sarah and Charles have the reasoning and feat of a twentieth century which is one more century advance than their time. They are expressive of what they want and do what they have to carry out instead of behaving being under the dictates and morals being entailed to them by the society where they belong. Through sexual communication, the main characters had evolved and undergone personal development.

The first ending, wherein Charles marries Ernestina to follow the expected norms in the society to retain class status quo, showed the true lifestyle and ways of life at those time wherein the writer didn’t deflect the ideals at those times. As usual, the consequence of such ending and kind of plot directs a marriage that is not happy and successful.

In this ending also, the fortune of Sarah was not elaborated but focuses on Charles’ part where he let Ernestina know that he had an affair before once to a woman he referred as a French Lieutenant's Whore. He did not further detail the story and did not need to include the worst particulars for the matter to be closed. This is a fine ending but not much causing reaction to the readers because this is common to people under a lifestyle where class is important. The ending is calm and does not offer much emotion and catastrophic sceneries.

In another ending, Charles chose Sarah and broke his engagement to Ernestina. This is an ending where love is chosen against all odds and mind was overruled. As expected, this has lead to unlikable consequences because of the present society where they belong. Charles became dishonored, humiliated, and shamed for choosing Sarah who had an appalling status in the society. Consequently, Charles was also disinherited from his uncle who then remarries where he got an heir. Sarah left for London without the knowledge of Charles. Charles who had loved Sarah so much did not stop finding her for several years.

One time he found her in London where Sarah was a model. Charles found out that he had a child and the ending was left open where there is an inference of reconciliation and reunion as a family. This ending has so much to offer and the expected ending if it has to be a happy ending. The spice in the ending is the notion that no matter how many typhoons passed your way there is an appropriate time that it will calm down soon. It is like expecting a sunny day at the end of the rain. It gave our human nature a chance to get up and tells us that trials are just temporary. It gave readers an idea of the natural circle of life and giving them hope that their struggles and sacrifices are not wasted because in due time, the fruits of these will soon be reaped.

In terms of character of Sarah, It tells the reader that what we think of us depends on what we allow others to think of us. In this world full of critics and prejudice, you have to be strong and be able to defend yourself because you alone knew yourself most and its limitations that you must not allow others to treat you as inferior to them. The more you allow a person to treat you that way, the more you are giving them right to invade your privacy and dignity until one day it is too late for you to realize that you lost everything. You lost what you should have defended, kept, cared, and guarded.

In this multitude and variable persona and guise behind the character of Sarah, Fowles was able to offer to readers another ending. This ending has its plot same as the second ending where Charles found in London as a model for the pre-Raphaelite artists. Here, there is no reconciliation that happened and their reunion was unpleasant. He found out that he is only used by Sarah but in the process, he contemplated that it is for the better as he learned to reflect and became aware to return to his old self. On the other hand, Sarah had chosen to conceal the existence of their child to avoid extending their relationship.

This type of ending further builds up on the real character of Sarah if is she trying to hold true of what people think of her or is she really that kind of girl. Inquisitiveness and nosiness in a reader’s disposition will be triggered and the nature of a person of criticizing and judging surfaces. Many questions may arouse such as does Sarah loves maneuvering people if she knows she could exploit them through their feelings like Charles who loves and respects her so much? Or is she a connoisseur liar and indeed with few morals that must not be given a chance or must not be loved at all?

In the novel, it was reflected that Fowles has difficulty choosing what the ending should be, the truer and more preferred ending, by disguising in the novel as the man watching the man Charles in the train. He finally decided then to initially have the happy ending then the final as the sad ending. Here it can be reflected that there is an author involvement and intervention in the novel. This technique is a landmark in literature because multiple endings and author involvement and intervention are truly unique and innovative. But is this accepted in the world of literature? Or is this innovative technique acceptable and tolerable in literature?

As we can see, these denigrations have been passed by Fowles successfully as most critics found this technique as more interesting and a demonstration of exceptional talent. Any imitation or adaptation of this technique will be judged and reviewed as not creative, inventive, imaginative, or original at all. The multiple endings technique is also a manipulative style of the author to his readers. He made them raise questions and arouse their curiosity. Others interpret that the author is anxious and thirst for a psychological need to control. But it must still not be ignored that each reader has its own ability to analyze and understand what they read, thus, this aspect in readers’ being cannot be controlled by the author.

While reading the novel not because of the story but due to evaluating why the author made several endings for the story, I can not help to think that maybe the author had taken too lightly or failed to appreciate the ability of the readers for independent thinking and understanding. But looking positively, maybe the author just wanted to satisfy his readers in terms of a happy or sad ending. The ending they will choose will satisfy each type of reader with their expectations being met. Generally, Fowles had been a good puppet master unlikely to uncover of his purpose behind the novel. What we knew is that he had made a remarkable move in the literature world.


William Stephenson, Chester College of Higher Education. "The French Lieutenant's Woman." The Literary Encyclopedia. 10 Oct. 2002. The Literary Dictionary Company. 23 July 2007. ;http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true;UID=796;

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Why Does John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”?. (2017, Feb 20). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/why-does-john-fowles-the-french-lieutenants-woman-has-more-than-one-ending/

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