The French Lieutenant’s Woman

The French Lieutenant’s Woman

by

John Fowles

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Themes and Colors
Fiction and History vs. Reality Theme Icon
Storytelling and Morality Theme Icon
Convention vs. Freedom Theme Icon
Class Theme Icon
Sexuality and Gender Theme Icon
Religion, Science, and Evolution Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Fiction and History vs. Reality

The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a work of historiographical metafiction, which is a term that refers to a work of fiction based on history that draws attention to its own quality of being imagined, rather than real. In this novel, for example, the narrator often comments on the process of inventing plot or character, which reminds the reader that the described events have not been “found” in the past, but rather they have been actively…

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Storytelling and Morality

In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles applies metafiction (writing that is self-conscious about the fact that it is written and imagined) to the conventions of a Victorian love story in order to draw attention to the act of storytelling itself. The metafictional elements of the story—such as its multiple endings, and the narrator’s commentary on having made up the plot and characters—pull readers out of the Victorian plotline and ask them to consider…

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Convention vs. Freedom

The Victorian era was a particularly socially restrictive period, and one of the main conflicts of this novel involves the characters struggling against the social conventions that keep them bound to certain pathways in life. Charles and Sarah share the goal of finding a way to live as they wish in their society, and they constantly fight against the restrictions they find imposed on their free will.

Fowles frequently discusses the sense of duty that…

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Class

In this novel, Fowles portrays characters belonging to three distinct levels of the Victorian class system. Sam and Mary represent the working class; Ernestina and her father represent the bourgeois, nouveau riche, or middle class; and Charles and his uncle, Sir Robert, represent the upper class, or aristocracy. Many Victorian authors, such as Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, were attentive to issues of class in their novels, and Fowles imitates them in this…

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Sexuality and Gender

Although the main plot and writing style of this novel seem very much like those of a Victorian novel, this story could never have been produced in the nineteenth century. Above all, its treatment of sexuality is uniquely modern, even if the sexuality it portrays is accurate to the Victorian era. As Fowles points out, the Victorians are often defined in the public imagination by their sexual prudishness. This aspect of their society has come…

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Religion, Science, and Evolution

While Victorian morality was based on deeply religious elements, science made leaps forward during this time that challenged the worldview of traditional Christianity. Most important was Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as presented in On the Origin of Species, which proposed that life evolves through natural selection, meaning that humans are descended from apes and were not created by God in one fell swoop, as depicted in the Bible.

Mrs. Poulteney represents the way…

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