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 respect. However, this fine-tuned attention to class is not only meant to illuminate the social norms and values of Victorian society; Fowles’s treatment of class is meant to draw a line between Victorian class consciousness and the major upheavals of the twentieth century. The narrator’s interjections make the reader constantly aware of the global class conflicts that occurred after the events of this book, particularly the rise of communism and the influence of Karl Marx in the early twentieth century.
Between 1867 and 1868, acts of the British Parliament greatly increased the political power of the working class by extending voting rights to all male heads of household. The novel, then, is set in a time of immense political change, which Fowles discusses, despite the fact that his characters don’t directly engage with these politics. Fowles focuses most closely on the issue of class mobility, suggesting that the British social structure never allows mobility to happen naturally or peacefully. Sam and Mary present the most hopeful picture of class mobility, since they begin as solidly lower-class characters, but by the end of the book they’re well on their way to becoming bourgeois. Moreover, they seem quite happy with their increasing fortunes and new identity. In one sense, their story shows that upward mobility is possible and can be as positive as people imagine it to be. However, Sam and Mary only attain their good fortune through deception and betrayal, contributing to Charles’s ruin after he leaves Ernestina. Thus, Fowles implies that only through selling one’s soul to the devil—a reference he himself makes—can one clamber up the social ladder.
Charles, on the other hand, finds himself in danger of falling down the social ladder, even as Sam and Mary are reaching for the next rung. Sir Robert’s decision to marry means that Charles may not become the rich and titled aristocrat he always expected to be. Although Mr. Freeman’s offer to bring Charles into the family business might bring Charles wealth, it would also lessen his status, as working for a living almost automatically makes one bourgeois instead of aristocratic. Charles panics at the prospect of losing status in this way. Thus, he’s caught in the dictates of the class structure as much as anyone, even though he’s objectively privileged by it. Charles’s disgust at the idea of becoming bourgeois may seem foolish, and Fowles is probably satirizing the aristocracy to some extent. However, Fowles also points out the absurd dissatisfaction of the bourgeoisie. By definition, the bourgeoisie have escaped the oppressed lives of the working class in pursuit of something greater, but the novel’s bourgeois characters seem to despise their own origins and seek always to move further up the social ladder, propelled by a constant dissatisfaction with their present wealth and status. Thus, the bourgeoisie are an ideal example of the irony of social mobility: as soon as one’s status begins to improve, he or she can never be entirely content with their position.
Sarah, perpetually an outcast, is the one character who doesn’t clearly belong to any class. Born into the agricultural working class, her education raised her up out of her origins, but not quite to the level of the bourgeoisie. This in-between status, however, does not give Sarah freedom from the tyranny of the class system. Instead, it means she has no clear path to follow and no prescribed way to find love. She’s too good for lower-class men, but her low birth means that a bourgeois man is unlikely to marry her. Sarah’s class-based loneliness leads her to transgress society’s conventions, making her further an outcast. Essentially, once she realizes that the class system has estranged her from others, she stops adhering to society’s structures altogether. This shows the paradox of the British class system; it’s torturing everyone, both those who opt in and those who opt out. This dilemma suggests that Victorian England was ripe to receive the economic ideas of Karl Marx, whose shadow hangs over the novel.
Marx advocated a revolution of the working class in order to gain freedom from the oppressive class system created by capitalism. In his view, in order to improve one’s life, a working-class person must join with others to revolt against the bourgeoisie. In Fowles’s novel, Sam and Mary are the discontented, poor characters who resent their wealthy employers and want to make better lives for themselves. But rather than do so by revolting in the service of their fellow members of the lower class, Sam and Mary are co-opted into the very capitalist system that has oppressed them their entire lives. Mr. Freeman is exactly the wealthy bourgeois character against whom Marx would have them revolt, but Fowles shows Sam and Mary instead entrusting their livelihood to Mr. Freeman in the hopes of one day becoming more like him.
This shows Fowles’ complicated relationship to Marx. While Fowles clearly shows the oppressive nature of the Victorian class structure, he seems to believe that Marx’s ideas are incapable of mobilizing the lower classes, and also insufficiently complex to fully grapple with history. While Marx believed that history was best understood through the lens of class struggle, Fowles rejects any attempt to view history through a single interpretive frame. Instead, he points out in Marx’s own words that “history is nothing but the actions of men in pursuit of their ends.” In other words, history has no motivation or theme in itself; it’s only the chaos of individual people struggling to achieve their own desires.
Each chapter of the novel has at least one epigraph (many are quotes from Marx), and the book as a whole also has a Marx epigraph, which one can see as an interpretive frame for the book: “Every emancipation is a restoration of the human world and of human relationships to man himself.” Thus, even if The French Lieutenant’s Woman seems, on the surface, to be a story of class struggle, Fowles finds in it something more complicated. Each of the characters struggles with a personal sense of their own class and status, rather than joining together to rail against the oppressive class system overall (as Marx would have them do). In essence, Fowles argues against any structural framework that attempts to impose a narrative on people, which includes the leftist narrative of Marxism.
Class Quotes in The French Lieutenant’s Woman
[H]e saw in the strata an immensely reassuring orderliness in existence. He might perhaps have seen a very contemporary social symbolism in the way these gray-blue ledges were crumbling; but what he did see was a kind of edificiality of time, in which inexorable laws... very conveniently arranged themselves for the survival of the fittest and best, exemplia gratia Charles Smithson, this fine spring day, alone, eager and inquiring, understanding, accepting, noting and grateful. What was lacking, of course, was the corollary of the collapse of the ladder of nature: that if new species can come into being, old species very often have to make way for them.
Charles, as you will have noticed, had more than one vocabulary. With Sam in the morning, with Ernestina across a gay lunch, and here in the role of Alarmed Propriety... he was almost three different men.... We may explain it biologically by Darwin’s phrase: cryptic coloration, survival by learning to blend with one’s surroundings—with the unquestioned assumptions of one’s age or social caste. Or we can explain this flight to formality sociologically. When one was skating over so much thin ice—ubiquitous economic oppression, terror of sexuality, the flood of mechanistic science—the ability to close one’s eyes to one’s own absurd stiffness was essential. Very few Victorians chose to question the virtues of such cryptic coloration, but there was that in Sarah’s look which did.
[T]hose visions of the contented country laborer and his brood made so fashionable by George Morland and his kind... were as stupid and pernicious a sentimentalization, therefore a suppression of reality, as that in our own Hollywood films of “real” life. One look at Millie and her ten miserable siblings should have scorched the myth of the Happy Swain into ashes; but so few gave that look. Each age, each guilty age, builds high walls round its Versailles; and personally I hate those walls most when they are made by literature and art.
...“You cannot, Mr. Smithson. Because you are not a woman. Because you are not a woman who was born to be a farmer’s wife but educated to be something... better.... You were not born a woman with a natural respect, a love of intelligence, beauty, learning... I don’t know how to say it, I have no right to desire these things, but my heart craves them and I cannot believe it is all vanity.”
To be sure there was something base in his rejection—a mere snobbism, a letting himself be judged and swayed by an audience of ancestors....
But there was one noble element in his rejection: a sense that the pursuit of money was an insufficient purpose in life. He would never be a Darwin or a Dickens, a great artist or scientist; he would at worst be a dilettante, a drone, a what-you-will that lets others work and contributes nothing. But he gained a 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.