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 ruled the Victorians. Duty implies a drive from within oneself; a sense of moral obligation to act in a certain way. However, society dictates what those moral obligations are, and the fact that duty involves one’s own conscience suggests that society’s values have become so engrained that it’s often impossible to tell what one feels compelled to do because of societal conditioning, as opposed to because it’s truly the right thing. Only when he begins to transgress society’s conventions does Charles begin to recognize how much they constrict him. In attempting to converse with Sarah he has to be constantly aware of how someone watching would interpret their meeting. He finds himself engaging in more and more elaborate precautions and deceptions to avoid the judgment of society. As he becomes increasingly aware of the conventions that guide his actions, he also becomes increasingly concerned about the idea of free will. If his entire life is governed by a desire to act in the way that society wants him to act, does he really have free will? He begins to fight convention simply to prove his sovereignty over his own life.
Sarah interacts with convention in a particularly unexpected way that makes her unintelligible to the other characters, and likely to the reader, as well. At first she seems like a victim of convention; she has flouted society’s rules by becoming involved with Varguennes without marrying him, and the gender expectations of the time have led her to be labeled as a whore who isn’t fit for polite company. However, it becomes clear that Sarah is actually manipulating convention for her own gain—even if she doesn’t seem to be gaining anything by most conventional standards of happiness or success. She lets it be believed (in fact, she encourages the belief) that she slept with Varguennes before he deserted her. She knows that this belief will make her an outcast, and ironically, this is precisely what she wants. She wants to be different, to be recognized for the suffering she feels due to her inability to fulfill herself within the constraints of Victorian womanhood.
By breaking convention so blatantly, Sarah feels herself freed from it forever. Shame is supposed to punish those who break convention in this way, but Sarah feeds off of her shame because it sets her apart. If society’s punishment is no punishment, then convention no longer has any power over her—Sarah has conquered society. Charles, on the other hand, never quite reaches this degree of freedom. Though he does flout convention by breaking off his engagement and pursuing Sarah, he remains mired in the shame society throws at him as a result. Therefore, Sarah deliberately remains in Lyme Regis because it’s the place where people know her shame, while Charles escapes to America, where he can be more anonymous and pretend that he adheres to society’s expectations. Charles and Sarah’s struggles against convention suggest that only by shedding loyalty to society’s conventions can one really take control over one’s life and exercise free will. There’s inevitably a price to pay for going against society, and it might create misery, but Fowles suggests that misery in freedom is ultimately superior to blind happiness in chains.
Charles and Sarah’s struggle against convention also serves as a microcosm of the book’s overall concern with how certain narrative structures handle convention. The novel itself flouts convention at every turn, both by its metafictional qualities and by offering multiple endings. The novel also deals with the idea of freedom not only for the characters, but also for the reader and the writer. A writer is generally believed to have complete freedom and control over the arc of a story, yet the narrator of this book claims that he isn’t entirely in control—the characters seem to do what they want, and he can only follow their actions. Additionally, the multiple endings may seem to give the reader freedom by allowing them to choose which one they find most plausible or satisfying. However, this narrative twist is really a false choice. The reader may feel tempted to choose one ending to believe in, but the narrator makes it clear that no ending can be truer than another, that all three—or at least the final two—must exist simultaneously. It may seem that the reader is offered the freedom of choice, but in fact making that choice means that the reader is losing the full force of the narrative.
Convention vs. Freedom ThemeTracker
Convention vs. Freedom Quotes in The French Lieutenant’s Woman
For what had crossed her mind... was a sexual thought.... It was not only her profound ignorance of the reality of copulation that frightened her; it was the aura of pain and brutality that the act seemed to require....
Thus she had evolved a kind of private commandment—those inaudible words were simply “I must not”—whenever the physical female implications of her body, sexual, menstrual, parturitional, tried to force and entry into her consciousness. But though one may keep the wolves from one’s door, they still howl out there in the darkness. Ernestina wanted a husband, wanted Charles to be that husband, wanted children; but the payment she vaguely divined she would have to make for them seemed excessive.
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 that he had taken the wrong path.
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 the “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.
In other words, to be free myself, I must give him [Charles], and Tina, and Sarah, even the abominable Mrs. Poulteney, their freedoms 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...; 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.
Darwinism, as its shrewder opponents realized, let open the floodgates to something far more serious than the undermining of the Biblical account of the origins of man; its deepest implications lay in the direction of determinism and behaviorism, that is, towards philosophies that reduce morality to a hypocrisy and duty to a straw hut in a hurricane.
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.
It was as if the woman had become addicted to melancholia as one becomes addicted to opium. Now do you see how it is? Her sadness becomes her happiness. She wants to be a sacrificial victim, Smithson. Where you and I flinch back, she leaps forward. She is possessed, you see.... Dark indeed. Very dark.
...“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.”
I did it so that people should point at me, should say, there walks the French Lieutenant’s Whore.... So that they should know I have suffered, and suffer, as others suffer in every town and village in this land. I could not marry that man. So I married shame.... It seemed to me then as if I threw myself off a precipice or plunged a knife into my heart. It was a kind of suicide. An act of despair, Mr. Smithson. I know it was wicked... blasphemous, but I knew no other way to break out of what I was.... What has kept me alive is my shame, my knowing that I am truly not like other women.... 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.
[The Victorians] were quite as highly sexed as our own century—and, in spite of the fact that we have sex thrown at us night and day (as the Victorians had religion), far more preoccupied with it than we really are. They were certainly preoccupied by love, and devoted far more of their arts to it than we do ours. Nor can Malthus and the lack of birth-control appliances quite account for the fact that they bred like rabbits and worshiped fertility far more ardently than we do.... I have seen the Naughty Nineties represented as a reaction to many decades of abstinence; I believe it was merely the publication of what had hitherto been private, and I suspect we are in reality dealing with a human constant: the difference is a vocabulary, a degree of metaphor.
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.
In looking down as he dressed he perceived a red stain on the front tails of his shirt.
He had forced a virgin.
...She had not given herself to Varguennes. She had lied. All her conduct, all her motives in Lyme Regis had been based on a lie. But for what purpose. Why? Why? Why?
To put him totally in her power!
And all those loathsome succubi of the male mind, their fat fears of a great feminine conspiracy to suck the virility from their veins, to prey upon their idealism, melt them into wax and mold them to their evil fancies... filled Charles’s mind with an apocalyptic horror.
...She was mad, evil, enlacing him in the strangest of nets... but why?
In a sudden flash of illumination Charles saw the right purpose of Christianity; it was not to celebrate this barbarous image, not to maintain it on high because there was a useful profit—the redemption of sins—to be derived from so doing, but to bring about a world in which the hanging man could be descended, could be seen not with the rictus of agony on his face, but the smiling peace of a victory brought about by, and in, living men and women.
He seemed as he stood there to see all his age... as the great hidden enemy of all his deepest yearnings. That was what had deceived him... the deception was in its very nature; and it was not human, but a machine.
And Charles thought: if they were truly dead, if there were no afterlife, what should I care of their view of me? They would not know, they could not judge.
Then he made the great leap: They do not know, they cannot judge.
Now what he was throwing off haunted, and profoundly damaged, his age. It is stated very clearly by Tennyson in In Memoriam.... There must be wisdom with great Death; the dead shall look me thro’ and thro’. Charles’s whole being rose up against those two foul propositions; against this macabre desire to go backwards into the future, mesmerized eyes on one’s dead fathers instead of on one’s unborn sons. It was as if his previous belief in the ghostly presence of the past had condemned him, without his ever realizing it, to a life in the grave.
This—the fact that every Victorian had two minds—is the one piece of equipment we must always take with us on our travels back to the nineteenth century. It is a schizophrenia seen at its clearest, its most notorious, in the poets I have quoted from so often—in Tennyson, Clough, Arnold, Hardy... transparent also in the mania for editing and revising, so that if we want to know the real Mill or the real Hardy we can learn far more from the deletions and alterations of their autobiographies than from the published versions... more from correspondence that somehow escaped burning, from private diaries, from the petty detritus of the concealment operation. Never was the record so completely confused, never a public façade so successfully passed off as the truth on a gullible posterity....
When he had had his great vision of himself freed from his age, his ancestry and class and country, he had not realized how much the freedom was embodied in Sarah; 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.