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 invented by a person. Fowles uses this technique to comment on the nature of the past and the present, as well as on the parallels between fiction and history.
The parallel between fiction and history is clearest in Fowles’ choice to model The French Lieutenant’s Woman on the genre of the Victorian novel, which has many stylistic and formal similarities to history books. For example, the Victorian novel—like most history books—has a godlike omniscient narrator and a commitment to absolute realism (presenting events as though they were objective or natural, instead of invented). By adding into the Victorian novel a narrator who interjects with uncertainty, biased opinion, and blatant admissions of his own role in inventing and shaping the story, Fowles suggests the extent to which stories, whether or not they’re “true,” are always fictions, in that they must be reimagined and retold by people. Thus, Fowles asks readers to consider how their perceptions of reality and history are shaped by partially-imagined narratives that are presented as truth.
In drawing a parallel between fiction and history, Fowles also explores the ways in which conventional ideas about the past and present shift over time. While the novel is largely set in 1867, it was published in 1969, and the narrator consistently interjects with insight and observation from the perspective of the future. Often, this is meant either to subvert a present-day misconception about the Victorians, or to illustrate an idea that the Victorians had about themselves that no longer exists in the present day. For example, Fowles depicts Charles as typical of his age in being driven by his sense of duty, which Fowles sees as a major difference between the Victorians and his modern readers. This duty is in part to his ancestors, and it is only when Charles can free himself of the past, deciding to believe that his dead ancestors don’t know or judge his life, that he finds himself able to make his own decisions. Although Fowles characterizes this duty to the past as a particularly Victorian drive, he’s undoubtedly arguing for modern people to also guard against revering and idealizing the past in this way.
Fowles constantly shows the reader that the Victorians’ choices and self-knowledge were shaped and limited by the ideology of their era. Of course, since the narrator uses the Victorian story to draw an explicit parallel with the present, readers are invited to also consider how contemporary ideas and conventions limit their own lives and shape their assumptions about the past. This goes hand-in-hand with Fowles’s commentary on changing interpretive conventions. In the Victorian era, novels were generally read through the lens of morality. Today, however, literary criticism often involves reading a text through theories and insights from other contemporary fields of study. For example, to Victorians the literary stock character of the fallen woman was generally used to illustrate the perils of breaking convention—her dangerous and tempting presence testified to the moral importance of Victorian social and sexual norms. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, however, Sarah (who is modeled on the trope of the fallen woman) shows readers how Victorian norms oppressed women. By superimposing modern interpretive frames—such as sociology, psychology, or gender studies—onto a Victorian story, Fowles emphasizes another way in which stories can never be objective: the same story will always mean something different in the context of a different era.
In light of Fowles’ questioning of the authority of history, it makes sense that part of Charles’s storyline is his evolving relationship with the past. The moment in the church in which Charles frees himself from social conventions to follow his heart is framed not as a revelation about love, but rather as a revelation about history. Charles decides to no longer live as though his ancestors are judging his behavior—in other words, to live as though the past is not bound up with the present. While this passage certainly suggests that the rigid and stifling social conventions of the Victorian era were the result of an unnecessarily intense belief in the importance of the past, Charles’s decision to divorce the past from the present does not prove a sound one, either. Just as marrying Ernestina for the sake of convention would have made him miserable, choosing to pursue Sarah breaks his heart and shatters the structure of his life. The combination of Charles’s story and Fowles’ treatment of fiction and history suggests that history must not be treated as though it is objectively true and of paramount importance—after all, history is a subjective construct whose importance and interpretation shifts in relation to the present. However, the novel also suggests that the force of the past on the present cannot be escaped by mere denial. Instead, the past must be grappled with on its own terms, rather than through broad and rigid categories.
Fiction and History vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Fiction and History vs. Reality Quotes in The French Lieutenant’s Woman
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.
But this is preposterous? A character is either “real” or “imaginary”? If you think that, hypocrite lecteur, I can only smile. You do not even think of your own past as quite real; you dress it up, you gild it or blacken it, censor it, tinker with it... fictionalize it, in a word, and put it away on a shelf—your book, your romanced autobiography. We are all in flight from the real reality. That is a basic definition of Homo sapiens.
[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.
A remarkable young woman, a remarkable young woman. And baffling. He decided that that was—had been, rather—her attraction: her unpredictability. He did not realize that she had two qualities as typical of the English as his own admixture of irony and convention. I speak of passion and imagination. The first quality Charles perhaps began dimly to perceive; the second he did not. He could not, for those two qualities of Sarah’s were banned by the epoch, equated in the first case with sensuality and in the second with the merely fanciful. This dismissive double equation was Charles’s greatest defect—and here he stands truly for his age.
The master went back into his room; and there entered his mind a brief image of that ancient disaster he had found recorded in the blue lias and brought back to Ernestina—the ammonites caught in some recession of water, a micro-catastrophe of ninety million years ago. In a vivid insight, a flash of black lightning, he saw that all life was parallel: that evolution was not vertical, ascending to a perfection, but horizontal. Time was the great fallacy; existence was without history, was always now, was always this being caught in the same fiendish machine. All those painted screens erected by man to shut out reality—history, religion, duty, social position, all were illusions, mere opium fantasies.
[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.
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....
Fiction usually pretends to conform to the reality: the writer puts the conflicting wants in the ring and then describes the fight—but in fact fixes the fight, letting that want he himself favors win. And we judge writers of fiction both by the skill they show in fixing the fights (in other words, in persuading us that they were not fixed) and by the kind of fighter they fix in favor of: the good one, the tragic one, the evil one, the funny one, and so on.
But the chief argument for fight-fixing is to show one’s readers what one thinks of the world around one—whether one is a pessimist, an optimist, what you will. I have pretended to slip back into 1867; but of course that year is in reality a century past. It is futile to show optimism, or pessimism, or anything else about it, because we know what has happened since.
“You do not understand. It is not your fault. You are very kind. But I am not to be understood.”
“You forget you have said that to me before. I think you make it a matter of pride.”
“I meant that I am not to be understood even by myself. And I can’t tell you why, but I believe my happiness depends on my not understanding.”
Charles smiled, in spite of himself. “This is absurdity. You refuse to entertain my proposal because I might bring you to understand yourself.”
“I refuse, as I refused the other gentleman, because you cannot understand that to me it is not an absurdity.”
And perhaps he did at last begin to grasp her mystery. Some terrible perversion of human sexual destiny had begun; he was no more than a footsoldier, a pawn in a far vaster battle; and like all battles it was not about love, but about possession and territory. He saw deeper: it was not that she hated man, not that she materially despised him more than other men, but that her maneuvers were simply a part of her armory, mere instruments to a greater end.
He... has already begun... to realize that life, however advantageously Sarah may in some way seem to fit the role of Sphinx, is not a symbol, is not one riddle and one failure to guess it, is not to inhabit one face alone or to be given up after one losing throw of the dice; but is to be, however inadequately, emptily, hopelessly into the city’s iron heart, endured. And out again, upon the unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea.