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 in which many traditional Victorians used religion to support their self-serving, close-minded hypocrisy. Mrs. Poulteney believes in an exchange-based form of religion that the Anglican Church seems to support. Though she pretends that her piety sets her high above her fellow residents of Lyme Regis, her way of practicing her religion actually makes her the cruelest character in the book. She also exemplifies a form of religiosity that helped give the Victorian era its reputation for sexual repression and worship of social conventions. However, Charles eventually realizes that this is not the point of Christianity—instead, he believes, Christianity should bring about a freer world.
In contrast to Mrs. Poulteney, Dr. Grogan represents science and the theories of evolution that permeate the book. Grogan attends church only to keep up appearances, and his faith in science has replaced any faith he ever had in God—at one point, he swears on On the Origin of Species as one would swear on the Bible. Whereas Mrs. Poulteney judges Sarah as a sinner based on religious principles, Grogan judges her mentally unsound based on earlier medical cases and his own scientific appraisal of her. Even though these two characters seem ideologically opposed, it’s noteworthy that they essentially come to a similar conclusion, that there’s something fundamentally wrong with Sarah that makes her unfit for general society.
Charles, on the other hand, can’t entirely accept either of these frames for Sarah. He has little difficulty rejecting Mrs. Poulteney’s moralistic view, and although Dr. Grogan’s medical literature temporarily convinces him, he ultimately can’t reconcile his experience of Sarah with the scientific view that she is insane. Similarly, Charles vacillates between religion and science in his own life. He once wanted to become a priest, and he’s now become an amateur paleontologist. Despite that he seems more aligned with science than religion, he still finds some spiritual comfort in the church in Exeter after he has sex with Sarah. However, Charles does subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea of evolution. In fact, he shares a first name with Darwin, and he studies fossils, which present the clearest evidence of Darwin’s theories. He often applies principles of evolution to his daily life and that of other characters, thinking of himself, for example, as either “the fittest” or, in moments of fear, as “a fossil.” But in spite of his supposedly scientific viewpoint, Charles can’t help but cling to convention, and he often fails to evaluate his behavior or choices in strictly secular or scientific terms. For example, when he thinks of himself as “the fittest,” he applies a scientific concept to his life, but his application of it rests on aristocratic assumptions that fitness is determined by birth rather than by ability or effort. Even as Fowles rejects religion, he points out that science can be just as ideological as religion if not applied critically—a trap into which Charles often falls.
The idea of evolution, and Charles’s belief in it as a guiding principle, shapes his development as a character. At first, Charles believes that he’s one of “the fittest” because of his aristocratic birth, a position that makes him part of the future, evolutionarily. However, his interactions with Sarah lead him to realize that his adherence to convention is actually making him a “fossil”—a relic of the past, not a harbinger of the future at all. This belief leads him to reject convention and attempt to become one of the fittest by pursuing Sarah, but it doesn’t work out the way he expected. Fowles suggests that only by acting in ways different from the rest of the population can humanity make evolutionary advances, and thus Sarah’s position as an outlier from society makes her one of the fittest who will contribute to the survival of the human race. Sarah, who all along sees society and people more clearly than anyone else, figures out how to create the life she desires. Charles, however, lacks this vision for himself, and when Sarah ultimately rejects him, the reader realizes that he has not sufficiently evolved to thrive in the way she does. He’s too rigid, and too blinded by generalization. He has a hard time fundamentally questioning the structures of his life, such as marriage and the class system; he thinks that he must either live by them or abandon them entirely, rather than taking what is useful and abandoning the rest.
Sarah, on the other hand, understands these societal structures so intimately that she can choose to what extent she adheres to them, thus making her able to use them to her advantage. For example, rather than entirely rejecting the gender expectations of her time, Sarah appropriates the narrative of the fallen woman and uses it to her own ends. She’s flexible about how she achieves her goals, but she’s always working towards them. Charles, by contrast, has trouble knowing what he wants, so he relies on ideology to tell him what his goals should be—such as marrying Sarah, even though she doesn’t want to marry him. Sarah has tools that allow her to thrive even in conditions that would break someone else, while Charles’s inability to imagine new ways of being make him more fragile. In terms of evolution, then, Sarah certainly seems “fitter” than Charles in the struggle for survival.
Perhaps, then, it’s ideology that Fowles condemns—ideology of any sort, whether embodied in religion or science. Belief systems trap and confuse Charles, whereas Sarah rejects and manipulates them in order to attain the life she wants. Just as Fowles argues that history must exist outside of the ideology of any particular moment, he argues that history is governed by change—by evolution—and those who reject the backwardness of any age herald the future. With any luck, Sarah’s characteristics will pass to the future through her daughter Lalage.
Religion, Science, and Evolution ThemeTracker
Religion, Science, and Evolution 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.
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.
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.
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.