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 to be overemphasized, however, in large part because the middle and upper classes repressed expression of sexuality in art and literature. However, Fowles argues that Victorians were just as obsessed with sex as any modern culture, and by forbidding discussion of it and limiting practice of it, they in fact increased the pleasure that they gained when they actually did engage in sexual actions. This novel, then, portrays what a Victorian novel could not: the reality of Victorians’ sexual life, including graphic images of prostitution and intercourse.
Despite Fowles’s argument that Victorian sexuality is not categorically different from contemporary sexuality, he acknowledges that sexual norms were much different, which had profound effects on women, in particular. Victorian women were coerced into limiting expressions of sexuality in part through the specter of becoming a fallen woman. A fallen woman is one who has lost her virginity before marriage, become a prostitute, or otherwise sexually compromised herself. Fallen women were usually ostracized by society and often were unable to find a husband or have a proper family in a time when these were supposed to be women’s sole markers of success. Tess Durbeyfield in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles is probably the most famous fallen woman in Victorian fiction, but it was a standard trope used to frighten women into chastity until marriage. Fowles means Sarah to also evoke this trope, though her embodiment of it is shown to be far more complex than the confines of Victorian society would ever allow a novel to portray.
Sarah upends the idea that estrangement is necessarily a punishment for fallen women and a deterrent to other women who might stray from norms. By inviting the label of “fallen woman”—and relishing the ostracism that results—Sarah uses a clichéd archetype to subvert society’s power over her sexuality. Sarah’s fluency with this trope and its effects—as well as the fact that, in her case, it isn’t accurate—encourages readers to see the fallen woman trope as a story that gained power through its constant retelling in real life and in fiction. While exposing the trope as a fabricated story might seem to expose it as weak, Fowles instead shows how much real-life power a cultural narrative such as this one can have. Even as Sarah explodes the implications of the fallen woman trope, she’s still trapped within the confines of its narrative, as it shapes her life and her actions in every possible way.
Near the end of the book, Fowles calls Sarah a “New Woman,” which was a term the Victorians used to denote a more independent and progressive type of woman, who often transgressed sexual norms in the name of social change. In this transgression of sexual norms, New Women and fallen women were not so different. By calling her a New Woman, however, Fowles begins to shift Sarah into a narrative of purposeful rebellion and out of the narrative of the woman who has fallen by fate or moral laxity. He also implicitly politicizes Sarah’s actions, implying that she’s part of a broader social movement away from the Victorian repression of women and their sexuality. Overall, then, Fowles is arguing not only for gender equality and sexual freedom, but also to change the modern view of the Victorians’ relationship to sex. By showing his characters engaging in sexual activities that fall outside of the modern conception of Victorian life, Fowles makes the Victorians seem more real and more fallible. Humanity, he argues, always has the same desires and the same weaknesses, and it’s only the way of discussing and representing them that changes.
Fowles meant for The French Lieutenant’s Woman to be a feminist novel, and his critique of female oppression and his re-imagination of a simplistic Victorian trope are feminist in nature. However, many critics take issue with some aspects of Fowles’s treatment of gender. For example, some feminists criticize the fact that all of the significant relationships that Fowles depicts exist between men and women or men and men (female relationships, Fowles seems to imply, are not important). Furthermore, Sarah is constantly defined by the men with whom she associates, be they Varguennes, Charles, or Dante Gabriel Rossetti; she has little identity outside of her relationships with them. Fowles’s attempts to write a feminist book situate him in his own time period, as they show the powerful force of feminism in the 1960s. Because feminism was one of the strongest currents of political thought in his time, Fowles felt it important to include in literature, while the Victorians did not have this compulsion. However, just as culture changed between the Victorian era and the 1960s, so too has it shifted between the 1960s and today. Twenty-first-century readers often have different criteria for what constitutes a feminist viewpoint than readers of the 1960s had. Fowles would likely delight in this confusion over whether his text is feminist; after all, the debate is itself an example of the shifting of interpretive frames over time, which is one of the central concerns of his book.
Sexuality and Gender ThemeTracker
Sexuality and Gender 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.
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.
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 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 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?
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.