In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles applies metafiction (writing that is self-conscious about the fact that it is written and imagined) to the conventions of a Victorian love story in order to draw attention to the act of storytelling itself. The metafictional elements of the story—such as its multiple endings, and the narrator’s commentary on having made up the plot and characters—pull readers out of the Victorian plotline and ask them to consider that storytelling is not simply a way of representing the world. Instead, it’s a powerful tool used to manipulate the ways in which the world is understood.
In a way, Sarah’s story runs parallel to the aims of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Sarah invents a fictional past in order to gain freedom in the present. In other words, she “authors” the story about Varguennes in order to control how she is understood by others. Since Sarah’s true suffering—her sense of being an outsider who cannot live the life for which she was meant—is incomprehensible to conventional Victorians, Sarah invents a more traditional story of female suffering to make her emotions legible to those around her. In this way, Fowles suggests that fiction is a tool to make legible what might otherwise go unnoticed or be misunderstood. Sarah’s story, then, can be seen as a metaphor for the book’s overall project. Just as Sarah uses storytelling to make clear an aspect of her life that was hidden, Fowles uses metafictional storytelling to lay bare elements of fiction writing that are not often examined.
The main power of storytelling to which Fowles draws the reader’s attention is a story’s ability to make moralistic judgments seem natural. Many novels, particularly from the Victorian period, use a character’s ultimate fate as a judgment on the morality of that character’s actions. For example, ending a novel with a character’s death could allow an author to show that the character’s behavior was improper, while a happy ending often gives the message that the character’s behavior has earned a reward. Since the convention of interpreting a story’s ending as a moral judgment is so prevalent, Fowles makes clear that his is not a moralistic novel by giving The French Lieutenant’s Woman three different endings.
Each of Fowles’s endings implies a different judgment. The first ending—the conventional Victorian ending in which Charles resists Sarah, honors his commitment to Ernestina, and is rewarded with a happy life—would suggest that adhering to social convention over personal desire is noble and advisable (however, Fowles expresses no real faith in this ending, implying that it is false). The second ending—in which Charles, Sarah, and Lalage seem destined for happy family life—suggests that transgressing society in favor of one’s own principles is right and will eventually pay off. The third ending—in which Charles seems destined for a life of lonely bitterness and exile—suggests that his societal rebellion, combined with his disregard for Sarah’s desires, has been fatally misguided. Each ending inflects the preceding events with different meanings, but if none of these endings is the “true” ending, then the reader is left unsure of the moral frame through which to view the book. In other words, shifting between these three endings shows that storytelling makes arbitrary moral judgments seem natural. Morality, then, is not naturally found in events—people put it there through stories.
Storytelling and Morality ThemeTracker
Storytelling and Morality 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.
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.
[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.
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.
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?
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.
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.