The French Lieutenant’s Woman Summary

John Fowles

The French Lieutenant’s Woman

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The French Lieutenant’s Woman Summary

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The book opens with the statement that the story is set in the middle of the Eighteenth Century, and the main character is Sarah Woodruff. She’s also called “Tragedy” and “The French Lieutenant’s Whore,” and she is the novel’s titular “woman.” After a relationship with a French ship’s officer namedVarguennes, Sarah has been abandoned in the coastal city of Lyme Regis.Varguennes has left her and married a different woman, and now Sarah spends her free time at The Cobb, a nearby stone jetty, staring out toward the sea.

One day, Sarah is observed by Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman. Charles is an orphaned gentleman, and Ernestina is the daughter of a wealthy businessperson, and the two are engaged to be married. As the two of them discuss Sarah and her situation, Charles becomes curious about her. Still in a relationship with Ernestina, Charles makes an effort to cross paths with Sarah as often as he can, hiding these encounters from his fiancée.

As they meet and talk, Sarah reveals her history to Charles. She requests his emotional and social support, as she feels her isolation acutely. Charles is also going through some personal turmoil. Though he is, at the time, in line to inherit his wealthy uncle’s estate, his uncle has begun courting a woman young enough to bear a child. That child would then, in turn, inherit Charles’ uncle’s riches.

Elsewhere, Charles’s servant, Sam, falls in love with Ernestina’s aunt’s maid.

By this time, Charles has fallen in love with Sarah and recommends that she move to Exeter. Charles travels to talk with Ernestina’s father about the precarious situation of Charles’s inheritance, and on the way home, he stops in Exeter to visit Sarah.

In an unusual move, the narrator then breaks into the story and explains to the reader that there are three potential endings to the novel’s story.

In the first ending, Charles skips visiting Sarah in Exeter, and instead goes straight to Lyme to reconfirm his love for Ernestina. They have a not entirely happy marriage, and Charles enters into business with Ernestina’s father. Charles admits encountering Sarah to Ernestina, but speaks poorly of Sarah and hides the evolution of his feelings for her. The narrator dismisses this possible ending as a daydream of Charles’.

In the second possible ending, Charles and Sarah have a sexual encounter during which he realizes Sarah was a virgin. The emotional response he has to this encounter moves him to end his engagement with Ernestina. He sends Sarah a letter and proposes marriage. The letter, however, never reaches Sarah, and Ernestina’s father shames Charles over the botched engagement. To make matters worse, Charles’s rich uncle’s new wife has a successful pregnancy, giving his uncle an heir, and ruining any chance Charles had to inherit. Charles is broken, and to avoid social ruin, he travels to Europe and then America. Sarah moves to London without sending word to Charles. During Charles’s travels, his lawyer searches for Sarah, and two years later she is found living an artistic, happy life with the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She had a child as a result of her encounter with Charles, and when Charles meets his baby, he is hopeful that the relationship can be rekindled.

In the third possible ending, the reunion between Sarah and Charles does not go as well. This ending obscures the identity of Sarah’s child’s father, and Charles leaves wondering if Sarah was just using him.

Fowles’ book is an example of a post-modern novel in that it breaks from several conventions of traditional style. The most obvious of these deviations is the approach the book takes toward its ending. In presenting the three potential endings, Fowles comments on the role the author plays in the outcome of a story, and the power that the author has in the lives of his or her characters.

Other elements of the book point to post-modernism, as well. The narrator is omniscient, and in addition to merely telling the facts of the plot, offers several other insights and asides through the use of extensive footnotes. These footnotes are an unexpected addition to a novel, as fictional texts don’t typically use them.

Additionally, the narrator later becomes a character himself. While first-person narration by a character within a story was not innovative, the insertion of the narrator into the story so late in the book’s plot was.

Critics have continued to marvel at and discuss the book’s other stylistic flourishes, including its intertextuality and self-referential nature. The book reads as if it’s aware that it’s a book, something modern audiences might refer to as version of “breaking the fourth wall.”

The novel was also adapted into a film in 1981.