68 pages 2 hours read

John Fowles

The French Lieutenant's Woman

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1969

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Character Analysis

Charles Smithson

Charles Smithson is the protagonist of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. His romantic struggles form the plot of the novel, as the narrator follows Charles’s attempts to maintain his public image while acknowledging his emotions. At the beginning of the novel, Charles is engaged to the young middle-class Ernestina. Soon, however, he becomes obsessed with the tragic, disreputable Sarah. He is split between remaining loyal to Ernestina and adhering to the expectations of a Victorian gentleman or chasing after Sarah and, in doing so, rejecting the ideals of the Victorian era. In this sense, the two women represent the competing parts of Charles’s character. Ernestina is the conventional choice for a man in his position. To remain loyal to her would be a tacit endorsement of the social expectations of Victorian society. Sarah represents a radical kind of modernity. As the narrator notes, her sensibilities are more suited to the 20th century than to her own era. She is the future, even if she does not exist there. Charles’s difficult decision is a symbolic choice between endorsing a society he does not love but which supports him or rejecting social etiquette and losing his social standing. The decision is so difficult that, ultimately, the narrator provides alternative endings to explore the implications of Charles’s inner conflict.