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The novel ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ (1969) set in the mid nineteenth century was written by John Fowles. It was inspired by a novel by Claire de Duras novel, Ourika which was written in 1823. Flowes translated the novel into English in 1977 and revised it in 1994. The novel by Flowes is concerned with highlighting the difference between notions of male and female gender, and of sexual relations including marriage in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The main characters in this novel are Sarah Woodruff and Charles Smithson who are used to propagate his ideas about the society in his novel. Sarah Woodruff is described as ‘Tragedy’ and has an unfortunate nickname ‘The French Lieutenant’s Whore’ who lives in a coastal town of Lyme Regis as a disgraced woman supposedly abandoned by Varguennes-a French naval officer— married, unknown to her, to another woman — with whom she had supposedly had an affair and who had returned to France.

The writer goes ahead to portray Sarah as a whore due to her encounters with the French Lieutenant. Sarah is described as spending her time at the Cobb staring at the sea. One day, Charles Smithson and his fiancée, Ernestina Freeman, described as the shallow-minded daughter of a wealthy tradesman whose origins are Scottish sees her and Ernestina tells Charles a story about Sarah. This makes Charles to develop a curiosity about her, Sarah. Thereafter the two, Charles and Sarah begin to meet regularly and the bond between them grows. Despite trying to remain objective, Charles eventually sends Sarah to Exeter, where he, during a journey, cannot resist stopping in to visit and see her. At one time, Sarah suffers an ankle injury and when Charles visits her alone, they make love. It is after this incidence that Charles realizes that contrary to the rumors, Sarah is a virgin.

Simultaneously, he learns that his prospective inheritance from an elder uncle is in jeopardy; the uncle has become engaged to a woman young enough to bear him an heir. From this context, a theme of sexual immorality and unfaithfulness is brought into the picture whereby Charles engages in extra marital affairs despite being engaged to Ernestina. The novelist offers three endings for ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman.’ thereby highlighting the issue of gender, sexual relationships and marriage in the three contexts.

In the first ending, Charles marries Ernestina but their marriage turns out to be an unhappy one. Charles opens up and shares to Ernestina his encounter with Sarah but elides the details and the matter is ended. In the second ending, Charles and Sarah become intimate. Consequently this leads to ending the engagement between him and Ernestina thereby having unpleasant consequences. Sarah flees to London and Charles searches for her for years. Later on Charles finds her living with several artists, enjoying an artistic and creative life. He then learns he has fathered a child with her and as a family, their future is open, with a possible reunion implied.

In the third ending, the narrator re-appears outside the house where the second ending took place. The events seem the same though this time when Charles finds Sarah in London their reunion turns sour. In this case, Sarah does not tell Charles about a child and in fact shows no interest in continuing the relationship. In this context, the novelist raises the question on Sarah’s character whether she is manipulating or lying to Charles and in addition, whether she is taking Charles’s love as weakness. Fowles brings about various aspects that confront our society which include sexual immorality, unfaithfulness, and promiscuity as a challenge to the marriage life.

On the way, Fowles the novelist discourses upon the difficulties of controlling the characters in his novel. The novelist forges ahead to give an analysis of the differences in the nineteenth century. Existentialism is mentioned several times during the story, and in particular detail at the end, after the portrayals of the two, apparent, equally possible endings. The novelist tosses a coin to determine which ending comes first thereby showing that it is a work of fiction and the ending/ endings are arbitrary

The stringent demarcation between classes and sexes in Victorian England is one of the novel’s central themes. Charles who is considered the main protagonist is cast as a gentleman who in the eyes of the society is considered to be superior to his servants , his bride to be, Ernestina and Sarah. In addition, he is ranked higher mainly out of birth. He however misses nobility when his uncle marries and produces an heir. Each of the characters is brought out to be aware of the rigid class distinction. For instance, both the class system and the patriarchy confine Sarah. The society she is born in effectively marginalizes her twice.

On the other hand, in 1981, Karel Reisz and Harold Pinter directed and adapted ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ film which was based on the novel by John Fowles. In the film, Meryl Streep who is an American actress plays the role of Sarah Woodruff. Jeremy Irons plays the actor Mike who is to play the part of a Victorian Gentleman paleontologist, Charles Smithson. The two actors who are both married begin an affair which blooms into making love. They are also seen to be sleeping in the same bed in their location hotel whilst talking evasively on the phone to their respective partners.

In this case, the film brings about the aspect of promiscuity between the two characters who despite having other partners still engage in an affair. The movie further goes ahead to display the trend in the society in terms of sexual relationships and marriages. The movie portrays the society as being one which encourages sexual immorality and promiscuity outside marriages. This is evident when the characters Charles and Sarah develop an intensely emotional relationship that leads them into sex, separation, dishonor and a final a reunion by Lake Windermere. The credits roll as they venture out into the calm waters in a row boat, a portent of the change in moral climate to come on the dawn of the 20th century.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman uses an overtly twentieth century perspective in criticizing the representation of Victorian England in whereby duty and conformity is adhered to prior to any obligation. Sara is depicted as trying to live by her own codes of behavior rather than society’s. However, others such as Charles and Ernestina are more concerned about how they appear to the outside world than in acting under the guidance of their desire.

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