The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles: Introduction

The French Lieutenant's Woman is a meta-fictional novel by John Fowles (1926-2005). He was a British modern novelist, born in Leigh-on-Sea, in the southeast of England. The French Lieutenant’s Woman was published in 1969. It was widely praised for its attempt to combine the scope and solidity of Victorian fiction with experimental narrative devices. It was developed into a movie in 1981.

John Fowles (1926-2005)

The novel deals with the problematic relationship of the creator and the created. It explores the development of selfhood too. As a writer of metafiction, John Fowles presented how traditionlity of truth and finality of meaning obstruct the evolution of a character’s personality. To talk about the new possibility for the growth of the individual's self in the changing postmodernist context of John Fowles, to cut the matter short, John Fowles probes the functionality of fiction and fluid nature of narrative structure. His narrative is embedded.

The novel is set in the nineteenth century romantic literary genre with the plot of 1867 viewed through a twentieth century perspective.  At Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast Charles Smithson, a young Victorian paleontologist, is struck by a solitary female figure standing at the far end of the Cob staring out to sea. She turns out to be Sarah Woodruff, an enigmatic governess ostracized by the community for her reported relationship with a French sailor who has since deserted her. Although Charles is already engaged to Ernestina freeman, he is first mesmerized and eventually infatuated by the woman, but on the single occasion when the affair is consummated, he discovers that Sarah to be a virgin. Charles and Ernestina's engagement is broken off, and the novel supplies alternative endings to Charles's story- both a happy and lasting reunion with Sarah and a bleak realization that they are irrevocably separated.

In this novel, Fowles is fascinated in the nineteenth century romantic or gothic genre and successfully refabricates typical characters, situations, and even dialogues. However, his perspective belongs to the twentieth century narrative in which the author himself is a character and interrupts time and again. He has given multiple ending to the novel, giving it a postmodern touch in the novel. The novel is unique in structure too, as it opens with the quotations and notes drawn from the great Victorian writers. 

The French Lieutenant's Woman is mainly praised for the experimental narrative device and its quality for being meta-fiction, a fiction within a fiction. This meta-fictional novel makes the reader aware of the illusion. It makes the structure and creation of the novel as important a feature as its story telling capabilities. In this innovative technique, the readers see the novel as a piece of imagination having nothing to do with the immediate reality of life.