Realism in The French Lieutenant's Woman
John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman is an example of metafiction. Critic Patricia Waugh describes
metafiction as a genre of novel that "theorize[s] about itself" (10). There are a lot of criticism against the traditional
or Victorian novel writing in The French Lieutenant's Woman. Fowles argues that the realism in traditional novel
does not give its characters their free will but what they get is the author's choice. In Chapter Forty-three, Fowles
presents the so-called forced ending in traditional novels: where Charles symbolically gives up his free will and
obeys the traditional author's command by returning to Ernestina. That a gentleman must be faithful to his fiancee
is the moral Victorian novels usually teach. Fowles then depicts the impact of such a forced ending on Charles:
"There was no doubt. He was one of life's victims, one more ammonite caught in the vast movements of history,
stranded now for eternity, a potential turned to a fossil" (Fowles 289).
Earlier in Chapter Thirteen of the novel, Fowles has presented his theory of true novel realism: "We know that a
genuinely created world [in fiction] must be independent of its creator [, the author]; a planned world (a world that
fully reveals its planning) is a dead world" (86). To do a practice of his own theory (2), beginning from Chapter
Forty-five the plot has taken a completely different direction, with Charles breaking his engagement to Ernestina. In
the last two chapters of Sixty and Sixty-one, there are two endings respectively. Whereas in the first ending,
Charles reunites with Sarah; the second ending takes a tragic turn, in which Charles leaves Sarah. Concerning the
two endings critic Linda Hutcheon presents the view:
Were Charles the protagonist (and of a Victorian novel), the first ending would be possible, but even then
violence would needs be done to the text. Since Sarah is the named protagonist, the painful freedom-
granting second ending of a modern novel is the only probable one. (69)
In Chapter Sixty-one where the more plausible ending takes place, Fowles "lay[s] bare [his] mechanism of
fiction-making" (63) by introducing a person to rewind his watch by a quarter of an hour in order for the novelist to
go back to and to modify on the scene of Charles and Sarah's confrontation. This person is actually the novelist in
disguise, mediating in the story to create a modern realism ending.
Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant's Woman. London: Pan, 1987.
Hutcheon, Linda. "Freedom through Artifice: The French Lieutenant's Woman." Narcissistic Narrative: The
Metafictional Paradox. New York: Methuen, 1980. 57-70.
Waugh, Patricia. "What Is Metafiction and Why Are They Saying Such Awful Things about It?" Metafiction:The
Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. London: Routledge, 1984. 1-19.