The French Lieutenant's Woman: Essay Q&A

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1 Examine and compare the relationships between Charles and Ernestina and Charles and Sarah.
The engagement and impending marriage of Charles and Ernestina dominates the novel and Ernestina’s thoughts. Notions of duty, respectability and, to some extent, love, influence their relationship. It is a conventional arrangement until Charles decides to breach the trust between them.
His interest in and feelings for Sarah are bound up in a more recognizably twentieth-century understanding of attraction. With Sarah’s refusal to abide by convention, Charles is drawn into thinking of women and his own position with more self-reflection than he has previously had to. Ernestina comes to represent the Victorian era and Sarah is the New Woman of the forthcoming next century.
2. Consider the characterization of Mrs Poulteney and what she represents.
Mrs Poulteney is the arch villain of the novel and is described as similar to a Gestapo agent. She is without mercy in her treatment of her employees and her cruelty is bolstered by the conventions of her society. This is because these conventions adhere to strict class hierarchies and a hypocritical understanding of Christian values. This is most obviously exposed in her desire to ‘buy’ a positive judgement from God for when she reaches the pearly gates. This payment comes when she employs Sarah as a companion, although this is also for the superficial reason of showing her like-minded acquaintances that she is charitable.
Her character is drawn from melodrama and is purposely made one-dimensional with no saving graces. She is also a believable construction as she embodies the hypocrisies of the negative aspects of the Victorian age.
3. Comment on the use of irony in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
Irony runs through this text as the narrator sets up Charles, for instance, as superior in class, but is clearly less superior in intelligence and acuity in his understanding of Sarah. Irony is often used, then, to undermine pomposity and to question the received values of the Victorian era.
This ironic stance is also used against the readers when, for example, they are wrong footed with the insertion of the novelist as a character. By drawing the readers into what appears to be a historical romance, between Sarah and Charles, Fowles cuts away at the conventions of the nineteenth-century novel.
4. Consider the effect of the insertion of the novelist as a character.
By inserting the novelist as a character in a work of fiction, the realist narrative is deconstructed. This appearance of the twentieth-century Fowles in a nineteenth-century landscape has an alienating effect on the readers as it illustrates that this is a work of fiction, rather than an attempt to copy life realistically.
The novelist in the novel makes this a work of metafiction as it becomes a novel that discussions the fiction-making process and is a postmodern device that ensures the readers remember that this is a fiction not a documentary.
5. Analyse the use of two endings and the effects these may have on the readers.
With the insertion of the novelist and the news that he will toss a coin to decide which ending comes first, the traditional use of closure is put aside. By questioning the neat tying up of ends, which is prevalent in texts of the period when this novel is set, Fowles puts the possibility of having one, authoritative ending into doubt.
The readers may be seen as being empowered by this choice of two different versions as no definitive ending is imposed by the omnipotent novelist. Postmodernism, which notoriously attempts to collapse hierarchies and authority, is being invoked and put into practice.
This questioning of closure may also mean that the readers are left stranded as they might have become so used to closure that it has become a naturalized belief that they should expect it. In this instance, the use of two endings entails a questioning of how a novel ‘should’ be written. Fowles broadens the boundaries of how a novel may or may not be defined.

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