The French Lieutenant's Woman: Theme Analysis
The stringent demarcation between classes - and sexes - in Victorian England is one of this novel’s central themes and is scrutinized and deconstructed constantly. Charles, who is one of the main protagonists, is cast as a gentleman and is deemed by society (and often by himself) to be superior to his servants, his bride-to-be, Ernestina, and Sarah. He is ranked higher due to the chance of birth and just misses out on reaching nobility when his uncle marries and produces an heir.
Each of the characters is shown to be aware of the rigid class distinctions and the narrative uses this theme to undermine the naturalization of these barriers. Charles, for example, is characteristically less intelligent than his supposed inferiors Sam and Sarah. He blanches at the thought of working in commerce for his future father-in-law as this is regarded as being below him by consensus in this class-bound society.
Both the class system and patriarchy confine Sarah. Although her education moves her up the social ladder away from her father who was a farmer, this serves to leave her in the limbo world of being fit for the role of only governess or companion. The society she is born into effectively marginalizes her twice: for being a woman and for being born into the working classes.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman uses an overtly twentieth-century perspective to critique this representation of Victorian England where duty and conformity take precedence over kindness and honesty.
The belief that one should adhere to convention is put into question by the hypocrisy of many of the main characters. Apart from Sarah, who is depicted as attempting to live by her own codes of behavior rather than society’s, others, such as Charles, Mrs Poulteney and Ernestina, are more concerned about how they appear to the outside world than in acting on their desires. The sense of duty, which in some measure is shown to be admirable, has become twisted as duty becomes more valued than the Christian ethos that informs it.
Loss of faith in authority
As though to undermine the strong thematic concern that exposes the adherence to conformity in this described society, there is a parallel theme that questions authority. This is brought about in a range of small ways, from Sam disobeying his employer Charles, to the depiction of Charles’s growing interest in Darwinism. The preference for evolutionary theories over creationism implies a questioning of the authority of the Bible. Sarah’s decision to be an outcast, rather than another governess who knows her place, also exemplifies this challenge to dominant thinking as does the insertion of the author in what appeared to be a realist text.
Further to this, the use of two endings also undermines authority as the tradition of closure is demolished. The authority of the novelist is invoked by his appearance in the novel, but this role of God is simultaneously undermined as he refuses to decide the ending. The readers are empowered as they are left to choose the one they prefer. The novelist’s toss of the coin to decide which ending comes first is an ostensible means of showing that this is a work of fiction and the ending or endings are arbitrary.