The novel begins with voice of Thomas Hardy’s ″The Riddle″ which is quoted by the author. This quotation is an apt description for The French Lieutenant’s woman which portrays a singular figure, alone against a desolate landscape. The novel portrays Victorian characters living in 1867, but the author, writing in 1967, intervenes with wry, ironic commentary on Victorian conventions. In fact, it is parody of Victorian novel with chatty narrator and narrative juggling.
The most striking fact about the novel is the use of different authorial voices. Voice of the narrator has a double vision: The novel starts off with an intrusive omniscient, typically Victorian, voice: “I exaggerate? Perhaps, but I can be put to the test, for the Cobb has changed very little since the year of which I write; […]” (Fowles, p.10).
In chapter 1 we hear an extensive, detailed description of Lyme Bay. The narrator makes it a point to insist that very little has changed in Lyme Regis since the nineteenth century to the present day. The narrator deftly moves between the two centuries and comments on the present day events in the same tone in which he comments on the Victorian period. We hear the voice of narrator as a formal, stiff Victorian tone while narrating the events in the novel yet the content of what he says is contemporary.
The illusion of a Victorian novel is soon broken by a narrator, who introduces his modern 20 century point of view. For example, in Chapter 3, he alludes to devices totally unknown to Victorian society and the illusion of the typically Victorian novel is broken. “[Charles] would probably not have been too surprised had news reached him out of the future of the air plane, the jet engine, television, radar: […]” (Fowles, p.16). In Chapter 13 he finally reveals himself as a modern narrator when he admits to live in the age of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Roland Barthes (Fowles, p. 80).
Voices of the novel seem to belong to John Fowles, the author. The narrator not only comments the whole narrative but he also intrudes in order to make comments on the characters. His authorial intrusions are very pointed and sometimes biased. The narrator’s voice plays the role of both participant and observer.
The first person voice occurs in different roles. It seems to be an artist, a novelist, a teacher, a historian and a critic who surveying the scene with a modern and ironic eye, constantly reminding the reader this is not a typically Victorian novel. The third person voice, on the other hand, represents all features associated with an omniscient narrator.
It misleads the reader and sometimes even ridicules characters: “He would have made you smile, for he was carefully equipped for his role. He wore stout nailed boots and canvas gaiters that rose to the encase Norfolk breeches of heavy flannel. There was a tight and absurdly long coat to match; a canvas wide awake hat of an indeterminate beige; a massive ash-plant, which he had bought on his way to the Cobb; and a voluminous rucksack, from which you might have shaken out an already heavy array of hammers, wrappings, notebooks, pillboxes, adzes and heaven knows what else.” (Fowles, p. 43)
In Chapter 13 the first person narrator suggests to stand out against the third person narrator when he admits not to be able to control the thoughts and movements of his characters. He denies having all the god-like qualities associated with the classical role of a narrator who knows all the moves of his characters beforehand and he gives a definition of his status: “The novelist is still a god, since he creates […] what has changed is that we are no longer the gods of the Victorian image, omniscient and decreeing; but in the new theological image, with freedom our first principle not authority.” (Fowles, p.82). What the narrator does is to break the illusion of being the authoritative voice by providing the further illusion of not being it, insisting on the fact that the characters are allowed their freedom.
The narrator seems to become just another character of the story, and first and third person narration overlaps. This illusion of the narrator being a fictional character finally dissolves when he appears in person: first as a fellow passenger in the train in Chapter 55 and a second time in the last chapter. This technique of hearing different voices in a narration is called heteroglossia. The narrator guides the reader through the novel.
In summary, the narrative’s voice works on different levels: firstly there is protagonist, Charles, and his struggle to overcome his Victorian mind, secondly the narrator claims his characters to be free of authorial supervision. In fact, the narrator is only concealing his real authority. For example in Chapter 55 when he flips a coin in order to decide how to end his narrative and at last there is the reader whom the narrator allows to break free from the narrative illusion.
Character Analysis: Charles and Sarah The first picture we get of Charles is that he is a Victorian gentleman who is in all respects at the height of his time. He has a similar outside and inside. He is dominated by the social conventions of his time, particularly in his attitude towards women, and the only thing he lacks is mystery.
He seems to be a flat character that only has inner struggling. His character is developed gradually through the novel. Actually his first meeting with Sarah, is his first step of development which leads him from complacency to doubt, from the known to the undiscovered, and from safety to danger when he realizes that there is an alternative to the puritan world of Ernestina which is the free and spontaneous world of Sarah. In short, his first meetings with Sarah sharpen his awareness of that existentialist freedom she embodies and throughout the novel he is torn between the conventional Victorian ideas and this proposal of personal freedom.
It stretches as far as Chapter 44. Throughout all these chapters Charles is torn in between behaving the normal, Victorian way, rating his short relationship with Sarah as a minor, unimportant incident or accepting the full consequences of not behaving in an appropriate Victorian manner. He is fascinated by the enigma which Sarah represents and wants to solve it but on the other hand he is caught in his Victorian pattern of thought.
When he decides to visit Sarah in Exeter we are dealing with his second development. He is prepared to accept the consequences of not behaving like a Victorian in order to fulfill his personal ideas. But he is still caught in this particular pattern of thought; maybe this is best expressed by his intention to marry Sarah. He has yet not fully understood the ideas of existential freedom. Charles enters the third stage of development when he realizes that Sarah has left without leaving any trace for him to follow. It is then when he settles to follow the path he had decided to take, whether he will be able to find her or not. The months he searches for Sarah are the final stage of his development in which he is able to get the taste of freedom he once tried to gain. His meeting with Sarah at the end of the novel is the final test he has to go through.
On the other hand, from the very beginning, Sarah seems to be a round character. She has different inside and outside. Sarah acts as a counter to Tina, the model of Victorian womanhood. Sarah does not match with the time she lives in especially in her behavior. But her strangeness should be considered in the light of the Victorian age. Her actions are governed by her refusal to follow tradition and by her quest for freedom. She rejects the subservient role which her society tries to force on her, determined to get what she wants and express her desires freely.
Although some conflicts about Sarah resolved when she told her story to Charles but some of them has still remained till the end of the novel. In the two endings, Sarah’s need for freedom conflicts with her love for Charles. One ending suggests that Sarah will be able to remain outside the confines of Victorian society while still being able to establish a family with Charles and marriage will exact its own conventions which will be difficult to escape. Another ending focuses on her total freedom but also her estrangement from the man she loves. This conflict never resolved!!