In The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles does not merely recreate a Victorian novel; neither does he parody one. He does a little of both, but also much more. The subject of this novel is essentially the same as that of his other works: the relationship between life and art, the artist and his creation, and the isolation resulting from an individual's struggle for selfhood. He works within the tradition of the Victorian novel and consciously uses its conventions to serve his own design, all the while carefully informing the reader exactly what he is doing. His style purposely combines a flowing nineteenth-century prose style with an anachronistic twentieth-century perspective.
Fowles is as concerned with the details of the setting as were his Victorian counterparts. But he is also conscious that he is setting a scene and does not hesitate to intrude into the narrative himself in order to show the reader how he manipulates reality through his art. Like Dickens, Fowles uses dialogue to reveal the personalities of his characters and often he will satirize them as well. For example, Charles' attitudes toward Sarah and Ernestina are revealed in the way he talks to them. He is forever uncomfortable with Sarah because she won't accept the way in which he categorizes the world, including his view of her. Sarah's responses to the world around her, as seen through her words and actions are consistent, for she is already aware of herself as an individual who cannot be defined by conventional roles. However, Charles changes, depending upon whom he talks to, because he really does not know who he is yet, and he sees himself as playing a series of roles. With his fiancée, he is indulgent and paternal; with his servant Sam, he is patronizing and humorous at Sam's expense, and with Sarah, he is stiff and uncomfortable. When he attempts to respond to Sarah's honesty, he hears the hollowness of his own conventional responses.
Fowles does not recreate his Victorian world uncritically. He focuses on those aspects of the Victorian era that would seem most alien to a modern reader. In particular, he is concerned with Victorian attitudes towards women, economics, science, and philosophy. In this romance, Fowles examines the problems of two socially and economically oppressed groups in nineteenth-century England: the poverty of the working and servant classes, and the economic and social entrapment of women. While the plot traces a love story, or what seems to be a love story, the reader questions what sort of love existed in a society where many marriages were based as much on economics as on love. This story is thus not really a romance at all, for Fowles' objective is not to unite his two protagonists, Sarah and Charles, but to show what each human being must face in life in order to be able to grow.
While Fowles has titled his book The French Lieutenant's Woman, Sarah Woodruff is not really the central character. She does not change greatly in the novel as it progresses, for she has already arrived at an awareness that she must go beyond the definition of her individuality that society has imposed upon her. Because her situation was intolerable, she was forced to see through it and beyond it in order to find meaning and some sort of happiness in her life. In the early chapters of the novel, she perhaps makes one last effort to establish a life within the norms of Victorian society. She chooses the role of the outcast, the "French lieutenant's whore," and also falls in love with Charles or causes him to fall in love with her. But even as she draws Charles away from his unquestioning acceptance of his life, she finds that she does not want to be rescued from her plight. She has already rescued herself.
Charles, it seems, is the actual protagonist of this novel, for he must travel from ignorance to understanding, by following the woman whom he thinks he is helping, but who in fact is his mentor. He must discard each layer of the false Charles: Charles the naturalist, Charles the gentleman, Charles the rake, and perhaps even Charles the lover, in order to find Charles the human being. The knowledge he arrives at is bitter, for he has lost all his illusions, as Sarah discarded hers sometime before. But the result itself is not bitter. Although Charles and Sarah are not reunited, for life's answers are never as simple and perfect as those of art, they both achieve a maturity that enables them to control their lives as long as they remember to look for answers nowhere but in themselves.
Fowles has taken two traditional romantic characters, a young hero and a mysterious woman, and has transformed them into human beings.
There is no French lieutenant to pine after, and Sarah's life is not a tragedy that echoes her nickname in Lyme. Charles' gift of marriage is not a gift at all. While the novel could have ended with the couple's reconciliation, as it might have had it been a traditional romance, Fowles does not end it there. In the second ending, Sarah rejects the familiar security that Charles offers and both are forced to go on alone. Fowles' novel echoes the doubts raised by such novelists as Thomas Hardy, and by such poets as Matthew Arnold and Alfred Lord Tennyson, about the solidity of the Victorian view of the world. The world was changing and old standards no longer applied, though they lingered on long after many had discarded them in their hearts. This theme that was approached by writers in the nineteenth century is picked up again by Fowles and carried to a logical conclusion. The novel is therefore actually a psychological study of an individual rather than a romance. It is a novel of individual growth and the awareness of one's basic isolation which accompanies that growth.