Scott Krane
a baal teshuva and self-proclaimed dilettante

Existentialism and textual evolution in the ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’


The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) by John Fowles (The Collector 1963; The Magus 1965) is hinged on a selection of intertexts ranging from Darwinian Naturalism (or “post-modern Evolutionary Theory”), Victorian and contemporary Feminism, Victorian poetry, Marxist criticism and post-modern Existentialism.

Fowles implants himself as a character in the story adding yet another meta-dimension within the storyline and challenging the cognitive skills of the reader. Furthermore, the main characters in the story often personify a given school of thought. The critic, Katherin Tarbox, writes:

…of the two threads – one a philosophy, the other a scientific theory – that eventually weave themselves into the fabric of the twentieth-century self, one (existentialism) is associated with Sarah…while the second (Darwinism) seems out of her ken altogether. Both come together in Charles. His case makes it appear that the philosophy and the biological theory are mutually implicative: The existentialist self implies the (postmodern) Darwinian story of humankind, and the Darwinian story implies the existential self as the evolutionary subject.

(Tarbox 10)

Through these main characters, Charles and Sarah, and based on these schools of thought, Darwinism and Existentialism, it is Fowles’ mission to illustrate an auto-telic picture of existence, that is an existence which moves gradually towards a defined concept of ‘ends’, or to say it in the language of Greek philosophy: ‘telos‘. Even the narrator who admits to being rationally akin to the Darwinian “prime-mover”, by his nature, is still limited in his control of his own characters. They disobey him, do what they want. “So the writer[,]” explains critic, Katherine Tarbox, “himself has been recast as the prime mover in the same way that the prime mover of natural selection has been recast in contemporary Darwinism.” (Tarbox 13) Fowles writes in the strange chapter 13, when the linear storyline is abruptly interrupted by the cognitive confessions of the author himself, “The novelist is still a god since he creates (and not even the most aleatory avant-garde modern novel has managed to extirpate its author completely);” he admits the novel’s main message, “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 99) Each chapter starts with an epigraph taken from Victorian philosophy, prose and poetry, and directly related to the events in the chapters. Again, the critic, Katherine Tarbox, writes:

The narrator acknowledges his own participation in this cycle of reading and ‘writing’ through his use of epigraphs and footnotes, owning that his own shaping of the novel’s world of experience is directed and determined by narratives he’s internalized, that, in effect, his authorship is transindividual; and…the epigraphs parallel exactly what is going on within the chapter…

(Tarbox 4)


I will now explore Fowles’ unambiguous intertexts, identifying them in the story and their purpose in the novel’s anti-telic structuring. First I will draw correlations between the epigraphs and other intertexts and the storyline itself. Then I will discuss the theme of Darwinian Naturalism and lastly Fowles’ toying with post-modern Existentialism and nihilism.


A cursory look at the role of epigraphs in The French Lieutenant’s Woman is all that is needed to explain their function. Take the opening of the novel for example. Fowles is writing his story in 1969, yet setting it in Victorian England (whereas, the 1981 film adaptation, starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter, features scenes that are set in the present, yet). While intertextual themes are among the paints on Fowles palette, the author also recognizes the importance of the frame in which he will set his canvas. In the second chapter, the protagonist, Charles Smithson and his lover, Ernestina Freeman, are strolling along the Cobb in Lyme Bay in England, — “‘These are the very steps that Jane Austen made Louisa Musgrove fall down in Persuasion'”(Fowles 14)

Ernestina tells Charles of the setting.  They are engaged in playful conversation when, “…once again they walked on. It was only then that he [Charles] noticed, or at least realized the sex of, the figure at the end.” The “figure” Charles first takes as a fisherman before realizing she is a female is, as Ernestina explains to him, the title-sake of the novel: “‘They call her the French Lieutenant’s…Woman.'” (Fowles 14) The French Lieutenant’s Woman, who remains in the first few chapters without dialogue, just a mysterious source of rumor and speculation, will return in the story by the name of Sarah Woodruff, or the nickname, ‘tragedy’, and will briefly become the antagonist, who woos Charles to a sexual affair and influences his decision making and outlook. The first chapter begins with an epigraph from the poem, ‘The Riddle’ by Thomas Hardy, the Victorian novelist and poet, “Stretching eyes west/ Over the sea,/ Wind foul or fair,/ Always stood she/Prospect-impressed;/ Solely out there/ Did her gaze rest,/ Never elsewhere/ Seemed charm to be.” (Fowles 9) The description of the woman in the poem foreshadows the shadowy emergence of Sarah, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” in the second chapter. Furthermore, as one critic indicates, “Fowles was a great aficionado of Thomas Hardy, and, in particular, likened his heroine, Sarah Woodruff, to Tess Durbeyfield, the protagonist of Hardy’s popular novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891).”[1] This is one example of not only subtle intertextuality, but also the use of epigraphs to frame the storyline.

File:Charles Darwin seated.jpg
Photograph of Charles Darwin; circa 1854; University College London Digital Collection (18869) This photo has been published in Karl Pearson, The Life, Letters, and Labours of Francis Galton (1914); Henry Maull (1829–1914) and John Fox (1832–1907) (Maull & Fox); (public domain)

The protagonist, Charles, is a paleontologist whose weltanschauung is based on rational, scientific reasoning. Perhaps this is why Fowles named him such, as after Charles Darwin. It is this disposition of Charles that creates a friction with other characters in the story such as Ernestina who has a romantic outlook tempered by Victorian Anglicanism which Charles the naturalist finds naïve and above all, boring. But aside from the name of the character, Darwin is a common source of Fowles’ epigraphs, as they both directly and indirectly relate to the events in the chapters. For instance, we read, at the top of chapter three, an excerpt from Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, “But a still more important consideration is that the chief part of the organization of every living creature is due to inheritance; and consequently, though each being assuredly is well fitted for its place in nature, many structures have now no very close and direct relations to present habits of life.” (Fowles/[Darwin] 17) It appears to the reader a comment on the dialogue between Charles and Ernestina in the preceding chapter. Charles tells his fiancé, “‘Your father ventured the opinion that Mr. Darwin should be exhibited in a cage in the zoological gardens. In the monkey-house. I tried to explain some of the scientific arguments behind the Darwinian position. I was unsuccessful. Et voilà tout…'” he continues, “‘He did say that he would not let his daughter marry a man who considered his grandfather to be an ape. But I think on reflection he will recall that in my case it was a titled ape.'” (Fowles 13) As is evident in the quoting above, the reason for the Darwinian theme is so there can be a disagreement between Charles and the Christian religious camp surrounding Ernestina, a disagreement that drives the plot somewhat. It also sets up Charles’ atheism, (or is it pantheism or romanticism, perhaps) which makes him both nihilistic and free to do whatever he wills. “What little God he managed to derive from existence, he found in Nature, not the Bible…” (Fowles 20) However, the very idea of Darwinian evolution is related to the story because Charles evolves somewhat throughout – even when he embraces a philosophy more indicative of 20th century French and German nihilistic and existential philosophical perceptions of reality and away from an auto-telic existence; especially when he has an affair with Sarah Woodruff. Read what critic, Tony E. Jackson, writes in his paper, Charles and the Hopeful Monster: Postmodern Evolutionary Theory in ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’:

Now although Darwinian theory derives from the biological realm, these ideas have always been transplanted into the very different bodies of psychology and culture, and this is what occurs in Fowles’s novel. Most importantly in this respect, we clearly see Charles undergo a kind of mental evolution – a change from a Victorian to a twentieth-century sense of self – brought about by the manipulations of Sarah.

(Jackson 4)

Sarah explains to Charles that indeed, as the rumors attest to, she has had an affair with a French lieutenant, who actually abandoned her. Fowles explains Charles’ reaction:

Thus to Charles the openness of Sarah’s confession – both so open in itself and in the open sunlight – seemed less to present a sharper reality than to offer a glimpse of an ideal world. It was not strange because it was more real, but because it was less real; a mythical world where naked beauty mattered far more than naked truth.

(Fowles 172)

As Charles will later learn, this it is indeed all a mythical tale, and Sarah has never had such an affair, though, through the shedding of morality in her tale, Charles gradually comes about to a change in his own thinking. It is almost a version of Darwin’s ‘Natural Selection’ that species must change and adapt to their climate and surroundings in order to survive. The epigraph in the preceding chapter is taken from The Origin of Species:

As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected.

(Fowles/[Darwin] 145)

And as critic Katherine Tarbox writes, “This revelation about Darwinian truth comes in tandem with an existentialist sense of isolation and anxiety.” (Tarbox 10) Hence, the gears of the story shift. Charles, the Naturalist, enjoys the fact Sarah is not shaped by the Victorian sociocultural corset, “Deep in himself he forgave her her unchastity; and glimpsed the dark shadows where he might have enjoyed it himself.” (Fowles 172) Read how Fowles comments on the social standards of the age, “…then too there was that strangely Egyptian quality among the Victorians; that claustrophilia we see so clearly evidenced in their enveloping, mummifying clothes, their narrow-windowed and —corridored architecture, their fear of the open and of the naked…Hide reality, shut out nature…” he continues, “Thus to Charles the openness of Sarah’s confession — both so open in itself and in the open sunlight – seemed less to present a sharper reality than to offer a glimpse of an ideal world.” (Fowles 172) And again, towards the end of the novel, the narrator admits, “Perhaps one can find more colour for the myth of a rational human behavior in an iron age like the Victorian than in most others.” (Fowles 319)

In chapter 41 of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Charles sleeps with a prostitute on the heels of his planned marriage to Ernestina; the prostitute reminds him of Sarah, and so we realize her power over him. The whole episode, perhaps imagined by Charles, is almost a parody of Existentialism. Charles orders himself some wine and the waiter asks, “‘French or German sir,” (Fowles 300) here we know Fowles is evoking the literary existentialism that Sarah represents. Charles orders some “hock” to drink and later, after a sexual episode Fowles writes, “Charles stood, fighting the battle in his stomach. It was the hock – he had been insane to drink it.” (Fowles 304)

Existentialist philosopher, essayist, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, and more, who was an influence on John Fowles and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”, Jean Paul Sartre pictured in 1950; Archivo del diario Clarín, Buenos Aires; (public domain)

Soon, Fowles parodies Jean Paul Sartre’s novella, Nausea (1938). And so Fowles writes at the end of chapter 40 in French Lieutenant’s Woman, “He [Charles] was racked by an intolerable spasm. Twisting sideways he began to vomit into the pillow beside her shocked, flungback head.” (Fowles 304) However, the events explain that he is going through this “Sartrean daydream” because of what he picked up from Sarah. At the end of the affair, he will return to his religious and social responsibilities of marrying Ernestina. “Charles was the very opposite of the Satrean experience…” Fowles writes, “He felt suddenly able to face his future, which was only a form of that terrible emptiness.” (Fowles 309)

This paper, written in May of 2011 at Bar-Ilan University, Department of English Literature and Linguistics, is (sadly) an incomplete draft and only contains some 2,000 of the original 5,000 or so words. I don’t know what happened to the missing 3,000 and the Works Cited section!(Although I do still have my notes).


About the Author
Scott Shlomo Krane has been blogging for TOI since 2012. His writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Tablet, Ha'aretz, The Jerusalem Post, the Daily Caller, JazzTimes and he will be the host of a forthcoming blog on Scott was a columnist and breaking news editor for Arutz Sheva (2011-2013). In addition to holding a degree in Judaic Studies and a Master's in English from Bar-Ilan University (for which he wrote his thesis on the poetry of American master, John Ashbery), he has learned Judaism at Macon Ha'Gavuah L'Torah in Israel and Hadar Ha'Torah Rabbinical Seminary in Brooklyn.
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