Sunday, December 26, 2010

„The French Lieutenant's Women” — A Story — The Theses

Who did not watch that movie? The top cast with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. The two stories on two planes: The Victorian — set in the XIX century England, apparently close to The Book, and The Modern, telling about the affair of actors who embody the heroes of The Book.

But, the close reading of The Book, uncovers dramatically different thoughts and conclusions and is worth reading  — even more if you already watched the movie.

In this review, I will not relate the plot of the book. If you must read about it, see the respective Wikipedia article. I want rather to direct your attention to some specific aspects of the story and the its deep conclusions.

On the surface, the book tells a story of the unorthodox love between two people living in the Victorian Era and tightly bound by convenances and rules of their age and their society. But under the surface it is a story of universal importance and human choice: Charles, who is already engaged to a woman (with wedding date already known) meets another mysterious and interesting women, and falls in love with her. Something that happens and repeats itself across the time and cultures.

However, Fowles shows, that, as usually is the case, there is no one good happy end. In fact, book shows three possible endings and we can imagine all possible conclusions out of these three different finale. To do so, author distances himself from the plot and tries to describe how the different flows of action depend on human freedom of choice. In showing this, Fowles uses his top literary mastery. These three endings come natural, and have nothing to do with artificial „novel like” implement.

By distancing themselves from the limits of time and space, the author, however discovers that characters of his story live their own lives, and even though all is his imagination — there are constrains, and they are true and unbreakable:

„I do not know. This story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind. If I have pretended until now to know my characters' minds and innermost thoughts, it is because I am writing in (...) a convention universally accepted at the time of my story: that the novelist stands next to God. He may not know all, yet he tries to pretend that he does.(...) My characters still exist, and in reality no less, or no more, real than the one have just broken. Fiction is woven into all, as a Greek observed some two and a half thousand years ago.  I find this new reality (or unreality) more valid; and I would have share my own sense that I do not fully control these creatures of my mind, any more than you control ...”

Paradoxically, by showing the three possible endings of the story, Fowles does not imply he is a god who creates the world for his stories. Reading it, while we contemplate all of the ends, we still have the notion of the frozen and unchangeable time of the past. On the philosophical or moral level, he shows how our choices create the reality that is permanently fixed — whatever we do....

I also need to relate, that, contrary to the movie, in two of the endings, one of the partners of the affair (in this case — She) does not play the fair card. We witness a women, for whom it is more important to observe her own needs (however lofty) than the true sacrifice of the man she was in love with. The last of the three endings is particularly hard to read after knowing about the vital and sincere choices made the man.
Don't take it as a hidden sexism of Fowles. In life it happens equally (or even) more often, that the man is the one who acts for his own sake. We have no sign the author of the book thinks opposite.

That was a great reading experience, and I particularly suggest it to all who watched the movie — it will elevate your experience.

PS. After „The French Lieutenant's Women” I started to read Jane Austen's „Sense & Sensibility”. I already thought there must be some connection between the two authors and their novels. For example, the Lyme Regis pier: „The Cobb”, is the important object in both  „The French Lieutenant's Women” and Austen's „Persuasion” ... Should I find some SIGN in that coincidence ?

Picture by Ian Usher


  1. Greetings for a very happy new year Mirek!I've neither seen the movie or read the book,but sure would like to!

  2. Hi Amila — All the best to you, too !!!

    In the case of this book, it is probably better to watch the movie first, then read the book for deeper meaning....