Using two quintessential modern characters of the Victorian Era, John Fowles seeks to challenge the social conventions of the past in his novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman. In the 1960s, a time when sex marks the dawn of a new era, Fowles felt the need to throw the sexual revolution into the modern time period. Sex is part of the change from the timid mindset of the 1860’s to the unrestricted ideas a hundred years later. It’s important to look at the modern era to see how the archetypal modernists crafted postmodernism. That’s when the metamorphosis of the time period began. Modernists were finding the essence of individuality. Individuals have free will, and that’s how one can find their own identity, which in turn, is postmodernism, the creation of an identity that sets itself apart from modernism.
Postmodernism is the just the time period after the modern era. The reason Fowles seems so fixated on the past is because we have to understand the modern era to understand our own. Instead of a drastic shift from modernism, society was moving forward continuously into the postmodern era. Sarah and Charles represent the mixing of the lower-class with the upper-class to form a society with little social class values. Fowles lets his characters reposition culture into the time of the sexual revolution and free will.
With Sarah, Fowles wanted his audience to see a woman who transcended the modern age into the future. Sarah was unlike any other woman in the Victorian novel. She represents the changing times and the creation of a self identity. Her intelligence sets her apart from Victorian society’s standards for women.
She had some sort of psychological equivalent of the experienced horse dealer’s skill — the ability to know almost at the first glance the good horse from the bad one; or as if, jumping a century, she was born with a computer in her heart. I say her heart, since the values she computed belong more there than in her mind. She could sense the pretensions of a hollow argument, a false scholarship, and a biased logic when she came across them; but she also saw through people in subtler ways. (52)
Fowles is writing that Sarah is a very intelligent woman, at least for the Victorian era. Her intelligence separates her from other women in her society. She realizes the concepts of free will, and her intelligence makes her an outcast. But, she is an outcast of her own will. She can’t function as a part of that society which would see her as an outcast for being intelligent.
Sarah’s adventure with free will began with Mrs. Poulteney. She was “allowed to live in paradise, but forbidden to enjoy it.” (169) She had to move beyond her prison in order to gain a sense of self identity. This was the first move outside of society’s holding cell. Even though she was name “Tragedy” for being an outcast, she had still been residing within Victorian standards.
“I command you to leave this room at once.”
“Very well. Since all I have experienced in it is hypocrisy, I shall do so with great pleasure.”
With this Parthian shaft Sarah turned to go. But Mrs. Poulteney was one of those actresses who cannot bear not to have the last line of the scene; or perhaps I do her an injustice, and she was attempting, however unlikely it might seem from her tone of voice, to do a charity.
“Take your wages!”
Sarah turned on her, and shook her head. “You may keep them. And if it is possible with so small a sum of money, I suggest you purchase some instrument of torture. I am sure Mrs. Fairley will be pleased to help you use it upon all those wretched enough to come under your power.”
For an absurd moment Mrs. Poulteney looked like Sam: that is, she stood with her grim purse of a mouth wide open.
“You . . . shall . . . answer . . . for . . . that.”
“Before God? Are you so sure you will have His ear in the world to come?” (244, 245)
Mrs. Poulteney was effectively the force holding Sarah in her domestic clutch. Freeing herself from her, Sarah was now an individual, one who would open society to freedom. Sarah was now free, and had taken one of the first steps to society’s notion of freedom, by not following the customs set before her.
Charles and Sarah were the quintessential modernists. When they kissed for the first time they moved beyond that sexually repressed era and “the moment overcame the age.” (250) There were no social class partitions between them, which allowed them to passionately unleash their uncontrollable chemistry. They were bridging the gap between the two time periods. This scene was the first sign of the combining of the social classes. Charles and Sarah were moving beyond modern social conventions to a new era.
Fowles’s focus on sex correlates with the idea of free will, without it Charles and Sarah would have never made the choice to have intercourse. He wants to defy the conventions of the Victorian age and defend the time of the sexual revolution, yet he’s making a note that sex and love in the Victorian era was more pleasurable.
“Oh my dearest. My dearest. My sweetest angel . . . Sarah, Sarah . . . oh Sarah.”
A few moments later he lay still. Precisely ninety seconds had passed since he had left her to look into the bedroom. (350)
Putting these characters into a postmodern sexual situation is a device used to show that the 1960s idea of sex is overvalued. The Victorians had it right, by prolonging gratification. The end result of sex is not what’s important. The pursuit of sex is the real pleasure. The notable idea presented here is that Sarah and Charles were not held back; they had the freedom to choose this course of action.
Fowles bases his novel off of the concept of evolution, the evolution of society. Charles must adapt to this change for the sake of modernism and postmodernism. The evolution of society is unavoidable.
I think it inevitably follows, that as new species in the course of time are formed through natural selection, others will become rarer and rarer, and finally extinct. The forms which stand in closest competition with those undergoing modification and improvement will naturally suffer most. (375)
In order to adapt to the changing society, Charles must “inevitably” damage someone, in this case, Ernestina. He must do this even if it means turning his back on his duty. He will forever be an outcast, but he must adapt along with society. Modernism is this adaptation, the changing civilization into the postmodern age.
After Charles had loved, found brief happiness, and turned his back on Victorian society he needed to regain his sense of self. His trip to America gave him this realization of free will.
He was no longer bored. What the experience of America, perhaps in particular the America of that time, had given him — or given him back — was a kind of faith in freedom; the determination he saw around him, however unhappy its immediate consequences, to master a national destiny had a liberating rather than depressing effect. (435)
America, at that time, was the future. It was a place that looked past the reserved society Charles had come from. This nation was the concept of postmodernism in the modern era. The freedom presented to Charles made him lose his sense of being an outcast.
Fowles had to write about the modern time period to gain a familiarity with how his own time period, postmodernism, functions. The characters Charles and Sarah were the conventional modernists who shaped the ideas of the postmodern age. They were the archetypal heroes of the modern era, because they chose, of their own free will, to break social convention. The integration of the lower-class with the upper-class was the essential part of that integration. This integration changed society, and gave it a sense of freedom.