Steve Sckenda's Reviews > The French Lieutenant's Woman

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles
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Mar 25, 15

bookshelves: favorites-contemporary, 20th-century, british, postmodern, freedom, social-class, psychological, movie, film-to-lit, favorites, multi-read, time-100, lit-to-film, mr-mosely, lit-to-film-class
Recommended to Steve by: Professor Mosley
Recommended for: Lovers of Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles", Victorians, Post-modern Literature
Read in February, 2012 — I own a copy, read count: 4

I encountered FLW in a literature-to-film class in 1986 where the main focus was the clever way in which Harold Pinter, screeenwriter of the 1982 movie, dealt with Fowles’ multiple endings. Yet, each re-reading of the book, like an archeological dig, yields new strata of meaning. In addition to the structure for which it is famous, this book explicates the ideas of Darwin, Freud and Marx and explores characters struggling for freedom from their creator– Fowles.

Charles Smithson’s privileged aristocratic class is going extinct and being supplanted by the mercantile class, represented by the Freeman family into which he intends to marry. Despite the fact that he is an amateur paleontologist and a disciple of Darwin, Charles fails to recognize that he, himself, has much in common with the fossils that he hunts on the cliffs of Lyme Regis. Nature has selected its fittest for survival, and he is a man struggling to overcome the crush of evolutionary history.

Sarah Woodruff’s masochism is a Freudian mystery. Standing on the Cobb and staring out to sea, she appears to have become "addicted to sadness as one becomes addicted to opium." Why does she want to be the sacrificial victim? "Where you and I flinch back, she leaps forward." Her mysteries are locked away in the subconscious id. Will her fate become that of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Fowles’ favorite book)?

Sam, the proletarian manservant, has never heard of Karl Marx, scribbling away in the British Museum Library, yet he intuitively senses that he has nothing to lose but his chains. In fact, this search for freedom is another major theme that each character confronts in his or her own way, with varying degrees of success.

Finally, Fowles plays with the concept of the author as an intrusive narrator. He inserts himself into the novel and then vanishes. You almost hear the Victorian roar of the withdrawing tide of faith. Does God exist in a post-modern novel? Do characters in a novel have free-will or is their fate predetermined by an omniscient writer? Is the writer facing extinction? Can novels like this survive in the digital age?

February 28, 2012
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 53) (53 new)


message 1: by Jim (new) - added it

Jim Excellent review, Steve! I love the way you framed the issues. I certainly hope the answer to your last question is 'yes!'. Some days, I am not so sure...

I have several of Fowles' books on my TBR, after recently reading and discussing (and being creeped out by) The Collector.


message 2: by Steve (last edited Apr 30, 2012 07:00AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Steve Sckenda Jim wrote: "I certainly hope the answer to your last question is 'yes!'. Some days, I am not so sure...

Thank you for stopping by and commenting, Jim. I felt pretty discouraged about the survival of serious reading just based on my personal observation, but I have been greatly encouraged by so many young and passionate readers at GR. I believe that many YA readers will gradually transition to other books in response to their inevitable exposure to broader life experience and to the mystery and complexity of life-- which will send them searching for authors who can help them frame questions and articulate possible worldviews to cope with uncertainty. If not, guys like us will have to become the living-books like in “Fahrenheit 451.” Re Fowles: I think I like "The Magus" second-best, but it has been a very long time since I have read it.


message 3: by Jim (new) - added it

Jim Thanks for the thoughtful response, Steve. I agree with you that the GR phenomenon is extremely encouraging, and the number of passionate readers here is a daily amazement. As long as the passion for reading remains, I have every confidence that the reader who demands quality will find more of it in every genre.

I see the YA genre itself expanding and the boundaries getting less distinct, along with the kind of transition you are talking about. I am very fortunate to have GR friends of all ages who, collectively, read every genre, but with a very discriminating eye for quality. I get an astonishing number of great book ideas from them, so much so that I am completely buried in my own TBR. And I love it!

One of those great book suggestions is The Magus, now confirmed by you. I know I will never get to all of them, because my pile grows much faster than I can read them, at least at this point. But I am fine with that, because I know I will always be reading a really good book.


message 4: by Gloria (new)

Gloria Totally off topic (sort of), but I didnt' know Harold Pinter directed the film version. I wrote a paper on him in school.


Kris Great review, Steve. I'm overdue for a re-read of this - the last time I read it I was in high school. I'm certain I missed all insights into the role of the narrator that you've included here. Now I just need to find a way to make more time....


message 6: by Steve (last edited Aug 04, 2012 02:42PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Steve Sckenda Gloria wrote: "Totally off topic (sort of), but I didnt' know Harold Pinter directed the film version. I wrote a paper on him in school."

Really. I had never heard of him in highschool. You must have been precocious! Yes, the book, written in the lat 60's was considered unfilmable until Pinter devised an ingenious method of solving the challenges of multiple endings. That is why the professor chose the book for a lit-film class. Thanks for the comment.


message 7: by Steve (last edited Aug 04, 2012 02:48PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Steve Sckenda Kris wrote: "Great review, Steve. I'm overdue for a re-read of this - the last time I read it I was in high school. I'm certain I missed all insights into the role of the narrator that you've included here. Now..."

Wow. You read in highschool! It really helps to understand the book if you have read Hardy and the Victorians. Much of the novel imitates that syle. Also Fowles sprinkles the narrative with all sorts of statistics. A famous one leaps to mind regarding the hypocrisy of Victorian rectitude. According to Fowles, there were more prostitutes in London in Victorian Age than there are now, and that most or many, many men visited them regularly. I have been wanting to read Sarah Waters to return to Victorian age with a modern perspective.


Kris I read a lot in high school, and the bigger a book was, the better. (So much for discrimination. Literature by the pound?) That's why I wrote research papers on Bleak House and The Magic Mountain in 12th grade. Something tells me I may have missed some elements in them. I don't remember the MM paper, but I do remember writing about Dickens' use of fog in BH.


message 9: by Steve (last edited Apr 12, 2013 10:42PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Steve Sckenda Kris wrote: "I read a lot in high school, and the bigger a book was, the better. (So much for discrimination. Literature by the pound?) That's why I wrote research papers on Bleak House and The Magic Mountain i..."

Well, that's why you teach books in the Ivies and I argue technicalities in Redistan.:) No, I did the same, but I read history in highschool. I read Foote's Civil War trilogy; Freeman's R.E. Lee (4 vol.s); Durants Story of Civilization (12 vols.). So we were both big book nerds. MM is staring me in the face right now. I did love BH, which I mustered up the courage to read and LOVED IT!


Steve Sckenda Margaret Schlegel. (Howards End) Sorry I have mangled fingers.


message 11: by Kris (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kris I still have to read Middlemarch (hopefully this winter sometime), but I agree with you completely about ES and MS. Howards End is such a wonderful novel. I just read a biography of EM Forster for which I need to write a review sometime. I thought it was excellent. It shed a lot of light on themes in Forster's novels as well and providing some fascinating (and sometimes sad) information about his personal life, in particular the constraints he faced re. publishing fiction that resonated with his life as a homosexual. A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster


Steve Sckenda Kris wrote: "I still have to read Middlemarch (hopefully this winter sometime), but I agree with you completely about ES and MS. Howards End is such a wonderful novel. I just read a biography of EM Forster for ..."

I love Forster. I was introduced to him through those lavish Merchant and Ivory films, which are still among my favorite. So of course, when I read Forster, I had the Merchant and Ivory actors in mind. I don't know what it was about British writers from that period. What a constellation of greatness!


message 13: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Outstanding review, Steve, per usual. I loved this when I read it way back when. I really enjoyed The Magus as well.


Lynne King Steve, Have you read "The Magus" by John Fowles? That is a truly WONDERFUL book with the most unusual ending. I went through a John Fowles' period. My life is full of "periods" studded with books.


Lynne King I forgot to add Steve, I loved this review.

I did personally prefer the film with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. Strange interpretation admittedly...


message 16: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Beautiful review of a difficult (but rewarding) book.


message 17: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Kris wrote: "I still have to read Middlemarch (hopefully this winter sometime)"

//looks at you with big brimming puppydog eyes


message 18: by Kris (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kris Awwww.

I need to read Daniel Deronda too....


Steve Sckenda Will wrote: "Outstanding review, Steve, per usual. I loved this when I read it way back when. I really enjoyed The Magus as well."

Hi, Will. Sorry I missed your comment from a long time ago. Yes, I loved the Magus, too.


Steve Sckenda Lynne wrote: "Steve, Have you read "The Magus" by John Fowles? That is a truly WONDERFUL book with the most unusual ending. I went through a John Fowles' period. My life is full of "periods" studded with books."

Hi, Lynne. Yes, I did read the Magus, back when I was on a Fowles kick. I read most of his work in a row back in the mid 80's. I really loved the Magus (it would be like a brand new book if I were to read it again after 20 years). Actually, it would be different because the version I own now it a revised edition with a different ending. So I definitely want to re-read. Thank you so much for commenting, Lynne.


message 21: by s.penkevich (new) - added it

s.penkevich First review, wow, and what a great review! And now you have well over a hundred and always getting better and better, isn't GR so lovely ha.


Steve Sckenda Moira wrote: "Beautiful review of a difficult (but rewarding) book."

Hi, Moira. Thank you so much. Agreed. It is a difficult book. But It's funny, when we read it in class, either I was not listening or we did not really get to what I think Fowles was doing. I only figured it out (I think) after multiple readings. I think it one of those books that sustains itself over multiple readings and the woman is still a great mystery to me. So I imagine I will keep reading it.


Steve Sckenda Kris wrote: "Awwww.

I need to read Daniel Deronda too...."


I got puppy dog eyes too. Funny, I have read Middlemarch and Daniel Martin by Fowles but not Daniel Deronda. Two of the women that I love most in fiction are Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch and Sarah Woodruff from FLW.


Steve Sckenda s.penkevich wrote: "First review, wow, and what a great review! And now you have well over a hundred and always getting better and better, isn't GR so lovely ha."

Thank you, so much Spen. t's amazing, Spen. I think it took 2 months to get my first like. I had no idea that I would care about the social networking aspects of this site. But I gradually grew to understand that people like you are so much more like me than most of the people in my "real" world. What a crazy year. :)


message 25: by Henry (last edited Mar 22, 2013 12:36PM) (new)

Henry Avila Steve,you began at the top and now....You're still rising,thanks Superman!


message 26: by Mark (new)

Mark Great review and nice to finally stumble across literary equivalent of the source of the Nile.

Have never read this but I used to do a mean impression of Meryl Streep on the end of the Cobb. Loved her in that film, absolutely brilliant in her 'English' manifestation.


Suzanne Great review of a wonderful book, Steve. I've read this 2 or 3 times, although not for a while. The 1st time was for a college class. I seem to remember a great emphasis being placed on Sarah being characterized as a "modern woman" in a Victorian age, intent on her independence from gender roles, despite the consequences --one more way for Fowles to juxtapose and make comment on the differences in eras. So I have never seen her as a sacrificial figure or a masochist, but more of a proto-feminist. But it is a fabulous book, and so open to all kinds of fascinating interpretations.


Steve Sckenda Henry wrote: "Steve,you began at the top and now....You're still rising,thank's Superman!"

LOL. Henry you are too kind. Thank you.


Steve Sckenda Mark wrote: "Great review and nice to finally stumble across literary equivalent of the source of the Nile.

Have never read this but I used to do a mean impression of Meryl Streep on the end of the Cobb. Loved..."


Thank you, Mark. LOL source of the Nile. I am banging my head b/c I still am not sure from when it springs. LOL. Oh yes, Meryl Streep. I was smitten with her because she portrayed two of my favorite protagonists: Sophie in Sophie's Choice and Sarah in FLW. Well, after we have had a few pints, I will be asking you to perform that impersonation of her on the Cobb, which I recently encountered as a landmark feature in Jane Austen's Persuasion.


Steve Sckenda Suzanne wrote: "Great review of a wonderful book, Steve. I've read this 2 or 3 times, although not for a while. The 1st time was for a college class. I seem to remember a great emphasis being placed on Sarah be..."

Suzanne, thank you for that wonderful insight. I agree with you fully. The "masochist" term came from Dr. Grogan's own words in book. He may not be reliable in his interpretation of Sarah. Yet, I do believe his character intuits some elements that Freud would popularize later. From Grogan's perspective, you have Sarah, who actually gives up her freedom by submitting to the horrible Mrs. Poultney. Thus a sacrifice of sorts(view spoiler) Whether she be a modern woman or a masochist, let us at least agree that she is a woman of mystery--so wonderful to behold. Thank you so much for commenting. I am glad we share a love of this novel that stays fresh after so many readings.


message 31: by Steve (new)

Steve I'm not surprised that this was such a good first effort. What surprised me is that it took almost a month to get your first comment on it. Now you can hardly get certain ones of us to shut up.


Steve Sckenda Steve wrote: "I'm not surprised that this was such a good first effort. What surprised me is that it took almost a month to get your first comment on it. Now you can hardly get certain ones of us to shut up."

LOL, Steve. Thank you. Believe me there are worse problems to have. Between being ignored and being complimented, I know which one I prefer.


message 33: by Scribble (new)

Scribble Orca Not a last like, but one for your first review, ever ;)


Steve Sckenda Scribble wrote: "Not a last like, but one for your first review, ever ;)"

Thank you, Scribble. I missed you. I hope for many more.


message 35: by Scribble (last edited Mar 25, 2013 06:16AM) (new)

Scribble Orca I'm hoping for many more (of your) reviews, too! :)

(I'm like one of those lingering whiffs! Never truly gone.)


Lynne King I love the sentence in brackets Scribble.


Dolors I realize I had read and liked this review months ago but that I hadn't commented on it. "Tess" is one of my favorite Victorian novels and I am very much taken with how you link both works.
I see the parallels in the way both novels depict its characters, Tess and Sarah, as symbols of defiance of social conventions, but also of inner struggles for individuals to become aware of themselves amidst a changing scientific background, which is at the same time revolutionizing the foundations of the Victorian Era.
Fantastic review, Steve. I'd love to revise this work.


Rowena Great review, Steve! I adored this book, glad you enjoyed it as well:)


Steve Sckenda Scribble wrote: "I'm hoping for many more (of your) reviews, too! :)

(I'm like one of those lingering whiffs! Never truly gone.)"


LOL, I just saw this and it was great for a laugh 6 months late.


Steve Sckenda Dolors wrote: "I realize I had read and liked this review months ago but that I hadn't commented on it. "Tess" is one of my favorite Victorian novels and I am very much taken with how you link both works.
I see t..."


I am so glad that you loved Tess. In fact, I first read it in this same film class to compare Hardy's vision to Roman Polanski's film. Tragic stories often appeal to me. It is funny because, in a way, the Smithson character in FLW, the male, is a type of Tess-- in addition to Sarah's character.


Steve Sckenda Rowena wrote: "Great review, Steve! I adored this book, glad you enjoyed it as well:)"

Thank you Rowena. It pleases me that we have so much in common.


John E. Branch Jr. One major objection: Harold Pinter wrote many excellent screenplays, including the script for this film, but he didn't come close to directing it. The director was Karel Reisz, whose name I easily recalled from viewing the film when it was released. I've learned not to trust my memory and checked IMDB before saying anything. Might I suggest you consider checking your memory?


Steve Sckenda John E. wrote: "One major objection: Harold Pinter wrote many excellent screenplays, including the script for this film, but he didn't come close to directing it. The director was Karel Reisz, whose name I easily ..."

Got it. Thanks.


Helle First off, to John Branch: why would you be so rude in a comment to someone? Totally uncalled for. There are many ways of expressing something.

Secondly: Steve, I love your review, especially now after your review of Possession, but I also love your comments about Meryl Streep as Sarah Woodruff and Sophie in Sophie's and the Merchant Ivory version of Howards End! They are some of my favorite movies (and books). We must be from about the same generation :-)


message 45: by Alejandro (new)

Alejandro Formidable work, Steve!


Steve Sckenda Helle wrote: "First off, to John Branch: why would you be so rude in a comment to someone? Totally uncalled for. There are many ways of expressing something.

Secondly: Steve, I love your review, especially now ..."


Thank you so much, Helle. Yes, those indeed are some of my favorite films, which I actually saw in the theaters. I love Streep and I also love all those Merchant and Ivory productions. Perhaps Howard's End was my favorite. Most of those films led me to the books, and I am always grateful to that visual medium for introducing me to life altering experiences in the books. As to my generation, I am 48, but I am familiar with films both before my time and after my time.


Steve Sckenda Alejandro wrote: "Formidable work, Steve!"

Thank you, my encouraging friend.


Helle I saw those movies in the theater as well (and also The Unbearable Lightness of being, which you mentioned recently in that review), and I have this idea that the movies we saw in our twenties (and we are the same generation as I'll be 48 in October) impact us more, or have an impact that lasts longer, than the movies we see today, cf. also Stephen King's point (in On Writing) that the books we read when we were young are the ones that stay with us.


Steve Sckenda Helle wrote: "I saw those movies in the theater as well (and also The Unbearable Lightness of being, which you mentioned recently in that review), and I have this idea that the movies we saw in our twenties (and..."

Oh Gosh. I will never forget seeing Kaufman's adaptation of Unbearable Lightness of Being in the theater and then many times after they released it on DVD. Yes, I agree. It was something about those formative years when intellectual curiosity was being awakened and conventional wisdom was being challenged when we are finally on our own. Those high caliber films opened the wider world to me and changed my life. One is less satisfied with ephemeral movies after being exposed to great films at a critical stage.


message 50: by Cecily (last edited Apr 05, 2015 02:00PM) (new)

Cecily I'm more optimistic. I don't see why this sort of novel would be less likely to survive the digital age than any other, and as others have said, technology connects people and books in new ways. Then there's Project Gutenberg.

And the digital age doesn't completely replace the paper age, and probably never will.

Treasure your library. The world still wants and needs it.


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