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Eroticism of the Past

December 2, 2010 Leave a comment

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles is a novel unlike any other I had read before.  The way he tells the story of 1867 with the hindsight of 1967 knowledge creates a lens with which to critically look at the social customs of the time.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles (1969)

One of the aspects of this novel that stands out and begs for attention are the contrasting female figures of Ernestina and Sarah.  Ernestina is the suitable woman for Charles to be betrothed to but Sarah, the one who defies conventions is more sexually attractive to Charles.  She has something deeper within her than he can see in Ernestina and he cannot control it and he longs to.  This entire novel is about Charles’s efforts to achieve sexually and emotional gratification.  Ernestina does not appear to have any motive towards sexual gratifcation and Sarah’s gratification only comes from knowing she has conquered Charles by seducing him.

I would just like to pull out a few quotes I found interesting.

“…Ernestina was very prettily dressed; a vision, perhaps more a tactile impression, of a tender little white body entered Charles’s mind.  Her head turned against his shoulder, she nestled against him; and as he patted and stroked and murmured a few foolish words, he found himself most suddenly  embarrassed.  There was a distinct stir in his loins. There had always been Ernestina’s humor, her odd little piques and whims of emotion, a promise of certain buried wildness…a willingness to learn perversity, one day to bite timidly but deliciously on forbidden fruit. What Charles unconsciously felt was perhaps no more than the ageless attraction of shallow-minded women: that one may make of them what one wants. What he felt consciously was a sense of pollution: to feel carnal desire now, when he had touched another woman’s lips that morning!” (264).

The part I am most interested in is what I have put in bold. Here Charles is realizing his own selfishness and shallowness.  He is sexually aroused by Ernestina because he wants to have control over her sexuality and the idea of that power turns him on.  Depth of mind was not a value often looked for when men were choosing women to be good wives to them.  They weren’t a good investment.  A wife a man can mold to suit his needs was valued.  However, there is still that carnal desire that is not appropriate for a man to release onto his pure wife.  He must find a “woman” to fulfill these desires.  Thus, a prostitute or an already scandalized woman like Sarah.

This novel is brilliant and is chock full of commentary on how our society has developed in relation to social class, the passage of time, the changes in tradition, stereotypes, sexuality, gender, and money.  I thought it was amazing how Fowles incorporates theories of the great social theoreticians and rhetoricians into his work and at the beginning of each chapter.