Two dictionary definitions of the word freedom are as follows: (1) the condition of being free of restraints; and (2) liberty of the person from slavery, detention, or oppression. Usually, a person is oppressed by an unfair or overly restrictive government, one in which its citizens lack importance, power, or control. Americans typically think of such oppression as occurring in fascist, communist, or dictatorial governments. Oppression, however, can exist even in the most democratic of nations, and be completely unrelated to politics or laws. Sometimes the most oppressive rules are the ones that are unwritten—those imposed not by government, but by society.
Societal expectations can be crippling and corrupting, and often have a deleterious effect on happiness and its pursuit. The plight of Charles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles, is illustrative of this fact. The Victorian era was one of inhibition, modesty, and respectability, above all else. Charles’ life as a gentleman is mired by the necessity that he follow society’s dictates. On the contrary, Sam, a servant of low class, has the freedom to do as he wishes and to pursue happiness because society’s expectations for him are much lower.
On the surface, the comparison of Sam and Charles appears to be uncomplicated: Sam must work arduously every day of his life in order to survive, while Charles enjoys an “idle” life of travel and gentlemen’s pleasures. But their personal lives reveal more than a discrepancy in class: one of these two men was blessed with the freedom to pursue true happiness, while the other is forced to accept only superficial contentment and the burdensome reality that his stature in society will not allow more.
Their romantic relationships are a fitting example of this. Charles cares for his fiancée Ernestina, but is not in love with her. He fails to see her as an adult or an equal; this is evidenced by her behavior and his reactions. “She smiled up at him from her chair. ‘This is what comes of trying to behave like a grown-up.’ He knelt beside her and took her hand. ‘Sweet child. You will always be that to me.’ (108)” Charles cannot take Ernestina seriously. Even so, he is committed to marrying her because of the generous financial sum involved and the good such a union would do his name.
Sam, on the other hand, does not have such restrictions. It is necessary that he work, and it is his role in society to do so. Charles, in order to maintain the title of “gentleman,” can never involve himself in labor. In this case, the very aspects of Charles’s existence that grant him his high stature and assumedly enviable lifestyle are those that constrain him. His inability to work necessitates his marriage to Ernestina—he needs the generous dowry which accompanies her hand.
Sam and Charles do possess some obvious similarities. The fact that they are both males in the Victorian era in England is important for the sheer reason that it makes painfully clear the lifestyle differences between these two inherently comparable men. One is poor and another is rich—but also, one is destined to live an existence of unfulfilling melancholia, and the other a tough but gratifying family life.
Sam and Mary fell in love freely. The two are equals, and their personalities, maturity levels, and emotional states are more similar and balanced than those of Charles and Ernestina. Their relationship was allowed to blossom at its own pace, and the pair knew that marrying would be far from easy. Yet they were willing to work tirelessly and abandon comfortable occupations in order to pursue a viable life together. Never did they consider what society’s opinion of their union would be—Sam and Mary, in the eyes of society, are inconsequential—and this is exactly what grants them their freedom.
Sam and Charles share a sense of resourcefulness and determination. Sam, for example, takes a chance with a risky new window display in Ernestina’s father’s shop, which earns him the respect and admiration of his bosses and peers. Sam also bargains with Charles in order to acquire more money with which to start a life with Mary.
Our first impression of Charles in this novel is that he is like any other “gentleman” of the time period—a narcissist and a playboy. He seems suave and sly, and charms Ernestina effortlessly. As the work progresses, however, he does something that an average man of stature in this time period would not—completely efface his sumptuous life and tarnish his spotless reputation for the unpredictability of true love. Whether one views the years he devotes to searching for Sarah as foolish or romantic, Charles, like Sam, is resolute and persevering.
In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the lower class is liberated, while the upper class is enslaved by convention. Sarah illustrates the impossibility of being happy and living in accordance with society’s unreasonable demands. She attempts to gain the very freedom denied her by her culture by disgracing her name and eschewing her proper place in society. Once she has rejected society, she is no longer forced to battle to gain and retain its approval. She has eradicated her own sense of belonging to a class—thereby eliminating any and all restrictions placed upon her by needing to conform to this class.
Understanding the differences between the lower and upper classes in the novel and the independence and oppression they respectively represent elucidates the work’s existential undertone.
The ending is decidedly existential—“life as Marx defined it—the actions of men…in pursuit of their ends (466).” Charles has lost everything and now grasps that life is to be simply “endured.” He realizes the sheer unimportance and senselessness of the existence he has led. “It meant 34 years of struggling upwards—all in vain, in vain, in vain, all height lost…(466)”
Sam and Mary have understood that life is to be “endured”—they know that they do not possess high social standing and never will—and therefore can concentrate on what contents them on a daily basis. No matter how different people’s lives are, the end result—death—is the same. When Charles passes, his high standing and “gentlemanly” reputation will amount to nothing. This makes even clearer the sheer absurdity of the fact that he lives a life devoid of pleasure and freedom, all to preserve what will ultimately be meaningless.
It is only when the characters have lost it all—Sarah her reputation, and Charles his status and hope for romantic prospects with Sarah—that they acquire true self-awareness and gain a newfound perspective on what it means to live.
Sam and Mary were never fooled about the purposelessness and grind that is life. They possessed no false assumptions that they would leave a profound or lasting impression. Therefore, although it seems as though Charles is the more fortunate man, only Sam is independent and therefore “free” from an existential standpoint. This conclusion dismisses the materialistic, shallow Victorian ideals and shuns societal conventions and their obviously negative effect on one’s personal and spiritual fulfillment.
Fowles’ existential concerns primarily relate to personal freedom versus oppression, and he uses the characters of Sam and Charles to illustrate these ideas. He places a great deal of importance upon an existential journey of self-discovery and independence. Fowles utilizes the differences in social class to exemplify the theory that those who appear to be blessed and carefree are, in actuality, cursed and doomed to lead a cookie-cutter life. Only by rejecting restrictive social conventions and living for personal fulfillment can one break free of a monotonous, superficial existence and discover meaning and contentment.