restricted access The Two Endings of The French Lieutenant's Woman
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The Two Endings of The French Lieutenant's Woman

Students of Fowles's fiction know that there are three endings, not two, in The French Lieutenant's Woman. About two-thirds of the way through the novel, Fowles provides us with an ending that he immediately dismisses as false. He contemptuously calls it a "thoroughly traditional ending" (339) and then tells us that this ending, which culminates in the marriage of Ernestina and Charles, never actually happened. It was something Charles imagined, a scenario that he constructed in his mind as he slept in a coach traveling from London to Exeter. Ostensibly Fowles condemns this ending because it reflects the aesthetic universe he earlier said he disliked: "a planned world (a world that fully reveals its planning) is a dead world" (96). That is, Fowles had hinted that Ernestina "must, in the end, win Charles back from his infidelity" (253), and to have this expectation so easily fulfilled is like watching a word processor regurgitate its contents.

For the most part, Fowles's critics take him literally and dismiss the imaginary ending as a red herring. Yet the question remains, why did Fowles include it at all if he is supposedly so contemptuous of it? The same question could be asked of the first of the two endings that actually conclude the novel. Fowles also seems to reject that one as not worthy of being an ending. For instance, he complains that "the conventions [End Page 95] of Victorian fiction allow . . . no place for the open, the inconclusive ending; and I preached earlier of the freedom characters must be given" (405). Again, Fowles takes us back to his assertion that although his characters exist only in his imagination, once he has created them, they assume an autonomy and an independence from him. Moreover, if he has adopted the voice of the omniscient narrator, because he is writing a novel set in Victorian England, that voice has necessarily been altered by the revisionist perspectives of the modern novel and modern criticism, as well as by the implications of the exploded, centrifugal universe of the modern world. Fowles appears to come out squarely on the side of modernity at least as far as storytelling is concerned: "There is only one good definition of God: the freedom that allows other freedoms to exist" (97). With such a statement he seems to reject the ancient prerogative of the storyteller to shape his materials as he sees fit. Furthermore, an Aristotelian conception of plot is dethroned: "It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey . . . [novelists] that they begin to live" (96).

It is no wonder that Fowles's critics prefer the second ending to the first. The first ending—Charles and Sarah reunited—not only seems mawkish, but it also appears to be Fowles's joke on Victorian endings.1 He seems to be deliberately poking fun at the false sense of closure so typical of Victorian novels in general—for example, the second ending of Great Expectations. In truth, Fowles may have consciously reversed the two endings of Dickens' novel, which he admits is one of his favorites.2 The second ending appears to be the only mirror that reflects the true selves of his protagonists, Charles and Sarah. Furthermore, this ending is the least cliched, the more open ended (hence the more modern), and the more Fowlesian, because it is the more existential in its implications.

Yet if we are going to take Fowles (or his narrator) at face value, we might remember what he said at one point in his novel about his two endings. He did not say that the second ending was the more authentic, only that it was not "less plausible" than the first (466). Plausibility obviously poses a problem for Fowles. On the one hand, he wants to give his characters their freedom—which includes the freedom [End Page 96] from being "plausible" if they so desire. On the other hand, he realizes that if his two endings are to be "plausible," they have to have their antecedents in two consistently "plausible" Sarahs. In other words, despite Fowles's desire to give...