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The novel has two protagonists, Sarah Woodruff and Charles Smithson. Both of them are character types commonly found in a nineteenth century romantic novel. These lovers are doomed from the beginning. Sarah is an outcast, rejected by Victorian society. Charles is an aristocratic Victorian gentleman already engaged to be married to someone else. Charles must challenge the conventions he lives by and eschew them. He does this through the help of Sarah who has already moved beyond society’s definition of who she is. By Victorian standards their union would have been seen as scandalous. Through their characters Fowles is attempting to understand how people’s lives were dictated by what the Victorian Age thought was true about the essential nature of men and women and how they relate to one another.
The novel’s antagonist is the Victorian society, which spurns women like Sarah who do not conform to normal gender roles. If not for society’s strict definitions of what women should be and how they should act, Sarah would not be an outcast.
Charles breaks his engagement with Ernestina when he realizes that he loves Sarah but when he goes to Exeter to meet her, he does not find her. Finally, in despair he leaves England to try and forget her. After two years of being separated, he learns of her whereabouts. During their separation both had undergone a change. Charles has shrugged off his conventional layers and Sarah is representative of a New Woman of the Age.
They finally meet after a two-year separation period at the Rossettis. Sarah has changed drastically and Charles cannot adapt himself to this new version. To complicate matters further, Fowles gives two different endings to the novel. One follows the conventional rule of a happy ending, and the other attempts to be a more unconventional but realistic ending.
In the conventional ending, Charles meets his baby daughter and the couple reunite with their love is strengthened by all that they have gone through.
In the unconventional ending, Charles rejects Sarah and feels disgusted with himself for allowing himself to fall for a woman like her. He leaves without meeting his child. Though he is bitter and alienated, he does realize a strength within him that was dormant. Since deciding to break off his engagement and shrug off his age’s burdensome conventions to follow his heart, he can now take on the world by himself.
Unlike traditional gothic novels, Fowle’s objective is not to unite his protagonists, Sarah and Charles, but to show that every human being must face hurdles in life in order to be able to grow.