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Free Study Guide-The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles-BookNotes
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Chapter 3

Summary

Fowles begins the chapter with a passage from The Origin of Species (1859), a controversial work written by Charles Darwin that created an uproar during the Victorian age because its theory undermined the creationist myth of Adam and Eve as told in the Bible.

The chapter focuses on Charles Smithson, an amateur paleontologist, interested in Darwin’s theory. He likes to think of himself as rational and analytical as well as intellectually superior to other Victorian men because he holds progressive views. The narrator intrudes in to make statements about the nature of time and the differences in perception from one century to the next. He notes that if the twentieth century suffers from a lack of time than our Victorian counterparts suffered from tranquil boredom or what is known as ennui. However, ennui was experienced by those in the upper classes who did not have to work to live. It is this which Charles finds so dissatisfying in his life and which also makes him vulnerable to that which is different or strange.

Charles Smithson was born into the upper class. His grandfather was a renowned paleontologist and although Charles was inspired by his work, he only dabbles in it rather than studies it seriously. Charles’ uncle is now the owner of the estate, and Charles is his heir. Deep down Charles is idealistic and romantic. He is also cynical unlike other young men of his class. After his studies at Cambridge, he had decided to join the Church. His father discouraged him and sent him to Paris. There, he lost some of his idealism and became more cynical and worldly-wise. His experience in the city of Sin matured him greatly. Charles, the narrator informs the reader, is rather superficial yet paleontology keeps him occupied. His interest in scientific tracks is only a passing fancy. He is one of the most eligible bachelors and is constantly hounded by mothers with marriageable daughters.

Notes

This chapter is begins with a quotation from Darwin’s The Origin of Species. This work caused a lot of controversy during the Victorian age as it led to a breakdown in religious attitudes. The reader must not forget that the Victorian period was once of great discoveries and that with this new knowledge of the universe and biological diversity, people were questioning the origins of their existence. Charles is a pseudo-intellectual and pretends to be a Darwinist although in reality he does not understand the work. By claiming to be a Darwinist, he is making a statement that he is different from his Victorian peers.


The narrative digression explores the concept of time in the two adjoining centuries. If lack of time is the anathema of modern man (which leads them to neurosis) then tranquil boredom is the ill of the wealthy class. Because Charles does not really have to work for a living, he is easily bored as well as confined by social rules that frustrate and exasperate him. He is a romantic and idealistic man like any other Victorian, but deliberately chooses to read scientific tracts which he took up to relieve his boredom.

Charles is trained to be a conventional moralist and his first sexual episode makes him run to the Church. But once in Paris, the City of Sin, he does not mind indulging in what his age proclaims is forbidden pleasure yet at the same time condone it as his father does when he forbids him to take Holy Orders. This double standard prevalent in Victorian destroys Charles’ youthful idealism and replaces it with a more worldly cynicism. He may be outwardly superficial yet the man inside is still an idealistic romantic. His double standards often confuse him. His age has taught him to think of sex as something evil but he derives pleasure from sometimes deviating from the norm. Thus, the reader may be able to understand his being attracted to Sarah Woodrufft as being not only unconventional but also sanctioned by the society he lives in though it would be loath to admit it.

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