If the French Lieutenant Never Existed,
He Should Have Been Invented

Olga Kirillova


The Lacanian point of view on transference is very important for it makes it possible to broaden its sense as besides the therapeutic, there are at least three major ways of realizing of the transference: religion, literature, and teaching. The main sense of the transference lies in the pre-supposed existence of the Big Other, initially expected to accept one’s substance of being and give one the only true signifier, which, certainly, must be a longed-for signifier of the patient, reflecting the patient’s Ideal Ego. As Slavoj Zizek noticed, "We are ‘in transference’ when it appears to us that real freedom is ‘in its very nature’ opposed to bourgeois formal freedom".1 In other words, the field of transference is regarded as a desirable form of self-realization.

Postmodernist literature, in the analytical point of view, not only represents psychical structures but interprets psychoanalytical meanings. In particular, the works by John Fowles represent a subtle variety of psychoanalytical structures and create a challenging mise-en-abyme whereby analysis is put in analysis. The relationship of the protagonists in The French Lieutenant’s Woman by Fowles proves to be really one of transference. This enables us to review the initial nature of the relationship recreated in the transference where this relation is anticipated even before the actual encounter with the analyst, being a kind of initial need. This structure is represented by the author through, first, the creation of an original cultural space (Victorian space of the total repression) that is unbalanced enough to provoke a hysterical countermovement; second, the hysterical nature of the heroine’s desire where personal identification is metonymically replaced by the cause of trauma, her own desire by the wish for the other’s desire, and trauma as such by the primary lack; third, the inverted process of analysis by the aim of the final castration of the analyst realized by a conventional Phallic signifier of the French Lieutenant.

We mark out the presence of the analyst, which is already the manifestation of the unconscious, as this moment of the revelation of the unconscious is the opening and the closure at the same time.2 The need of analyst as the Subject-supposed-to-know marks him as an enigmatic figure of hidden meanings, which are expected to correspond to the analysand's wants.3 The next important point is the textual nature of psychoanalysis where the confession is compared to the text.4 The privileged role of the objet a separating the analysand from the Big Other becomes polysemantic in this context5 because, on the one hand, it is a lure for the analyst, and, on the other hand, the psychical structures of the analysand are preserved by its existence. At the same time, the analysis is regarded as a process of re-signification depending on the Subject-supposed-to-know. Lacan emphasized the dialectical nature of the transference, which is correlative to the Hegelian Master and Slave dialectic interpreted by Alexander Kojève.6

Hysterical as phallic in the space of repression:
initial circumstances of the transference

In Fowles' novel the psychoanalytical discourse is represented by the female protagonist, Sarah Woodruff, who tries to live through the general trauma of the Victorian age by talking it through, to give it a discourse where the unconscious can only be represented and revealed by the presence of the analyst, which is the key point of Lacanian analysis (Lacan 1973)7. Here she strives towards the catharsis of her own sexual trauma as well as of that of the whole Victorian Age, which is totally repressed, having obsession as its main characteristic, aiming at the complete escape from the Real. The transferential relation in the novel anticipates the discovery of the analytical cure as the action takes place shortly before the Freudian invention which is, nevertheless, constantly remembered and referred to by the author of the novel, for example, in a story about a clinical hysterical case retold by one of the characters.8 Thus, her search for psychoanalysis is valuable here because it is represented as instinctive and improvised.

In fact, the space of the novel is marked by the search for the lost Master Signifier that is constantly anticipated, as a place for it is kept ready long before the factual appearance of its representative. This shows the impossibility of reaching it.

Therefore, Sarah chooses for her confession a young man who is the perfect representative of the Victorian age, and its victim at the same time, being sexually frustrated because of his engagement. Moreover, he is evidently repressed by the Maternal controlling and castrating Super-Ego symbolized by the British land that is why he is able to lead a normal sexual life only abroad, mostly in France. The idea of the Maternal Super-Ego is developed by Slavoj Zizek in his analysis of Hitchcock (Zizek 1991) where he describes the initial situation where "the father is absent, the paternal function (the function of pacifying law, the Name-of-the-Father) is suspended and that vacuum is filled by the ‘irrational’ maternal superego, arbitrary, wicked, blocking ‘normal’ sexual relationship (only possible under the sign of paternal metaphor)."9 At the same time it is highly significant to notice that Zizek correlates the Maternal Superego with chaotic, Dionysian, hysterical, while in the novel this is a system of law though different from the paternal one: not affirmative, but oppressive, obsessional, regressive.

Fowles’ heroes must live through a period of enforced abstinence to be prepared for psychological experiments upon them (e.g. The Magus). The choice of the Victorian Age as a setting is explained by the unstable position of sexuality, favourable for any emotional involvement, in particular, the transference. This is realized in the chosen historical and cultural period when the normal regime of sexual realization is absent, and desire exists between repression and perversion in the gap between Victorian Puritanism and the cult of refined sensuality by the Pre-Raphaelites.

In this view the narrative is arranged in a peculiar polydiscoursive structure. On the one hand, Victorian discourse as an official discourse of the feminine demand for decency oppressively avoids sensuality. Non-verbalized meanings are constantly present here as a threatening blind spot, as a marker of trauma. In fact, in the transition from verbal images to visual, it is a metaphor of the Gaze that Charles tries to escape feeling upon him. On the other hand, the author sustains a traumatic obsessive repetition of sexual motifs, constantly reminding the reader of their lack.

Consequently, Sarah plays the hysterical countermovement to these obsessional surroundings. Corresponding to Slavoj Zizek's definition, it is a typical phallic function as a dissonant element that "sticks out from the idyllic surface scene and denatures it, renders it uncanny."10

She displays hysterical superficiality of feelings as a reaction towards repression as a rule whereby all desires are, on the contrary, hidden. As Giles Deleuze describes this superficiality as a schizophrenic way of existence (Deleuze, 1966), it is important to remember that this way is deprived of meaning as much as obstinate silence, being included in process of empty signification.11 If the patient’s discourse was opened once by the confessional process then it becomes continuous without any other aim but expressing oneself in constant repetition.

Hysterical strategy in terms of signification

Sarah’s resistance to symbolization marks her hysterical position. She chooses to lose her personal identity, which was traumatically unalienable originally, "You’re not a woman who was born to be a farmer’s wife but educated for something… better."12 On the one hand, she demonstrates utter resistance to signification, but, on the other hand, her attempt to receive self-identification through the other’s interpretation is evident. She obstinately resists the Lacanian Symbolic, but, at the same time, makes herself the part of symbolic order necessary for the psychoanalytical relationship as Lacan indicated many times. After Zizek's definition of the hysterical attitude,

The subject does not know why he is occupying this place in the symbolic network. His own answer to this ‘Che vuoi?’ of the Other can only be the hysterical question ‘Why am I what I'm supposed to be, why I have this mandate?’ (…) ‘Why am I what you [the Big Other] are saying that I am?’13

As a result, she obtains metonymical self-identification with the cause of trauma. Anna Freud called this strategy ‘the Identification with the Aggressor’ as a defensive mechanism (Freud 1936)14. On the other hand, Zizek affirms the traumatic aspects of this identification by developing the concept of synthome introduced in XX Lacanian seminar Encore (Lacan 1975)15 in Zizek’s analysis of Sergio Leone's film,

To use Lacanian terminology: the harmonica man has undergone a "subjective destitution," he has no name (…), no signifier to represent him, which is why he retains his consistency only through identification with his symptom.16

At this point Sarah’s identification is clarified, "I am nothing, I am hardly human any more. I am the French Lieutenant’s Whore" (p.171). By means of self-humiliation she marks herself with total suffering, thus putting herself in the position of a patient hoping for the existence of the Subject supposed to know, which is the root of the beginning of the analytical situation. This corresponds to the Lacanian point expressed in the seminar XI that, as soon as the subject who is supposed to know exists somewhere, there is transference.17

Perverse traumatic model of relationship
in terms of constant reproduction

Her desire functions in a peculiar register that might be called perverse in a way. First of all, it is a hysterical desire for the desire of the Other, but at the same time the desire required from the analyst has to be referred not to an object, but to a classical Lacanian subject (frustrated before the face of Death). One more reason in favour of Sarah’s position as a subject is her rejection of identity. According to Zizek's interpretation of Lacan, "…the only possible definition of an object in its identity is that this is the object which is always designated by the same signifier – tied to the same signifier. It is the signifier which constitutes the kernel of the object’s ‘identity’."18

This must take place through the identification of her listener with herself in a way analogous to her own identification of herself with the object of her desire and trauma. At the same time, the imaginary object of her desire is a screen of projection of her analyst's desire.

Accordingly, she continually reproduces a certain structure trying to find an object the sense of which lies in its impossibility. Her desire is able to function only in the traumatical regime, so she reproduces situations of this kind, which might be called sado-masochistic pleasure. Evident de-personalization of these situations reveals her aiming to a pure abyss of jouissance that needs to be safely hidden by the Lacanian objet a placed before it.

In fact, she provokes the pure psychoanalytical situation where love is only possible in the situation of transference, towards the one involved in the field of trauma. In the classical Lacanian view that the analysand can express nothing but the text, Sarah elaborates a sort of literary text which must appeal to the hero by giving a new interpretation to the typical postmodern trope of "text in the text." As Lacan says, "…It is a highly significant moment in the transfer of powers from the Subject to the Other, what I call the capital Other (le Grand Autre), the locus of speech, and, potentially, the locus of truth"19. As intersubjective exchange usually takes place while consuming a literary text, involving the listener in the textual field to make him occupy the place of the desiring subject is the best way of sexual appeal in this case. Moreover, as Sarah had initially been placed in socially conditioned circumstances of the privation of the language, she can afford to be a speaking subject only through an artificial kind of discourse.

Transference "à rebours"

Nevertheless, according to the particular model reproduced in the novel, the traditional Freudian model of the transference interpreted by Lacan is completely inverted. We are faced here with the situation of psychoanalysis upside down. First of all, this occurs due to an exchange of active and passive roles between psychoanalyst and analysand. Initially, the female protagonist is expected to be an analyzed patient; since the situation of analysis in the novel is created artificially, by force, as a kind of psychoanalytical rape, Sarah takes the leading part in the process of analysis. Then, the very strong resistance of the analyst, which is conditioned by his irreplaceable overdefined identity as opposite to the lost identity of his analysand, appears in the novel instead of the traditional resistance of the analysand. The analyst exists on the traces of constant glissement (sliding-away). But in Fowles' novel the process of confession is organized in such a way that this characteristic refers to the heroine. She rules the process of her own psychoanalysis; she defines the place she wants to be gazed at from. In Zizek’s interpretation of an unpublished seminar by Jacques-Alain Miller, this is symbolic identification, "identification with the very place from where we are being observed, from where we look at ourselves so that we appear to ourselves likeable, worthy of love."20 In the light of his assertion, that intentionally deviant behaviour becomes desirable for its owner because the latter defines the parameters of the situation in which it could appeal to the other, Sarah creatively conquers the right for full-value being.

As a result, she takes the place of the true analyst as a desired object covering meanings connected with the imaginary that are hidden, as in Lacanian metaphor of Socrates from the seminar The Transference (Lacan1960-1).21 Hysterical superficiality remains uncovered, being the series of masks without an authentic face similar to the many-layered structure of an onion described by Giles Deleuze.22 It is never possible to say how intentional her actions are as their inner content is never revealed because of the changeability. This might be regarded as a long row of surfaces. Instead, the unconscious of Charles is revealed in the process of the confessional play and his becoming Subject to the Real reveals an analysand in him. He loses his definite signifier discovering all the hidden dark forces of the unconscious in himself, which deconstruct him in the end of the novel.

The situation prepared initially is appropriate for the realization for the death drive, which means castration of Charles. It is expressed, first, in the play of signifiers and signified, covering a certain lack of sense, which is the Gaze itself, and, second, in the physically embodied gaze of the novel’s characters including the author himself.

Invention of the French Lieutenant: Enigma as a Gaze

Here the enigma of the French Lieutenant is included in the game. He is definitely not a character of the novel as identified in the title, but, in fact, he makes the main sense of the novel: the French Lieutenant is an absolute phallic signifier, a Signifier without Signified. His character, undecidable and irremovable at the same time, correlates with the many times mentioned Lacanian concept of an irresolvable entity, which is the essence of a phallic symbol. He would never be personified in the novel, for it might destroy all his actual meaning.

Therefore, the excessive verbalization is equivalent to repressive threatening non-verbalization whereby certain significations are deliberately cut off from the very beginning. In the first case, the silencing is analogous to a blind spot in the discourse; it is a Gaze, present everywhere and nowhere, according to the Foucault’s idea of Panoptikon23; in the second, the Gaze is already centred on the Master Signifier. Drives and meanings are circulating around this centre, but it is never reached because the initial meaning is hopelessly lost. Thus, the French Lieutenant is represented as the perfect Lacanian objet a placed on the borderline of the Subject and the Other making their illusory communication possible.

In fact, both parts of the title of the novel mark non-existence. The utter symbolization of French Lieutenant excludes the possibility of his existence in reality, nevertheless, according to Lacan, existence is obtained through symbolization only.24 On the other hand, the word woman is a marker of non-existence as well, for, first, woman as such doesn’t exist in the Lacanian dimension. Second, Sarah does not exist as a woman turning out, in fact, to be a virgin, after the scene of the intercourse of the protagonists. After all, the word woman is used as an euphemism for a ruder one. Moreover, both words are used as shades, blinds, euphemisms: the symbolic abstraction French Lieutenant is used instead of his proper name (Varguennes), for it is just a cover where the word French serves as a total Signifier of Lust appalling and luring at the same time. France takes on the role of the screen of Desire's projection, signifier without content. This verbal covering is not arbitrary: words constituting dangerous and threatening jouissance must be hidden.

This principle of non-existence makes us understand the sense of the radical absence. Lacan ascertains that "(…) the effects are successful only in the absence of cause.".25 The French Lieutenant is not the cause of the trauma, but its marker, filling the traumatic gap caused by the painful non-correspondence of signifiers and signified. The widespread case of substantially traumatical feeling before trauma is strongly represented here. It takes place when the real cause of the trauma is hidden so deeply that it seems to be inexplicable; nevertheless, it defines inner psychical structures. Sarah strives to achieve the adequate signification of her true identity (Tragedy) that had been signified by a "blind" of the normal bourgeois welfare of her family. She destroys the split between her traumatical inner identification and social identification. The split in Sarah's case is not between her and the object of her desire (because her desire is narcissistic only) but between her true identity and her signification imposed by her initial social status.

Because the French Lieutenant is nothing but a phallic signifier whereby Sarah obtains phallic power used for symbolic castration of the men who come after, she is able, by these means, to reverse her lost identification. The seduced woman, identifying with her seducer, obtains the right to seduce men herself. She compensates for her initial total defencelessness by occupying the active, aggressive position through this displacement. From that lack, or nothingness, she used to consider the essence of her existence, escape is only possible through such a radical change of identity. In other words, if the French Lieutenant never existed, he is worth being invented.

Variant of analysis:
analyst’s victimization and castration as a cure

Consequently, the main idea of this kind of cure lies not in the simple repetition, as it was for Freud, and not in the adequate catharsis of the existing situation, but in the overcoming of the certain situation by the analyst’s castration. This symbolic procedure gives to Sarah the only illusion of filling in the traumatical primary gap caused by her doubled privation: the classical Freudian one of a female, and the additional one, caused socially by her inappropriate identification, and requiring more intensive and aggressive satisfaction which is the only acceptable one. Here the cure is realized not through imitation but through the inversion of the previous relationship. In this kind of analysis the analyst appears as a victim situated in the focus of castration on different levels by the Lacanian idea of sacrificing the analyst in the process of psychoanalysis.26

The paranoiac regime Charles is involved in after the obsessional one by the process of the transference makes him an inevitable victim of Sarah’s use of the image of the French Lieutenant as a Master Signifier, as a symbolic dead Father.

The closest libidinal privation which might be compared with the castration of Charles is embodied in the most direct way by his manservant Sam who appears in the novel for some times with a classic symbolic razor in scenes of shaving and in the end cuts radically his master’s libido. The enamel brooch, the sign of desire, destined rationally for the hero’s bride, his sublime object, is passed in the end to Sam’s wife Mary as a little piece of the Real deprived of its signified. It is the same mark of temporal displacement making it possible to possess the sign of the Real and to be preserved from the Real in all its terrible nature at the same time. The relation of Charles and his manservant may be also regarded as an inverted Oedipal castration performed by the junior one both socially and biologically – it is presented in the novel as a constant obsessive metaphor of the extinction of species and a metaphor of Darwin’s theory.

On the other hand, the classical Oedipal castration is produced by Fowles himself. The motif of the castrating Gaze occurs most evidently with the author’s appearance as a character.

You may one day come under a similar gaze. (…) The intent watcher will not wait till you are asleep. It will no doubt suggest something unpleasant, some kind of devious sexual approach …a desire to know you in a way you do not want to be known by a stranger.27

In the play of signifiers the author is identified with the Master Signifier, first, in his comparison with God, second, in evident and intentional misconception in the appearance of one who is expected to be considered the French Lieutenant but turning out to be the novel’s author. All the above, and the fact that the creation of text is a signification of desire’s expression in this complicated structure of the "text in text" indicates the author’s hidden desire towards the heroine. In fact, Sarah appears as the total author’s libidinal projection in his intentional "de-psychologizing" and mystifying of her image placed behind the closure that lets her avoid the deconstructive influence of psychoanalysis upon her psychical structure.

So, we see that the relationship of transference in Fowles' novel strives not for release from the traumatic recollection, but for aggressive self-identification the aim of which is the other’s destruction. Catharsis in this case is productive not as a simple repetition but as inversion of a certain model and changing it through inversion of the analyst and analysand's roles, of the victim’s identification lost through symbolized castration of the analyst. We might suppose that this inversion is required by postmodernistic play excluding the category of sincerity required from patient, and revising the generally platonic paradigm of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis where the category of the Real and the position of the Ideal (though distanced) are still preserved.


1. Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, (London: Verso, 1989), p.102.

2. FFC, ch.X.

3. FFC, ch.XVIII.

4. FFC, ch. XX.

5. FFC, ch.XVI.

6. Alexandre Kojève, Introduction à la lecture de Hegel (Paris,1968).

7. FFC, ch.X.

8. John Fowles, The French Leiutenant's Woman, (London: Vintage, 1996), p.355.

9. Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry, (London, MIT Press, 1997). p.99.

10. Zizek, Looking Awry, p.90.

11. Giles Deleuze, The logic of sense, (London: Athlone, 1990).

12. The French Lieutenant's Woman, p.134.

13. Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, p.113.

14. Anna Freud, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence. (N.Y.: International University Press, 1936).

15. Jacques Lacan, Le seminaire. Livre XX. (Paris: Editions Seuil, 1975).

16. Looking Awry, pp.139-40.

17. Adapted from Evans Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian psychoanalysis, s.v. transference.

18. Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, p.65.

19. FFC, (p.129).

20. Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, p.105.

21. Adapted from Evans’ Dictionary.

22. Giles Deleuze, ‘Platon et simulacrum’ in The logic of sense (1976).

23. Michel Foucault, Discipline and punish, (Penguin books, 1979).

24. See: Jacques Lacan. Le Seminaire. Livre XX. (Encore).

25. FFC, (p.128).

26. FFC, ch.XVI.

27. The French Lieutenant's Woman, p.389.


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