Study Guide

The French Lieutenant's Woman

by John Fowles

The French Lieutenant's Woman Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

A playful, self-conscious narrative voice situates the opening of The French Lieutenant’s Woman in Lyme Regis in 1867. Charles Smithson and his fiancee, Ernestina Freeman, are walking beside the bay when they encounter a mysterious woman known locally as “The French lieutenant’s woman,” because of the foreign sailor who has jilted her. Charles becomes fascinated by this enigmatic figure, whose real name, he learns, is Sarah Woodruff. His fascination soon develops into a romantic obsession, one that will overwhelm the complacencies of his privileged existence.

Because of her scandalous background, Sarah is a pariah. Yet Charles, a baronet’s nephew, and Sarah, an impoverished former governess, meet several times in clandestine trysts. They eventually, and awkwardly, make love. Charles feels compelled to break off his engagement with Ernestina, an action that provokes litigation by her indignant father and resentment by his valet Sam, who hopes to marry Ernestina’s maid Mary. When Charles writes a letter to Sarah asking her to marry him, Sam fails to deliver it.

Sarah vanishes, and for the next twenty months, Charles travels the world desperately seeking her. Fowles in fact offers three separate conclusions to the plot he has contrived. In one, Charles fantasizes that he never sees Sarah again and that he marries Ernestina. In the other two, he finally discovers Sarah in London, living with the Pre-Raphaelite poets and painters. The French Lieutenant’s Woman does not so much conclude as simply halt; its author refuses to constrain the freedom of his characters or to deny his readers the exercise of their own imaginations.

The French Lieutenant's Woman Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Charles Smithson, the protagonist of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, is very much like Nicholas Urfe of The Magus. He is well-born and well-bred and should be in an excellent position to enjoy the fruits of life, but he finds himself vaguely dissatisfied. Thinking that marriage to the clever Ernestina Freeman will provide the sense of fulfillment his life lacks, he is quickly dissuaded of this notion upon his instant attraction to Sarah Woodruff, the “French lieutenant’s woman.”

She is Mystery with a capital “M,” and her separate world, which she has created for herself with her fabricated tale of sexual encounter with the French lieutenant, gives her the freedom the nineteenth century setting and her circumstances would not otherwise provide. She and the Undercliff that she frequents become the mythic landscape, the otherworld that Charles enters in search of adventure, just as Nicholas enters Bourani in The Magus.

Both Charles and Sarah are trapped in roles that neither wants. Sarah has the education of a well-bred lady but her lower social standing keeps her in the working class. Charles is a gentleman, but he chafes at the rigid world he inhabits. Unknown to him is his longing to break free. His hobby is the study of fossils trapped by the receding seas when the world changed. Likewise, his place in history is at a turning point in the world, at the end of the Victorian era. The question that the novel poses is whether Charles, like his echinoderm fossils, will be trapped as the world changes or will be able to break free.

Commerce is on the rise, and even while Charles does not expect that he will have to work to earn a living, he is surprised to find that his uncle, from whom he has expected to receive a handsome inheritance, has remarried, dimming Charles’s chances of living the life of perpetual ease. Even so, he declines an offer by Mr. Freeman, Ernestina’s father, to come into the world of business, feeling ill-suited for this endeavor.

Charles believes in a Darwinian view of the world and enjoys arguing about this new scientific...

(The entire section is 870 words.)

The French Lieutenant's Woman Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Charles Smithson, a London gentleman on vacation in the south of England, goes for a walk with his fiancé, Ernestina Freeman, on the sea ramparts in Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast. They see a woman in a black coat and bonnet staring seaward from the very end of the quay, who, when warned of the danger, turns and gives Charles such a look of sadness that he never forgets it. He is further fascinated when Ernestina tells him the story of the woman, Sarah Woodruff, who, it is rumored, was seduced and abandoned by a shipwrecked naval officer she nursed back to health. Since then, she is called Tragedy or the French Lieutenant’s Woman, a euphemism for “whore.”

The next day, while Charles, an amateur paleontologist, is looking for fossils in an area known as the Undercliff, he once again sees Sarah, sleeping on a ledge beneath the path where he walks, and he is struck by her appalling loneliness. When she suddenly awakens, startled, he can only apologize for his intrusion. After she runs away, he follows her and offers to walk her to town, but she refuses. On the following day, Charles sees Sarah again when he visits Mrs. Poulteney’s, where Sarah was taken in as a kind of charity case. They share a look of understanding but do not indicate that they already met.

Later, Charles encounters Sarah on the Undercliff again and offers to help her get away from the self-righteous Mrs. Poulteney, but Sarah refuses, leaving Charles puzzled as to what keeps her in Lyme Regis. Charles talks to his physician and friend Dr. Grogan about his interest in Sarah, justifying it as only humanitarian, but Dr. Grogan thinks it is something more. The next time Charles meets with Sarah, she tells him that she was not seduced by the French Lieutenant but willingly gave herself to him in order to free herself from the restraints of Victorian expectations of women. Charles, disillusioned with Ernestina’s simplicity and conformity to Victorian conventions, finds Sarah puzzling and irresistible.

Sarah asks Charles to...

(The entire section is 830 words.)

The French Lieutenant's Woman Extended Summary

Chapters 1–33
The narrator opens the The French Lieutenant’s Woman with background information on Lyme Regis, where the story is initially set. He then introduces Charles Smithson, a thirty-two-year-old gentleman and his young fiancee, Ernestina Freeman, who are taking a walk along the Cobb, made famous by Jane Austen in her novel Persuasion. The action begins in 1867, but the narrator often breaks into the narrative, noting that the story is being related in the twentieth century. He does this initially by comparing the Cobb to a contemporary Henry Moore sculpture.

Charles and Tina’s walk is interrupted by the presence of a woman in a dark cape, standing alone at the end of the Cobb, staring out to sea. Tina explains to a curious Charles what she has heard about the woman, known as “Tragedy” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” and her status as a social outcast. Rumors suggest that Sarah Woodruff was seduced and abandoned by a French naval officer who was shipwrecked off the coast. As she nursed him back to health, he reportedly made promises to her that he did not fulfil. Destitute and rejected by most of the Lyme Regis society, Sarah is taken in by the pious Mrs. Poulteney, who plans to “save” the young woman in order to assure her own status as a worthy Christian.

The next day, Charles, whose hobby is paleontology, walks through the Undercliff searching for fossils while Tina visits her Aunt Tranter. The narrator introduces Sam, Charles’s servant, who has his eye on Mary, Aunt Tranter’s maid. During his walk, Charles comes across Sarah sleeping in a clearing. She awakens with a start, and, after apologizing for disturbing her, Charles departs.

The narrator notes Charles’s growing obsession with the mysterious Sarah. After stopping at a farmhouse to refresh himself, Charles again sees Sarah on the path. She rejects his offer to escort her home and implores him to tell no one that she has been walking there, an activity that Mrs. Poulteney has forbidden her. The next day, during a visit to Mrs. Poulteney’s, Sarah silently observes Charles and Aunt Tranter’s support of the relationship between Sam and Mary. Charles assumes that he has made a connection with Sarah, but the next time their paths cross on the Undercliff, she rebuffs his efforts to help her escape Mrs. Poulteney’s control. When she insists that she cannot leave the area, Charles assumes that her feelings for the French lieutenant are the cause. After she admits that the lieutenant...

(The entire section is 1039 words.)

The French Lieutenant's Woman Chapter Summaries

Chapters 1-3 Summary

The French Lieutenant's Woman is set in England in the coastal town of Lyme Regis. (A similar setting is found in Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion, which similarity Fowles acknowledges at the beginning of this story.) The year is 1867; the social constraints of the Victorian age are a major influence on the characters. However, this is written as a Victorian novel with a twist, which will become more evident as the story progresses.

The novel opens with the three main characters: Charles Smithson; his betrothed, Ernestina Freeman; and the novel’s mysterious female protagonist, Sarah Woodruff, the so-called French lieutenant’s woman. The three characters are either standing on or walking along the...

(The entire section is 551 words.)

Chapters 4-6 Summary

The narrator relates the story of how the French lieutenant’s woman, Sarah, found a place to stay in Mrs. Poulteney’s house. Mrs. Poulteney is a wealthy widow who sees herself as a charitable woman. However, she also prides herself for being highly moral. Mrs. Poulteney has told the vicar of her local church that she would like to help a young woman in need and asked if he would help her find someone.

After looking around, the vicar produces the story of Sarah Woodruff. The vicar tells Mrs. Poulteney some of the details he has learned about Sarah. She is from the nearby town of Charmouth, where she was trained as a governess and worked for the Talbot family. Currently, Sarah is unemployed because she left that job...

(The entire section is 499 words.)

Chapters 7-9 Summary

Sam, Charles’s servant, attempts to give his master a shave. Charles makes Sam stop when he questions Sam about his clumsy courtship of a young kitchen maid at the home of Mrs. Tranter, Ernestina’s aunt. Sam has developed a crush on the young girl but is not very confident in pursuing her. Charles has a good relationship with Sam, who is ten years Charles’s junior. He suggests that Sam take a different approach with young maid. Charles enjoys Sam’s company because he is easy to talk to and reminds Charles of conversations he used to have with other boys when he was in school. Most of the talk between Charles and Sam, when not focused on work that needs to be done, is about women.

Later that day, Charles learns...

(The entire section is 570 words.)

Chapters 10-11 Summary

The Ware Commons is a small wilderness area outside of Lyme that is filled with trees and bluffs. No one lives in these woods. The forest is thick enough and large enough that some people have been lost inside it. There is little flat land, so walkers must be strong enough to hike its steep hills. Few people wander into this forest because the land offers such a challenge. Sudden, hidden crevices make traversing the land very dangerous.

Charles has wandered into the Ware Commons after searching for fossils on the beach. He climbs up a steep slope and finds a path. After following it for a while, he stops and looks about him. Down below him, lying in the grass, he sees a woman asleep in a meadow. His first instinct is to...

(The entire section is 530 words.)

Chapters 12-14 Summary

The narrator intrudes to give readers his insights into how his characters have developed. He questions himself about how he knows them. He asks if they are representatives of himself. If this is so, he asks if the story is autobiographical. He informs his readers that contrary to what they might think, he does not control his characters. They do what they want to do and do not necessarily act in the ways he had imagined. He then says that the worlds he creates are not so unlike the reality in which he and his readers live. No one has control, he contends, over their children, their friends, or even themselves—just as he has no control over Sarah or Charles. He then asks readers to consider their own histories. He claims that...

(The entire section is 455 words.)

Chapters 15-16 Summary

After Charles walks Ernestina home and they are alone, Ernestina breaks down in tears. She has discredited Mary, the kitchen maid to whom Sam is attracted. Ernestina has insinuated that Mary has loose morals, whereas Charles has been encouraging Sam’s pursuance of Mary, whom Charles had thought was charming. Charles had chastised Ernestina for her quick and negative judgment of Mary. Ernestina realizes how poorly she acted and feels ashamed, mostly because it has caused a disagreement between her and Charles. To prove she is repentant, Ernestina later offers one of her dresses to Mary, whose wardrobe is basically limited to work clothes. Ernestina fears losing Charles and promises him that she will not be so petty in the...

(The entire section is 694 words.)

Chapters 17-18 Summary

Charles is at a concert with Ernestina and cannot quite understand why his mind continues to wander toward Sarah. He begins to compare the two women. Ernestina is younger and less experienced as well as less deep in her thoughts. She is also a bit spoiled and selfish, Charles finds, but he could have expected nothing else from the only child of rich parents. Then he questions if Ernestina is any different from any other rich girl and wonders if it is only her money and good looks that attract him. Sarah, on the other hand, is a mystery to him, and he spends much time trying to figure her out. Although she does not have money and is not as commonly pretty as Ernestina is, Charles finds himself much more attracted to her.

...

(The entire section is 616 words.)

Chapters 19-20 Summary

Dr. Grogan, a friend of Ernestina’s aunt, has dinner with Charles, Ernestina, and Mrs. Tranter. Afterward, Dr. Grogan invites Charles to his home for a drink. While there, Charles recognizes the doctor’s open mind and intellectual curiosity, so he introduces the topic of Sarah. Dr. Grogan has been to visit Sarah and diagnoses her as suffering from melancholy. The more the two men talk, the less Charles understands Sarah’s condition. Dr. Grogan has concluded that Sarah is all but obsessed with her sadness and refuses to let it go. No matter what anyone would subscribe for her depression, Sarah would probably refuse help.

After a while, Charles changes the topic to scientific theories they share, particularly the...

(The entire section is 652 words.)

Chapters 21-23 Summary

Sarah and Charles are still in the woods as Sarah continues the story about her relationship with the French lieutenant. About a month after Vargueness sailed away from England, she received a letter from him. In this letter, he explained to her that he was in an unhappy marriage. He maintained that he loved Sarah and wanted her to be with him, but Sarah says she knew he was lying. His letter did not hurt her as she had anticipated receiving such news would hurt her.

Sarah continues to insist that she needs to be shamed for her sins, though Charles presses her to leave Lyme and move to London for a fresh start. When she rejects this idea, Charles remembers what Dr. Grogan told him about some women who become lost in the...

(The entire section is 626 words.)

Chapters 24-26 Summary

Charles returns from his uncle’s home with bad news—at least, Ernestina considers it bad news. Charles’s uncle has decided to marry. If he should produce sons, Charles will not inherit his uncle’s fortune. Charles is not as distraught at this news at Ernestina is, and he looks upon her negative reaction as rather unladylike. Her bitterness annoys him. To change the subject, Charles asks if anything has happened while he was gone.

Both Ernestina and Mrs. Tranter relay a story about Sarah. Sarah has been dismissed by Mrs. Poulteney, though neither Ernestina nor her aunt know the cause. Charles is a little concerned that Sarah’s predicament might have something to do with him, and he wonders if someone could have...

(The entire section is 562 words.)

Chapters 27-29 Summary

Charles arrives at Dr. Grogan’s office. He must speak to someone about Sarah and his involvement with her. Dr. Grogan listens as Charles relates his meetings with Sarah in the woods and the things she has told him about herself. After listening, Dr. Grogan, a man with many years of experience with human nature and all its contortions, makes up a scenario for Charles’s benefit. Pretending to be Sarah, Dr. Grogan improvises a storyline as if he were stating Sarah’s thoughts. He recounts, as Sarah, how she has found an attractive and intelligent man who has empathy for her plight. She is taken by this man, as she had previously been taken by the French lieutenant. Through this man, she hopes to gain a better life.

...

(The entire section is 670 words.)

Chapters 30-33 Summary

The story shifts back in time to the day Mrs. Poulteney dismissed Sarah. Mrs. Fairley called for Sarah to tell her that Mrs. Poulteney was waiting for her and wanted to see her immediately. Mrs. Fairley had never liked Sarah or the favors she received from Mrs. Poulteney. Mrs. Fairley had always been jealous of Sarah and was relishing witnessing Sarah’s punishment and subsequent departure. When Sarah enters the room where Mrs. Poulteney is waiting for her, Mrs. Fairley closes the door and stands on the other side so she can eavesdrop.

Mrs. Poulteney is unusually quiet; she takes her time to say what she must. After a long delay, Mrs. Poulteney points to an envelope and tells Sarah that inside are her wages for the...

(The entire section is 553 words.)

Chapters 34-36 Summary

Charles visits Mrs. Tranter later that morning. Ernestina is slightly angry with him because he had a long, private talk with her aunt before coming to see her. She is not included in the discussion and is not told the subject of their talk. Then when he finally comes to her, Charles does not comment on her dress or her hair, although she had taken great care to make it look nice just for him. She is even more disturbed when Charles tells her that he must leave immediately for London. She suggests that he have his accountant handle his affairs but he says his business must be conducted in person. Besides, Charles tells her, he must also go visit her father and report the change in his financial status now that his uncle might...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

Chapters 37-39 Summary

Charles is in London and is visiting with Ernestina’s father. After telling Mr. Freeman about his current financial status, Charles waits for his future father-in-law’s response. According to the narrator, Mr. Freeman initially wonders if Charles had not suspected that his uncle might marry one day and therefore looked for a wife with money. Charles senses that Mr. Freeman might be pondering this possibility, so he says that his uncle’s upcoming marriage came as a complete shock to him.

Mr. Freeman feels satisfied with Charles’s honesty. He compliments Charles on his integrity and reinforces his satisfaction that his daughter has chosen her future husband well. With this in mind, Mr. Freeman makes Charles an...

(The entire section is 633 words.)

Chapters 40-42 Summary

Charles is very drunk and has decided to go to bed with the prostitute. He follows her to her room and waits by the fire while she goes into the next room. When she returns, she tells him she has a baby girl but the child will be quiet. Then she undresses and eventually leads him to bed.

Charles is physically aroused as he comes near her. However, he is also fighting nausea. He is able to hold it back until he asks her name. The prostitute replies, “Sarah.” At this, Charles can no longer control the spasms in his stomach and pukes all over the pillow.

The next chapter finds Charles at his London home. Sam and a kitchen maid are discussing the recent strange changes in Charles’s behavior. The maid says...

(The entire section is 596 words.)

Chapters 43-46 Summary

As Charles travels back to Lyme, he considers Sarah’s letter. He wonders why she merely sent the address where she was staying in Exeter and had not signed her name. To Charles, the letter feels more like an invitation to come visit her rather than indicative of feelings of remorse or shame.

When the train arrives in Exeter, Sam asks if they are to spend the night. Sam had expected an affirmative answer. However, Charles tells him that they will not spend the night there but are heading straight for Lyme. Once in the carriage, Charles feels a sadness come over him; he is aware that his actions have ended any further relationship with Sarah. He deems his action moral and socially correct, but his decision makes him...

(The entire section is 569 words.)

Chapters 47-49 Summary

After Charles and Sarah make love, Charles lays beside her and thinks about what just happened. His actions have completely changed his world. He must marry Sarah. He does not love Ernestina. Then he wonders what the rest of the people in his world will think of him.

Sarah says she loves him but is not worthy of him. She tells Charles he must marry Ernestina and never see her again.

When Charles gets out of bed to dress, he notices a few drops of blood on the front of his shirt, which he had not taken off before making love to Sarah. He realizes that Sarah had been a virgin. When he confronts her, she admits it. But what about Vargueness, the French lieutenant, with whom Charles had been led to believe she...

(The entire section is 563 words.)

Chapters 50-52 Summary

Charles has arrived at Mrs. Tranter’s house and is prepared to tell Ernestina his news. On his way over, he practiced his speech. When he is alone with Ernestina, he begins by saying he is not worthy of her. He tells her that though he had not consciously done so, he has recently realized that he was marrying her not for love but for her money. It was his visit with her father that brought this to light. She is beautiful and pleasant and would make a wonderful wife, but his affections for her are not love.

This news shocks Ernestina at first, but she is in a state of denial. Maybe the engagement could be saved. Maybe what Charles is saying is not as serious as she had thought. She tells him that she can change. She...

(The entire section is 695 words.)

Chapters 53-56 Summary

Dr. Grogan visits Charles. He has promised Mrs. Tranter that he will give Charles a verbal thrashing. The doctor is indeed angry with Charles but not on a philosophical level. Dr. Grogan is a worldly man who has read the best literary, philosophical, and scientific works of his day. He understands that the Victorian society is stifling human nature and needs to be reformed. However, on a personal level, he is angry that Ernestina has been hurt.

In his defense, Charles tells Grogan that Sarah is not the woman Grogan described. She is not an evil woman. He also informs the doctor that he plans on marrying her. Grogan reluctantly agrees with Charles that he can do no other than he has already done. If he is truly not in...

(The entire section is 601 words.)

Chapters 57-59 Summary

The novel now jumps ahead almost two years. The scene involves Sam and Mary, who are now married and have one child and another on the way. They are living in a rental house in London, and Sam is working for Ernestina’s father, Mr. Freeman. Sam still dreams of owning his own business, but Mary insists that he wait.

Sam had appealed to Mrs. Tranter immediately after he quit his job with Charles. He played on Mrs. Tranter’s good nature and willingness to help people in trouble. Eventually Sam revealed (though he pretended to be reluctant at first) Sarah’s name in association with Charles’s having broken his engagement to Ernestina. This endeared him somewhat to Mr. Freeman, who shortly afterward offered Sam a...

(The entire section is 583 words.)

Chapters 60-61 Summary

Charles goes to the address that has been sent to his solicitor—the address where Sarah is now living. He is taken to a room filled with sketches and paintings; Sarah is meeting with two gentlemen. When she sees Charles, she is stunned. She takes him to another room so they can be alone.

Sarah tells Charles that she left Exeter without knowing that he was planning to break off his engagement to Ernestina. Because Sam did not deliver Charles’s letter, she thought she would never see Charles again, so she moved to London. Without knowing it, she was being observed by a famous artist who lived in the neighborhood where she found a place to stay. The man was a widower and grew curious about her and took her in. She...

(The entire section is 639 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear