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The figure of the fallen woman, initially clearly captured in the figure of Sarah Woodruff, is transformed as the novel progresses and both Charles and the reader try to establish the identity of Sarah and who she actually is. What is so fascinating about her character is the way she is shrouded by mystery. The reader, and Charles, are never fully aware of her full identity and story, and it is only possible to try and piece, jigsaw-like, the various elements of her character together that are presented in the novel. Sarah initially is presented as the traditional fallen woman who is an outcast from society because of her relationship with the French lieutenant named in the title. However, as the novel progresses, she becomes associated not with shame and being an outcast, but freedom and a resistance to living one's life in accordance with the role given to one by society. Note what she represents to Charles:
He said it to himself: It is the stupidest thing, but that girl attracts me. It seemed clear to him that it was not Sarah in herself who attracted him--how could she, he was betrothed--but some emotion, some possibility she symbolized. She made him aware of a deprivation. His future had always seemed to him of vast potential; and now suddenly it was a fixed voyage to a known place. She had reminded him of that.
Sarah therefore comes to symbolise freedom from society's restrictions, and this is something that Charles himself comes to identify with greatly. Sarah therefore is used to reinterpret the role of the fallen woman through presenting her not as a character who is trapped in that role but as a character who refuses to accept the role that society presents her with. Sarah, through her determination to live her own life and to get what she wants, presents herself as an empowered individual rather than a disempowered figure, which is traditionally the way that fallen women have been perceived.
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