The French Lieutenant's Woman

by John Fowles
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1039

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.

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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 has married, her mystery deepens for Charles.

Charles’s curiosity concerning Sarah causes him to think about the comparatively onedimensional Tina and his own needs and desires. During another walk, Sarah finds him, presents him with two fossils, and begs him to hear her story. After determining that listening to Sarah would be a kind act and a useful study of human nature, Charles agrees to meet with her. Sarah admits that Lieutenant Varguennes proposed marriage and seduced her, even though she knew he was not an honorable man. The shame that she has embraced as a result has enabled her to separate herself from a society that would not accept her, due to her common birth. Her education had awakened her to the inequities of social class and gender, and thus her status as an outcast prevents her from having to conform to conventional roles.

During their conversation, Sam and Mary appear, and Sarah and Charles hide themselves. As she watches Sam and Mary embrace, Sarah turns to Charles and smiles. Charles, noticeably disconcerted at Sarah’s open expression of her interest in him, abruptly leaves.

That evening Charles discovers that he is in danger of losing his inheritance and title, which causes tensions with Tina. He later asks his old friend Dr. Grogan to advise him about his relationship with Sarah, who has just been thrown out of Mrs. Poulteney’s home for disobeying her orders. Grogan rightly guesses that Sarah engineered this dismissal so that Charles would come to her rescue. Charles, however, chooses not to follow Grogan’s advice to stay away from her and meets her the next day on the Undercliff. Charles breaks off an embrace and rushes off, but not before he stumbles upon Sam and Mary who have seen them together. The two servants promise not to tell anyone of the meeting.

Chapters 34–54
Sarah moves to Exeter, aided by money Charles has given her. Charles tries to direct his thoughts to his engagement with Tina, but feels as if he is being trapped by her father who wants him to become his business partner. He is tempted to go to Sarah in Exeter but instead returns to Tina. The narrator provides the first of three endings here—Charles and Tina marry, along with Sam and Mary, and both couples prosper in a contrived Victorian conclusion. Immediately, however, the narrator insists that this ending is only what has taken place in Charles’s imagination.

Charles does in fact go to Exeter to see Sarah, who seduces him. Charles discovers that she had not been intimate with the French lieutenant. After returning to his hotel, he writes to Sarah of his plans to marry her, but Sam intercepts the letter. After breaking off his engagement with Tina the next day, Charles returns to Exeter but finds that Sarah has disappeared.

Chapters 55–end
Charles hires private investigators to find Sarah and departs for America. Sam, who has married Mary, spots Sarah in London and notifies Charles. Sarah greets Charles at Gabriel Rosetti’s home and explains that she has she has been working as the painter’s model and secretary. Charles is shocked at how easily Sarah has fit into the scandalous Pre-Raphaelite group. After Sarah insists that she will never marry, Charles prepares to leave. When Sarah introduces him to their daughter, Lalage, however, the three embrace, suggesting that they will become a true family.

The narrator then reappears, sets his watch back fifteen minutes, and provides the last conclusion to the story. Sarah reasserts her decision not to marry but suggests the two might remain friends and lovers. Charles rejects her offer and leaves, devastated and alone.

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Chapter Summaries