The chapter is prefaced by a stanza of a two-part poem by Hardy titled, "The Riddle," which describes a woman devoting her full attention "west/ Over the sea".
The first four paragraphs of the chapter describe Lyme Bay in 1867, focusing particularly on the stone quay - "the Cobb." The beauty of this simple "fragment of folk art" awes the author: we learn it is historically important as well as aesthetically pleasing. The narrator remarks that the Cobb has remained much unchanged from the time that the novel is set to the present day. The description of the town of Lyme Regis that follows is less impressive; the narrator notes that it "has been declining" since its "heyday in the Middle Ages."
We are introduced to two young people walking along the quay, both fashionably dressed and evidently high in status. The only other person to which the narration pays attention is a mysterious figure standing on the far end of the Cobb, dressed simply and entirely in black.
The couple, Ernestina and Charles, engages in light and somewhat formal flirtation; we learn that they are thinking of getting married, but that Ernestina's father objects to Charles' belief in Darwin's theories, and that Charles has upset him by maintaining that humans have evolved from apes. Charles is a scientist, primarily interested in fossils, and he examines some specimens on the Cobb. We also learn that while Charles is titled - that is, he is aristocratic - Ernestina's social position relies on money, as her father is a businessman.
Charles notices that the figure in black is a woman, although he initially mistook her for a man. Ernestina realizes that the woman is the locally notorious "Tragedy," also called "the French Lieutenant's Woman" because of her rumored affair with a lieutenant who seduced and then left her, and whom she looks for every day from the Cobb. Despite Ernestina's misgivings, Charles is intrigued and wants to approach "Tragedy," and he makes a remark about fearing for her safety in the increasingly stormy weather. The woman says nothing, but she looks at Charles and he is absolutely struck by the immeasurable sorrow in her expression. Charles and Ernestina walk away; he comments that he wished he hadn't heard the "sordid facts" of Tragedy's story (15).
Chapter 3 opens with Charles in front of the mirror, reflecting on a "sentiment of obscure defeat" that seems to have many sources: he is worried about the superficiality of his relationship with Ernestina, among other things (15). The narrator comments that if Charles could see into the future, as he himself can, he would be shocked more than anything by how obsessed modern-day humans are with saving time, as if they are trying to mimic "a perfect lightning flash" (16). Charles himself feels as though he has plenty of time ahead of him which he can fill at his leisure; he is, after all "only thirty-two years old" (16). We are reminded that Charles is also unaware of many of the huge revolutionary ideas that are being born in 1867; the narrator tells us that Marx is, at the precise time that the novel is set, working on his famous communist pamphlets that will shake the modern world.
The rest of the chapter is dedicated to outlining Charles' personal and family history. His grandfather was a baronet, and some of his money has come down to Charles, his father's sole heir (and now an orphan). Charles is also eventually expecting a large fortune from his uncle, with whom he has a pleasant but slightly changeable relationship, due to his uncle's distrust of Charles' "sinister fondness" for books, and the nephew's scandalous exploits in Cambridge, London, and Paris during his early 20s. During this wild period, Charles swung between sin and repentance; he was eventually purged of his hope to join the clergy, and settled down in London as a well-off bachelor and a "healthy agnostic" (18). He developed an interest in paleontology and was wooed by many girls, all of whom he led on and none of whom he felt any desire to settle down with, to the disappointment of his uncle (19-20).
We are here introduced to Mrs. Poulteney, the woman who took in Tragedy, or the French Lieutenant's Woman, a year before Charles and Ernestina first saw her on the Cobb (Chapter 1). Mrs. Poulteney owns a large house in the town of Lyme Regis and has many servants, all of whom she keeps close watch over, lest they should bring either of her two greatest enemies, Dirt and Immorality, into the house. Renowned for her almost-sadistic way of working her staff too hard, Mrs. Poulteney also enjoys an improbable reputation for charity among the townspeople, because she took in the French Lieutenant's Woman (without knowing very much, admittedly, about her reputation), and because she gives quite a bit of money to the local church.
Despite her charitable donations to the vicar of Lyme, Mrs. Poulteney has always compared herself to her peers in terms of levels of charity, and has always worried about whether she does enough good works to avoid Hell and get herself into heaven. A conversation with the vicar leads her to the idea of taking on a woman in difficult circumstances as a companion, and thereby to assuage her conscience. The vicar suggests Sarah Woodruff as a candidate for the position - this, we must assume, is the real name of Tragedy.
While the previous chapters were dedicated to Charles and Mrs. Poulteney, Chapter 5 turns its attention to Ernestina, Charles' fashionable fiancée - this scene takes place at the same time as Charles' mirror-contemplation in Chapter 3. Ernestina watches him leave the house, admiring his appearance and resenting him for tipping his hat to an attractive maid. Ernestina is beautiful, the narrator tells us, with a delicate complexion and a slightly flirtatious demeanor that distinguishes her slightly from the "prim little moppets" among her female peers (27). She is staying with her Aunt Tranter on her overprotective parents' request - they believe she is consumptive, and think the sea air will cure her - but she is used to London society life, and resents being in Lyme at all.
In front of the mirror, Ernestina undresses partway, and loosens her hair - she imagines herself as a "wicked" woman like an actress or a dancer, and this thought is accompanied by a sexual thought that is so disturbing that she pulls on a dressing-gown and tries to think about other things (29). Sex terrifies Ernestina: she knows very little about it other than that it is a violent act of "pain and brutality" which "haunt[s] her mind" (29). She is caught between wanting a husband and children, and desperately not wanting to deliver the painful "payment" for these things; her reaction is to suppress all thoughts about sex and sexuality with the mantra 'I must not' (29).
Ernestina opens her diary, crosses off one day on the list of days and weeks until her wedding, and smells a sprig of jasmine flowers that she has kept pressed between the pages. She tries to conjure up the associated memory - an incredibly happy one, on which "she had thought she would die of joy" - but the sound of her aunt's footsteps on the stairs cause her to hastily put the diary away (30).
The first page or so of the novel plays the important function of setting the time and the place of this piece of historical fiction. We learn immediately that we are in a small coastal town in England during the Victorian era.
The narrator makes himself known in the first chapter, intruding into the story with a first-person "I" in order to comment on the story he is telling. He is someone clearly belonging to the 20th century, and this removed vantage point from the era about which he is writing increases his omniscience and sets the stage for dramatic irony: he says, for example, that "the Cobb has changed very little since the year of which I write," suggesting that he knows the future of the town and the characters whose lives in 1867 are the focus of the novel. The narrator certainly knows a lot about the history of the town and the feelings of its inhabitants (9-10), and his description is enriched by this vast knowledge.
The way in which we are introduced to the characters in this first chapter - the two wealthy young people, and the mysterious figure on the Cobb - is completely different than the way we are described the town. These actors in the scene are shown to the reader through the eyes of a "person of curiosity" (9), a "local spy" who is observing them through a "telescope" and whose observations are imparted to us by the narrator (10). This means that we receive a very surface-level description of these characters; we learn in detail about the clothes that the young couple is wearing, but we don't hear any of their thoughts. Nonetheless, the "local spy" is able to deduce a lot about their situation from their appearance: they have "very superior taste," they seem to be "strangers" to Lyme Regis, and they are more interested in each other than in local architecture.
Although the "telescopist" is quite comfortable making assumptions about the promenading couple, he is "at sea" when it comes to the solitary, black-clad figure on the end of the Cobb. The reader is thus deprived of any information about this "figure from myth": like the local gossip, we don't know what to make of it. We aren't even told whether the figure is a man or a woman - the pronoun "it" is used, whereas the genders of the two young visitors were clear and marked. This lack of information creates suspense, and there has clearly been, by the end of the first chapter, a contrast set up between the mysterious, almost-mythical figure on the Cobb, and the "petty provincial" nature of the surrounding town and the two fashionable visitors. This tension adds to the suspense, and effectively encourages the reader to continue reading.
The omniscient narrator brings us closer to Ernestina and Charles, allowing us to eavesdrop on their conversation. They are planning to get married, but don't seem very intimate - their conversation is slightly stilted, and in places querulous and strained ("That is very wicked of you," says Ernestina to Charles on page 12). One source of tension is Charles' interest in science; despite his noble background, he seems to be a little too unconventional for the tastes of Ernestina's family. Toward the end of the chapter, Charles says that he wishes he had not heard Tragedy's "sordid" backstory (15), commenting with frustration, "That's the trouble with provincial life. Everyone knows everyone and there is no mystery. No romance." At the end of the first chapter, a division was drawn between the wild woman in black and conventional people interested in "petty" things (11). Although initially Ernestina and Charles appear to fall into the latter category, Charles' interest in science, coupled with his dislike of "provincial life" and gossip, seem to provide evidence that he is straddling the two worlds, and is not totally happy in the sort of society in which Ernestina thrives. This might provide some explanation as to why the sorrowful face of the woman in black touches him so deeply (14-15).
The position of this time period as a moment on the brink of change is developed here, with Charles' interest in forward-thinking scientists contrasting strongly against the traditional and rigid beliefs of Ernestina's father. Science is moving forward, but so is fashion - back in chapter one, we learned that the year 1867 marked "the beginning of a revolt against the crinoline and the large bonnet" (10). The push-and-pull between tradition and progress is strong during the Victorian era, which makes the 19th century an especially fascinating time to place an English historical novel.
This chapter contains a lot of exposition about the history and character of Charles, both of which are presented in a fairly traditional manner. We first hear about his family background, although we already knew that he was aristocratic; he is an orphan whose only family connection is a well-meaning but rather gruff uncle with whom he does not always see eye-to-eye. The next few paragraphs are interesting in that they paint Charles largely as a typical English gentleman of his age and class, while still pointing out many areas in which he is less than traditional - as mentioned in the analysis of Chapter 2, he seems pulled between two worlds. Among the common traits that we expect him to possess are his "Byronic ennui" and his gentlemanly "laziness" (19), as well as his promiscuity while at college, and his affection for "pretty girls" (20). However, Charles also experienced a passionate and fairly strong religious phase that coincided with his promiscuity, and now is more interested in science than in politics, in reading more than shooting, and in walking more than riding. The fact that he is not a totally stereotypical rich, young English bachelor - while still conforming in part to the trends of the era - makes him a more three-dimensional character. He is more complex than shallow and Ernestina so far; as Charles says himself on, he isn't sure "whether [she] would every really understand him as well as he understood her" (15). So far, Charles is being set up as our protagonist.
The narratorial intrusions in this chapter are minimal; they occur largely toward the beginning of the chapter, where the narrator compares society in the modern world (the 20th century) with Charles' world in 1867. The largest change, he claims, has been in our view of time: in the Victorian age, wealthy people had far too much of it, and were mostly occupied by a leisurely and purposeless boredom instead of today's "destructive neurosis" (16). Now, we want everything to happen as fast as possible - back then, there was more time than things to fill it.
The entirety of Chapter 4 seems to dwell on a caricatured and largely unimportant side character: a Mrs. Poulteney, who obsesses over charity as a means to improve her situation in the afterlife, but who, despite her fairly generous donations to the church, fails to treat her own servants with kindness or tolerance. This woman is meant to be a stereotype: the narrator describes her as "an epitome of all the most crassly arrogant traits of the ascendant British Empire" (23). She represents the establishment - the upper-middle class who are preoccupied with preserving their position and their reputation.
Fowles includes this chapter to make sure that we don't make the mistake of thinking that Sarah secured her place as a lady's companion through the true compassion and mercy of the lady in question; he exposes in these few pages the hypocrisy, fear, and other unpleasant motives that contributed to Sarah's employment. Mrs. Poulteney, were she truly generous and dedicated to good for the sake of goodness and Christ, would not have "flinched a little at this proposed wild casting of herself upon the bosom of true Christianity" (26). Even the vicar does not extricate himself from this scene with a spotless record of good intentions: he recommends Sarah Woodruff partly under the influence of "an emotion not absolutely unconnected with malice" (26). He knows that Sarah is not suitable in Mrs. Poulteney's eyes, because she is widely known around town to be a 'loose woman', as people might have said, and yet he recommends her anyway because he knows that Mrs. Poulteney is unaware of the French Lieutenant scandal. This chapter - a flashback, since it describes a conversation from a year before the beginning of the novel - makes us sympathize with Sarah, to whom we have not properly introduced, because we know the true character (slightly sadistic, easily scandalized) of her employer.
This chapter is intended as a pair with Chapter 3: there, we saw the male half of the engaged couple contemplate himself in the mirror and think about his relationship and his life; here, Ernestina also stands in front of a mirror, thinking. Her thoughts are mostly about sex, and the narrator uses her character as a vehicle to comment on the repressive and restrictive Victorian attitude toward sex and sexuality, particularly for women. Because of the prudery of her class, Ernestina knows almost nothing about sex - she has only a "profound ignorance" and a few dim ideas gathered from having seen animal copulation (29). What she is sure of is that sex and violence are intimately linked, and that the dreaded act of sex is necessary for her to achieve what she wants in life: her "innocent longing" for a marriage and children. In her mind, sex is a "bestial version of Duty," and the narrator generalizes this emotion to "[m]ost women of her period," and even "most men" (29). Duty is a "key concept" for understanding the Victorian era, he says; and in the footnote he notes that the enthusiastic Victorian celebration of afterlife in Heaven stems from the fact that we leave our bodies behind when we go to Heaven, and the Victorians did not feel comfortable in their bodies at all (30).
Overall, Ernestina seems like a fairly typical young girl, although she is unusual enough to capture Charles' attention. Her pleasures and fears are identical to those of any girl in her social class: she loves parties, fashionable clothes, flirtations, and she is scared of sex and bored by the countryside. This chapter fulfills the key function of setting up sex as a major theme of the novel and a major concern of Victorian society, and sets up virginal Ernestina as a possible foil to Sarah, whom we have heard is what the Victorians would have called a 'fallen woman'.