The French Lieutenant's Woman

The French Lieutenant's Woman Summary and Analysis of Chapters 11-15


Chapter 11:

Ernestina sulkily consults her diary and broods on the lack of activity in her life in Lyme Regis. She suspects Charles of flirting with Mary on his way to drop off flowers, and this leads her to brood about his past loves, of which she knows very little (we learn from the narrator that this is because Charles has “never really been in love”) (64). Ernestina rings the bell for Mary, to whom we are properly introduced: she is a delightful, well-liked, and pretty maid who enjoys flirting with men and who envies Ernestina her fashionable dresses and handsome fiancé. Mary tells Ernestina that it was Charles’ servant Sam who brought the flowers, and Ernestina commands a defiant Mary to be more discreet when interacting with men.

Ernestina returns to bed to write her diary, and the narrator treats us to the story of how she and Charles first met and how managed to get him to propose to her. It is not an extraordinary story: they meet at a soirée at a mutual friend’s house, and enjoyed each other’s “dryness” and “intellectual superiority” (68). Ernestina takes care to flirt with other men and never mention marriage around Charles, and eventually a remark about his being a “sour old bachelor” ignites Charles sexual frustration and the fear that life is passing him by, and he decides that he is in love with her. Two days later, he proposes, and he and Ernestina share a “chastely asexual” kiss (71).

Chapter 12:

Charles walks down from Ware Commons to sate his hunger with a bowl of milk from a local farm called 'The Dairy'. He sees Sarah coming out of the woods, and inquires whether the farmer knows her - the man calls her The French Lieutenant's Whore and expresses his disgust for her immorality. Charles, angered by this vulgar nickname, sets out after Sarah to try to catch up with her. Her face, when he reaches her, has its typical "extraordinary effect" on Charles, and he is taken aback as he tries to apologize for various misdemeanors toward her (74). Sarah firmly rejects his proposal to walk with her, saying with a "kind of despair" that she "prefer[s] to walk alone" (74).

Charles stops at Mrs. Tranter's house to visit his fiancée, to whom he recounts the events of his day (but does not mention his encounters with Sarah).

Before we rejoin the narrative of Sarah, when she arrives back at Mrs. Poulteney's house, the narrator pauses to explain why Mrs. Poulteney was so shocked by the news of Sarah's walks on Ware Commons at the end of Chapter 9. The place is known in Lyme as being the nearest place you can go to avoid being "spied on," and so poachers and lovers alike make use of the land for their frowned-upon activities (76). When Sarah returns from her walk, Mrs. Poulteney is waiting for her. She accuses her of being "wicked" for having gone walking on Ware Commons, but Sarah denies this, saying that there is nothing wrong with wanting to walk somewhere where she can be alone (78). Nonetheless, Mrs. Poulteney forbids her from walking there any more, and Sarah agrees to obey this command.

We jump to Sarah's room later that night, where she is preparing to throw herself out of the window and commit suicide. However, the narrator reminds us that she is still alive two weeks later, and reassures us that she does not jump.

Chapter 13:

This chapter has almost no plot. It is entirely focused on the narratorial voice, which reminds us that the narrator has created all the characters, and is deciding what they do - although his plans are not "fixed," because he is letting the world of the novel grow organically, to some extent. He compares the novelist to a god, and brings into question the dichotomy of 'real' and 'fiction'. Finally, he reminds us that Sarah did not jump, and tells us that she continues to visit Ware Commons, in spite of being forbidden to do so by Mrs. Poulteney.

Chapter 14:

Charles, Ernestina, and Aunt Tranter pay a visit to Mrs. Poulteney at Marlborough house. The narrator mocks the custom of these visits, which interest nobody and only serve to increase the social standing of the party who receives the most "important" visitors (85). Sarah tries to excuse herself from the parlor, but Mrs. Poulteney insists that she stays. Charles watches her throughout the visit, but she remains silent and blank-faced, ignored by Mrs. Poulteney and by Ernestina.

The women discuss Mary, who used to work for Mrs. Poulteney. She has been seen talking with a strange man, Mrs. Poulteney says - Charles objects, saying that it was just his servant, but Mrs. Poulteney and Ernestina insist that Mary and Sam need to behave more appropriately when interacting with each other. Charles is annoyed at Ernestina's "[b]igotry" and resolves to talk to Sam (89).

Chapter 15:

Ernestina feels terrible about her actions during the visit at Marlborough house, and she throws herself into Charles' arms, sobbing and asking for forgiveness. The two young lovers kiss briefly, and make up. Ernestina gives one of her old dresses to Mary out of guilt; Mary is thrilled with the gift.

In order to provoke Sam into confessing his love for Mary - which he has furiously denied so far - Charles tells Sam that he wants him to return to Kensington, because the manservant is no longer needed in Lyme Regis. Sam says that he would rather stay, and admits that his feelings toward Mary have changed. Charles warns him that Mary is a sensitive girl, not to be trifled with, and Sam promises not to break her heart.


Chapter 11:

This chapter's positioning - directly after the chapter in which Charles and Sarah meet on Ware Commons, and occurring "[a]t approximately the same time" - contributes to its main purpose, which is to further contrast the characters of Ernestina and Sarah (63). The setting of the previous chapter was a wild one: Ware Commons is a strange and mysterious piece of uninhabited land with many dangerous dips and cliffs, and Mrs. Poulteney was shocked in Chapter 9 that Sarah had been seen walking there. The setting of Chapter 11 is much more mundane and domestic: Ernestina is pacing her room and lying around in bed. This reflects on the two characters themselves, as Sarah is deeply enigmatic and Ernestina is deeply conventional and 'civilized'.

The characters' relationships with Charles are also contrasted in these two consecutive chapters. We might note that Charles has only ever seen Sarah outdoors thus far, but his whole courtship of Ernestina, as it is described in Chapter 11, occurred indoors at parties and soirées. Even when the young affianced couple went walking together in Chapter 1, Charles had his arm around Ernestina's waist and was supporting her, while Sarah stood alone at the most blustery part of the Cobb. Ernestina and Charles had a very chaste meeting and courtship; when they became engaged they only exchanged a "chastely asexual" kiss (71). When Charles realizes that he is in love with Ernestina, he thinks about "waking up...and seeing that demure, sweetly dry little face asleep beside him," but he doesn't seem to express a sexual interest in her (70). In contrast, when Charles stumbles across the sleeping Sarah in Chapter 10, he finds her position "sexual" and is reminded of the girls with whom he slept in Paris (61). We know that Charles is intrigued by Sarah, and feels as though he loses his sense of propriety when he interacts with her - he has never, as far as we know, abandoned his sense of propriety in Ernestina's presence, and this can largely be attributed to the different personalities and reputations of the two women, one straight-laced, refined, and vehemently asexual, and the other a lower-class woman with a reputation for illicit premarital sex.

Chapter 12:

Charles hears another account of Sarah in this chapter, the first that the narrative has provided from a member of the lower classes. Surprisingly, the man is harsher on Sarah than either Ernestina or the vicar - the narrator attributes his enthusiastic condemnation to his Methodist religion. The man at the Dairy corrects Charles when he calls Sarah "that lady," saying that she is "the French Loot'n'ts Hoer" (the French Lieutenant's Whore) (73). This title explicitly sexualizes and censures Sarah by removing the euphemism of "Woman" from her usual nickname. Charles' reaction to this more vulgar title is an angry one - based purely on his observations of Sarah's sleeping face, he does not believe that she is a whore. This is interesting, since she reminded him in Chapter 10 of the lower-class women he slept with in Paris, who were probably prostitutes themselves.

The third meeting between Charles and Sarah finally produces some conversation between them, but it is absolutely stilted, and Sarah rebuffs all of Charles' attempts to talk or walk with her. She is painted almost as a martyr in this passage, with a deep despair in her expression and " to see more and suffer more" (74). Furthermore, the narrator draws a parallel between her insistence on staying isolated and Jesus' command not to be touched by Mary Magdalene after his resurrection by quoting his words as they appear in the Bible: "Noli me tangere" (75). With her black robes and her deep capacity for suffering - and let us not forget her distribution of Mrs. Poulteney's religious tracts - Sarah appears somewhat like a martyr or a saint figure.

In this chapter, we see Charles' fascination with Sarah grow, and we also see him having to hide this interest from Ernestina. He recognizes on an emotional level the importance of their encounters; he knows "he would have been lying if he had dismissed those two encounters lightly" - in other words, they are key moments for him, and he has been moved deeply by seeing Sarah sleeping, and being rebuffed by her (76). But he cannot share this information with Ernestina, who we know is jealous of Charles' past lovers, and who in this chapter probes him about whether he has been "dallying with the wood nymphs" (75). This is a playful interrogation, but the jealousy that underlies it is real. Charles' reaction is one of embarrassment, and he withholds the story of how he met Sarah on Ware Commons. Sarah, in effect, becomes Charles' secret - she pulls him into her aura of mystery and concealment.

Mrs. Poulteney again persecutes Sarah in this chapter for her choice of walking location - she is forbidden for moral reasons to frequent Ware Commons any more. We can see in this exchange between employer and employee how Mrs. Poulteney uses religion to manipulate Sarah. She firstly calls Sarah "wicked," and when Sarah tries to defend herself by swearing her innocence on the Bible, Mrs. Poulteney declares that to do so would be "blasphemy" (78). We know that Sarah doesn't own a Bible, and it is almost as if Mrs. Poulteney has declared a monopoly over its contents and interpretation, which she uses against Sarah, the fallen woman. Sarah refuses, however, "to be called a sinner for that," and when she agrees to "walk in the paths of righteousness," she almost uses a sarcastic tone. Mrs. Poulteney, at the end of their interview, is described as "some pagan idol" with a "pitiless stone face" that demands a "blood sacrifice" (79). This is very ironic, because she has been modeling herself as a good Christian and enforcer of the Bible; the narrator sees through her false morality, though, to the harsh religious intolerance underneath.

The narrator is bit-by-bit exercising his power over the story he is writing. Most writers make themselves absent from the text, pretending that an omniscient narrator is recounting events that actually happened, but here Fowles as the narrator explains that "[he] will not make her teeter on the windowsill" because we already know that she doesn't jump - he is giving his reasoning behind the creation of the plot of the text, and this completely shatters our illusion that we are hearing about real events. The narrator clearly states that he is in charge of inventing this story, and the reader gets the impression that he is playing with us, just as he plays with his characters.

The final major element of note in this chapter is the last two lines, where the narrator asks the questions "Who is Sarah?" and "Out of what shadows does she come?" This questioning, combined with the connotations of the word 'shadow', underlines Sarah's major feature - her enigmatic personality and backstory. We might remember the end of Chapter 4, which ended with the vicar naming Sarah as a possible candidate for Mrs. Poulteney's charity. It was the first time we heard Sarah's real, full name. But as the end of Chapter 12 reminds us, we actually know very little about her. The book has still to answer the important question: who is Sarah Woodruff, really?

Chapter 13:

This is the chapter - the one that shocked Fowles' readers when the novel was published, and continues to shock today. An entire book could be written on the amazing narratorial intrusion that we see in Chapter 13; here are just a few key puzzle pieces to this incredible chapter. For a fuller discussion of the role of the narrator, please see the "Narrator / Point of View" section under "Literary Elements". For more on the theme of fiction - whether a novel is even a little bit real, or entirely artificial - please look under the relevant section of "Themes".

The previous chapter ended with two questions: "Who is Sarah?" and "Out of what shadows does she come?" The beginning of this chapter provides a short and shocking answer: "I do not know." The next sentences are even more shocking, as the narrator admits that the "story I am telling is all imagination" and the characters "never existed outside of my own mind" (80). This is highly unconventional - when we read a novel, we are supposed to suspend our disbelief and believe, to some extent, that what we read is true; the novelist usually goes out of their way to make sure that their story is as believable as possible (or they certainly did back in the Victorian era, and it is a Victorian novel whose style Fowles is imitating). But here the illusion is shattered, and the reader, who has spent 12 chapters quite happily becoming emotionally invested in this story, is forced to admit that it is all fiction. This seems obvious - it's a novel, after all - but Chapter 13 of The French Lieutenant's Woman is so defiant of literary convention that it is a truly electric piece of prose to read.

Further contradictions and confusions follow shortly after the big revelation, however. Fowles claims that he has not "disgracefully broken the illusion" of reality, because, he argues, the characters of the novel "still exist, and in a reality no less, or no more, real than the one [he] [has] just broken" (82). He challenges our assumption that "a character is either 'real' or 'imaginary'," arguing that real life is a fiction, and we fictionalize our own pasts to some extent (82). The reader becomes bewildered and lost between the realms of fiction and reality. What are we supposed to believe? Should we carry on caring about the characters and pretending to ourselves that the events are real? Should we throw away the book in disgust? Is it still useful to us, even though it may or may not be real in a meaningful sense?

One more important theme introduced int his chapter is that of the narrator as a kind of god, who creates the fictional world of the novel and decides what will happen in it. This analogy allows Fowles to spin a careful web between fiction and reality, because if the world of the novel is indeed a world created by him, the novelist, then it is "independent" of him in some way, as the world is somewhat independent of God. In this case, he does not have full power over the story, even though he is the one writing it. As he says, "It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live" (81).

Finally, this chapter sheds some insight on the character of Sarah - the most mysterious character in the novel so far. The narrator says that "[m]odern women like Sarah exist" - implying that Victorian women like Sarah are few and far between, if they existed at all. Sarah is thus characterized as a "modern wom[a]n" in some sense, although we don't really know what that means in real terms yet (it likely has something to do with her independence and her desire for freedom at any cost). The fact that she is a misfit in some sense makes sense when we view her through this lens, because she is essentially an anachronism. She does not belong in the Victorian world of the novel, as some of the other characters so clearly do belong.

Chapter 14:

This chapter is the first that brings the majority of our central characters together in one place since the first chapter, when Ernestina and Charles met Sarah on the Cobb.

Charles' focus in this scene is entirely on Sarah; he is intrigued by her and wants to see if she will acknowledge their previous meetings. In his eyes, she is a "wild animal" who must pretend to be meek in her "barred surroundings" (86). He is irritated with Ernestina for her behavior toward Sarah and for her views on Mary and Sam, almost as if he is taking everyone's side over that of his fiancée. He and Sarah exchange a look - the first look that is not clouded by shame, embarrassment, or bewilderment on her part - and it "sp[eaks] worlds" (88). It is the look of two people who share "a common enemy" (89). Charles has seen Sarah in her natural habitat, and he knows that she is more comfortable when she is free and alone; now, he extends his sympathy for her in this environment that upsets both of them. To him, she represents the opposite of rural bigotry and small-mindedness - probably because she has suffered from these things more than anyone else. In comparison, Ernestina seems much closer to the world of the gossip and the judge.

Chapter 15:

The innocent and asexual - almost childish - nature of Charles and Ernestina's engagement is highlighted in this chapter. Charles has to steal kisses on her eyelid "as a revenge" for her bad behavior at Marlborough house - this suggests that if Ernestina was not so desperate and contrite, she might deny him these kisses. When they kiss on the mouth, they are both scandalized and thrilled by this contact. Ernestina almost faints because of her excessive emotion, and Charles jokes that what they are doing would shock "the worthy Mrs. P." even though it is very, very tame by our modern standards for sexual contact (90).

Ernestina is childish, and she acknowledges this when she says, "This is what comes of trying to behave like a grown-up" (90). She is painting herself as a helpless child when she makes this appeal to Charles' protective side, and he accordingly responds with the endearment "[s]weet child" and a chaste, paternal kiss on the top of her head (90). Ernestina admits to the negative aspects of her childishness when she apologizes to Aunt Tranter, saying, "I am a horrid, spoiled child" (91). This is not too far from the truth, and we might think about how different Ernestina and Sarah are in this respect.