The French Lieutenant's Woman

The French Lieutenant's Woman Quotes and Analysis

"He had, in short, all the Byronic ennui with neither of the Byronic outlets: genius and adultery."

Narrator, 19

This quote sums up Charles nicely, or at least as we find him at the beginning of the novel. Charles is a born amateur, with an interest in science that doesn't really fulfill him like a true intellectual passion should, and so there is some frustration and ennui that is born out of a lack of fulfillment in his life. Charles is also very sexually frustrated, because the conventions of Victorian society prevent him from having any sort of sexual outlet for his tension.

"They sensed that their current accounts of the world were inadequate; that the had allowed their windows on reality to become smeared by convention, religion, social stagnation; they knew, in short, that they had things to discover, and that the discovery was of the utmost importance to the future of man."

Narrator, 44

Here we have, in a sentence, the presiding feeling of the Victorian age which is fueling the many great changes and revolutions of the era, the urge to discover that differentiates them from past centuries and launches them forward into the future, our modern time.

"Given the veneer of a lady, she was made the perfect victim of a caste society."

Narrator, about Sarah Woodruff, 48

Sarah's tragedy is not really related to the French lieutenant, whatever happened or didn't happen with him: her tragedy is very much one of time and circumstance. Her upbringing contributes to the sense of alienation she feels in the Victorian society that surrounds her, as indicated by this quote. In particular, she is affected by her father's ambitious plans to educate her in order to pull her - and by extension, himself - out of the working-class. She is given an education, which elevates her slightly above her lower-class peers, and makes her "too select" to marry them (48). But she is still "too banal" to marry into the class above her, to which Charles and Ernestina belong, because she has neither the money nor the breeding necessary for such a match (48).

"After all, she was only a woman. There were so many things she must never understand: the richness of male life, the enormous difficulty of being one to whom the world was rather more than dress and home and children."

Narrator speaking about Ernestina, 107

The divide between genders in the Victorian age was significant: women had a lot less power than men, and a lot less was expected of them, especially if they were upper-class ladies like Ernestina. Women were expected to stay in the domestic sphere and concern themselves with the household and the children, while men were the ones who had to leave the house to do business and study science and do a thousand things that women weren't encouraged to or allowed to do. Here, we get a sense of Charles' feeling of superiority over Ernestina: he knows he has a lot more opportunities than she does, but feels that this is only right, because he is a man and he can support the extra burdens that society places upon him.

"Hide reality, shut out nature."

Narrator, 143

This quote nicely sums up a lot of the philosophy and prudery that we associate with the Victorian age. While some people of the novel's period, notably the scientists and the lower classes, are very much aware of nature's causes and consequences, we see the upper classes acting like ostriches and burying their heads in the sand when confronted with reality. For example, Ernestina cannot bear to face the "sexual, menstrual, parturitional" functions of her own body (29). The Victorian elite sanitize reality to make it palatable to their sensibilities; as Mrs. Poulteney says, "Civilization is Soap" - soap to wash away the sordid realities of natural life (31).

"I could not marry that man. So I married shame."

Sarah Woodruff, 142

Sarah tells Charles - and he is an unwilling listener - the truth about her motives, about why she slept with the French lieutenant (though later we learn that this is a lie, and she remained a virgin until sleeping with Charles). We might expect that she tried to keep her "shame" secret, and was caught in her sin by the townspeople, who then ostracized her out of self-righteousness (142). Sarah in this quote tells us that this assumption is wrong, and that she made a conscious choice to become a social outcast. She is establishing herself as mistress of her destiny in this conversation with Charles, and Charles is completely shocked and confused. He doesn't know how to deal with a woman who has "married shame," because it isn't something that the women he knows, like Ernestina, would ever dream of doing (142). But Sarah is a modern woman, and she doesn't feel compelled to act according to the rules of Victorian society.

"Miss Woodruff, I detest immorality. But morality without mercy I detest rather more. I promise not to be too severe a judge."

Charles Smithson, 136

Here, Charles promises not to judge Sarah if she tells him the truth about her past. The reference to "morality without mercy" is certainly a veiled jibe at Mrs. Poulteney and her peers, who pretend to be charitable but really act out from other motives, and end up doing more harm than good to those who receive their "morality" (136). A fair judge is one who hates the sin, but not the sinner - this idea is very Biblical, and we can see that Charles is following the tenets of Christian morality in this scene (even though he is an atheist).

The irony is that Charles is put into a similar situation later with Doctor Grogan in Chapter 51. Charles has sinned by sleeping with Sarah and jilting Ernestina, but Doctor Grogan refuses to condemn him absolutely. Instead, he offers a firm but sympathetic justice: he hates that Charles has made Ernestina suffer, but encourages him to try and redeem himself.

"Charles did not know it, but in those brief poised seconds above the waiting sea, in that luminous evening silence broken only by the waves' quiet wash, the whole Victorian Age was lost. And I do not mean he had taken the wrong path."

Narrator, 63

Charles and Sarah's attachment is so outrageous and unusual that it overcomes and somehow annihilates all the conventions and scruples of the era. The Victorian age completely forbids Charles to keep interacting with Sarah in the private way he does on Ware Commons, and so by turning around and waiting for her - thereby proving his fascination and his interest in her - Charles manages to erase all of Victorian prudery, if only for a moment. There is a similar quote later in the novel; the narrator writes that when Charles stands over the weeping Sarah and finds her immeasurably beautiful, "[t]he moment overcame the age" (199).

"You stay in prison, what your time calls duty, honor, self-respect, and you are comfortably safe."

Charles' inner monologue / his better self / Jesus Christ, 284

The scene in the Exeter church is a key turning point in Charles' moral development. He realizes, as he prays to a God he doesn't believe in, that he is a coward in some sense, and "weak" for conforming to duty and societal expectations and thinking that makes him a good person (284). This epiphany allows him to take the step of jilting Ernestina and following his heart to be with Sarah Woodruff instead.

"But the conventions of Victorian fiction allow, allowed no place for the open, the inconclusive ending; and I preached earlier of the freedom characters must be given."

Narrator, 317

In Chapter 55, the author of the novel intrudes into the narration as a character in his own right - a bearded man who sits down near Charles on the train to London. Charles doesn't know that the man staring at him is his author and creator; the narrator is trying to decide how to end the story. In the quote above, he explains his dilemma: he wants to end the story here, with Charles on the train to London, but Victorian conventions will not allow him such an inconclusive ending. In addition, the narrator believes that characters must have freedom, and so he believes he should give them the freedom to bring their story to an ending. This quote is significant primarily because it is a clear example of the shockingly direct way that the narrator sometimes addresses his readers, and reminds them that they are reading a fiction in which he is in control, although the characters think they are making their own choices.