The French Lieutenant's Woman

The French Lieutenant's Woman Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16-20


Chapter 16:

Five uneventful days pass for Charles and Ernestina, filled with games like archery and serious discussions about their living situation after their marriage. Ernestina reads sentimental historical poems out loud to Charles, who falls asleep from boredom.

Charles goes to the beach to look for his favorite fossils ("tests"), and after forty minutes of searching, he sees Sarah Woodruff coming down the path toward him. He is happy to see her, but she is embarrassed, and moves forward to pass him so quickly that she falls over. Sarah seems to want Charles to leave her alone, but he is determined to stay. He begins to tell her that he knows about her reputation but thinks she is innocent, but is interrupted by two poachers who arrive (Sarah runs off before they can see her with him).

When their conversation resumes, Charles offers Sarah some help finding a job in London, saying that he thinks she needs to get away from the "bigots" of Lyme (101). Sarah refuses, on the grounds that such kindness is "cruel" to her, a comment that exasperates Charles (102). He asks her about the French lieutenant, and she says bitterly that she knows her former lover will never come back, because she has received a letter telling her that he is married now.

Chapter 17:

Charles, Ernestina, and Aunt Tranter attend a musical concert. Ernestina is in high spirits, commenting on the rest of the audience's clothes and manners. When the concert begins, Charles becomes introspective. He has not told Ernestina about his meeting with Sarah, and Ernestina is beginning to seem a little "characterless" and "monotonous" to him (220). Charles admits to himself that Sarah attracts him, possibly because she symbolizes a different potential future than the "conventional" future that awaits him with Ernestina (221).

The romance between Ernestina and Charles' servants has been blossoming for the past week. Sam, the confident and cynical Cockney who knows everything about city life, has fallen for Mary. The two discuss Sam’s ambition to own a clothing-store, despite lack of money and education. He promises to show Mary around London once Ernestina and Charles are married. On the night of the concert, they sit in the kitchen, holding hands.

Chapter 18:

Ernestina has a migraine, and so Charles has a free afternoon. He decides to go fossil hunting, and specifically changes his route so that he will not run into Sarah Woodruff. Nevertheless, she appears on the same stretch of land - she admits to having followed him - and hands over two excellent 'tests'. Her beauty strikes him in the afternoon light, and he explains the features of the fossils to her. Sticking to his plan, Charles tries to disengage from the conversation and leave, but Sarah wants to talk: she thanks him again for his offer of help in Chapter 16, and describes how alone and in pain she feels among so many supposedly Christian people who aren't compassionate enough to understand what she has suffered. Charles tries to keep the conversation on a more acceptable subject, but Sarah sinks to her knees and declares that she wants to tell him "what happened eighteen months ago" (117). She has been considering suicide, and is desperate for some help. She believes that he can understand her.

Charles, scandalized, says that he "must go" (118). Sarah tells him the days when she will be walking in the Undercliff, and begs him for "an hour of [his] time" so that she can tell him her story; he reluctantly agrees (119). As he leaves the scene - as fast as he can - he understands that he is "about to engage in the forbidden" (120).

Chapter 19:

Charles and Ernestina throw a surprise party for Aunt Tranter at the White Lion, with Dr. Grogan acting as a fourth member of the party. Although he normally enjoys such parties, Charles is a little broody, reflecting on both the "stifling propriety" of his generation, and Ernestina's shallowness (122).

The doctor and Charles share a drink of toddy at the doctor's house; they discuss Latin, science, and politics. Charles brings up Sarah Woodruff, and the doctor explains that he has diagnosed her with melancholia and that to get better, she needs to leave Lyme Regis - but that he has offered her a governess job with a colleague of his, and she flatly refused. The doctor says that such extreme cases of melancholia are rare, and that Sarah wants to be a "sacrificial victim" (127).

Sarah is asleep in her room, and she is sharing her bed with Mille, the servant-girl whom she saved from Mrs. Poulteney's wrath in Chapter 9. They have been sleeping together - perhaps with sexual feelings for each other, but without anything sexual happening between them - for a while now.

Charles and the doctor continue discussing science, and both admit to be being passionate Darwinists as they keep drinking and talking through the night.

Chapter 20:

Sarah and Charles meet again while out walking, and she hands him another test before taking him to "a secluded place" that she knows (134). She tells him about her meeting with Varguennes, the Frenchman who was washed ashore and with whom she is accused of having an affair. Sarah explains how she had hated being governess in a happy family with no prospects of marrying and having her own home, and how Varguennes convinced her to come to Weymouth to see him and then come back to France with him. When she arrived in Weymouth, she met him at a disreputable inn, and realized straight away that he had not been seriously in love with her, and wouldn't have missed her if she hadn't come. She tells Charles that she "gave [her]self to him" and had sex with him (142).

She goes on to talk about how she made the choice consciously, precisely because she wanted to "marr[y] shame" and become the object of vile suspicions, "truly not like other women," but Charles can't understand her meaning (142). He imagines the scene of her "giving herself" to the French lieutenant, and imagines himself in the Frenchman's place. Charles sits back down, his heart beating fast.


Chapter 16:

The beginning of this chapter represents a settling back into domestic and the petty, after the novel's forays into wilder topographical and emotional territory (Ware Common, Sarah standing at the window, etc). Everything seems very dull, and this is intentional: Charles falls asleep while Ernestina is reading to him from a book that moves her greatly, and this represents how bored he is by the domesticated life he is entering, despite an accompanying "intensification of love" between him and his fiancée.

There is a shift in scene and in tone when Charles leaves Ernestina for a while, to pursue his fossil hunting by the bluff. We have come to expect Sarah Woodruff in these wild locations, and so the scene is set for another meeting. Sarah has become an unconscious secret for Charles - the narrator notes that Charles has not thought about her in "his conscious mind" because he has been so occupied by the diversions and discussions of his usual life (97). But she emerges, of course, when Charles finally extricates himself from Lyme Regis to go search for tests by the seaside; she is described as "a dark movement" that he sees from far-off, like a mysterious thought emerging from his subconscious (98).

His encounter with Sarah builds upon some of the qualities we have already encountered in her: her independence, her slight tomboyishness, and her more developed sexuality (compared to Ernestina's). Charles is acutely aware of Sarah's "intelligence" and "independence of spirit" - he reads these through her eyes (99). She is referred to as "tomboyish" and having "a faint touch of a boy," and yet she is also described as being "completely feminine" - there doesn't seem to be a contradiction between the two, and Sarah manages to be both (98-99). There is also "suppressed sensuality" in her mouth, a detail which helps paint her as a sexual being, although her sexuality is suppressed by the society in which she lives (99). More than anyone, she reminds him of Madame Bovary - one of the first woman characters detailed in a realist novel, and a novel that paved the way for modernity. In the space of two pages, entirely through Charles' perception of her, we get a portrait of Sarah as a modern woman, out of place in her Victorian surroundings.

Chapter 17:

Again, we move from the wild outdoor scene of the preceding chapter into the heart of society life and refined social interaction, which is described in unflattering terms (the mingling is fueled by "vanity", and Ernestina insults some of the other guests) (105). Charles is dissatisfied with this milieu, and retreats into his thoughts, where he finds himself also dissatisfied with Ernestina. This generalization of his feeling about society makes sense, because his fiancé is very much a product of her upbringing and her status - Charles asks himself, on the subject of her selfishness and shallowness, "How could the only child of two rich parents be anything else?" (107). This is quite a modern idea, and a Darwinist one as well - that the environment shapes the person who exists in it. Ernestina is a "child" and a "total stranger" to Charles, and she represents the conventional - probably, as Charles realizes, the "too conventional" - path that a young man of his position is expected to take. He assures himself that "all [will] be well" when Ernestina is "truly his; in his bed and in his bank," but the reader is unconvinced (107).

In Charles' mind, Sarah symbolizes, as we are told quite explicitly, a different vision of the future. Charles has always felt that he has "vast potential" and that his life could take him anywhere; he has travelled a great deal and does not consider himself "like the great majority of his peers and contemporaries" (107). And yet he has agreed to be Ernestina's fiancé, which will result in a very conventional marriage and life. Sarah "attracts" Charles because she calls to "some hidden self" in him that wants to reject the conventional path that lies ahead of him (107).

The relationship as shown between Sam and Mary is intended to contrast with the relationship between their employers (Charles and Ernestina). Whereas Ernestina is coy and superficial, Mary is deeply caring and a wonderful listener – and the differences between the two are why "Sam [comes] to such a differing conclusion about the female sex from his master's" (110). The love that springs up between her and Sam is innocent and yet direct, and unencumbered with all the worries that plague Ernestina and Charles. We cannot imagine Charles and Ernestina sitting in the dark in the kitchen in silence holding hands, but it seems perfectly natural to Mary and Sam.

Chapter 18:

Every encounter between Charles and Sarah seems to grow in intensity, so that by this chapter we are at an almost excruciating pitch of tension. This is the first meeting in which it is Sarah and not Charles who goes out of her way to engage with him. Before, she was able to suppress her emotions and her desperation; now, she is simply too wracked by emotion to be able to hold out any longer. We learn that she has been contemplating suicide (which we witnessed at the end of Chapter 12). She cannot keep her secrets in any longer - it is amazing that the author has been able to maintain the suspense for eighteen chapters, and still refuse in Chapter 18 to give us the answer to the mystery presented in Chapter 1.

Charles is the standoffish one in this scene - a reversal from the previous meetings between these two characters, where Sarah begged him to leave her alone. He is both shocked and deeply touched by her plight, but feels that he has to maintain respectable relations between them. Comforting her overtly, or listening to her story, would trespass whatever remaining boundary exists between them. It is duty to refuse to talk to her, and to leave straight away. Nevertheless, he has to "struggle not to touch her" (118).

By the end of the chapter, Charles feels as though he has left behind all sense of propriety. This is not unusual for his meetings with Sarah - their encounter in Chapter 10 made him forget "what was proper" (62). Now, though, there is no going back. He knows that he will not tell Ernestina; he is too ashamed to. The step that he has just taken - agreeing to run into Sarah again and to listen to her side of the story - is so unthinkably dangerous that it is as if he has "set sail for China" (120). Charles has passed the point of no return: he is completely tied up in Sarah Woodruff now.

Chapter 19:

Honest and open conversations between characters are rare in this novel - Ernestina and Charles keep secrets from each other, and Sarah is an impenetrable mystery thus far. The conversation between Charles and Dr. Grogan is a breath of fresh air in the sense that the men communicate perfectly honestly (apart from a few facts held back by Charles). Nonetheless, the doctor's testimony brings no real illumination to Sarah's mystery; in fact, he seems to advocate the view that her soul is more enigmatic than science, and cannot be understood because she doesn't want to be understood or cured - she wants to be a "sacrificial victim" (127). The scene advances the plot very little; it is intended primarily to give the reader a sense of the changing political context of the novel (the masses are starting to rebel against the monopoly of those born with noble blood, and the government "fears the mob") (126).

The interruption in the men's conversation - the entirely static scene of Sarah Woodruff sleeping next to Millie - breaks the flow of this highly intellectual conversation to provide us with an emotional portrait of two women, both suffering and both in total sympathy with each other, as if they were sisters. The narrator reveals the sisterly nature of the relationship belatedly, first teasing us with the possibility that Sarah's secret is that she is a lesbian, before admitting that this is not so. Sarah and Millie represent the lowest rung of society, the abused women of the world; when Charles is described as "the naturally selected" and "free as a god," the author is directly contrasting his waking, intellectual, and free state with the struggles of the women we have just seen sleeping.

Chapter 20:

Charles is able to follow most of Sarah's story, because it fits in with a common narrative of his time period: the young governess seduced by a man with bad intentions and who succumbs to his advances, dirtying her reputation. What he cannot understand is the most important part of Sarah's story, the part that causes her to break down in tears. She chose to have sex with the French lieutenant, she tells him, knowing full well what the consequences would be - it was a "kind of suicide" (142). Sarah claims that she "could not marry that man," so she "married shame" instead (142). She wanted to be "mistress of [her] destiny" - a thoroughly modern desire to be in control of her reputation and her situation (141). No other Victorian woman, Fowles seems to be suggesting - and Sarah voices this herself whens he says that she is "not like other women" - would have done such a thing. Yet again, we see that Sarah is out of place in her time (142).

The full account of Sarah's backstory, as she gives it here (and we will hear the full truth only much later in the novel), has a strong impact on Charles, who feels "unbearably touched" and "disturbed" (143). More than that, though, he has a sexual reaction to the story. He imagines himself in the place of the French lieutenant, having sex with Sarah, and this imagined scene causes a "sudden shift of sexual key" - from now on, the narrator seems to be implying, the possibility of sexual relations between Sarah and Charles is concrete and even probable (143). (He notes that this "shift" could never happen today, because sex is always unspoken in the air when a man and a woman interact.)

We know already that Sarah represents a different world of possibilities to Charles, a realm of the mysterious and the unknown. At the very end of this chapter, Charles gets a glimpse of the "ideal world" that Sarah represents (143). It is a pagan world - Ancient Greek temples come to Charles' mind - and it is a beautiful world of sprawling vistas and "sinless, swooning idyll" that contrasts sharply with the world of "claustrophilia" that Charles actually occupies (143-144).