The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles: Summary

Charles Smithson is introduced being engaged to Ernestina Freeman at the beginning of the novel. Charles is a member of the English elite, an upper class aristocrat. Charles is a paleontologist who studies the fossils of dead plants and animals. He is thirty-two and a dashing, handsome man. Ernestina is an heiress from a well-to-do family. Her aunt, Tranter, lives in Lyme and she pays a visit there every year for the rest. Ernestina and Charles both have come earlier this year to prepare for their wedding.

John Fowles (1926-2005)

During his stay over there, Charles comes to know about a local outcast lady named Sarah Woodruff. She is also known as “The French Lieutenant’s Wife” and “Tragedy”. Sarah works for Mrs. Poulteney, an elderly widow who has taken her on as a secretary. Mrs. Poulteney keeps an eye on her and her activities soot heat she can correct her and make her repent for her sins. Because of this unnecessary bondage her life has become miserable.

Charles and Sarah meet alone accidentally a number of times. Charles has been obsessed for her. He finds her drastically different from the Victorian women and far away from the common interest of the woman of that era. She is unconventional and never bother to follow the set pattern of the society. She feels suffocated so she starts to depend on Charles. Sarah now feels confident with Charles so she discloses her past. She reveals that she has expected to marry one French Lieutenant whom she had already given all her virginity. But the next day he went back and married to another woman and never came back. Since then she was called the whore of the French lieutenant. He wants to help her regain freedom from the bondage of Mrs. Poulteney.

Mrs. Poulteney dismisses Sarah from her job, and she seeks out Charles through a letter. Charles meets her, embraces and kisses her. Charles is bound by Victorian duty and he hates the conventional way of living. He finds the possibilities of self-freedom along with the freedom of Sarah which he is sure that will end in marriage. So, Charles pays for her to leave, to start a new life, and she goes to Exeter near London. Soon afterward, he cannot control his feeling and goes to see her in Exeter. There they have a sexual relationship for the first time and he is shocked to know that she is virgin. All the rumors about her and French lieutenant are proved fake. In the meantime, Charles has been disowned by his uncle from his property because his uncle plans to marry. Charles then goes to meet Ernestina’s father to tell him of his disinheritance. On hearing that Ernestina’s father proposals a larger dowry, and a business position, but Charles denies. John Fowles then presents his first ending: Charles refuses any more contact with Sarah, and marries Ernestina.

Charles finds the life of a dutiful husband and a loyal son in law dull. He does not own any property so he wants to make his life meaning full which is only possible going out of the norm of the society. He makes the final decision of his life, he breaks the engagement with Ernestina. Her father makes him sign in a humiliating statement for breaking the engagement. Charles goes to seek Sarah. When Charles reaches Exeter to meet Sarah, he comes to know the fact that Sarah has left Exeter but does not leave any clue where she is going. His friend tells him to go to some other places for some change.

He travels extensively, but prefers America. During his tour in America, he receives a news that Sarah is found. He immediately comes back to England and finds Sarah living with Rossettis. The company of Rossettis has completely changed her. From here, John Fowles gives two endings: the conventional ending is that Charles meets Sarah and learns that she has a daughter by Charles. They live happily and romantically ever after.

The other ending is unconventional and more likely to happen in modern life. In this ending, Charles finds Sarah too modern to accept. He cannot spend his whole life living with her. Sarah also does not want to bind herself again in the bondage of marriage. She does not want to lose the freedom which she is enjoying now. So, she rejects him. He feels too bitter and painful. Yet, at the same time, finds himself too strong and convinced to reject the conventional pattern of life and too powerful to make oneself happy by avoiding the unpleasant situation. He thinks he is now mature man and gain the consciousness. He goes to America at the end of the novel.