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Free Study Guide-The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles-BookNotes
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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)

At the beginning of the novel, Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman are engaged to be married. Charles is an upper-class aristocrat and Ernestina is a wealthy heiress. They meet Sarah Woodruff, an unemployed governess and the scarlet woman of Lyme. Charles is struck by this woman who "had been dumped by her French lover and now wandered the shores in the hope that he would return someday."

Sarah is employed as a lady’s companion by Mrs. Poulteney of Malborough House. Her stay is miserable due to Mrs. Poulteney and the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairley, who keeps spying on Sarah. They attempt to restrict her freedom in the name of making her repent for her sins. Meanwhile, Charles is intrigued by the outcast. His interest in her grows to be an obsession. An amateur paleontologist, he meets her on several occasions at Ware Commons. He wants to help her but his interest is routed in the fact that he finds her singularly different from other Victorian woman. As on outcast, Sarah does not follow societal norms yet she insists on Charles help. Dr. Grogan, Charles friend, sympathizes with her situation but believes that Sarah wants Charles’ constant attention. He diagnoses her condition as a mental illness called melancholia and wants to get her institutionalized.

Meanwhile, Sarah has come to depend on Charles who is himself going through a change. He is beginning to question his age’s conventions and questioning himself. He urges Sarah to leave Lyme and go to Exeter where she will have more freedom to live an unconventional life. Sarah takes his advice but Charles cannot forget her. At the same time, he feels guilty for even thinking about her. He does not love Ernestina and is marrying her solely for her wealth. He thinks their relationship is nothing more than a facade.


Fowles constantly interrupts the narrative by making authorial comments with a twentieth century perspective. The narrative action digresses back and forth from the Victorian Age to the twentieth century in time. Fowles is writing a novel set in the nineteenth-century romantic literary genre but with a twentieth century perspective. Charles finds the prospect of living a life as a dutiful husband and son-in-law unappealing. His uncle disinherits him, so he has no money and title. He wants to have a more meaningful life, unrestricted by traditions. He makes the ultimate decision of his life by breaking his engagement to Ernestina and follows Sarah to Exeter, where they consummate their relationship. When he returns for her, after informing Ernestina of the break-up, he learns that she has left with no forwarding address. His valet Sam betrays him. In despair, Charles reaches Sarah but to no avail. Ernestina’s father makes him sign a humiliating statement of guilt for breaking the marriage contract and Charles’ friend and solicitor prevails upon him to leave England for some time.

Charles travels the world but prefers America, which he finds refreshingly modern compared to England. While touring America, he receives word that Sarah has been found. He hurries back to England and finds Sarah living with the Rossettis. She has changed drastically, and Charles finds this difficult to accept. Fowles gives two endings to the novel. In the conventional ending, Charles meets his baby daughter and Sarah and he reunite. They live happily ever after like any other hero and heroine in a romantic novel. The other ending is unconventional and more realistic, an ending more apt for a twentieth century novel. Charles rejects the new Sarah, yet despite feeling bitter and alienated, he has found a new awareness and strength within himself. Because of his involvement with Sarah, Charles has changed from his old conventional self, rejecting the values that sought to confine him.

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