The French Lieutenant’s Woman

The French Lieutenant’s Woman

The French Lieutenant’s Woman Chapter 12 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Charles walks to a cottage surrounded by meadows, where a man is herding cows. He realizes he wants a bowl of milk, so he knocks on the cottage door. A woman lets him into the Dairy, and as she ladles him milk, he realizes he’s heard of the place and mentions Aunt Tranter’s name. The woman knows of her and gives him a welcoming smile. When the woman’s husband returns to the house, the woman disappears and Charles pays him for the milk.
This is really the only scene in which Fowles presents a vision of lower-class country life, though Sarah and Mary both have their origins here. Charles makes some effort to connect with the farmers, but the barrier of money remains between them.
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Charles is about to return to the path when Sarah appears out of the woods and goes on her way towards Lyme. Charles asks whether the man knows her, and he says she comes this way often. He calls her the French Lieutenant’s Whore. The word makes Charles angry, and he can’t believe that she’s a whore. He returns to the path and catches up to Sarah. Though she must hear his footsteps, she doesn’t turn. He wants to prove to her that he’s kinder than the other people around her.
The farmer’s name for Sarah suggests that calling her “the French Lieutenant’s Woman” has always been a euphemism for calling her a whore, which is how she’s talked about by people who aren’t so sensitive to conventions of politeness. Charles knows very little about Sarah, and he bases his judgment on the way she has moved him in their two brief encounters.
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Charles hails Sarah and she turns, surprised. Again, her face strikes Charles and draws him in. He apologizes for the manner in which he addressed her the day before, and for watching her in her sleep. She accepts these apologies and moves to continue on. He asks whether they might walk together, but she says she prefers to walk alone. He thinks she doesn’t know who he is, but she does. She insists that she wants to walk alone, and she requests that he doesn’t tell anyone he’s seen her here. She continues on her way as though she thinks her request is in vain. Charles is left with the image of her large, direct eyes, which seem to reject him. He wonders if she meets someone illicitly in this forest, but then he remembers her story.
Charles seems to expect Sarah to welcome his company, probably both because he’s always been pursued by many women and because he sees her as lonely and desperate. However, as she often does, Sarah defies expectation, and her rejection of Charles likely whets his desire for her. Her mystery is increased by her desire to keep her presence in the Undercliff a secret. To Charles’s credit, he doesn’t assume that just because she’s supposedly a “whore” she’ll have many lovers; he credits the fact that she’s loyally pining for her lost lover.
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Back in town, Charles stops at Aunt Tranter’s house to say that he’ll return for tea as soon as he’s changed. However, Aunt Tranter insists that he should remain as he is, and she shows him into the drawing room where Ernestina is lying. He tells her all about his day, omitting his encounter with Sarah, since Ernestina has made it clear that she doesn’t like talking about her, both on the Cobb and at lunch with Aunt Tranter, when the woman told Charles Sarah’s story. Charles gives Ernestina the rock full of fossils that he found, and she forgives him everything because it’s so heavy. He remarks on how strange the Undercliff is, and she teases that he’s been associating with wood nymphs. He almost tells her about his meeting with Sarah, but it seems like it would be a betrayal.
It’s not clear exactly why Ernestina doesn’t like talking about Sarah, but it can be assumed that Ernestina, a proper and conventional woman, is uncomfortable with the immorality of Sarah’s story and the hold that it has over the people of Lyme. Charles and Sarah have hardly even spoken, but their interaction has already begun a cycle of deception between Charles and Ernestina. Charles’s loyalty to Sarah’s secret over the trust of his fiancée also seems to bode ill. Finally, Ernestina’s unconscious comparison of Sarah to a wood nymph adds to the sense of her as legendary and not quite human.
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It still must be explained why Mrs. Poulteney was so horrified to hear that Sarah was walking in Ware Commons. In short, this is where people go to be in private. The area had been public land until the enclosure acts, when a gentleman living nearby claimed it as his own. In the end, a right of way was granted through the area, but there’s still a general feeling that Ware Commons is public property. Poachers feel less guilty there, and a group of gypsies once lived there undetected for months.
Unlike Charles, Mrs. Poulteney thinks that Sarah’s history undoubtedly means she’s promiscuous. This description of Ware Commons adds to the impression of the Undercliff as a lawless area outside of civilization, where things undreamt of in town might go on undetected.
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Furthermore, the road to the Dairy is frequented by couples who will hide in the bushes to carry on. Even worse, there’s a tradition that on Midsummer’s Night young people have a dance in the woods, and some people claim that it’s not only dancing that goes on. Over time, the custom will disappear as sexual mores become more lenient. Mrs. Poulteney has led a committee of ladies in the fight to close off the path through Ware Commons, but they were defeated. Still, to the respectable people in town, associating someone with Ware Commons ruins their reputation.
Ware Commons is already strongly associated with sexual immorality, and the last thing Mrs. Poulteney wants is for people to think Sarah is being promiscuous while living under her roof. The narrator’s foresight that the Midsummer’s Night dance will end suggests that it’s thrilling because sex is so forbidden in this time period. When other outlets for desire become acceptable, this debauchery in the woods will become obsolete.
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On the evening that Mrs. Fairley reported Sarah’s movements to Mrs. Poulteney, the lady was waiting for Sarah when she returned. It was clear that she was furious. Sarah went towards the Bible, but then noticed Mrs. Poulteney’s attitude. Mrs. Poulteney said that she had realized she should never have listened to the doctor’s orders about Sarah. Sarah asked what she has done, but Mrs. Poulteney only called her wicked. Sarah demanded to know, and Mrs. Poulteney told her. Sarah showed no shame, asking what was wrong with walking on Ware Commons. Mrs. Poulteney said she knows what happens there, but Sarah said she only goes there to be alone.
Sarah refuses to subscribe to the narrative that Mrs. Poulteney is trying to force her into; one in which Sarah has committed a crime of which she should be ashamed, and Mrs. Poulteney can be righteously angry in the name of religion. Instead, Sarah denies not that she went to Ware Commons, but that going there makes her a bad person. Ware Commons is so deeply inscribed as an immoral place in the public imagination that this is tantamount to questioning the Victorian moral code.
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In truth, Mrs. Poulteney has never even seen Ware Commons. Furthermore, she’s an opium addict, though she’s unaware of this. Many Victorian ladies are addicted to laudanum, which doctors prescribe for all kinds of things. Laudanum creates vivid dreams, and Mrs. Poulteney has built up a fantastical picture of Ware Commons as the site of countless sexual abominations. Sarah said that she simply sought solitude since she couldn’t go to the shore anymore, and she denied ever hearing that Ware Commons was an improper place to go. Mrs. Poulteney realized that Sarah hadn’t lived in Lyme very long, and she restrained her anger. She forbade Sarah to go there anymore, and Sarah agreed.
Fowles completely tears down Mrs. Poulteney’s moralizing about Ware Commons. Not only has she based her conceptions of it on hearsay, but she’s also on drugs. Fowles suggests that her narrative about Ware Commons is nothing more than an opium dream, which contributes to the image of Mrs. Poulteney as an awful hypocrite. Moreover, the widespread addiction of Victorian ladies undercuts Victorian moralizing in general, as they’re supposed to be such examples of propriety.
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Sarah dispassionately read the Bible passage that Mrs. Poulteney had marked for her, about the undefiled being blessed. Long after everyone was asleep that night, Sarah stood at the window of her room and stared out to sea. She saw a light far away, but gave it no thought. She was crying silently and considering jumping out the window. The narrator won’t make her melodramatically fail to jump, as he’s already shown her alive two weeks later. Her tears come from an uncontrollable misery based on the conditions of her life. Who is Sarah, and where does she come from?
Mrs. Poulteney clearly chooses Bible passages for Sarah to read with the purpose of shaming her into submission. The fact that Sarah doesn’t react to the light at sea suggests that she isn’t actually waiting for the French lieutenant to return. The narrator makes it clear that he’s not impartially reporting some truth of Sarah’s actions; he’s in charge of what she does or doesn’t do in the story. It seems that he’s finally going to let the reader into Sarah’s mind.
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