Sarah doesn’t look around as Charles approaches through the tunnel of ivy. It’s a beautiful day, and there are butterflies everywhere that will later almost be driven to extinction by humans. Charles looks around to be sure that no one sees him, but the forest is deserted. When he reaches Sarah, she doesn’t look at him, but gives him another test. He says he should pay her what he would pay at the fossil shop. She’s offended, and Charles feels he has failed her, but it prompts him to take on the attitude he decided to have during the last two days. His discussion with Dr. Grogan is helping him see scientific and charitable aspects in this meeting. He feels that it’s his duty as one of the fittest. Charles considered telling Ernestina about his conversations with Sarah, but he feared her questions. He didn’t think she could understand that he was acting as he was to help Sarah.
At the end of the last chapter, Charles was feeling like one of the humans meant to survive in a Darwinian sense, and now the mention of the butterflies’ near-extinction serves as a dark reminder that he can’t know how fit he is for survival. Furthermore, as he does here, Charles often unconsciously equates being wealthy and educated with being one of the “fittest,” not stopping to think that those aren’t biological traits (but rather social traits). Charles has convinced himself that he only wants to help Sarah, but his reluctance to tell Ernestina about their meetings suggests this isn’t the whole truth.
Charles says it is only luck that he is rich and Sarah poor. He plans to be sympathetic to her, but to maintain a distance between them. She says they’re all she has to give him in return for coming. He replies that he’s come because he’s decided that she does need help, and he’s prepared to listen to her. Sarah leads them across the clearing, and Charles notices how worn her shoes and stockings are and how beautiful her hair is. She leads them out onto a green slope and climbs to the top. Behind her, Charles can see the bottoms of her pantalettes above her ankles. They walk along the top of the bluff and across a dangerously steep slope, then emerge in a small, flat valley shaped like an amphitheater. A block of stone has been set against a tree trunk, making a seat. The edges of the dell are filled with flowers.
In fact, Charles does acknowledge that he can’t thank himself for his wealth, but he fails to connect this to his attitude about being one of the fittest. This attitude leads him to be rather condescending to Sarah, feeling that he has the situation under control. The aspects of her physical appearance that he notes demonstrate her poverty and her sexuality, as well as his attraction to her—Victorian women aren’t supposed to let men see their pantalettes, which are undergarments. The vividly described natural setting shows echoes of Thomas Hardy’s novels.
Sarah says she’s good at finding solitude, and she offers Charles the seat against the tree. She sits facing the ocean, so that her face is half hidden from him. As she adjusts her bonnet, Charles can tell that she doesn’t know how to begin. She sits quietly with her hands folded, and her coat looks slightly masculine. Charles realizes that her shabby clothes look better on her than nice ones would. She doesn’t make any attempt to enhance her appearance and doesn’t care about fashion. As her silence continues, Charles realizes he’s supposed to seek out answers.
Sarah continues to be enigmatic, perhaps on purpose, by sitting so Charles can’t read her expressions and making him initiate the story after she begged him to hear it. Charles’s observations on her clothing emphasize her differences from the typically feminine Victorian woman—she’s an outsider not only in terms of her expression of sexuality, but also her expression of gender.
Charles says he won’t judge Sarah too harshly. She hesitates, then begins her confession. She says the Frenchman’s name was Varguennes. He came to Captain Talbot’s house after his ship wrecked. She admired his courage; he had an awful wound but he never complained. He spoke almost no English. Supposedly his father was a rich lawyer who had cheated him of his inheritance. He said he was first officer on the ship, but none of it was true, and Sarah doesn’t know who he really was. She speaks with strange pauses between sentences.
Like Sarah, Varguennes is a master of using stories to manipulate people—although in fact, it’s hard to know how accurate Sarah’s portrayal of him is. Varguennes seem to be (or at least Sarah presents him as) a tragic romantic figure, the classic foreign hero who sweeps the heroine off her feet. Using almost clichéd heroic tropes helps elicit sympathy for Sarah from both the reader and Charles.
Sarah says Varguennes was handsome, and no one had ever flirted with her the way he did while he was recovering. They always spoke in French, which may have contributed to the sense of unreality she felt, and she didn’t always understand him. She can’t entirely blame him, as she liked his attention. He accused her of being cruel when she refused to let him touch her, so she eventually did let him.
Just as Charles is attracted to Sarah’s mysteriousness, Sarah was drawn in by something similar in Varguennes. The fact that they conversed in French takes their relationship out of the norm of Britain, associating it instead with the more salacious reputation of France at this time.
Charles says he understands, but Sarah says he can’t, because he’s not a woman who was educated to move up in the world. He’s not a woman who desires things she has no right to—intelligence, beauty, learning. He’s never been paid to look after children when he has none. Sarah loved the Talbot children, but it was painful to live so close to a happy family but not have one herself. Charles suggests that social privilege doesn’t necessarily bring happiness, but she insists that she has no chance of happiness, that no one in her position can marry.
Sarah blames her unhappiness, and her vulnerability to Varguennes, on her position in society. She has the unusual background of being lower-class but well educated, meaning she knows what she’s missing and can never quite fit in anywhere. Despite being an unconventional woman in many ways, her desire for a husband and children is solidly conventional for a Victorian woman, and this is supposedly what causes her the most pain.
Charles urges Sarah to continue her story. Varguennes recovered, and he declared his love for her. They talked about marrying, and he said he would be promoted to captain when he returned to France. He wanted her to go with him. Sarah didn’t tell Mrs. Talbot because she was ashamed. Varguennes made her believe that neither of them could be happy unless she went with him. He had found out about her background and her loneliness. She has always been lonely and outcast. Ever since her father had to sell their possessions, it seems that even furniture makes her feel lonely because it will always belong to someone else. She feels powerless to change her situation.
Varguennes set out a relatively proper future for himself and Sarah in which they would formalize their love with marriage, and Sarah would be a respectable captain’s wife. Even so, Sarah felt ashamed, presumably because they had become intimate without others’ knowledge. She again emphasizes the role that her class status has played in her unhappiness; she has very little to call her own, and as a woman, very little power to change her class status except through marriage, which she feels is closed to her.
Sarah says that Varguennes left to take a ship from Weymouth, but he told her he would wait there for a week for her to join him, though she swore she wouldn’t do so. But her sense of loneliness returned once he was gone, and she was plunged into despair. Charles asks whether she didn’t become suspicious because Varguennes hid everything from Mrs. Talbot. Sarah says her blindness was in part due to a desire to be blind, and a path of deception is hard to leave. Charles doesn’t think to take this as a warning.
With Varguennes, Sarah tried to stick to the conventional, virtuous path, but her desolation overruled her loyalty to a society where she already didn’t fit. The very fact that the narrator points out that Charles doesn’t take Sarah’s words about blindness as a warning proves that he will fall victim to a similar willful blindness—or in fact already is, as he’s hiding their meetings from Ernestina.
Sarah says she made excuses to Mrs. Talbot and went to Weymouth. She doesn’t know how to speak of what happened next. Eventually she says she tracked Varguennes down at an inn, which she could tell was not a respectable place. He was very happy to see her and apologized for the inn. He soothed her fear, and they went to a sitting room. Sarah could tell that he was different, that he wouldn’t have cared much if she hadn’t come. She realized that he was a liar and she could never marry him. She thinks she saw this before, but refused to acknowledge it. Seeing him in the surroundings of the inn, she could no longer deny it.
Outside the controlled context of the Talbots’ house, Varguennes begins to show his true colors. Sarah has been described as being an excellent judge of people’s characters, so it’s surprising that she didn’t see him truthfully before this—it must be put down to the willful blindness she’s spoken of. Varguennes’ indifference towards her, along with the sketchy inn, indicates that he’s probably only wanted to sleep with her this whole time, or he has just enjoyed manipulating her.
Sarah knows she should have left immediately, and she can’t really explain why she didn’t. She continued trying to see good in Varguennes, but she was also angry at being deceived. She had never been in a place so given to sin as this inn. She was confused about her situation, and in any case, she stayed. She drank the wine Varguennes gave her, and it seemed to help her see more clearly. She wasn’t surprised when he made his real intentions clear. She’s not trying to defend herself; she knows she could have left, and he didn’t rape her. Sarah finally turns to look at Charles, and she seems angry and defiant. She says she gave herself to Varguennes, so she is dishonored both by circumstances and by choice.
In this night at the inn, Sarah portrays herself as having left reason and convention behind entirely, instead being driven by some sense of desperation and perhaps even revenge. She no longer wanted Varguennes, and she saw through him, but she went along with him by her own choice despite being aware of the societal repercussions she would face. She takes some power in claiming her own destruction; she has spelled her fate rather than letting someone else do it for her. Of course, this part of the story will end up to be false.
Charles reminds Sarah that he didn’t ask for this confession. She says she wants him to understand why she gave her virginity to someone she didn’t love. She did it precisely so that people would talk about her as the French Lieutenant’s Whore, so that they would know she suffers. She’s married shame instead Varguennes. Sleeping with him was a kind of suicide that she committed out of despair, because she didn’t know how else to change her life. If she had simply returned to Mrs. Talbot’s house, she would have killed herself. She stays alive because she knows she’s marked out as different. She’ll never be happy the way other people are, and no one will understand why she slept with Varguennes. She feels that she’s freer than other people, because she’s beyond insult; she’s hardly human.
Most people try to remain free by following society’s standards, thus escaping censure. However, Sarah suggests that this brings only a false sense of freedom, and that true freedom emerges only when one has already broken all the rules and been thrust outside the circle of society. But this freedom isn’t happy; it’s a freedom for Sarah to be recognized in her suffering. She has always suffered, but before it was in ways that people didn’t recognize because they were so built into the fabric of society. She’s essentially revolting against the normalized everyday suffering of women and the lower class.
Charles only somewhat understands what Sarah means. He can sympathize with the pain of being a governess and letting Varguennes dupe her, but he can’t understand her desire for shame. She’s begun to weep, and she turned her face away so Charles wouldn’t see. But now he steps towards her and sees her tears. He imagines her sleeping with Varguennes, and he is both Varguennes and a man who strikes him down. Some part of him forgives Sarah and recognizes that he himself might have taken her virginity if given the chance.
In some ways, Charles can be said to take Varguennes’s place over the course of the story, and this moment is the closest he comes to sensing it. In fact, it’s almost as though in telling Charles this partly false story, Sarah is writing Charles’s own role in her life, making him a character she can control. Perhaps in recognizing, through this story, his own temptation to sleep with Sarah, it becomes only a matter of time until he does so.
It’s impossible for this kind of shift to take place in the twentieth century, because men and women immediately imagine being together sexually. However, the Victorians close their minds off from such things. The Victorians are like the Egyptians in wanting to wrap everything up and hide reality. The Pre-Raphaelites, at least, try to access nature and sexuality, but they idealize it. Because of this, Sarah’s openness seems idealized to Charles; it’s strange because it seems unrealistic.
Fowles emphasizes the fact that his contemporaries literally have different thought impulses than the Victorians due to the influence of their respective societies. The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of artists and writers prominent in the mid-nineteenth century who sought to imitate the principles of fifteenth century Italian art. Clearly they have influenced Charles, and they will gain more importance at the end of the novel.
Charles stares at Sarah, then sits again, feeling as though he’s just stepped back from a cliff edge. Clouds are gathering out to sea that look like a far-off fantasy world of pleasure. They remind Charles of his desire to travel and his dissatisfaction with his life. But the figure of his dead sister moves up into the mysterious world.
These clouds symbolize some ideal other society in which Charles and Sarah could both be happy—yet it doesn’t exist. Charles’s dead sister is hardly ever mentioned in the book, but here she represents the past and the dead, to whom Charles feels some strange allegiance that prevents him from breaking with convention.