The French Lieutenant’s Woman

The French Lieutenant’s Woman

by

John Fowles

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The French Lieutenant’s Woman: Chapter 24 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Ernestina exclaims over the horribleness of what has happened. Charles says that Cupid doesn’t care about convenience, and old people are most susceptible to him. Ernestina says it’s her fault, because Sir Robert thinks she’s just a draper’s daughter. Charles tries to calm her. They’re in Aunt Tranter’s parlor; Ernestina has been crying. Aunt Tranter appears, smiling, and remarks that Charles returned quickly. It’s the evening of the day that he went to Winsyatt. Aunt Tranter realizes that something awful has happened, and Ernestina says that Charles has been disinherited.
The discussion at Winsyatt is one of the turning points of the book, and by skipping over it for now, Fowles helps it take on the dread importance of what goes unseen. Although Ernestina previously had reservations about inheriting the house, now that she’s been deprived of it, she feels it as a great loss. Admittedly, she’s also losing the aristocratic title that would go along with it, and class concerns do seem to be the basis of her distress.
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Charles clarifies that Sir Robert has decided to marry, and if he has a son, Charles will no longer be his uncle’s heir. He’s marrying the widow Mrs. Tomkins, who Ernestina points out is plenty young enough to bear sons. She says it’s particularly bad because Sir Robert made fun of the woman to Charles only months ago. Charles explains that Mrs. Tomkins is rich, so she can’t be marrying for the money. Aunt Tranter sits and asks whether Sir Robert might be too old to have children, but Charles says he’s only sixty-seven. Ernestina points out that Mrs. Tomkins could be his granddaughter. Charles asks her to help them maintain dignity and not be bitter.
Having been left out of the formal narrative, the events at Winsyatt become another internal story, told this time by Charles. Stories have power in this book, and he’s forced to tell the story of the ruin of his own prospects, making him seem a far less powerful character. Charles has been his uncle’s heir up until now, and he technically still is—but if Sir Robert and Mrs. Tomkins have a child, the child will become the heir. Love is Charles’s downfall in multiple ways, and right now it’s someone else’s love that hurts him.
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Ernestina realizes that she needs to act differently. She runs to Charles and kisses his hand, but Charles isn’t fooled. She has received his news in a very unladylike manner. He came here immediately upon returning to Lyme and had not expected her rage. Perhaps she hasn’t realized that a gentleman can never reveal anger. She seems more than ever like a draper’s daughter, lacking aristocratic calm.
The bourgeoisie (who by definition work for their money) are more likely to be attached to matters of money and its loss, whereas aristocrats inherit their money and treat it with more distance. This is the first moment when Charles feels that the class difference between himself and Ernestina might matter.
Themes
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Charles decides to change the subject, and asks what’s happened while he was gone. Ernestina reveals that Mrs. Poulteney has fired Sarah. Charles is shocked. Aunt Tranter explains that it happened the previous night, and this morning a porter was told to take her box to the White Lion, where Charles is staying. Charles goes white, but Aunt Tranter says that’s where coaches arrive. However, Sarah left at dawn, and no one has seen her since. The vicar went to see Mrs. Poulteney and was told she was ill. Mrs. Fairley told him that Mrs. Poulteney had learned something disgraceful about Sarah. Mrs. Tranter is distressed.
Charles is most worried not about Sarah’s fate, but about the possibility that they were seen together, and that by sending her possessions to Charles’s inn, she might be trying to seek his assistance and shelter. Although there’s a rumor that Sarah has done something improper, it seems that Charles is safe so far. Besides, knowing how ridiculously strict Mrs. Poulteney is, it’s difficult to know what she thinks is disgraceful enough to fire Sarah over.
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Ernestina says that Sarah should never have been employed by such an awful woman as Mrs. Poulteney. Charles asks whether there’s any danger that Sarah might have committed suicide. Aunt Tranter says that men are searching the cliffs, but they haven’t found anything. There’s no word of her at Mrs. Talbot’s. Charles asks whether Grogan has been called to Mrs. Poulteney’s. Mrs. Tranter says he was seen talking to the vicar, and he looked angry. She refuses to call on Mrs. Poulteney, no matter how ill she is. Charles suggests that he should go see Grogan. He suspects that Sarah’s dismissal has to do with the Undercliff, and he’s worried that they might have been seen there. He needs to be alone to figure out what to do. If she’s still alive, he’s the only person who can guess where she is, but he doesn’t dare tell. As he returns to the White Lion, it begins to thunder.
Charles begins to fear that just when he thought he’d saved Sarah, Mrs. Poulteney has driven her to suicide. Ironically, if Sarah were dead, Charles’s secrets would be safe. To his credit, he’s genuinely worried for her safety, but he’s also worried that if the situation gets out of hand, his association with her might be revealed. There’s been so much cliff imagery up until now that it seems like Sarah’s almost destined to fall from a cliff; besides, fallen women are often punished in conventional Victorian literature by death or suicide to make a moral point. Fowles dangles this storyline, but it would defeat his purpose of reframing conventions.
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