The French Lieutenant’s Woman

The French Lieutenant’s Woman

by

John Fowles

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The French Lieutenant’s Woman: Chapter 40 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When the cab stops, the prostitute runs up to a house and goes inside. Charles pays the driver, an old man who seems unable to look at him now. Charles feels just as humiliated as the driver wants him to be, and momentarily considers leaving, but is too stubborn to do so. The girl leads Charles up two flights of stairs and lets him into a room. It’s shabby, but clean. Its plainness does not suggest debauchery. She goes to check on her daughter in another room. When she returns, she says there’s a restaurant close by. Charles isn’t hungry, and he no longer feels aroused. He tells her to order what she wants, and he’ll have some wine. She goes and sends someone for the food.
Now that Charles has gone this far into forbidden social territory, he’s determined to see the thing through, thus consciously deciding to act in a way that he knows he’ll despise himself for. The prostitute does not fit the stereotype of a prostitute, nor is she portrayed in the judgmental way that a Victorian novel would portray a prostitute. The fact that she has a daughter humanizes her further and suggests the hardships that come along with her occupation.
Themes
Storytelling and Morality Theme Icon
Convention vs. Freedom Theme Icon
Sexuality and Gender Theme Icon
When the prostitute returns, Charles sits by the fire while she tends to it. Her delicate hands and her hair make him desire her again. Eventually she looks at him, and he feels a momentary peace. He feels strange without convention to guide him through their silence. Finally he asks about the child’s father and learns that he’s a soldier in India. He asks whether the man refused to marry her, which makes her smile. He gave her financial help for the birth, which seems good enough to her. If she could find work during the day, she couldn’t pay for someone to take care of her daughter. This is her way of life now, and she’s resigned to it.
Charles is entirely outside of society’s guidance now, and it allows this interaction to happen—one which could never happen in a societally sanctioned environment. Charles often forgets that lower-class people, like Sam, are complete people, but now he finds himself asking for the life story of a prostitute. Despite their incredibly different circumstances, Charles and the woman manage to connect in a meaningful way.
Themes
Convention vs. Freedom Theme Icon
Class Theme Icon
Sexuality and Gender Theme Icon
A boy brings the food up. The prostitute gives Charles a glass of bad wine, and she eats her dinner. He can’t imagine they’ll ever have sex. When she finishes, she changes into a dressing gown, with nothing underneath. Charles gets up, but she tells him to finish his wine. She kneels before the fire and her robe falls open. She asks if she should sit on his knees, and he assents. She curls up against him and says he’s handsome. She puts his hand on her breast, and they kiss. She tastes a little like onions.
This interaction has become more like a normal visit than a transaction of sex. The prostitute approaches sexuality with a rather more modern, casual attitude than any other character can do; she has accepted her lowly status in society, and though she’ll never be respected, her work provides her with a necessary livelihood. She doesn’t have much to lose anymore, unlike the other women.
Themes
Sexuality and Gender Theme Icon
Charles is suddenly nauseous, but he’s also aroused. He continues to touch the prostitute, who sits passively. When he feels sick again, she senses it and asks if she’s too heavy. She goes to the bed, takes off her robe, and gets under the blanket. Charles knows he’s drunk too much. She reaches for him, and he undresses, only keeping his shirt on. Another wave of nausea comes, and he holds onto the mantelpiece. Finally he goes to the bed and looks at her, thinking only of how sick he feels. He asks the girl her name, and she says it’s Sarah. Charles vomits into her pillow.
Charles has a physical reaction to his current situation, both his personal turmoil and witnessing how tragic the prostitute’s life is. Charles has been using her as a stand-in for Sarah, so the fact that her name is actually Sarah is a particular shock that makes the fantasy seem too real. Furthermore, Sarah has implied that she would probably become a prostitute if she went to London, so this woman seems almost like an omen of Sarah’s future.
Themes
Class Theme Icon
Sexuality and Gender Theme Icon
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