The French Lieutenant’s Woman

The French Lieutenant’s Woman

by

John Fowles

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The French Lieutenant’s Woman: Chapter 56 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Three weeks pass, and Charles hasn’t found Sarah, though he’s hired four detectives to look for her. They’ve checked governess agencies and church schools, and Charles himself constantly drives through London watching for her. They also check the new female clerical agencies, which become important in the movement for women’s rights. Charles begins to understand Sarah’s feeling that society treats her unfairly. One day he becomes certain that she’s working as a prostitute, and he drives up and down Haymarket to no avail.
The question becomes, what happens to a Victorian woman alone in the world? Clearly Sarah needs a way to make money, but the job opportunities in this time are limited for a woman. The places Charles searches offer some of the only jobs for educated women, and women who ran out of options often became prostitutes, which Sarah has suggested she might do. Fowles acknowledges that this is all really a question of female oppression, and even Charles starts to understand it.
Themes
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Before long, Charles receives a letter from Mr. Freeman’s lawyers telling him to go to their offices at an appointed time. Charles brings it to his lawyer, Harry Montague, whom he likes. Montague thinks they want him to make a statement confessing to his guilt, which he advises Charles to sign. At the appointed time, they meet Mr. Freeman and his lawyers. Mr. Freeman stares at Charles coldly and refuses to acknowledge him. Also present is Mr. Serjeant Murphy, who has a fearful reputation. They sit, and Charles feels intimidated by his surroundings.
It would seem that Ernestina is making good on her threat to take legal recourse for Charles’s despicable actions. The fact that Charles can be punished in court under the law for his private moral decisions shows how entrenched conventional morals are in Victorian society. Charles’s decision to choose freedom over convention is not working out very well so far —he’s getting all of the punishment and none of the reward.
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Mr. Aubrey, one of Mr. Freeman’s lawyers, says that Charles’s letter to Mr. Freeman is evidence of his guilt. Mr. Montague protests his language, and Serjeant Murphy asks whether he’d rather hear the language he’d use in court. Aubrey expresses his disgust that Montague has even agreed to act on behalf of someone as awful as Charles. He says that he’s disgusted by Charles’s letter, because it doesn’t mention the worst part of what he’s done—his infidelity. He reveals that they know who Charles had an affair with, and a witness. Charles blushes and silently curses Sam. Montague says that Charles isn’t here to defend himself.
The letter being discussed is the one Charles wrote to explain the broken engagement to Mr. Freeman. Aubrey’s censure of Charles is harsh, as he condemns not only Charles himself, but also anyone who chooses to associate with such an immoral person as he. This makes Charles seem somehow tainted or contagious. Now all the lies that Charles has told throughout the course of the book are finally blasted apart, as the Freemans know that Charles has been having an affair with Sarah.
Themes
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Mr. Aubrey says that he’s never had to deal with such awful behavior as Charles has exhibited, and he thinks he should be made an example of. Charles is red, and Serjeant Murphy glares at him. However, Mr. Aubrey says that Mr. Freeman wants to be merciful and not bring Charles to court, as long as he’ll sign the admission of guilt. He gives it to Montague, who requires that he be allowed to speak with Charles in private.
If, from a modern viewpoint, the reader might not have thought Charles’s actions so totally reprehensible, Mr. Aubrey’s reaction to them demonstrates the severity of the Victorian viewpoint on them. After all, it’s only by Mr. Freeman’s mercy that Charles isn’t literally going to court for his private moral decisions.
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Charles and Montague go out to the waiting room and read the document. It says that he broke his contract with Ernestina without reason; she was entirely truthful about her wealth and social position. He had a relationship with Sarah Woodruff and his dishonorable conduct means he can no longer claim to be a gentleman. The document says Ernestina can use it however she chooses, and Charles is signing it of his own free will. Montague says the clause about being considered a gentleman could work to his advantage in court, because no gentleman would sign the document without being forced. Charles is disgusted, and asks what use Ernestina can put it to. Montague says she could put it in the newspaper, but he thinks Mr. Freeman wants to keep everything quiet.
The Freemans seem most concerned that Ernestina emerge from this ordeal with her reputation entirely intact; they don’t want anyone to think that she somehow contributed to Charles’s immorality or was lacking in any way as a potential wife. When Mr. Freeman invited Charles to join his business, Charles felt that he couldn’t because he was a gentleman, but now Mr. Freeman has found another, even more shameful way to strip him of that title. The fact that he’s being asked to legally give it up shows just how much currency it has in this society.
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Montague advises that Charles sign the document as is, and they can later argue it was too harsh, if necessary. Charles agrees, but he wants to know how Ernestina is. They return to Mr. Freeman’s party and sign the document. Mr. Freeman starts to threaten Charles, but Aubrey stops him. Charles goes out to the carriage while Montague talks to Aubrey. When he joins Charles he says that Ernestina is as well as can be expected, and Mr. Freeman intends to show the admission of guilt to the father of anyone Charles might try to marry. Furthermore, Ernestina convinced her father not to bring Charles to court. Charles feels that he’s forever marked as despicable, but Montague says it’s only fair. Charles wishes he were dead.
Mr. Freeman is making Charles’s decision to choose freedom even more irrevocable than he thought it was—Charles can hardly try to court anyone now, knowing that Mr. Freeman has the power to ruin any marriage prospects. Sarah really is his only chance. Montague takes a view similar to Grogan’s; he’s sympathetic to Charles to a point, but in the end, he thinks he deserves what he gets for so consciously causing people pain. Charles is increasingly taking on Sarah’s outcast role, though his gender and class make the consequences different.
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Charles falls into a depression after this and refuses to see anyone. One day his detectives think they might have found Sarah working at a school, and Charles goes there to see the woman, but it’s not her. He sends people to search Exeter, Lyme, and Charmouth, but to no avail. Eventually he begins to give up. One night he has dinner with Montague and asks his advice. Montague tells him to go abroad. Charles can’t understand why Sarah has acted as she has, and Montague suggests that perhaps she wanted to ruin him. Charles struggles to believe this and thinks she might have died. But he checks the Register of Deaths and finds nothing. After a week he decides to go abroad.
Montague’s advice to Charles is essentially the same that Charles gave to Sarah when he saw her living as an outcast—go somewhere where no one knows you, and you no longer have to be an outcast. Whereas Sarah embraced her outcast status, Charles cannot. Montague also echoes Grogan again in suggesting that Sarah had cruel, manipulative intentions all along. However, it’s rather unfair to blame Sarah for Charles’s current circumstances, since she never asked Charles to break up with Ernestina, and never knew he had done so.
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