Charles again meets Sarah by the seashore, quite unintentionally, of course, but by now his walks to the shore are colored by his fears and also his hopes of meeting her. She gives him two fossils she has found, then tentatively turns to him for his help. She wants him to hear her full story. He misunderstands and, consequently, offers other sorts of aid; for example, he suggests that she talk to the sympathetic Aunt Tranter. But it is not mere kindness that Sarah wants. She seems to want Charles to understand her and her situation, matters that he is hardly capable of perceiving at this point, for he thinks in terms of one's conduct and its impact on the individual's relationship to society. Hence, he advises her to leave Lyme and begin life anew somewhere where she isn't known. She refuses. She does not want to hide from herself, though the totality of what she does want is by no means clear. After much discussion, Charles reluctantly agrees to meet Sarah again and to allow her to tell him about herself.
It is safe to say that Sarah does not yet realize that she is attracted to Charles in ways that go beyond the mere perception that he is more sensitive than most people whom she has met. Charles is likewise attracted to Sarah, but he struggles against what he feels would be a dangerous relationship. His conventional background deludes him into thinking that he has agreed to be Sarah's confessor from the highest of motives only. It is true that he does want to help her, but he carries deep within himself the sniggering suspicion that his motives for wanting to see her aren't entirely selfless.
Charles, Ernestina, and Aunt Tranter share a meal that evening with Dr. Grogan, a hearty Irish physician. The uninhibited conversation of Dr. Grogan and Aunt Tranter disturbs Ernestina a bit, for she is the product of a later and more rigid upbringing than they were. Charles and Dr. Grogan return later to the doctor's rooms for a drink and discuss science, Darwin, and Sarah Woodruff. They attempt to bring their knowledge of science to the problem they feel she presents. The doctor believes that she suffers from a vague disorder labeled "melancholia" because she fails to take any action, such as leaving town, that might relieve her suffering. He rightly perceives that Mrs. Poulteney's home is probably the worst possible place she could have chosen to live, and he agrees with Charles that the only solution to Sarah's problem is that she must leave Lyme. This conversation with the doctor enables Charles to soothe his guilty feelings about allowing Sarah to confide in him, for he can feel that he, as an objective but sympathetic listener, can help her where others have failed.
Charles and Dr. Grogan believe that they, as enlightened rationalists, can understand and solve Sarah's problems. They believe she is seriously disturbed, possibly on the verge of madness. Their reasoning is ironic, considering the purported rigorousness of the moral standards of the time. They believe that Sarah's irrationality is related to her feelings of alienation from normal society because she was once seduced. They discuss how similar things have happened to many other women, yet these women have gone on to marry and live normal lives.
We next encounter Sarah and Millie. Following her illness, Millie has taken a room next to Sarah's. The young maid is afraid of the dark and often sleeps with Sarah for comfort; there, the arms of the older girl give her the sole sense of security she has known in her short, difficult life. The meeting between Sarah and Millie illustrates the contrast between the almost wordless rapport of the girls and the highly abstract and rationalized behavior of the two men. The narrator inserts modern explanations of Darwinism, social reform, and lesbianism, all of which, as Fowles intends, fail to explain the events as the reader perceives them. Dr. Grogan and Charles do not understand Sarah, nor would a modern psychologist be accurately explaining Sarah's relationship to Millie by referring to it as lesbianism. The point of these digressions by Fowles is that there is no one answer to Sarah's problems. Answers only partially explain the complex fictional world that Fowles has created. He implies that the problems posed by the situations which the characters find themselves in do not lend themselves to simple solutions.
Charles and Sarah meet again in Chapter 20 as they agreed to do, and Sarah reveals the story of herself and the French Lieutenant. His ship was wrecked not far from shore, and all but two of the crew were drowned. Captain Talbot brought the survivors ashore, and Lieutenant Varguennes, whose leg was seriously injured, was nursed in the captain's home. Sarah, who was the governess for the Talbot children, helped to nurse him. However, as he recovered he began to take an interest in Sarah, and he teased and flirted with her. Sarah's knowledge of French was limited, and Varguennes spoke little English. As a result, their playful banter had an air of unreality for Sarah, and she was easily beguiled by the charming Lieutenant. After his recovery was complete, the Lieutenant traveled to a neighboring town to board a ship for home. He told Sarah to meet him there so they could say their farewells. Sarah states that she did follow him, but. found him staying at a disreputable hotel. At that point she realized how shallow he really was, and she also realized the true nature of his affection for her. But then, in an odd combination of defiance and despair, she gave herself to him, knowing that she would never see him again, and knowing that she did not want to see him, ever.
The willfulness of Sarah's act is inexplicable to Charles. Her explanation, however, is simple. She tells Charles that she did not give herself to Varguennes as an act of love, or even of sensuality. Her decision was made on the basis of what we might today call a political act of defiance. She would be changed; society would be forced to acknowledge her existence. Yet this explanation only further mystifies Charles. Had Sarah been seduced or raped, or had she even thought herself to be in love, Charles would have understood, but the abstract determination, the sense of committing herself to a chosen destiny that lies beyond her act, is unfathomable to him. The mystery surrounding her is increased by the apparent unreason of her choice of a lover. Charles is both shocked and stimulated by her confession. She has only added to her aura of romance and mystery. For Charles, she is even more of an idealized dark romantic figure, a woman who is attractive and compelling because she is such an enigma.
At this point one should keep the question in mind as to what Sarah's true motives are. Was her impetuous act really more of an act of defiance against the limits her society had placed upon her, or was it the result of the confusion and despair of a young girl? What lies behind her desire to tell all these things about herself to Charles Smithson, a man she barely knows?
Sarah continues her confession, attempting to explain how little the fact that Varguennes was married really mattered to her. She discovered that he was married about a month after he left, and even by then it did not matter. Already she was playing the role of martyr and pariah, for she had made no secret of her rendezvous with the Lieutenant.
Charles points out that it is absurd for her to condemn herself so thoroughly. He uses Dr. Grogan 's argument that many women have suffered worse and, at least, appear to live normal lives in spite of their experiences. Sarah counters his argument, stating that such women perceive themselves as outcasts, but lack the courage to admit that they have acted contrary to the rules of society. They become secret pariahs, while Sarah is a visible one. The two then talk further, and Charles becomes uncomfortably aware of his attraction for her. But he tells himself that perhaps he has been able to convince her to save herself.
Suddenly, they hear a noise and, looking around, they see Sam and Mary. Charles is afraid of being caught with Sarah, but the other young people do not see them. Sam and Mary move away, and Charles and Sarah separate, presumably for the last time. Charles goes back to town, rather guiltily congratulating himself on his narrow escape; he believes that his sincere desire to help Sarah has succeeded. The excuse that his interest in her is purely charitable enables him to justify to himself his otherwise suspiciously clandestine meetings with Sarah.
Charles is, of course, deluding himself, as is Sarah. Although she is not fully aware of it, she is disappointed that he has not expressed or acted upon his attraction for her. Instead, he has insisted on acting in a manner that, to her, is false. She is disappointed too by his conventionality: He is too thoroughly the Victorian gentleman. But at the same time, she doesn't realize what such disappointment implies; she does not fully understand that her reasons for wanting to see him are as mixed as his are.