The French Lieutenant's Woman By John Fowles Summary and Analysis Chapters 48-55

Charles, distraught by his encounter with Sarah, confronts himself. He leaves Endicott's Family Hotel, walking rapidly down a street in a poorer section of Exeter. He passes a church and is drawn to it. As he enters, the curate tells Charles that it is closing time. Charles asks if he might stop and pray a moment. The curate, seeing that Charles is a gentleman, gives him the keys to the church and asks him to lock it when he leaves. Charles kneels and mumbles a prayer to himself, but the image of Sarah keeps rising before him. In despair he weeps, not only over what he has done, or lost with Sarah, but also over the fact that there is no comfort or forgiveness to be found in religion as he understands it.

The Victorians were still adhering to the old, structured ways of believing in God, but were continually torn by changes in their society that threatened that structure. They wanted to believe, but feared that they did not. Faced with this dilemma, common to many of his time, Charles makes an intuitive leap. He feels that he understands the message of Christ conveyed by the crucifix in the church in a new way. It is not the dying figure on the cross that is significant, but rather the example of the living Christ who wanted people to live rightly, to be kind, and to be good that was the true meaning of religion. His inspiration is followed by a dialogue with himself in which he comes to terms with his actions. Although for the first time he sees what his true feelings for Sarah are, he has come to no decision regarding what to do about her or about Ernestina. All he knows is that he wishes to do the right thing, which at this point appears to be honestly facing how he really feels. Although he has made no decision as of yet, he intuitively feels that he cannot marry Ernestina if he does not really love her. He has not yet expressed this thought except in the vaguest way, but it supports his actions and his thoughts regarding his fiancée.

Charles returns the key to the curate after leaving the church, concluding as he does so, that he is finished with institutionalized religion. However, this does not undermine the truth of his feelings that he experienced when he was in the church, but rather emphasizes the gap between inner perception and outward, socially acceptable forms that a few people of his time were beginning to perceive.

Fowles develops this duality further, discussing the difficulty that Victorians had in reconciling the disparate impulses of the body and soul. Charles illustrates this duality in his belief that he cannot freely express his love for Sarah until he has freed himself of his obligation to Ernestina. Unlike others of his time, Charles does not ignore his essential feelings about Sarah, and his lack of a similar feeling for Ernestina. Though he may attempted to do so too late he tries to follow an inner guide rather than allow the conventions of proper society to govern his acts. He chooses a perilous course of action.

After returning to the hotel, Charles washes out his bloodstained garments and then writes Sarah a long, somewhat stilted but nevertheless sincere, letter. He gives the letter to Sam to deliver. He plans to go to Lyme and break his engagement with Ernestina, and then return to Exeter for Sarah.

Upon returning to Lyme, Charles goes to Ernestina and tries to tell her that he is unworthy of her. He tells her that he proposed to her with something less than honorable intentions and that her position as a the only child of a wealthy merchant influenced him. She is shocked, but instinctively refuses to accept this statement. Ernestina wavers between strength and weakness in her reaction to the news. Her outrage is more than a personal reaction, for marriage is an important institution in itself, as far as women are concerned, and Ernestina feels threatened by this change in her prospects. The breaking of an engagement is a more profound blow to such a woman than it would be to her modern counterpart, as evidenced by her threat of legal action against Charles to protect her reputation. But at last she weakens and begs Charles to remain. She tells him that she realizes he thinks that she is immature, but she knows that she will change. She says that he feels he is unworthy because he lacks confidence in himself and she wants to devote herself to helping him.

Charles is deeply touched by what she has said, but as a result he finds himself forced to admit the real cause of the broken engagement. He finally admits that he is in love with another, though he does not reveal her name. Angry at first, Ernestina gives way to despair and apparently faints. Although her pain is real, Charles notices that the fainting spell is a bit too perfect to be real and is not as shocked by it as one might imagine. It is simply a conventional gesture, a way in which a young lady could express outrage and shock, since screaming, tearing one's hair, or attacking someone else are not acceptable gestures. Charles summons the maid to attend her while he goes to fetch Dr. Grogan.

Charles returns to his rooms at the hotel after telling Dr. Grogan what has occurred. The doctor is nearly as shocked as was Ernestina, for an action such as this was less common and less accepted than it was to become later on. Charles feels like a traitor, but resigns himself to the consequences of his act. Sam comes to Charles shortly and asks him if it is true that he has terminated his engagement to Ernestina, and Charles confirms that it is. Sam is more disturbed about his own future than that of his fiancée's mistress, and questions Charles about his own prospects. In his distraught state, Charles is unable to give Sam a coherent or concrete answer to his questions, which Sam interprets as indifference. Frustrated and angry, Sam resigns.

Here Fowles hints that Sam's rebellious attitude towards Charles isn't the only misbehavior Sam is guilty of. As we shall see later, Sam has been looking out for his own interests ever since he knew that Charles would probably not inherit much money from his uncle.

Caught up in the emotion created by the events, Charles is hardly less amazed and shocked by what is happening than are the others. But he consoles himself that he will return to Sarah as soon as he can. In the meantime, he drafts a letter to Ernestina's father, and while he is writing, the doctor returns.

While Charles and Sam are arguing at the hotel, Aunt Tranter returns home to find Dr. Grogan there and the house in an uproar. She confers with Dr. Grogan, who has given Ernestina something to make her sleep. Then Mary tearfully explains to her what has happened, not failing to include that Sam has left Charles' employ because, Mary says, of his former master's treatment of Ernestina. Thus part of Mary's unhappiness is based on her fears for herself and Sam. Aunt Tranter promises her that the two of them will be taken care of, and Mary joyfully runs to Sam in the back of the house, where he has been waiting for her since his return from talking with Charles.

The scene then shifts back to Charles and Dr. Grogan. The doctor has just returned from taking care of Ernestina. He sharply lectures Charles on the vileness of his act, but also offers a bit of consolation as a friend. He states that Charles must try to become a better person in order to mitigate some of the damage he has just done. If he does not, then the harm already done will only be made worse, for it will have served no purpose. Leaving Charles with this odd bit of advice, he wishes him good luck, and warns him to be out of town within the hour.

Charles returns to Exeter, only to find that Sarah has disappeared without leaving an address where she might be found. After checking at her hotel, Charles discovers that Sam never delivered the letter to Sarah. He is both angry and helpless since there is nothing he can do about it now. He vows to find Sarah and boards a train, intending to go to London and locate her. He hopes to have a compartment to himself; however, at the last moment, a bearded stranger also boards the train. Both men exchange disapproving glances, and the journey begins. Though Charles is unaware of the fact, the reader is informed that this stranger is the persona of John Fowles. And in this chapter the author attempts to explain how he will conclude the novel.

In this fanciful encounter with one of his characters, Fowles illustrates some of the problems of writing a novel. He stares at Charles, who has fallen asleep, and like some minor deity, wonders what to do with him. At this point neither Charles nor Fowles know where Sarah is, so neither is of any help. Fowles digresses and explains the art of novel writing as pitting the characters and their desires against one another, letting them fight it out and describing the fight. But while the fight is in progress, the novelist has already decided who will win in advance. He is a good novelist if his audience does not guess the victor before he chooses to tell them.

But Fowles has decided to challenge this convention; he has decided to let these characters, Charles and Sarah, decide the fight for themselves, or so he says. In order to accomplish this, he will provide two endings, one in which Charles wins and one in which Sarah does. The reader might note here that both the charm and difficulty of the novel lie in the fact that it has two endings, for it is difficult not to perceive one as true and the other as false. If we follow Fowles' hint in this chapter, they both are simply possible endings for a novel we have just observed unfold. However, we might also notice that the first conclusion is the one we might perhaps expect to find in such a novel, while the second has far less of that conclusiveness which Fowles indicates is desirable in such a novel. He is tempted, he says, to end it right here, with Charles riding into London on the train, but the conventions of the novel do not allow for such an inconclusive ending.

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