The French Lieutenant's Woman: Chapters 17-18

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Chapter Seventeen begins later that evening with Charles sitting between Aunt Tranter and Ernestina in the Assembly Rooms. They are there for a concert and with it being Lent it is ‘unrelievedly religious’. Whilst listening to the music, Charles examines his conscience. At least he begins to do this, but in truth he has ‘become a little obsessed with Sarah’, or ‘at any rate with the enigma she presented’. He had intended to talk about his encounters with her, but the moment never seemed opportune. He is also aware of Ernestina’s latent jealousy.
Ernestina is also annoying him tonight and thinks that without her demureness and dryness, ‘vapid selfishness’ is all that remains. However, he dismisses this thought straightaway as she could not be anything else as the only child of rich parents. He believes he has done the conventional thing (rather than intelligent) by asking her to marry him and begins to feel trapped and ‘a Byron tamed’.
His thoughts turn to Sarah again, who makes him aware of his ‘deprivation’: ‘His future had always seemed to him of vast potential; and now suddenly it was a fixed voyage to a known place. She had reminded him of that’. He is brought back to the present by Ernestina’s elbow and he smiles at her. He thinks then that he cannot be angry with her as ‘after all, she was only a woman’.
At the same time, Sam is thinking the opposite and how much his ‘fraction of Eve’ did understand. He and Mary are strangers and know little of each other’s backgrounds. A deeper awareness arose when they talked about their employers the week before and Sam confided that he has the ambition to be a haberdasher. This evening, Sam is sitting in Aunt Tranter’s kitchen holding hands with her.
In Chapter Eighteen, it is now two days later and Charles has returned to Ware Commons. He decides he will not enter into conversation with Miss Woodruff if he sees her, and then notices she is standing 40 yards away. She gives him two fossils and thanks him for his offer of assistance. She then walks away again and he cannot resist looking back at her. She is staring at him over her shoulder.
Her eyes are anguished and she tells him she has no one to turn to. She says that if she goes to London, she knows she will become what some already call her in Lyme. His cheeks flush at this ‘most unseemly’ idea; she says she is weak and has sinned already.
Although flattered at her using him as a confidante, he asks why she is telling him about herself. She says it is because he has travelled and is an educated gentleman. She lives among people who she is told are Christians, but they seem cruel and stupid to her. She feels condemned without knowing her crime and asks ‘why am I born what I am? Why am I not born Miss Freeman?’  He says this is envy, but she refutes this and says it is incomprehension.
She wants to tell him what happened to her 18 months ago, but his conventional side wins over and he is horrified when she sinks to her knees. He makes her stand and says he does not wish to appear indifferent but cannot get involved for the sake of propriety. She asks to meet him once more, to talk, and tells him she has felt almost overcome with madness to the point that she has thought of visiting him. She is compared to Ernestina, who is described as behaving as if ‘habited in glass’, and we are told that by contrast Sarah forbade this safe distance. She lets him know of the afternoons she will be in the area and that she will detain him no longer. He leaves knowing he will not tell Ernestina about Sarah and feels ashamed, as though he had ‘stepped off the Cobb and set sail for China’.
Analysis – Chapter Seventeen and Eighteen
Charles’s disaffection for Ernestina and growing affection for Sarah are seen to increase in Chapter Eighteen. He begins to see that his decision to marry Ernestina has been based on convention, which is a rule that colors his characterization. Duty and convention have dominated his thoughts and parallels may be drawn with Mrs Poulteney when he chooses to behave according to propriety rather than intelligence or emotion.
It is made evident that he has internally consented to the confining rules and morals that he despises in Mrs Poulteney when he excuses Ernestina’s vapidity because he sees it as elemental to being a woman. Of these main characters, it is only Sarah that is able to see beyond the pettiness of this society.

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