Charles leaves the Freeman residence in London. The foggy evening outside provides an apt metaphor for his depressed mood. He does not know why he attempted to impress upon his future father-in-law the gravity of his reduced circumstances, but it is apparent to the reader that Charles vaguely hoped that Ernestina's parents would not allow her to marry him.
For this reason, he is looking to external events to help him resolve the conflict between his attraction to Sarah and his duty to Ernestina. He walks through London and, while doing so, he inadvertently passes by Mr. Freeman's large shop. The thought of actually working there gives him a feeling of nausea. He sincerely believes that his repugnance is based on his conviction as a scholar and as a scientist that life should mean more than merely acquiring money. But actually some of his animosity towards working in trade is based on his upbringing as a member of the upper classes; he can't help but feel that working is somehow beneath him and, he fears that he will lose his self-respect if he eventually accepts Mr. Freeman's values. He is in despair about his fate. He hails a cab in order to seek refuge at an institution that persists even today: his club.
The tone of this chapter indicates that although Charles' marriage to Ernestina is still a definite prospect, he is dismayed rather than reassured by this. There is a great deal of irony in Fowles' handling of Charles' attitudes towards his dilemma. He is influenced and inhibited by what is considered proper behavior for a Victorian gentleman, just as his fiancée is governed by what is considered proper for a lady.
Charles goes to his club and he meets two fellow members whom he has known from his college days. These two aristocrats are stereotypes of Victorian decadent young rakes. Together they drink milk punch, followed by champagne, and soon persuade the now inebriated Charles to accompany them in pursuit of an evening's pleasure. The three men go to a brothel where they witness an exotic dance, after which the dancers join them. Charles, however, revolted by these surroundings and activities, leaves. As he rides off alone, he finds himself propositioning a young woman who reminds him of Sarah.
In this chapter, Charles' behavior reflects his confused and anguished state of mind. We might also note, however, his discomfort with what was, to many people of this time (and the present), an acceptable pastime. He vaguely senses that not all the women in the brothel enjoy their work and that they may be victims of exploitation. Fowles perhaps perceives this paradox of the role of the prostitute in Victorian society; this is suggested by the quotation he chooses to open the chapter with, taken from a letter supposedly written by a prostitute, protesting the way society shuns and scorns her and yet seeks her services. Although Sarah is not a prostitute, this letter shows how similar the problems of these professional fallen women are to Sarah's in a society that both scorns and exploits their supposed immorality.
Charles and the girl go to her rooms, and he is touched by what he feels is her innocence in spite of her profession, particularly by the solicitude she shows towards her sleeping child in the next room. However whatever his intentions are, Charles never succeeds in completing what he begins He asks her name and when she casually replies that her name is Sarah, the shock and his own drunken state combine to make him physically ill But Charles nausea is more than physical He believes that he is forever deprived of that mystery in his life that would both save him and free him, namely Sarah Woodruff Whether or not the author really intends Sarah to be Charles' savior, however, remains to be seen.
The next morning Charles is horribly hung over, but he recalls all too clearly the events of the night before and remembers how the girl Sarah calmly held his head while he was sick, and then went and got a cab for him. While she was out, Charles comforted her baby, who had started crying. When she returned he left a rather large amount of money for her. As he got into the cab, he saw her run after him and thank him for the money.
Although Charles feels wretched, he begins to take what appears to be a more realistic look at his present situation. He feels that his rakish evening was perhaps simply a gesture of farewell to the single life and that he will now settle down to marriage with Ernestina and a job with her father's company. Sam informs him that he plans to ask Mary to marry him, hoping that Charles will advance the young couple 250 pounds towards setting up their own haberdashery. Sam realizes that his future now may depend on the dowry that Ernestina will bring, since Charles no longer can expect an inheritance from his uncle. Thus Sam is especially interested in what Charles does, and feels increasingly threatened by the possibility that Charles won't marry Ernestina.
Sarah has left a note at Charles' hotel, containing only the address of her hotel in Exeter. He resolves to ignore the implied invitation and prepares to return to Lyme. He has decided to go ahead with his plans to marry Ernestina and feels somewhat reconciled to his fate. He and Sam take a carriage back the way they came. They stop in Exeter, where Charles knows that Sarah Woodruff is staying, but Charles says that they will continue their journey rather than stop for the night. This is the beginning of the section of the novel in which Fowles presents us with several possible endings for Charles, Ernestina, and Sarah. Here, we are shown Charles and the possible outcome of the story if his embryonic romance with Sarah were to be terminated at this point.
Charles and Sam arrive in Lyme, and Charles goes to see Ernestina. Their banter is concluded with his retelling of a trivialized version of his encounter with Sarah. Fowles then enters to tell us briefly how Charles and Ernestina, Sam and Mary, and other characters we have met, lived their lives, begat families, and died, if not with great joy, certainly without great sadness. He also, in the course of this digression, discusses the fate of Mrs. Poulteney when she finally goes to meet her celestial reward. He creates a fantasy about the soul of Mrs. Poulteney, who has recently died, and how it fares in heaven. She arrives at the pearly gates and expects to be treated with the deference she received when she was alive. However, much to her surprise and the gratification of the reader, she is summarily turned away. Thus, the whimsical and playful tone of the last half of the chapter prepares us for the revelation that the first half, the reunion of Charles and Ernestina, is also merely an imaginative aside, a speculation on what might have happened if Charles had returned to Lyme when he was supposed to, which he didn't.