Charles engages detectives to look for Sarah, but they fail. In the meantime, he receives a letter from Mr. Freeman, delivered by his solicitor, requesting that he attend a meeting with Freeman and his solicitors if he wishes to avoid facing an action in a suit for a breach of the engagement contract. Charles consults with his solicitor and friend, a Mr. Montague, who informs him that this letter, while unpleasant, is a stroke of luck. Montague tells Charles that he will probably have to admit publicly to having been dishonorable in his relations with the Freemans, but that such an admission is far better than having to defend himself in a lawsuit.
At the humiliating meeting which Charles and Montague attend, Charles consents to sign a document in which he fully admits his guilt in his breach of contract for marriage to Ernestina. The terms of the admission, it might be noted, emphasize that marriage had its economic, as well as its social aspects, and hence could well be considered to be a sort of contract. After this, Charles continues to search for Sarah in London but ultimately gives up. Upon Montague's advice, he decides to travel abroad for awhile.
Twenty months pass, and we discover that Mary and Sam are living in London and that Mary is expecting her second child. Currently she is strolling in a park and enjoying the early spring weather. However, she is soon surprised by the sight of Sarah Woodruff alighting from a carriage not far from her. She tells Sam of the surprising sight, and he is rather more disturbed by the news than one would think likely. His distress is at least partly due to his sense of guilt over the role he played in destroying the relationship that existed between Sarah and his former master, Charles, even though he still disapproves of Charles' actions.
The rest of this chapter describes the young couple's life in London and their rise from the servant class. Sam is now a successful employee at Mr. Freeman's haberdashery and is gaining the experience which he hopes someday to use in establishing his own business. Although Sam has accepted his good fortune with equanimity, Mary is still amazed by the fact that she is married to a man who is so successful that she can even afford to hire a young girl to be their maid, a job she herself had only a short time before.
Charles travels throughout Europe and the Mediterranean countries, but he is affected little by his experiences. He keeps a journal of the daily events of his travels, but expresses his actual feelings only in poetry which he shows to no one. Fowles quotes the entirety of Matthew Arnold's poem "To Marguerite" as expressing some of Charles' feelings about his isolation and loneliness better than Charles himself could.
However, Charles eventually begins to feel that perhaps the Sarah whom he longs for never really existed except as an ideal, that perhaps the real woman did not match the image he created and has carried with him all these months. Although he does not despair of ever finding her again, somehow the need to find her becomes less urgent.
After meeting a charming pair of Americans, an elderly man and his nephew, Charles decides to visit America. His view of himself as a rebel and outcast no doubt contribute to his desire to visit America, a country so unlike and yet so like his home. In this chapter, Fowles raises the question of why Charles does not completely give in to despair over his loss and disgrace and perhaps commit suicide. But he answers his own question with the suggestion that Charles has found some comfort in the knowledge that he is an outcast and thus different from others of his kind. Then, too, when he encounters young couples on his travels, he cannot say that he feels envy for them, but only relief that he did not give in to convention and consummate a matter that was false. This is small comfort, in the face of his loss, but apparently it sustains him for the time.
In Chapter 59, Fowles describes Charles' travels in America. We get a very brief glimpse of the United States of this period as compared to England. Here, while the influence of England is strong, it is tempered by the different problems faced by the struggling country that was still recovering from the devastation of the Civil War. Charles is impressed by the vitality of the country and the openness of its people, but he swiftly books the first passage to Europe when Montague sends a cable that Sarah Woodruff has been located in London. After some twenty months of separation, she still has a powerful effect on him.
In Chapter 60, we read the first of two possible endings to the story. In this version, Sarah is found residing in London under the name of Mrs. Roughwood. Charles believes her to be employed as a governess for a family, but it turns out that she is an assistant and an artist's model for Mr. Rossetti, a well-known artist whose work is considered somewhat shocking by many Victorians.
In spite of Montague's advice, Charles goes to see Sarah. He is surprised to find that she does not need someone to rescue her from penury or immorality, for his greatest fear was that he would find her living a miserable existence as an underpaid governess, or even worse, as a prostitute. However, his expectations are contradicted by the confident, well-dressed young woman Sarah has become.
We quickly perceive the contrast between Sarah's world of new trends and ideas and Ernestina's world, in which old values still hold sway, even when they are questioned. Charles finds himself caught between them; he finds Sarah's new life rather uncomfortably bohemian for his tastes, yet he cannot help admiring her strength and freedom, qualities he admired in the Americans whom he recently met.
Sarah is not to be won easily though. She refuses to marry Charles, and when he asks her why, she obliquely states that she simply wishes not to marry, something, she says, he will never understand. Her life, as it is, is pleasant and is all that she wants.
Charles is stunned when she admits that she saw his advertisements inquiring about her and that she moved and changed her name because of them. He is ready to leave, despairing that she ever loved him when she begs him to stay long enough to meet someone, a "lady" who will explain her motives to him. He is puzzled but waits. Sarah leaves, and shortly another young woman enters and places a child on the floor. Charles asks her where the "lady" is, and she points at the child. Rather dramatically, Charles realizes that it is his and Sarah's child. Sarah comes back a few moments later, and they embrace.
Whether or not they will ever marry is not certain, but the story ends with the couple finally united, and with their love strengthened by all they have gone through.
This ending fulfills the romantic convention in which the lovers are finally united after a long period of trials and separations.
Although this ending may be a conventional ending for many Victorian novels, it is deceptively so, for there is something quite modern in the manner in which the lovers are reconciled. Furthermore, this ending does not meet the criteria for most love stories — that is, that they have a fairly well-defined conclusion, whether it be happy or tragic. The story could end here, but Fowles is dissatisfied and has his characters perform their parts again, with different results.
In Chapter 61, Fowles intrudes for the last time, posing as a sort of theater director who takes great pleasure in manipulating his characters to achieve different roles. Fowles has just finished observing and directing the scene between Sarah and Charles in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's house and seems quite amused by it. He steps into a coach and leaves, after first setting his watch back a quarter of an hour. We are told this is an affectation of his, but, as we shall see, since the observer is the author, he has in fact turned back time.
We return to the scene in Rossetti's house, but we are back at the point where Charles believes he has been betrayed. Now, instead of denying that she has betrayed him, and finally admitting that she loves him, Sarah admits nothing; she remains as silent and enigmatic as ever. And again, utterly disgusted with himself and with the woman he allowed himself to fall in love with, Charles leaves. He sees the child in the arms of a young woman as he exits but takes no further notice of it.
He leaves, bitter and alienated, to search for a new life for himself. The narrator returns and explains that his intervention in this story has no more effect than the random particle of radiation that causes a mutation in some evolving organism, one that may, perhaps, contribute to its survival. Thus Charles and Sarah both face the world alone, as someday their child must also do.
However, Fowles' final choice of a conclusion is not as random as he would make it seem. In discovering that he could reject conventional attitudes, and love Sarah regardless of the social consequences, Charles discovered a strength in himself that he did not have before. Fowles could have ended the novel there, with the couple reunited. But just as he worked within the conventions of the novel before, he rejects them now, and arrives at a conclusion where there are no lovers, only individual people.
Although Fowles offers us two "endings," they both move the reader towards this final conclusion. Fowles has differed from most authors in that he has revealed to his audience the process, the alternatives, as well as the final result, but it was towards this final result that the characters were moving all along.