Sarah has arrived in Exeter and found a place to stay, at the slightly-less-than-reputable Endicott's Family Hotel. She seems to be in good spirits as she enters her room and begins to unpack the things she has bought in town: a jug, a teapot, a nightgown, a shawl, and a roll of bandage. She makes herself some tea and eats a small meat pie that she has bought.
Charles and Ernestina's father discuss the fact that Charles may not inherit Winsyatt, and, as Ernestina predicted, it isn't a big problem. Mr. Freeman gives Charles his blessing, and suggests that he to return to Lyme Regis to keep Ernestina company. He then brings up the possibility of Charles coming into business with him, seeing as Charles and Ernestina will inherit Mr. Freeman's company when he dies. Charles doesn't feel as though it is fitting for him, as a gentleman, to become involved with commerce, and he tries to politely decline the offer. He leaves Mr. Freeman after agreeing to give the matter "serious thought" (228).
After leaving Mr. Freeman, Charles walks aimlessly toward his gentleman's club, feeling alienated from his surroundings and unhappy with his position in life. London reminds him of anonymous encounters with women, and the sexual adventures of his youth in Paris. He walks past Mr. Freeman's store - the store that is responsible for all the money that Ernestina and her future husband will inherit one day - and feels outrage that he was asked to be a partner in the business. Charles, clinging onto his status as a gentleman, resolves never to set foot inside the store, because to do so would be to give up the core of his identity as a gentleman. Charles gets in a cab and goes to his club.
At the club, Charles meets two acquaintances, and spends two hours discussing trivialities and drinking champagne with them. The men get drunk - and Charles is the drunkest - and get in a carriage to go to a brothel. Charles is excited at the prospect of "intercourse," and thinks that it will fix "all his troubles" (238). The girls at the brothel strip naked, but Charles doesn't want to make a bid on any of them; he changes his mind about wanting sex with a prostitute and quickly leaves the brothel in a cab. As the cab drives through the seedier part of London, Charles sees a prostitute who reminds him vaguely of Sarah Woodruff, and he asks the cab driver to stop. The woman tells the cab driver the address of her room, and gets in the cab; Charles pays her a sovereign in advance.
The cab deposits Charles and the prostitute at her place. The woman hushes her child back to sleep, and orders a glass of wine for Charles. She sits on his lap, and he caresses her breasts, but is overcome by waves of nausea. Charles follows her to her bed, and asks her what her name is. She tells him that it's Sarah. Charles vomits onto the pillow next to her.
Exeter is described as having a "louche area," almost a red-light district, and it is interesting that the demographic dynamics of this part of the city are presented in terms of a gendered battle (217). The seedy part of the city is mostly populated by an "army" of "variously undone girls and women," all of who have been "wounded in the battle for universal male purity" (217). These women have seduced or been seduced, are mistresses or unmarried mothers, who have been rejected or cast aside by the men who seduced them. In other words, men hold the power in this society, and the women are victims of the men's desire to have sex with them and deny it afterward. Sarah, the notorious 'fallen woman' of Lyme Regis, should be perfectly at home here.
There is a particularly interesting narratorial intrusion in this chapter. The narrator says that he will not try to describe Sarah's thoughts - but it isn't that he is withholding this information from the reader. He doesn't "intend to find out what was going on her mind," which suggests that he doesn't know himself what she was thinking (221). The effect of this is, of course, that Sarah retains an element of mystery for the novelist and the reader alike. Even though we know much more about her than we did in Chapter 1, there's still a barrier between her and us.
Where Mrs. Poulteney's motto is "Civilization is Soap," and Charles' is "Duty And Humiliation," Ernestina's father treasures the motto "Profit and Earnestness" (223). The narratorial tone is very tongue-in-cheek and ironic here, as it was in the case of Mrs. Poulteney. Fowles suggests that the cornerstones of Victorian civilization, which so many people lived by very rigorously, are actually ridiculous, especially when taken to extremes.
At the beginning of this chapter, Charles walks with "no very clear purpose," a state that is totally different from his usual duty-driven character (229). Without this sense of duty pushing him toward certain actions and goals, Charles feels out of place in his surroundings, like "a visitor from another world" (229). The author uses a theater metaphor to express Charles' sense of not belonging to his environment, and not taking part in the goings-on around him: he is standing "in the wings of this animated stage" but has no role to play (230).
Once Charles is drunk, he attributes his current bad state of mind - his sense of being trapped, his sense of purposelessness, and his doubts about his marriage - to sexual frustration. He realizes (or at least thinks he does) that he "need[s] a woman, need[s] intercourse" (238). It is interesting that Sarah's face comes to mind when he thinks about interaction with women - after all, he has more recently kissed his fiancée, Ernestina. Sarah is equated with sex in Charles' mind in a much more explicit way than Ernestina is; he has had sexual thoughts about her but they are almost subconscious and never fully fleshed-out, whereas he has actually imaged himself having sex with Sarah in the place of of the French lieutenant. Charles seems to hold two opposing views about sex: he thinks it's important, and the root of his troubles, but he also thinks the Victorian attitude toward sex is "so much fuss about nothing" (238). He is being a little hypocritical here, since he usually ascribes to the "fuss" at which he scoffs.
In this chapter, Fowles cuts-and-pastes several paragraphs from another author's account of a man's visit to a brothel. He does this to show that prostitution is an "ancient and time-honored form of entertainment," and to put this scene in its historical context (240). The narrator's tone is playful here; he says that he is "please[d]" to be able to "borrow from someone else's imagination" in order to paint a timeless picture of a brothel for the reader (240).
Fate and destiny are recurring themes in this chapter - the fates of both Charles and the prostitute he has hired. At the end of the previous chapter, Charles notes that his "fate [is] sealed," and it is partly this sense of determinism that stops him from leaving the woman when he has a chance to escape (245). The prostitute's fate is also "determined," in the sense that she has been born poor and impregnated by a man who will not marry her, and so she has few options apart from selling herself (246). These discussions of characters' fates follow the general trend in the novel of moving from a view of the universe that is based on free will, and toward a more deterministic view that is in line with Darwin's principles.