After three weeks of searching everywhere in London for Sarah Woodruff, Charles still hasn't found her, despite having hired four private detectives. Charles has received a summons from Mr. Freeman's solicitors, who, his own solicitor tells him, will make him sign an "ugly document" that will confess to his guilt (321). The document is indeed ugly, but Montague encourages Charles to sign it anyway; Charles signs away his right to "be considered a gentleman" (324). Humiliated, Charles spends another week looking for Sarah, and then abruptly decides to go abroad.
Almost two years have passed since the end of Chapter 56, and Mary and Sam are married with a baby and another child on the way. Mary is very happy in her new house, and loves having a maidservant of her own, after having spent so many years working for Mrs. Tranter. After leaving Charles' employment, Sam used the information about Sarah Woodruff's liaison with Charles to coax Mr. Freeman into giving him a job. His natural skill at advertising and his initiative has meant that Mr. Freeman has personally recognized him, and his salary has been raised several times.
Mary is walking with the baby in a nice part of London when she sees a woman descend from a cab and go into one of the houses on the street. Back at home, Mary tells Sam that she is sure the woman was Sarah. Sam feels guilty for having willfully not delivered Charles' letter to Sarah.
During the last twenty months, Charles has travelled all over Europe. He doesn't stay very long in any of the cities he visits, and he feels purposeless and melancholic. He still places ads in English newspapers asking for anyone to come forward with information about Sarah Woodruff, but he has almost given up hope. His uncle's new wife has given birth to a boy - Charles will never inherit Winsyatt. He sleeps with some local girls while he travels Europe, but feels emotionally unconnected to them - in his mind, "[l]ove ha[s] left the world" (336). When Charles meets some elderly Americans on the way to Paris, he resolves to go to America, and buys a ticket for a trip across the Atlantic.
Charles' American trip begins in Boston, where he is well received and very much enjoys the company of the Americans that he meets. He moves down the East coast, and when he finds himself adopting certain American expressions and inflections he wonders if he is "traveling or emigrating" (340). One day, Charles gets a telegraph from Montague, reading: "She is found. London," and Charles goes to inquire when the next ship to Europe leaves the harbor (342).
This is the first ending that the narrator gives us to the story of Charles and Sarah. Back in London, Charles follows up on the anonymous tip that Mr. Montague has received (the text implies that the message is from Sam Farrow). He arrives at the address given by the anonymous source, and asks for "Mrs. Roughwood," the name under which Sarah is now going (345). Charles is let into the house, and as he climbs the stairs to meet Sarah, recognizes one of two men talking in a room: it is the artist Rossetti, whom he met at a soirée with Ernestina years before. He turns around and sees Sarah: beautifully dressed, and looking like a bohemian "New Woman" (347). She asks him what he is doing there - she is "not grateful" that he is there (347). Sarah explains that she is Rossetti's assistant, and that she models for him occasionally. Charles tells Sarah everything that has happened since he last saw her; Sarah answers Charles' unspoken question by saying that her relationship with Rossetti is platonic, not sexual or romantic.
Sarah says that, looking back, she thinks she was right to have left Charles and started a new life. There was something "artificial" and "false" about their relationship, she explains - and Charles knows what she means, knows how there was an inescapable "hollowness" in the "formality" of his letters and speeches to her (351). Charles begs her to accept him, since he has spent so long looking for her and is only a "ghost" and "half-being" when he is not with her (352). But Sarah is insistent that she does not want to marry or share her life with anyone; she is happy being independent, and she never thought she was fated to be happy in life.
Charles accuses Sarah of having sent the anonymous note just to torment him by showing him how happy she is without him; Sarah denies it. She asks him to wait and meet a woman who can explain Sarah much better than she can herself. Immediately, Charles guesses that she is talking about Rossetti's sister, Christina Rossetti. He wishes he had never come to find Sarah. The woman who let Charles into the house appears with a toddler in her arms, and Charles asks when the lady is coming. The woman puts the child on the floor and indicates that the baby is the 'lady' for whom Charles is waiting. Sarah enters the room, and Charles understands that the child is the product of the one time in which he and Sarah made love. Sarah and Charles embrace, completely in love with each other.
We see Charles wanting to go abroad in this chapter not because it holds a mysterious and romantic pull over him - which has been the case so far - but because he feels too embarrassed and humiliated to stay in England. He has become an alien in society because of how he has behaved, and he feels compelled to go into exile to escape the social consequences of his actions. He dreamed of exotic possibilities of his life with Sarah; the reality is much less romantic and much more difficult to deal with.
Ernestina helps him indirectly in this chapter, because it is due to her influence that Mr. Freeman doesn't take Charles to court. This shows some residual tenderness of Ernestina toward Charles; on the other hand, the woman he has left Ernestina for is still nowhere to be found. It isn't surprising that Charles and his acquaintances again begin to doubt Sarah's motives, which are still as mysterious as ever: has she had sex with him just to ruin his future with Ernestina, and to bring him down to her own level of disgrace?
In Charles' vision of the future on the train in Chapter 44, all that is said of Mary and Sam is that they "married, and bred, and died, in the monotonous fashion of their kind" (265). In Chapter 57, however, we get a full portrait of their married life. The love between them is touching, as is Mary's delight at her new, slightly elevated station in life. This chapter seems to have been included to show that even though Charles is the main character of the novel in that he occupies most of its pages, Mary and Sam are no less real and important than he is - they have their own personalities, hopes, and dreams, and their life is worth mentioning.
The Charles we meet in this chapter is much worse for the wear - sadder and with less purpose than we have ever seen him. This is in despite him having achieved his desire to travel; he has seen "a thousand sights" and visited every country in Europe, but he may as well have never left London, for all that he actually enjoys what he sees (333). He thought he had gained a purpose in his life after jilting Ernestina and ruining Sarah – namely, that he could spend his life atoning for his sins - but here, he is utterly purposeless. Even his amateur interest in paleontology has waned. He realizes that his desire to free himself of the constraints of his age and society was really a desire for a shared exile with Sarah - he had hoped to transcend the Victorian age and live outside society's rules with Sarah, whom we have already noted is a very modern woman.
Several parallels are drawn between America and Sarah Woodruff, which makes sense, because America is a more modern country than Britain (as Charles points out at the end of Chapter 58 when he says that America might out-compete and supersede the older and less adaptable Britain). What Charles likes about American people - especially the girls - is their "frankness," "forwardness," and "directness" (339). These traits remind him of Sarah, and he thinks to himself that she would be "at home here" (339). Charles also notices that Americans are less sensitive to irony than British people are, and so he must learn to communicate more directly in order to fit in to society.
America, even more than England, is a country split by contrasting ideas: the South wants to maintain slavery and secede, but the North has different ideas. Charles sympathizes both sides, and this corroborates our previous assessment of him as a man who is both forward-thinking (he believes in Darwin) and backward-thinking (he thinks the upper class deserves to rule, and he is against social revolution). He enjoys his time in Boston as in Charleston, and fits in quite well in both - but is divided between them, and isn't really at home anywhere.
This is the first of the two endings that the author was deciding between telling in Chapter 55. In this ending, Sarah has been able, thanks to her bohemian lifestyle and her connection with the artist Rossetti, to fully assume her role as a "New Woman" and escape the more constraining parts of Victorian society (347). She is "blossomed, realized," and Charles compares her to a butterfly who emerges from a black chrysalis (she used to wear all black) in its full colored glory (347).