Back in his rooms at the White Lion, Charles stares into the mirror. He feels vaguely defeated due to the lunch conversation at Aunt Tranter’s and uncertainty whether paleontology is a good vocation for him or Ernestina will ever really understand him. He puts his dissatisfaction down to the wet afternoon. Charles probably wouldn’t have been too surprised if he learned of the inventions of the future, but he would have been surprised by the different attitude towards time. The twentieth century is marked by a lack of time, and everyone tries to find ways to do things faster. But people like Charles have the opposite problem; they have to find enough to do to occupy their vast amounts of free time. Nineteenth-century wealth is marked by boredom.
In spite of Charles’s outward good humor so far, the reader now learns that he’s inwardly struggling with his life, which is somewhat aimless. From the beginning, he’s unsure whether he and Ernestina are really a good match, which doesn’t bode well for their relationship. Meanwhile, Fowles’ mentions of the future suggest that he’s writing of 1867 not in isolation, but with full understanding of 1867 in relation to the twentieth century. He also makes the reader aware that the characters have a different attitude towards life because of the time in which they live.
Though the revolutions of 1848 are important to the era, they failed to really make a change. The 1860s were prosperous enough to make revolution seem unlikely. Although Das Kapital is about to be published, Charles is entirely unaware of Karl Marx and wouldn’t have believed it if someone told him what effect this man would have.
A number of democratic revolutions took place across Europe in 1848, but in Fowles’s 1867, the old established order reigns once again. Despite that Marx has not yet written the foundational texts of communism in 1867, Fowles writes in conversation with him on issues of class.
Charles’s grandfather, a baronet, was a foxhunter and a collector. In his old age he excavated his land in search of ancient relics. His older son never married, meaning that his younger son, Charles’s father, was left plenty of money. Charles’s mother died in childbirth when Charles was one, and his father lived for pleasure, never paying Charles too much attention. When his father died, Charles was heir to both his father’s money and his uncle’s. Charles and his uncle, Sir Robert, like each other, even though Charles refuses to foxhunt and likes walking too much for a gentleman. Once, Charles accidentally shot one of the last Great Bustards of Salisbury Plain on his uncle’s land, and his uncle was thrilled to be able to stuff and display the bird. Whenever his uncle is inclined to disinherit Charles for not writing to him or for spending too much time in the library, he convinces himself against it by staring at the stuffed bird.
Fowles gently satirizes the aristocracy, describing a family obsessed with the gentlemanly sport of foxhunting and an uncle who disparages learning and finds comfort in a stuffed bird. Charles’s story will somewhat mirror that of his ancestors, as he pursues paleontology, like his grandfather, and briefly pursues pleasure through drinking and prostitutes, like his father. This pattern suggests that he’s living with an unhealthy connection to the past that prevents him from being independent. Perhaps his shooting of the Great Bustard (itself belonging to the past) foreshadows his eventual break with this past that holds him to convention.
At Cambridge, Charles was actually learning until he fell in with a bad crowd and found himself sleeping with a girl in London. Soon after, he told his father that he wanted to become a priest, so his father sent him off to Paris to dissuade him of this wickedness. Charles slept with many women and decided against joining the Church. When he returned to England, he read a number of religious theories and became an agnostic, though the term didn’t yet exist. His father died soon after, and Charles moved into a small house in Kensington, where he had a modest staff. He traveled frequently and did a bit of travel writing, never setting himself to any particular occupation.
Fowles continues to satirize Charles’s family. Though joining the church would seem to be an honorable pursuit, Charles’s father strongly preferred that he indulge in the sins of the flesh. This adventure in Paris means that Charles has lots of sexual experience, contrasting with Ernestina’s innocence and ignorance in this area. If religion and science are often at odds in this book, it’s significant that Charles dabbled in religion before turning to science, suggesting that they might have more in common than it seems.
Charles eventually realized that only his family thought his grandfather’s archaeological pursuits a joke—other people truly respected his work. Charles himself began to pursue paleontology, though his uncle didn’t entirely approve. Sir Robert was also frustrated by Charles’s refusal to run for Parliament as a Tory. Charles secretly admires Gladstone, a Whig, but he could never have admitted this to his family. He’s essentially lazy. He sees that England now wants only to seem respectable, rather than to do good. But he feels there are many pursuits he can’t follow because he can never measure up to the distinguished people already doing the work. He sets his sights high in order to justify doing nothing.
Charles is painted as not quite an outcast, but somewhat different from the rest of his family in terms of pursuits and politics—the Tories are the party of the aristocracy, while the Whigs are more sympathetic to the lower classes. Charles’s liberal viewpoint sets up his sympathy for Sarah and makes his sometimes cruel attitude towards Sam even less acceptable. Charles has the best intentions of authenticity, but he doesn’t always manage to live up to them. In fact, Fowles portrays him as an almost painfully average man.
Even though Charles’s cynicism indicated moral deficiencies, he’s been much sought after by marriageable girls and their families, and he became known for leading them on. Sir Robert would chide him for this, but Charles pointed out that he himself never married, accusing him of never even trying. His uncle regrets his lack of a family, if not his lack of a wife. Charles would say that he hadn’t yet found the right girl.
This background seems to indicate that Charles’s decision to marry Ernestina was not a light one. Also, Sir Robert’s lack of a wife means that Charles is his heir. Marriage, in both his own life and his uncle’s, will only bring Charles misery throughout the course of the story.