When Charles leaves the Freemans’ house, it’s dusk. He walks towards his club. When he runs into a traffic jam, he tries to take a shortcut and heads into Mayfair. Thick mist makes everything seem dreamlike. Charles feels like he’s lost his sense of irony and is naked. It now seems absurd that he went to visit Mr. Freeman rather than just sending a letter. The thought of having to be careful with money seems equally ridiculous. Wealthy people travel by carriage, so everyone walking around Charles is poor. He knows his income is unimaginable to them, but it doesn’t seem enough to him. He doesn’t understand the moral implications of his wealth because he feels so unlucky in other respects. He’s unhappy. He feels like his rank is weighing him down. He stops, a living fossil, as fitter humans bustle around him.
With Mr. Freeman just having questioned the efficacy of Charles’s most ingrained identities, Charles is heading for a personal crisis. The fog symbolizes his sense of being lost, and his choice to walk among the poor on the street gestures to his loss of his upper-class identity. Fowles portrays Charles as somewhat pathetic here by contrasting him with the poor; he’s still extremely privileged, so his reduced wealth is hardly a good reason for depression. His inability to deal with the situation proves him unfit for his era and exposes his former sense of evolutionary fitness as only a product of his wealth.
Charles sees people of various lower-class professions in front of him. A boy runs up to try to sell him a picture, and he turns towards a darker street. The boy chases him, singing a vulgar song. It reminds Charles of the presence of sin in London. The city offers anonymity. No one looks at him as he passes, and he feels a frightening sense of freedom stemming from invisibility. He hears a couple speaking French and wishes that he were traveling, that he could escape. He passes a mews where coachmen are preparing their horses. He suddenly wonders whether the lower classes are actually happier than the upper. Perhaps they’re like happy parasites on the rich. He feels like a hedgehog with fleas between its spines, rolling up and playing dead, with his only defense his aristocratic prickles.
In his emotional turmoil, Charles is becoming detached from the conventional paths and beliefs of society. Adherence to society’s rules becomes irrelevant when there’s no one around to notice or initiate punishment for straying from the norm. The expectations of Charles’s own class are what’s really making him unhappy, but he blames it on the lower classes instead because it’s so much easier to create an external threat than face an internal one. The experiences of characters like Sam, Mary, and Sarah make Charles’s attitude seem particularly cruel.
Charles sees a girl buying candles and begins to think about commerce. He sees Mr. Freeman’s offer as an insult to his class. He should have rejected it immediately. But really he’s distressed because his money will now come from Mr. Freeman, and Charles will be under his influence. The tradition of this kind of marriage comes from a time when marriage was only a business contract, but now there’s more emphasis on the sanctity of a marriage for love. Ernestina will constantly demand that Charles love her, which will also require him to be grateful for her money.
Charles is really struggling with his class pride. A gentleman can’t take Mr. Freeman’s money or his offer of a job and retain his full dignity. Although Charles and Ernestina are supposedly marrying for love, their marriage clearly still is a financial contract, and it’s going to be difficult for those two priorities to exist simultaneously and not cause conflicts, particularly in an age when men are supposed to be ascendant over their wives.
Charles finds himself on Oxford Street, by Mr. Freeman’s store. He walks into the street to take in the whole store. People are going in and out, but Charles can’t imagine himself doing so. He hasn’t really thought of the store as real, but now he sees how powerful it is. Many men would savor that power, but Charles doesn’t want it. In part, he’s being snobbish; in part, lazy. He’s also frightened of dealing with so many people below his class. However, he does feel that earning money isn’t enough to fulfill him. He knows he’ll never be a great intellectual, but he feels that choosing to be nothing is the virtue of a gentleman and preserves his freedom. The store would ruin him.
In this time, people of the upper class don’t generally shop at large stores like Mr. Freeman’s, which appeal to a broader public. As a gentleman, Charles hasn’t been raised, as men of other classes have, with the idea that earning money will be the purpose and fulfillment of his life. By having no real occupation, he remains above the concerns of success and failure. If he can’t be great, at least he can’t be a disaster either. He finds safety in being noncommittal.
Charles can’t imagine how little of the ethos of the gentleman will be left by 1969, but every form that seems to disappear actually only transforms into something else. The qualities of a Victorian gentleman come from the knights of the Middle Ages and turn into those of modern-day scientists. Every culture needs an elite class ruled by certain conventions. Some of those conventions might eventually cause the death of the class, but they give structure to their good contributions to society. Across time, the type to which gentleman belong are connected by their rejection of possession as a goal. Scientists, too, will one day become irrelevant.
Fowles is essentially examining the evolution of the gentleman, which he sees essentially as a species that passes its traits on through the years to various forms. The elite must change depending on the society over which it reigns. Ironically, though, Fowles defines the gentleman as ruled by convention, yet ultimately destroyed by those very same conventions he covets. Also, if gentlemen reject possession, they must already be wealthy enough to not feel the lack of basic provisions.
The Bible tells a story of temptation in the wilderness. Everyone who’s educated has a wilderness, and will one day be tempted. Their rejection is never bad. If one has ever made a decision that rejects personal benefit, one cannot judge Charles as a snob. In fact, he’s struggling to overcome history. He feels he’s being asked to sacrifice his own identity, and he can’t believe that his old dreams were useless. He was seeking the meaning of life, though he couldn’t articulate his search to others. In any case, he knows that Mr. Freeman’s store does not hold the meaning of life.
Fowles interprets this situation as Charles being tempted to live for profit rather than for ideals, as taking Mr. Freeman’s offer would not only erase all his financial worries, but also give him a clear path in life. However, this would mean abandoning his intellectual and spiritual search, which could yield nobler results. History and progress, in this interpretation, are pushing him on to a more practical, less creative life.
At the base of everything is the fact that a person’s ability to analyze the self provides an advantage in the evolutionary struggle for survival. The ability to choose how to change in order to survive means that people have free will. But in reality, Charles feels trapped. He feels chilled with rage against everything Mr. Freeman stands for. He gets into a cab, and when he closes his eyes, he sees a comforting image of milk punch and champagne.
Fowles positions Charles’s personal crisis within the larger matrix of human evolution. Charles thinks he’s willing to change, but only if he makes a conscious choice of how to change, and in this situation, Mr. Freeman is making the choice for him. Fowles grounds the intellectualism of his character analysis in Charles’s simple human desire for alcohol.