Charles hurries past Mrs. Endicott before she can ask him anything. It’s raining, and he only wants darkness. He accidentally heads into the bad part of Exeter and down towards the river. When he comes upon a church, he goes inside. A curate is closing up, but Charles asks if he can pray, and the man asks him to lock up when he’s done so that no one steals from the church. Charles is left alone. He sits halfway down the aisle and looks at the altar. Then he kneels and whispers the Lord’s Prayer. He prays for God to forgive him for his selfishness, his dishonor, his lack of faith. But as he speaks he sees Sarah’s face as the Virgin Mary in her sorrow. He sits up and stares at the crucifix, but Sarah’s face seems to replace Christ’s. He feels that his prayers aren’t heard, and he begins to cry.
Though Charles went through a religious phase earlier in his life, he has since abandoned religion. In this moment of confusion and betrayal, however, Charles feels a deep need for a higher power and a higher judgment, perhaps even a cleansing of his soul. But Sarah, like some devil, seems to prevent him from reaching God. This could be read as positioning women as the descendants of Eve, temptresses who are the source of sin—and this might be the implication were this a Victorian novel. But instead of simply blocking Mary and Jesus, Sarah is becoming them, becoming an object of worship.
Most atheist and agnostic Victorians feel excluded. With people who think as they do, they can make fun of the trappings of the church, but Christ confounds them. They can’t see him as a secular figure, as people do in the twentieth century, because everyone around them believes he’s divine. By 1969, government welfare separates well-off people from the poor, but the Victorians feel more personally responsible for the suffering of their fellow humans, which makes it more difficult to reject Christ, who represents compassion. Charles doesn’t really want to be an agnostic; his belief in science tells him he doesn’t need religion. But now he’s weeping because he can’t communicate with God.
Fowles himself was an outspoken atheist, so he’s speaking of his own intellectual and spiritual forbears here. He suggests that nineteenth-century questioners of religion had to either accept Christ as the son of God, or completely reject his existence—there was no middle ground. Fowles also positions religious belief as a product of the state of society, rather than the other way around. Charles thinks of religion and science as existing in opposition, which makes his current despair irrational.
Someone tries to enter the church, but the door is locked. Charles begins to pace the aisle, looking down at the worn gravestones in the floor. Eventually he feels calmer, and he has a mental conversation between his better and worse selves, or maybe between himself and Christ. Charles has been deceived, and he doesn’t know why. He doubts Sarah’s love. He thinks he must keep his vow to Ernestina, though he’s already broken it in some sense. His duty is clear, yet duty can mean whatever people want it to mean. Sarah wanted him to go, but she’s now lamenting his departure. Charles admits he has made many mistakes, but they were partly her fault. When the voice asks Charles why he’s free of Sarah now, he has no answer.
The gravestones in the floor represent the presence of the past, and particularly the judgment of the dead, that Charles will soon reject. Up until now, Charles has believed that duty is always the most moral guide, but he’s finally realizing that duty is a social construct. He has to actually grapple with moral questions now, rather than being able to know what’s right simply because convention dictates it. Victorian morality is black and white, and through Charles, Fowles questions the reality of this view.
The dialogue continues. Sarah loves only one thing more than Charles, and she has given it to him, but he’s not brave enough to give it back. He feels mistreated by her, but he has no right to be alive and rich. Ernestina will not be happy in a marriage based on deceit. Charles feels that his indecision will choose his future, rather than he himself. The wise voice says that Charles wanted to escape his future, but escaping must be done at every moment, not just once. He can either be safe and follow convention, or he can be free and crucified, with everyone hating him. Charles says he’s weak, and his strength would do no good.
The text is unclear concerning what it is that Sarah loves more than Charles, but it seems likely that it’s her independence, which is a radical thing for a Victorian woman to love more than a man. Charles wrestles again with the related idea of free will, and he begins to realize that in order to truly be free, he has to live a live outside of society, just as Sarah has chosen to do. It’s impossible to be free within society’s conventional confines.
Charles approaches the altar and looks at the cross. He goes right up to it, and it’s dark. He sees himself crucified, but not on the cross. In the past, he’s almost thought of himself as crucified on Sarah, but now she seems to be next to him. Suddenly he realizes their purpose is to uncrucify. He understands that Christianity is not meant to celebrate the crucifixion, but instead to create a world in which Christ is no longer crucified and can smile at the victory of living people. Charles sees all the trappings of the Victorian Age as keeping him from what he desires. They have deceived him, but they only make up a machine, which can have no intentions. This machine has made him seem dead while he’s still alive.
Charles’s thinking suggests terrible blasphemy, as he’s positioning himself as Christ and Sarah, a fallen woman, as a holy object of his torture. But then Charles essentially realizes that Victorian society is telling the wrong story about Christianity—it’s not meant to be dark, punishing, and moralistic, but instead to do away with those elements in the world. It’s not supposed to focus on the dead, but on the living. Charles finally sees Victorian society as his true enemy, and seeing it as a machine is the first step to removing himself from it.
Since he entered the church, Charles has felt that there’s a crowd behind him. He turns, but it’s empty. He thinks that if there weren’t an afterlife, the dead couldn’t judge him. He decides to believe that they can’t judge him. He’s shedding something that really bothers the Victorians. The fiftieth poem of Tennyson’s In Memoriam questions whether people actually want their lost loved ones to be near them, or whether they fear that the dead will perceive their faults and love them less. Charles now revolts against the idea that the past, more important than the future, exists in the present. It has made him live as though dead.
This crowd Charles senses seems to be the ghosts of the past, watching and judging him. Fowles suggests that the Victorians live in fear of the judgment of the dead. Tennyson’s In Memoriam is a collection of poems expounding on the mourning process, and Victorian society had elaborate mourning rituals that made death a presence that it isn’t today. Charles finally approaches a proposition that winds through this entire novel: that the future, rather than just the past, exists in the present—an idea embodied in the theory of evolution.
Christ seems to come alive with these revelations, which partly uncrucify him. Charles begins to pace again, seeing a new world. In a similar moment, Mrs. Poulteney went from thinking of going to heaven to thinking of Lady Cotton. Now, Charles thinks of Sir Robert. He knows that his uncle would blame himself if Charles married Sarah. He imagines Sarah triumphing over his uncle’s wife. He imagines traveling Europe with Sarah. This is a bad time to compare Charles to St. Paul on the road to Damascus, but his face looks radiant, and his vision of Sarah symbolizes awful but necessary freedom. Irrationally, Charles kneels and prays, then leaves the church.
Although Charles’s ideas may seem blasphemous to a Victorian Christian, they allow Charles to feel religious faith again, with Christ given a new role in his mind. But religious feeling is often accompanied by earthly jealousy, as even the faithful are only human. Fowles hesitantly compares Charles to St. Paul because it’s as though he’s had a conversion experience similar to that of Paul on his way to Damascus. Charles is claiming freedom from Victorian religion through his own vision of religion.