The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

David Williams is a familiar figure in Fowles’s fiction: the smug, bourgeois young man who believes that he has a superior control of his own existence and a sophisticated and sensitive understanding of life in general. The security and comfort he has attained, however, have been at the expense of passion, vitality, and creativity. Like Nickolas Urfe in The Magus (1966), David is shaken from his sterile complacency, learning that he is not the success he thinks, but, at best, only “a decent man and eternal also-ran.”

Significantly, his background is conventional in all respects. From his architect parents, he gained a minor appreciation for the arts and the intellect, and after an ordinary education, he became a teacher, a painter, a lecturer, and a critic. He paints small, precise, geometric abstracts, for which he has enjoyed considerable success, but even he is aware that much of the appeal of his canvases is their decorative, not aesthetic, value. Even before coming to interview Henry, he has made up his mind about the older painter and has in fact already drafted his introduction to the book, so sure is he of his own values and beliefs. The fixity and sterility of his stance have never occurred to him.

When he arrives at Coet, his sense of superiority surrounds him like a cloud. He dismisses the Mouse and the Freak as art groupies whose primary function in Henry’s household is sexual. While he admires Henry’s work, he does not really understand it, and he is puzzled about how such paintings can be produced by what he considers to be an inarticulate, lecherous has-been.

As he comes to know Henry, however, he begins to lose his fixity of opinion, for Henry is neither the man of his public image nor the man of David’s reductive assessment. Henry is almost a force of nature, a pure creative genius who has never compromised his own values for those of society. He resists any set of...

(The entire section is 790 words.)

The Ebony Tower Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

David Williams

David Williams, an artist and art critic, formerly a teacher and lecturer. At the age of thirty-one, David is a painter whose small-scale abstracts sell well because they “[go] well on walls.” David has been commissioned to write the introduction to The Art of Henry Breasley and is visiting Breasley’s home in Brittany, Coëtminais. Without his wife, David is faced by a double challenge at Coëtminais. On one hand, Breasley’s contempt for abstract painting challenges the vitality and honesty of David’s identity as an artist. On the other, the intellectual, imaginative, and sexual attraction David begins to feel for Diana challenges his comfortable conformity as a person—as husband, as father, and as “normal” English intellectual. Having hesitated and thus lost Diana, David knows as he drives to Paris and meets Beth at Orly Airport that his choice—rather, his failure to choose—has doomed him, artistically and personally, to a life of unchanged mediocrity.

Henry Breasley

Henry Breasley, an elderly and famous British painter, expatriate, and bohemian. Born in 1896, Breasley went into self-imposed exile by 1920. A London exhibition of Spanish Civil War drawings in 1942 established him both as a great artist and as a difficult man. Breasley acquired the Manoir de Coëtminais in 1963 and withdrew into a nearly reclusive life in which he could maintain his view of himself and his art without constant challenge from current artistic trends. In Coëtminais, Breasley is painting a series of huge canvases, described by him as “dreams” and as “tapestries.” In contrast to David Williams, Breasley is verbally inarticulate, violently opposed to abstraction in art (he sees it as a retreat from real human facts and needs and calls it the “ebony tower”), and contemptuous throughout his life of social and moral...

(The entire section is 778 words.)