John Fowles Essay - Critical Essays

John Fowles Short Fiction Analysis

John Fowles’s fiction has one main theme: the quest of protagonists for self-knowledge or wholeness. The collection of short stories in The Ebony Tower is no exception, as Fowles’s working title for the volume, Variations, suggests. The working title was abandoned in favor of the title of the novella in the collection when first readers did not see the connections, but the connections are clearly there. In each of the stories of The Ebony Tower, the protagonist is faced with having to learn how to choose, having to learn how to quest in a world in which today’s quester is cut off from the traditions and rituals of the past that gave questers of old a purpose and direction. Despair permeates the vision of contemporary life in these stories. All Fowles’s characters are unable to communicate with others successfully. His translation and inclusion of Marie de France’s quest tale is in homage to the connection that he recognizes between the ancient quest pattern and the pattern not only of his fiction but also of all Western fiction. The five stories of The Ebony Tower—elegant tales written for an elite audience—are variations on the Celtic romance, a form which Fowles regards as the origin of all fictional forms.

What separates the journey of the Fowlesian hero from the journey of the medieval hero is that much of it has become internalized. Whereas the quester of old fought actual battles with dragons, monsters, and mysterious knights, the modern quester has no such obvious obstacles. For today’s quester, the battles are largely inward as the quester must struggle against ignorance and inertia. Thus, the modern journey can be seen in psychological terms with the results measured by the quester’s ability to attain self-understanding. In the stories in The Ebony Tower, Fowles experiments not only with the genre of the short story but also with the darker aspects of the failed journey, a motif he developed earlier, in The Collector.

“The Ebony Tower”

The Ebony Tower includes the title story, followed by “A Personal Note,” about his inclusion of “Eliduc” (c. 1150-1175), Marie de France’s medieval romance, and the stories “Poor Koko,” “The Enigma,” and “The Cloud.” The first and longest story, “The Ebony Tower,” sets the stage in terms of theme and tone for those which follow. It is also intended as a modern mirror to the medieval romance which comes next.

David Williams, the protagonist of “The Ebony Tower,” is the typical Fowlesian protagonist in his complacency about his unexamined life. When challenged, as all of Fowles’s questers are, he finds that the surface veneer or mask which he wears so cleverly hides a lack of creativity that prevents him from being a great painter or a whole person. He has the opportunity, however, in the “mythic landscape” of Coetminais, to change. Coetminais is the French estate of Henry Breasley; its name means “wood of the monks.” It becomes Williams’s dark tower. His experiences there recall those of Childe Roland in Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Williams recognizes the challenge and sees the path but does not take it. The knowledge he gains concerns the realization of his failure to break out of his safe world into a higher state of consciousness and expression in his art. Williams is a divided man, one caught between two worlds and one who suffers from what poet T. S. Eliot calls “dissociation of sensibility.” Like Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, Williams survives but does not succeed.

Breasley, the famous old rake whom the much-younger Williams wants to interview for a book to be called The Art of Henry Breasley, represents all that Williams is not. A traditionalist who continues to live life to the fullest, the seventy-seven-year-old Breasley challenges Williams to move beyond the safe abstraction of his art and life, which he calls “the ebony tower,” and to reconnect with the lifeblood of his own being and art. Breasley’s art is called “mysterious,” “archetypal,” and “Celtic”; Williams’s is called “architectonic.” Also, Breasley has been a lifelong profligate, who has two mistresses living with him presently. Williams has a wife and a daughter back in England and has never had an affair. Notably, the setting for Williams’s adventure at Coetminais is “a garden of Eden,” one in which the Eve character is a young girl named Diana—nicknamed by Breasley “the Mouse”—an aspiring artist who was formerly a talented student at the prestigious Royal College of Art where she had what she calls a disastrous affair. She tempts Williams, but to his own regret he does not fall.

Williams’s problem is typical of many of Fowles’s protagonists, especially Nicholas Urfe in The Magus and Charles Smithson in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Like Williams, they are caught up too much in the “head” side of life and the rational analysis of mystery, and they fail to understand the “heart” side, the intuitive response to mystery. Williams needs to express himself verbally, to compartmentalize all experience within the boundaries of language. Breasley’s broken sentences and half-formed thoughts, though laden with meaning, contrast sharply with Williams’s precise, fully formed sentences. When the drunken Breasley, a British expatriate, attacks Williams after dinner one evening for being “a gutless bloody word-twister,” Williams responds coolly by saying, “Hatred and anger are not luxuries we can afford anymore.” Williams does not want to offend Henry Breasley. The conflicting views of the two form the essence of the argument and the challenge. Will Williams live his life through carefully controlled language structures, which his abstract art also presents carefully, or will he abandon controls, as Breasley has done, to experience the intuitive life force, the feeling side? The story deals for the most part with issues of art but ends with Williams’s deciding whether to bed “the Mouse.”

It is through the feeling side that Williams responds so readily to the Mouse. His moment of temptation, his quest for true knowledge, comes...

(The entire section is 2561 words.)