Last Updated November 3, 2023.
The Collector, a dual-perspective exploration of freedom and control, was English novelist John Fowles’s first novel. The 1963 work initially unfolds from the first-person perspective of Frederick Clegg, a lonely clerk working an unfulfilling job at city hall. The novel begins as Frederick reflects on his life; he explains his family dynamic, focusing on his uncle, a quiet man who, before his untimely death, supported Frederick’s interest in collecting butterflies. As an adult, Frederick lives with his aunt and cousin, whom he feels constricts his ability to collect and live as himself.
As Frederick details the mundane patterns of his everyday life, he intertwines flashes of excitement into his repetitive routine. Frederick yearns for companionship, but his interests are focused, honed in on his obsessive interest in an attractive young art student named Miranda Grey. He often encounters her in town, but the two never interact, as he feels crippled by his awkwardness and lower-class childhood. The reality of class inequality grates on Frederick, as his economic status denies him the life of ease and comfort that others, like Miranda, so readily have.
However, Frederick’s dissatisfaction with his inadequate academic and social opportunities soon abates when he wins a great deal of money. With his funding, Frederick helps his aunt and cousin move to Australia, leaving him alone with his butterfly collections and ever-growing obsession with the fair-haired Miranda. No longer working his day job, Frederick begins to spend more and more time thinking about Miranda. His obsession spirals, and he imagines kidnapping her and keeping her as an extension of his other collections. Soon, Frederick’s daydreams infiltrate reality, leading him to plot ways to abduct the young art student. Although he describes his actions passively, as if he had no choice acting as he did, readers understand that there is nothing accidental about Frederick’s deliberate and highly-organized methods.
With his winnings, Frederick purchases a large, isolated house with a massive cellar. He retrofits the hidden-away space, remodeling its interior to suit what he imagines is Miranda’s taste and adjusting its exterior to better disguise its existence. The time, effort, and financial cost of his preparations reveal that his efforts are not simply the result of idle daydreams; no, they are the intentional actions of a psychotic man who lacks all regard for human agency. Frederick does not consider Miranda’s desires, erasing her personhood and replacing it with an imagined sense of her as his soon-to-be romantic partner. He confuses fantasy with reality and is disappointed when he realizes she is not all he imagined her to be.
The first half of The Collector unfolds from Frederick’s perspective, detailing his ultimately successful plan to confine Miranda in his cellar. However, it also details his doomed attempts to woo his captive, illustrating his failure to inspire anything more than pity in the woman he claims to love. Time passes, revealing the chaos and conflict of their perverse relationship. Miranda attempts to escape several times and ultimately tries to leverage her sexuality against her captor. Her attempt to seduce Frederick backfires, driving an irreconcilable wedge between captor and captive. Frederick explains that he is disgusted by her impure eroticism. However, when he photographs Miranda nude and rendered unconscious by chloroform, readers realize that it is not her eroticism that disgusts him but his lack of control over it.
The failed seduction characterizes Frederick’s unreliable narration, indicating that his feigned innocence and lack of social awareness only disguise his true nature. In the second half of the novel, the horror of his actions is made even more apparent. While the first half...
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granted Frederick some measure of humanity and focused on his internal struggle with feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, the second half gives voice to Miranda’s experience of his actions, revealing the terrifying depths of his sociopathic selfishness. After her death from an untreated illness, Frederick discovers a diary she kept hidden from him. Through the epistolary record of her time in captivity, Miranda discusses her existential fears, nostalgic sorrow, and unexpected but ultimately futile personal growth.
Miranda’s diary is a record of potential cut short. Although she speaks with the uncertainty of youth and the privilege of wealth, her insights are poignant, alluding to a development and maturation that will never grow to fruition. Upon discovering Miranda’s diaries and learning that she never loved him, Frederick hardens himself. While he contemplated suicide after her death, he no longer feels tied to the woman who, in his mind, betrayed him. Instead, he unceremoniously buries her in his backyard and decides to seek another young woman to act in her stead. The Collector is a thriller by name alone. While the novel integrates the genre's dominant elements to create a complicated tale of intrigue and danger, it is ultimately a psychological examination of human selfishness. Frederick’s dishonest self-awareness and callous disregard for human agency hide behind a veneer of innocence and inexperience, highlighting the terrifying reality that depravity exists in even the most civilized forms.