Frederick Clegg is a lonely clerk who yearns for companionship. He collects butterflies and has recently won a great deal of money with which he purchases a large, isolated house.
Seeking a way out of his isolation, he starts stalking an attractive art student named Miranda Grey. Then, he kidnaps her and brings her to his home, hoping that she will come to love him once she gets to know him. He locks her in the cellar, promises not to rape her, and says he will let her go after a month passes.
The best he inspires in Miranda is pity. She feels he is an outcast and she's sorry for him, but she cannot love him the way he wants her to love him. She attempts to escape, even considering killing Ferdinand at one point, but she is never successful. Her attempt to seduce him only reveals he is impotent, and this creates a great divide between them. Ferdinand's respect for her lessens and he forces her to let him photograph her nude.
Eventually, Miranda falls seriously ill and she dies. Ferdinand mourns until he reads the diary she kept throughout her captivity and realizes she never loved him. He buries her in his back yard, then decides to find another captive to replace Miranda.
Divided into four parts, the story is told in the first person by Fredrick Clegg (in the first, third, and fourth parts) and Miranda Grey (in the second part); in terms of length, approximately half of the story is Clegg’s, and the other half is Grey’s. Although both characters’ voices are thoroughly believable and original, an unsuspecting reader may be duped by Clegg if he fails to note at the story’s outset the consistent inconsistencies of this murderously neurotic and unreliable narrator.
Clegg’s telling of his story begins after Miranda’s life has ended, even though the reader will not know this for certain until the last few pages of the novel. Clegg’s narrative is underpinned, then, by his attempts to justify his murder of Miranda; again, however, this motive is muted for the most part as he draws the reader into his retrospective account of how special and important Miranda had become to him before she was his “guest”: “Seeing her always made me feel like I was catching a rarity.” This simile is appropriate—and seemingly innocuous, coming as it does on the first page of the novel—since Clegg, the readers learns, is a butterfly collector (at least he was when he worked as a clerk in the Town Hall Annexe in Southhampton, England, and before he won more than seventy-three thousand pounds in a lottery). Winning the lottery permitted him to quit his job and focus more obsessively upon Miranda, a young woman he has never met, whose parents’ house was near the Annexe and whose comings and goings Clegg has been studying for two years, noting them in his “observations diary.” He “knew she was the only one” for him, but he also knew he had no chance of becoming intimate with her, the daughter of a doctor, since he did not belong to her “la-di-da” society and since she moved to London to go to the Slade Art School; that is, he knew being close to her “was just a dream and it always would have been if it hadn’t been for the money.” Yet, with a lot of money, Clegg notes, there “are no obstacles” when the person with money decides he wants something. Indeed, despite Clegg’s twisting of the truth (for example, “What I’m trying to say is that having her as my guest happened suddenly, it wasn’t something I planned the moment the money came”), as soon as he wins the money, he moves to London and sets out to transform his “observations” into the entrapment of Miranda, the “rarity” he has decided to collect and keep as his own.
After purchasing a secluded house, several miles outside Lewes, England, he not only decorates it the way he mistakenly imagines Miranda would like it but also has the cellar remodeled and equipped with plumbing and electricity so that it will be inhabitable; when the cellar is finished...
(The entire section is 1,959 words.)