Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 216
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1117
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 and furnished, so that it “looked very snug and cosy,” he also purchases clothes, records, and books—not for himself, but for Miranda. Clegg assures the reader that, as he made these preparations and purchases—all of which were centered on Miranda—“I never thought it was serious. I know that must sound very strange, but it was so. I used to say, of course, I’ll never do it, this is only pretending.” He does do it—parks his van in a secluded place beside a street along which Miranda walks to her aunt’s home, persuades her to stop beside his van to help him with a dog he has supposedly run over, then places a cloth wet with chloroform over her face and renders her his unconscious catch: “She was mine....” He drives her—bound and gagged—to his house and places her in the cellar, where he will keep her imprisoned for two months, always on guard against her possible escape attempts, always most willing to buy her anything she wants, and always insisting that his motives for keeping her a prisoner are not “nasty.” In fact, one of the reasons he admires her so much is that she was “always so clean,” she “never smelt anything but sweet and fresh,” and she is virginal; thus, naturally, he claims that he desires to photograph her only with her clothes on, “in a lot of poses, all nice ones....” This he does, in the early stages of their interactions; when Miranda attempts to seduce him, however—with the intention of getting him to trust her enough to drop his guard so that she might escape—but only succeeds in enraging him, to the point where he begins to view her with murderous contempt for being “no better than a common street-woman,” he ties her to her bed, strips her clothes off, and photographs her nude: “I took her till I had no bulbs left.” In essence, then, he symbolically rapes her with his camera, while refusing to take seriously all the incipient signs of the pneumonia that will ultimately kill her.
The second part of the story consists of Miranda’s diary entries, wherein she attempts to analyze Clegg and her predicament as his prisoner, attempts to come to greater self-understanding with regard to her religious faith, her sexuality, her talents as an artist, and her relationship with her family and various men in her life (most specifically with George Pastan, an artist twice her age whom she had begun to view as her mentor but whom she had refused as a lover; her ongoing analysis of this relationship serves as the subplot of the novel, and it also serves as a significant means by which Miranda is able to unveil and embrace the person she is—instead of the person, according to the dictates of her superego, she should be). This section of the story ends as Miranda becomes delirious and pleads repeatedly to God not to let her die.
The novel’s third and fourth parts are shorter than the first two, the former Clegg’s self-justifying account of Miranda’s painfully slow death, and the latter (also a self-justification for his unwillingness to seek medical help that might have saved her) the introduction of his next victim, a young woman who works in a store in Lewes, and who has “the same size and the same way of walking as Miranda.” As to Miranda? Clegg places her body in a wooden box he made and then buries her “under the appletrees. It took me three days to dig the hole.” He assures the reader, furthermore, that kidnaping Miranda’s potential replacement “is still just an idea.”