In his fourth novel, Daniel Martin, Fowles writes his first happy ending. The protagonist, Daniel Martin, a writer and alter ego for Fowles, struggles throughout the novel with the concept of the happy ending and whether the late twentieth century world can accept it. He finally decides, as his own life reveals to him, that the happy ending is possible. The route to that decision forms the action of the novel. At the same time, Daniel’s story becomes Daniel Martin, the novel Daniel has wanted to write.
The quester has now come of age; in fact, he is middle-aged. His dilemma is like that of the questers of the earlier novels whose stories were of younger men confronting issues of choice and freedom. Once again, the protagonist is a man who seems to have everything. In this case, his “everything” is a successful life as a playwright and now screenwriter in Hollywood and a beautiful young actress for a lover. Yet the same longing and sense of incompleteness are within him, just as they are within Nicholas and Charles in Fowles’s previous novels. For Daniel, the call to the quest comes in the form of a phone call that returns him to the bedside of his former best friend, who is now dying. Returning to England, he is faced with the unfinished business of his life. With Anthony’s suicide, the way is cleared for him to become reunited with Jane, his true love and now Anthony’s widow. Daniel sees his opportunity to come alive again; Jane resists.
To know where they began, Fowles takes the action back to their college days at Oxford and to the deep bond of friendship among four friends: Anthony, Jane, Jane’s sister, and Daniel. Although Daniel and Jane come to realize that they love each other, Daniel makes the “correct” choice (the same choice Fowles presents in the first ending of The French Lieutenant’s Woman) and marries the one he is “supposed” to marry, not the one he loves. That marriage ends in divorce, and although Jane stays married to Anthony until his death, their marriage does not provide the true depth of feeling that she might have had with Daniel.
Once Daniel has rediscovered the significant moments and sacred places in his past, he longs to find these places and moments again. Thus, the journey moves into the present and the future with Daniel’s invitation to Jane to take a trip with him. Fittingly, the trip is a journey up the Nile, which symbolizes lost worlds as well as the potential for a future world with Jane. From that journey, in which he explores much about his feelings for Jane and his own feelings, he persuades Jane to continue with him to Palmyra, an ancient city of wealth and prosperity now in ruins. Again the symbolism of place is apparent: Their arrival in the wasteland of Palmyra can symbolize either what they will become or the potential to turn their own wasteland into a garden if they can escape the bonds that separate them. They do the latter in Jane’s symbolic burial of her wedding ring in the sands of the desert. Thus, with her ties to the past severed and with their earlier ties to each other revived, they journey together into the future. The only unfinished business for Daniel is to let Jenny, his Hollywood lover, gently go. The last scene of this first novel with a happy ending places Daniel and Jane in the kitchen together, the quintessential picture of home, talking about the novel Daniel can now write—which is in fact the one the reader has just read.
Daniel Martin is, ostensibly, an autobiographical novel that portrays the life of a middle-aged British playwright who has betrayed himself and his craft by marrying the wrong woman and by selling out to Hollywood as a highly successful screenwriter. In a sense, the novel is the script, or reinscription, of Daniel Martin’s existence: Called to the deathbed of Anthony Mallory, a friend whom he has not seen in many years, Daniel is forced to confront a land and a past he had formerly forgotten and repressed. Through a variety of cinematic techniques grafted onto the writing of the novel (flashback, cuts, angled shots, rewrites), the reader sees Daniel as he sees himself—at times narcissistically, at other times with a seeming objectivity that compels him to refer to himself in the third person. In this way, Daniel recounts his Edenic existence as a minister’s son in the village of his youth, where he gains and loses his first love, Nancy Reed. He reconstructs his days at Oxford, particularly one day when, while boating, he and his fiancee’s sister, Jane, discover the body of a dead woman in the marshy reeds of the river. The trauma of the event leads to a declaration of love between Dan and Jane—and a onetime tryst—but immediately afterward, Jane insists that they marry the people to whom they are engaged and that their “affair” be buried forever. Dan’s marriage to Nell, while he struggles for success as a dramatist, is a disaster; his divorce from her, the reaction of Jane and Anthony Mallory to Dan’s play, The Victors, a thinly disguised rehearsal of their Oxford years, and an unsuccessful affair with a woman who, later, commits suicide, precipitate his departure from England, Nell, and their daughter, Caro, for a new life as a Hollywood screenwriter. Dan has a number of sporadic and temporary relationships, and in the “present” of the novel, he is deeply involved with a young British actress Jenny McNeil. Their affair, represented as almost a parody of the crise de quarante stereotype in which the older, middle-aged father figure seeks a daughter who will restore his youth, is already in decline at the beginning of the novel, when Daniel receives a phone call from Jane asking him to return to England to see Anthony in his last hours.
Dan’s return is a catalyst for a number of related events: his decision to turn away from Hollywood screenplays and to write a novel, his reunion with his daughter, Caro, and most important, the rekindling of his relationship with Jane. As a final wish, Anthony (who, hours later, will commit suicide by jumping from the balcony of his hospital room) asks Daniel to unbury Jane’s “former self”—the self which Anthony believes has been lost in their marriage. In his desire to respect Anthony’s “last will,” and with an increasing sense that he would be serving his widow as a friend by doing so, Dan invites Jane with him on a weeklong journey down the Nile which he takes in order to conduct research on Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the British war hero, who is the subject of Dan’s next screenplay. On this symbolic journey, Dan and Jane rediscover each other as they research their own past while delving into Kitchener’s history and the more ancient history of Egypt. They decide (Jane, unwillingly) to take a detour on their return to England by going to the ancient city of Palmyra, in Syria. As Egypt was a lush, tropical Eden for the voyagers, so Palmyra is a wasteland representing the loss that Dan believes has characterized both his and Jane’s lives of misplaced opportunities. In this most unromantic setting, Jane and Dan renew their love and acquaintance; they return to England engaged. In the novel’s final scenes, Dan explains the turn of events to Jenny McNeil, breaks off their affair, and gazes, tellingly, at Rembrandt’s self-portrait in an art gallery, watching the painter’s eyes which “seemed to follow Dan . . . as many years before . . . his father had once unwittingly terrified him by insisting that Christ’s eyes followed . . . wherever you went, whatever you did, they watched.”
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