Daniel Martin

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1896

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John Fowles’s novels have always been splendid stories, richly written, capable of setting a mood and sustaining it over long pages of narrative. Yet there has always been something mysterious and almost surreal about them. The Collector, a story of human possessiveness, parallels the hobby of butterfly catching; The Magus describes an encounter with other-than-ordinary knowledge and power; The French Lieutenant’s Woman is an attempt to re-create the ethos of Victorian England and to explore the labyrinths of Victorian sexuality. All these novels are at the fringes of reality, all in the twilight world where the ordinary shades into the mysterious, and the imagination seeks to create worlds of meaning and significance from the most ephemeral of evidence. Daniel Martin is quite a different book, a book set in the full light of day, in the full realities of our time and our world. The novel begins with the phrase, “Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation.” The rest of the book is an attempt to see life, one life, whole, and thus to recover it from desolation, to retrieve it for meaning, for significance, for what it can say to others.

The life is that of Daniel Martin, Oxford graduate and serious playwright turned Hollywood scriptwriter with no illusions about the social value of his profession. He who was a husband and father is now turned casual lover and serial polygamist, and is currently having an affair with a young English actress the same age as his daughter. The son of an Anglican vicar steeped in the traditions and landscape of his native England, Martin is now an expatriate, living in the quintessential American landscape of Southern California. He is, therefore, Everyman who feels cut off from past, from origins, who is in exile from all that was, who flees into and thus is prisoner in the present, the momentary, the transitory, the ephemeral.

But the movement of this novel is a turning-back and a turning-within. Because Martin’s affair is with Jenny, an English actress, he is turned back toward his origins. And in the midst of their relationship comes a transatlantic telephone call from his former wife Nell to say that an old Oxford classmate, Anthony Mallory, is dying of cancer and wants to see him before the end. So the journey backwards begins. It is a journey that will take him back to the old country, to old friends, to lost but not forgotten issues, hurts, loves, passions. In his research for a movie on the early twentieth century British hero Kitchener, it will take him back to the realities of the British past. Finally, on a trip to Egypt, it will take him back to the beginnings of human history. But the physical journey only parallels a deeper journey, a journey into self, into the origins of values and emotions and feelings, into the realities of love and death, of brokenness and forgiveness, of reality and illusion. Fowles sets out in this novel to present a man struggling to see himself whole; the result is a remarkable literary achievement, a book almost unique in our time in the richness and complexity and power of its vision.

The plot is simply told: Daniel and Anthony had been friends at Oxford, where Anthony had taken a first in philosophy, and Daniel, a fourth in literature. While there they had met two sisters, Nell and Jane. After college, Nell and Daniel married, had one daughter named Caroline, and, in the course of things, were divorced. Nell remarried another Oxford classmate named Andrew, and now lives with him in his family’s country estate. Daniel went on to a string of casual and not-so-casual liaisons with a wide variety of women. Anthony and Jane married after college, had several children, and are still married when the novel opens. They are still in Oxford, where Anthony has become a professor of philosophy. But this marriage, too, has gone sour; Jane has a lover, while Anthony is dying of cancer. There is but one complication in what is an all-too-conventional and ordinary situation; once, before any of them left college, Daniel and Jane had a brief, one-day-long affair, a sign that there was more to their relationship than just friendship, more that could not be accommodated into the ordinary interaction of potential brother-in-law, sister-in-law.

This is the past that Daniel flies back to in response to Anthony’s plea for a final visit, a past clouded by ill-feeling over Daniel’s breakup of his marriage with Nell. And what Anthony, on his death-bed, calls Daniel to is a redemption of that past, an overcoming of estrangement, a renewal of relationships, a forgiveness of past differences. Specifically, he hopes that Daniel can do something for Jane, something to make up for what Anthony feels are failures on his part in their marriage. This task Daniel undertakes, first through spending time with her on a visit to the home of his former wife, then through inviting her to visit his English country retreat, and finally through taking her on a ten-day cruise on the Nile while he investigates potential locations for a projected movie on the English colonial experience in Northern Africa.

What Daniel discovers while getting to know Jane all over again after so many years is that in some strange way the working-out of his life, the finding of meaning in his life, is bound up in his relationship with her. She has become a profoundly withdrawn woman, defeated and hard to reach. But in the time he spends with her, he finds her introspection conducive to his own self-reflection; as he gets to know her, he discovers himself. From somewhere early in the book, we get the suspicion that in some way Daniel and Jane will discover a future together, in spite of the fact that everything seems to be against such an eventuality. Gradually, however, impediments fall away: her current lover deserts her, her own resistance to going on the trip with him dissolves, her reluctance to enter into anything other than casual conversation with him gradually melts. And yet what is finally left is the past, the past that both unites them and separates them. How all that will work out gives the book its suspense and tension, which Fowles orchestrates marvelously. He gives his novel the qualities of a mystery story, a narrative that moves at a leisurely pace, yet sustains interest and builds tension to hold and involve the reader.

Daniel Martin, therefore, is that sort of book for which one does not want to give away the ending; each reader deserves the pleasure of seeing the final working out of all the strands of the narrative, and experiencing the final splendid pages. What a reviewer can do without depriving potential readers of the novel of that experience is to point out a few elements that contribute to the overall impact of this major literary work. One of these is the drawing of Fowles’s minor characters. Caroline, Daniel’s daughter, now having an affair with Barney Dillon, yet another Oxford classmate of Daniel, is deftly presented. She is yet one more aspect of Daniel’s past with which he must be reconciled, one more person who forces him to reexamine his present situation. Her relationship with a man old enough to be her father is too close to Daniel’s relationship with a woman young enough to be his daughter, and so he is forced to reconcile his feelings about both relationships. As usual in this book, the resolution cuts both ways; he finds he must give up his mistress, but he must also accept what his daughter decides to do. Barney himself, a writer with pretensions to seriousness, now become little more than a television personality, forces Daniel to reevaluate his own commitment to a profession equally transitory, equally destructive to the lives of those involved in it. But the minor character most fully drawn because she is allowed to speak for herself is Jenny McNeil, the young British actress with whom Daniel has an affair. She, too, is in the process of discovering herself and the reality of her humanity. The high value which she places on Daniel is occasionally a corrective to Daniel’s self-deprecation. She must lose him, finally, but our sense is that their relationship has been good for both of them and has made possible the future which must separate them.

Even as Jenny emerges in the book through letters she writes to Daniel in England, so does a major theme about the relationship between art and life. Over and over, the book draws our attention to itself as a book, as a work in the process of being written. The speaker throughout is Daniel, except for an occasional chapter written by Jenny; he, on occasion, tells us of his reactions and second thoughts about what he has just written. At the end of the book, Daniel knows that the novel he wants to write, and has thought about writing, can never be written; the speaker, describing himself as Daniel’s “ill concealed ghost,” says that he has made the last sentence of Daniel’s never-to-be novel the first sentence of this one. What happens in this book is that the real story of Daniel’s self-discovery becomes the novel we read; in other words, his story becomes real for us because it has become art. If we are to learn from the book, therefore, we are called to see the process of self-understanding, the task of creating our own lives, as in some way parallel to the novelist’s task of creating the lives of his characters. Fowles and Martin are not the same, but we must suspect that the process of writing this book was one of self-discovery for Fowles as well.

For what this book is finally about is nothing other than the nature of human life. It is about learning that hardest of human lessons: that true love of another human being comes not through loving in them what we are or what we can make them into, but through knowing them as they are, and letting them be themselves. What finally happens between Daniel and Jane happens because Daniel learns who she is, and convinces her that he loves that person, and not someone else. Such is the freedom that love brings, such is the freedom that makes real loving possible. One testimony to the value of Daniel Martin for our age is that in the midst of a culture that values youth above all else, that finds itself progressively more and more cut off from intergenerational experience, here is a book that makes one feel good about being over thirty, that argues that knowing one’s past sets one free in the present. It is a celebration of humanity, a defense of humanism. As such it is an enormously valuable book, a book to delight in because it helps us value who we are and what we can do. Daniel Martin is a major literary event because it affirms the value of our humanity and enriches our experience of ourselves and those we know. At the same time, it teaches us the value of art, its power to show us ourselves, to help us understand ourselves.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 42

Conradi, Peter. John Fowles, 1982.

Olshen, Barry N. John Fowles, 1978.

Palmer, William J. The Fiction of John Fowles: Tradition, Art, and the Loneliness of Selfhood, 1974.

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