Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 646

It is clear that the construction of character, or the self, constitutes one of the primary themes of Daniel Martin. In the novel, the quest for the self is accompanied by a series of related interests which can be seen in many of Fowles’s other works. In a letter, Jenny says of Dan, “He has a mistress. Her name is Loss.” Loss and recollection, particularly of the past, become the poles of the author/protagonist’s experience in Daniel Martin. In his first novel, The Collector (1963), Fowles portrayed a man obsessed with recouping what he believes to be a loss or absence in his existence by, metaphorically, stopping time, creating a beautiful still life, as he imprisons a living woman within his own deadly illusions. Daniel Martin might be seen as a revision of that earlier protagonist: His “butterfly” is Jenny (and the succession of young women who have preceded her), yet, forced to confront the past and his responsibility for its outcome, Daniel must “recollect” himself. While, on the one hand, he yearns for a representation of the past as a series of paradisiacal locations wherein an idealized nature and the eternal present are the orders of the day, in recollecting his experiences of these realms (his boyhood home, Oxford, New Mexico, the Nile River valley), Daniel sees that each contains some form of death or loss. In idyllic Oxford, he sees the body of a dead woman; in the Thronecombe of his childhood, he recalls the bodies of dismembered rabbits slain in the harvest, as well as the loss of his first love; on the journey down the Nile, he rediscovers those enormous monuments to death and egotism, the tombs of the Pharoahs. Here one of those paradoxes to be found throughout Fowles’s work is evident: In order to recover himself or that part of himself which is lost in the past and which is “loss,” Daniel must return to those scenes of seeming pastoral life and presence only to discover, in representing them—writing them down—that they are recapitulations of what has been lost. In accepting this conundrum and in accepting an unfamiliar, indomitable version of Jane such that he neither desires nor hopes for the recovery of her “original,” Daniel Martin comes to accept the past for what it is: irretrievably lost, yet, when remembered, bearing the traces of his present existence.

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The writing of loss, the representation of those processes by which recollection takes place, is also a thematic concern in Daniel Martin. Fowles shares with many contemporary writers—John Barth, Vladimir Nabokov, and William Golding, among others—a “metafictional” concern with how fictions are made, even as the fiction within which such concerns arise unfolds. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), this interest is represented structurally: The novel provides three alternative endings from which the reader, ostensibly, is allowed to choose the most satisfying or most probable. In Daniel Martin, metafiction is made thematic. As Daniel engages in the prodigious feat of self-reconstruction, the readers of the novel are constantly made aware of the fact that he is a character in a novel, that he is acting in an already written script. This technique raises, once again, the philosophical issues crucial to the novel: In what sense is the “self” original, and in what sense is one only an actor in a bad play authored by someone else? Is it possible to transcend the personal, social, and historical constraints which both define and imprison the individual? In what way may these limitations also be seen as openings, possibilities? Perhaps, in part, an answer to these questions lies in Fowles’s attempt in Daniel Martin to collapse “life” into “art,” to suggest that the ways in which novels are written and read may provide an analogical understanding of how, for example, selves are “written” into life and culture.

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