The Ebony Tower

by John Fowles
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 369

Henry Breasley, one of England’s most famous twentieth-century artists, has lived in France for decades. Achieving his fame in the 1930s through his impressions of the Spanish Civil War, Breasley sees no reason to adapt his artistic style to the changing times. Instead, he spurns abstraction and works on what pleases him. A near recluse in his Normandy manor, Breasley surrounds himself with young female acolytes. When he agrees to be the subject of a major book, its author, David Williams, travels from London to spend the weekend at the estate. Williams is an abstract painter who has had moderate commercial success; a former art teacher, he now works primarily as a critic.

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The novel is primarily concerned with the effects of Williams’s stay at the estate, especially his interactions with the newest young devotee, Diana. As soon as he arrives, even before meeting Breasley, he sees Diana and another young woman, Anne, on the grounds; both are naked. Henry has continued to paint, although his latest series is unfinished, and spends much of his time drinking. Rather than conventional interviews, David realizes, he must listen to the cantankerous senior artist’s monologues, some of which are harangues against contemporary trends in general and even attacks on David’s painting style specifically.

The next day, the four of them picnic outside, and the women again wander around nude. As Henry naps, David swims nude with them and they converse about art and life. David is especially attracted to Diana, nicknamed Mouse, a former art student who has left school in London to live with Henry. After dinner, she shows him her paintings, which have some commonalities with his own. He tries to initiative a sexual relationship, which she rebuffs despite her attraction to him.

The next day, David leaves for Paris. He broods over the missed opportunity for a sexual connection. His wife, Beth, had stayed in England with their sick child, but now she is traveling to Paris to join him. Conflicted over the lost opportunity to be with Diana, he dwells on the ordinariness of his life in comparison to Breasley’s and considers whether he has settled for mediocrity in both art and life.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 545

The Ebony Tower includes the title novella, three short stories, and the author’s translation of Marie de France’s Eliduc, a twelfth century romance. Eliduc is included in the volume because it is a source of inspiration for the other stories. In this medieval romance the knight leaves his faithful wife, Guildelüec, to travel to a foreign land where he falls in love with the ravishingly beautiful princess, Guilliadun. After some trials and tribulations, including the miraculous resurrection of the princess from a deathly sleep, the story ends happily with the marriage of the princess and the knight and Guildelüec’s gracious acquiescence in her new status as former wife. Absolving Eliduc of any blame for falling in love with the princess, Guildelüec becomes a nun.

In the title novella, the protagonist, David Williams, a British abstract painter and art critic, has left his faithful wife at home to travel to France to interview the renowned artist Henry Breastley, a representational painter who detests the kind of abstract art in which David believes. Living with Breastley are two young women; one of them is a modern version of the “princess” who needs to be rescued. At the crucial moment, David discovers that he is no modern-day Eliduc who can muster the courage to overcome convention and rescue this damsel in distress. The story concludes with a disillusioned David returning to his wife and realizing that he is only “surviving” and not really living.

In “Poor Koko” an elderly scholar recounts how a young burglar surprised him in a country cottage where he was attempting to finish writing his manuscript about a nineteenth century novelist. The burglar tied him up but did not hurt him. The scholar was shocked, though, when the burglar destroyed his manuscript. The scholar ponders this puzzling act and presents various unconvincing explanations for it.

“The Enigma” also ends without solving the mystery at the heart of the story. John Marcus Fielding, a Conservative member of Parliament, disappears without a trace, and a police detective named Jennings investigates the case. Jennings interviews Isobel Dodgson, the former girlfriend of Fielding’s son. Jennings and Dodgson become romantically involved, and Jennings loses all interest in his investigation. In Fowles’s ironic reenvisioning of the detective story, a genre that requires that the mystery be solved, romance seems to be more important than a solution to the mystery.

The final work, “The Cloud,” is a discursive story about a diverse group of British people picnicking in rural France. Near the end of the story, an alienated woman named Catherine, whose husband has committed suicide, tells her young niece a rambling story of a princess who is waiting for her prince to rescue her and “just love her for herself.” Later Catherine wanders away from her fellow picnickers. When one of their group, a man named Peter, finds her, the two have sex, and Peter returns to the group while Catherine does not. Then the group, except for Catherine, leaves under an ominous cloud. The story concludes with these words: “The princess calls, but there is no one, now, to hear her.” That final metaphoric sentence is an apt conclusion not only for “The Cloud” but also for this collection of stories.

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