Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In the opposition of the two men lies the series of contrasts on which The Ebony Tower is based. The reader is invited to examine two philosophical systems: Henry represents art, humanism, the body, creativity, inspiration, passion, and need; the contrasting qualities embodied in David are geometry, science, the mind, criticism, method, decency, and fear. In short, Henry is a force of individual expression and vitality, while David is merely a member of a collective mentality, safe and sterile. Fowles leaves little doubt about which is the more rewarding and fulfilling path to take in life and art.

Fowles further suggests that this is a timeless opposition, in this novella as well as in the other stories in the collection. He originally intended to title the volume “Variations,” and the story that follows The Ebony Tower, “Eliduc,” is a translation of a Breton lay, a medieval quest romance, a genre he believes is “seminal in the history of fiction.” The Ebony Tower, set in a medieval estate in Brittany, springs from this tradition, and Henry even admiringly mentions “Eliduc” at one point. Fowles has updated the traditional chivalric quest and trial by ordeal, and, in this sense, the novella is metafictional, meditating on its own generic origins. In this quality, it shares structural similarities with Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), a modern novel constructed by variations on a Victorian pattern.

Another major theme that binds the Fowles canon is also evident in The Ebony Tower: its concern with words and systems of communication. The highly articulate David feels superior to Henry, who speaks haltingly in imagistic fragments. Yet he comes to doubt any inherent superiority in his glibness when the Mouse explains Henry’s position: “Art is a form of speech. Speech must be based on human needs, not abstract theories of grammar. Or anything but the spoken word. The real word.” Like the reader, David comes to understand that expression often obscures rather than illuminates meaning when divorced from the true needs of human communication. The way an individual expresses a thought or feeling is often more important than the content of that expression.