John Fowles World Literature Analysis
Fowles’s fiction has one main theme: the quest of the protagonists for self-knowledge or wholeness. In each of his novels, as well as in his short stories, the protagonist is faced with learning how to quest in a world in which the contemporary quester is cut off from the traditions and rituals of the past that once gave questers of old—exemplified by heroes such as Lancelot, King Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table—purpose and direction.
What separates the journey of the Fowlesian hero from the journey of the medieval hero is that much of it has become internalized. Where the quester of old battled dragons, monsters, and mysterious knights, the modern quester has no such obvious obstacles. For the modern quester, the battles are largely inward, as the quester must struggle against ignorance and inertia. The modern journey can thus be seen in psychological terms with the results measured by the quester’s ability to attain self-knowledge or wholeness, which is often characterized in Fowles’s fiction as the ability of the hero to know love.
In this respect, Fowles saw his fiction as having a social dimension in its capacity to help alter people’s view of life. While he claimed to pay little attention to what the critics wrote, he always paid serious attention to the opinions of his readers. From the many thousands of letters he received, he felt that his fiction moved readers to think and act differently as they identified with the struggles of his questers. His main social concern is with the condition of human beings, trapped like potential fossils in a receding sea—an image that figures prominently in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
Likewise, Fowles is concerned with nature, in the sense of the “natural man” who must be discovered by the protagonists on the quest, as well as with humanity’s respect for nature. Many of the pivotal scenes in his fiction are set in natural landscapes, such as the Undercliff in The French Lieutenant’s Woman or Thorncombe in Daniel Martin. The antiheroes are often those who fail to understand or respect nature, an example most succinctly portrayed in the character of Frederick Clegg in The Collector.
His short-story collection, The Ebony Tower, was originally called “Variations” because Fowles saw the stories as variations on the themes of his longer fiction. These same variations are evident within the long fiction, making the whole body of Fowles’s fiction subject to examination under one central theme—that of quest and discovery—with variations.
Its clearest statement is made in Fowles’s first written, later rewritten, novel The Magus. About its conception, he once said, “I only knew the basic idea of a secret world, whose penetration involved ordeal and whose final reward was self-knowledge, obsessed me.” To look briefly at the basic idea of this secret world and the ordeal and reward that await the successful protagonist is to understand the basis of Fowles’s fiction in its many variations.
In the story, Nicholas Urfe, well educated and in the prime of life, nonetheless wants to kill himself because he does not see sufficient reason to live. Embarrassed by his lack of commitment even to death, which prevents him from pulling the trigger on the gun, he soon stumbles into the land of adventure provided by his guide on the quest, Conchis, who represents the mythic wise old man. Within this secret realm, always described as an otherworldly place, Nicholas experiences all the challenges of the quest: danger, love, temptation, and moments of clear vision. Finally ejected from the mythic landscape, he returns to London with enough understanding to know that it is Alison, the woman whose love he earlier rejected, for whom he must now wait and of whom he must prove himself worthy. The final scene, cast in the garden of Regents Park, does not answer the question of whether they ultimately reunite because it is not as important as the evidence of the self-knowledge...
(The entire section is 4,600 words.)