John Fowles Fowles, John - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

John Fowles 1926-

British novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, poet, screenwriter, and essayist.

Although he is known primarily as the author of the popular and critically acclaimed novels The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) and The Maggot (1985), Fowles also wrote a novella and three short stories that comprise his single volume of short fiction, The Ebony Tower (1974), a best-seller in the United States. These works, which focus on failed attempts at self-discovery, represent variations on the themes and narrative methods explored in Fowles's novels. They also imitate and expand upon elements of Marie de France's twelfth-century romance Eliduc, a translation of which also is included in the book. Marked by strong narration and a richly allusive, descriptive style, Fowles's short fiction features resourceful characters confronted with complicated situations amid lavish backgrounds infused with legend, history, and art. However, since Fowles rejects the role of the omniscient narrator, and the stories lack satisfactory resolution—opting instead for ambiguous, open-ended conclusions—readers often have been annoyed. Fowles has defended this practice with his belief that an artist's responsibility demands that his characters have the freedom to choose and to act within their limitations. Critics frequently have emphasized the existential qualities manifested by Fowles's narrative technique, and many have admired his ability to actively engage his audience in the quest for answers.

Biographical Information

Born in Essex, England—a city on the outskirts of London—Fowles attended a suburban preparatory school until his family moved to rural Devonshire to escape the German air raids of World War II. There, he experienced the "mystery and beauty" of the natural world, the importance of which is evident in his fiction. He served two years as a lieutenant in the Royal Marines, but never saw combat, since the end of his training coincided with the end of the war. After receiving a B.A. with honors in French literature from Oxford University in 1950, Fowles taught at numerous schools in England and Europe, including two years in the early 1950s at Anargyrios College on the Greek island of Spetsai. These were crucial years to his artistic development for he first began to write there; the fictive island of Phraxos in The Magus (1965) is modeled on Spetsai. In 1963 Fowles published The Collector and the novel's success allowed him to retire from teaching. Since 1958, Fowles has lived in Lyme Regis, a coastal town in southern England, which serves as the setting for The French Lieutenant's Woman. His other writings include a philosophical work, The Aristos (1964); the verse collection Poems (1973), written during his time in Greece; the novels Daniel Martin (1977) and Mantissa (1982); numerous nonfiction works; and an essay collection, Wormholes (1998). The Collector, The Magus, and The French Lieutenant's Woman were adapted for film and produced in 1965, 1968, and 1981, respectively.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Evincing a deep appreciation of nature, the Celtic-inspired stories of The Ebony Tower demonstrate the influence of French literary tradition and culture, as well as Fowles's nonconformist social consciousness. The collection opens with the novella The Ebony Tower, in which David Williams, a comfortably married, English art critic and abstractionist painter, is sent to Brittany, a rural district in France, to interview William Breasley, a famous expatriate representational painter with a notorious personal reputation who openly despises abstract art. The conflict between the two painters, which prominently foregrounds the connection between art and life that informs the entire collection, develops not only out of their different approaches to art but also from Williams's unsuccessful attempt at infidelity with Diana, one of Breasley's art students and girlfriend. The novella is followed by Fowles's translation of Eliduc, a medieval quest romance in which the title character, a victorious and married knight from Brittany, seeks adventure in England. While there, he elopes with Guilliadun, an English king's daughter, who falls into a trance upon learning about his other wife, Guildeluec. Guilliadun revives only after Guildeluec intervenes with the aid of the magical red flower of the weasel. Acknowledging her husband's love for his new wife, Guildeluec leaves them and becomes a nun, reuniting with them by the romance's end in praise of Christianity. In the next story, "Poor Koko," an aged, diminutive scholar writing a biography about nineteenth-century novelist Thomas Love Peacock encounters a young thief who converses with the writer about diverse topics while stealing the household's goods. After failing to coerce the writer into making him the subject of his study, the thief destroys the professor's manuscript. Narrated some time after the robbery, "Poor Koko" interweaves Fowles's commentary on class conflict—the motivation for the crime—and the power of language to oppress. "The Enigma," the penultimate story, concerns the mysterious disappearance of John Marcus Fielding, a member of Parliament who strictly lived by routine and whose absence is never explained. Much speculation ensues, but an interview with Fielding's son's girlfriend, an aspiring novelist who suggests to the investigating detective that he imagine himself as a writer trying to conclude a book, shifts the focus of the story away from the missing M.P. to the ambiguities of male-female relationships, another persistent theme in Fowles's work. Finally, "The Cloud" recounts a vacation in central France taken by a group of English friends, including a recently widowed and depressed woman who tells a tale about a lost princess waiting for her prince. Subsequently, she disappears, too, which gestures once again toward the connection between life and art.

Critical Reception

Commentary about The Ebony Tower has centered mainly on two areas: whether or not the collected stories share continuity with each other and the significance of the collection in Fowles's body of writings. Many critics have read the collection as an integrated whole, citing Fowles's own statement in "A Personal Note," which precedes his translation of Eliduc. He wrote: "The working title of this collection of stories was Variations, by which I mean to suggest variations both on certain themes in previous books of mine and in methods of narrative presentation." Although some have stressed that the stories can adequately stand alone—as various studies of individual stories have attested—others have demonstrated the pervasive influence of Celtic romance in the stories, including the prominence of various quest motifs, the classical and medieval contexts of certain narrative elements, and the persistent emphasis on the relation between art and life. A number of critics have considered the collection's relation to Fowles's work as a novelist, investigating the thematic, artistic, narrative, and character parallels between the stories and Fowles's previous novels. In addition, several scholars have suggested that conventions of the short story form itself inform the themes and structure of the collection, pointing to Fowles's contributions to the postmodern development of the genre. Summarizing Fowles's achievement in the short story genre, David W. Endicott has concluded that "with The Ebony Tower he achieves a loosely thematic balance in stories that remain rich in the traditions that have greatly influenced his growth as an author."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

The Ebony Tower (novella and short stories) 1974

Other Major Works

*The Collector (novel) 1963

The Aristos: A Self-Portrait in Ideas (nonfiction) 1964

The Collector [with Stanley Mann and John Kohn] (screenplay) 1965

The Magus (novel) 1965

The French Lieutenant's Woman (novel) 1969

The Magus (screenplay) 1969

Poems (poetry) 1973

Shipwreck (nonfiction) 1974

Daniel Martin (novel) 1977

Islands (nonfiction) 1978

The Tree (nonfiction) 1979

The Enigma of Stonehenge (nonfiction) 1980

Mantissa (novel) 1982

A Short History of Lyme Regis (history) 1982

A Maggot (novel) 1985

Lyme Regis Camera (nonfiction) 1990

Wormholes: Essays and Occasional Writings (literary criticism and essays) 1998

*This work also was adapted for stage and produced in London at the King's Head Theatre in 1971.

†These works have been adapted for film.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "More Magic from John Fowles," in The New York Times Review of Books, November 4, 1974, p. 35.

[In the following assessment of The Ebony Tower, Lehmann-Haupt focuses on connections between the novella and stories in the collection, concluding that the work as a whole is "a thoroughly pleasing entertainment and a thoroughly mystifying conundrum."]

"The working title of this collection of stories was Variations"—John Fowles interjects in "A Personal Note" about one-third of the way through his new book, The Ebony Tower—"by which I meant to suggest variations both on certain themes in previous books of mine and in methods of...

(The entire section is 954 words.)

Isa Kapp (review date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "John Fowles Is Fair," in The New Leader, Vol. LVII, No. 24, December 9, 1974, pp. 6-8.

[Below, Kapp offers a mixed appraisal of The Ebony Tower.]

Though readers will never cease to long for great storytellers, the only ones around in America today—with the possible exceptions of Eudora Welty and John Cheever— are Jewish authors like Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud and the Saul Bellow of Henderson the Rain King. They have somehow managed to nurture the gift, while the fiction writers who came after F. Scott Fitzgerald have in general either lost it or relegated it to shouldering heavy social burdens.

Norman Mailer, Kurt...

(The entire section is 1837 words.)

Irina Sofinskaya (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Myth and Reality: Points of Contact," in Soviet Literature, No. 1, 1979, pp. 160-66.

[In the following essay, Sofinskaya considers the interaction among mysterious, symbolic aspects and ordinary, realistic events in Fowles's short fiction, assessing his contribution to the development of the short story genre.]

The sixties and seventies saw a marked growth of interest by Soviet literary scholars in the "minor genres". Studies of classic examples of the Russian short story (Chekhov's stories) appeared, and monographs and joint studies of modern Russian and Western, particularly American, short stories were published. It was natural for analogies, coincidences...

(The entire section is 2940 words.)

Raymond J. Wilson III (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "John Fowles's The Ebony Tower: Unity and Celtic Myth," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall, 1982, pp. 302-18.

[In the essay below, Wilson argues that a "Grail Quest theme" links the stories of The Ebony Tower, citing literary precedents and structural and technical similarities to The Magus.]

In the opening and title story of John Fowles's The Ebony Tower, David Williams meets a girl named Diana, finds himself falling in love with her, and at the crucial moment hesitates to consummate that love sexually, remembering his loyalty to his wife, Beth. There may well be an implication that David has failed himself and...

(The entire section is 6974 words.)

James W. Sollisch (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Passion of Existence: John Fowles's The Ebony Tower" in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Fall, 1983, pp. 1-10.

[In the following essay, Sollisch relates the principal themes of The Ebony Tower to Fowles's version of humanity's Fall: "not from innocence to knowledge but from knowledge to mystery."]

The fiction of John Fowles is concerned primarily with the search for mystery and self-knowledge. Without mystery, there is no real life, no passion to exist. To Fowles, "Mystery, or unknowing is energy."1 Most of his characters begin without mystery, secure in their conventions and eventually are forced to see beyond...

(The entire section is 4298 words.)

Rimgaila Salys (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Medieval Context of John Fowles's The Ebony Tower" in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Fall, 1983, pp. 11-24.

[In the essay below, Salys explains the allusions to medieval fiction and painting in The Ebony Tower, making connections between the modern and medieval contexts of the novella.]

Allusions to medieval fiction and painting pervade John Fowles's novella The Ebony Tower. His heroes and heroines see themselves and others as Tristan and Yseult, Guildelüec and Guilliadun of Marie de France's Eliduc, and St. George, the princess, and even the dragon in Pisanello's famous fresco. Fowles as narrator...

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Timothy C. Alderman (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Enigma of The Ebony Tower: A Genre Study," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 135-47.

[Below, Alderman shows how a fundamental convention of the short story genre informs the themes and structure of The Ebony Tower.]

The stories collected in John Fowles's The Ebony Tower constitute two books. One book is a grouping of stories written and translated by one author, apparently associated with but not fastened to each other very firmly, to be read in any order, with or without reflection on the whole. The second book, however, is an integrated collection of short stories, a contemporary example of the genre that includes...

(The entire section is 5814 words.)

Ellen McDaniel (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fowles as Collector : The Failed Artists of The Ebony Tower," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 23, No. 1, Winter, 1987, pp. 70-83.

[In the following essay, McDaniel traces the character development of the protagonists of The Ebony Tower in terms of a paralysis-action dichotomy that she identifies as a major feature of Fowles's fiction, emphasizing their relationship to the protagonists of his novels.]

The world of John Fowles's fiction is polarized by a powerful pair of contrary forces, described by the author in The Aristos as stasis and kinesis (165).1 For Fowles, these forces of inertia and motion,...

(The entire section is 5692 words.)

Frederick M. Holmes (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "John Fowles's Variation on Angus Wilson's Variation on E. M. Forster: 'The Cloud,' 'Et Dona Ferentes,' and The Story of a Panic'," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 20, No. 3, July, 1989, pp. 39-52.

[In the following essay, Holmes compares and contrasts similarities and differences among the three stories, asserting that the stylistic devices, thematic development, and narrative mode of "The Cloud" surpass the originality of the other two.]

The working title of John Fowles's The Ebony Tower was Variations, and Kerry McSweeney has shown that the short fictions which make up the volume do present variations on the...

(The entire section is 5030 words.)

Ulrich Broich (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "John Fowles, 'The Enigma' and the Contemporary British Short Story," in Modes of Narrative, Approaches to American, Canadian and British Fiction, edited by Reingard M. Nischik and Barbara Korte, Königshausen & Neumann, 1990, pp. 179-89.

[Below, Broich analyzes "The Enigma " in the context of the mimetic and aesthetic traditions of British short fiction, acknowledging the story's seminal influence on the postmodern, experimental short story form.]


If you were to ask professors of English literature to name a few contemporary British short stories which are of comparable interest and importance to those by Jorge Luis Borges...

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Thomas C. Foster (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Ebony Tower and Mantissa," in his Understanding John Fowles, University of South Carolina Press, 1994, pp. 91-118.

[In the following excerpt, Foster provides a thematic analysis of the collection The Ebony Tower.]

The novella The Ebony Tower will be quite familiar in structure and substance to readers of The Magus. A young Englishman travels to a foreign, isolated locale, where he meets an obstreperous-yet-wise old man, who is accompanied by two young women, one of whom becomes a love interest for the young man. Through a series of encounters that are as symbolic as realistic, the young man receives the opportunity for...

(The entire section is 5842 words.)

Richard Bevis (essay date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Actaeon's Sin: The 'Previous Iconography' of Fowles's 'The Ebony Tower'," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 42, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 114-23.

[In the following essay, Bevis explicates the function and purpose of Fowles's allusions to the Greek myth of Artemis and Actaeon in The Ebony Tower.]

The Ebony Tower (1974) has not exactly bowled over commentators on John Fowles. Katherine Tarbox found the book "so similar to The Magus" that she did not give it a chapter in The Art of John Fowles (2). Linda Hutcheon views the volume as Fowles's failed chance to break through the limitations of his treatment of women (Cooper viii)....

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

Aubrey, James R. "The Fiction of John Fowles." In his John Fowles: A Reference Companion, pp. 109-17. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Summarizes and interprets The Ebony Tower, including commentary on the composition and critical reception of the individual stories.

Davidson, Arnold E. 'Eliduc and 'The Ebony Tower': John Fowles's Variation on a Medieval Lay." The International Fiction Review 11, No. 1 (Winter 1984): 31-6.

Compares the novella The Ebony Tower with Eliduc.

Holloway, Watson L. "The Killing of the Weasel: Hermetism in...

(The entire section is 420 words.)