John Fowles Fowles, John (Vol. 2) - Essay

Fowles, John (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fowles, John 1926–

Fowles, a highly competent British novelist, is the author of The Collector and The French Lieutenant's Woman. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

[John Fowles'] The Magus is a shrewd and lively, brilliantly visualized, continuously provoking and entertaining novel; above all, a prodigy of ingenuity. In plot and structure it is an immense charade, organized from within the novel by "the Magus," Maurice Conchis, a Greek multi-millionaire who seems, ultimately, to have suborned the world in the service of his "godgame." Whatever "happens" to Nicholas Urfe, a young Englishman teaching in a school on a small Greek island, turns out to have been planned by Conchis, with a precise and ineluctable calculation of "hazard" that deprives Nicholas of any power except, if he will take it, the power to understand. Mr. Fowles' contrivance of astonishing "events" (everything here requires hedges of quotation marks to set off its deliberate choreographic strangeness), his skill at conjuring up stagefuls of unexpected appearances, is unapologetic and inexhaustible. Many of the special charades within the grand one are [also] impressive….

The Magus may well be, when it sticks to its job of mystification, one of the best "mystery stories" ever written, and unlike most such it is most of its length no soporific or insult but an incitement to consciousness. Mr. Fowles won't, however, be content with his machinery and its often dazzling effects, or the customary normalizing disclosures at the end. He wants much more; his Aristos-avatar is bursting with judgments of the modern world (we are instructed, for instance, that the Nazis were inhuman and mad, though some Germans were not)….

Marvin Mudrick, in Hudson Review, Summer, 1966, pp. 305-07.

"The French Lieutenant's Woman" is immensely interesting, attractive and human.

Fowles had already demonstrated his expert command of the traditional resources of the English novelist: from paying an initiated deference to the weather and decorating the literary landscape with flora and fauna whose names range over the intimidatingly scientific and the folksy-whimsical, to knowing how many of the solid continuities of English life are underpinned by one simple law—never let people ask why they are being punished.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, though, Fowles wasn't a Little Englander. Both the way he saw the world and the way he presented it flaunted, not his ignorance, but his knowledge of the postwar philosophical and literary scene. One's only doubt was how much he meant it all. Was there any deeper commitment than a currently fashionable nastiness behind the trapped isolation of the protagonists in "The Collector" or the mind-blowing manipulations of "The Magus"? "The French Lieutenant's Woman" largely exorcises this doubt: it is both richly English and convincingly existential.

Ian Watt, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 9, 1969, pp. 1, 74-5.

An ambitious and accomplished example of the [mythic] mode is John Fowles's The Magus, published in 1966. This is a long and elaborate fiction set on the Greek island of Phraxos, where a rather caddish young Englishman called Nicholas Urfe has gone to teach in a boys' school. He gets into the clutches of a sinister, elderly Greek, Conchis, and a succession of appalling things happen to him. Fowles writes with stylistic brilliance, and there are some fine descriptive passages. But the whole novel is not much more than a highly inventive series of fantastic or cruel episodes, comprising such varied elements as black magic, occultism, brainwashing techniques, lush Mediterranean travelogues, forgery, flagellation, Nazi atrocities, voyeurism, hypnotism, battle scenes, fin de siècle naughtiness, and venereal disease. The mixture is too rich, and as the novel develops the mystification gets more and more involved; Fowles likes tormenting the reader as well as the characters, and is constantly setting traps for him. At the end the elaborate, pretentious glittering structure collapses into anticlimax and absurdity, in which the reader's dissatisfaction may be a final product of the author's sadistic animus. The Magus is contributory evidence of the way in which some modern English fiction is getting more like American fiction, and it shows that Fowles has literary gifts far in advance of most young English novelists, just as his book of aphoristic reflections, The Aristos, shows an unusual, speculative intelligence. Yet the novel is vitiated by its basic pointlessness, its inability to relate to anything except itself as a centripetal imaginative entity.

Bernard Bergonzi, in his The Situation of the Novel (reprinted from The Situation of the Novel by Bernard Bergonzi by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press; © 1970 by the University of Pittsburgh Press), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970, pp. 75-6.

The French Lieutenant's Woman is a mannerist tragedy set in Victorian times. It is fraught with the distortions and lack of symmetry that are associated with Mannerism, as it revolted against Renaissance form. Fowles has followed many of the Victorian conventions while at the same time making them obscure, troubled, and illogical. He has approached his theme frontally but has interjected jarring tones and conflicting endings to create an eccentric point of view….

Furthermore, Fowles is ironic about everything. He does not try to reproduce the Victorian age as total illusion but is constantly reminding us of our own. He has provided a flow of realistic description, pertinent data, and eccentric reference which immerses us in the things of the period. A retrospective authenticity is achieved in spite of and in conflict with the self-conscious modernism of the narrator. One is tempted to admire the historicity at the expense of the total experience….

The realism of the book is further complicated by an erotic dream world…. In The French Lieutenant's Woman Fowles has distanced and balanced the dream world with the Victorian ambience—the social forces, the things, and the rational issues of the day. The sense of becoming allows his characters potential identity, and they will not be merely sadists or masochists adrift in a cruel world. Fowles enriches his characters with the subtle ironies of life and immerses them in a plot that marches as simply as a classical tragedy.

Prescott Evarts, Jr., "Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman as Tragedy," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIII, No. 3, 1972, pp. 57-69.

On the surface the three novels of John Fowles seem to have little resemblance to each other. The Collector is set in contemporary England in and around London; the dominant setting of The Magus is the island of Phraxos off Greece in the Aegean in 1953; The French Lieutenant's Woman takes place in Lyme Regis, Dorset, in Victorian England of the late 1860's. Yet the three works are strikingly related by the primary concern in each—power, the power that one person can wield over another to violate him, annihilate him, or even, ironically, to help him achieve a fullness of personality and humanity….

In The Collector a man exercised power over a woman in a physical way only. In The Magus a man manipulated another man psychically and psychologically primarily through women. In The French Lieutenant's Woman it is a woman, Sarah, who captures and controls a man, Charles, psychologically and sexually. She spurns him in the end, leaving him to the "deserted embankment" of life where the only consolation he has is that "he has at last found an atom of faith in himself, a true uniqueness, on which to build"….

For Fowles, in the story of Charles and Sarah, just as in The Collector and The Magus, the process or the evolution of one individual's attempts to exert his personal power over another's body or spirit or heart—either for good or evil—is of primary importance. The psychological penetration with which he probes, the erudition with which he confirms, and the clarity with which he presents his explorations advance his own power in the history of the novel.

Rosemary M. Laughlin, "Faces of Power in the Novels of John Fowles," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIII, No. 3, 1972, pp. 71-88.

Although the novels of John Fowles are accepted by the public as dazzling entertainment, they have received little attention from serious students of fiction. In fact, Fowles is generally dismissed as a teller of yarns and suspense…. But John Fowles is a serious artist and needs to be considered seriously. His novels are undeniably brilliant intrigues, intricately plotted and emotionally tense. Yet the mystery in which his startled characters find themselves entrapped is not the world of Sherlock Holmes. Rather it is a frightening labyrinth of reality in which rational explanations break down and almost every turning leads to a dead-end. Each of John Fowles' three novels, The Collector, The Magus, and The French Lieutenant's Woman, is actually a metaphorical exploration of existentialism….

Fowles insists upon an existential world, and yet paradoxically the most obvious theme throughout his work, whether spoken or unspoken, is that existentialism is no more a key to the world than Freudianism or Marxism. Any formal philosophical construct or intellectualized approach is misleading because it is always an abstraction: in The Collector Miranda's categorized rules for living are ultimately seen as more destructive than Clegg's simple alienation; in The Magus the greatest evil is to turn life into a fiction based on something other than honest experience and response; and in The French Lieutenant's Woman Sarah and Charles must free themselves from the abstract conventions and morality of Victorian culture in order to become themselves. Each of the three novels develops a hopscotch of potential meanings, and each is a mystery. For Fowles sees life always irrational and irregular, always an enigmatic labyrinth; and just as man can only experience it, with neither God nor any particular philosophy to help him understand it, so the artist can only attempt to find metaphors which depict it, metaphors which convey as Fowles does, both the excitement and dread of it.

Jeff Rackham, "John Fowles: The Existential Labyrinth," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIII, No. 3, 1972, pp. 89-103.