John Fowles Fowles, John (Vol. 15) - Essay

Constance B. Hieatt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Fowles's] collection entitled The Ebony Tower takes [Marie de France's] Anglo-Norman lay of Eliduc as its focal point, or so the author states in his headnote to the translation which occupies the midpoint of the volume. In this note he says that his book owes its "mood," and partly "its theme and setting," to medieval literature…. (p. 351)

[Marie, however], can be described as a writer of distinctly feminist tone. This is hardly the case with John Fowles, although he also specializes in male weaklings. There is, however, a paradoxical lack of sensitivity to a woman's point of view in much of his work, including the title novella of The Ebony Tower. (p. 357)

Eliduc, in the ironic tale we know by this name, is unlike David of The Ebony Tower: he gets the girl—with the help of his wife. Such a man is clearly not worth keeping. It may, then, be suspected that in the end the contemporary writer has missed the true "common ground" of Marie's tales. She was overwhelmingly concerned with man's unfairness to woman. Fowles is almost exclusively concerned with the problems of men, even when he devotes a major part of a narrative to looking at a woman's point of view, as he does in the last tale of The Ebony Tower, "The Cloud." This long story seems to focus on the problems of Katherine, whose man has commited suicide, but the real focus is on the waste of human potential in such male characters as Paul…. (pp. 357-58)

Constance B. Hieatt, "'Eliduc' Revisited: John Fowles and Marie de France," in English Studies in Canada (© Association of Canadian University Teachers of English 1977), Vol. III, No. 3, Fall, 1977, pp. 351-58.

Susan Strehle Klemtner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Daniel Martin (1977), John Fowles generates matter and manner out of oppositions like those between the perspectives of Dan and Jenny, the politics of right and left, first and third person, past and present, ka and ba….

These oppositions begin with the first sentence, a remarkable anticipation of the novel: "Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation." Posing an either/or choice, the statement divides these two alternatives into apparently irreconcilable poles, but Fowles eventually links his counterpoles, so that the desolation of Palmyra produces whole sight in Daniel Martin, and whole sight yields a compassionate understanding of desolation. Since the story concerns a marriage of opposites between the central characters, the novel itself joins oppositions in both content and form. Two contrasting principles shape the narrative: juxtaposition and recurrence. The first embodies change and difference, the second unchanging sameness. Both merge in Dan's experience, as he uncovers stasis beneath change on a new voyage of return. (p. 59)

Several sorts of antitheses govern [Daniel Martin] as its first two chapters demonstrate. Between "The Harvest" and "Games" lie distances in time from past to present and from day to night, in place from the countryside of Devon to the cityscape of Hollywood. (p. 60)

The intertwined past and present of the novel create one form of "whole sight." (p. 61)

Oppositions between characters occur frequently in the novel, as Dan defines his and others' identities by contrast…. All of these contrasts reflect the central one between Dan and Jane, who embody the archetypal division between male and female and several others as well…. That these two may complete each other, forming one more version of "whole sight" between them, is Dan's hope; his fear is that "they stood at the opposite poles of humanity, eternally irreconcilable."… Settings also appear in patterns of opposition throughout the novel. The early contrast between Devon and Hollywood grows into a large-scale contrast between England and America, including the land, the cities, and the national characteristics. (pp. 62-3)

The book's true pole and counterpole of setting, however, have less to do with nationality than with the human condition. The novel's landscapes form a centrally significant contrast between the sacred combe (la bonne vaux) and the end of the world, between lush fertility and desolate ruins…. Dan's analyses of these two poles encourage us to read them metaphorically, the ruins as emblems of mortality and loss and the combes as signs of the ageless human potential for fulfillment, redemption, and love among the ruins…. Though these settings begin by suggesting opposed perspectives on the human condition, they end by coalescing into a unified statement of the wholeness of life and death, ruin and redemption.

More difficult to understand … is the novel's juxtaposition of different narrative perspectives. (pp. 63-4)

The shifts between first and third person reflect the...

(The entire section is 1290 words.)

Karen M. Lever

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Why has John Fowles grown so slowly? What can explain the combination of conceit (the publication of his personal philosophy in The Aristos and, worse, of his poetry) with the insecurity shown by post-publication revision? (The Aristos … appeared in first and revised editions [as did The Magus].) The answer seems to lie in Fowles's inability to reconcile his intellectual beliefs about what men and novelists should be with his own strongest instincts and abilities. Evident in his works are two related and hitherto unnoticed patterns: first, Fowles has obsessively written and rewritten the novel of education with which it is natural to begin a career, to the exclusion of almost all other themes; second, he has (as we know him through the authorial voice of the novels) at the same time remained unregenerate in regard to precisely those "philosophical lessons" his protagonists must learn. His own education is unfinished or unsuccessful, according to his own criteria. These two points are mutually illuminative: Fowles seems to repeat the same education theme because he cannot get beyond it himself. Although Fowles's heroes are often justifiably left youthful (until Daniel Martin anyway) and dynamically in process, their educations unfinished, one has a right to expect that their creator, dictator of the novels' norms, not lag behind. (pp. 86-7)

The basic situation in a Fowles novel, as in The Magus, is the education of a male protagonist, often a budding artist, who sets out with a constellation of character faults…. (p. 87)

The plots of Fowles's books are remarkably alike as well, though the novels appear quite dissimilar on the surface. Each protagonist must undergo an educational ordeal designed to jolt him out of his Victorianisms and his wrongheaded attitude toward responsibility. The education is often directed by a stage-manager and teacher-figure who is a vestigial reminder of these novels' origins in the apprentice novel and a representative of the author within the book.

Though the Fowles protagonist may be active sexually and even consider himself rather progressive, as do Nicholas Urfe and Daniel Martin, he is actually easily shocked and suffers from that infamous Victorian problem, the madonna/whore complex. (pp. 89-90)

Class snobbism and middle-class conservatism hold back Fowles's heroes as they set out. (p. 91)

The collector mentality is Fowles's constant target. The collector is interested in things and people for the wrong reasons: he has the desire to classify them, to kill their individuality by seeing only that aspect of them that fits his categorizing scheme, and he wants to possess them as objects. (p. 92)

The last flaw to be unlearned by Fowles's protagonists is their refusal to take responsibility for their actions, their tendency to rationalize their selfishness and lack of commitment as inevitably determined by background, circumstances—by any force but themselves. (p. 94)

Looking back over the many versions of the theme of education in Fowles, one finds that, with the possible exception of Daniel Martin, each of the protagonist's educational ordeals leaves him in the position of having intellectually rejected the flaws that Fowles has enumerated, yet just beginning to learn how to live...

(The entire section is 1381 words.)

Phoebe-Lou Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Fowles's essay [which accompanies Frank Horvat's photographs in The Tree is] delightful and varied, a ramble among trees he has known, from his father's overformal orchard to the last fragment of British wilderness. The real subject of this arboreal excursion is not trees at all, but the importance in art of the unpredictable, the unaccountable, the intuitive, the not discernibly useful. Mr. Fowles is not opposed to practicality or to scientific analysis; he is merely reminding us that, in life as well as art, there are other routes to satisfaction.

Phoebe-Lou Adams, "PLA: 'The Tree'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1980 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 245, No. 4, April, 1980, p. 129.