John Fowles 1926–
(Full name John Robert Fowles) English novelist, short story writer, novella writer, poet, nonfiction writer, and screenwriter.
The following entry provides an overview of Fowles's career through 1994. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 15, and 33.
Fowles's reputation as an important contemporary author rests on novels that incorporate elements of mystery, realism, and existential thought. An allusive writer, Fowles has experimented with such traditional prose forms as the mystery novel, the Victorian novel, and the medieval tale, and his writings are characterized by strong narration; vital, resourceful characters confronted with complicated situations; and lavish settings permeated with references to historical events, legends, and art. Other distinguishing features of Fowles's works include his rejection of the omniscient narrator and his use of ambiguous, open endings lacking resolution. Readers have often been annoyed at this refusal to offer satisfactory conclusions, but Fowles believes his responsibility as an artist demands that his characters have the freedom to choose and to act within their limitations. This practice parallels his conception of "authentic" human beings, or people who resist conformity by exercising free will and independent thought.
Born in Essex, England—on the outskirts of London—Fowles attended a suburban prepatory school until his family moved to Devonshire to escape the German air raids of World War II. There, in England's southwestern countryside, he first experienced the "mystery and beauty" of the natural world, the importance of which is evident in his fiction, philosophical writings, and his avocation as an amateur naturalist. 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 from Oxford University in 1950, Fowles taught English at numerous schools in England and Europe, including the University of Poitiers in France, Anargyrios College on the Greek island of Spetsai, and St. Godric's College in Hampstead, England, where he was head of the English department. The two years he spent in Greece during the early 1950s were particularly important to his artistic development. It was there that he first began to write, and the fictive island of Phraxos from The Magus (1965) is modeled on Spetsai. In 1963 Fowles published The Collector, and the novel's success allowed him to retire from teaching. Though not his first attempt at a novel—Fowles had produced several manuscripts since 1952—it was the first he deemed worthy of publication. Since 1966, Fowles has lived in Lyme Regis, a coastal town in southern England and the setting for The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969).
The Collector concerns the interaction between a kidnapper, a lower-middle-class clerk named Frederick Clegg, and his victim, an upper-class art student called Miranda Grey. Narrated by Clegg and Grey, the novel highlights the struggle between the elite and the masses, criticizing contemporary society's obsession with control and possession. One common interpretation of The Collector is that the authentic individual, who represents a code of behavioral excellence, is endangered by the pressures exerted by conventional society. Fowles discussed this idea in The Aristos (1964), a nonfiction work outlining his thoughts on art, religion, politics, and society. The concepts outlined in The Aristos—specifically the need "to accept limited freedom … [and] one's isolation …, to learn one's particular powers, and then with them to humanize the whole"—are integral to The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman. Set primarily on the fictitious Greek island of Phraxos, The Magus centers on Nicholas Urfe and his experiences as a participant in Maurice Conchis's illusive and seemingly amoral "godgame," a type of living drama or metatheater which, in the case of Urfe, includes many scenes of humiliation and perverse, malicious cruelty. Designed to provoke participants into reevaluating their identities through confronting their weaknesses and the mystery of existence, the godgame is a central device in many of Fowles's works. In The French Lieutenant's Woman, for instance, Charles Smithson undergoes a godgame at the hands of Sarah Woodruff, who guides him to an understanding of his desire to free himself from Victorian restraints. Considered Fowles's most ambitious and innovative work, The French Lieutenant's Woman examines Victorian manners and morals from a present-day perspective. While Fowles's manipulation of time and space in the novel allows his characters to discover certain truths, they also lead to further ambiguities for the reader, as Fowles includes a number of possible resolutions to the novel, all of which are consistent with earlier events in the narrative. The novella and short stories contained in The Ebony Tower (1974) are variations on Fowles's previous themes and narrative methods, and focus on failed attempts at self-discovery. They also imitate and expand on elements contained in Marie de France's twelfth-century romance Eliduc, a translation of which is included in the book. Daniel Martin (1977), which Fowles has described as "emotionally autobiographical," is a long, discursive work about a man's search for himself. In this novel, in which the protagonist appears to be its author and reader, events from different time periods intertwine as Daniel relates them from multiple perspectives in order to see himself objectively. Although some critics have regarded Daniel Martin as an attempt by Fowles to achieve a more realistic style, others have viewed the characters in the novel as symbols of the relationship between individuals and generations. Described as an allegory of the creative process, Mantissa (1982) combines such diverse topics as sex and literary theory in an examination of the writer's role in modern literature. A sexual scenario between an author named Miles Green and his psychiatrist becomes a literary debate between a writer and Erato, the Greek muse of poetry. Set in eighteenth-century England, A Maggot (1985) consists of court transcripts of an inquiry into the disappearance of an unnamed nobleman and facsimile excerpts from the "Historical Chronicle," a column appearing in the eighteenth-century journal Gentleman's Magazine. Rebecca Hocknell, an unreliable narrator who has presented at least two contradictory accounts of the lord's disappearance, is the key witness at the proceedings and the future mother of Ann Lee, the founder of the Shaker movement. In her responses to barrister Henry Ayscough, Rebecca tells a fantastic tale about an otherworldly spaceship or "maggot." While the science-fiction aspects of the novel are a departure from Fowles's previous works, A Maggot embodies one of his characteristic themes: a concern with freedom from social conventions.
Critical reaction to Fowles's work has centered on his treatment of historical and existential themes and his narrative methods. Scholars have noted, for instance, that in both The French Lieutenant's Woman and A Maggot, Fowles assumes a modern authorial consciousness, presenting history as incomplete and thoroughly connected with the present. Commentators have looked to such devices as the godgame and recurring traits ascribed to his characters to thematically link Fowles's works. They note that his characters frequently live outside the conventional moral boundaries of society and typically reach crucial turning points requiring a reevaluation of self. The women are intelligent and independent, while the men are usually uncertain and isolated, in search of answers to the enigmatic situations in which they are enmeshed. In most cases, however, they do not find simple solutions; rather, their quests for answers result in additional mystification. Critics argue that Fowles's concern with mystery and ambiguity, which is particularly evident in his reluctance to provide authoritative resolutions to many of his works, prompts active audience participation in the quest for answers and emphasizes that reality is illusory and alterable. Describing Fowles as a literary explorer, Ellen Pifer has commented: "Fowles has investigated a wide range of styles, techniques, and approaches to writing…. He has affirmed the resources of language and at the same time delineated the strictures inherent in representing reality within literature and art. By acknowledging these limitations, yet continuing to struggle against them, Fowles has indeed proved himself a dynamic rather than a static artist."