John Fowles Fowles, John (Vol. 87) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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).

Major Works

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 Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Collector (novel) 1963
The Aristos: A Self-Portrait in Ideas (nonfiction) 1964; revised edition, 1968
The Collector [with Stanley Mann and John Kohn] (screenplay) 1965
The Magus (novel) 1965; revised edition, 1977
The Magus (screenplay) 1968
The French Lieutenant's Woman (novel) 1969
Poems (poetry) 1973
The Ebony Tower (novella and short stories) 1974
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

Frank G. Novak, Jr. (essay date Spring 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Dialectics of Debasement in The Magus," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 71-82.

[In the following essay, Novak analyzes the "disturbing" aspects of The Magus and the novel's cultural significance.]

Commentators and readers alike have praised The Magus as a fascinating and powerful novel of great audacity, richness, and intellectual depth. I am sure that many, like myself, have also found it to be an eminently teachable work that rarely fails to intrigue and to challenge those who study it. Yet The Magus profoundly disturbs many college students; it often affects these young readers in unexpected and...

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Bruce Bawer (essay date April 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "John Fowles and His Big Ideas," in The New Criterion, Vol. V, No. 8, April, 1987, pp. 21-36.

[In the following excerpt, Bawer comments on the philosophical ideas presented in The Aristos.]

The Aristos, originally subtitled "A Self-Portrait in Ideas," consists of several hundred related axioms which are organized into eleven chapters with titles like "The Universal Situation," "The Tensional Nature of Human Reality," and "The Importance of Art." The axioms, some of which consist of a single sentence and only one of which occupies so much as an entire page, are numbered chapter by chapter, like verses of the Bible. The book is nothing less than Fowles's...

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Magali Cornier Michael (essay date Summer 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Who is Sarah?': A Critique of The French Lieutenant's Woman's Feminism," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Summer, 1987, pp. 225-36.

[In the essay below, Michael discusses Fowles's portrayal of Sarah Woodruff and the theme of feminism in The French Lieutenant's Woman, concluding that the work "falls short of being a feminist novel."]

The figure of Sarah Woodruff in John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman has elicited a multiplicity of interpretations: Sarah has been described as feminist, symbol (especially of woman and of freedom), mythic figure, femme fatale, and various combinations of these. The...

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Katherine Tarbox (essay date 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Art of John Fowles, The University of Georgia Press, 1988, pp. 1-10.

[In the following excerpt, Tarbox examines the underlying theme of Fowles's novels, analyzing the trials that his protagonists undergo in order to achieve self-realization and authenticity.]

In my analyses of [Fowles's] novels I have been guided by one light alone: Fowles's implicit demand that the reader of his works "see whole." Seeing whole means diving bravely into the teeming substance of each Fowles text, into the glut of detail, the language play, the eccentric modes of narration, the bizarre events, the dislocations of time, the distinctive use of history, the...

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Carol M. Barnum (essay date 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Ebony Tower: Variations on the Mythic Theme," in The Fiction of John Fowles: A Myth for Our Time, The Penkevill Publishing Company, 1988, pp. 77-99.

[In the following excerpt, Barnum analyzes the predominant themes and imagery of the works collected in The Ebony Tower.]

John Fowles's fourth work of fiction, The Ebony Tower, continues the theme of the novels in the more precise format of the short story. The working title for the collection was Variations, Fowles's intent being to show variations on the theme of his previous fiction. But since early readers found the title (and its connections) obscure, it was abandoned in favor of the...

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Susana Onega (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Conclusion," in Form and Meaning in the Novels of John Fowles, UMI Research Press, 1989, pp. 165-74.

[In the excerpt below, Onega examines the major themes and structural devices of Fowles's novels.]

[The different trends at work in the contemporary English novel from the fifties onwards involve] the steady evolution from the "angry" reaction against experimentalism in the 1950s to a new form of experimentation best described as an overriding concern with the nature of fiction and reality. This concern has led in recent decades to a new kind of experimental writing, characterized by its self-conscious and systematic concern with its own status as an artifact...

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Raymond J. Wilson III (essay date Spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fowles's Allegory of Literary Invention: Mantissa and Contemporary Theory," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 36, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 61-72.

[In the following essay, Wilson interprets Fowles's novel Mantissa as an allegorical attack on poststructuralist theory.]

[Interviewer]: (with reference to post-structuralists): "You seem to make fun of them in Mantissa."

[Fowles]: "Well, I did in Mantissa because I think they've been granted altogether too powerful a position on the intellectual side." [John Fowles with Carol M. Barnum, "An Interview with John Fowles," in Modern Fiction...

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Jaqueline Costello (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "When Worlds Collide: Freedom, Freud, and Jung in John Fowles's Daniel Martin," in University of Hartford Studies in Literature, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1990, pp. 31-44.

[In the essay below, Costello examines the interplay of Freudian and Jungian concepts in Daniel Martin.]

Like Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, Gide's The Counterfeiters, Nabokov's Pale Fire, or Borges's Labyrinths, John Fowles's Daniel Martin presents a protagonist who is also its author and implied reader, thus reminding us of the fictions that order our worlds by overtly linking fiction and life through the novel itself. Fowles analyzes the ways in which...

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Frederick M. Holmes (essay date Summer 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "History, Fiction, and the Dialogic Imagination: John Fowles's A Maggot," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 229-43.

[In the following essay, Holmes examines Fowles's treatment of history, mystery, and rationalism in A Maggot, as well as the novel's narrative structure.]

Although all of John Fowles's works of fiction grapple with common themes, each new volume has seemed to be the fresh creation of an experimental writer determined not to repeat himself. To a degree, however, his latest novel, A Maggot (1985), seems to revert to the narrative method of what is widely regarded as his finest work, The French...

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Lance St John Butler (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "John Fowles and the Fiction of Freedom," in The British and Irish Novel since 1960, edited by James Acheson, Macmillan Academic and Professional Ltd, 1991, pp. 62-77.

[Butler is an educator, editor, and critic. In the essay below, he discusses Fowles's focus on freedom, Existentialism, Poststructuralism, and intertextuality in his novels.]

Fowles is an engima in broad daylight. He is exceptionally open about his feelings and opinions, yet it is hard to be absolutely certain that one has understood his work or his position in post-1960s fiction. He is an erudite novelist who is at the same time immensely popular. He is obsessional about freedom and at the same...

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Dominique Costa (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Narrative Voice and Focalization: The Presentation of the Different Selves in John Fowles' The Collector," in Subjectivity and Literature from the Romantics to the Present Day, edited by Philip Shaw and Peter Stock-well, Pinter Publishers, 1991, pp. 113-20.

[In the essay below, Costa analyzes Fowles's narrative technique and delineation of character in The Collector.]

In 1963 the publication of The Collector initiated John Fowles' career as a full-time writer. In [this] first novel the story of Frederick Clegg, an emotionally disturbed young man from an unhappy lower middle-class family, and of Miranda Grey, an attractive art student from an...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Aubrey, James R. John Fowles: A Reference Companion. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991, 333 p.

Contains a brief biography, an introduction to each of Fowles's fictional works, and a bibliography of works by and about Fowles.


Balsamo, Gian. "The Narrative Text as Historical Artifact: The Case of John Fowles." In Image and Ideology in Modern/Postmodern Discourse, edited by David B. Downing and Susan Bazargan, pp. 127-52.

Analyzes Fowles's two historical novels—The French Lieutenant's Woman and A Maggot—focusing...

(The entire section is 996 words.)