Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5109
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 unsettling ways. Although praising the novel as a compelling and absorbing work, students frequently express an uneasy concern about various problems: the meaning of Nicholas Urfe's bizarre experience, the extent to which he learns and changes, the unresolved ending, the motives and morality of those who conduct the godgame. One detects a sense of desperate urgency as these readers struggle to address such problems and to solve the book's mysteries. At the same time, surprisingly, students resist Fowles's assertion that the individual reader has the right as well as the obligation to decipher the events narrated. They typically view his advice on interpreting The Magus as an evasion, a "cop-out": "Its meaning is whatever reaction it provokes in the reader, and so far as I am concerned there is no given 'right' reaction." Although readily accepting this sort of interpretative principle when studying other literary works, many students, perhaps unaccustomed to experiencing agitation and anxiety as a consequence of reading a literary work, insistently demand an explanation of the book's meaning, a denunciation of the ethics of the godgame, or a scenario of what will transpire after Nicholas and Alison are reunited at the end of the novel.
Rather than advancing what Fowles terms a "right" interpretation, the purpose of this essay is to account for the confusion, uneasiness, and—not infrequently—genuine terror The Magus is likely to evoke in the reader, especially the college student. Although the book is a complex, multilayered work possessing many themes and capable of sustaining numerous interpretations, the elements responsible for this troubling effect compose a particularly important dimension of the novel—an import perhaps not immediately apparent or specifically intended by Fowles. This dimension endows The Magus with relevance and significance as a work of cultural criticism, for the novel serves as a troubling and, I think, profound commentary on contemporary man and civilization.
Several aspects of the novel contribute to the work's unsettling effect; these include the episodes of perverse and wanton cruelty, the apparent amorality of those who conduct the godgame, the unresolved ambiguities and unexplained mysteries. Yet the distressing, haunting impact of The Magus resides in a pervasive logic more fundamental and insidious than these individual scenes and problematic elements: the novel develops a dialectic of debasement whose final synthesis asserts a view of life that is both empty and terrifying. The view the book propounds is a compound of nihilism and narcissism; it is the response of impotent, insignificant man attempting to cope with immense, threatening, and often mysterious forces he can neither understand nor control. As a microcosm of a world beset by these vast forces of negation, the godgame advances the nihilistic doctrine that there is no meaning. Conchis' premise that "an answer is always a form of death" and the assumption of Wimmel and his fellow Nazis that "nothing is true, everything is permitted" are versions of this "meaningless meaning" that resonates throughout the book. In an attempt to protect...
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his ego against this dehumanizing and terrifying nihilism, Nicholas responds to the godgame in a defensive if not logical way: he adopts a self-absorbed and self-directed narcissism. These nihilistic and narcissistic themes are major elements of a pervasive logic of despair that is part of the work's general cultural significance.
This pervasive logic, the dimension of the novel responsible for its unsettling impact, is composed of three major elements. First of all, Conchis' protean guises, especially his function as a god figure, contribute to the confusion and perturbation both Nicholas and the reader experience. In whatever role Conchis assumes—physician, teacher, or divinity—his manipulative, deceptive actions travesty the usual function, for he confuses and demeans Nicholas rather than helping or educating him. A second component of the novel's pervasive logic consists of the selfish, even malign motives of Conchis and the others who stage the godgame. Their willful disregard for traditional moral standards or conventional notions of propriety contributes significantly to the book's disquieting character. Lacking constructive educational value or moral purpose, the godgame promotes a nihilistic "antitheology" of degradation, terror, and chaos. Finally, Nicholas Urfe's personality and his response to the godgame comprise the most significant component of the book's general dialectical pattern. As described in the devastating psychological analysis presented at the trial, Nicholas is selfish, alienated, socially and spiritually "sterile." His failure to respond creatively to the godgame—his inability to learn, to change, to wrest any meaning from the experience—is a fundamental aspect of the novel's overall logic of despair. He becomes the prototypical "antihero" who experiences a desperate masochistic pleasure in his role as "victim." Much of the work's power and relevance lies in the extent to which Nicholas embodies a cultural type, a personality representative of contemporary man. These three aspects combine to produce a dialectic of debasement that accounts for both the novel's disturbing, haunting impact on many readers and its general cultural significance.
Assuming a variety of roles and personae throughout the novel, Conchis never discloses his true identity. Nor does he reveal the intent of the godgame. In fact, one of the best clues to the purpose of the godgame appears not in the novel itself but in Fowles's Foreword to the revised version of the text. Here Fowles states that he occasionally regrets rejecting The Godgame as the book's title because he intends Conchis "to exhibit a series of masks representing human notions of God … that is, a series of human illusions." There is a sense in which each of the various roles Conchis plays, each of the several guises he assumes, embodies a different conception or facet of God—or, at least, a general notion of divine power and purpose. He often functions as the omnipotent divinity whose mysterious ways and supernatural powers control and enthrall Nicholas. Like Prospero in The Tempest, to which the novel several times alludes, Conchis seems to control the spirits of the air as well as the demons of the underworld on his enchanted island. He also plays the artist-producer who employs and directs the strange masque enacted on Phraxos. Other times, he assumes the role of a psychiatrist-god who patronizingly endures the whims of the "deranged" Julie and encourages Nicholas to confess his own neuroses. Although Nicholas soon discounts his initial impression that Conchis is merely a voyeur seeking gratification by clandestinely observing him and Julie (and sometimes June) together, he is never free of the suspicion that Conchis is always near, constantly observing. Although he never discloses his identity or purpose, Conchis most consistently functions as a sadistic god who enjoys watching his victim struggle in the bizarre, often degrading situations he creates for him. Baffled by Conchis' protean and often capricious roles, Nicholas speculates that "perhaps he saw himself as a professor in an impossible faculty of ambiguity, a sort of Empson of the event." In spite of his confusion, Nicholas finds himself enchanted by Conchis and the godgame, but neither Nicholas nor the reader ever discovers Conchis' identity or purpose.
Compounding the confusion created by Conchis' various guises and his refusal to explain his purposes are the arrogance and willfulness with which he and the others conduct the game. There is little evidence that their motives and values are higher than those of unprincipled sadists who wantonly torture and humiliate Nicholas. Although the novel may imply from time to time that Conchis' motive consists of a disinterested concern for Nicholas' therapeutic reeducation, an irresponsible compulsion to debase and to destroy appears to be the dominant impulse shaping the events of the godgame. Attempting to place Nicholas in the same sort of dilemma he faced during the German occupation of Phraxos, Conchis assumes the role and character of Wimmel so completely that he undermines whatever beneficial purposes the godgame might otherwise possess. Although the stakes of the godgame are obviously not so high as those in occupied Phraxos, the experience of deception and torment that Nicholas endures at Conchis' hands exceeds the limits of basic decency; it becomes disturbingly similar to the excruciating ordeal of psychological terror to which Wimmel had subjected Conchis ten years earlier. Moreover, Wimmel and Conchis use essentially the same rationale to justify the methods of both situations. Wimmel had excused the hideous torture and wanton murder perpetrated during his reign of terror on the basis of "one supreme purpose … the German historical purpose." Madame de Seitas uses an identical self-exonerating logic of inevitability to justify the extremes of the godgame: "All that we did was to us a necessity." Conchis argues that the Nazis were successful because "they imposed chaos on order"; the effect of the godgame is similar in that it obliterates what little order had existed in Nicholas' life and substitutes chaos—the confusion of unanswered questions and ambiguous purposes. As he is forced to watch Lily and Joe make love during the final phase of his "disintoxication," Nicholas realizes that the axiom underlying the actions of Wimmel and his fellow Nazis also serves as the only "principle" behind the godgame: "Nothing is true, everything is permitted." The references to de Sade and Nazism throughout the novel echo and reinforce the motiveless malignity of the "meta-theatre."
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of their motives and rationale is the fact that Conchis and the others do not consider themselves obligated to justify or to explain the meaning of what they do to Nicholas. The only justification they offer is that they act according to a different and higher moral standard than that assumed by "ordinary" humans. Madame de Seitas tells Nicholas that "we" are "more moral" and excuses their actions by saying "we are rich and we are intelligent and we mean to live rich, intelligent lives." When Nicholas asks her to explain what they have been attempting to accomplish in the godgame, he receives the same sort of evasive response Conchis had given him some time earlier: "An answer is always a form of death." This reply not only absolves Conchis of any moral responsibility but also compounds the confusion in Nicholas' life. The cruelties of the godgame make one skeptical of Conchis' "higher" moral standards, which, apparently, can be twisted to permit almost any extreme providing selfish or sadistic amusement. Whatever benefits and meaning Nicholas may derive from the godgame, therefore, the motives of Conchis and the others are fundamentally selfish; and they acknowledge few if any strictures on the extent of deception or the type of abuse to which they subject him. This philosophy of negation coupled with a totally egocentric view can vindicate any number of aberrant responses to life: from the "historically mandated" promulgation of terror, sadism, and murder endorsed by Wimmel and his fellow Nazis, on the one hand, to the impotent though no less nihilistic alienation and narcissism of Nicholas, on the other.
Therefore, although in various roles and guises Conchis may embody different versions of divine power and purpose, he is ultimately a figure who represents the opposite, even the absence of God. He does not advance any meaningful, transcendent truths or values; rather, "hazard" (chance) and chaos lie at the heart of his "theology." During the early stages of the godgame, Conchis states a principle that quite accurately describes all that he does to Nicholas: "There is no plan. All is hazard. And the only thing that will preserve us is ourselves." And he later tells Nicholas that man "needs the existence of mysteries. Not their solution." Assuming that religion exists to give life purpose, meaning, and value—to provide what Paul Tillich calls the "dimension of depth"—Conchis' function as a god-figure is a curious one indeed. Conchis' notion of what it means to become "elect" is also unconventional; his definition seems identical to that of Henrik Nygaard for whom "elect" means "especially chosen to be punished and tormented." Upon being informed at the end of the "disintoxication" that he is "now elect," Nicholas is baffled; he is "elect" only insofar as he recognizes Conchis' irony and ruthlessness. In the Christian scheme, the mysterious ways of God, even though they may require the individual to suffer, eventually result in understanding, faith, and ultimately salvation. Yet the godgame fulfills no discernible purpose beyond debasing and confusing Nicholas and providing a perverse sort of gratification for Conchis and his associates. Conchis' role and motives, therefore, advance an "antitheology" consisting of humiliation, ambivalence, and chaos. As the only "god" Nicholas ever knows, Conchis assumes many guises but provides no answers; he is a god as "magus" who creates an illusory world but who deceives and ultimately absconds, leaving his victims in the abyss of chaos.
Whatever misshapen purposes and twisted values motivate Conchis, Nicholas clearly has the opportunity to forge some meaning from his baffling and often degrading experience—just as the previous English master of the Lord Byron School, John Leverrier, apparently acquired something of value as a result of his involvement in an earlier godgame. Unlike Leverrier, however, Nicholas does not possess the intelligence, creativity, or character to derive any enduring lessons from the experience. He never recognizes that life can be more than a mysterious and ambiguous theatrical game. The godgame itself is a patently staged illusion; after perceiving the emptiness of this illusion, the "victims" must create for themselves whatever meaning the strange masque may possess without "divine" assistance. But for Nicholas, order, purpose, and meaning are illusions; selfhood and freedom are mere dreams. Beyond his own dark purposes, Conchis may have been attempting to teach him a lesson in self-awareness, the importance of maintaining larger perspectives beyond the self, or the difference between reality and illusion. Yet Nicholas learns none of this; he is fundamentally the same person at the end of the experience that he was at the beginning: isolated, selfish, indecisive, lacking moral or spiritual commitment. Unlike Charles Smithson, the protagonist of The French Lieutenant's Woman, who acquires something of meaning and value from a similar ordeal of fabulation and mystery, Nicholas' essential nature remains unchanged during the course of the novel. Whereas Fowles may assert that the destruction of such illusions as those contained in the godgame is "an eminently humanist aim," Nicholas clearly fails to perceive, much less to accept, such a challenge. He maintains and even extends his illusions about himself, and Conchis' antitheology becomes his as well.
This response and, more significantly, the personality lying behind it comprise an aspect of the novel even more disturbing than the irresponsibility and cruelty of those who stage the godgame. Not only is Nicholas incapable of forming any enduring values, but he is also superficial, aimless, and thoroughly narcissistic. Although these personal inadequacies are apparent throughout the novel, the devastating psychoanalytic portrait presented during the trial depicts his essential self more vividly and acutely than any other scene. In spite of the contrived situation and the Freudian jargon, this analysis provides the key to understanding Nicholas' personality as well as the novel's unsettling effect on many readers. The analysis describes Nicholas' life as one lacking "social content"; he allegedly exhibits "fear and resentment … revenge and counterbetrayal" in his relationships with others; he is said to exploit women with a "semi-incestuous ruthlessness." He is the failed artist who assumes an alienated and cynical demeanor in order to arouse the interest and sympathy of women; he is the existential poseur who fabricates a mask of ennui and isolation to conceal his personal inadequacies and failure to establish meaningful human relationships. Nicholas is described as being sterile and impotent insofar as his life lacks purpose and commitment. Particularly devastating is "Doctor Maxwell's" deterministic analysis of Nicholas' personality deficiencies, which, she says, deserve pity rather than condemnation; as a person who lacks purpose and vision, his "self-pity is projected so strongly on his environment that one becomes contaminated by it."
Given Nicholas' responses throughout the novel, one can only conclude that this analysis is an accurate one. [In a footnote, Novak adds: "Nicholas' personality is, of course, indicated in many other ways and places beyond the trial analysis. The images of imprisonment, entombment, and estrangement, for example, emphasize his alienation, helplessness, and paranoia. His 'favourite metaphor' for his life is 'the cage of glass' he imagines as existing between him and the rest of the world—yet Alison, with her instinctive perspicuity, observes that he likes such isolation because it gives him the illusion that he is different. Nicholas similarly describes the symbolic 'gabbia' he had constructed 'out of light, solitude, and self-delusions' during his first months on Phraxos. There are also several individual scenes that convey the image and idea of isolation and helpless entrapment; these include the scene in which he regains consciousness immediately before the trial."] Nicholas is an apt "victim," indeed almost a clone specifically engineered to be the subject of Conchis' machinations. He is easily deceived, manipulated, and tyrannized; thoroughly egocentric, he lacks the moral standards and meaningful commitments that would give his life strength and purpose. He is the pseudo-intellectual, the failed poet whose studied pose of alienation and cynicism can neither hide nor mitigate the emptiness, purposelessness, and spiritual sterility that compose his true self. Nicholas fails to respond constructively to the godgame: he does not change significantly, nor does he acquire any enduring values. He can neither understand nor extricate himself from the complex predicament that threatens him. The godgame is meaningful to Nicholas only because he becomes the center of the artificial world it creates. He participates in it and becomes obsessed by it because the experience promotes the illusion that he is significant, that events occur and other people exist merely for his amusement and benefit. Nicholas, in short, not only assumes but also embodies Conchis' nihilistic antitheology.
Much of the novel's relevance and power lies in the extent to which this psychlogical portrait of Nicholas is also an accurate description of contemporary man; moreover, the symbolic relevance of Nicholas Urfe as cultural type, as a representative character, accounts for the disquieting impact of The Magus on many readers. According to the analysis presented at the trial, Nicholas is not a unique personality; his is "the characteristic personality type" of modern man. The analysts compare Nicholas with the representative personality described in Conchis' purported work The Mid-century Predicament: "the rebel with no specific gift for rebellion" who in society becomes a "sterile drone." Alienated and ineffectual in a world whose complexities and dangers are beyond his understanding or control, he is typical of the many who "adopt a mask of cynicism that cannot hide their more or less paranoic sense of having been betrayed by life." Thus the novel presents Nicholas as a representative modern man who fails to respond meaningfully to the challenges, the complexities, and the opportunities life holds.
During the trial, a "Professor Ciardi" argues that Nicholas represents the sort of personality that will become the norm in a world in which men must live under the constant "threat of a nuclear catastrophe." This is, I think, an important and suggestive identification. Like modern man grappling with the menace of nuclear extermination, Nicholas is confused and impotent. His response consists of a self-consuming narcissism and a morbid nihilism. The godgame projects, in miniature, the same sort of predicament that, on a much larger scale, confronts contemporary man; it reflects the ambiguity, chaos, and insensate violence pervading modern life. Nicholas is, in this regard, the "modern Everyman," the impotent clone, the "antihero" of the age. As the Everyman of the nuclear era, Nicholas evinces the pathological symptoms of the psychological and spiritual malaise that infects mankind. His solipsistic nihilism, the analysts argue, is the typical response of the middle-class person possessing an average intellect and living under the constant threat of nuclear obliteration. The anxiety that the book produces in so many readers, particularly college students, attests to the devastating accuracy of the description of Nicholas Urfe as the prototypical nuclear age personality.
The nihilistic and sadistic themes of the novel and the depiction of Nicholas as a nuclear age Everyman concur with the analysis developed by various eminent critics of contemporary culture. Erich Fromm's description [in his The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil, 1971] of the narcissism that infects contemporary man, for example, closely parallels the character of Nicholas Urfe—particularly as he exploits others while assuming a self-protective mask of existential alienation. Fromm describes the fundamental narcissism of modern man as an "incestuous … craving to be freed from the risks of responsibility, of freedom, of awareness" and a "longing for unconditional love, which is offered without any expectation of loving response." Nicholas possesses a personality like that of those, as described by Fromm, "whose whole sense of self-worth is bound up with the relationship to the women who admire them unconditionally and without limits" and who become the type of "'traitor' who cannot be loyal to anybody." Throughout the novel, Nicholas exhibits both the "malignant narcissism" and the "symbiotic-incestuous fixation" Fromm sees as two basic components of the "syndrome of decay" pervading modern life. Nicholas describes how he uses his alienation as a "deadly weapon," making a show of unpredictability, cynicism, and indifference in order to seduce women; he even admits a "narcissistic belief in the importance of the life-style." The novel reveals the pathetic dimensions of such narcissism, as when Nicholas masturbates while lying on the beach, and also indicates its insidious elements, as embodied in the figure of de Deukans, who symbolizes the evil of solitary pleasure. In one of the novel's most intense scenes, Alison accurately identifies Nicholas' empty narcissism: "you're a filthy selfish bastard who can't, can't like being impotent, can't ever think of anything except number one…. You've built your life so nothing can ever reach you." This indictment, of course, adumbrates the later analysis that describes him as the sterile "drone" who assumes a mask of cynicism to conceal and to protect his self-obsessed ego.
Lewis Mumford is another cultural critic whose concerns and warnings are echoed in The Magus. Mumford has written extensively about the fate of man and the deterioration of culture in a world of complex, autonomous forces that dehumanize and threaten to annihilate the individual. The godgame and Nicholas' response to it are generally similar to what Mumford has described [in his The Pentagon of Power, 1970] as "the cult of anti-life." Mumford argues that "disillusion, cynicism, and existential nihilism" comprise the prevailing philosophy of contemporary life and art. Finding himself "at the mercy of forces over which he exercises no effective control, moving to a destination he has not chosen," modern man has adopted a negative philosophy of despair in response to the dangers posed by "his favored technological and institutional automatisms." Beginning as a reaction against the insidious and vastly powerful "pentagons of power" that threaten to destroy humanity, the cult of antilife has evolved into "an attack against civilization itself," against "all organized structures, all objective criteria, all rational direction." Beyond these general parallels, Mumford's description of the "symptoms of regression" bear an uncanny similarity to certain aspects of The Magus. Compare Conchis' antitheology with Mumford's evaluation of contemporary (lack of) faith: "Chance has become the ruling deity and chaos the new Heaven." As indicated earlier, Conchis and the others recognize no humane or moral constraint as they prosecute the godgame; similarly, citing the heroes of this cult of human degradation whose number includes the Marquis de Sade, Mumford says that "there is no limit to the forces of anti-life."
Throughout the novel Nicholas remains what his analysts term "homo solitarius"; he leads a lonely existence suffused with ennui and impotent aimlessness. As the personality "norm" of the nuclear age, he finds identity and purpose only in narcissistic self-indulgence and self-delusion. Although he is tortured and confused by the machinations of the godgame, the experience does provide the opportunity for Nicholas to extend the fundamental fantasy that sustains him: he plays the leading role in a drama staged for his personal benefit, and he perversely enjoys the sadistic torment to which he is subjected. The ordeal verifies his identity and significance; it also confirms his egocentric, thoroughly selfish way of life. Even after the godgame has officially ended, Nicholas refuses to relinquish the patently contrived illusion. When given the opportunity to make a meaningful human commitment—to love Alison unconditionally and, thereby, to transcend himself—he is more concerned to know whether or not he is still the "victim." He remains enmeshed in his narcissistic solipsism. Is Conchis watching when Nicholas is reunited with Alison? Nicholas wants to believe he is; he wants to maintain the illusion that his selfish, purposeless life possesses the aura of mystery.
Herein lie the sources of the novel's troubling significance and haunting effect. The anxiety and terror The Magus may provoke reside in this subtle yet powerful thematic dialectic involving the role of Conchis, the way in which the godgame is conducted, and the personality and response of Nicholas. The godgame represents in microcosm a terrifying world man can neither control nor understand; the amoral, nihilistic qualities of the godgame are an expression of what Mumford has called the cult of antilife so pervasive in contemporary thought and art. The novel's unsettling effect also resides in the extent to which one recognizes, perhaps unconsciously, Nicholas Urfe as a contemporary Everyman. These aspects of the book strike a nerve of reality: the godgame symbolizes the contemporary predicament, and Nicholas Urfe typifies the personality of nuclear age man. Not incidentally do some of the novel's most vivid and memorable scenes contain graphic depictions of the worst sort of horrors the twentieth century has witnessed: the nightmare madness and bestiality of World War One trench warfare; the sadistic torture, barbaric mutilation, and wholesale human extermination perpetrated by the Nazis. Although the book does not describe the ultimate horror of nuclear holocaust, that lurking threat is indicated by the screaming jet fighter that shatters the idyllic placidity of Phraxos and the ominous fleet of warships that pass nearby—"cloud-grey shapes on the world's blue rim. Death machines holding thousands of gum-chewing, contraceptive-carrying men." The sight causes Nicholas to recognize "the fragility … of time itself."
The godgame and Nicholas' reaction to it, therefore, mirror contemporary man's response to the immense and inimical forces that threaten to obliterate him. The novel presents several options by means of which one may desperately attempt to assert the self in the face of such terrors: to assume a mask of alienation and cynicism that both conceals and protects the ego; to participate in insensate rituals of sexual gratification or sadistic amusement; to withdraw into narcissistic fantasies of self-importance and self-indulgence. Living in a world haunted by the specter of nuclear annihilation, contemporary man may feel as if he is caught in a complex web of forces he can neither control nor comprehend; he may find himself attempting to cope with what seems an inexorable dialectic of debasement, a sort of cosmic "godgame"—with, perhaps, a vicious Conchis "at web-center." Consequently, he may seek identity through a self-indulgent narcissism, and he may choose nihilism as the only "logical" doctrine of last resort. Incapable of taking action against the vast forces that threaten him and finding his life empty and impotent, modern man may in desperation accept the axiom of Wimmel that underlies the godgame: "nothing is true, everything is permitted." Like Nicholas and Alison at the end of the novel, mankind precariously stands "trembling, searching, between all our past and all our future." Today's college students must feel intimidated and thwarted by the terrifying question, as posed by William Faulkner [in Essays, Speeches, and Public Letters by William Faulkner, 1965], "When will I be blown up?" Consequently, they may have lost or ignored something of their essential humanity—"the old verities and truths of the heart." Nicholas, of course, lacks and fails to discover such truths and values; and reading The Magus, I believe, makes students acutely and often painfully aware of this loss. For the novel is, to cite Faulkner again, "not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion."
However, as indicated above, Nicholas does have the opportunity to change for the better, to derive something meaningful and beneficial from the godgame. The novel suggests another option by means of which one may assert the self and conduct one's life. Aside from the objectivity with which Nicholas retrospectively describes himself and his experience, the reader has no evidence that Nicholas ever discovers this option; the novel presents it by implication rather than description. This option involves a self-transcendence and the establishment of a meaningful social identity—both of which Nicholas lacks. It also involves discovering effective means of combating the vast forces of antilife that threaten to destroy the individual, culture, civilization itself. Recognizing something of the challenge and urgency of the problem, one approaches it with courage and resourcefulness rather than with terror, dread, or cynical despair; one seeks enduring values and creative activity rather than retreating into nihilism and narcissism. In this spirit, the reader may choose to view the godgame as the commencement of an "emancipation": "a restoration of the human world and of human relationships to man himself." Only through such an emancipation and restoration can man vanquish those terrors that the contemporary world poses and the novel reflects.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1315
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."
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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 answer to Plato's Republic—it represents his notion of what ideas on life, death, art, religion, politics, science, economics, education, and sex should govern a world run by superior men and women. And indeed his primary concern is with the superior individual, the aristos. The word is borrowed from Heraclitus, who, Fowles reminds us, "saw mankind divided into a moral and intellectual élite (the aristoi, the good ones, not—this is a later sense—the ones of noble birth) and an unthinking conforming mass—hoi polloi, the many." Fowles notes that Heraclitus has been condemned as "the grandfather of modern totalitarianism," but insists that
in every field of human endeavour it is obvious that most of the achievements, most of the great steps forward, have come from individuals—whether they be scientific or artistic geniuses, saints, revolutionaries, what you will. And we do not need the evidence of intelligence testing to know conversely that the vast mass of mankind are not highly intelligent—or highly moral, or highly gifted artistically, or indeed highly qualified to carry out any of the nobler human activities.
Fowles thus divides mankind into two groups, the Few and the Many. Nonetheless he declares himself to be a socialist: "All my adult life I have believed that the only rational political doctrine one can hold is democratic socialism." His way of reconciling these two disparate views is to say that "the dividing line between the Few and the Many must run through each individual, not between individuals. In short, none of us are wholly perfect; and none wholly imperfect." Or, as he puts it at the end of the book, "We are all sometimes of the Many." If this is true, however, then why posit a "Few" and a "Many" in the first place?
Fowles sees life in terms of process: to him, everything is ultimately unknowable, indefinite, mysterious. But, though we will never reach perfection of any kind, we can nonetheless strive for it ("We build towards nothing; we build"—1.33). And it is this endless striving that makes life worth living. "Our universe is the best possible because it can contain no Promised Land; no point where we could have all we imagine. We are designed to want: with nothing to want, we are like windmills in a world without wind" (1.34). What human beings need most of all in such a universe—and what David Williams so tragically lacks in The Ebony Tower—is freedom of will. It is "the highest human good" (1.64); to be true aristoi, men and women must overcome the "asphyxiating smog of opinions foisted on them by society," which forces ordinary people to "lose all independence of judgement, and all freedom of action" and to "see themselves increasingly … as parts of a machine" (3.29). We must, in short, commit existential acts—existentialism signifying, by his definition, "the revolt of the individual against all those systems of thought, theories of psychology, and social and political pressures that attempt to rob him of his individuality" (7.74). Fowles is not inciting mass revolution, though, for "existentialism is conspicuously unsuited to political or social subversion, since it is incapable of organized dogmatic resistance or formulations of resistance. It is capable only of one man's resistance; one personal expression of view; such as this book" (7.79). Fowles insists, moreover, on the importance of moral judgment, proclaiming that "[o]ur function is to judge, to choose between good and evil. If we refuse to do so, we cease to be human beings and revert to our basic state, of being matter" (5.45). As for risks, we need to take them in order to improve our lives and ourselves. "The purpose of hazard is to force us, and the rest of matter, to evolve" (2.61)….
[The] sort of freedom that usually figures most prominently in Fowles's fiction is sexual freedom. Fowles has a good deal to say about this subject in The Aristos. He speaks of the twentieth-century emergence of sex "from behind the curtains and crinolines of Victorian modesty and propriety" (9.97) and finds it necessary to say that "[s]exual attraction and the sexual act are in themselves innocent, neither intrinsically moral nor immoral. Sex is like all great forces: simply a force" (9.105). One has the feeling, after reading through Fowles's oeuvre, that his obsession with freedom has a great deal to do with his complicated feelings about sex; he often seems to be taking on an enemy—namely, the stifling sexual morality of the Victorian period—that no longer exists. Indeed, he has made reference, in several of his novels, to the Victorian notions of morality with which people of his generation were raised. "My contemporaries," notes the Fowles-like narrator of Daniel Martin, "were all brought up in some degree of the nineteenth century, since the twentieth did not begin till 1945."
A concept that is of central importance to Fowles is that of the "nemo," which Fowles defines as "a man's sense of his own futility and ephemerality; of his relativity, his comparativeness; of his virtual nothingness" (3.7). Fowles says that it is art, above all else, that "best conquers time, and therefore the nemo"; an art object is "as nearly immortal as an object in a cosmos without immortality can be." Fowles devotes much of his chapter on art to a description of the situation of the modern artist—a situation that, for all his criticism of Victorian vis-à-vis modern culture, he is not at all happy with. He deplores, for instance, "the tyranny of self-expression" (10.35); the narrowing of the artist's audience to "a literate few" (10.51); and the pressure on the artist to present "a mirror to the world around him" (10.36). He is disturbed by the rise of a type of intellectual that is interested mainly in "colour, shape, texture, pattern, setting, movement," rather than in "the properly intellectual (moral and socio-political) significance of events and objects"—more interested, in short, in style than in content, which to him is the single most woeful symptom of the modern temperament.
What The Aristos essentially amounts to, then, is a collection of opinions, some of which one agrees with, some of which one doesn't; there is much in it that is intelligent and thought-provoking, and much that is silly and wrong-headed. Fowles is often guilty of sentimental overgeneralization; in distinguishing between the craftsman and the genius, he says that the former "is very concerned with his contemporary success, his market value," while the latter "is indifferent to contemporary success." And Fowles can be unintentionally amusing when he is pretending to be objective about things that are close to him. For example, having decided that mankind should have a universal language, he arrives, by way of an elaborate and (he thinks) purely logical argument, at the conclusion that the language of choice should be—guess what?—English. Likewise, this man who chooses to identify himself at the beginning of the book as "a poet first; and then a scientist," determines—by means of an equally sophisticated and objective bit of dialectic—that "the great arts" are not equal, and that "[l]iterature, in particular poetry," is of all the arts "the most essential and the most valuable."
Despite such weaknesses, however, one cannot help but admire Fowles for his intellectual seriousness, his acute sense of the artist's dignity as well as of his moral and social responsibility, and his attempt to express and to codify his way of seeing the world. It is rare and admirable for a contemporary British or American novelist to be as intensely and seriously concerned as John Fowles is with the relations between art and ideas, art and morality. But The Aristos is chiefly of interest not as a work of philosophy but as a catalogue raisonné, as it were, of many of the thematic preoccupations of Fowles's fiction.
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The Collector (novel) 1963The Aristos: A Self-Portrait in Ideas (nonfiction) 1964; revised edition, 1968The Collector [with Stanley Mann and John Kohn] (screenplay) 1965The Magus (novel) 1965; revised edition, 1977The Magus (screenplay) 1968The French Lieutenant's Woman (novel) 1969Poems (poetry) 1973The Ebony Tower (novella and short stories) 1974Shipwreck (nonfiction) 1974Daniel Martin (novel) 1977Islands (nonfiction) 1978The Tree (nonfiction) 1979The Enigma of Stonehenge (nonfiction) 1980Mantissa (novel) 1982A Short History of Lyme Regis (history) 1982A Maggot (novel) 1985Lyme Regis Camera (nonfiction) 1990
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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 most overt conflict among these interpretations is due to the difference in perspective between the critics who view the book as a feminist novel and those who make no such claims. The issue is more complex than this simple opposition suggests, however; and I see the critics of both camps as being partially correct. I attribute the many interpretations of Sarah and the partial validity of all of them to the fact that, although she has a speaking role and is thus a participant within the plot, she remains ambiguous. Sarah is the central figure rather than its protagonist. I see this ambiguity as stemming from the absence of Sarah's point of view, which is symptomatic of what I take to be the novel's internal contradiction: it wants to assert the theme of feminism and yet fails as a feminist novel.
Sarah is represented through a triple layering of voices which includes Charles', the male narrator', and Fowles' voices. Not only do Sarah's thoughts remain outside of the realm of the novel, but the perspective offered of Sarah is purely masculine. The novel's failure to realize Sarah as a character and human being in her own right, whether done intentionally or not, is due in part to its exclusive use of male views. The ideological nature of any perspective is undeniable and in this case the male perspective, which has been and still is dominant in western culture, brings to the novel all sorts of preconceptions and myths about women. Fowles seems to be aware of the limitations of male views about women since he brings these issues to the foreground, and yet his choice of narrative technique counters that impulse of masculine critique.
It could be argued that, by describing Sarah purely from an external position, the novel is presenting an honest view of male perspectives of women and not falling into the trap of projecting male thinking into Sarah's mind. My objection, however, is that Fowles is not explicit enough and thus relies too heavily upon the reader. He seems to assume that the reader will be able to see that the novel is depicting the imposition of male perspectives onto the portrait of Sarah. I have no great illusions, however, as to the capacity of most readers to step outside of their own masculine perspectives; and this includes female as well as male readers, since both are socialized within a patriarchal world. Fowles is not totally to blame, however, since he is himself a product of that same male-dominated culture. Because Sarah remains an ambiguous figure to the end of the novel and because Fowles does not make evident his critique of male ideology inherent in the representation of Sarah, many readers miss the irony and view Sarah precisely in the way the narrative presents her (proof of this can be found in much of the criticism and discussion of the novel). Fowles' failure to prevent this "straight" reading or misreading of Sarah and thus of the novel may suggest, however, that Fowles himself remains caught to a certain extent within the very ideological system he challenges.
It may be useful to begin by delineating what I find to be the undeniable presence of the issue of feminism or emancipation of women in The French Lieutenant's Woman. One way in which the issue of feminism is pushed to the forefront of the novel is by overt references to historical figures and events having a prominent place in the emancipatory progress of women: "Mrs. Caroline Norton" as "an ardent feminist" writer, "Florence Nightingale," "John Stuart Mill" and his argument that "now was the time to give women equal rights at the ballot box," the date of "March 30th, 1867" as marking "the beginning of feminine emancipation in England," the publication of "Mill's Subjection of Women," and the founding of "Girton College." This kind of emphasis cannot be ignored and in fact fully supports the notion that the novel wants to claim feminism as one of its central concerns.
There is also evidence that it is more specifically "Sarah's emancipation" that is "central to the novel" and that Fowles is working to depict Sarah as a woman who "gradually develops a feminist consciousness" [Deborah Byrd, "The Evolution and Emancipation of Sarah Woodruff: The French Lieutenant's Woman as a Feminist Novel," International Journal of Women's Studies (September-October 1984)]. The feminism, which Fowles wants to attribute to Sarah, is apparent in the words she is made to speak. Sarah proudly asserts her developing independence when she states that she has "married shame" because there was "no other way to break out of what I was" and that as a result she now has "freedom" and "No insult, no blame, can touch" her. Fowles has Sarah create her own fictions in order to emphasize Sarah's attempt to step outside of conventional patriarchal society and to define herself outside of male fictions about women. Charles not only sees in her "an independence of spirit" and "a determination to be what she was" but also observes that she transcends the conventional portrait of Victorian woman by being both "completely feminine" and full of overt "sensuality." By the end of the novel, Sarah's words—"I wish to be what I am"—and Charles' perception that she has gained a "new self-knowledge and self-possession" indicate the Fowles wishes to portray Sarah as having realized a feminist consciousness. It is evident that, although Fowles to a certain degree romanticizes Sarah's quest for a feminist consciousness by depicting her as an enigmatic and tragic figure, the novel does assert this theme of emancipation and of Sarah's development into "the New Woman." Even Charles is enlisted in support of the feminism theme when he denounces "masculine prejudice" and the "bias in society": "They are to sit, are they not, like so many articles in a shop and to let us men walk in and turn them over and point at this one or that one." Although these words and thoughts are attributed to Charles, they seem to contain a certain "doublevoicedness": I distinctly hear an authorial voice, Fowles' voice, within these pro-feminist discourses.
This notion of double-voiced discourse is delineated within [Mikhai] Bakhtin's theory of the novel and involves the notion that the author cannot remain completely outside the text. Charles' language supporting women's emancipation contains an intermingling of both Charles' and Fowles' voices and thus serves in part to express the author's intentions, although in a refracted way. Although this layering of voices occurs throughout, it is particularly evident here because throughout most of the novel Charles is portrayed as chauvinistic and unable to step outside of his masculine perspective, so that his assuming a feminist stance is immediately suspicious. Fowles also uses the narrator's assertion that Charles "began to understand" the basis of the emancipation movement to create the illusion that the language supporting feminism is Charles' own, although it seems clear that Charles remains caught within masculine ideology to the very end—Charles, for example, tells Sarah in the first of the final endings that she could remain everything that she was if she became "Mrs. Charles Smithson" without realizing that this name change is symptomatic of masculine dominance. All of this suggests that Fowles' orchestration of the text includes his attempt to give the issue of feminism a primary position and that as a result his own voice has been inserted into the narrative.
Fowles' authorial voice thus asserts itself within the text, and its importance cannot be overlooked. As orchestrator of the text, Fowles holds a degree of power and is an essential voice within the novel. When the narrator steps into the novel as a character in Chapter 13, a sharper distinction is created between author and narrator that emphasizes the layering of voices making up the text. The narrator's claim that "This story I am telling is all imagination" draws attention to the fact that ultimately the novel is a work of fiction created by Fowles, which subsumes the narrator's as well as the characters' fictions. There is thus a layering of fictions as well as of voices. The narrator's statement that, even if the notion that fictional characters possess autonomy is granted, ultimately "The novelist is still a god" foregrounds Fowles' role as orchestrator and its implications for the novel. Fowles as author is a god in the sense that, since he creates from within a certain worldview (Western, masculine, late twentieth-century), his characters can never be totally free. The reference to the "patriarchal beard" of the author figure described near the end of the novel is an appropriate description of both the narrator as posited author and of Fowles as actual author: both are caught within a male perspective. If the novel is created within a masculine ideology and only masculine perspectives are allowed inside the text, then it necessarily follows that its characters cannot transcend that male ideology.
Although, as I have asserted, the issue of feminism is central to The French Lieutenant's Woman, it does not follow that the novel is "an almost ideal feminist fictional work". The way in which the novel ultimately projects Sarah runs counter to the theme of feminism. Because Sarah's point of view remains absent from the text, Sarah remains objectified and never becomes a subject in her own right. Everything known about Sarah is mediated through the male perspectives of Charles, the narrator, and ultimately Fowles himself as orchestrator. That the arena of Sarah's mind is left outside of the novel is a strategic move on Fowles' part. It is clear that this absence is intentional, both because Fowles is too good of a craftsman not to have consciously planned out the use of point of view, and because the novel abounds with narrative statements which emphasize this very absence of any knowledge of Sarah's thoughts from the text. The claim that "Fowles provides sufficient information about Sarah's personality traits, values, and experiences for one to understand her character and history by the time one has finished reading the novel" (Byrd) is symptomatic of a naive reading which fails to question the author's motives and to identify the means by which the author is manipulating the narrative. The problem with Byrd's assertion may be due to her strong wish to read The French Lieutenant's Woman as a feminist novel. As a result of this desire, she in effect is reading her own version of the novel, which is very different from the one I read. It is apparent to me that an inherent contradiction in the novel is its need both to retain Sarah as an enigma and to give her the status of a character; and I would assert that it is the first impulse, to keep Sarah as an object of mystery, which ultimately takes precedence.
Everything points to and supports the view of Sarah as an object of mystery. The information about Sarah that the novel slowly unveils consists solely of first-hand accounts mingled with assumptions, which are delivered by the narrator and various characters, as well as of Sarah's actual speech to the extent that it is included in the text. Many critics fall into the trap of treating Sarah as if she were a whole character, discussing her feelings, motivations, and beliefs; but I find this highly problematic since Sarah's point of view is not present. Since Sarah is seen exclusively through the perspective of others, male others to be more specific, any attempt to attribute thoughts to her mind is pure interpolation. Sarah's independence as a subject or character is an illusion that must be questioned and broken.
The novel itself seems to challenge that illusion since both Charles and the narrator overtly discuss their lack of knowledge about Sarah aside from what they actually observe of her. The narrator stresses that his presentation of Sarah is based upon an external and thus limited view: "I report, then, only the outward facts." Throughout the novel, the narrator uses expressions such as "perhaps," "as if," and "it was hard to say" when he refers to Sarah, which underlines the notion that even as he describes or discusses Sarah, the narrator never knows "what was going on in her mind." The narrator in fact sharply displays his ignorance about Sarah when he asks, "Who is Sarah?" Charles likewise admits that Sarah remains unknown to him and that it is in fact "the enigma she presented" which "obsessed him": when he writes to Sarah he addresses her as "mysterious Sarah" and "my sweet enigma." This supports Woodcock's assertion [in his Male Mythologies: John Fowles and Masculinity, 1984] that "the preservation of her [Sarah's] mystery is essential to her function in the book." The plot seems to depend on Sarah's remaining an enigma, and the novel would have been a very different one if Sarah's perspective had been included. What is problematic and needs to be questioned is the relationship between Sarah as figure of mystery and Sarah as emerging feminist as well as its effect on the novel as a whole.
Not only do the narrator and Charles assert that they know nothing about Sarah's mind, but they (like many critics) interpolate her state of mind from her actions, expressions, and words. The illusion of Sarah as a full character is thus partially created through these interpretations of Sarah's mind, which often pretend or at least appear to be more legitimate than they really are. Because the novel sustains a continuous commentary on Sarah, the distinction between what is in actuality merely a distanced perspective of Sarah and Sarah herself becomes hazy. I would in fact assert that within the novel there is no representation of Sarah as an independent being. Charles' interpretations of Sarah are so varied and so inconsistent, ranging from Sarah as manipulator ("I have been led by the nose") to Sarah as an ideal and a symbol of "freedom," that it is clear that an objective portrait of Sarah is not to be found in his perspective of her. The trustworthiness of Charles' perception is also challenged by the text, which casts doubts on his interpretation of Sarah. When Charles goes to Sarah at the hotel in Exeter, for example, he distinctly says that "he felt her flinch with pain as the bandaged foot fell from the stool" and yet later is bewildered to and out that "there was no strained ankle." Because Charles is obviously taken in completely by Sarah's contrivance, the overall credibility of his view of Sarah is questioned. Charles' inability to understand what lies behind Sarah's actions and words, coupled with his admitted obsession with her as a symbol rather than as a specific human being, suggests that Charles' perspective of Sarah is biased, limited, and thus suspect.
The narrator's perspective of Sarah, which is more all-encompassing than Charles', is also thrown into question. The fact that the narrator is quickly revealed to be a twentieth-century male may serve as a warning (especially to feminist or pro-feminist readers) that the narrative will be biased accordingly. The narrator's perspective of Sarah is thus distanced in two ways, by time and by gender-specific ideology. He asserts a certain control over the information provided in the text, and at one point he even admits to having "cheated" by controlling how much or how little he revealed. The narrator's ironic statement in Chapter 13 that he "intended at this stage (Chap. Thirteen—unfolding of Sarah's true state of mind) to tell all" reveals the intentional absence of an accounting of Sarah's point of view and thus the narrator's manipulative powers. Within the narrator's discussion of the "autonomy" of characters in fiction, his particular emphasis on the fact that he must give the female characters "their freedom as well" is suspicious. The question that arises is whether a female character can be free within a work of fiction that denies her a point of view: I would answer in the negative, particularly since most readers come to the work with a perspective grounded in patriarchal society and thus male ideology and would therefore not necessarily interpret Sarah's lack of a point of view as a statement against male ideology.
The narrator's many intrusions into the narrative with his own commentary on the various situations and characters provide an internal bias toward what is presented. This happens, for example, when the narrator follows one of Sarah's speeches with a hint to the effect that Sarah is not telling the truth, thus introducing a suspicion against Sarah into the text: "That might have been a warning to Charles." The narrator in this way judges Sarah and makes that judgment a part of the perspective that the novel offers of Sarah. In the only extended scene that presents Sarah alone (the depiction of her arrival and settling at the hotel in Exeter), the narrator's presence is strongly felt as he presents all of her actions from an external and distanced position and never gets into her mind. His manipulation of the view of Sarah that he presents in this episode is made clear when he speaks of the gestures he has "permitted her" to make. Sarah's lack of independent existence outside of the perspectives of her offered by the novel is thus emphasized by Charles and the narrator's words; and this in turn implies that the orchestrator of the text, Fowles, chose to retain her as an enigmatic figure.
It is Charles then who is the novel's protagonist, despite the narrator's reference to Sarah as "the protagonist," in the sense that the plot follows his actions and reactions; and Sarah functions as the object of mystery around which the plot revolves. Sarah is in fact not present in many scenes, even though her image is central. In contradiction to [Thomas] Docherty's generalized assertion [in "A Constant Reality: The Presentation of Character in the Fiction of John Fowles," Novel (Winter 1981)] that Fowles does not subsume "character into function or pattern," I think that Sarah is a functional object. She functions, for example, as "the mystery woman who is both a male fantasy and the catalyst for male redemption" (Woodcock)—in both cases, woman is an object functioning for man—and as such Sarah's portrait deviates from a feminist one. Because Sarah is depicted exclusively through male perspectives (this includes women such as Mrs. Poulteney and Ernestina whose perspectives adhere to the dominant male ideology inherent in their society), her portrait remains a construct of masculine ideology and Sarah retains the status of object, figure, or symbol rather than of a whole female character.
The novel begins by presenting Sarah as a figure—she is both "the other figure" and "a figure from myth"—to which is then attached the symbolic names of "Tragedy" and "the French Lieutenant's Woman." This initial description of Sarah is overdetermined to the extent that she can never discard these associations with symbol, mythic figure, and Other. She is in fact not given an identity within society, "Sarah Woodruff," until the end of the fourth chapter. These symbolic and mythic representations of Sarah offered by the "fundamentally elitist and male" narrative voice(s) are inextricably caught within the dominant masculine ideology. Sarah is thus a male representation of a woman rather than an unbaised representation of a woman in her own right. As a male construct within a culture filled with male mythologies, Sarah also "stands for 'woman'—timeless, unchanging, mysterious" [Terry Lovell, "Feminism and Form in the Literary Adaptation: The French Lieutenant's Woman," in Criticism and Critical Theory, edited by Jeremy Hawthorn, 1984]. Male mythologies are powerful in that they are "myths of ideology at work within history for the perpetuation" of male dominance (Woodcock). If Sarah is constructed of male fictions, then the status of the theme of feminism in the novel becomes problematic and even questionable.
Fowles' use of male myths about women is blatant and pervasive throughout, and what needs to be questioned is the impact that the use of these myths has on the novel. Because of his emphasis on the theme of women's emancipation, the assumption can be made that Fowles intends to use the myths in order to break them open—whether he succeeds, however, is questionable. The development of the relationship between Sarah and Charles initially takes place within the setting of the "Undercliff," which is overtly and significantly described as "an English Garden of Eden." Fowles thus appropriates the Eden myth complete with its Adam and Eve figures, Charles and Sarah, and the valorization of the male; and this serves to predetermine both the outcome and the way in which the two characters will be regarded and judged. Sarah is in this way determined as Eve the temptress, and she is depicted as manipulating and finally seducing Charles. She thus comes off as a type of femme fatale, which is yet another male symbol: Charles sees her as "a woman most patently dangerous" and at one point describes "Her expression" as "calm, almost fatalistic." The emphasis on her sensuality further accentuates Sarah's definition as seductress: when Charles comes upon her asleep, he describes her as lying in "complete abandonment" in a way that was "intensely tender and yet sexual." Even Sarah's sexuality is described in terms that transcend the concrete and seem to be connected to male fantasy, as is exemplified by Charles' perception of Sarah as "a figure in a dream." The image of Sarah as sensual is thus a symbol of sexuality and of potential sexual fulfillment for Charles as well as an indication of her proclivity as seductress.
The mythic figure of Eve is just as much a helpmate as a temptress, however, and likewise Sarah illustrates both roles. In opposition to her negative role as seductress, Sarah also embodies a potential redemption for Charles. Charles sees in Sarah "some possibility she symbolized," "a glimpse of an ideal world" or "a mythical world," and "the symbol around which had accreted all his lost possibilities, his extinct freedoms." Sarah thus functions as a symbol of the freedom for which Charles is questing; and Charles' obsession is directed toward the ideal that Sarah represents rather than toward the concrete woman, except maybe for his sexual attraction to her (but even that is idealized). Toward the end of the novel, Charles himself seems to have perceived the dichotomy between Sarah and his idealization of her, although the masculine perspective inherent within that idealization is left undiscussed: Charles "became increasingly unsure of the frontier between the real Sarah and the Sarah he had created in so many dreams: the one Eve personified, all mystery." There is thus no mistaking the parallel between the mythical Eve and the figure of Sarah.
The use of male myths in the portrayal of Sarah does not stop with the Eden myth but rather includes, among others, references which link Sarah to Greek myths, "a siren" and "a Calypso," to Christian myths, "the Virgin Mary," and to scientific myths. The last of these is particularly striking and is epitomized by Dr. Grogan's use of clinical cases to categorize Sarah. Dr. Grogan lives within "that masculine, more serious world," and his chauvinism is all too apparent. Women are objects to observe and diagnose. His joking admission to Charles that he likes to watch "his feminine patients" bathing in the sea through his "brass Gregorian telescope" suggests that both his personal and scientific perspectives are grounded in masculine ideology and thus heavily biased. This view in fact reflects the general perspective of women depicted in the novel, in which men look at women and believe that they can adequately interpret their actions and thoughts. Dr. Grogan objectifies Sarah by labeling her with the clinical term of "obscure melancholia," which limits his view of her. Charles' own chauvinistic idealization of women surfaces in his horrified reaction to the case studies on melancholia that Dr. Grogan gives him to read: "that such perversion existed—and in the pure and sacred sex." It is evident from these case studies that there is a whole stockpile of male scientific myths about women, all of which attempt to explain women's non-conformist behavior in terms of illness.
The major question is whether Fowles' use of these male myths does break them open and divulge them as masculine constructions aimed at creating images of women that work to keep women subjected to men. I think that ultimately Fowles fails to invalidate these male myths. In his book Male Mythologies: John Fowles and Masculinity, Woodcock formulates this failure very well in his central argument that Fowles "promotes a realigned version of the very myth of masculinity he lays bare" because he "is caught within the limits of masculine ideology." It is too bad, however, that Woodcock undercuts himself and falls prey to the same problem he attributes to Fowles. After a perceptive analysis of Fowles' use of male myths in his fiction, Woodcock makes the peculiar statement that Fowles' "revision" rather than destruction of "male mythologies" ultimately does not "undermine the credibility of seeing in Fowles' work a potential critique of masculinity and male power" since Fowles does "expose a critical self-awareness" and a "desire to reveal male ideologies at work." I think that Woodcock's weak attempt to retain Fowles as a critic of male ideology must be a result of Woodcock's own inability to transcend masculine ideology. It is contradictory to assert that a novel that remains caught up in male perspectives and myths to its very end can still be regarded as a credible critique of male ideology. I believe that male myths and ideology must be made more explicit, maybe even rejected, and not just exposed in order to constitute a critique of masculine ideology in a world whose values and beliefs are steeped in that same male ideology.
Fowles' failure to discard the male myths he exposes is intrinsically connected to his choosing to use only male perspectives. One way in which a male myth about woman can be broken is through its invalidation by a concrete and independent being (most likely a woman) standing outside of male ideology, although the possibility is questionable since western writers are products of that very ideology. Fowles wants to represent the development of such a feminist consciousness and yet he does not give Sarah a voice. The actions of Sarah that are reported do suggest that she is a woman who rebels against patriarchal society by casting herself outside that society and thus outside masculine ideology. The problem, however, is that the Sarah who performs these revolutionary acts has no existence outside of the male perspectives that depict her.
An alternative means of breaking male myths, for which Fowles seems to have opted, is through irony. His use of male perspectives, which render Sarah as an object, can in this way be viewed as an exposure of male ideology. I do not think, however, that irony works very well in this case. Irony depends on a clear and stable set of commonly held values, standards, or beliefs so that a difference can be seen between what is asserted in the text and what is known to be "true" or "real." In Fowles' novel, the ironic presentation of the way in which women are viewed is not different enough from most readers' commonly held assumptions and views about women. I think that many readers living within modern western patriarchal society fail to see Fowles' text as a critique of male ideology simply because readers are as often as not caught within male ideology themselves.
The two endings that culminate the novel support the claim that the novel perpetuates rather than breaks open male myths. All of the critics whom I read valorize the second ending, except for Woodcock, and I find this problematic. I do not think that one ending is more probable or plausible than the other or that Fowles wishes his reader to choose between them. It seems naive to disregard the narrator's emphasis on the fictional character of any ending and on the author's manipulative powers: fiction only "pretends to conform to the reality," whereas the writer "in fact fixes the fight." Although the narrator explains that he will solve the problem by showing "two versions" of "the fight," it is clear that any version will be biased and that in this case both endings are suspect since they are created from and remain caught within a masculine perspective. The narrator's further claim that "the second [ending] will seem, so strong is the tyranny of the last chapter, the final, the 'real' version" cannot be ignored but rather should render the whole idea of the double ending suspicious.
I think that both endings are possibilities but that neither can be valorized, because both are products of a totally male view and as such are limited: in both cases, the scene is described from Charles' side by the male narrator. Woodcock makes the noteworthy claim that in the first ending, Charles "is both apparently open to learn and the continuing victim-perpetrator of his sex's mythologies," and that in the second ending, "Charles's misogynistical misconceptions about Sarah win the day." This suggests that Charles remains caught within male ideologies in both endings, which in turn implies that the portrait of Sarah remains to the end a male product. The second ending, which is so often declared the "true" ending, in fact appears almost more chauvinistic than the first. In the first ending, Charles at least feels Sarah's "intellectual equality" and feels "admiration" for her even if he still does not understand her. In the second ending, however, Charles feels "his own true superiority to her" and finds "himself reborn" after having left Sarah for good. Sarah, in this second version, functions only as the catalyst for his rebirth and accordingly drops out of the story after Charles leaves her. The very last image of Sarah is symptomatically one of Sarah as "Sphinx." Both versions of the novel's conclusion thus show signs of remaining bound within male ideology, which explains why Sarah never achieves the independent existence as a character that Fowles tries to delineate for her.
If Sarah's point of view had been allowed into the novel and yet not subsumed within male ideology, she might have become a full character with the potential to reveal the bias against women inherent in the dominant and male ideology. With no voice with which to express her thoughts, however, Sarah remains an image and never becomes a woman or a female character in her own right. Rather than breaking open male myths, Fowles ultimately reinforces them by giving Sarah no being outside of those very myths or fictions with which she is presented—she is nothing more than a symbol, an ideal, a mythic figure, an Other—and giving readers no overt indications that Sarah's portrait may be a critique of male perspectives of women. Fowles does not make his use of male myths explicit and seems to assume that readers will discover for themselves the critique of masculine ideology within the text, which neglects to take into account that many readers are themselves caught within male ideology (although I acknowledge that readers of literature are also to blame for this shortcoming). This failure to account for the potential difficulties and even impossibility of many readers to transcend their own male-dominated ideologies suggests that Fowles to a certain extent remains caught within male ideology himself. The novel ultimately fails either to allow a place for woman's voice, which could open up the potential for woman's self-portrayal outside of male ideology as well as initiate a critique of male ideology, or to make its inherent exposure of male myths and ideology explicit. Regardless of the central position that the issue of feminism as theme takes in the novel and of Fowles' exposure of male myths and ideology, if only feminist or profeminist readers can see the novel's feminism, then I think that Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman falls short of being a feminist novel.
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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 structural architecture of patterning and counterpoint, the deviations from genre, the flagrant use of cinematic, novel-defeating conventions, the metafictional concerns, and so on. But seeing whole is a skill each reader must learn, and Fowles teaches his reader how to see whole by using the education of his protagonist as an example. Thus, each Fowles novel is about learning to see, but also about its own relation to that learning….
[The Ebony Tower] is, in intent, theme, and technique,… similar to The Magus. In both novels an unsettled man invades the private domain of a much older man, a mentor or hierophantic figure. In each case the young man becomes involved in an elaborate game with two women—one wanton, one demure—in which sex plays a major part. Even the motifs of the novels—art, music, swimming, drinking—are the same. At the end of the game they disgorge their victim back into his ordinary life a changed man, not immediately understanding what has happened to him.
All the novels are the same story at bottom, and we shall soon see why. They begin with a protagonist who suffers some degree of narcissism. He (or in the case of The Collector and A Maggot, she) has been living an inauthentic life and playing roles that substitute for true identity. He lives, as Nicholas might say, as though someone were looking over his shoulder. Nicholas Urfe sees himself as the homme revolté, while Miranda sees herself as the femme revoltée. Charles Smithson tries to be a proper Victorian gentleman, Rebecca Hocknell tries to be the most depraved of whores, and Daniel Martin has simply forgotten who he really is. The protagonists are, however, always in a state of disequilibrium. They feel nebulously ill at ease in their inauthentic lives, but do not know why; in fact, they are not even aware that they are playing roles. They are, to use one of Fowles's favorite metaphors, schizophrenic—torn between what they perceive is expected of them and what they dimly intuit they need to be. Nicholas confesses, "I was not the person I wanted to be"; and Rebecca echoes his dilemma: "I would not be what I am, sir."
This statement of desire to escape a false identity, to shed one's self-imposed mask, seals the protagonist's election; and to be elect in Fowles's terms means to be poised on a fulcrum, prepared to change one's wayward course even though the personal risks involved are significant. Charles showed great courage in setting off on an irreversible course that would expose him to ridicule and loss. Victorian society was safe and predictable, while the freedom Sarah offered was decidely dangerous. Dan needed a similar courage to divest himself of his easy, glib, but superficial life. He took a path that led him to the terrors of self-confrontation.
The elect individual is swept up by a benevolent magus who has already attained selfhood through some personal trial. This mentor draws the protagonist into what Fowles calls the godgame, a complex production designed to upset, disorient, and in all ways distress the "initiate." In the first phase of the godgame the magus takes the protagonist away from his familiar surroundings and thereby disturbs his tired habits of perception. Nick goes to Bourani, Miranda goes to her cell, Charles goes to the infamous Ware Cliffs, Dan goes up the Nile, and Rebecca journeys to Cleave Wood. Once the game is under way the protagonist becomes bereft of ordinary frames of reference. He will have to see with new eyes and use new standards of judgment.
The main strategy of the godgame is metatheater (though the metatheater is less overt in The Collector and Daniel Martin), a kind of living drama performed for and with the protagonist, without his knowledge of the artifice. The magus involves the protagonist in many layers of illusion by playing out, in metaphorical form, aspects of the protagonist's inauthenticity. Conchis dramatizes many of Nicholas's failings, such as his compulsive abstraction of women and his failure to understand his own nature. Sarah dramatizes, in her bizarre charade involving the French Lieutenant, Charles's struggling will to be free of Victorian restraints. Bartholomew shows Rebecca, in the extraordinary maggot vision, her own longing for peace, sanity, and "more love." The masque is meant to be a mirror in which one sees the reflection of one's self. The various anima figures throughout the novels also act as mirrors for the male initiates. June and Julie, for example, exist in their masque only to receive the projections of Nicholas; they will be whatever he wants them to be. Similarly, Sarah acts as the embodiment of everything Charles secretly wishes he were, just as Jane becomes the eyes through which Dan eventually sees himself.
Sex is always a significant part of the masque because the erotic element functions as a symbol for the ways in which human relationships are deformed by the protagonist's habit of games playing. Sex within the masque is virtually always masturbatory, voyeuristic, or pornographic, suggesting physical analogues to existential conditions. Nicholas is narcissistic and Fowles reveals him masturbating often. Charles is afraid to leap into selfhood, but he enjoys being on the fringe of Sarah's rich life; hence, she makes him the voyeur to her affair with Varguennes. Rebecca debases herself in prostitution, so Bartholomew contrives to involve her in a degrading threesome.
As the protagonist becomes enmeshed in story upon story and endeavors to make sense of the chameleon players he is involved with, he has increasing difficulty in discerning what is real and what is not. The protagonist's habitual approaches to life are unworkable, and slowly the cyclone of appearances works to deconstruct him. This is the ultimate point of the game—to make of the elect what Nicholas calls "a litter of parts." The game works to stress and ultimately break down the protagonist's false identity. The last act of the magus and his players is to abscond; they leave the protagonist alone, in exile, thereby forcing him to put himself back together again in a new way. Each godgame illustrates the lines from "Little Gidding" that Conchis leaves for Nicholas to find:
The end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.
The major lesson of the godgame is that individual existential freedom, the insistence upon one's right to an authentic personal destiny, is the highest human good. Each protagonist learns that he must see through the roles we all play in ordinary life. The one who is elect must make a conscious choice to live his real life in the world, but choosing once is not enough. Charles, for example, has to suffer anew each day for the freedom he stole and therefore must be willing to be perpetually crucified. Rebecca Lee must suffer poverty, ridicule, and persecution to be true to her vision. Thus, the protagonist who sets himself against the conforming, role-playing masses must be willing to suffer exile for his dissent.
In the journey toward self-awareness Fowles asserts the primacy of intuition, what Dan calls "right feeling," as the vehicle for knowledge. The very point of the godgame is that it cannot be understood by science or logic. It resists rational scrutiny. Appearances are always deceptive, as the numerous spy-narrators prove. The narrators of both A Maggot and The French Lieutenant's Woman are consistently deceived by the evidence of their senses. Nicholas is deceived by the glut of "proof" that Conchis offers him: the photos, letters, newspaper clippings, and so on. The use of language to deceive is a major theme in all the novels. Fowles shows that in ordinary life we interpret our surroundings according to established codes. We tend to put experience in categories, interpret new material by received ideas, to see with others' eyes, and this epistemological habit is what Fowles calls collector-consciousness. The magus thwarts the protagonist's collector tendencies by giving him an experience that goes far beyond his ability to categorize it. There is, for example, no code that will help Rebecca understand her flying maggot, as there is no easy way for Nicholas to interpret his fantastic trial. The protagonist finds himself by looking inside rather than outside for explanations. Each must "turn in," as Anthony warns Dan, to find the "right feeling" that both reason and language are inadequate to convey.
Fowles uses characteristic metaphors and motifs throughout his novels to express his themes. He uses cinematic techniques (most notably the narrator, who rolls the story before us like a kind of living movie camera) to parallel the way in which we ordinarily perceive life. That is, we are all victims of the tyranny of a present tense that drags us on, treadmill style. We tend to see life as a progress from a beginning to an end, and as a result exclude the sense of "whole sight." Certainly Dan's problem is that he literally perceives his life as a film because films can only work in one tense at a time—the present. Fowles believes that linear time is an artificial measuring device imposed upon experience, that real time is nebulous, and that all time lies parallel. He believes in what he calls a "spinning top" model of history and holds as ideal vision the perception of all three tenses at once. This ideal is fully expressed in A Maggot when the silver woman first splinters into her three ages, then merges again.
The typical Fowles protagonist is temporarily blinded by the customs and fashions of his own time, and thus looks upon life with tunnel vision. A major characteristic of each godgame is that it takes the protagonist not only out of his physical space but out of his own time as well. All the elect become time travelers. Conchis throws Nicholas into a whirlwind of myth and archetype, and in his masque he meets Diana, Ashtaroth, Desdemona, a dead Edwardian girl, and so on. Dan's journey represents a going back in time, as he visits first the ancient ruins of Egypt, then, finally, the very roots of human civilization in Mesopotamia. Rebecca journeys into the future of the human race, and when she returns she finds she can also communicate with dead spirits. Of all Fowles's protagonists, she achieves what is perhaps the most nearly complete whole sight. Because Fowles believes in quantum time rather than linear time, he eschews the notion of endings. The godgame always leaves its subject in a quandary because the magus denies him a neat conclusion to his ordeal. The protagonist is a "litter of parts" adrift in a sea of mysteries. But it is the existence of mystery, the denial of an artificial ending, that gives the protagonist the energy to quest on, to reconstruct himself and his perception of the world. His new life feeds on mystery.
The themes of time and perception are conveyed through different narratorial strategies in each novel, but Fowles always uses the motif of doors, rooms, and windows to express the difference between tunnel vision and whole sight. In these novels crucial discoveries take place outdoors. Nicholas has penetrating insights into his predicament when he awakes on a hillside after his trial. Charles finds himself on the Ware Cliffs, as Rebecca finds what she is looking for in Cleave Wood. Dan understands most about himself as he surveys the dismal waste of desert at Palmyra. Indoors, characters are confined and confused, and rooms, as well as closed doors, become a metaphor for lack of personal freedom. In his "stage-settings," in which he plays much with the physical structure of buildings, Fowles examines the ways in which humans enclose, confine, and limit space. The brain in Mantissa has a door but no apparent means of egress for Miles. The drawing rooms of The French Lieutenant's Woman are an appropriate counterpoint to the open spaces Sarah inhabits. Nicholas moves through the warren-like hallways and bedrooms of Bourani and ends in the trial cell before he earns his meeting with Alison, out of doors, in London. Ayscough's quarters are much like a prison, and in fact he often keeps his deponents under arrest. Miranda's prison is, of course, the ultimate metaphor for lack of freedom. Inside rooms people are confused and unreal. In each of the novels Fowles is looking for the door that leads out of the prison.
If the protagonist learns that all time is one, he also learns that he has a "linked destiny" with the rest of his human fellows. The protagonist who begins as Homo solitarus ends, as a result of his trial, with a sense of empathy. The godgame breaks down the walls he builds, the arbitrary categories he puts between himself and others. Nicholas, Charles, and Miranda all experience the deflation of their pretensions, the sense that they are somehow better, smarter, more astute than their fellows. Dan and Rebecca, both of whom had been exiled from friends and family, find their way back into the human fold and "the warm web of kin."
Thus the characters undergo complete metamorphosis. They begin with false, provisional identities and end as freer, more authentic beings. The metamorphosis encompasses the journey from narcissism to humanism, from games playing and artifice to a respect for decency, moderation, sanity, feeling, and caring. The Fowles protagonist comes to honor "the elementary decencies of existence—method, habit, routine … continuity." The orderly life is reflected in our last glimpse of Dan, who is standing beside Jane in her kitchen. It is also expressed in Rebecca's vision of the Shaker community.
Of course the most obvious question about any Fowles text is, why does there have to be a godgame at all? Through his various unusual technical strategies Fowles shows in each novel how limited our seeing is in everyday life, how time bound and tradition bound we are, how accustomed we are to looking at the world with collector-consciousness, and how sullied are our true natures. In our everyday lives we train ourselves to ignore and to conform. As Fowles said to me in conversation, "Life does condition us so frightfully, that it's terribly difficult to sense … the underlying nature of existence. You know, we are caged more and more by present society in roles, and I think being able to see through the roles is most important…. Most people like to be conditioned, unfortunately, it's a fallacy that everybody wants to be freer in the sense we're talking about. They're much happier I think, having fixed routines and a limited way of life." We need to be awakened from this existential torpor and, in his extravagant metaphor of the godgame, Fowles proposes that fiction itself is the great awakener, the great teacher. The maguses involve their subjects in fictions to teach them how to see. Thus the godgame is heuristic. The logic of the godgame is identical to Hamlet's logic when he says, "The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king." Fiction teaches by the method of metaphor because to interpret the difficult material of the story, material that always suggests and never assigns meaning, one must "turn in" to process the information. In this way fiction is a reflection of the protagonist. It illuminates what everything else in ordinary life conspires to hide: what is already there inside him. Because stories lead to self-understanding, fiction is the great existential adventure.
But Fowles always takes the godgame one step further. Through narrative technique he deconstructs the reader as well as the protagonist, and each reader is in turn the elect. Each novel is a parallel godgame in which both the protagonist and the reader grope through the multiple deceptions and illusions of the text. The same operations the protagonist performs, the reader must perform as well. Each novel itself is a dense tapestry of allusiveness, studied confusion, moral quandary, myth, archetype, symbol, and motif. The reader struggles with this polysemy as well as with the substance and mechanics of the protagonist's masque. This density mirrors the complexity of life and if the reader would see the text whole, he must undergo the same sort of reconstruction as the protagonist.
Like the protagonist, the reader must cast off his collector-consciousness and, in terms of the novel, that means he must give up certain generic expectations. He must not expect endings because endings, as Fowles shows us, are arbitrary and artificial. He must also, like the protagonist, not expect to have the mysteries solved for him. The traditional model of the novel's author is the fight fixer as Fowles describes him in The French Lieutenant's Woman: "Fiction usually pretends to conform to reality: the writer puts the conflicting wants in the ring and then describes the fight—but in fact fixes the fight, letting that want he himself favors win." Fowles consistently repudiates the notion of an author-god, and he assiduously avoids fight fixing. He refuses, in effect, to collect his readers. He desires in his fiction to allow the reader the same psychoanalytic, reconstructive experience as the protagonist, with its attendant, sometimes uneasy freedoms.
Each novel ultimately tells the same story, and the story of the survival of individual freedom is the only story. Upon it are contingent all other human stories, such as history and evolution, because, as both Fowles and Jung affirm, the survival of the race depends upon the salvation of each individual soul. In The Magus Fowles uses Hitler to illustrate this idea. Conchis asserts that the real tragedy of Nazi Germany was not that one man had the courage to be evil, but that the millions who followed him, and who were basically sensible, decent people, had not the courage to be good.
In telling his urgent story again and again, Fowles is really conveying his sense that the process of understanding is what he considers important. The real art of John Fowles lies in his showing us the different ways by which we can come to know and be ourselves, despite formidable handicaps and pressures to conform. Always in his novels he compares the art of reading well with the art of living well. Both require considerable perceptual acuity, indeed whole sight. We transfer the methods by which we come to understand his texts onto the plots of our everyday lives. To study the art of Fowles is to study how fiction humanizes us.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 996
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 on their themes, structure, and historical sources.
Boccia, Michael. "'Visions and Revisions': John Fowles's New Version of The Magus." Journal of Modern Literature 8, No. 2 (1980–1981): 235-46.
Remarks on Fowles's revisions to The Magus, noting that most of the changes "make Fowles's themes more explicit or help to create sharper characterization."
Broich, Ulrich. "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. Mischik and Barbara Korte, pp. 179-89. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 1990.
Contends that "The Enigma" is an amalgamation of experimentalism and realism, and is representative of contemporary British short fiction.
De Vitis, A. A., and Schwerdt, Lisa M. "The French Lieutenant's Woman and 'Las Meninas': Correspondences of Art." The International Fiction Review 12, No. 2 (Summer 1985): 102-04.
Brief essay focusing on the thematic parallels between Diego de Silva Velazquez's painting and Fowles's novel.
Doherty, Gerald. "The Secret Plot of Metaphor: Rhetorical Designs in John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman." Paragraph 9 (March 1987): 49-68.
Argues that the three major plot designs in The French Lieutenant's Woman are "narrativized allegories" of the plots of metaphor that Paul Ricoeur presents in his study The Rule of Metaphor.
Dopp, Jamie, and Olshen, Barry N. "Fathers and Sons: Fowles's The Tree and Autobiographical Theory." Mosaic 22, No. 4 (Fall 1989): 31-44.
Relates The Tree's contribution to autobiographical theory and an understanding of Fowles's theories on fiction writing and humankind's relationship with nature.
Fossa, John A. "Through Seeding to Mystery: A Reappraisal of John Fowles' The Magus." Orbis Litterarum 44, No. 2 (1989): 161-80.
Suggests an alternative reading of The Magus that "view[s] Nicholas not as a magus in the making, but as always having been a magus, though he himself only becomes aware of this through his experiences on the island of Phraxos."
Gaggi, Silvio. "Pirandellian and Brechtian Aspects of the Fiction of John Fowles." Comparative Literature Studies 23, No. 4 (Winter 1986): 324-34.
Argues that "the fiction of John Fowles has clear narrative correspondences to themes and techniques that occur in modern theatre."
Gallop, David. "Can Fiction Be Stranger than Truth? An Aristotelian Answer." Philosophy and Literature 15, No. 1 (April 1991): 1-18.
Contends that the double ending Fowles employed in The French Lieutenant's Woman "defeats the aim of fiction, constructed along Aristotelian lines, as moving and enlightening the reader."
Garard, Charles. Point of View in Fiction and Film: Focus on John Fowles. New York: Peter Lang, 1991, 142 p.
Analyzes the film adaptations of The Collector, The Magus, and The French Lieutenant's Woman.
Haegert, John. "Memoirs of a Deconstructive Angel: The Heroine as Mantissa in the Fiction of John Fowles." Contemporary Literature 27, No. 2 (Summer 1986): 160-81.
Examines the thematic and symbolic role of women in Fowles's fiction with the focus of the essay being Mantissa.
Holmes, Frederick M. "John Fowles's Variation on Angus Wilson's Variation on E. M. Forster: 'The Cloud,' 'Et Dona Ferentes,' and 'The Story of a Panic.'" Ariel 20, No. 3 (July 1989): 39-52.
Concludes that "Wilson's apparent influence on Fowles no more resulted in mere imitation than did Forster's apparent influence on Wilson. Rather Fowles turned his countryman's methods and concerns to his own distinct purposes in order to create a subtler and more compelling story."
Ireland, K. R. "Towards a Grammar of Narrative Sequence: The Model of The French Lieutenant's Woman." Poetics Today 7, No. 3 (1986): 397-420.
Analyzes the novel's narrative progression by focusing on the relationships and transitions between chapters.
Lorsch, Susan E. "Pinter Fails Fowles: Narration in The French Lieutenant's Woman." Film Literature Quarterly 16, No. 3 (July 1988): 144-54.
Faults Harold Pinter's screenplay for failing to fully translate the spirit of Fowles's narrative through the film-within-a-film metaphor.
Mansfield, Elizabeth. "A Sequence of Endings: The Manuscripts of The French Lieutenant's Woman." Journal of Modern Literature 8, No. 2 (1980–1981): 275-86.
Analysis of Fowles's novel focusing on the creative process surrounding the multiple endings.
Miller, Walter, Jr. "Chariots of the Goddesses, or What?" The New York Times Book Review (8 September 1985): 11.
Favorably reviews A Maggot.
Modern Fiction Studies, Special Issue: John Fowles 31, No. 1 (Spring 1985): 3-210.
Contains essays on Fowles's major novels, an interview, and a bibliography of secondary sources.
Moynahan, Julian. "Fly Casting." The New Republic 193, No. 15 (7 October 1985): 47-9.
Comments on the literary and historical influences that inform A Maggot.
Smith, Frederick N. "The Endings of The French Lieutenant's Woman: Another Speculation on the Manuscript." Journal of Modern Literature 14, No. 4 (Spring 1988): 579-84.
Refutes Elizabeth Mansfield's claim (see article cited above) that Fowles originally intended the novel to have a single, happy ending and only later, on the advice of his wife, added the unhappy ending.
Vieth, Lynne S. "The Re-humanization of Art: Pictorial Aesthetics in John Fowles's The Ebony Tower and Daniel Martin." Modern Fiction Studies 37, No. 2 (Summer 1991): 217-33.
Discusses Fowles's concern with the relationship between imagistic and narrative insight as displayed in The Ebony Tower, "The Cloud," and Daniel Martin.
Ward, Carol. "Movie as Metaphor: Focus on Daniel Martin." Literature Film Quarterly 15, No. 1 (January 1987): 8-14.
Argues that a major thematic and structural component of Daniel Martin is "Fowles's comparison of the aesthetic properties of film and literature (represented by both fiction and drama)."
Foulke, Robert. "A Conversation with John Fowles." Salmagundi, Nos. 68-69 (Fall 1985–Winter 1986): 367-84.
Discussion relating Fowles's views on history and novel writing.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8381
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 present title. If, however, we consider Fowles's stated intent, we see a pattern emerging of the protagonist's struggles to take the journey toward self-discovery or individuation, the emphasis of the stories in this collection being on the bleaker aspects of failed attempts.
Also included in the collection is Fowles's translation of the medieval romance Eliduc, which, as he explains in "A Personal Note" preceding it, is connected to [the novella] The Ebony Tower in the same way that medieval romance is connected to modern fiction—as a natural outgrowth. Thus, the stories of The Ebony Tower not only demonstrate variations on the ancient theme of the quest, but also variations on the theme of Fowles's fiction.
The title story describes a quester who inadvertently stumbles into the realm of myth, only to find that he cannot rise to the challenge of the quest and is therefore ejected from the mythic landscape. The other three stories in the collection are all centered on enigmas (one of the stories is titled "The Enigma") or mysteries of modern life. These mysteries arise because "mystery" in the sacred sense no longer appears valid in modern man's existence. The movement of the stories is generally downward toward darkness, modern man depicted as being less and less able to take the mythic journey of self-discovery because he is trapped in a wasteland world that bewilders him.
David Williams of The Ebony Tower is the typical Fowlesian protagonist: well-born and bred, self-assured, and representative of his age and class. Driving through the forests of Brittany, the landscape of the Celtic romance, he is unsuspecting of the mythic encounter that awaits him. Since David's approach to life is one of "intelligent deduction," as opposed to "direct experience," he is ill prepared for the journey he is about to undertake. As a source of information, his journey will not be wasted; as a source of psychic growth, not the expressed purpose but the implied opportunity, his journey will be wasted because his rational response will prove insufficient to the challenge.
Turning off the main road into the forest lane, David comes to the "promised sign" announcing Manoir de Coëtminais: coët meaning "wood" or "forest" and minais meaning "of the monks," the sacred wood of the mythic quest. Fowles's description of David's experience within this mythic domain has similarities linking it to Robert Browning's poem "'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,'" not the least of which is the association between the dark tower and the ebony tower. The differences are also interesting. While Roland fears his journey because he knows its dangers, David relishes his journey, being unsuspecting of danger. Roland is directed to the path off the main road by a "hoary cripple" who is "posted there" to point the way; David is directed by the posted "promised sign." The day is bleak on Roland's arrival, sunny on David's; but when David leaves Coëtminais, the day becomes as bleak as it is in Browning's poem. For David's departure the sky is "clouded over" and the landscape is of "dull, stubbled plains," a setting which corresponds with "the gray plain all round" and "stubbed ground" of Roland's landscape. In Roland's view "all hope of greenness" is gone, and when David leaves Coëtminais the same holds true: "an end now to all green growth." The essential difference, however, between the two journeys is that Roland has spent his life preparing for his journey and will rise to the challenge, while David has spent his life avoiding the challenge, living comfortably but superficially. When he finds himself faced with the dark tower of his existence, he cannot rise to meet it; therefore, his departure from the mythic landscape is as bleak as Roland's approach, or bleaker because Roland has at least the hope of success in the face of adversity, while David must live the rest of his life with the surety of his failure.
David comes to Breasley as an admirer of his art for its "mysterious" and "archetypal" qualities, which some critics called "'Celtic'" "with the recurrence of the forest motif, the enigmatic figures and confrontations." Breasley pretends to downplay the Celtic influence but tells David at the same time:
'Just here and there, don't you know, David. What one needs. Suggestive. Stimulating, that's the word.' Then he went off on Marie de France and Eliduc. 'Damn' good tale. Read it several times. What's the old Swiss bamboozler's name. Jung, yes? His sort of stuff. Archetypal and all that.'
In discussing the significant influences on his art, Breasley links the medieval quest with the Jungian archetypes, seeing the two as united in his work, just as Fowles unites the two strains in this story and in his fiction as a whole.
David knows that his art, as well as his lifestyle, is different from Breasley's; therefore he is not entirely surprised to meet the two girls who live with Breasley: Anne, dubbed "the Freak," and Diana, dubbed "the Mouse." Like the twins in The Magus, these two girls serve as mirror images, two halves that complement one another as two aspects of womankind. Diana, the Mouse, is described as ethereal, distant, feminine, and almost always dressed in white. Her counterpart, Anne, the Freak, is described as "aboriginal," sexual, coarse, and almost always dressed in black. Taken together, Diana and Anne, Anne's name contained within Diana's, form the archetype of the anima for David. David is attracted to the Mouse, finding the Freak somewhat offensive. His later failure to meet the challenge of the quest stems partly from the fact that he cannot accept the "freak," her sexuality, in the Mouse and respond positively to it. Breasley understands the dual nature of both girls, but his secret about the significance of the Mouse's name—"muse" with the feminine "o" drawn in the shape of a vulva—strengthens her role as an anima figure in the story, not only for David but for Breasley. Fowles ascribes to the power of the muses as well, telling an interviewer, "'I do believe in inspiration. I almost believe in muses. In fact, I wrote a short story last year that did bring the muses into modern life'" [John Fowles with Daniel Halpern, "A Sort of Exile in Lyme Regis," London Magazine (March 1971)].
Somewhat confused by his initial encounter, David feels like an outsider within the mythic domain, and he wishes his wife were with him to support his persona and protect him from the dangers of "so many ripening apples," an obvious reference to the temptation of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. At the same time, David thinks of his wife as "poor old Beth" and "predictable old Beth," revealing the nature of their relationship in its unfruitfulness. Thus to handle the confusing situation he faces, he provides himself with rational explanations for the things he sees in much the same way that Charles and Nicholas try to understand their own as well as others' behavior by ascribing rational explanations to them.
Related to David's need for a rational approach to life is his need to express everything verbally, to compartmentalize all experience within the boundaries of language. Language is certainly important, as any novelist will admit, but language cannot be a substitute for feeling. In an interview after the publication of The Ebony Tower, Fowles discusses David's use of language, calling it "a kind of smooth language … which is losing meaning" [Interview on The Today Show, NBC (11 November 1974)]. Breasley, on the other hand, is barely verbal, speaking for the most part in a kind of abbreviated language of fragments and phrases and communicating his important thoughts and feelings through his canvasses. Breasley can, however, use language effectively when necessary, as he demonstrates by means of a verbal attack upon David after dinner, drawing from him a symbolic "drop of blood." David mistakes the verbal wound for his initiation, thinking prematurely that he has passed the test. Unlike Gawain, the medieval quester who is similarly wounded by the Green Knight but who learns from the wound an important lesson, David has not learned anything yet except the art of carefully sidestepping an argument. In this case, however, he does not know how to respond to "the violently personal nature of the assault" Breasley mounts with such barbs as, "'You really a painter, Williams? Or just a gutless bloody word-twister?'," to which David replies, "'Hatred and anger are not luxuries we can afford anymore.'" This elicits further insults from Breasley who, by now quite drunk, explains to David that he is trying to tell him something important, although he confesses to his inadequacy with words (David's presumed strength). In his abbreviated style he summarizes: "'Don't hate, can't love. Can't love, can't paint…. Bloody geometry. No good. Won't work. All tried it. Down the hole.'" He concludes "with a strange lucidity": "'Ebony Tower. That's what I call it.'" The meaning of the term is not explained until later by the Mouse, who tells David that it signifies anything Breasley does not like about modern art, in particular the obscurity of artists who are afraid to be clear. Fowles elaborates on the meaning of the term:
I see the ebony tower as not so much an 'opposite' of the ivory one, as an inevitable consequence of it … if one stays too long in retreat in the sacred combe. Thus, a great deal of unnecessary 20th century 'obscurity' is a direct cultural result of 19th century ivory-towerism—art for art's sake, and so on. The trouble for me is not, so to speak, at the top—let us say, in the genius with which Mallarmé uses ambiguity and obscurity (and with undoubted sincerity in his greatest stuff); but the only-too-easy loophole it provides for the less gifted. Deliberately making your work incomprehensible is uncomfortably close to making it impossible to judge. [Letter from Fowles to Barnum, 5 August 1981]
David recognizes the creative powers in the old man, as evidenced in his canvasses, but fails to see their absence in his own art or life; he merely sees his existence as different from Breasley's, thinking the old man's self-imposed exile is based on the knowledge that "his persona would never wash in the Britain of the 1970s." He does, however, envy Breasley's lifestyle and success: "To someone like David, always inclined to see his own life (like his painting) in terms of logical process, its future advances dependent on intelligent present choices, it seemed not quite fair."
Logical process begins to break down within the mythic landscape as David realizes that much of what he is learning about Breasley cannot be put in his introduction because "like the forest itself, the old man had his antique mysteries." In the same vein, at a picnic in the woods with Breasley and the girls, he likens Coët to the Garden of Eden, seeing the place and its lifestyle as "faintly mythic and timeless." The Mouse concurs, telling David how she came to Coët: "'Bump. You're in a different world.'" He also is beginning to recognize more in the Freak's character than he previously realized, seeing in her look, which is "both questing and quizzing," a directness and gentleness that he previously missed, and thus recognizing an identity and a complimentarity between the two girls (as aspects of the anima archetype). Quickly, he feels drawn toward the three as a part of a living quaternity, which he completes, the result of which brings him an experience of the mandala archetype.
At the same time, David is feeling the influence of the Mouse in her role as the projection of the anima archetype:
He knew it and concealed it … not only to her, partly also to himself: that is, he analyzed what he had so rapidly begun to find attractive about her—why that precise blend of the physical and the psychological, the reserved and the open … called so strongly to something in his own nature. Strange, how these things hit you out of the blue, were somehow inside you almost before you could see them approaching. He felt a little bewitched, possessed; and decided it must be mainly the effect of being without Beth.
Several interesting points are revealed in this passage. One is that David recognizes the power of the Mouse as the anima archetype, even her power to bewitch or possess him, but he wants to analyze the situation so as to control it and to control the "something" it calls to in his nature: the anima within. In the midst of this analysis, a sentence intrudes in the second person where the sentences before and after are in the third person. Is this sentence, through the sudden use of "you," reflecting the voice of David's inner self, that which he seeks without knowing it? It speaks of the way "things hit you out of the blue" coming from "somewhere inside you," and it foreshadows the experience he will have with the Mouse in the garden. But the next sentence is safely back in the more distant third person as David attributes the strange things he is feeling to the absence of Beth, the projection of his persona.
Breasley, continuing in the archetypal role as David's guide, tells him that he does not provide answers to questions about his sources: "'Let it happen. That's all. Couldn't even tell you how it starts. What half it means. Don't want to know.'" Like Conchis in The Magus who tells Nicholas that "every answer is a form of death," Breasley is interested in life, not answers. Speaking of "trop de racine," he calls it "'too much root. Origin. Past. Not the flower. The now. Thing on the wall. Faut couper la racine. Cut the root off.'" His message for David is that too much reliance on the past, the root, stifles growth in the present, the flower. Although the present is connected to the root of the past, it cannot be chained to it; if this happens, one must cut the root off to save the flower.
The more David learns from Breasley in his capacity as teacher and guide and the Mouse in her capacity as anima, the more he feels drawn into the quest. There is, however, the danger of becoming too attached to the mythic realm, thus fearing to leave it. Such a fate has befallen the Mouse who sees Coët as the "'little forest womb … [where] everything remains possible.'" On the contrary, her possibilities for full growth cannot be realized as long as she stays within the protection of the domain. Part of David's task as mythic quester is to rescue her from her "forest womb" and provide her with safe passage back to the real world. David senses the challenge he faces:
He felt he had traveled much farther than expected, into the haunted and unpredicted; and yet in some strange way it seemed always imminent. It had had to come, it had had causes, too small, too manifold to have been detected in the past or to be analyzed now.
For once he does not analyze, accepting that he has come to the central task of his journey. As he is awakened to the anima within, seen as Diana, she is awakened to the animus, which she projects on David, and the moment in which they must act in acknowledgment of each other is fast approaching.
The moment is "here, now, the unsaid" as they move to the Edenic garden with its "ghostly apple trees." And still, although it is "his move," David cannot make it, withdrawing instead, under the influence of the shadow archetype, "into speech." Knowing his inadequacy, he wishes for "two existences," finding himself unable to be united into one whole existence and yet not wanting to forsake this moment. Thoughts of Beth and the world he has left behind freeze him in inaction while one half of him nevertheless yearns to incorporate Breasley's teachings through his actions, as he thinks:
Why deny experience, his artistic soul's sake, why ignore the burden of the old man's entire life? Take what you can. And so little: a warmth, a clinging, a brief entry into another body. One small releasing act. And the terror of it, the enormity of destroying what one had so carefully built.
Again his inner self speaks to him through the voice of the second person. Momentarily, the inner voice wins out and he takes Diana in his arms, but she, sensing his hesitation, pulls away, and he does not take her to him again, resorting instead to a fatherly kiss on the top of her head and ineffectual back-patting. From this point on, the struggle to regain a sense of the moment when all was potential is futile.
David has failed not only himself, by refusing to accept the anima within even after acknowledging its presence, but also Diana, by falling short of what she has needed to break the spell of Coët and facilitate her return to the real world. Thinking of his impending expulsion from the mythic landscape, he contemplates the ramifications of his failure, knowing that he cannot return, being "banned for life now." And worse than Adam, also banned for life from the Garden of Eden, he has left his Eve behind, the manifestation of the anima archetype in the person of Diana.
Leaving Coët, he runs over an object in the road. At first he thinks he has hit a mouse (an oblique reference to Diana, the Mouse) or a snake (a reference to the serpent in the Garden of Eden); but, on turning back, he discovers that he has hit a weasel, the same animal wounded in the tale of Eliduc, whose forest he now rides through. Fowles uses the weasel as a symbol that links the motif of his story with that of Eliduc. Unlike Eliduc, however, who successfully loved two women and whose tale demonstrates love as a connecting force. David cannot truly love either woman in his life. Thus, his tale demonstrates love as a dividing force since David is a divided man, caught between two worlds. Instead of being able to save the weasel that in Eliduc bears the life-restoring red flower, he kills it, and the blood that trickles from its mouth in the shape of the red flower now signifies his present psychic state of death without rebirth. The weasel's body is crushed but the head escapes, indicating the death of magic or creative powers with only the intellect or rational powers surviving.
The remainder of the story comprises David's analysis of his dilemma, not necessary for understanding the story's thesis, but in keeping with David's analytical character. He recognizes that fear, a manifestation of the shadow archetype, has prevented him from accepting the challenge of the quest, and he sees his art as reflecting his failure towards life: "You did not want how you lived to be reflected in your painting; or because it was compromised, so settled-for-the-safe, you could only try to camouflage its hollow reality under craftsmanship and good taste." Broadening the scope of his failure, David sees it as representative of his age. While Breasley is still connected to the past through a life-giving "umbilical cord," David and his contemporaries are "encapsulated in book knowledge." The authorial voice intones:
David and his generation, and all those to come, could only look back, through bars, like caged animals, born in captivity, at the old green freedom. That described exactly the experience of those last two days: the laboratory monkey allowed a glimpse of his lost true self.
As the mythic quester who quests for all, David is correct in seeing his failure as the failure of his age.
Yet, knowing that he has failed, he also knows that he will eventually forget his failure. The "wound" he has suffered will be covered by a scar, which in time will fade, leaving no trace; but until that moment comes, he will have to live with the realization that "he had refused (and even if he had never seen her again) a chance of a new existence, and the ultimate quality and enduringness of his work had rested on acceptance." Now in Paris he thinks of Coët as "in another universe" and he feels the loss of his paradise as "the most intense pang of the most terrible of all human deprivations; which is not of possession, but of knowledge." Fowles elaborates on David's predicament in an [unpublished] interview: "I meant simply that David knows after Coëtminais that his life will never be the same, but restricted by his new knowledge of himself. His dreams of himself are shipwrecked; but because he is decent he must learn to live with what he knows, with his newly revealed lacks and faults." A last urge in him toward salvation through knowledge is kept in check by "the tall shadow of him," his inability to break through the complacency and confinements, perhaps even decency, of his persona. David is not shadow-possessed, like Clegg in The Collector, but neither has he conquered the shadow.
In the last passage, which describes Beth's approach from the plane, Fowles switches from past to present tense in the same way he does in the last page of the revised version of The Magus. The major difference, however, is that in The Magus the present tense expresses the limitless possibility of the future awaiting Nicholas. For David, the present is an entrapping tense, keeping him frozen in failure because of his denial of the future. The passage reads: "She comes with the relentless face of the present tense…. He composes his face into an equal certainty"; it continues: "He has a sense of retarded waking, as if in a postoperational state of consciousness some hours returned but not till now fully credited; a numbed sense of something beginning to slip inexorably away."
In Fowles's use of the "postoperational state" to describe David's condition, we hear an echo of T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in which the night is "spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table." Other images reinforce the connection with Prufrock, another quester who dares not meet the challenge of life because, like David, he is a divided man, suffering from what Eliot calls "dissociation of sensibility." Like Prufrock who "prepare[s] a face to meet the faces that you meet," David wears a persona that allows him to meet the faces he meets, particularly the face of his wife who now approaches. Also like Prufrock, who has "heard the mermaids singing, each to each," David has caught a liberating glimpse of life's potential at Coët, only to suffer Prufrock's fate when "human voices wake us, and we drown." In similar terms, Fowles describes David as one who "knows one dreamed, yet cannot remember. The drowning cry, jackbooted day." He wakes to reality, the human voices of the present drowning out the dream of the anima (which for Prufrock is symbolized by the mermaids' cry); and "he surrenders to what is left: to abstraction." Eliot's "dissociated" man, Prufrock, becomes Fowles's abstract man, David Williams. In response to his wife's implied question about the weekend, David says, "'I survived,'" a statement of hollow victory which concludes the novella and leaves us with the sinking sense of David's lost possibilities, his death-in-life in the eternal present, synonymous with Prufock's waking to drown. Had David succeeded in his quest, he would have done far more than survive: he would have lived.
The remaining stories in the collection are connected to the title story by the theme of lost opportunities. The sense of gloom that the ebony tower signifies becomes more pervasive, ending with the image of the dark cloud which overtakes the sun in the last story. In the first of these, "Poor Koko," the narrator's "ordeal," as he calls his encounter with the young thief who burns his writing, brings him the closest of the protagonists of the remaining stories to an understanding of his personal failure, but it leaves him helpless to do anything more than explain it. His quest for self-knowledge is not voluntarily sought but forced upon him by the unusual circumstance of the robbery and his desire to understand it.
The details of the experience that begin the writer's journey are these: having gone to the country to work on his manuscript, he is awakened by a young thief. They engage in an encounter that crosses generational as well as attitudinal lines and that culminates in the thief's burning the writer's manuscript, a seemingly incomprehensible act. Following the act comes an equally incomprehensible gesture: the thief's cocked thumb in the writer's face. His departure leaves the writer the task of understanding the incomprehensible while subjected to "the acrid smell, surely the most distressing of all after burnt human flesh, of cremated human knowledge." What, in effect, has happened is that the heart of the writer, his life's work, has been put to death, and he must now construct a new one grounded in an understanding of his relationship and responsibility towards other people.
The writer begins by analyzing the robber's last "cocked thumb" gesture. At the time of its occurrence, he saw it puzzlingly as a sign of mercy when there was no mercy shown. Later he establishes other meanings for the gesture—all inappropriate to the situation. Finally, after seeing the gesture used by a football player to signal courage to the crowd before the game begins, the writer interprets the thief's gesture as a warning to him: "a grim match was about to start and the opposing team he represented was determined to win." Hidden also in the gesture, as the writer analyzes it, is the thief's feeling that the odds are stacked in the writer's favor. Burning the papers begins the match.
The writer continues his analysis of the evening based on the linguistic implications of the thief's use of two words: "man" and "right." In the thief's frequent use of "man," the writer sees an attempt to bring them together within the family of man, while at the same time showing the vast differences that separate them. Through his use of "right" (with a question implied) he expresses his "underlying mistrust … of language itself." The writer, in his analysis, is, of course, expressing Fowles's view of the deterioration of language, a view he reiterates in discussing the story: "The point I was trying to make is that though I should like to see life become more simple in many (social) ways, language was not one of them" [Letter from Fowles to Barnum, 9 April 1980]. Thus, in the story, the young thief's frustration at the old man comes from his inability to use language to express himself and his anger at the old man's refusal to share the power of language with him. Understanding this, the old man writes, "I must very soon have appeared to the boy as one who deprived him of a secret—and one he secretly wanted to possess."
On a larger scale, the clash between the boy and the writer is seen as the clash between generations, between a world in which language is meaningful and one in which it is empty, stripped of its "magic" and "mystery" in the profound sense. The writer, again probably speaking as Fowles's mouthpiece, raises the conflict to a universal plane, seeing the problem as extending beyond this particular encounter to include television, the arts, social and political institutions, and the educational system. To strengthen the universal nature of the conflict, Fowles refrains from assigning names to the two main characters; they maintain their generalized roles as the old man and the boy, the writer and the thief. Even while their clash takes on universal proportions, it does not absolve the writer of his responsibility in the matter, which he sees as stemming from his "deafness." The deafness, while not specifically elucidated, is linked to the title of the story, which the writer explains is deliberately obscure. In illuminating its various meanings, he sheds light on the problem existing between himself and the boy, between his view of life and the boy's, between a world in which language and symbol have meaning and the present state of the world in which they do not. For example, when he asked friends to analyze the meaning of the title of his story, the consensus was that it derived from an unusual spelling for Coco the clown. On one level, as the writer explains, this is an accurate interpretation if the title refers to both participants and if "poor" carries its several meanings. However, as the writer continues, he had in mind koko, the Japanese word meaning "correct filial behavior, the proper attitude of son to father"; thus, the title means inadequate or inferior filial behavior, indicating the failure of the relationship between the "father" and "son" of the story. Further, the writer illuminates the meaning of the "incomprehensible epigraph" following the title, saying that it "shall have the last word, and serve as judgment on both father and son":
Too long a tongue, too short a hand;But tongueless man has lost his land.
Inherent in the epigraph, now brought to light through the still viable powers of the old man, is the idea that language must serve to reach out from father to son but must at the same time be accompanied by human love, the "hand." For if man loses his language, the power of the word to communicate, he loses his heritage, his roots. The epigraph "comes with a sad prescience" from old Cornish, an extinct language without a land, since it may foreshadow the fate of English and other contemporary languages if the writer, as the representative "father," keeps his "tongue" to himself, refusing to communicate through his "hand" the love and spirit of the language as a reflection of heritage, "the land." The title of the story and its epigraph are obscure, as is the meaning of the boy's action toward the old man—each requires translation. But the question remains as to whether the writer's new-found understanding, forced on him through such unusual circumstances, can save his age from the fate of extinction. It certainly comes too late to save the boy or provide him with the foundation for a correct filial relationship based on love, understanding, and the old man's transference of the creative power of language.
In the succeeding story, "The Enigma," a mystery of a different kind is presented: the disappearance of John Marcus Fielding, prominent businessman, family man, Member of Parliament. Since the disappearance has no apparent criminal motivation, the question is raised as to why a man who seemed to have everything would want to abscond from life. The answer, as it is pieced together by hypothesis and conjecture, is that a life that seemed to offer a man everything in actuality provided him with an incurable feeling of emptiness; therefore, he set out to create his own mystery through his disappearance.
Since Fielding has disappeared before the story begins, the focus is on Sergeant Michael Jennings, whose life is connected to Fielding's by more than just the investigation. One of their connections involves their concern with keeping up appearances. Peter Fielding, the M.P.'s son, tells Jennings, "Maybe you don't know the kind of world I was brought up in. But its leading principle is never, never, never show what you really feel." Jennings is not much different, being described as one who took very good care indeed not to show his feelings when dealing with his peers and superiors on the force. He can just as easily "put on his public school manner" when addressing Mrs. Fielding. This ability to change face, that is, to assume the persona appropriate to the situation without revealing his true feelings, has served him well (as it has Fielding).
Another connection between Fielding and Jennings involves his attraction toward Isobel Dodgson, Peter's girl friend. At first sight of her, Jennings has "an immediate impression of someone alive, where everyone else has been dead, or playing dead; of someone who lived in the present, not the past." In her vitality, she serves as a potential anima figure for Jennings; and their meeting shifts the story's focus away from Fielding's disappearance to the developing relationship between Jennings and Isobel, such that the enigma now includes the young couple and the question of their future relationship. The conflict that caused Fielding to disappear soon manifests itself, however, in Jenning's relationship toward Isobel, whom he sees at first as fresh, independent, and not taken in by "the Sunday color-supplement view of values" which Fielding and his world represent, until she brings him abruptly down to earth with her crude statement about police brutality. His expectations dashed, Jennings feels "shocked more than he showed, like someone angling for a pawn who finds himself placed in check by one simple move." Disappointed unconsciously by her failure to live up to her potential as an anima figure for him, Jennings nevertheless feels himself consciously relieved to be returned to more familiar ground, now seeing Isobel as a sex object who appeals to him through the more familiar world of the senses.
Isobel is not easily categorized, however. When she tells Jennings her intuitions about Fielding, her ability to see "'someone else, behind it all,'" she demonstrates again her potential as anima, her ability to see a man whole (Sarah's and Alison's gift), but her potential remains undeveloped since she is as much a product of the contemporary wasteland as is Fielding or Jennings, and, like Jennings, is not on the mythic journey.
From a small detail that she has not divulged to previous investigators, Isobel weaves a story for Jennings that "explains" Fielding's disappearance. Jennings listens while at the same time trying to "calculate how far he could go with personal curiosity under the cover of official duty." As they talk, they discover, despite their different backgrounds, "a certain kind of unspoken identity of situation." In the pragmatic world in which they exist, "identity of situation" rather than identity of feeling forms the basis for a relationship. Still, he sees in her something different that speaks to something inside him, but he does not know how to attain it because he has lost the means of communication; he therefore falls back on sexual communication as the only avenue he knows, despite the fact that
something about her possessed something that he lacked: a potential that lay like unsown ground, waiting for just this unlikely corn-goddess; a direction he could follow, if she would only show it. An honesty, in one word. He had not wanted a girl so fast and so intensely for a long time. Nevertheless, he made a wise decision.
The allusion to Isobel as a corn-goddess relates her to the vegetative myths and the regeneration cycle. What Jennings seeks without knowing it is rebirth through the experience of the archetypes, here expressed as union with the anima, but he does not know how to journey toward such an experience and seeks direction from her. If she were serving in her potential capacity as anima, she might provide the direction he seeks, leading him to experience the archetypes and to approach wholeness. But she is not the anima; she only possesses the unrealized potential, as deeply locked inside her as it is in Jennings. His "wise decision" in its very nature reveals his inherent problem: decision does not produce archetypal encounter.
Isobel's "fiction" concludes open-endedly with Fielding's walking out. When prompted for a better ending, she says that the real author of the story is not she or anyone else, but the system: "'Something that had written him. Had really made him just a character in a book.'" Using an analogy that figures prominently in The French Lieutenant's Woman, Isobel describes Fielding as being "'like a fossil—while he's still alive.'" Trapped by the system that "limited" and "prevented" him from changing or evolving, he left it behind, thereby creating a sense of mystery his own life lacked. Of course, as Isobel tells her story about Fielding, she and Jennings, one cannot forget, are also characters in the story, just as much written by the system that defines them as is Fielding. Equally, they are products of Fowles's fiction, with Fowles using them and the various stories within the story to make a point about the condition of modern existence that "writes us" and denies us the freedom we need to take the mythic journey.
While Isobel tells her story, she is unconsciously tracing "invisible patterns" on the table top with her finger: "a square, a circle with a dot in it." What she traces is the archetype of the mandala, the circle-in-the-square pattern that indicates wholeness. [In an endnote, Barnum adds: "In a letter of 9 April, 1980, Fowles says that the circle with the dot 'was meant to be the universal printer's symbol for full stop, or period. The square, a space or paragraph symbol. But I will now claim your interpretation as conscious!'"] Significantly, Isobel's patterns are invisible, unrecognized by the pair as they discuss a man who, lacking wholeness and the creative powers of archetypal encounter, has killed himself. Jennings, now only referred to as "the sergeant," takes no notice of Isobel's patterns, wondering instead if she is naked beneath her dress. Meanwhile, Isobel raises "the pattern-making finger" and concludes, "'Nothing lasts like a mystery.'" The finger which draws the pattern of the mandala but does not contain its power is the finger that points to the crux of Fielding's dilemma: life without mystery cannot be endured. Since Fielding, along with Isobel and the sergeant, lacks mystery in his life in the sacred sense, provided through an attachment to meaningful rituals and symbols, he can only attain mystery in the profane sense, created by his own disappearance and described in Isobel's story.
In similar fashion, Isobel and the sergeant create their own mystery in their budding relationship. What they are now faced with is not the solution to Fielding's mystery but the solution to the mystery between them, which the sergeant sees as still another "test," both "test" and "mystery" being used in the limited, non-mythic sense. Fowles writes, "The point was a living face with brown eyes, half challenging and half teasing; not committing a crime against that." The "crime" is not committed in that they plan to continue the relationship, but the language Fowles employs to describe their "first tomorrow" has a distinctly criminal cast when the sergeant "deprive[s]" her of her clothes, finding her "defenseless underneath, though hardly an innocent victim in what followed" italics mine). Since they are both consenting adults desirous of the anticipated sexual encounter, the criminal language Fowles employs is humorously ironic. Isobel and the sergeant create their own mystery on the sensual level, and while it does not lead to archetypal encounter since they are not on the mythic journey, it is not unpleasurable and provides some respite from the sterility of the wasteland. As the concluding sentence of the story attests: "The tender pragmatisms of flesh have poetries no enigma, human or divine, can diminish or demean—indeed it can only cause them, and then walk out." Although the two characters that remain do not take the mythic journey, whose potential has been hinted at but never realized, they do achieve a union of sorts which is "tender" even while being pragmatic. The flesh provides a poetry of its own, and it will have to suffice since it appears to be all that remains. Instead of clearing up the enigma of Fielding's disappearance, Fowles provides us with a new enigma, inherent in the last sentence with its deliberately ambiguous pronouns. Fowles, himself, may shed meaning on the story if we consider his words in The Magus: "To view life as a detective story, as something that could be deduced, hunted and arrested, was no more realistic (let alone poetic) than to view the detective story as the most important literary genre, instead of what it really was, one of the least." Perhaps Fowles is telling us that the detective story part of "The Enigma" is of less importance than the more "poetic" story between Jennings and Isobel. If that is the case, the conclusion to the story, which is no conclusion but a new beginning, will have to suffice since in the age of antimyth—the setting for this story and others in the volume—mystery in the sense of enigma is all that remains. Or, as John B. Humma writes [in "John Fowles' The Ebony Tower: In the Celtic Mood," Southern Humanities Review (1983)], "The Spillanesque winding-up (detective beds heroine) may seem to trivialize a serious story otherwise, but it is in keeping with the genre. Moreover, 'the tender pragmatisms of flesh' which Jennings achieves with Isobel counterpoint all that is lost by David Williams, who had hung back at his portal."
"The Cloud," the last story in the collection, continues the motif of the collection in its descent toward darkness. It begins by painting a picture of a summer day, "vivid with promise," but the participants are divided into sun and shadow, hinting from the start the breakdown in communication that is part of the story's thesis. Further, the two women described in the opening paragraph are lying "stretched as if biered," a description which introduces the image of death that dominates by the end of the story. The two men, Peter and Paul, have no connection to the wisdom of the apostles (although Peter is called "Apostle Peter"); their actions are futile and pointless for the most part. The scene even includes a snake which frightens the children, but of which Peter says philosophically, "'Proves it's paradise, I suppose.'" All is not Edenic, however much the aura of a "different world" is suggested; the participants are divided from each other and themselves and find themselves strangers in paradise. The crux of the problem is stated by one of the voices (possibly Catherine's):
What one lost, afterward, was what one had never had strongly at the best of times: a sense of continuity…. So now everything became little islands, without communication, without farther islands to which this that one was on was a stepping-stone, a point with point, a necessary stage. Little islands set in their own limitless sea, one crossed them in a minute, in five at most, then it was a different island but the same: the same voices, the same masks, the same emptiness behind the words. Only the moods and settings changed a little; but nothing else. And the fear was both of being left behind and of going on: of the islands past and the islands ahead.
We are again in the land where no one ever goes beneath the level of the persona, where people meet only in masks. In this existence, actions have no meaning because man is going nowhere, having lost his sense of a past and finding himself without hope for the future. It is the age of anti-myth, the world of the wasteland. Yet the voice continues, asking to be proven wrong, to be surprised, to be provided with something or someone to "string the islands together again." But the narrative structure, islands of thought breaking from present into past tense and back again, moving from person to person without continuity, echoes the thesis of the story. Fowles strengthens that thesis through his inclusion of a section from The Waste Land: "Hurry up please it's time. Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight. Goonight," by means of which he connects Eliot's theme of the breakdown of communication in the wasteland world to his own.
Within this wasteland world, Catherine, the tragic figure of the piece, can relate least well to the others in the group and is incapable of maintaining the persona of happiness they wear, having succumbed to the archetype of the shadow in its manifestation as despair. Her view of life is contrasted with the others. Paul, for instance, exemplifies "decency, mediocrity, muddling through"; he copes with the future by continually "trying." Annabel, his wife, is the "presiding mother-goddess," although "slightly blowsy," indicating her connection with an ancient tradition but one that is greatly reduced in the contemporary world. While there is talk among them, the failure of language is as evident here as it is in Eliot's poem. Life in this wasteland full of the "tired rush of evening people, work drained automata" is life after "the harvest is in. All that's left are the gleanings and leasings: fragments, allusions, fantasies, egos. Only the husks of talk, the meaningless aftermath." The image of the harvest, traditionally associated with the vegetative myth of regeneration, now offers no hope for a new harvest to follow: only the "husks of talk" remain, language without the living symbol.
There remains, however, the power of the story, the repository of myth. Catherine is coaxed by her niece Emma into telling her a story about a princess. As Catherine creates her story of the lonely, sad princess, she also creates her own future (in much the same way that Fielding does in "The Enigma"), finding a myth she can become a part of. The story ends with the princess waiting for the return of the prince who has abandoned her, but with whom she will be reunited soon. As Emma returns to the picnickers, Catherine contemplates death, the future she had created for herself in the fairy tale. Like the princess in the tale, she fears men and can find no one to trust and love, since the man she loved committed suicide. Thus, like Prince Florio, he has gone away, but he returns as Smiling Death, "alive, almost fleshed; just as intelligent, beckoning." In a last, meaningless act and under the influence of the shadow archetype, she dryly seduces Peter who has come upon her on his walk away from the others. [In an endnote, Barnum adds: "Fowles gives his view of the act as 'not necessarily a final act of despair—at least possibly one of exorcizing self-disgust. It came to me first as that.' Letter from Fowles, 5 August, 1981."]
Afterwards, Peter descends from the hills and, like the apostle for whom he is named, denies Catherine, claiming not to have seen her, as the Apostle Peter descended from the Mount of Olives and claimed not to have known Christ. Because he does not tell the others that he has been with Catherine, they leave her to her fate, assuming she has gone ahead. As they emerge into the clearing, they see "a mysterious cloud," which seems "feral and ominous, a great white-edged gray billow beginning to tower over the rocky wall, unmistakable bearer of heavy storm." The picnickers depart, "the princess calls [through the cry of the bird of Catherine's story], but there is no one, now, to hear her," as Catherine has apparently given in to her despair and committed suicide. [In an endnote, Barnum adds: "Curiously, Fowles says that he did not necessarily mean that Catherine commits suicide, remarking, 'If she dies, who tells the story?' Letter from Fowles, 5 August, 1981."] Only the black cloud remains to roll over the deserted meadow.
The dark mood introduced in the first story by the symbol of the ebony tower is now transformed into the symbol of the dark cloud. The characters in this collection of stories have failed, for the most part, in their lives because they have not reached out and communicated to their fellow man the love that is needed to turn the wasteland into the garden. David Williams sees what life lacks but is incapable of changing it; the old writer in "Poor Koko" learns through his failure to communicate with the young thief what the failure of language means for the future; the M.P. of "The Enigma" disappears in an attempt to create a mystery that is lacking in his meaningless existence, and we are left with "the tender pragmatisms of flesh" that form the basis for the relationship between the sergeant and the girl; and Catherine in "The Cloud," having lost love and despairing of ever finding it again, commits suicide.
Although the general tone of these stories is dark, Fowles's view of life is not one of despair, as his novels The Magus, The French Lieutenant's Woman, and Daniel Martin attest, each treating protagonists who break out of wasteland existences into self-awareness and understanding because of their ability to take the mythic journey. As Robert K. Morris writes [in "A Forest of Fictions," The Nation (13 September 1975)]:
Fowles's intent as a novelist, and as a writer of these fictions, is to strike the sane balance between art and life at a time when both seem vulnerable to excess, and neither seems susceptible to control. Perhaps only when art descends from the ebony tower will it be able to light up Fowles's cheerless 'bottomless night' and once more tell us, as it has in the past, something about life.
Through the stories in The Ebony Tower, Fowles sounds a warning by showing us the despair inherent in contemporary life if we cannot take the journey out of the darkness toward wholeness and individuation.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4732
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 and with the relationships between fiction and reality.
This general scheme is perfectly applicable to the literary evolution of John Fowles, who, with his double training in English realism and French experimentalism, seems as concerned with writing about the real as he is determined to test and undermine the received conventions of literary realism.
The tension created by this double, paradoxical endeavor finds complex but consistent expression in his novels. John Fowles's stylistic versatility, his remarkable capacity to create different styles according to the different requirements of the subject matter of each novel, combined with his thorough knowledge of history, work to produce an overriding effect of realism; while his repeated parodying of well-worn literary traditions and his breaking all rules of literary decorum work to produce the contrary effect of highlighting the literary nature of the world created.
Kerry McSweeney's description of John Fowles [in "Withering into the Truth: John Fowles and Daniel Martin," in Critical Quarterly (Winter 1987)] as "more an unfolding than a growing artist" points to a most important characteristic of the writer, for it underlines Fowles's unflinching tendency to take up the same topics in every novel, testing the thematic, the stylistic, and also the structural implications a bit further each time.
From the thematic point of view, every novel deals in one way or another with Fowles's major concern: human freedom, focused from two major perspectives. From the point of view of man in isolation, freedom is presented as a process of individuation of the self; from the point of view of man in relation to society, as a power-bondage relationship.
Following Heraclitus's theory of the Many (hoi polloi), the masses, the untaught, and the Few (hoi aristoi), the elect, the chosen and civilized, Fowles explains in The Aristos his belief that the status of the Few is a privileged one they have got through mere good luck, both socially and genetically. Consequently, for him, being an aristos means not so much that you are entitled to exert power on the less privileged, but rather that you are in "a state of responsibility" with respect to the masses.
In The Collector, Frederick Clegg, the representative of the Many, is a collector; Miranda, the prototypical aristos, an art student. In every novel by John Fowles, collecting and creating turn into activities symbolic of two basic attitudes to life to be found simultaneously in every balanced man: the collector is l'homme moyen sensuel, the intrinsic materialist, a man who only lives to satisfy his senses, watching, touching, possessing. So the collector is the least imaginative of men, for in order to exist he must tangibly possess the objects that obsess him, while the creator rejects this material reality and uses his imagination to create his own subjective alternatives to it.
From The Magus onwards, the immature aristos is invariably described as a collector: Nicholas Urfe collects "girlfriends" and the young Conchis bird-sounds; Charles Smithson, ammonites; Daniel Martin and his friend Anthony, orchids. Consequently, "learning" for them always implies the rejection of their collecting activities. Those who are unable to overcome this tendency, like Frederick Clegg in The Collector or Alphonse de Deukans in The Magus, are unbalanced or even mentally deranged—as unbalanced as, at the other extreme of the spectrum, Miles Green, the hero of Mantissa, a writer reduced to his mental activity of creating literary worlds, and suffering from total amnesia with regard to the material universe.
The struggle between collectors and creators; the teaching of the young by the mature aristos; and the use and abuse of power, are all subjects John Fowles touches on and develops along different lines in his novels. Whether the hero is confronted with a Prospero-like figure, a magus who either exerts power over him (or her) in order to teach him, as is the case with Nicholas Urfe with Conchis, or with Miranda with G. P.; or who confirms the route taken, as does Herr Professor Otto Kirnberger with Daniel Martin; whether he has to face, like Charles Smithson, or like Miles Green, a mysterious woman, pursuing her own, unimaginable ends; or whether he has to revolt against his father, as does Mr. Bartholomew, the result of the confrontation always takes the form of anagnorisis, a cathartic discovery of the utter isolation of man and of the remoteness of God. At this stage, the hero suffers an agonizing phase of deterministic despair, as he apprehends the existentialist void or its equivalent. But as soon as he masters his angst, and accepts the void, he is seized by une joie de vivre, a delirium vivens, the passion to exist that comes together with the realization that man is radically free to choose even death, as Conchis or Dick Thurlow do. This realization of personal freedom, which is presented in psychological terms, brings about the hero's "individuation" and often follows the discovery of the polymorphous nature of reality.
The assumption that man must seek his freedom in order to mature and that reality is complex and many-sided, made up not only of the ontologically real but also of the imagined, not only of the actual, but also of the potentially possible, not only of what is or was, but also of what might have been, are perhaps the two basic messages John Fowles wants us to distill from his novels. These messages are to be found not only at the thematic level, but are also echoed and reflected structurally.
From the structural point of view, each novel works to affirm the polymorphous nature of reality by different means: by presenting two or more opposed, utterly divergent but also complementary worlds enjoying the same status; by the alternation of narrative voices; the shifts of time and space; the multiplication of realistic, mythical, psychological, and literary versions of the same events; and through the parodic use of well-known literary conventions. Indeed, from The Collector onwards, each novel consciously assumes and parodies one—or more—traditional novel-writing conventions, but as we move from The Collector to A Maggot we also move from a fiction that is predominantly realistic to a much more boldly experimental and specifically metafictional kind of fiction, for, even though in Daniel Martin Fowles seemed determined to adhere to the canons of realism, the novel naturally moves to the metafictional pole, affirming, along with the other novels, the importance of the psychological and of the literary aspects of reality.
In The Collector, John Fowles offers us two complementary versions of the events—Frederick Clegg's "objective" first-person account counterbalanced and undermined by Miranda's much more literary version recorded in her diary—and forces us to accept them as part of a unique whole by interrupting Clegg's narrative midway in order to have us read Miranda's diary, a diary Miranda has hidden under the mattress of her bed in the prison-cellar where it is likely to remain for ages after her death, unless Clegg himself finds it, and allows us access to it through his mind and eyes.
In the last entry of her diary, Miranda lapses from the preterite into the present tense. Being a metadiscourse within the main one, Miranda's present is included within Clegg's story time, so that the time of her narrative and the time of her story coincide in her present, though with reference to Clegg's narration they have taken place in the past. When Clegg's diegesis and narration overlap in the present, however, his present can only be measured with reference to our own present. Thus, when narrative and story time coincide at the end of the novel we realize with a pang that we are not dealing with the confession of a remote crime, but with the account of some horribly near experience that shows signs of intending to stretch into the future, threatening not only Marian, the next victim, but also the reader. The compression of narrative and story time in a pregnant present is a device John Fowles uses again in the following novels. With it he structurally expresses his existentialist conception of time as a succession of "nows," which precludes knowledge of the future.
In The Collector, Miranda intuits that it is possible to destroy her awful reality by striving to create a fictional alternative to it with her diary. In The Magus this alternative world is a reality so tangible that the hero, Nicholas Urfe, is able to bodily cross its boundaries and physically enter its realm. Again, the structure of the novel neatly echoes its message.
Structurally, The Magus may be said to follow a circular development involving three major stages: from London to Phraxos and back to London again. At the narrative level, the overall structure of The Magus, like that of The Collector, can be seen as linear, by virtue of the discourse narrated by Nicholas Urfe. Within this linear development, the central episodes corresponding to his visits to Bourani disrupt the linear development by the introduction of a second narrator: at Bourani Nicholas sometimes hands over the narrative role to Maurice Conchis, who in his turn narrates his own life-story to Nicholas Urfe.
Conchis's narration, like Miranda's, is to be considered as a metadiscourse engulfed by the primary narration, although the stories Conchis narrates refer to episodes of his own life and so must be viewed as retrospective heterodiegetic digressions, that is, as digressive anachronies related only analogically to the diegesis. At the end of the novel, a third narrator identifiable with the implied author omnisciently comments in two metalepses on the moral of the whole novel, thus adding to the discourse and the metadiscourse a third, ontological level.
Unlike the mythical hero, Nicholas Urfe undergoes at Bourani a series of trials exclusively intended to test and improve his perception of reality. If Nicholas is to mature, he must learn to distrust his senses and to foster his imagination. So the quality of the hero's quest is wholly fictional and psychological, and is carried out by means of three major literary tests: first, he has to participate in the metatheater, an allegorical masque consisting of two devices—portrait-like staging of iconic scenes by secondary actors, and performance of the Three Hearts story by Urfe himself and the twin sisters. Secondly, he hears the narration of Conchis's life-story; and thirdly he is made to listen to a series of tales with a moral, such as "The Tale of the Swiss and the Goats" or "The Tale of the Prince and the Magician."
From a thematic point of view, the situation Urfe has lived with Alison in England, the situation he is living with Lily at Bourani, and the situation Conchis describes when he narrates his life-story bear clear-cut analogies, so much so that both the metadiscourse and the metatheater may be considered as inverted mises en abyme of the primary discourse. Indeed, the function of the masque at Bourani is to enact materially the morals encapsulated in the iconic tales and in Conchis's life-story, in order to provide a concrete realization of the theoretical lessons imparted by them. Thus, for example, after Conchis has spoken of his long-deceased fiancée, Lily appears at the villa. Quite accurately, Nicholas himself interprets the incidents as devices "designated to deceive all his senses." As we learn later, Lily's role in the masque is meant to convince Urfe of the fact that it is possible to touch a woman who only exists in his imagination.
Structurally, then, if we take the main story (Alison and Nicholas) to represent the material, and the masque (Lily and Nicholas), the psychological aspects of reality, and Conchis's story (Lily and Conchis), the inverted mirror image of the first, we may understand The Magus as one tale containing three variations of the same story told from complementary perspectives which, when mixed, offer a polymorphous unique whole of a literary character. The fact that it is so difficult to separate these three theoretically different "variations" in practice points to one important structural characteristic of the novel: namely that the mises en abyme it contains are not "concentrating" but, on the contrary, are mises en abyme éclatées, that is, mises en abyme whose elements appear scattered and interwined with the elements of the main story and with the elements of each other, forming an inextricable unity.
At the very end of the novel, the narrator-author, breaking the rules of narrative decorum, takes over the narration to comment in a gnomic present on the insecure future of the hero. As he had already done in The Collector, John Fowles suddenly removes the gap between narrative and story time, to leave his hero and heroine in a frozen present. Alison and Nicholas frozen in an eternal present is John Fowles's verbal icon for the final truth he has tried to develop through the whole novel, namely that, for the contemporary existentialist hero, the aim of the quest is the quest itself.
Thus, in The Magus, the changes of intro-homodiegetic narrators and the metaleptic intrusions of the extra-heterodiegetic narrator-author work to confirm the thematic assertion that reality is polymorphous and that the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction are easily crossed and so, by implication, wholly artificial.
In The French Lieutenant's Woman John Fowles carries the game a step further, denying even the existence of these fragile barriers. In this novel, the contemporary "real" world of the twentieth-century heterodiegetic narrator is meant to set a contrast to the "fictional" Victorian world of the diegesis. In order to accommodate his narration to the Victorian convention, the narrator assumes the role of omniscience and sustains it with minor frame-breaks up to the beginning of chapter 13, where his answer to the rhetorical question which closes chapter 12, "Where is Sarah. Out of what shadows does she come?," acts as a major frame-break, shattering to its foundations the illusion of realism created so far: "I do not know. The story I'm telling is all imagination."
After this first major frame-break, the narrator toys with the convention: he corrects himself, confesses his ignorance about certain matters, admits that he is inventing them, and blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality by including historical figures like Hitler or Dante Gabriel Rossetti within the diegesis. Finally, he even allows himself to appear in the story in the flesh, first facing Charles Smithson in a train, and later on tossing a coin to help himself decide which of the two endings he has selected for his novel he will narrate first.
In this example, as in many others to be found throughout the novel, the narrator uses the Victorian convention of the omniscient narrator parodically. [In "The Novel Interrogates Itself: Parody and Self-Consciousness in Contemporary English Fiction," in The Contemporary English Novel, 1979] Robert Burden has defined parody as "a mode of imitation in subversive form," while pastiche is defined as "a nonsubversive form of imitation." These definitions of parody and pastiche may explain the major frame-breaks in the novels of John Fowles as well as the overriding use of traditional conventions: the "confession" and "diary" conventions in The Collector; the pattern of the mythical hero's quest in The Magus, in Daniel Martin, and in A Maggot; the Victorian convention of omniscience, and the thematic indebtedness to Victorian romance in The French Lieutenant's Woman. They also may explain the use of seemingly eighteenth- or nineteenth-century styles; the telling of tales; the literal quotations; the wealth of literary allusions, both to past and to contemporary literature: the echoes of Shakespeare, of Richardson and Defoe, of Jane Austen and Hardy, of T. S. Eliot and, in a word, every possible sort of imitation, enhancing the fictionality of the worlds created and expressing conscious indebtedness to the bulk of the Western literary tradition as a whole.
The inclusion of the author and of historical figures and events in the diegesis of The French Lieutenant's Woman are meant to blur the boundaries between fictional and ontological reality. The narration of three different endings (one imagined by Charles Smithson, and two others selected by the narrator) function to enhance the existentialist conviction that the future of man is not predetermined, but depends on successive acts of the will.
As in The French Lieutenant's Woman, in Daniel Martin a basic contrast is drawn between two worlds. In the later novel, the English world of Daniel's childhood and university years in the 1940s and 1950s is set in contrast with the American, movie-star world of his mature age in the 1970s. But, again, the English world endlessly transforms itself, as the adult narrator recalls particular episodes of it. To match the ever-changing nature of his past, the voice of the narrator simultaneously changes: he tells the story of his childhood and youth at Thorncombe and Oxford in the third person and in the preterite, but lapses into the first person and the present tense whenever he digresses about his recent past or present, and even sometimes in the middle of his reported memories. At the same time, he pretends to be writing an autobiographical novel about a fictional character called Simon Wolfe, while his girlfriend, Jenny McNeil, writes her own divergent and complementary version of the same story.
Following the pattern of The Magus, Daniel Martin undertakes a climactic journey at two different levels. On the one hand, the journey is an ontologically real trip from California through New York to England, and then Egypt and Palmyra, ending up in England again. On the other, it is a psychological quest for individuation, made up of Daniel Martin's flashbacks to his childhood and early adulthood in England. When, at the end of the novel, Daniel Martin and Jane are left at Oxford, exactly at the point where they had taken the wrong fork of the road twenty-six years before, the psychological and the ontological journeys fuse into each other in an all-enveloping "now," similar to the pregnant "nows" reached at the end of The Collector, of The Magus, and of The French Lieutenant's Woman.
In A Maggot the contrast of opposed and complementary worlds is set between the twentieth-century world of the heterodiegetic narrator-cum-chronicler and the eighteenth-century world of the fictional mother of Ann Lee, the historical founder of the Shakers. If the Gothic historical romance and the Victorian multiplot novel provide the patterns for parody in The French Lieutenant's Woman, A Maggot combines echoes of eighteenth-century edifying prose; of the sentimental and of the gothic novel, as of the genuine judicial reports made by Defoe and other early journalists on the confessions of convicts at Newgate. In the novel, the confessions are interspersed with diverse eighteenth-century genuinely historical chronicles from The Gentleman's Magazine, which further show John Fowles's relish in the use not only of parody but also of deliberate pastiche, and which again warns us against the temptation to separate the ontological from the fictional.
Although in A Maggot the eighteenth-century world is described with remarkable wealth and accuracy of detail, the novel simultaneously affirms its radical twentieth-century character. Matching the ontological, the psychological, and the literary layers described for The Magus, which find their counterpart in the simultaneous movement backwards and forwards of the ontological and of the psychological hero's quest in Daniel Martin, A Maggot offers the reader a rationalist, a metaphysical, and a psychological version of the events narrated which, although apparently existing in order to cancel each other out, actually work to affirm the possibility of their co-existence on a fourth, all-enveloping literary level.
The polymorphous nature of reality thus stated, it is easy to see that it not only affects the material and the psychological universe of the protagonists, but the protagonists themselves: in Fowles's novels, every man or woman contains within him or herself a number of divergent and complementary potentialities which must be discovered, comprehended, and fostered. Daniel Martin's infinite mirrored faces express his condition of creator, like Conchis's and Mr. B.'s ever-changing identities; and, from The Magus onwards, every heroine of John Fowles has in herself a duality of character that continuously baffles the hero: Alison's oxymoronic quality is expressed as the splitting into twin characters (Lily and Rose) in the metatheater; as their names indicate in the Victorian convention, Lily is spiritual and virginal, Rose down-to-earth and sexually aggressive.
This archetypal dichotomy of woman will reappear in The Ebony Tower, where the Mouse stands for the ideal and the Freak for the real; in The French Lieutenant's Woman, where Sarah is alternatively seen as an innocent, virginal maiden, and as a succuba; in Daniel Martin, in the parodically Victorian "Heavenly Twins" Nell and Jane; in the "Fairy Sisters" Marjory and Miriam; and in Nancy Reed's twin sisters Mary and Louise; in Mantissa, in the splitting of the muse into Dr. Delfie a Nurse Cory; and in A Maggot, where Rebecca Hocknell, also known as Fanny and Louise, a barren prostitute, mysteriously transforms herself into a pious visionary and the mother of a religious reformer.
Summing up the ideas discussed so far, we can say that if for Miranda the material reality had to be obliterated by a conscious effort of the imagination; if for Nicholas Urfe it was possible to walk in and out of the fictional world at will; and if for the narrator of The French Lieutenant's Woman these barriers did not seem to exist, for Daniel Martin the Cartesian proposition has become "I create, I am: all the rest is dream, though concrete and executed."
It is no wonder, then, that in the following novel, Mantissa, John Fowles should write a novel about the writing of a novel by a writer whose notion of reality is restricted to the workings of his mind. Doing away with ontological reality as a whole, Mantissa offers the reader a psychological reality in which space is restricted to the inside of Martin Green's skull, and time to a present devoid of past or future, exclusively filled by the obsessive skirmishes of muse and writer about the only possible topic: how to write still one more variation of a unique, all-enveloping and life-generating text.
With the publication of Mantissa the contest inaugurated with The Collector between fact and fiction, between the tangible and the imaginary or, in Fowles's terms, between the English realistic pull and the French experimental temptation, is finally resolved in favor of metafiction. The publication of A Maggot, one year later, with its display of historical data and its wealth of realistic detail, apparently a pendular swing backwards from experimentalism into realism, similar to the one attempted in Daniel Martin, constitutes nevertheless—like Daniel Martin itself—a most radical study in the difficulty of separating the mental from the actual, "what might have been" from "what has been," the real from the unreal, and so thoroughly confirms Fowles's steady course in the direction of metafiction.
Although published after The Collector, The Magus is, as is well known, the first novel written by John Fowles. For years the writer had trouble with this novel, rewriting it once and again. One reason for Fowles's dissatisfaction with it might be attributed to the enormous scope and range of this novel, which may be said to sum up his whole vision of the world. So many and so important are the ideas Fowles compressed in this novel that he has spent twenty more years developing aspects of them in his subsequent fiction. When, for example, Daniel Martin exultantly cries "I create, I am" and decides to accommodate his life to this dictum, he is only discovering something Nicholas Urfe had already intuited when he affirmed, "Not cogito, but scribo, pingo, ergo sum." And when in A Maggot Mr. B. burns his books in order to direct the actors he himself has hired, he is only putting into practice, of his own accord, the lesson Maurice Conchis wanted Urfe to take in; namely, that in order to mature, man has to become his own magus. The fact that Nicholas needed somebody to open his eyes, whereas Mr. B. did not, proves that after a long, painful process of refinement John Fowles's unique hero has reached the kind of superior understanding about the human condition that is sought for by all religions and which implies, in Buddhist terms, the rejection of "lilas, the pursuit of triviality" (The Magus).
At a surface level, the word "maggot," like the word "mantissa," may be said to evoke precisely the kind of triviality expressed by the Buddhist concept of lilas. At a deeper level, however, "the maggot" symbolizes, as we have seen, the cyclical movement of life and death which, visualized in the mandala, sums up, in archetypal terms, the basic pattern of the self's struggle into being.
Explaining the meaning of "maggot" in the preface of the novel, John Fowles said that he had written it "out of obsession with a theme." We might take the author's statement literally for … not only A Maggot but every one of the six full-length novels so far written by John Fowles depicts, beneath the profusion of contradictory data, alternative versions, and literary references, a major concern with one single theme, iconically expressed in the archetypal meaning of the word "maggot"—namely, the essence and purpose of human existence.
Being a twentieth-century agnostic, John Fowles time and again has expressed his need for human transcendence in the only terms available: through the kind of archetypal symbolism that Jung presented as the contemporary alternative to pre-rationalist myth and religion. The archetypal quality of Mr. B.'s journey is what confers on him his representative character.
His struggle for individuation synthesizes the never-ending striving not only of every John Fowles's hero, but of every man. The fact that this striving is presented as cyclical and progressive (that is, as endlessly yielding Christ-figures like Ann Lee, ready to take up the amelioration of mankind at the point where it was left in the preceding cycle), may be taken as evidence that John Fowles has finally reached beyond the hopelessness of existentialism in order to affirm a certain faith in a capacity for progressive improvement, not only of the individual, but of the human species at large.
However, undermining this hope, the doubt still remains as to whether Mr. B. stands for every man or whether John Fowles still holds the existentialist belief that general truths are mere illusions, that each individual has to work out his own salvation for himself, for, encapsulated in his own particularity, he is utterly alone. Or again, expressed in John Fowles's own terms, whether man is really free to aspire to and eventually to achieve the divine status of the Father, or whether his freedom is only an illusion made to appear temporarily real within a wholly unreal, literary world, ironically created by the power of John Fowles's magic wand.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4059
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 Studies (Spring 1985)]
An allegory of the creative process structures John Fowles's Mantissa, an allegory that proceeds by means of, and within, a parody of contemporary theoretical ideas on that same creative process. Within his parody, Fowles takes hold of the post-structuralist sexual metaphor of texts and transforms it into a unique image of the creative process—the remerging of the public/logical self with the secret/intuitive self in literary creation. Drawing primarily from Roland Barthes but also from Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, Fowles ridicules the sexual theory of the text while simultaneously transforming it into an interesting and plausible allegorical expression of the creative process. In the allegory, Miles and Erato, the traditional Muse of love poetry (who, in Fowles's novel, has been "stuck" with the whole of fiction as well), are parts of one person. Miles, in his amnesia, has remembered only his social "presentation" self, his logic, and his masculine vanity; all of his forgotten "frivolous," feminine, creative aspects, he sees as another person, Erato. As long as the two remain characters, the closest they can come to union is the sexual act; the impossible full recovery from amnesia would mean the remerging of the characters into one person. That this person is John Fowles emerges slowly because the reader does not at first recognize that this novel is transpiring within a skull. The delay leads to refutation; together the two principles of delay and refutation form a paradigm for the mechanism of Fowles's sexual allegory, of literary invention in Mantissa.
In providing the parodic vehicle for the allegory, Mantissa's existence proclaims that John Fowles has decided to take the post-structuralist theorists at their word and produce a text that conforms to their explanations. Such parodic writing may take place in each age. For example, [in his Inventions, 1982] Gerald Bruns, interpreting Hugh Kenner, notes that "Joyce shares with Swift and the Swift-like Pope of The Dunciad a common point of departure: What would happen if things actually were as our Modern Philosophers represent them to be?" What, for example, would happen "if things were as naturalism represents them to be? Answer: they would be as they are in Dubliners," says Bruns, and he continues: "Swift was no Lockean, but he understood how by parodying Locke one could produce Gulliver, whose mental failures are so many descriptions of how the Lockean mind is supposed to work." Bruns makes the same point about Locke in reference to Pope. Similarly, we may ask: What would a novel look like if the post-structuralists are right? John Fowles's answer: If they are right a novel will look like Mantissa. However, without recognition of the allegorical dimension, Fowles's novel will likely strike the reader as an absurd "mantissa," an unimportant, trivial addition to Fowles's discourse. The allegory exists within a context of this parody of contemporary theory.
Fowles's familiarity with contemporary academic schools of theory is undeniable. In an interview with Carlin Romano ["A Conversation with John Fowles," in Boulevard: Journal of Contemporary Writing (Spring 1987)], Fowles discusses his unsympathetic responses in his reading of Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan. More generally, Fowles's work radiates an overall feel that could lead Philip Thody, for example, in his introduction to the English translation of Roland Barthes' Criticism and Truth, to say that "contemporary novelists such as John Fowles … clearly owe a debt to the style of thinking about prose fiction which Barthes was one of the first to develop." And the books are sprinkled with specific references. Catherine, in Fowles's story "The Cloud," which ends The Ebony Tower, decides that she hates a man named Peter when he responds unintelligently to her explanation of a book by Roland Barthes (possibly Mythologies), the translation of which she has been editing. Daniel Martin, in the novel of that name, develops his relationship with Jane, the main female character of the book, through their discussion of the writings of the Marxist theorists Georg Lukacs and Antonio Gramsci; Gramsci's words even provide Fowles with the opening epigraph for Daniel Martin. The primary transformation of character in the novel comes from Daniel's writing a novel, and his writing develops in response to Lukacs' and Gramsci's ideas, as Daniel interprets them during his conversations with Jane.
Within Mantissa itself, Fowles's character, Miles Green, tells Erato that "I feel sure we have one thing in common": resentment of the neglect she has suffered from "the campus faculty factories." In case anyone should wonder what, specifically, he attacks in Mantissa, Fowles has his character list the targets: "the structuralists and deconstructivists … the semiologists" and "the marxists." Miles adds "academic Uncle Tom Cobbleigh" to these, referring to an old Devon ballad; and since, according to a standard reference work, Old Tom was the "last named of the seven village worthies who borrowed Tom Pearce's grey mare on which to ride to 'Widecombe Fair,'" Fowles probably means to depict practitioners of all the schools as crowding comically on the back of the single overloaded mare of fiction.
Fowles, is, thus, almost certainly ridiculing contemporary theory in Mantissa, and yet he transforms a post-structuralist sexual theory of texts into his own allegory of the creative process. While limiting its action to the inside of a skull, the allegory performs a gamboling, comic commentary on the creative process and a hilarious debate—with structuralist and post-structuralist theorists—over the artist's position in the process of artistic creation. In an admitted pun, Fowles plays with words by naming one of Erato's avatars Dr. A. Delphie [The critic adds in a footnote: "Adelphi is a comedy by the Latin writer Terence, based on a lost Greek model, in which the son of a wealthy man falls in love with a slave dancing girl, possibly a model for Fowles's Erato…. Delphi, of course, is the city on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, home of Apollo and the Muses: the cave-shrine there was called 'the novel of the world.'"] Clinically and scientifically, she says "we can offer most" of the sexual positions "in the Kama Sutra," words which might be a direct parody of Roland Barthes' definition of writing [in The Pleasure of the Text, 1978] as a treatise of "the science of various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra." Mantissa may be an individual text of bliss that provides a critical entrance into the text of bliss as a category. Such an interpretation sees Mantissa as a novel that also functions as criticism, providing an insight into what Roland Barthes called the "text of bliss," which is "outside of criticism, unless it is reached through another text of bliss."
Fowles transforms this into allegory when Erato and Miles identify storytelling with sexual intercourse, and she attaches a different sexual position to each letter of the alphabet which may be Fowles's deft analogy to the alphabetical arrangement of The Pleasure of the Text. The huge number of sexual positions they have tried, and that they plan to try, represents the infinite variety of narrative courses open to the author as he or she faces the terror of the blank page: "You know, it can be constant, even rather frightening, because you write every word, you have a hundred—or at least three—choices, anyway," says Fowles in the Romano interview. At the height of their union, the walls of the hospital room become transparent and people outside, in the position of readers looking into the author's head, can see the moment when the author's "presentation self" is grappling with his "inspiration"—as private and, in the post-structuralist parlance, as sexual a moment as Miles and Erato's mutual orgasm.
Most importantly, the creative self dominates. When Miles discovers that Erato is the author of The Odyssey, a work he can never hope to equal, he concedes her complete artistic ascendancy. And despite Miles's claim to be cured, she simply knocks him into a syncope with a blow to the jaw, or eludes his lunge so that he knocks himself out; she resumes her shape as Dr. A. Delphie, and continues her sexual "treatment" of his amnesia. Within the sexual rhythm between Miles and Erato, each time Miles relapses into unconsciousness, Fowles says that Miles drops into a "syncope," a word which has a medical and a grammatical meaning. Medically, the word indicates a break in consciousness caused by the failure of the heart's action; grammatically it means a break, a cutting short, an abbreviation, contraction, or sudden cessation or interruption. Fowles may again be absurdly fitting Mantissa to Barthes who [in The Pleasure of the Text] connects the "physics of bliss" to "the groove, the inscription, the syncope." In the syncopes, Miles does not cede his autonomy to an entity outside himself called language, but to Erato, who is, ultimately, a forgotten part of himself—and this is the point of Fowles's allegory, the workings of which we can understand through the paradigm that has two parts: delay and refutation.
The allegorical impact of Mantissa has a delayed effect in the book because Fowles has established the apparent setting as a hospital room, but the room's domed shaped and bumpy padding reveal its allegorical location as the inside of a writer's skull. This is an appropriate place for an allegory of the process of invention, as its analogy with Samuel Beckett's Endgame suggests. In Beckett's play, two high windows suggest the interior of a skull and the action revolves around a story that is always nearing its end but never does reach a conclusion. The room in Mantissa is lined with gray corrugations that Miles eventually identifies as standing for the gray matter of the human brain. Present from the beginning as the reader sees in retrospect, the skull/brain context is a fecund cavity for an allegory on the creative process.
The allegorical implications of the skull setting emerge in an aesthetic context when Miles tries, unsuccessfully, to walk out on Erato, whom he considers "essentially a mere call girl." In the episode Erato says, "You can't walk out of your own brain." First she makes the door and his clothes disappear, and when the door reappears, "All stands as in a mirror, or a Magritte." He can only respond, "Ridiculous." "Magritte's strategy," says yet another post-structuralist theorist, Michel Foucault, in This Is Not a Pipe, is to deploy "largely familiar images, but images whose recognizability is immediately subverted and rendered moot by 'impossible,' 'irrational,' or 'senseless' conjunctions." The scene in Mantissa reverses this process; the reader's shock comes from realizing that the items so gradually introduced by Fowles—a man in "a borrowed woman's purple bathrobe that is too small for him," a naked woman who is supposed to be a minor Greek deity, and a cuckoo clock with a pseudo-Grecian garment hanging ludicrously from it—are actually in improbable juxtaposition, "like in a Magritte." As with the painter, Fowles's shock induces a laugh, followed by an independent seeing. The laugh is partly on post-structuralist theory, a laugh that is the essence of the allegory's comic contradiction of contemporary theory; and by delaying recognition, Fowles makes it a laugh of insight.
The delay allows Fowles to establish a dialogue with contemporary criticism before the refutational implications of the allegory become clear. To be like Roland Barthes' writer, Miles Green would have to be "the blind spot of systems, adrift"; for Barthes, the writer "is the joker in the pack, the mana, a degree zero, the dummy in the bridge game." Just such a writer is Miles Green. In Part One of Mantissa, Miles Green—who is being treated for amnesia—stares uncomprehendingly at a nurse's cradling arms; she shows him a manuscript the way a maternity ward nurse shows a newborn infant to its mother who has been unconscious at its birth. When the nurse reads a few words, the "baby" turns out to be Mantissa, the writing of which, in line with contemporary theories that assign the author little or no importance, Miles has forgotten. Miles Green's total lack of memory of anything before this "birth" connects to a passage in Roland Barthes' "The Death of the Author" [in his Image—Music—Text, 1977] in which Barthes claims that "the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text," and is "in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing," and the author "is not the subject with the book as predicate." The birth scene works better if the reader is still ignorant of the skull location; Fowles creates an enigma that the reader solves with dawning recognition of the allegorical location.
A similar delayed reaction also characterizes the dialectic structure of Fowles's argument with theory; Mantissa's characters first state a position about the source of literary creativity equivalent to the contemporary critic's; this statement is then refuted by an aspect of the novel's structure or by a second statement that carries the logic to the next step, reveals its absurdity, and so discredits it. For example, "At a certain level," says Miles Green, in what Harold Fawkner calls [in his The Timescapes of John Fowles, 1984] a "crypto-Derridean" comment, "there is in any case no connection between author and text…. The deconstructivists have proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt." While a wide variety of quotes from Jacques Derrida could be brought forward as examples to illustrate Miles's statement, the following from Writing and Difference might be accepted as typical:
Furtiveness—in Latin—is the manner of the thief, who must act very quickly in order to steal from me the words which I have found … must purloin them before I have even found them, I am certain that I have always already been divested of them…. As soon as I speak, the words I have found (as soon as they are words) no longer belong to me.
Miles continues that the author "has no more significant status than the bookshop assistant or the librarian who hands the text qua object to the reader."
The delayed reaction works like an actor's double take; in his second statement, Miles goes beyond what Derrida says, but Miles's statement expresses the next logical stage of Derrida's argument. And in fact Derrida does quote Antonin Artaud on the necessity to renounce "the theatrical superstition of the text and the dictatorship of the writer" in a context that implies Derrida's approval. Embedding the conversation literally within a skull and figuratively within the allegorical structure, Fowles demonstrates the absurdity of his character's words in the novel's concrete context. When he makes this concept concrete, Fowles not only demonstrates its absurdity but also its inconsequentiality, which may account for his title, and for his waiting until near the end of the book to define it.
In delaying the definition of his title, Fowles hints that Mantissa is a novelist's reductio ad absurdum reply to contemporary critics who reduce the author's role in creating the text to an inconsequentiality. Fowles overtly defines "mantissa" as "an addition of comparatively small importance, especially to a literary effort or discourse," but the reader receives this information only after forming a similar opinion of Mantissa. The allegorical insight opens a second possibility. While Fowles quotes the obsolete sense of the word "mantissa" from the Oxford English Dictionary in a footnote, he omits that same source's entry for the word's operative meaning: the decimal point in a mathematical logarithm.
The first definition expresses the insignificant role in which contemporary critical theory casts the author. Miles says that contemporary theorists have proved that the author's role is purely "fortuitous and agential," in possible parody of the way Barthes entertains the possibility that the author is the "full subject" of the act of writing, but then, citing Jacques Lacan, concludes that "structural analysis is unwilling to accept such an assumption: who speaks (in the narrative) is not who writes (in real life) and who writes is not who is" [Barthes, Image—Music—Text]. "Who speaks?" In Écrits, Jacques Lacan says that "truth" alone answers "I speak," and Lacan says that there is "no speech that is not language." Like Fowles and his character, Jane Gallop interprets Lacan here [in her Reading Lacan, 1985] to mean that "only language speaks." In developing Lacan's idea, Barthes is more radical even than Tzvetan Todorov, who says, "The I in the novel is not the I of discourse, that is, the subject of the speech act" [The Poetics of Prose, 1971].
The result is a conditional proposition that only gradually assumes importance to the reader: if the author does not exist, then it would make no sense to say that one book by this author is more (or less) significant than any other. Thus Fowles cleverly makes the reader's own initial sense of Mantissa as a mantissa into an argument against the post-structuralist dissolving of the author. This theory of the author, in making a human being completely disappear, has created an absurdity. For Barthes, in the conscious mind, the writer is "a creature of language … never anything but a plaything" of "the language that constitutes him" [The Pleasure of the Text]. The "unconscious," says Lacan [in his 1988 Seminars], "is the discourse of the other…. It is the discourse of the circuit in which I am integrated. I am one of its links." If the writer is made up of consciousness and the unconscious, then the entire creature, the writer, is language. Significantly, Barthes accepts Jacques Lacan's notion that the unconscious is a system of writing, and thus has the structure of human language. Barthes says [in The Pleasure of the Text], "As institution, the author is dead: his civil status, his biographical person have disappeared." Todorov expresses the idea only a bit less radically: "Man has constituted himself out of language, as the philosophers of our century have so often observed, and we are likely to discover its schema in all our social activity."
The discourse-oriented definition of mantissa implies a light, comic addition to the continuing discourse that is Fowles's work, of little importance compared to his major novels. In its mathematical sense, the title suggests Fowles's regret at the increasing transfer of creative energy from art to rational theorizing about art; the work of fiction looks unimportant, just as the decimal looks small compared to the numerals in a logarithm, but its position gives it complete leverage over the meaning of the expression, which is exactly what happens with allegory in this novel. These lines of thought from Barthes, Lacan, and Todorov fit, but fit absurdly, with Miles Green's sneers to Erato.
Mr. Green's contemptuous, condescending tone becomes part of the second half of the allegorical paradigm: refutation. When Erato asks why, then, "writers still put their names on the title page," the author-character written by John Fowles replies, "because most of them are like you. Quite incredibly behind the times. And hair-raisingly vain. Most of them are still under the positively medieval illusion that they write their own books." Miles's openly unfair tone fits with Barthes' ridicule of the author who thinks he must "delay and indefinitely 'polish' his form": "Having buried the Author," the modern "scriptor" can thus no longer believe "the pathetic view of their predecessors," that the hand that writes "is too slow for his thought or passion." And later in "The Death of the Author," Barthes insists that what occurs is "a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression)," which "traces a field without origin," or which at least, "has no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins." And incidentally, for Barthes [in his 1970 S/Z], the same is true of the reader, and hence of the critic: "This 'I' which approaches the text is already itself a plurality of other texts, of codes which are infinite or, more precisely, lost (whose origin is lost)." In parallel, Fowles's Erato raises the issue of the origin of Miles Green, putative author of Mantissa, bringing us to the discrepancies.
The allegorical dimension of his characters' dialogue continues the refutation aspect of the allegorical paradigm; by this dialogue, Fowles demonstrates that an element is missing in the interpretation of Miles Green as an author, an omission that further parodically demonstrates the absurdity of post-structuralist theory in Fowles's allegory. After complaining of her helplessness as a character in Miles's book, the Muse Erato challenges Miles: "To say nothing of your character. I notice there is not a word about his exceedingly dubious status. I wonder who's pulling his strings?" Rather than saying language is, Miles, the writer born simultaneously with the text, replies, "I am. I'm me. Don't be ridiculous." But he cannot answer Erato's smiling questions: "Then why's he being referred to as 'he' throughout? What are you trying to hide?" The answer, "John Fowles," necessarily supplied by the reader, is the punch line of Fowles's allegorical joke.
A similar discrepancy reveals how Fowles's allegorical action contradicts contemporary theory when the characters speak directly about it. Lording his intelligence over Erato, Miles says, "You'll be telling me next you've never heard of Todorov," and he asks in rhetorical exasperation, "how can one possibly discuss theory with you when you haven't even read the basic texts?" Offering to explain "in simple laymen's terms," he continues with a statement that includes "hypostatic and epiphanic facies, of the diegetic process" and especially, he says, "in terms of the anagnorosis." Knowing the post-structuralist vocabularies gives Miles an apparent advantage over Erato, who supposedly relies on enthusiasm—for both sexuality and fiction; but Miles's advantage is only an apparent one.
That the theoretician has only an illusory advantage over the artist is further confirmed by the refutation side of the paradigm of the allegorical strategy of Mantissa: allegorical action refutes the words of Miles, the spokesman of contemporary theory. Miles looks foolish when Erato applies the term "anagnorosis" correctly to the reversal point in the plot in Mantissa, supporting her earlier claim that the role-playing is all over now, "the pretending I haven't even heard of Tzvetan Todorov and hermeneutics and diegesis and deconstructivism." Miles had not mentioned Todorov's first name, so we can conclude that the Muse does know theory, but chooses intuitive inspiration.
By comic discrepancy, Mantissa also contradicts Barthes, who said that the text of bliss "could not be written." On page 183, Miles calls Mantissa "what would have been, if this wasn't an unwritable non-text, one hundred and eighty-three pages at least." The reader's reaction to Miles's "would-have-been" epitomizes the second half of the allegorical paradigm—Fowles's strategy of contradicting theory by narrative allegory—for the reader holds the supposedly unwritable, non-text book in her or his hands, demonstrating the absurdity of any such concept. Instead, a written text actually exists: the product of a process that Fowles depicts allegorically as the sexual union of Miles and Erato, the union of the creative artist's public and secret selves.
In total effect, the narrative depiction of an Erato as a lively, animated, but essentially brainless young woman is contradicted by the allegory in which she is not only an essential element of literary creation but the dominant partner. To Erato's mother Mnemosyne (memory) "is ascribed the art of reasoning and giving suitable names to everything, so we can describe them, and converse about them without seeing them," as Fowles reminds us by his epigram from Lemprière. While accepting Mnemosyne's traits as valuable, Fowles's allegorical structure in Mantissa allows him to demonstrate two points—that these traits are neither the only valuable human attributes, nor are they sufficient in themselves to generate literary invention. Thus, when Fowles parodies our modern philosophers in Mantissa, he transcends parody by re-crafting the post-structuralist sexual theory of the text into his own demonstrated sexual allegory of the creative process; by so doing, John Fowles has fashioned a text that is more than a mantissa.
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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 fiction can restrict or expand our ideas, our relationships, and our beings as he explores the extent to which one can write and revise one's life. His juxtaposition of the then and now, the real and reported, the narrator's first and third persons, discovers a realm in which fiction and reality, author and character, past, present, and future are no longer limited by clear distinctions. The title character is a middle-aged British playwright involved in Hollywood movie scripts and an affair with a young actress, Jenny McNeill. Called back to England at the behest of Anthony Mallory, an estranged Oxford friend who is dying of cancer, Dan finds himself scrutinizing past and present, thereby altering his future. Most important, Dan discovers commitments he has long resisted as his buried love for Anthony's widow, Jane, reemerges.
Within this floating world of introspection is a deeply rooted preoccupation with philosophical concerns, and Fowles has remarked that he would rather be "a sound philosopher" than "a good novelist." Indeed, a variety of ideologies coexist—and sometimes collide—in the Fowlesian universe, none more discordantly than the inherently incompatible systems of Freud and Jung. On the one hand, the novel frequently invokes Freud and derives both meaning and structure from a predominantly psychoanalytic foundation. Yet even as Daniel Martin rehearses the Freudian concept that art is a surrogate for an unsatisfactory reality (an idea flatly rejected by Jung), certain pivotal insights credited to Dan spring directly from Jungian constructs. For example, Dan contends that writers are traditionally poor at relationships "because we can always imagine better ones" and, echoing Freud, because "you create out of what you lack. Not what you have." Moreover, "a perfect world would have no room for writers."
In fact, the view of psychical temporality and causality that informs Daniel Martin is best understood through Freud's theory of nachträglichkeit, variously translated as belatedness, deferred action, or secondary revision. Belatedness describes the manner in which experiences, impressions, and memory traces are revised at later dates to accommodate subsequent experience of new stages of development, and "it is this revision which invests them with significance and even with efficacity or pathogenic force" [J. Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, 1973]. A clear privileging of belatedness is evident from the start as we witness Dan's reconstruction of characters and events. The novel opens with an overview of a field from Dan's boyhood and quickly focuses more closely, signalled by a switch from past to present tense: "There are four figures in the field." We see them working before the narrator centers on "the boy," who remains nameless for several pages. With the boy, we hear "the crackle of the stubble, the shock of the stood sheaves"; taste the "illicit scalded cream, its deep yellow crust folded into the voluptuous white"; smell the sweat; see a rabbit caught in the reaper's blades.
Here and elsewhere, images from the past recur in the future to become invested with new meaning in Dan's present. The boy, finally individualized when he is called "Danny," is "nursing his solitude, his terrible Oedipal secret; already at the crossroads every son must pass." The "quick and tortuous ancestral voices" of the boy's Devon become "All the ghosts," which "get you in the end" for the man. The Oedipal implications of his relationship with Jenny reverberate when he says "parentally" that she should be asleep, and "an unskilled adolescent in him still prizes the thousand-times-seen view" of her naked skin. The final paragraph of "The Harvest" introduces a new narrative voice, that of the first person, which will continue to interrupt the third ("Point of view of the hidden bird"):
I feel in his pocket and bring out a clasp-knife; plunge the blade in the red earth to clean it of the filth of the two rabbits he has gutted; slit; liver; intestines; stench. He stands and turns and begins to carve his initials on the beech-tree. Deep incisions in the bark, peeling the gray skin away to the sappy green of the living stem. Adieu, my boyhood and my dream.
And underneath: 21 Aug. 42.
Through this representation, we see how the self is narrated by multiple voices. The first person in the foregoing passage is Dan as author; the character called "Dan" is clearly distinct. Throughout the novel, a hierarchy of narrative voices bridges past, present, and future: the authorial voice of the older Dan recreates the characters of his past selves, while an author in another guise comments on the Dan of the present, who is—de facto—in the past as well. Whether cast as character, author, or super author, Dan is interpreting—and thereby altering—personality and experience, self-consciously developing a persona, writing and being written. As both Freud and an epigraph taken from George Seferis's "Man" point out, memory is inherently subjective; like the novel, it selects, re-orders, and interprets those events that enable it to signify: "What can a flame remember? If it remembers a little less than is necessary, it goes out; if it remembers a little more than is necessary, it goes out. If only it could teach us, while it burns, to remember correctly."
Dan's attempt "to remember correctly," to appropriate his own history by rendering it in language much as the psychoanalytic patient does, takes the form of the novel we are reading. Along the way, he uncovers myths he has betrayed and been betrayed by and comes to see the authorial roles of history, background, and culture in the shaping of a self. This connection between fiction and reality—for "All writing, private and mental, or public and literal, is an attempt to escape from the conditioned past and future"—is foregrounded as Dan realizes that his "true Oedipus complex" is among the authors of his life, manifested not only in the incestuous subtext of his affair with Jenny but also in his brief romance with Jane many years ago. Indeed, the very notion of the Oedipus complex (so vigorously renounced by Jung) writes Fowles's own imagery here. Jane was engaged to Anthony and Dan would eventually marry her sister Nell, but it was Jane he loved, and his marriage "was broken long before that day" he and Jane made love. Dan "felt an inherent poison in the situation (…) an almost Jacobean claustrophobia, incest," and although "his sense of guilt ought to have been attached to Nell (…) it was much more oriented toward Anthony." Like Dan's father, a Church of England minister, Anthony is rigid and deeply religious. In retrospect, "he was a kind of father-substitute (…) The idea would have outraged me at the time, and killed the friendship, as I believed I had consciously 'killed' the spirit of my father and his antiquated world." Just as Dan had rebelled against his father, so he rebelled against Anthony, first by sleeping with Jane and later by attacking him in the play that caused their estrangement. Years later, as Dan reflects on his relationship with his daughter Caro, he comments: "I half sensed what could drive fathers and daughters to incest (…) that need to purge the spoken of the unspoken," while Caro's affair with her father's Oxford schoolmate is surely sexual transference. And of her current lover, formerly Anthony's student, Jane says "there's always been that Oedipal undertone. The Jocasta thing."
Appealing directly to another Freudian motif, Fowles goes out of his way to show that narcissism, a phenomenon largely ignored by Jung yet crucial to the evolution of psychoanalytic thought, is a powerful agent in Dan's various poses and relationships. In fact, one of Freud's purposes in "On Narcissism: An Introduction" was to establish the concept of narcissism as a corrective to Jung's notion of libido as generalized psychic energy rather than specifically sexual energy. Freud observes that narcissism is the initial human condition; the infant seeks and believes all pleasure to be obtainable. This primary state is a pure narcissism because the child has no comprehension of boundaries between self and other, and any source of pleasure is presumed to belong to the self solely to produce pleasure. In normal development, narcissistic tendencies diminish as the child learns to invest in love objects outside of the self. Arrested maturation or regression results in secondary narcissism, in which the libido is directed toward aspects of the self and others are valued solely for what they give to the self.
Dan's narcissism is most patently manifest in the various postures he assumes to maintain emotional distance between self and other. Even conversation is one-sided: "He divides conversation into two categories: when you speak and when you listen to yourself speak. Of late, his has been too much the second. Narcissism: when one grows too old to believe in one's uniqueness, one falls in love with one's complexity." Jenny describes him as "something in transit, hardly ever altogether with you," like "a good suitcase in an airport lounge, neatly locked, waiting to be taken somewhere else, with a destination label you can't read." He is "deeply divorced (…) homeless, permanently mid-Atlantic," yet clings to "his Visit-Britain self." Her account of their first meeting discloses how derivative his poses are: "I think I thought he was rather pathetic, really. Like some character out of Hemingway. Or the man in Under the Volcano. You can see I'm tough and wise and virile and literary and lost and totally above all this because I'm drunk." Dan describes love as a sickness of his generation and attributes the barricade between Jenny and him to "a great chasm in twentieth-century history" in which time jumped forward three decades in one, leaving his generation "permanently out of gear," encumbered with "ridiculous decors of the heart." But scenes from Dan's past indicate that the "decors" of his heart have long been contrived. A description of his undergraduate lodgings points to a characteristic reliance on appearances in his pursuit of a self: "The most striking effect was of a highly evolved (if not painfully out-of-hand) narcissism, since the room had at least fifteen mirrors on its walls." Predictably, Dan's persona is the logical outgrowth of his milieu, a "callow attempt at a personal decor [that] existed against—or because of—a background of austerity, rationing, and universal conformity."
At various junctures, the Dan of the implied future tense—the "author" of Daniel Martin—steps in to comment on the Dan of the novel's present. In one such instance he speculates on the homosexual implications of Dan's relationships with women: Dan "liked looking for women who would interest him, for new specimens," much as he enjoys searching for new botanical finds. Along with the explicit egocentricity of this pattern (for "he was arguably not even looking for women in all this, but collecting mirrors still; surfaces before which he could make himself naked (…) and see himself reflected"), there is the self-serving prophecy that "his mistress was not loss so much as that he expected the loss of all his mistresses," which precludes both intimacy and rejection. While renewing his acquaintance with Jane, Dan realizes that he is looking for her "old self" as if it were a reality deliberately withheld, exposing a "retardation (…) a quasi-Freudian searching for the eternally lost, his vanished mother." Another pattern emerges: his relationships with women have all been variations on this theme and "broke down precisely because they could not support what his unconscious demanded of them," a "repetition compulsion" that accounts for his difficulties with Jane.
Here we see Dan rehearsing the myth of Freud "as the discoverer, the overcomer of his own resistances, the hero of an autobiographical as well as an analytic odyssey" [Perry Meisel, "Introduction. Freud as Literature," in Freud: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Perry Meisel, 1981]. Recalling Stanley Edgar Hyman's reading of the analytic quest, Daniel Martin assumes the moral shape of the epic romance as it replays the protagonist's return to domesticity, community, and culture after travel and trial, after quelling id and confronting neurosis. As Steven Marcus observes [in "Freud and Dora: Story, History, Case History," in Meisel's Freud] coherent narrative is not simply Freud's trope for mental health, it is mental health, and his exegesis of Freud's "Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria" (1905), the case of Dora, applies equally well to Daniel Martin: "Everything," Marcus writes, "is transformed into literature, into reading and writing." Like Dora, Dan "does not merely provide the text, he also is the text, the writing to be read, the language to be interpreted." Returning to England at Anthony's request, Dan is "an I in the hands of fate, Isherwood's camera, not unhappily reduced to watching himself, as if he were indeed a fiction, a paper person in someone else's script." The possibility that a love of mirrors "can also be symbolic of an attempt to see oneself as others see one—to escape the first person, and become one's own third" not only suggests that we are all characters in novels, our own and those of others, but exactly describes Fowles's narrative technique here.
Indeed, Dan's assorted personae seem crafted by the psychic determinism of Freudian theory, calling into question the very notion of human freedom. Even his incompatibility with Nell "was at least as much a matter of history as of personal psychologies":
If I had been born into an earlier world, where society punished the heretic, I should probably never have betrayed Nell—or at any rate I should have concealed the betrayal much better. But I was what the Victorians banned from their arts: a dramatist (…) The novel, print, is very English; the theater (despite Shakespeare) is not. I was always conscious of this paradox, of my all-hiding private self and my lying public one; my unwritten Sonnets and my all too written plays.
But can there be another way? A free way? Fowles is of two minds here and finally lets us see it. Dan appears to be entirely the product of forces acting on him—family, history, culture. Even his choice of medium is ascribed to his age, intimating that every text emerges from those that precede it, social, historical, and artistic. At the same time, it is Dan's belated recognition of these determinations that leads to the redefining idea of writing a novel. Initially he fears the last chapter has somehow been written, "What I've become," again yoking fiction and reality through the novel itself. Jenny insists this is the first chapter, that something will happen, "like a window opening (…) Like a door in a wall." Scanning the phone book for a suitable name for Dan's protagonist, she lights on "S. Wolfe," an anagram for Fowles and another link between author and character, novel and life.
As Dan wrestles with his incipient novel, he considers giving "Simon Wolfe" disadvantages he does not have, cancer perhaps, and then considers a character less self-conscious than himself. A third solution suddenly emerges: "To hell with cultural fashion; to hell with elitist guilt; to hell with existentialist nausea; and above all, to hell with the imagined that does not say, not only in, but behind the images, the real." Although this seems to dismiss existentialism, it also reiterates a central confusion in Fowles's work: some images equal "the real," and some do not. Because language, like all genres of signification, is by definition symbolic, description of "the real" is a contradiction of Fowles's own contention [in "Notes on an Unfinished Novel," in Afterwords: Novelists on Their Novels, edited by Thomas McCormack, 1969] that "All human modes of description (…) are metaphorical." Yet Dan speculates that the Victorians banned theater "because they knew the stage is a long step nearer an indecent reality than the novel." At different junctures, reality is "the immense forest constituted by the imagined" and "that ultimate ambiguous fiction of the enacted past." But at another moment, "the mode of recollection usurps the reality of the recalled," which implies that one's sense of reality exists somewhere outside of recollection—an assumption antithetical to the belatedness on which the novel is structured. Here and elsewhere, an existential rhetoric clashes with what is actually an inquiry into the systems that structure art and life. This dissonant insistence on an undefined real reality, presumably a realm unsullied by the network of signs, codes, and relationships that produce self and culture, unwittingly pits existentialism and the concept of authenticity against their opposites.
Dan's quest for "the real history of what I am," based as it is on language and memory, is similarly misguided, and his comparison of cinematic and prose images uncovers a kindred conflict of philosophies:
Images are inherently fascistic because they overstamp the truth, however dim and blurred, of the real past experience; as if, faced with ruins, we must turn architects, not archaeologists. The word is the most imprecise of signs. Only a science-obsessed age could fail to comprehend that this is its great virtue, not its defect. What I was trying to tell Jenny in Hollywood was that I would murder my past if I tried to evoke it on camera; and it is precisely because I can't really evoke it in words, can only hope to awaken some analogous experience in other memories and sensitivities, that it must be written [my italics].
Here we confront the novel's—and Fowles's general—bifurcated notion of fiction and reality. The novel strives for verisimilitude, poses as a paradigm for reality, pretends to create—and reflect—a "real world" that is itself a network of representations to which we all come belatedly. Furthermore, this third-hand reality is contingent upon the devices of fiction-making, a blatant contradiction. Thus, while purporting to convey some sort of truth about the human condition, the novel remains subjective, at best a portrait of its author's deferred perceptions of reality, themselves tardy fictions. Although Fowles frequently addresses the problematic of "reality" inside and outside of fiction proper, he manifests its symptoms as well: sometimes he believes in "truth," sometimes not.
Similarly, we find a certain chaos in the vocabularies employed to describe Jane. On the one hand, she is sui generis, "unique in not mirroring him [Dan] clearly"; her "spirit remained not quite like that of any other woman he had ever known (…) there are some people one can't dismiss, place, reify (…) who set riddles one ignores at one's cost." But crossing these descriptions of Jane as unique in an existential sense, distinct from any system or structure, is the assertion that she, like the novel, cannot be approached in the terms of Dan's métier, "terms of visual symbolisms, of sets, locations, movements, gestures; of the seen actor and actress." She (and the novel) belongs to "another art, another system, the one he was trying to enter." Yet both existentialism and the unique find their meaning apart from any system, which, by definition, would compromise their "authenticity."
Concurrent with such ambiguities is what may be called the heightening of the Freud/Jung conflict, unavoidable in the novel's final section, which takes Dan and Jane to Egypt, Syria, and home again. Dan's analysis of past and present points to the power of the unconscious, and he gradually experiences what Freud calls "the return of the repressed." He feels "not master of his own destiny at all" and wonders if he has "been formed in his father's image," recalling "the old man's flight into stasis, unchangingness, immemorial ritual and safe tradition." Dan has sought safety in movement, replacing his father's religious loyalties with non-attachment. So he decides nothing can be done about his relationship with Jane, for "the scenario was already written, by their past, by their present, by Anthony's ghost, by their family relationships and responsibilities; and Dan was a great believer in keeping to agreed lines in scripts." His admission that he is "profoundly English" is fundamental to "this peculiarly structured imagination, so dependent on undisclosed memories, undisclosed real feelings" for "we are above all the race that lives in flashback." This recognition is one impetus for Daniel Martin itself, a quest for "something dense, interweaving, treating time as horizontal, like a skyline, not cramped, linear and progressive (…) thereby creating a kind of equivalency of memories and feelings."
But counter to these fundamentally Freudian discoveries is the baffling refuge in mysticism that the novel sometimes seeks. A number of Dan's epiphanies appear clearly indebted to Jung, and that these revelations supposedly liberate him from "the false freedoms of the past" indicates a common misreading of Jungian mythology. In fact, the conditions deemed necessary for the elusive Jungian goal of individuation, "the realization of self-hood," negate any notion of personal freedom. Jung explains [in The Essential Jung, edited by Anthony Storr, 1983] that "many are called, but few are chosen (…) for the development of personality is at once a charisma and a curse." Moreover, one who is chosen has no choice in the matter:
What is it (…) that induces a man to rise out of unconscious identity?(…) Not necessity, for necessity comes to many, and they all take refuge in convention. Not moral decision, for nine times out of ten we decide for convention likewise. What is it, then, that inexorably tips the scales in favor of the extra-ordinary?
It is what is commonly called vocation: an irrational factor that destines a man to emancipate himself (…) Vocation acts as a law of God from which there is no escape (…) One who has a vocation (…) must obey his own law, as if it were a daemon.
Edward Glover observes [in Freud or Jung, 1950] that "while objecting to Freudian concepts of psychic determination" Jung "is evidently prepared to preach predestination," and points out that bestimmung, translated above as vocation, has also been translated as destiny. "The meaning Jung gives to 'vocation' is closer to 'destiny' in the sense of fate (Geschick) than to 'calling' in the sense of beruf." Jung himself explains that "the original meaning of 'to have a vocation' is 'to be addressed by a voice," which is most clearly exemplified in the "avowals of the Old Testament prophets," thus underwriting Glover's contentions.
Replaying Jung's complementary archetypes in the "soul images" of male and female, Dan identifies his sense of incompleteness with the ancient Egyptian concept of ka and ba, regarding himself as ka, "a would-be ambition," and Jane as ba, "a would-be selflessness," "both equally insufficient." Together these concepts "are ways of seeing man first as an individual (…) and then as one." Indeed, Jung cites these very concepts to explain a "synchronistic" event in the life of a patient's wife. Along similar lines, an Egyptologist excuses the pharaohs for the formality and rigid control of their art because time, "the source of all human illusion," is to blame. He recounts a transcendental experience in which he became part of a universal system beyond the confines of time, body, and ego, and once again we collide head-on with Jung:
For a little interval time does not seem to exist. One is neither the original painter nor one's own self, a modern archaeologist. If one is anything (…) one is the painting. One exists, but it is somehow not in time. In a greater reality, behind the illusion we call time. One was always there. There is no past or future (…) This is not to do with mysticism. It is almost physical, something hidden in the nature of things. I once had a similar experience, also after many hours of work, with a difficult papyrus. I became the papyrus, I was beyond time. Yet it did not help me decipher it at all. So. It was not in that sense that I was the papyrus. Perhaps I was the river. For a few moments whatever in the river does not pass. That river between.
Jung tells us that our concepts of space and time become "fixed only in the course of [human] mental development, thanks largely to the introduction of measurement. In themselves space and time consist of nothing. They are hypostatized concepts born of the discriminating activity of the conscious mind" [The Collected Works of Carl Jung, 1959].
Thus, the psychoanalytic narrative that informs Daniel Martin, based as it is on psychic causality, temporality, and belatedness, is tainted by a concurrent Jungian yearning for the eternal, first hinted at when Dan experiences "an unchangingness, behind all the outward shifts of circumstance. Time lay quiescent, if not defeated." He is deeply affected by Tsankawi in New Mexico, which "transcended all place and frontier (…) defeated time, all deaths." Time as "the mother of metaphors" is reinforced by the cruise down the Nile, whose "waters seemed to reach not merely back into the heart of Africa, but into that of time itself." Its effect is only partly a result of the ancient sites that frame it, for "its origin lay in something deeper, to do with transience and agelessness, which in turn reflected their own heightened sense of personal past and personal present." The river "was the Heraclitean same and not the same. It was the river of existence."
Along the same contrary lines is the "WHOLE SIGHT; OR ALL THE REST IS DESOLATION" to which the novel is addressed (its opening statement and implied conclusion), a variant of Anthony's claim that the devil is "Not seeing whole" and a borrowing of E.M. Forster's "wittingly Arnoldian refrain" [Meisel] of seeing things "steadily" and seeing them "whole" (Howards End). "Whole sight" presumes the possibility of total consciousness posited by Jung, which is, of course, categorically opposed to Freudian theory. Moreover, Dan credits the natives of Tsankawi in New Mexico with "a totality of consciousness that fragmented modern man has completely lost." Such eclecticism attempts an impossible marriage, yet Dan's "integration" at novel's end appears to be just that—a banishment of the unconscious itself. And all of this despite the psychoanalytic premises on which the novel and its principals are structured.
Further contaminating the Freudian foundation of the novel are certain coincidences. Too often, thinking about something precipitates miraculous materialization, calling up Jung's theory of synchronicity. Shortly after Jenny tells Dan that something will happen, like a door opening into his past, he receives the phone call from Jane that summons him back to England. Even more dramatic is the sudden appearance of Barney Dillon, a former schoolmate, on Dan's flight to London, which directly follows Dan's reverie about the day he and Jane had made love in his Oxford room. Barney's footsteps outside the door alarmed them, but shortly afterwards Dan "found (…) the chutzpah to go up and see Barney Dillon." In fact, Barney now echoes Dan's word of a few hours before, "Ghosts." Synchronicity, insofar as it can be understood, denies the scientific sense of causality in certain "chance" situations. Instead, it invests the coincidence of a psychic state in the observer and the occurrence of a simultaneous external event with mystical meaning. According to Jung, synchronicity confirms that "the psyche cannot be localized in space, or that space is relative to the psyche."
Still another instance of Jungian synchronicity not only enables Dan to understand the enigmatic "right feeling" to which Jane is privileged (reminiscent of the essentially emotional nature of Jung's anima archetype) but also to overcome "her obsession with solitary independence." Jung observes that synchronistic events "almost invariably accompany the crucial phases of individuation." After Dan and Jane finally sleep together, Dan finds roles reversed, "he Eve, she recalcitrant Adam." A fortuitous walk across a barren Syrian plain produces two young puppies, and the couple notices a mangy bitch some distance away. When Jane is suddenly overcome, Dan divines that "gods take strange shapes; find strange times and stranger climates for their truths":
Beneath all her faults, her wrong dogmas, her self-obsessions, her evasions, there lay, as there had always lain—in some analogue of that vague entity the Marxists call totality, full consciousness of both essence and phenomenon—a profound, and profoundly unintellectual, sense of natural orientation … that mysterious sense he had always thought of as right feeling. But he had always thought of it as something static and unchanging—and conscious, even if hidden; when of course it had always really been living, mobile, shifting and quivering, even veering wildly, like a magnetic needle … so easily distorted, shaken out of true by mind, emotion, circumstance, environment. It had never meant that she could see deeper … It was simply that she felt deeper.
Jane projects her despair onto the seemingly deserted puppies and tells Dan that their night together was "a sort of madness. A blindness to all the realities." But the dog is simply exhibiting distraction behavior, offering herself as a trade and luring the interlopers away from her young. In contrast, Jane's instincts have been thwarted by a narcissistic withdrawal into self, which she intellectualizes as a quest for autonomy. In "the oldest male gesture in the world," Dan wipes Jane's tears away, as the novel pursues the oldest pattern of all, separation and reunion, courtship and marriage.
In another discordant intrusion, one of the novel's culminant images seems predicated on Jung's "humanist psychology" as well. Standing before the late Rembrandt self-portrait, Dan sees "a presentness beyond all time, fashion, language; a puffed face, a pair of rheumy eyes, and a profound and unassuageable vision," which, like his lament for Tsankawi, exposes a Jungian yearning for the eternal as well as a "crucial myth of the modern (…) that thought and feeling are now disjoined compared to their former oneness in a happier age whose primacy we have lost" [Meisel]:
He could see only one consolation in those remorseless and aloof Dutch eyes. It is not finally a matter of skill, of knowledge, of intellect; of good luck or bad; but of choosing and learning to feel. Dan began at last to detect it behind the surface of the painting; behind the sternness lay the declaration of the one true marriage in the mind mankind is allowed, the ultimate citadel of humanism. No true compassion without will, no true will without compassion.
Despite the distractions created by Jungian suppositions imposed on a Freudian edifice, Fowles does attain some resolution of the primary problems Daniel Martin addresses as he refines the relationship between fiction and reality, self and culture. Here even the concept of self, the idea of characters isolated in their own bodies and minds, like actions confined to a single place and time, is fundamentally fictive. Here individuals are inseparable from society, art, and language: in fiction and in life we achieve what freedom is possible within the contexts of these systems, through the recognition—and celebration—of communality. Like language, we acquire meaning through oppositions, interactions, varied frames of reference.
Dan's inquiry into the self he has become discovers an inertia that has dominated his life and craft, belying his insistence that "he needed freedom" and pointing to his immersion in the mythologies of his milieu. He feels "both artistically and really, in the age-old humanist trap: of being allowed (as by some unearned privilege) to enjoy life too much to make a convincing case for any real despair of dissatisfaction" and "dense with forebodings of a rich and happy year ahead … as if he were condemned to comedy in an age without it." This contemporary conviction—that the happy ending is inauthentic and only tragedy real—has informed each of Dan's scripts: "all through his writing life (…) he had avoided the happy ending, as if it were somehow in bad taste," a convention that both Dan's life and Fowles's earlier novels have largely observed. But Dan "was not wholly to blame" because no one "had ever suggested anything different for the close." They were "all equally brainwashed, victims of the dominant and historically understandable heresy (…) It had become offensive, in an intellectually privileged caste, to suggest publicly that anything might turn out well in this world."
Most important, Dan's facade of freedom betrays a profound anxiety about the freedom to which artists are privileged: although not "genetically, environmentally, or technically free; imprisoned inside whatever gifts they have, whatever past and present experience," even their limited freedom is considerable "because of the immense forest constituted by the imagined, because of the permission Western society grants them to roam in it (…) That is the one reality." If the one reality is imagination and freedom springs from exploring its potential, both freedom and reality are equally grounded in fiction. Indeed, it is imagination that produces and interprets self, society, and art all alike, mediates between world and psyche. Dan, however, has chosen imitation over invention, craft over art. Most damaging has been his retreat from imagination, and "that was the horror of landing that drove the bird endlessly on: the risk of the real ground."
Like the Egyptians who "had used art, instead of letting art use them," Dan has allowed neither art nor life to happen. His past, his Englishness, and his defenses have indeed made him a character in someone else's script. Perceiving that Jane's "real lack of freedom" lies "in the inability to compromise" and the belief that "all was determined, predestined," Dan concludes that "the only true and real field in which one could test personal freedom was present possibility (…) One could so clearly only move and act from today, this present and flawed world." He begins revising when he realizes that "Love might be a prison" but "also a profound freedom" and proposes to Jane that they extend their holiday with a visit to Lebanon and Syria, a preliminary to a far more important proposal. Here we see that Jane, like other Fowlesian heroines, is redemptive, the agent of the male protagonist's return to domesticity, community, and culture:
It was not a wanting to possess, even uxoriously, but a wanting to know one could always reach out a hand and (…) that shadow of the other shared voyage, into the night. She was also some kind of emblem of redemption from a life devoted to heterogamy and adultery, the modern errant ploughman's final reward; and Dan saw, or felt, abruptly for the first time in his life, the true difference between Eros and Agape.
The contradictions uncovered in Fowles's work point to dualities inherent in the genre of the novel, to the fictions of realism and the impossibility of an uncontaminated text. Fowles yearns for a comprehensive myth that somehow transcends self while also assuring its primacy, at once acknowledging the self as a social construct and affirming its autonomy. Despite the imposition of existential and Jungian rhetoric, Daniel Martin takes its inspiration from Freud, showing that we have been shaped by culture even as we are set against it, equally immersed in civilization and its discontents.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5836
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 Lieutenant's Woman (1969). Both are unconventional historical novels which bring an explicitly modern authorial consciousness to bear on the past rather than pretending to be of the historical period during which the action takes place. This strategy makes it possible for both novels to examine history critically as a humanly constructed discourse rather than simply to present history dramatically as though it had an objective, unproblematic ontological status. Both novels are examples of what Linda Hutcheon calls [in "Beginning to Theorize Post-modernism," Textual Practice (1987)] "historiographic metafiction": "novels which are both intensely self-reflexive and yet lay claim to historical events and personages." Such works are inherently paradoxical in creating the illusion of bringing the reader into contact with independently existing historical events only to expose that experience as a fabrication. The implication of this procedure is one that most modern historians would accept: not that history is unreal but that it consists of fallible, provisional, relative sets of interpretations of a past to which we have no unmediated, complete access.
A Maggot foregrounds the textual nature of history by presenting itself as a heterogeneous mixture of various kinds of documents. It flaunts the media through which the story is transmitted rather than effacing them. Like The French Lieutenant's Woman, A Maggot features both segments of narrative in the manner of a realistic novel (this time set in the eighteenth rather than the nineteenth century) and the discursive reflections of a self-consciously literary narrator. Unlike the earlier novel, though, it also incorporates other kinds of documents, some of which Fowles has taken from authentic, eighteenth-century sources and some of which he has composed to masquerade as eighteenth-century texts. In the former category are excerpts from the "Historical Chronicle" for 1736 of the Gentleman's Magazine and a satire, culled from the same periodical, titled "Pretty Miss's Catechism." In the latter group are a newspaper report of the death of one of the novel's characters; personal letters; and transcripts in question and answer form of the sworn testimony which the barrister Henry Ayscough elicits from several characters in the process of investigating the disappearance of his employer's son, an unnamed young lord who has adopted the pseudonym Mr. Bartholomew. The sum total of this medley of texts is a novel which is itself a mixture of genres well described by the dust jacket blurb: "Part detective story, part science fiction, part gothic horror tale, part history of dissent, A Maggot is a contemporary novel, yet also in its way a true tale of Defoe's time." In this essay I want to examine in more detail the relationship between this hybrid narrative structure and the wideranging implications of the novel's treatment of history. In Mikhail Bakhtin's well-known terms, the book is dialogic or polyphonic, an agglomeration of different discourses, voices, dialects, and points of view. As such, it relativizes history by offering a variety of perspectives on how the past should be interpreted. Of the many perspectives, two conflicting ones are particularly important: those embodied by Henry Ayscough and Rebecca Lee. Ayscough's scientific quest for certitude is at variance with the view of history that Fowles wishes to endorse and that Lee's mystical orientation gives rise to. Fowles associates each of these characters' approaches to truth, somewhat arbitrarily, it must be confessed, with a broad range of attitudes about politics, religion, and life in general. Ayscough is rational, empirical, legalistic, authoritarian, conservative, and misogynistic, whereas Lee is intuitive, imaginative, artistic, visionary, democratic, feminist, and revolutionary. Ayscough is obviously meant to be seen as a representative early-eighteenth-century man of reason and neoclassical tradition, whereas Lee, as the novel's epilogue makes clear, anticipates romantic individualism and reliance on feeling and intuition.
Fowles's far-from-neutral treatment of the conflict between what Ayscough and Lee represent easily expands to encompass a reworking of some of the novelist's favorite themes. As do his earlier novels and stories, A Maggot reveals his preoccupation with individual freedom and self-transformation. Lee and her aristocratic mentor Bartholomew prove equal to what Ayscough fears and avoids—vitalizing psychological change brought on by imaginative encounters with the mystery and hazard of existence. Whereas Lee and Bartholomew resist the received historical patterns, prefabricated identities, and iniquitous class distinctions which their society imposes on individuals, Ayscough is an agent of its tyranny. As Fowles has often done in the past, in A Maggot he stresses the relationship between freedom and creative imagination, and, by casting his protagonists in the role of surrogate novelists, he celebrates the novel as a vehicle for the imagination's transforming power. His remarks in the prologue on one of the meanings of the book's title leave no doubt that A Maggot itself is meant to serve as a paradigm of such metamorphosis: "A maggot is the larval stage of a winged creature; as is the written text, at least in the writer's hope."
The novel focuses attention on history not only because it is set in the eighteenth century but also because one strand of the plot involves Ayscough's attempt to reconstruct the past. The bulk of the novel consists of an inquiry into the disappearance of Bartholomew following a strange journey to a cavern in Devonshire, where an enigmatic series of events takes place. This setting recalls E. M. Forster's famous Marabar cave, but the ambiguity about what happens there to Adela Quested is mild compared to the radical uncertainty about what causes Bartholomew to vanish and his servant, Thurlow, to kill himself. Fowles declines to dramatize directly the events which take place in the cave. The only available report of the extraordinary affair is the unreliable testimony of Rebecca Lee, the lone eyewitness. What breeds doubt about the veracity of her account is not only the fantastic nature of her tale of visiting a heavenly city in a flying saucer or "maggot" but also the fact that she had earlier told David Jones an entirely different, contradictory version of the story in which she unwillingly participated in a Satanic orgy. Rather than supplying definitive answers about the real nature of Lee's experience in the cave and Bartholomew's fate, Ayscough's inquiry only raises questions. The reader is free to interpret Lee's testimony as evidence of an intent to deceive, a hallucination, a mystical vision, or an encounter with beings from another planet. None of these interpretations receives sufficient corroboration to become authoritative, however. Even the archempiricist Ayscough is ultimately forced to admit that the cloud of obscurity surrounding the events in the cave cannot be cleared away.
Fowles's decision not to dramatize the climactic episode in the cave objectively and unambiguously renders the novel's structure ironic since, as some of the reviewers noticed, much of the book is written as a kind of detective story, the whole point of which is to unearth a truth which stays obstinately buried. In the terms of Russian formalism, the effect of Fowles's refusal to introduce a solution is to thwart the reader's ability to deduce the whole of A Maggot's fabula or story from its sjuzet or plot. The fabula, according to Seymour Chatman [in his Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, 1978], is the "basic story stuff, the sum total of events to be related in the narrative," whereas the sjuzet is "the story as actually told by linking the events together." Or, in Tzvetan Todorov's simpler formulation [in his The Poetics of Prose, 1977], "the story is what has happened in life, the plot is the way the author presents it to us." in A Maggot, however, the stories "as actually told" by the narrator and by the characters who testify before Ayscough do not add up to one uniform "sum total of events" or reflect clearly "what has happened in life." The problem is not just insufficient information, for even if one is willing to accept on faith the truth of what Lee says as the inspired utterance of a visionary, one still cannot easily choose between her two versions of what took place in the cave. Although she repudiates the tale which she had told Jones, her sworn testimony does not cancel or replace that first account in the reader's consciousness but stands in addition to it. The effect of this duality is to place A Maggot in the category of texts which Chatman calls "antinarratives" because "what they call into question is, precisely, narrative logic, that one thing leads to one and only one other, the second to a third and so on to the finale."
Because Fowles's narrative is unconventional in the way that Chatman describes, it actually subverts the concept of fabula and corroborates Peter Brooks's assertion [in his Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative, 1984] that "the apparent priority of fabula to sjuzet is in the nature of a mimetic illusion, in that the fabula—'what really happened'—is in fact a mental construction that the reader derives from the sjuzet, which is all that he ever directly knows." What Brooks appears to mean is that, since the events of narrative fictions are at least in part the authors' fabrications, there is no anterior reality to which the sjuzet at every point corresponds. But, as Todorov has shown, detective fiction has traditionally created a powerful illusion of the independent reality of the fabula, the crime which has already occurred and which must be reconstructed in the sjuzet by the detective in order to be solved. Todorov argues that the second order of story, the detective's inquest, "has no importance in itself" but "serves only as mediator between the reader and the story of the crime." Fowles destroys this hierarchy, however. Because his detective fails, because the details of the "crime" cannot be determined with empirical accuracy, only the sjuzet, the second order of story, can have intrinsic importance. What I mean is that, despite Fowles's care to set the novel in a specific and detailed historical context, his strategy focuses attention on the fictional properties of the narrative as imaginative creation. His method forces us finally to assess the novel according to criteria other than mimetic adequacy or correspondence to historical fact. What must be judged is not the literal truth of Lee's stories but their imaginative richness as metaphors for psychological conditions.
The reader cannot contemplate those metaphors in isolation, though, but is forced to encounter them in the adversarial judicial context set up by Ayscough, whose only interest is in the literal truth of testimony. This conflict is a central aspect of what I have already referred to as the book's dialogic nature. Fowles's novel is polyphonic in mixing different kinds of discourses and in establishing "a special relationship with extraliterary genres of everyday life" [M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, 1981] such as letters and transcripts of legal proceedings. Bakhtin thought that the raw materials out of which novels were formed endowed them with "an indeterminacy, a certain semantic openendedness, a living contact with unfinished, still evolving contemporary reality." We have already seen that A Maggot resists unambiguous interpretation and closure. Like the majority of Fowles's fictions, it suggests that to impose finality on narratives is to falsify the existential uncertainty which is an inescapable part of being alive. Though A Maggot is set in the eighteenth century, it is intent on demonstrating the presentness as well as the pastness of that era. As in The French Lieutenant's Woman, Fowles attempts to show that history is not safely complete and that it has a vital connection with the contemporary world of the reader.
A Maggot's open-ended, dialogic nature supports its obvious thematic bias in favor of the egalitarian political subtext of religious dissent. "You would talk in religious terms in the 1700's and 1600's," Fowles has said, "but you were really talking politics." The clash of voices and points of view in A Maggot serves explicitly what Bakhtin perceived to be the implicitly pluralistic and democratic tendencies of all novels. As David Lodge says [in "The Novel Now: Theories and Practices," Novel: A Forum on Fiction (1988)], there "is an indissoluble link between the linguistic variety of prose fiction, which [Bakhtin] called heteroglossia, and its cultural function as the continuous critique of all repressive, authoritarian, one-eyed ideologies." In the case of A Maggot, the despotic ideology in question is the vestige of feudalism, with its tenet that all social change is evil, fiercely defended by Ayscough. But it is not merely the overt opposition of Lee and her sect which prevents the monologic discourse of aristocracy from holding uncontested sway. A challenge to its dominance is mounted by the mere existence within the novel of heteroglossia. A Maggot presents us with the regional dialects of Devon and Wales, the writing and speaking styles of the aristocracy, the deferential speech patterns of those who serve them, the languages of the legal system and the stage, the specialized, tendentious vocabulary of Protestant dissent, and even the modern argot of a twentieth-century narrator who is trying to understand and explain the eighteenth-century world which his characters take for granted.
Rebecca Lee is herself aware that her religious and political conflict with established authority is in part a clash of "languages" and of the different mental worlds which they body forth. She more than once correlates her disagreements with Ayscough with what she terms their separate and opposed "alphabets." For example, after she has testified that Bartholomew was transported from the cavern to heaven in the "maggot," the following exchange takes place between her and Ayscough:
Q. Can you deny that he may have left some otherwise than in your engine?
A. I cannot, in thy alphabet; in mine I can, and do.
Q. You say, he was brought to your June Eternal?
A. Not brought, he is returned.
What Lee means is that their different vocabularies and ways of speaking reflect conflicting mind-sets and methods of apprehending truth.
Although as an artist Fowles clearly values the visionary/imaginative mode of Lee more than the rational/scientific one of Ayscough, his handling of the conflict is truly dialogic in that the narrator of A Maggot refuses to silence the very formidable opposition or to resolve the debate in favor of Lee. While the narrator does at times editorialize against Ayscough's bullying tactics and reactionary nature, he declines to usurp the barrister's dominant position in the text, the bulk of which is structured in the question and answer format which he imposes and to a large extent controls. The narrator speaks only in those briefer sections which are composed in the manner of a conventional novel, and even there his is just one of several limited perspectives. Fowles does not grant his narrator psychological and spatial omniscience but restricts his proximity to the characters. For example, the narrator is as much in the dark as the reader concerning the enigmatic motives and character of Bartholomew, and, as I have already said, the narrator is also ignorant of the crucially important happenings in the cave.
The point to be stressed is that Fowles is as wary of imposing in monologic fashion his own world view on the reader as he is vigilant to incorporate into the novel alternatives to Ayscough's repressive ideology. Moreover, as Fowles shows in The Aristos, he is not so naive as to believe that any idea or belief can exist without its opposite or counterpole, on which that idea or belief paradoxically depends for definition and energetic support. A Maggot endorses Fowles's view that "we exist mentally in a world of opposites, converses, negatives" (Aristos). Man is counterbalanced by woman, reason by imagination, the desire to preserve the status quo by the urge to transform society, and so on. Fowles also juxtaposes sections written in the present and past tenses because he believes that visionaries and artists such as himself "tend to live and wander in a hugely extended now, treating both past and future as present, instead of keeping them in control and order, firmly separated" (Maggot), whereas realists such as Ayscough reify the present by treating it as though it were completed in order to control experience intellectually and practically.
What A Maggot implies about Ayscough's rational empiricism is not that it has no place in life but that there are areas of experience which it is powerless to illuminate, and that an overreliance on this faculty is psychologically destructive. It is not merely the failure of Ayscough's method to get to the bottom of Bartholomew's disappearance that discredits it in the particular context that Fowles has set up. Readers are used to approving the motives behind the investigations of detective fiction, but Ayscough's deeds are sparked by nothing nobler than a reactionary fear of behavior not sanctioned by the existing social order and a toadying regard for one of the aristocrats on whom his practice depends. The barrister does have a passionate need to uncover the truth, but that need is itself the object of Fowles's disapproval. The novel shows that Ayscough is so intent to discover the objective facts of the case that he is blind to other dimensions of experience which are ethically and existentially important.
Ayscough is, in fact, the most recent example of a recognizable type in Fowles's fiction, characters who are afflicted with what William Palmer has dubbed [in his The Fiction of John Fowles: Tradition, Art, and the Loneliness of Selfhood, 1974] "collector-consciousness," the need to possess, to control, to understand totally. The counterpole of the vital incompleteness which Bakhtin exalted as the particular glory of the novel, a deadening preference for what is already finished, for the product over the process, is the hallmark of "collector-consciousness." Such a desire is evident in Ayscough's attempts to impose an investigative order on his witnesses and thereby cut short the natural, organic growth of their narratives in order to arrive more quickly at the only thing he values—the end result, the solution to the mystery. In her testimony, Lee consistently resists this sort of coercion and refuses to let the barrister dictate the structure and compromise the integrity and power of her story.
Ayscough's relentless application of the scientific method bespeaks an inability to accept uncertainty, the flux and hazard of existence which Fowles believes to be necessary for biological evolution and psychological growth (Aristos). This lack of what Keats called "negative capability" is therefore life-denying, as Fowles demonstrates most graphically in The Collector, in which Frederick Clegg literally kills Miranda Grey in a demented attempt to possess her with complete certainty. Ayscough's impatience with the unknown and the ungovernable is a product of his arrogant assumption that no approach other than the scientific can lead to genuine knowledge. Of course, as a respectable man of his time he assents notionally to the authority of the Church of England, but his true allegiance is to the monologic ideology of science. In The Enigma of Stonehenge Fowles identifies science as the most powerful of "all of the reifying and self-imprisoning systems" condemned by Keats's romantic predecessor William Blake for cutting humans off from the divinity of immediate experience. Fowles celebrates Stonehenge precisely because "there are not yet enough facts about it to bury it in certainty, in a scientific final solution to all its questions. Its great present virtue is … that something so concrete, so sui generis, so individualized, should still evoke so much imprecision of feeling and thought." It is no accident that Stonehenge figures prominently as one of the settings for the rituals enacted by Bartholomew and his minions, the rituals which culminate in the hidden occurrence at the heart of the novel. For the events in the cave are analogous in their effect to that with which Fowles credits Stonehenge—the "power to challenge the imagination of its beholders" (Stonehenge). What ultimately poses the challenge and stimulates the imagination is mystery. "Mystery, or unknowing, is energy," Fowles states in The Aristos. "As soon as a mystery is explained, it ceases to be a source of energy."
There seems little doubt that Lee's two conflicting accounts of what happened at Stonehenge and in the cave are meant to be embodiments of the vital energy which Fowles speaks of, not definitive explanations which drain it. In other words, however she conceives of them, Lee's narratives are intended by Fowles to be metaphoric expressions of the potent effect on her psyche of a mystery not to be understood rationally, not literally accurate descriptions of the sort which Ayscough craves. The ineradicable ambiguities of Lee's testimony in relation to an external standard of truth do not so much undermine as fuel the imaginative power of her stories. Fowles's point is not that scientific criteria are without validity but that there are aspects of life which are richer for being impervious to scientific investigation. He holds that what is not scientifically verifiable is not necessarily untrue. In The Aristos he glorifies art, for example, as "the expression of truths too complex for science to express."
It is as art, finally, as literature, that Lee's narratives, for all their religious content, are to be judged. If they seem less plausible than Ayscough's own narrative account of what happened—his flat, debunking speculation that Bartholomew duped Lee, committed suicide after failing in his dark experiments, and thus precipitated the suicide of his devoted servant—Lee's stories are more richly textured, suspenseful, and thematically suggestive. In short, they are aesthetically superior as narrative literature. They certainly perform the function which Northrop Frye thinks characteristic of literature: as evocations of damnation and salvation, they map the limits of our deepest fears and desires. For this reason, the primary significance of her stories as literature might well be psychological. It is possible to interpret them symbolically as the record of a psychological battle for growth and freedom in a social and political context hostile to these aspirations. Such an interpretation need not violate the text's dialogic open-endedness, the inexhaustible qualities for which good literature has traditionally been valued. A symbolic reading is merely one way to account for the power of the narratives, not the critical equivalent of a "scientific final solution" which saps their mystery and closes off other possibilities.
One advantage of a psychological perspective is that it allows us to see that the two versions of what happened do not so much contradict as complement one another as opposite but integral stages of one unified process. This is the belief of Walter Miller, Jr., who [in his review in The New York Times Book Review (September 8, 1985)] adopts a Jungian vantage point. Miller notices that each account features a "numinous female triad linked to a mysterious fourth—three witches and Satan (the lord transformed), or a female Holy Trinity joined by a harlot." Miller concludes that the "equivalence of the infernal and celestial versions of the scene in the cave conforms to Jung's psychology, and both versions of the cave scene are true."
Because Lee's narratives, as evocations of a struggle for freedom, serve what Fowles believes to be the basic function of art, which is "essentially a liberating activity" (Aristos), they constitute a paradigm of Fowles's goals for the novel which contains them. As I mentioned earlier, like most of Fowles's novels and stories, A Maggot is a metafiction which lays bare the problematics and exalts the possibilities of its own medium. Like The Magus's Maurice Conchis and The French Lieutenant's Woman's Sarah Woodruff, Lee is a storytelling substitute for Fowles within the fictional world of the book. By explicitly performing a facsimile of the novelist's task, by unfolding stories which tantalize us even as they trouble us with their indeterminate ontological status, Lee makes us more conscious of what is at stake in our engagement with the book and with the other narratives that inform and shape our lives. That Fowles intends Lee to act as his surrogate is made clear in the epilogue in his comments on the Shakers, the religious movement foreshadowed in Lee's visionary experience and founded by the real historical figure Ann Lee, whom Fowles imagines to be the daughter of his entirely fictional character Rebecca: "Something in Shaker thought and theology … has always seemed to me to adumbrate the relation of fiction to reality. We novelists also demand a far-fetched faith, quite often seemingly absurd in relation to normal reality; we too need a bewildering degree of metaphorical understanding from our readers before the truths behind our tropes can be conveyed."
The activities of the shadowy figure Bartholomew may also be seen as a self-reflexive image of those of Fowles himself as a novelist. Like The Magus's Conchis, Bartholomew is a surrogate author who does within the world of the novel what a postmodernist writer such as Fowles does with words: he creates various fictional scenarios to be acted out and in the process proliferates artifice and uncertainty about what is real. He is like Conchis in being a morally ambiguous character with Satanic associations who deceives and manipulates others but whose ultimate intention seems to be the benign one of bestowing freedom. And, again like Conchis, in absconding without warning or explanation, he performs the equivalent of what Fowles does in leaving his plot without a denouement and thus inviting readers to become more creatively involved with the text. In this regard, Bartholomew is also reminiscent of "The Enigma"'s John Fielding, the character whose unexplained disappearance activates the imaginations of the story's protagonists and, Fowles hopes, of its readers. Like the Fielding of Isobel Dodgson's speculation (Ebony Tower), Bartholomew is a member of the ruling elite who views the mores and behavior patterns of his class as a confining script which denies him the freedom to forge a meaningful identity. Those scripts are analogous to the conventional plots of narrative fiction which Fowles believes to be equally constraining and which he violates in not accounting for the disappearances of his characters. In vanishing, both become what Dwight Eddins calls [in "John Fowles: Existence as Authorship," Contemporary Literature (1976)] "existentialist authors of their own lives."
However opaque some of Bartholomew's motives might be, then, Fowles seems to expect us to associate the actions leading to his disappearance with his desire for liberating, radical change. Once again, a character's ambition mirrors that of the self-conscious novel which incarnates him. His recipe for transformation contains some of the ingredients which Kerry McSweeney has identified as recurring features of Fowles's previous works of fiction. The cave constitutes the by-now-familiar secret world into which his male protagonists penetrate by means of the vitalizing powers of sex and imagination. What is new in A Maggot is that Bartholomew is impotent and that, in one version of the story, transcendence follows not from the awakening of his sexual powers but from practicing an abstinence which conforms to the tenets of Lee's severe faith. Bartholomew's own "far-fetched faith," equally a metaphor for that of the novelist who has created him, is a peculiar, only vaguely presented blend of pagan and Christian elements. It seems to be derived in part from the religious life of the Celtic druids, who, according to the now-discredited eighteenth-century theory of William Stukely endorsed enthusiastically by Bartholomew, built Stonehenge and practiced "the purest form of primitive Christianity" (Stonehenge). While Bartholomew assumes the form of Satan in the first version of Lee's story, in the second she certainly presents him as a veritable emanation of the spirit of Christ, and she glosses the strangely close relationship between the aristocrat and his servant in the following allegorical fashion: "And now do I see they were as one in truth, Dick of the carnal and imperfect body, his Lordship of the spirit…. And as Jesus Christ's body must die upon the Cross, so must this latter-day earthly self, poor unregenerate Dick, die so the other half be saved."
Thurlow's death, and his earlier sexual couplings with Lee, can also be given a pagan interpretation, in relation to a widespread fertility rite which featured, in the words of Fowles, "the real or symbolic mating of a potent young man and a female representative of the earth-goddess, sometimes associated with the subsequent ritual sacrifice of one or both" (Stonehenge). Viewing Thurlow as a dying god figure in the tradition of pre-Christian vegetation cults makes even more sense when we remember that violets were found in his mouth by those who discovered his corpse.
The mythic and religious particulars of the novel, however, do not form a coherent whole which serves as a key to unlock the novel's mysteries. As I have already intimated, these details seem less important in their own right than the metaphoric resonances which they generate. However dialogic his method, it is difficult to forget that Fowles is himself an atheist who has rejected Christianity (Maggot) and consigned to the "lunatic fringe" the modern-day Bartholomews who would review pagan rites at Stonehenge (Stonehenge). What Fowles will not repudiate, though, is an urge which underlies most religions and motivates artists such as himself: the desire to overcome time. Fowles has said quite directly that "art best conquers time" (Aristos), and the attempts of his proxies within the fictional world to achieve states of timelessness can be seen to reflect his own preoccupations as creator of A Maggot. Lee's "June Eternal," as the very name suggests, is a condition of arrested time. And Bartholomew's absorption in the problem of defeating time is shown in his fascination with Stonehenge, whose builders, he holds, "had pierced some part of the mystery of time." Stonehenge itself, according to Fowles, overwhelms visitors with "the presentness of its past" (Stonehenge) and manifests "an obsession with defying time and death" (Stonehenge).
Considerations of the novel's treatment of time lead back to the topic with which I began, the peculiar status of A Maggot as an unorthodox historical novel, and suggest some conclusions about the nature of Fowles's intentions and achievements. What he would like to do, in a sense, is to abolish history, to remove the two-hundred-and-fifty-year gap between his characters and his readers and to institute an eternal world, that "hugely extended now" which he claims artists and mystics have the capacity to inhabit (Maggot). Ideally, the best art "constitutes that timeless world of the full intellect … where each artefact is contemporary, and as nearly immortal as an object in a cosmos without immortality can be" (Aristos). But this accomplishment requires the full imaginative involvement of both author and readers, which in turn depends upon what Fowles calls "the inmost characteristic of art—mystery. For what good science tries to eliminate, good art seeks to provoke—mystery, which is lethal to the one and vital to the other" (Aristos). Accordingly, Fowles envelops his eighteenth-century subject matter in a haze of uncertainty. The cost is a loss of scientific clarity and objective understanding. What Fowles hopes to gain is the freshness and immediacy of "that weird tense grammar does not allow, the imaginary present" (Maggot).
The novel implies that eliminating the pastness of the past has another salutary effect, that of destroying its deterministic power over the present and of thereby freeing the individual to fashion his or her own identity, as Bartholomew hopes to do by refusing the fixed part written for him by his own past, by his aristocratic origins. This existentialist goal, however, is incompatible with a knowledge of historical forces. "Choosing not to know," says Fowles, "in an increasingly 'known,' structured, ordained, predictable world, becomes almost a freedom, a last refuge of the self" (Stonehenge). One might object that such a sense of freedom is delusive since it is possible to be shaped by factors of which one is ignorant. It is worth asking, too, how one can choose not to know if one in fact already does know. This is a difficulty recognized by Bartholomew, who, as the actor Lacy testifies, contrasted the wise unknowing of the builders of Stonehenge with the constraining awareness of people of his own era:
They knew they knew nothing…. We moderns are corrupted by our past, our learning, our historians; and the more we know of what happened, the less we know of what will happen; for as I say, we are like the personages of a tale, fixed it must seem by another intention, to be good or evil, happy or unhappy, as it falls. Yet they who set and dressed these stones lived before the tale began, Lacy, in a present that had no past.
What follows from Bartholomew's train of thought is the realization that it is not wholly possible to obliterate the past or to avoid being conditioned by it. History might well be the imperfect construction of human beings, and not the objective truth, but it has an undeniable reality which Fowles acknowledges. As Lacy reports, Bartholomew finally concluded that one's freedom is relative and limited: "he answered that we may choose in many small things as I may choose how I play a part … but yet must at the end, in greater matters, obey that part and portray its greater fate, as its author creates." Changing the vehicle of the metaphor from authorship to imprisonment, the narrator of A Maggot expresses the matter succinctly when he states that most of us are "equal victims in the debtors' prison of History, and equally unable to leave it."
The foregoing admission accounts for qualities of A Maggot which are not consistent with an intention to blur historical differences between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries and in the process to make a bygone age come to life for the contemporary reader. Fowles's narrator is often concerned to keep the past neatly separated and very remote from the present. As Pat Rogers correctly observes [in "Left Lobe and Right," Times Literary Supplement (September 20, 1985)], "Fowles leaves no room for sentimental identification with the past: he snaps down the alienation effect with a brisk, no-nonsense finality." Compared to The French Lieutenant's Woman, A Maggot is an austere, uncompromising book which is not easy of access for the casual reader. Despite The French Lieutenant's Woman's postmodernist pyrotechnics, its Victorian milieu has a coziness and charm that the more distant and foreign eighteenth century lacks. Fowles's learned explanations of various facets of eighteenth-century life are designed to measure the distance between then and now, not to eliminate it. It is to his credit that he will not dishonestly deny the otherness of history in order to give his maggot wings.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6174
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 time critical of the uses to which it has been put. Much of his work seems to have a left wing or feminist bias, yet he can also be seen as crypto-fascist and sexist. He is a self-proclaimed atheist whose most recent novel, A Maggot, presents a bigoted fanaticism of the eighteenth century as a necessary step towards freedom. He says that he has 'little interest' in the historical novel, yet he is an expert at the evocation of the past and at convincing period dialogue. The catalogue of enigmas could be continued almost indefinitely, but the daylight, the accessibility and the 'readerly' character of his work remains.
Some ways of approaching Fowles the novelist seem to hold more promise than others. [In The Romances of John Fowles, 1985] Simon Loveday, for instance, proposes the chivalric romance, a genre studied by Fowles at university and explicitly present in The Ebony Tower, as a clue. Like Chrétien de Troyes and the other authors of the late medieval romance, Fowles is interested in the traditional quest in which the hero will prove himself in ambiguous competition with some belle dame, often sans merci, and he toys with the quasi-magical environment of the enchanted castle (the 'domaine') with its wizard-wiseman. Loveday's book is convincing when it deals with some of the fiction (The Collector, The Magus, most of the stories in The Ebony Tower), but it begins to break down when its thesis is applied to The French Lieutenant's Woman, Daniel Martin and A Maggot.
Fowles himself has taken a psychoanalytic approach to his novels in a fascinating essay, 'Hardy and the Hag' [published in Thomas Hardy After Fifty Years, edited by Lance St John Butler, 1977], in which he explores the source of fictional creativity in (male) novelists with the help of an analysis of The French Lieutenant's Woman undertaken by Gilbert Rose, an American psychiatrist. Here we feel close to the intimate springs of Fowles's work, but we are not, in the end, led to any very clear interpretations. While it seems probable that we would learn more about how writing occurs if we were to familiarise ourselves with, say, Melanie Klein's Love, Guilt and Reparation, this will not lead us to anything like a complete account of a ludic piece such as The French Lieutenant's Woman or a work as baffling as A Maggot.
For the purpose of this essay I would like to attempt a less partial account (not that I would deny the Romance element or the probability of Fowles's version of the psychic generation of fiction) and offer a picture of a novelist coming to terms with freedom, both in the Existentialist sense, which would require that freedom be an indispensable absolute (which I think Fowles believes, at least as far as the indispensability is concerned), and in the more recent Poststructuralist sense, which would require freedom to be a chimera, an endlessly deferred goal (which I think is what Fowles now also believes).
In this way Fowles is the novelist par excellence of the period since 1960, in Britain at least. He belongs to the generation most profoundly influenced by Existentialism, and his development has followed the same course as developments that have in part sprung from Existentialism. This may help to explain some of the enigma—the early interest in the freedom of the individual consciousness thrown into the world later becomes the more limited Barthesian freedom of the author playing with the text. The 'pleasure of the text', Barthes' explicit connection of the play of fiction with the play of sexual encounter, becomes in Fowles an elaborate erotics of fiction that takes us well beyond the search for authenticity. The author's self, always closely bound up with that of his hero-surrogates in Fowles, seems to be exploring Existentialist choices in an early work such as The Magus, but by the time we reach Daniel Martin, that self has itself come to seem part of the problem of fictional creation. We are not dealing with self-obsession but rather with the position of the Postmodern/Poststructuralist author for whom the problem of writing is that he is at once all-powerful (the ludic God, the magus) and indeterminable (the blank space, the 'Urfe'—private code, as Fowles has indicated, for 'earth').
Fowles's first novel, The Magus, drafted in the 1950s, is in some essential ways an alternative L'Etranger, the work of an English Camus. The themes of personal choice, freedom and responsibility, are at the heart of this novel, and the debts to the Romance tradition and to the 'domaine' of Alain-Fournier are, as it were, only scenery, the mechanism needed to put Nicholas Urfe through his Existentialist paces. Urfe is an outsider in the attitudes he demonstrates in London, just as he is the suicidal Camusian on his Greek island who, deeply in love with nature, nonetheless cannot escape the absurd.
In the later novels, however, the elusive goddess Eleutheria is pursued in ways that have become familiar to us in the 1970s and 1980s, rather than in the parabolic manner of Camus and Sartre. Instead of offering himself as the Authority or Origin that announces the Era of Freedom ex cathedra, Fowles enacts freedom in his later fiction at the same time as discussing it directly. The most obvious example of this lies in the famous 'double' (actually triple) ending of The French Lieutenant's Woman in which the novelist tries to put the reader into the same position as (a) the hero, Charles Smithson, and (b) the novelist, John Fowles. By the late 1960s, in other words, Fowles is no longer in the relatively innocent world of Camus, a world where heroic young men whose authenticity is guaranteed by their relationship with nature can defy Necessity and assert the freedom offered to them by Absurdity. We have instead been taken into the world of Barthes, Foucault and Derrida, where all assertion is textual, provisional and rhetorical. For Sartre and early Fowles man is condemned to freedom; for Barthes and later Fowles man is condemned to free play. Authenticity proves to be unavailable, so the later freedom settles for inauthentic 'play' (acting).
Fowles himself is quite open about the centrality of freedom to his work. He told Daniel Halpern in 1971: 'Freedom … That obsesses me. All my books are about that. The question is, is there really free will? Can we choose freely? Can we act freely? Can we choose? How do we do it?' ['A Sort of Exile in Lyme Regis,' London Magazine (March 1971)]. In his study of Fowles [John Fowles, 1978], Barry Olshen comments that 'The novels are predicated on the supposition of individual free will and the ideal of self-realisation'. Similarly, Peter Conradi [in his John Fowles, 1982] sees the novels as 'quests for personal authenticity'. But Conradi, writing with the advantage of four more years of Fowles's output to consider, is able to add what seems to me to be the necessary gloss: 'Each of his novels can best be read as in pursuit of the peculiar integrity of its own incompleteness, which is to say as braving a new kind of fictional logic by which to foreground, however inconclusively, its necessary inauthenticities'. This captures more exactly the move from Existentialism to Poststructuralism than a simple insistence on freedom per se as the dominant motif in Fowles. It is no longer a frustrated search for possible authenticity, as in The Magus; rather, it is a matter of Fowles playing with the inauthenticity to which we are all (and none more clearly than the novelist) condemned.
Fowles would, I think, have stopped writing or would in any case have faded from view if it were only true that, as Olshen says, his fiction is 'adolescent' in its 'exclusive fixation on the vision of the individual ego asserting itself in the world'. Fowles uses adolescent Absurdism as a spring-board from which he is well able to launch himself into the unfathomable waves of Derridean arbitrariness. Who else, after all, is better able to defer the resolutions of his novels? Who is better able to postpone the closure that brings meaning? Fowles may have set out to write the fiction that celebrated or explored freedom, but he has stayed to demonstrate the other sense of the expression 'the fiction of freedom'.
Fowles's short novel Mantissa (1982) should be compulsory reading for those who wish to undertake a study of Fowles. It is an unusually neat parable about artistic creation, and it involves the reader to just the necessary degree. In it Fowles achieves the level of realism of which he is so easy a master, yet he throws it away—it wasn't reality at all that those opening paragraphs were related to—no, of course, they were just lines in an author's head, and, lo and behold, Mantissa is set in just that—a head. What does one find in an author's head, then, when creation is taking place? A Muse, of course, specifically Erato, the teasing Muse of lyric poetry, and for some reason that she is inclined to regret, of fiction, too.
The personification of the Muse is ready-made and to hand: she is female, Greek, attractive, musical. But Fowles has to demonstrate allegorically how she operates. In 'Hardy and the Hag' he has indicated his preferences in this matter: the novelist, he says, 'longs to be possessed by the continuous underlying myth he entertains of himself' (We notice that the yearning for the lost mother-stage is cast in literary terms: the longing is for a myth). This 'possession' would be the modern equivalent of the divine inspiration of the poet, and so is itself that which the Muse brings. It has to operate over time, and here is the Postmodern rub: the Muse is, in her original Greek form, relatively static—she stands for what she stands for. But what is it like for a writer to be possessed for the duration of a long novel? Fowles comments that the possession is 'a state that withdraws … as the text nears consummation'. Given the final noun here it is evident that something very like sexual teasing is involved, and Fowles makes this explicit a few pages later in 'Hardy and the Hag' when, having written of Hardy's 'violent distaste for resolution, or consummation', he says that 'the endlessly repeated luring-denying nature of [Hardy's] heroines is not too far removed from what our more vulgar age calls the cock-tease'.
So in Mantissa the Muse takes on a complete sexualallegorical persona. In her first incarnation as Dr Delfie, whose job it is to bring the amnesiac Miles Green back to reality by means of sex therapy, she points out, bearing in mind that Mnemosyne was the mother of the Muses, that 'the memory nerve-centre in the brain is closely associated with the one controlling gonadic activity'. When Dr Delfie persuades Miles to make love as part of his cure, her orgasm coincides with the words 'last syllable', and the result of their love-passage is a child of sorts, in fact a work of literature, Mantissa. Delfie/Erato explains to Miles/Fowles that when he is writing he does not know what he is doing; it is unplanned. Like Nicholas Urfe, perhaps, she would like to be in a position of 'eternally awaiting climax', and she looks forward to a Beckettian moment where she would be able to communicate entirely by sensation in a 'text without words' in which, she tells Miles, 'we could both be our real selves at last'. This Lacanian hopeless yearning for the lost paradise is at once, and most appropriately, verbal and sexual, the fusion is as complete as metaphor and allegory can make it. Erato, suggesting sexual variations, says 'there are all sorts of … narrative alternatives we haven't fully explored'; towards the end of the novel she refers to 'a tactile centimetre (or syllable)'.
Even in the revised version, The Magus is incomplete in Fowles's view, and this incompleteness stems from the same inability to close—to offer us anything other than possible narrative alternatives—that we see more violently exposed at the end of The French Lieutenant's Woman and A Maggot. It is emphatically not a matter of Fowles's not being able to bring off an ending. His skill as a fictional craftsman is beyond dispute, and he could have pursued a career as a writer of thrillers, erotica, historical novels or almost any of the other sub-genres of fiction. There is no satisfying ending because Fowles does not believe such a thing to be possible. Urfe does finally rediscover Alison, but she is utterly changed and may no longer want a relationship with him. No reconciliation is made, and the novelist steps in, playing his own godgame: 'She is silent, she will never speak, never forgive, never reach a hand, never leave this frozen present tense'. A resolution is whisked away from under the reader's nose. Fowles's interest in sexual teasing and postponement may be read as a symbol of this inability to make the final statement that will bring closure. However, in the first version of The Magus Fowles did partially yield to the temptation to close (the sentence quoted, with its reference to the present tense, belongs only to the revised version), and this shows why The Magus and Daniel Martin are problematic for the Fowles critic. The problem so stunningly solved in The French Lieutenant's Woman and satisfactorily kept at arm's length in The Ebony Tower and A Maggot is balked at in these two novels. In the revised Magus the balking is alleviated by the arrival of the novelist as deus ex machina, telling us that we will never know what happens to Urfe and Alison because he is going to stop writing now. The move from Existentialism to Poststructuralist play is rather obvious here.
In the Foreword to the revised edition of The Magus we learn that 'loss is essential for the novelist'. In 'Hardy and the Hag' we find Fowles concurring with the psychoanalytic thesis that novelists are marked more deeply than other people by the traumatic separation from the mother and from the omnipotence that characterises the earliest phase of human development. The novelist, on this account, is always trying to staunch the psychic wound created by this separation by inventing surrogate worlds in which omnipotence is once again available, and in which author-surrogates can be rewarded by full possession of the mother-surrogate. This is the 'loss' that is so vital to fictional creativity, and in the case of Fowles it seems to explain why he so consistently tantalises his heroes: he needs to exercise his power as creator. Were he to stop, in this case to allow Urfe an explanation or a 'happy ending', the game (very much the 'godgame'—Fowles's original title for The Magus, as he tells us in the Foreword) would come to an end. The process must at all costs be kept going; closure, although it seems to bring the reward of the mother, necessarily also brings about the end of the game that was providing the satisfactions of omnipotence and freedom. Hence the great length of the two novels in which Fowles has failed to square this circle: it is as if he has to keep talking to postpone the moment when his lack of an exit-line will become apparent. Once again, this is not a matter of a lack of technical skill.
The giveaway in The Magus and Daniel Martin can be found in what might be called their pseudo-Bildungsroman status. In both novels there is a suggestion that the hero has developed, has learnt a moral truth, has moved to a better view of his own life and, in particular, of the responsibilities of personal relationships. The hero in Thomas Mann or Lawrence (one thinks of Paul Morel in Sons and Lovers, for example) has in some crucial way grown up, and this is the template that we unconsciously lay down beneath our reading of the two Fowles novels in question. But this reading of them is untenable. Nicholas Urfe does not grow up at all, or at least the thrust of the novel has little interest in this possibility. To the very end he remains committed to himself (rather than learning, say, that he should no longer be a cad). His long ordeal on Phraxos leaves him bitter and baffled rather than wiser and purer. The 'lesson', if there is one, is the non-lesson that 'the maze has no centre', and that all action is a form of theatre. Even Alison, who on the Bildungsroman reading would have to be a touchstone, a signal of the lesson having been learnt, a reward for having grown up, is explicitly described in theatrical terms. She is merely 'cast' as Reality' (my italics), and the circumstances of her final ambiguous meeting with Urfe are stagey in the extreme. The only lesson is that there is nobody watching the performance any more. This is usually taken to mean that Conchis and his helpers are no longer operating their 'metatheatre', but it clearly has death-of-God overtones too. And yet Urfe knew at the very beginning that there was no God, and that he was alone; his suicide attempt (or pantomime) makes his nihilism quite clear.
All through The Magus we could echo Nicholas's question to Mrs De Seitas at the end: 'But why the colossal performance just to tell one miserable moral bankrupt what he is?'. Why indeed? Fowles toys with trying to convince us that Nicholas has changed. There are hints, for instance, that were he now to resume his affair with Alison, he would do so with greater understanding of some kind; but this is mere froth compared with what is happening underneath. 'In reality all is fiction', says Mrs De Seitas, and Fowles concurs. This lesson (that all is fiction) may rub off on Nicholas, but it is not, as it were, a lesson internal to the story which we might choose to apply to our own lives. Rather, it is a lesson that is entirely public, already something that belongs to the nature of writing novels, an open secret between Fowles and the reader. For if all is fiction, then fiction is all, including the 'real lives' to which we might more traditionally try to apply the lesson of 'fiction'. We are all in this fiction together, including the reader: the meaning of the novel, says Fowles in the Foreword, is 'whatever reaction it provokes in the reader'.
The Magus is a deeply anti-Romantic novel. Fowles is not as clear about this as he will be in later works: there is a ghost of a desire for God in the apparently omnipotent 'magus' Conchis, and a yearning for romanticised nature and a romantic view of the self that will be far less evident in The French Lieutenant's Woman. Conchis tries a little romanticism in his story of his visit to Norway; Henrik, the mad brother of his host in the remote north, teaches Conchis something by way of his extraordinary eremitic existence and his rare but overwhelming meetings with the 'pillar of fire' that is God. Conchis summarises: '… in a flash all our explanations, all our classifications and derivations, our aetiologies, suddenly appeared to me like a thin net. That great passive monster, reality, was no longer dead, easy to handle … The net was nothing, reality burst through it'. The romantic notion that reality is a powerful beast, a Frankenstein's monster to be trammelled only with the greatest humility, cannot, however, stand up to the force of the godgame. Fowles may yearn for the primal unity and seem to glimpse it in nature (here and in several memorable scenes, not surprisingly, of Daniel Martin), but the nets are in fact a good deal stronger than 'reality'. Henrik, after all, has to be insane and completely alone in a cabin in a remote part of Norway where the only access is by river, and even that for only part of the year; he is blind and has spoken to no one for twelve years. Very occasionally, after absolute concentration of the will upon this one end, he is vouchsafed the insight or vision of the pillar of fire. Clearly the price paid for a glimpse of reality is immensely high and, far from 'bursting through', 'reality' is practically a closed book. What we find in nature, then, is not the personification of the god or the contact with the elemental that Romanticism sought. For Fowles, nature too is part of the game: the mountain is Parnassus or it is no mountain; the Muses are the inhabitants of the natural; Alison is recruited into the godgame without explanation and without objection in a way that utterly subverts her status as 'reality'.
The Magus was Fowles's first novel, and The Collector (1963) his first published novel. The Collector's theme is the relationship between inarticulate power and articulate intelligence, between body and mind, between imprisonment and freedom, between Caliban and Ariel, and more literally, between Ferdinand and Miranda. Clegg/Caliban is imprisoned in inarticulacy and the commonplace; in revenge he imprisons Miranda in a converted cellar. The twist is that Clegg is unable successfully to fulfil his role: where Shakespeare's Caliban has at least a healthy lust, Clegg is effectively impotent, a supplementary theme of Fowles's being the inadequacy of certain sorts of Englishness. [In an endnote, the critic adds: 'Fowles has always been interested in this two-sided, articulate and inarticulate, Caliban-and-Ariel bifurcation of human nature. We think of Julie and June in The Magus, or of Henrik and his brother. But it is most fully confirmed in A Maggot. There "Mr Bartholomew" and his rather too-obviouslynamed servant, Dick, form two sides of a single personality. Dick is a deaf mute of great strength who, though gentle, is highly sexed. His master and alter ego is highly intellectual and apparently frigid. Faced with the revelations of the end of the novel Dick hangs himself while "Mr Bartholomew" vanishes into the future. Their relationship to the heroine Rebecca is simple: Dick loves her dumbly and physically while his master leads her to a view of an intellectual reality that will liberate her from the prison of the brothel in which she works.']
The Collector would be a very different sort of novel were it not for the Shakespearean intertext with which Fowles explicitly provides it. The thinker who dominated the French literary scene during the 1950s and 1960s when it was having such a profound impact on John Fowles was, after all, Roland Barthes, the father of intertextuality. Without this element The Collector would be a psychological novel, a brilliant study of a warped mind—brilliant because of Fowles's ability to write an English that catches so exactly the limitations and banalities of Clegg's mind; or it would be an allegory, perhaps, about the fear of the 'nasty' (the libido) deeply ingrained in a certain kind of English mind. Additionally it would be a study of Miranda's slightly contrived Existentialist tenets: she 'loves being to the full' and is in 'despair', and so must 'act' to obtain her 'freedom' and so on. Fowles signals his interest in the author's enactment of freedom by contriving 'play' between The Tempest and his own novel rather than merely endorsing 'realistically' these propositions about freedom. It is therefore not surprising that he has not remained merely 1950s or merely Existentialist. Like modern thought itself he has come on into the Postmodern and Poststructuralist world where intertextuality reigns.
In The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) the intertextual is signalled in the first paragraph. It is not all Jane Austen, but without Jane Austen it would not read as it does:
An easterly is the most disagreeable wind in Lyme Bay—Lyme Bay being that largest bite from the underside of England's outstretched south-western leg—and a person of curiosity could at once have deduced several strong probabilities about the pair who began to walk down the quay at Lyme Regis, the small but ancient eponym of the inbite, one incisively sharp and blustery morning in the late March of 1867.
The narrator presents us with two voices here, one slightly humorous and knowing, a voice interested in bitten legs, and the other the voice of that other author who set a crucial part of Persuasion in Lyme Regis on the Cobb. But then The French Lieutenant's Woman is in one sense nothing but intertext.
Not only is the novel thick with epigraphs and quotations of all sorts, but it keeps up a running fire of literary references, both explicit and concealed. Ernestina has an 'imperceptible hint of a Becky Sharp', Sam Farrow's name 'evokes immediately the immortal Weller'—these two are unmissable, but other details take some unearthing. Sarah Woodruff's father goes to the dogs partly on account of his obsession with his gentlemanly ancestry; Sarah herself becomes déclassée by being sent away to be educated above her station in life. The first of these cannot be unconnected with the fatal snobbery implanted in Tess Durbeyfield's father in Hardy's Tess, and the second echoes the return of Grace Melbury to Little Hintock in The Woodlanders. The Fallen Woman Sarah Woodruff is first approached at the end of the Cobb in the memorable opening scene in a way curiously reminiscent of a scene in The Moonstone where the Fallen Woman Rosanna is approached as she looks out to sea near the village of Cobb's Hole.
The list could be extended almost indefinitely. Fowles has made his novel out of Tennyson, Arnold, Hardy, Darwin, Marx, in a way that emphasises the paradox of the writer: playing around among texts, he can do precisely as he chooses; yet it really does seem as if it is not Fowles who is writing language, but language (more broadly, culture) that is writing Fowles. We have here moved beyond the Existentialist fear of the inauthenticity that might result from the domination of the 'They' (Heidegger's Das Man, Sartre's On, what in The Aristos Fowles calls the Many), and into the Lacanian resignation to our absolute inability to achieve any authentic voice or selfhood. Fowles has abandoned the quest for authenticity in The French Lieutenant's Woman and is enjoying his new-found freedom to play. [In an endnote, the critic adds: 'In "Notes on an Unfinished Novel", Fowles says that while writing The French Lieutenant's Woman he was "trying to show an [E]xistentialist awareness before it was chronologically possible". But the novel as written shows a greater gap between author and hero than was evident in The Magus. Nicholas Urfe is a Fowles-surrogate working out Existentialist themes, Charles Smithson is a plaything of the author's; we are never allowed to forget that the real freedom is not his but his creator's. It is as if the whole of The French Lieutenant's Woman is written in the spirit that inspired the authorially self-conscious changes made to the ending of The Magus when it was revised. Significantly, fifteen years after noting his attempt to show Existentialist awareness in The French Lieutenant's Woman, Fowles said in an interview: "I now think of Existentialism as a kind of literary metaphor, a wish fulfilment. I long ago began to doubt whether it had any true philosophical value in many of its assertions about freedom" (Quoted in The Radical Imagination and the Liberal Tradition, ed. Heide Ziegler and Christopher Bigsby, 1982).']
Daniel Martin, we have seen, is less ludic in appearance, more committed to the impossible old Magus project of bringing its hero through to some sort of authenticity or wisdom; but even here Fowles has not forgotten the Poststructuralist lessons he has learnt. The novel is, for one thing, far less an example of conventional realism and full of far more tricks than might at first appear. It is, for instance, a novel about Dan learning to write a novel; in the early pages he answers the suggestion that he write a novel with 'I wouldn't know where to begin', just as he (or rather, John Fowles) is beginning Daniel Martin. The hero of Dan's novel is to be one 'S. Wolfe', an anagram of 'Fowles'; Fowles's own life looms inescapably, too: Devon, the time spent at Oxford, the involvement with film, the similar age of the protagonist. His deliberate shifting from first- to third-person narration and back again means that, every time it happens, the reader is obliged to rethink his suspension of disbelief. And again the point at which this partially-concealed playfulness becomes apparent is when we realise how deeply intertextual Daniel Martin is.
We feel the ghostly presence, behind Daniel Martin, of, for instance, Jude the Obscure. In Chapters 7 and 8 of the first part of that novel the scholarly Jude becomes attracted to the pig-breeder's daughter Arabella, who is a 'complete and substantial female animal'. She lures him into making love to her (something that he is strongly drawn towards in spite of his educational ambitions), but turns out to be hopelessly unsuited to him and eventually becomes a pub landlady. Similarly, in Daniel Martin, young Dan, working on a Devon farm, becomes attracted to a sexually-arousing girl of about Arabella's age, and in spite of class and educational differences, they begin a somewhat immature but extremely passionate liaison. Exactly as in Hardy Dan feels 'irresistibly drawn' to this casual encounter with Nancy. The affair is brought to an abrupt halt by parental intervention, and many years later, Nancy reappears at Dan's house, a middle-aged woman who has become very like the Arabella of later years: 'I hardly recognised her, she'd got so heavy-limbed and stout, her tinted hair done back and up in a kind of bouffant style, like a pub landlady in a last pathetic attempt at attractiveness' (my italics). This could be fleshed out in much greater detail, but the important thing is the structural intertextuality at work; it is clinched by the next phase of Dan's adolescent life. Just as Jude transfers his affections from the earthy Arabella to his intellectual and spiritually-minded cousin Sue Bridehead, so Dan transfers his from Nancy to his cousin Barbara. Sue is too fastidious about sexual relations to be a satisfactory mate for Jude, and is deeply affected by high church Anglicanism. Here is Fowles on Barbara:
Her shyness and niceness in the flesh proved far stronger than a certain veiled emotion that had flavoured … some of her letters. Five years later she was to cause a great family to-do by 'turning' Catholic … and soon after becoming a nun. Her distaste for the flesh was already apparent.
The similarities between these two West Country novelists (both profoundly interested in the flesh and its opposites) are too great to be coincidental.
Besides Jude the Obscure, Tess of the d'Urbervilles is an intertext for Daniel Martin. The early scene in Fowles's novel, for instance, where the Devonshire harvesters massacre the rabbits trapped in the ever-shrinking area of wheat cannot possibly exist independently of the almost identical scene in Tess where Dorsetshire harvesters perform the same grisly ritual. Equally, the attentive reader will pick up all sorts of details from Dylan Thomas ('the scene had a deep humanity, a green fuse'), Conrad (of the Nile: 'Its waters seemed to reach not merely back into the heart of Africa, but into that of time itself') or Keats ('Some hidden warbler bubbled an out-of-season song. It was delicious … a profound and liquid, green and eternal peace'.) This is all quite apart from the echoes of Alain-Fournier, George Eliot, T. S. Eliot, Langland and D. H. Lawrence.
In A Maggot intertextuality is given a new and extraordinary form. The novel is studded with facsimile reproductions of pages from The Gentleman's Magazine and The Historical Chronicle for 1736 (the date in which the novel is set). These have almost no direct bearing on the text of the novel, and are hard to read, appearing in very small print. But nearly all of the facsimile pages contain some reference to the Porteous riots of 1736. Now the Porteous affair forms the core of Scott's Heart of Midlothian, so we are offered a sort of palimpsest involving 1985 (A Maggot), 1818 (Heart of Midlothian) and 1736 (twice: the Porteous narrative written in the magazines of that year and the narrative concerning the characters in A Maggot.)
A Maggot involves time-travellers from the future bringing an indication of what history holds for mankind to the mid-eighteenth century. Its hero is taken away in a spaceship while its heroine is confirmed in her extreme form of Protestant Dissent and becomes the mother of a (historical) prophetess. This alarming plot appears quite alien to everything that Fowles has done hitherto (Daniel Martin was also greeted with surprise), but in truth we are in the same world as before. The freedom of the fiction writer is absolute, and his greatest interest is in exploring the implications of freedom for the human species, though in the end that becomes an exploration of his own freedom as a writer. Thus Rebecca in A Maggot becomes the most completely free thing she can, granted her sex, date and status; she frees herself from money, men and convention (as well as from the brothel), while her creator takes the liberty of the text as he sees fit. In The French Lieutenant's Woman, after all, he travelled in time, too. But the relativity of freedom is made clear here: in the political conditions of the early eighteenth century, the best way for Rebecca to assert herself may very well have been to join a tiny sect of religious extremists among whom she is able to be not her herself but at least different from the norms enforced by the dominant social ideology. Freedom in A Maggot (a deliberate echo of 'Magus', if that word is pronounced correctly) has been reduced to the freedom to assert one inauthenticity rather than another. The 'authentic' is no longer available.
At the beginning and end of Daniel Martin Fowles tries to proclaim the wisdom of something he calls 'whole sight', but this is not a piece of goods that he is able to deliver. He has tried very hard to find it, but this is no longer the century (it was the nineteenth) in which it can be found. Matthew Arnold of course felt that it had only been possible in Sophocles' day to see life steadily and 'whole', but from our perspective the great nineteenth-century novelists were much less fragmented in their view than we are. Fowles is perhaps a great realist born out of his time, but he has accepted his fate and now, having tried to write the fiction that proclaims freedom, he contents himself with the freedom that is the fictional play with texts.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3680
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 upper-class family, is recounted to us in a most distinctive manner.
The aim of this paper is to examine Fowles' use of two specific narrative devices—voice and focalization—in order to present in a realistic way two fundamentally different selves, Clegg's and Miranda's; one static and destructive, the other striving for self-knowledge and improvement, each representative of two distinct social groups: 'the Few' and 'the Many'. For this analysis I shall use the concepts and terminology introduced by the French theorist Gérard Genette in his major work Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (1980).
The main plot of the novel may be conveyed in a few words. Having unexpectedly won a football pool, Clegg prepares to fulfil his secret aspiration of possessing Miranda with whom he is deeply obsessed. Letting his fantasies dominate his life, he kidnaps the young girl using chloroform as he does for his butterflies. Being a collector he keeps her for a long period in the cellar, especially prepared for her imprisonment in the old cottage he has recently bought, until she dies. Throughout the novel it is the strange relationship that develops between these characters—Clegg, the imprisoner and Miranda, the imprisoned—which unfolds dramatically in front of the reader's eyes.
The Collector opens with Clegg's account of the events which precede Miranda's kidnapping, followed by those during her captivity in the cellar, halting abruptly at a crucial moment during her illness, within a few days of the girl's death. In fact, having arrived almost at the middle of the novel, Part Two suddenly starts not with Clegg's continuation of the events but, instead, with Miranda's account of the events her captor has already described. The main difference is that events are now seen by her and recounted from her own perspective, and I quite agree with Perry Nodelman who [in 'John Fowles' Variations in The Collector', Contemporary Literature (1987)] considers that 'it is this surprising switch of perspective in medias res that forms readers' attitudes to both Clegg and Miranda'. Fowles' selection of two distinct, traditionally called, 'first-person' voices and sharply contrastive focalizations on the same events—a selection that allows Clegg and Miranda to narrate the story of their relationship in their own manner with their own words—is, as will be seen, crucial to the presentation of these characters. By inserting in Part Two Miranda's narrative voice within, rather than before or after, Clegg's narrative sections, together with the juxtaposition of their contrastive voices, the author shows the narrators' differing, clashing viewpoints on the situation enhancing their different selves, and simultaneously causes the form of the novel to mirror the content. Miranda's story becomes entrapped in Clegg's, paralleling in this way her personal entrapment by him. These two sections of The Collector, in which Clegg's and Miranda's voices show their personal views on the situation, form the bulk of the novel and are followed by two shorter ones in which Clegg, taking up the narrative once more, unfolds in Part Three a chilling account of Miranda's last moments, finally ending in Part Four with the disclosure of his plans for his next victim.
By permitting direct access to his protagonists' narratives, Fowles removes himself from his novel leaving the reader to pass judgment alone. With the absence of the authorial voice the illusion that the characters themselves shape their own text is effective. While authenticity and credibility are thus achieved by having two 'surrogate authors'—Clegg and Miranda—provide their own narratives, their different selves become apparent to the reader.
I now want to look in more detail at the narrative voice which provides the frame of the novel, Clegg's. In the opening sentence of the novel we are at once confronted with the occurrence of two personal pronouns lacking any antecedent:
When she was home from her boarding-school I used to see her almost every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town Hall Annexe (my emphasis).
The 'I' of this 'etic opening'—ie one characterized by the absence of narrative preliminaries with predominance of personal pronouns without references—can here only indicate the narrator, a narrator whom the traditional theoretical studies on perspective generally and confusingly name a 'first-person narrator' failing, as Genette points out, to distinguish between mode (Who sees?) and voice (Who speaks?). As the opening sentence shows, this narrator is present as a character within the world of fictional events. He is what Genette calls a 'homodiegetic narrator' and, because he functions as the protagonist in the story he is narrating, he is also 'autodiegetic'—ie what is traditionally called a 'protagonist-narrator'.
Genette's crucial separation of mode and voice—distinguishing between the question 'Who sees?' (focalization) and the question 'Who talks? (narration)—is of great value here since a differentiation between Clegg the protagonist, whose perception orients the narrative perspective (the focus), and Clegg the narrator, who presents the events (the voice), is essential for the way in which Clegg's narrative is recounted and for the way the reader perceives his self. Basing their argument on Genette's concept of focalization, two later theorists, Mieke Bal [in Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, 1985] and Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan [in Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, 1983], call such an agent the 'focalizer'; he is the vehicle of focalization 'through whose spatial, temporal and/or psychological position the textual events are perceived' [S. S. Lanser, The Narrative Act: Point of View in Prose Fiction, 1987]. What the focalizer perceives—all that is related to himself, Miranda and her captivity—is named the 'focalized object'. The relationship between focalizer (Clegg) and focalized object (Miranda) is offered from an 'internal focalization' since it is, as the following example reveals, through Clegg's thoughts, feelings and perceptions that the story is presented:
Seeing her always made me feel like I was catching a rarity, going up to it very careful, heart-in-mouth as they say. A Pale Clouded Yellow, for instance. I always thought of her like that (my emphasis).
In his narrative then, Clegg plays a double role. He is at the same time a character within the story he is telling—the protagonist who underwent the experience in the past, the focus through which all is seen—and also the one who narrates it in the present, the narrating voice. Genette posits that these two identities—the narrating focus and the narrating voice—though found within the same character, are quite different in function as well as in the degree of their knowledge. He considers the following:
The narrator almost always 'knows' more than the hero, even if he himself is the hero, and therefore for the narrator focalization through the hero is a restriction of field just as artificial in the first person as in the third. (Genette)
Because of the 'restriction of field' and especially because of the duality of focus-narration, the reader rapidly senses Clegg's unreliability as a narrator. Knowing, in fact, before the beginning of his narration what the end of Miranda's captivity will be, Clegg colours his treatment of the events from the very beginning and distorts reality to his advantage.
The reader also rapidly becomes aware that in Clegg's presentation of Miranda's captivity, certain terms and expressions are used to conceal his faults and to make him feel less guilty about her condition. For instance, he never directly refers to her as his prisoner but calls her his 'guest'. Furthermore, a similar process, a process of self-deceit by which Clegg distorts reality in his own favour in order to justify his actions and eliminate any responsibility, is frequently used, as the following example illustrates:
About what I did, undressing her, when I thought after, I saw it wasn't so bad; not many would have kept control of themselves … it was almost a point in my favour (my emphasis).
Other negative aspects of Clegg's self, such as his obsession with collecting, quickly become noticeable in the novel. First, Miranda's name is revealingly marked in his entomological observations diary and throughout his narrative she is frequently compared to butterflies, as in 'It was like catching the Mazarine Blue again or a Queen of Spain Fritillary'. On one occasion Fowles explicitly draws our attention to his protagonist's obsession by making him refer to Miranda as 'it' instead of 'she': 'For a moment I thought her, it looked so different (my emphasis). This obsession is characterized in him by a need of possession. 'Having her', declares Clegg, 'was Nothing needed doing: I just wanted to have her'. As with his butterflies, he is interested in her image not in her self, as Miranda rightly observes:
The sheer joy of having me under his power, of being able to spend all and every day staring at me. He doesn't care what I say or how I feel—my feelings are meaningless to him—it's the fact that he's got me … It's me he wants, my look, my outside; not my emotions or my mind or my soul or even my body. Not anything human. He's a collector. That's the great dead thing in him.
The writer's choice of the girl's name—Miranda, the Latin gerundive of miror, referring to 'she who ought to be wondered at'—clearly enhances this.
From the beginning of his narrative Clegg's language shows certain distinctive features. His personal way of narrating the events in a matter-of-fact, colloquial style, using banal expressions, emphasizes his low social background and poor level of education. The type of language and tone used by the narrator is frequently inappropriate to, and clashes with, the events that are being narrated. In his analysis of one of the most dramatic passages of the novel, when Clegg coldly describes Miranda lying dead in her bed, [G. Ronberg notes in 'Literature and the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language at University Level', Triangle (1985)] that 'the language does not accord with the field of discourse', a conflict arising from 'form not matching function'. This observation can be applied to other passages of the novel and it is also through such a device that Clegg's emotional, psychological, sexual and social inadequacies are revealed. Language is thus primarily used by the author as a means of revealing the deficiencies of his narrator's intellect and education, and exposing his emotional stuntedness and moral blindness. At the end of his narrative, Fowles shows how little Clegg has learned by letting us witness how, without any sense of guilt, he is prepared to repeat what he has done. The only difference is that this time he will catch an 'ordinary common shop-girl'—his previous mistake, he tells us, having been that of 'aiming too high'.
By means of such narrative Fowles lets his reader see how Clegg's disturbed mind works, how his obsession rules his and Miranda's lives. According to Clegg, his failure with Miranda has been caused by class difference: 'There was always class between us' he says. His resentment and sense of inferiority are quite evident when, in an outburst, he tells his prisoner:
If you ask me, London's all arranged for the people who can act like public schoolboys, and you don't get anywhere if you don't have the manner born and the right la-di-da voice—I mean rich people's London, the West End, of course.
Miranda's views of her captor indicate that she sees him as, to some extent, a victim himself, as when, for example, she writes: 'I know he's a victim of a miserable nonconformist suburban world and a miserable social class, the horrid timid copycatting genteel in-between class'. Clegg is what he is as a result of social conditions, unequal opportunities, childhood deprivation and poor education, and Fowles asserts [in The Aristos, 1989] that in this novel he has tried 'to establish the virtual innocence of the Many'. The recurrence of expressions like 'I don't know why' or 'I don't know how' indicate that most of the time Clegg is at a loss, unable to understand what is happening. He has, as Fowles stresses in his preface to The Aristos, no control over what he is. Miranda clearly sees this when she tells him 'You're the one imprisoned in a cellar'.
Considering now Miranda's narrative voice, the beginning of her narration in Part Two of The Collector, with the date 'October 14th?', indicates at once that she is writing a diary in which her thoughts, feelings, perceptions and experiences about her present situation are going to be confided. In her diary she records all the events concerning her imprisonment and the painful experiences which accompany it, and at the same time she is able to recall memories of the past in which she can take refuge.
Miranda is, thus, in this part of the novel, as Clegg was in the others, an autodiegetic narrator since she is a narrator who tells a story in which she simultaneously plays a part as one of the fictional characters. It is she who acts as the focalizer—the agent of the narrative who concentrates her attention on the focalized object; ie all which concerns her present and Clegg, and also her past and G. P., George Paston, her artistic mentor. Her presentation of the fictional world, like Clegg's, is self-centred in that it is offered through her thoughts, memories and feelings—from an internal focalization. With such a process the reader is able to follow Miranda closely, observing her struggle and the transformations which her captivity effects in her inner self.
Fowles claims that Miranda 'is an existentialist heroine groping for her own authenticity', but he adds that 'her tragedy is that she will never live to achieve it. Her triumph is that one day she would have done so' [R. Newquist, 'John Fowles', Counterpoint (1964)]. Elsewhere he comments:
I'm interested in the side of existentialism which deals with freedom: the business of whether we do have freedom, whether we do have free will, to what extent you can change your life, choose yourself, and all the rest of it. Most of my major characters have been involved in this 'Sartrian concept of authenticity and inauthenticity'. [Kerry McSweeney, Four Contemporary Novelists, 1983]
While Clegg makes use of his memoir primarily as a means of self-justification, Miranda on the other hand uses her diary in order to discover her self. Writing is for her a creative activity. Through introspection and self-criticism she is able to expose her old self and her narrative allows us to follow the transformations she is undergoing:
I want to use my feelings about life. I think and think down here. I understand things I haven't really thought about before.
I am beginning to understand life much better than most people of my age.
I'm growing up so quickly down here. Like a mushroom.
For Fowles, 'we must evolve to exist'. Contrasting with Clegg's spiritual inertia, deadness—subtly pointed out by his last name 'Clegg' which can be phonetically associated to the French 'clef', indicating his role as gaoler, but mainly in its meaning in dialect: a vampirish horsefly, and in its consonance with 'clog', suggesting heaviness and woodenness—Miranda is on the other hand to be seen as a symbol of moral growth, struggling to understand and become better. In The Aristos Fowles considers the following distinction: 'Adam is hatred of change', he 'is stasis or conservatism … Eve is the assumption of human responsibility, of the need for progress and the need to control progress … She is kinesis or progress'. Such distinction is clearly embodied in these two protagonists. Clegg (stasis or conservatism); Miranda (kinesis or progress).
Since she lives in the present of her captive world and she most desperately wants to escape from it, one sees Miranda making use of her memories, of her recollections of her past outside world, in order to escape, at least mentally if not physically, from her confined situation. She discloses this when she writes:
I felt I was going mad last night; so I wrote and wrote and wrote myself into the other world. To escape in spirit, if not in fact. To prove it still exists.
Remembering the past, and especially her relationship with G. P., helps her in her present confinement. It is through the introduction of a certain type of 'analepsis' or 'flashback'—designated by Genette as 'external', whose 'only function is to fill out the first narrative by enlightening the reader on one or another "antecedent"'—that Fowles permits his reader to know his protagonist better. Through such analepses one is in fact able to follow Miranda's progress from her 'old Ladymont self' into a new and better self, her growth through suffering and her striving for self-knowledge. On one occasion she even goes so far as to admit:
A strange thought: I would not want this not to have happened. Because if I escape I shall be a completely different and I think better person. Because if I don't escape; if something dreadful happened, I shall still know that the person I was and would have stayed if this hadn't happened was not the person I now want to be.
Being an artist with a creative temperament, Miranda's narrative voice is presented in her diary in various ways. She decides to use a variety of forms in her fiction including dialogue with stage directions, lists of thoughts and feelings and fictive letters. Her creativity can also be noticed in her use of language, offering a sharp contrast with her captor's. About her style Peter Wolfe rightly states [in John Fowles, Magus and Moralist, 1979] that 'Miranda's literary style gauges her personality, her values, and her ability to adapt to change'.
Throughout her diary Clegg has been referred to as one of 'the Many' or, as she derisively names him, one of the 'New People'—'the new-class people with their cars and their money and their tellies and their stupid vulgarities and their stupid crawling imitation of the bourgeoisie'—while she sees herself as one of 'the Few': 'a sort of band of people who have to stand against all the rest'. 'In this situation', Miranda claims, 'I'm a representative', but being a representative of 'the Few' does not mean that she is to be regarded as perfect and that the author's viewpoint is to be identified with his heroine's. Fowles himself draws our attention to this when he clearly asserts [in The Aristos]; 'That does not mean that she was perfect. Far from it she was arrogant in her ideas, a prig, a liberal-humanist snob, like so many university students'.
Miranda's flaws are apparent in her narrative. Like Clegg she makes use of clichés 'I love life so passionately, I never knew how much I wanted to live before', prefers avoiding verbal 'impropriety', and refers, for instance, to people by initials. What Fowles wants us to understand is that contrary to Clegg, who learns nothing, who cannot change or mature, 'if she had not died', he says about his heroine, 'she might have become something better, the kind of being humanity so desperately needs'. The author further explains his views on The Collector when he remarks:
The actual evil in Clegg overcame the potential good in Miranda. I did not mean by this that I view the future with a black pessimism, nor that a precious élite is threatened by the barbarian hordes. I meant simply that unless we face up to this unnecessary brutal conflict (based largely on an unnecessary envy on the one hand and an unnecessary contempt on the other) between the biological Few and the biological Many; unless we admit that we are not, and never will be, born equal, though we are all born with equal human rights; unless the Many can be educated out of their false assumption of inferiority and the Few out of their equally false assumption that biological superiority is a state of existence instead of what it really is, a state of responsibility—then we shall never arrive at a more just and happier world. [The Aristos]
With Miranda's second 'autodiegetic narration' Fowles enhances the unbridgeable gap that exists between her and her captor. Through her narrative, Clegg's version of the events is complemented and often corrected, striking contrasts and ironies becoming thus apparent. Events which have been previously narrated by Clegg are treated differently in Miranda's narrative, disclosing to us his distorted self. Throughout the novel Clegg and Miranda appear to misread each other constantly. When he expects some understanding from her, none is shown, and when she sympathizes with him, he is not able to see it. Their mutual incomprehension is illustrated by Miranda when she writes 'We'll never understand each other. We don't have the same sort of heart', and also by Clegg when at a certain point he declares: 'We could never come together, she could never understand me, I suppose she would say I never could have understood her, or would have anyhow'. Apart from the different treatment of the events, the intersection of the autodiegetic narrations primarily reveals the fundamental differences between these two antagonistic selves.
This narrative process through which the writer presents his two autodiegetic narrators is fundamental for an effective treatment of the subject and points primarily to the two different selves of the protagonists. In The Collector Fowles appears thus as an author in full control of his material offering, through an effective handling of two specific narrative devices—voice and focalization—an existential parable which delineates Clegg's destructive being and Miranda's creative becoming.