John Fowles is principally known for his long fiction, but, in addition to his collection of short stories, he wrote a volume of poetry, Poems (1973); a philosophical work, The Aristos: A Self-Portrait in Ideas (1964); a historical work, A Brief History of Lyme (1981); and a number of essays accompanied by photographs, including Shipwreck (1974), Islands (1978), The Tree (1979), and The Enigma of Stonehenge (1980; with Barry Brukoff). Wormholes: Essays and Occasional Writings, a nonfiction work, was published in 1998.
John Fowles achieved the enviable position of being both well regarded by critics and well received by readers. Three of his novels—The Collector (1963), The Magus (1965, 1977), and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969)—were made into films. His first novel, The Collector, was an immediate critical and popular success. Readers of his long fiction can generally expect to find a good story with a passionate love interest, complex characters, and a healthy smattering of philosophy, all presented within the context of a plot.
Because Fowles rarely told the same story in the same way, genre is a topic of discussion among his critics. His fiction reflects not only his interest in various genres but also his questioning of authorial voice, his examination of the decline of language, his fascination with moments out of time, and his interest in split viewpoint, a story within a story, and other forms of experimentation. Critics slice away multiple layers to get at the existential, historical, philosophical, and psychological levels of meaning therein. More than a dozen books have been published about him, and several journals have devoted special issues to him, including the Journal of Modern Literature (1981), Modern Fiction Studies (1985), and Twentieth Century Literature (1996).
In addition to his novels, John Fowles wrote works of philosophy, essays for scholarly and popular audiences, criticism, poetry, and short fiction. He also translated the works of several other writers into English. The Aristos: A Self-Portrait in Ideas, published in 1964, reflects Fowles’s philosophical stance. Patterned on writings of Heraclitus of Ephesus, the fifth century b.c.e. Greek philosopher, it outlines many of the views that Fowles expressed more fully and artistically in his fiction. His collected poetry is published in Poems (1973); much of it reflects his period of residence in Greece, the major setting for The Magus. His longer nonfiction pieces reflect his love for and interest in nature: Shipwreck (1974), a text to accompany the photographs of shipwrecks along the English coast near the town where Fowles made his home until his death in 2005, and Lyme Regis Camera (1990), a text to accompany photographs of the town, its inhabitants, and its immediate environs; Islands (1978), about the Scilly Islands off the English coast, but more about the nature of islands as a metaphor for literature and the writer; The Tree (1979), an extension of the same theme with emphasis on the tree as representative of all nature; and The Enigma of Stonehenge (1980), a further extension of nature to encompass the mystery of a sacred place. All these themes are touched on in the varied pieces collected in Wormholes: Essays and Occasional Writings (1998). These themes find definition and elaboration in his fiction. Fowles’s only collection of short fiction, The Ebony Tower, includes a novella from which the title is taken, three short stories, and a translation of a medieval romance. The collection, titled “Variations” in manuscript, also reflects Fowles’s central themes in the longer fiction.
John Fowles’s place in literary history is difficult to assess. He established an excellent reputation as a writer of serious fiction, one who will continue to be read. His work continues to receive the notice of critics; numerous books have been published about him and about his works. Fowles, however, was no “ivory tower” author; his work enjoys a wide readership, and several of his novels have been made into motion pictures, including The Collector (1965), The Magus (1968), and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981). Readers can expect to find in Fowles’s works a good story with a passionate love interest, complex characters, and a healthy smattering of philosophy, all presented within the context of the plot. Critics can slice away multiple layers to get at the wheels-within-wheels of meaning on existential, historical, philosophical, psychological, and myriad other levels.
Because Fowles rarely told the same story in the same way, genre is a topic of much discussion among his critics. His fiction reflects not only his experimentation with genre but also his questioning of authorial voice, the continuum of time, moments out of time, split viewpoint, stories without endings, stories with choices of endings, and stories with revised endings. Despite such experimentation, most of the novels are in many ways quite old-fashioned, reflecting the ancient boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-seeks-to-find-girl-again-and-in-so-doing-finds-himself quest motif that characterizes so much fiction. They are fairly straightforward “good reads” without the dizzying experimentation of a James Joyce to make them virtually inaccessible to all but the most diligent reader. On any level, Fowles is enjoyable, and what reserves him a place among memorable writers is that he is discoverable again and again.
What is John Fowles’s purpose in presenting the reader with different endings for The French Lieutenant’s Woman instead of one definite ending? Which ending is most appropriate for the novel?
In some of Fowles’s works, such as The Ebony Tower, France and England symbolize two different outlooks or “lifestyles.” What is Fowles suggesting by this opposition?
What is the narrative and thematic significance of the “damsel in distress” motif in Fowles’s work?
Infidelity is a situation that occurs repeatedly in Fowles’s work. What is Fowles’s attitude toward infidelity? Do you agree?
Examine gender roles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Does the novel reinforce conventional assumptions about gender roles or challenge those assumptions?
In “A Personal Note” that accompanies Fowles’s translation of Eliduc in The Ebony Tower, he suggests that the type of medieval romance that he includes in this collection is “seminal in the history of fiction” and also in his own fiction. Explain Fowles’s preoccupation with medieval romance and its influence in various ways on his short stories and novels.
In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Collector, and some of Fowles’s other works (such as “Poor Koko”), the class status of the characters seems to be very important. Discuss what Fowles is suggesting about class divisions in the society of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and some of his other works.
Many of the conclusions of Fowles’s stories are open-ended. Examine some of the endings and explain the thematic implications of concluding in this manner.
Acheson, James. John Fowles. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. An excellent introduction to the life and works of Fowles.
Aubrey, James R., ed. John Fowles and Nature: Fourteen Perspectives on Landscape. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickenson University Press, 1999. Explores the use of nature in Fowles’s fiction. Includes illustrations.
Barnum, Carol M. “The Quest Motif in John Fowles’s The Ebony Tower: Theme and Variations.” In Critical Essays on John Fowles, edited by Ellen Pifer. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. Provides a full treatment of the stories, including “Eliduc,” using the quest theme as the basis of comparison with the longer fiction. Pifer’s introduction provides a good overview of the entire fictional canon.
Bevis, Richard. “Actaeon’s Sin: The ‘Previous Iconography’ of Fowles’s ‘The Ebony Tower.’” Twentieth Century Literature 42 (Spring, 1996): 114-123. In this special issue on Fowles, Bevis shows how the story’s plot and characters are linked to the Greek mythological figures of Diana and Actaeon.
Butler, Lance St. John. “John Fowles and the Fiction of Freedom.” In The British and Irish Novel Since 1960, edited by James Acheson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. A discussion of Fowles’s coming to terms with freedom in his fiction in an existential sense. Argues that Fowles’s development as a writer followed the same course as that of existentialism. Discusses the centrality of freedom in Fowles’s fiction.
Foster, Thomas C....
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