(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Nicholas Urfe, an intelligent young man, conventionally educated at Oxford, accepts a position as schoolmaster on the remote Greek island of Phraxos. He is bored with England and the latest of a steady diet of love affairs. He has developed an effective technique of cultivating and then gracefully extricating himself from entanglements with women. The most recent is a wandering Australian girl, Alison Kelly. She is emancipated in her sexual habits but is potentially a loyal and devoted companion and lover.

From this rather mundane and self-centered existence, Nicholas becomes enmeshed in the most fascinating and mysterious initiation experience of his life. In spite of its spectacular setting, the school itself is even less inspiring than England—until he meets a cultivated, wealthy Greek named Maurice Conchis, who orchestrates a fantastic psychodrama about illusion, love, and human responsibility. It is a live play with Nicholas himself as both audience and central participant, never knowing where the action will take him next. What begins as a marvelous entertainment gradually closes in around him, actively engaging his mind and emotions, damaging his self-image, inspiring both his aesthetic love of the beautiful and his lust and tendency to exploit women, and forcing his moral judgment of social action and ultimately his fear and an unwelcome sense of powerlessness in the face of potentially evil forces.

Conchis, the Magus (or sorcerer) who runs the show, is ambiguously known to the native islanders as a doctor or a retired...

(The entire section is 637 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Magus was the first novel Fowles wrote, although not the first that he published. After working on it for many years, he finally released it for publication in 1965. Despite its success, Fowles remained dissatisfied with the novel and subsequently revised it for republication in 1977. It is an important work for its portrayal of the protagonist trapped in a meaningless world who must learn to choose life and love, and for its use of myth and mystery to define what is lacking in the protagonist’s life. The Greek island setting is important as the other world in which the journey takes place; likewise, it was important to Fowles as the place where his journey as a writer began.

Nicholas Urfe is the protagonist who becomes the quester. Fleeing England and the love of Alison, he journeys to Greece to find adventure and to escape his commitments. Adventure he does find, but not in the form he expected. He seeks mystery with a small “m”; what he finds is Mystery with a capital “M”: the mystery of himself, which he learns as he quests.

His guide for the journey is Maurice Conchis, who has already taken the journey of self-discovery and who has knowledge to impart to others. As in all of Fowles’s fiction, one of the central themes of this novel is that of unmasking. Each person hides behind many masks; the question is knowing which is the real person. Conchis wears many masks as part of the “godgame” he prepares and presents for Nicholas’s education. Various characters are unmasked, leading up to the unmasking of Nicholas in the central trial scene and the announcement that he is now one of the “elect.” Nicholas knows...

(The entire section is 685 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Nicholas Urfe, a twenty-six-year-old Englishman looking for something to do with his life, takes a teaching job on the Greek island of Phraxos. He had previously met and romanced an Australian woman, Alison Kelly, and abandoned her at a party in London, and he has little direction or meaning ahead of him.

Discussions with his British predecessor at the Greek school lead Urfe to make the acquaintance of Maurice Conchis, a wealthy man who owns an estate near the school. Conchis tells Urfe something of his past, and what develops over time is a strange mixture of past and present as characters from Conchis’s life appear during Urfe’s visits to the man’s villa. One of these is Lily, Conchis’s former sweetheart, who, in reality, is Julie Holmes, a British actor. Urfe falls in love with Lily/Julie. Later, Urfe is reunited with Alison in Athens, but after he tells her of his love for Julie, Alison apparently kills herself. Urfe is shaken by the suicide, but he begins to pursue Julie.

Events take a strange turn when Urfe is drugged, taken into a subterranean prison on Phraxos, and forced to judge the people who have appeared in his episodes with Conchis. He is offered the opportunity to punish Julie by whipping her, but he refuses. Then Urfe is bound and forced to watch a pornographic film that stars Julie and Joe Harrison, another actor in Conchis’s bizarre orchestration of events. Following the film, Julie and Joe appear and consummate...

(The entire section is 425 words.)