Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The best aids to understanding the philosophical and psychological attitudes that influenced this novel are John Fowles’s The Aristos: A Self Portrait in Ideas (1964), published a year before the novel appeared, and the preface to the revised version of The Magus in 1977. The Aristos is a series of paragraphs or aphorisms, often addressing concepts that are important in the novel, such as “The Godgame,” “The Necessity of Hazard,” and “Mystery.” The following is a representative passage concerning mystery:

  We shall never know finally why we are; why anything is, or needs to be. All our science, all our art, the whole vast edifice of matter, has its foundations in this meaninglessness; and the only assumptions we can make about it are that it is both necessary and sympathetic to the continuing existence of matter.

Chapter 6, titled “The Tensional Nature of Human Reality,” sheds light on the existential situation in the novel.

The preface noted above shows Fowles as being almost too apologetic for the imperfections in the novel, calling it an “endlessly tortured and recaste cripple.” It has been criticized as a coldly calculated cerebral game, but he insists that it is, instead, haphazard and naively instinctive—a flaw, but perhaps, after all, one reason for its mesmerizing quality.

Fowles claims, aside from the influence of Jung, that the models of which he was most conscious were Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes (1913) and Richard Jefferies’ Bevis: The Story of a Boy (1882), which haunted his childhood. He also may have been influenced, without realizing it at the time, by Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1860-1861), the only Dickens novel he truly admired.

Fowles taught in a school on the Greek island of Spetsae in 1951 and 1952. The school was not much like the fictional one, but the pine woods seemed indeed magical, haunted, he says, by “subtler—and more beautiful—ghosts than those I have created.” He speaks of “uncanny silences . . . like an eternally blank page waiting for a note or a word.” This awareness of eternal silence or blankness full of unknown potential, Fowles identifies, in The Aristos, with man’s intuition of God.