The Magus is a very involved, appropriately controversial, and mystifying novel, made even more so by a revised version that John Fowles published in 1977. The story’s fundamental thrust seems to be the moral rehabilitation of its hero/antihero, Nicholas Urfe. At the story’s outset, Urfe is a disaffected, rather self-absorbed young man who is unable to find much of value in life. His relationship with a young Australian woman, Alison Kelly, is primarily sexual; she, on the other hand, wants a commitment from him that he is not willing to make. Ultimately, the reader is asked to accept the fact that a good deal of time, effort, and expense are devoted to making Urfe see how cruel he has been to Alison and how important it is to treat other people responsibly.
As the reader finds at the end of the story, the wealthy thinker Maurice Conchis has made something of a career of punishing and enlightening wrongdoers such as Urfe. After Urfe’s arrival at Conchis’s villa on the Greek island of Phraxos, Conchis orchestrates multilevel real-life theater designed primarily to manipulate and humiliate Urfe and, finally, encourage him to come to grips with ethical behavior in a world where God’s presence is obscured at best.
While Urfe is in Conchis’s thrall on Phraxos, he is made to fall in love with a British actor named Julie Holmes and, eventually, to be made a fool of because of this. In a particularly crucial part of the story, Urfe is drugged and held prisoner underground. He sees a number of the characters in the real-life play Conchis has directed and is asked to judge them for what they have done to him. Indeed, he is given a whip and is placed before the naked Julie; those who watch wait to see if he will punish her.
He chooses not to whip the woman who has so humiliated him, and, in so doing, quickly understands what freedom is. Urfe sees that Conchis has given him the responsibility to exercise a moral option. The young man has evidently realized that what he does in life is entirely his responsibility. Conchis has taught him that in a world where humanity is the source of moral evil, where all things are permitted and anything might happen, each person is nevertheless able to...
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