Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 911

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...

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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 create his or her own values and thereby salvage personal worth and identity.

Conchis has already explained his idea of freedom to Urfe in one of their many conversations. Conchis tells the story of his own choice when, during the Nazi occupation of Phraxos, when he was mayor of the village, the Germans ordered him to execute a group of Greek partisans. In an epiphany, Conchis recalls, he understood that freedom is an absolute, that all are free to commit the most heinous crimes—and to choose to refrain from them.

The basic philosophical focus of the story is reflected in the novel’s four epigraphs, a passage from a book on the tarot and three quotations from a 1787 novel by the Marquis de Sade. Fowles’s epigraphs relate to Conchis as a magus—that is, a seer, magician, or juggler—and to Nicholas’s passage from irresponsible, reprehensible reprobate to participant in dark affairs to philosophically informed survivor of Conchis’s machinations.

The novel’s epigraphs constitute only one small dimension of its allusions, symbolism, and cultural resonance. The protagonist’s last name, Urfe, is a reference to a seventeenth century French pastoral novel, L’Astrée (1607-1628; Astrea, 1657-1658), written by Honoré d’Urfé, which suggests that Fowles’s young, naïve hero is a suitable target for disillusionment. The Magus is full of allusions to the occult, classical mythology, French existentialism, cinema, and twentieth century history. Suitably enough, as the story develops, Urfe is compared to such mythological heroes as Orpheus, Ulysses, and Theseus, all characters who were changed in some ways by extraordinary journeys.

The literary and cultural baggage of the work shows that The Magus can be approached on at least two levels: as little more than a long but interesting thriller and as a complex philosophical novel. As the novel ends, Urfe has evidently learned that one cannot treat other people selfishly and narcissistically as objects for one’s own pleasure. He also sees the difference between love and sexual attraction, and he has acquired a sense of guilt for the wrongs he has perpetrated in the past and a resolve to act otherwise in the future.

The Magus is a surprisingly conservative novel from a moral perspective. Its lesson that human beings can fulfill themselves and be happy only if they are kind to one another is a direct reaction to the atmosphere of moral permissiveness that certain popular schools of thought expressed in the 1960’s. Likewise, where Urfe only plays at being a self-conscious existentialist before he meets Conchis, by the end of the novel he has learned some of the basic lessons one learns from reading such writers and philosophers as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Both Sartre and Camus are preoccupied with how one should conduct oneself in the absence of God and with impressing humanity with its burden of freedom. While Fowles does not deal in The Magus explicitly and extensively with humanity’s relationship to God or even with God’s existence, he stresses the practical nature of intelligent moral choices, as do Sartre and Camus.

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