Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 662
Waiting Room. Facetious name that the wealthy Greek-English philosopher Maurice Conchis gives to his villa, where the novel’s narrator, Nicholas Urfe, finds himself the subject—or perhaps victim—of a series of shifting realities orchestrated by Conchis. At first the experiments seem like a strange game, but it is one...
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- Critical Essays
Waiting Room. Facetious name that the wealthy Greek-English philosopher Maurice Conchis gives to his villa, where the novel’s narrator, Nicholas Urfe, finds himself the subject—or perhaps victim—of a series of shifting realities orchestrated by Conchis. At first the experiments seem like a strange game, but it is one that eventually comes to have a more sinister cast. The isolation of the villa is emphasized in several ways. It is on the southern tip of the island of Phraxos, with no other human habitation anywhere near. It is surrounded by barbed wire, left over from World War II, it has its own private beach, and only its rooftop is visible from the forest outside the estate.
The character of the villa itself seems to change as the nature of Conchis’s experiments on Urfe change; at times the novel emphasizes the richness of the villa’s furnishings, which include original paintings by Amedeo Modigliani and Pierre Bonnard. At other times, the novel focuses on the plainness and simplicity of the villa’s fittings. Readers quickly understand that the Waiting Room—whose name comes from a salle d’attente sign from a French railway station, left behind by German occupation troops after the war—is a stage set whose different features are emphasized depending on each new mystery that is played out there.
The appearance of attractive English twins, June and Julia, turns the villa into a place of sexual attraction, even though their roles within Conchis’s ever-shifting drama make it difficult to get the measure of them. The villa is a place whose mysteries constantly befuddle and bedazzle visitors. It also becomes the embodiment of the warm and liberal atmosphere that makes the eastern Mediterranean so attractive to the buttoned-up English: “It was Greece again, the Alexandrian Greece of Cavafy; there were only degrees of aesthetic pleasure; of beauty in decadence. Morality was a North European lie.”
Lord Byron School
Lord Byron School. Private school on the island of Phraxos at which Urfe is a replacement teacher; it is modeled on the Anargyrios and Korgialenios College on Spetsai, where Fowles taught in 1952. Named after the great English poet who died in Greece while supporting the country’s struggle against its Turkish master, Lord Byron School is run along the lines of an English school. Its atmosphere is suffocating; only one other teacher speaks any English, and Urfe initially speaks no Greek. Although Fowles has elsewhere stated that his fictional school is nowhere near as grotesque as its real-life counterpart, he clearly presents it as a place from which to escape—in contrast to which even the mysteries of Conchis’s villa seem attractive and liberating.
The school’s island is also described in terms of its lack of amenity. All its tiny village has is a bar where Urfe can drink with his fellow teachers and a woodland where, for much of the year, there are not even goatherds tending their flocks. The island’s loneliness is evoked constantly.
*Athens. Capital of Greece, where Urfe attempts to discover the sexual liberty he dreams of finding in Greece during his periodic excursions from the school. However, the actual city is depicted as a crowded, bustling city of unlovely aspect where, on one occasion, Urfe thinks he has contracted syphilis from a prostitute. The true liberty he seeks is to be found only by threading through the maze of Conchis’s mysteries on Phraxos.
*London. Great Britain’s capital city appears twice in the novel. At the beginning of the book it is the impersonal city that ideally suits Urfe’s selfishness. There he starts a relationship with Alison, little understanding what a cold and uncaring person he really is. At the end of the novel, he finds that he must return to reality in London, where he again meets Alison and hence realizes the degree to which he has been changed by his experiences in Greece.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 155
The technique Fowles uses in The Magus gives it richness, complexity, and mystery, all of which mirror its theme. The protagonist, Nicholas, has a rational, cynical view of life which must be challenged. To do this, Conchis exposes Nicholas to the mysteries of the godgame, which intrigue and challenge him. As the mysteries unfold, Nicholas tries to decipher their meaning rationally and logically. So, too, does the reader. Each time Nicholas arrives at a conclusion, which seems logical and sensible, the reader, too, is prone to believe it. Then Conchis, the magus, unmasks the players and the logical answer proves false.
Using such a technique, Fowles brings the reader, along with Nicholas, to the truth behind the masks: the need for Nicholas to choose truth by choosing life in a world of hazard. The technique of unmasking players and plots demonstrates Fowles's concern with stripping away appearances so as to get to the essential truths.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 151
Fowles's acknowledged literary precedent in the Celtic or medieval romance is apparent in The Magus with its notion of the questing hero in search of the meaning of life and the need for love. Fowles specifically acknowledges several other literary influences in his foreword to the revised version of The Magus. These include The Wanderer (1913), by Alain-Fournier for showing a secret hidden world to be explored and Jefferies's Bevis (1882) for projecting a very different world. Another influence was Charles Dickens's Great Expectations (1861), to which Fowles plays homage by specifically referring to Miss Havisham in the revised version. Still another important influence was T. S. Eliot whom Fowles sees as a great "phrasemaker." Nicholas is called to the quest by some lines from Eliot's poem Four Quartets (1943). Other allusions are to Odysseus, Theseus, and numerous other Greek mythical heroes, all of which strengthen the connection between previous questing heroes and this one.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 46
Fowles wrote the screenplay for a movie version of The Magus, which was filmed on the island of Majorca and which starred Anthony Quinn as Conchis, Michael Caine as Nicholas, Anna Karina as Alison, and Candice Bergen as Lily-Julie. The film was not a commercial success.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 173
Garard, Charles. Point of View in Fiction and Film: Focus on John Fowles. New York: Peter Lang, 1991. Important because three of Fowles’s novels—The Collector (1963), The Magus, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969)—have been made into films and because Fowles’s narrative techniques are often cinematic in nature.
Huffaker, Robert. John Fowles. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A fine introduction to Fowles and his work, including a critical bibliography.
Onega, Susana. Form and Meaning in the Novels of John Fowles. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989. Includes essays on Fowles’s novels of the 1980’s. Notes that the structures of the novels always reflect their meanings.
Palmer, William J. The Fiction of John Fowles. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1974. A brief but stimulating reading of Fowles’s novels in the light of philosophical, social, and cultural contexts.
Wolfe, Peter. John Fowles: Magus and Moralist. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1976. Especially interesting in that the author applies the concepts of magic and ethical behavior, two concerns of The Magus, to all of Fowles’s fiction.