Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 425

John Fowles was deeply interested in the theories of Carl Jung when he was struggling with this book—and it was a struggle, as he freely admits in his preface to the revised edition in 1977. He was continually rewriting and abandoning drafts as inadequate to the myth he wished to...

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John Fowles was deeply interested in the theories of Carl Jung when he was struggling with this book—and it was a struggle, as he freely admits in his preface to the revised edition in 1977. He was continually rewriting and abandoning drafts as inadequate to the myth he wished to express. The confusion of many readers suggests that perhaps he never did get it quite right. Nevertheless, that the story is somehow analogous to what Jung called the process of individuation seems quite clear. The immature person naively assumes that the conscious Ego is the Self, the center of being. In order to be whole, such a person must explore the unacknowledged part of the psyche—in symbolic terms, a journey into the underworld of the subconscious. That world is haunted by archetypal forms, primitive drives, images derived perhaps from racial memories but intuitively perceived as applicable to one’s own emotional and moral state. Only thus can the adolescent psyche acquire mental and emotional maturity and assume moral responsibility.

The modern, empirical, pseudoscientific orientation of masses of people tends to breed individuals who look only at “things,” especially among men. (Conchis points out to Nicholas that men look at things, but women look at the relationships between things, which he implies is a better orientation.) The more poetically inclined soul, such as that of Nicholas, is aware of the symbolic forms through literature but tends to escape their moral or social significance by slipping into a purely aesthetic view of life. Nicholas speaks of absorbing the fact of Alison’s suicide by edging it “out of the moral world into the aesthetic, where it was easier to live with.” This is, he judges, a process of

  disguised self-forgiveness, the belief that suffering in some way ennobles life, so that the precipitation of pain comes, by such a cockeyed algebra, to equal the ennoblement, or at any rate the enrichment of life, by this characteristically twentieth-century retreat from content into form, from meaning into appearance, from ethics into aesthetics....

Such a process can lead to indifference, possibly even to cultivated sadism.

This is not the only meaning of this complex novel, but it is one of the most important questions it addresses. Surely, one of the darkest observations of modern times is that education in the “humanities” does not necessarily lead to greater humaneness, a fact illustrated by some of the more cultivated Nazis. Neither untutored ignorance nor cultivated good taste is any guarantee of humanity. The fate of civilization is, as always, at risk.

Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 385

The Magus was the first novel Fowles wrote, although not the first he published. He wrote and rewrote it for a dozen years before its publication in 1965. Still not happy with it, despite its commercial and critical success, he reworked it again and the revised version was published in 1977. Fowles's obsession with The Magus and his fascination with it have given it what he calls "favored child" status. He still marvels from time to time that he could write it. It is an important work for its autobiographical connections, its portrayal of the protagonist trapped in a meaningless world who must learn to choose life and love, and 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, and it is important to Fowles as the place where he began writing and where he first felt connected to the timelessness of myth.

As with all of Fowles's fiction, a central theme of this novel is one of "unmasking" to get at the essential core of a person. To dramatize the masks each person wears, as he adopts various personas, Fowles sets up a "godgame" with Conchis as the magus, or magician, who brings forth the actors and actresses, only to unmask them as they take on new roles. Nicholas, intrigued by the mystery he suspects awaits him within Conchis' realm, soon finds that he, too. becomes one of the players in the godgame.

At the heart of the godgame is the unmasking of Nicholas, which takes place in the pivotal underground trial scene, and from which he emerges reborn into a higher state of consciousness, a new awareness of who he is and of what it means to be one of "the elect."

Although the end of the novel provides a reunion with Alison, who must choose Nicholas as he has come to choose her, the story, like most of Fowles's fiction, does not have a clear-cut ending. Nicholas has learned to choose, and thus learned how to be free, but the lack of certainty which characterizes modern life creates hazards that imperil freedom, and while knowledge should be the aim of modern man's quest, it does not necessarily ensure his stability or happiness.

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