The Magus Summary
by John Fowles

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The Magus Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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Nicholas Urfe, an intelligent young man, conventionally educated at Oxford, accepts a position as schoolmaster on the remote Greek island of Phraxos. He is bored with England and the latest of a steady diet of love affairs. He has developed an effective technique of cultivating and then gracefully extricating himself from entanglements with women. The most recent is a wandering Australian girl, Alison Kelly. She is emancipated in her sexual habits but is potentially a loyal and devoted companion and lover.

From this rather mundane and self-centered existence, Nicholas becomes enmeshed in the most fascinating and mysterious initiation experience of his life. In spite of its spectacular setting, the school itself is even less inspiring than England—until he meets a cultivated, wealthy Greek named Maurice Conchis, who orchestrates a fantastic psychodrama about illusion, love, and human responsibility. It is a live play with Nicholas himself as both audience and central participant, never knowing where the action will take him next. What begins as a marvelous entertainment gradually closes in around him, actively engaging his mind and emotions, damaging his self-image, inspiring both his aesthetic love of the beautiful and his lust and tendency to exploit women, and forcing his moral judgment of social action and ultimately his fear and an unwelcome sense of powerlessness in the face of potentially evil forces.

Conchis, the Magus (or sorcerer) who runs the show, is ambiguously known to the native islanders as a doctor or a retired musician, as a Greek patriot or a traitor, as a collaborator with the Nazis during the World War II occupation. To Nicholas, he is a sophisticated and gracious weekend host who reveals, bit by bit, the fascinating story of his life. His narrative is startlingly punctuated by illusions or tableaux apparently staged with actors and actresses in his employ. Sometimes the effects pick up an element of the narrator’s past, the appearance, for example, of the beautiful Lily Montgomery, whom the narrator loved in his youth. The lovely Lily immediately arouses Nicholas’ susceptible eroticism, and he begins a frustrating pursuit of this elusive creature. Sometimes she appears as an apparition out of Greek myth—Artemis the huntress or a naked nymph pursued in the moonlight by a Satyr.

The protagonist and the reader soon realize that nothing is what it seems, that Conchis’ story is possibly part fact, part fiction, or perhaps some kind of complicated allegory, or even the sinister plot of a demented mind. Conchis himself claims to be a psychiatrist and that this is some kind of psychological experiment with Nicholas as the subject. In any case, the reader, like the protagonist, is in a state of continuous suspense and uncertainty about the reality, the outcome, and the motivation for the action.

As an exercise in suspense and mystery, invoking vaguely defined philosophical and psychological questions about human nature, the novel is a tour de force. It demands continued attention, even when it seems to defy the usual fictional requirements of plausibility. The reader assumes, like the protagonist, that everything has a rational explanation which may yet be forthcoming. Every seeming milestone of truth, however, trips a further episode that casts doubt upon the improved perception of reality. The drama led by the Magus comes to an end, and one is never sure what it was all about. Nicholas, meanwhile, has survived a terrifying journey in self-knowledge, from which he has emerged a humbler and potentially more loving person. One imagines the future of hazard and decision, the real future, as itself mysterious, ambiguous, both threatening and promising.

When the glow of the chase is over, the critical reader may have certain dissatisfactions with the coherence of the plot. These afterthoughts cannot dispel the impression, however, that Prospero must still live on his mysterious island with Miranda and Caliban.


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

(The entire section is 1,747 words.)