John Fowles’s (31 March 1926 – 5 November 2005) fiction has one theme: the quest of his protagonists for self-knowledge. Such a quest is not easy in the modern world because, as many other modern authors have shown, the contemporary quester is cut off from the traditions and rituals of the past that gave people a purpose and sense of direction. Still, desiring the freedom of individual choice that requires an understanding of self, the Fowlesian protagonist moves through the pattern of the quest as best he can.
Following the tradition of the quest theme found in the medieval romance, which Fowles saw as central to his and all of Western fiction, the quester embarks on the journey in response to a call to adventure. Because the quester is in a state of longing for the adventure, often without recognizing the fact, he readily responds to the call. The call takes him across a threshold into another world, the land of myth. For Fowles’s questers, this other world is always described as a remote, out-of-the-way place, often lush and primeval. In this place the quester meets the usual dragons, which, in modern terms, are presented as a series of challenges that he must overcome if he is to proceed.
Guided by the figure of the wise old man who has gone before him and can show the way, the quester gradually acquires self-knowledge, which brings freedom of choice. For Fowles’s heroes, this choice always centers on the acceptance of a woman. If the quester has attained self-knowledge, he is able to choose the woman—that is, to know and experience love, signifying wholeness. Then he must make the crossing back into the real world and continue to live and choose freely, given the understanding the quest has provided.
What separates the journey of the Fowlesian hero from the journey of the medieval hero is that much of it has become internalized. Where the quester of old did actual battle with dragons, monsters, and mysterious knights, the modern quester is far removed from such obvious obstacles. He cannot see the enemy in front of him because it is often within him, keeping him frozen in a state of inertia that prevents him from questing. The modern journey, then, can be seen in psychological terms; while the events are externalized, the results are measured by the growth of the protagonist toward wholeness or self-knowledge. Thus, as Joseph Campbell describes in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), “the problem is . . . nothing if not that of making it possible for men and women to come to full human maturity through the conditions of contemporary life.”
Each of Fowles’s protagonist/heroes follows the pattern of the mythic quest. Each journeys to a strange land (the unconscious): the Greek island of Phraxos and Conchis’ more secret domain for Nicholas Urfe, the isolated countryside house for Frederick Clegg, the primitive Undercliff of Lyme Regis for Charles Smithson, the hidden manor in the forests of Brittany for David Williams, the lost landscape of his youth and the journey up the Nile for Daniel Martin, the interior space of the mind of Miles Green, and the ancient landscape of Stonehenge plus the mystery of the cave for Bartholomew and Rebecca. Each undergoes a series of trials (the warring aspects of his personality) intended to bring him to a state of self-consciousness. With the exception of Clegg, whose story represents the antiquest, each has the aid of a guide (the mythical wise old man): Conchis for Nicholas; Dr. Grogan for Charles; Breasley for David Williams; Professor Kirnberger, György Lukács, a Rembrandt self-portrait, and others for Daniel Martin; the various manifestations of the muse for Miles Green; and Holy Mother Wisdom for Bartholomew and Rebecca. Each has an encounter with a woman (representative of “the other half” needed for wholeness): Alison for Nicholas, Miranda for Frederick, Sarah for Charles, “The Mouse” for David, Jane for Daniel, Erato for Miles, Holy Mother Wisdom for Bartholomew, and Bartholomew for Rebecca. The ability of the quester to calm or assimilate the warring aspects within him, to come to an understanding of himself, and as a result reach out to the experience of love with the woman, represents the degree of growth of each.
Feeling strongly that his fiction must be used as “a method of propagating [his] views of life” to bring a vision of cosmic order out of modern chaos, Fowles saw himself on a journey to accomplish this task. An examination of his fiction reveals the way in which he tackled the task, providing his readers with a description of the journey that they, too, can take.
The Magus was Fowles’s first novel (although it was published after The Collector), and it remains his most popular. Fowles himself was so intrigued by the novel that he spent twelve years writing it; even after its publication, he produced a revised version in 1977 because he was dissatisfied with parts of it. Although some critics see changes between the original and the revision, there is little substantive difference between the two books beyond the addition of more explicit sexual scenes and the elaboration of several sections; thus the discussion of one suffices for the other.
The story derives from Fowles’s period of teaching in Greece, and its protagonist, Nicholas Urfe, is much like Fowles in temperament and situation. As is often the case with Fowles, his fiction describes protagonists of the same age and temperament as himself at the time of his writing; thus an examination of the corpus reveals a maturing hero as well as a maturing author. In this first novel, Nicholas is twenty-five, Oxford-educated, attracted to existentialism, and bored with life. He is the typical Fowlesian protagonist, well-bred, aimless, and ripe for the quest.
Discontented with his teaching job in England, he, like Fowles, jumps at the opportunity to teach in Greece. His subconscious desire is for a “new land, a new race, a new language,” which the quest will provide. Just before going, he meets Alison, who is to become the important woman in his life, although it takes many pages and much questing through the labyrinth of self-knowledge on Phraxos for Nicholas to realize this. Alison, as the intuitive female, the feeling side Nicholas needs for wholeness, recognizes the importance of their relationship from the beginning, while Nicholas, representing reason, does not. In discussing the elements of the quest that bring Nicholas to an understanding and acceptance of the feeling side of himself, which allows him to experience love, one can chart the pattern of the quest that Fowles presents in variations in all his fiction.
On Phraxos, Nicholas responds to the call to adventure embodied in the voice of a girl, the song of a bird, and some passages of poetry, especially four lines from T. S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.” These lines state the mystery of the journey that awaits him: to quest outside so as to come back to himself with understanding. Put another way, it is the yearning in humankind for the return to the harmony of the Garden of Eden. It is, as well, the thesis of Four Quartets (1943), which solves for Eliot the problem of the wasteland. Finally, it is the concept that motivates almost all of Fowles’s questers, beginning with Nicholas.
Crossing the threshold beyond the Salle d’Attente, or Waiting Room, to the domain of myth at Bournai, Nicholas meets Conchis, his guide through the quest. Under Conchis’ tutelage, Nicholas’s “discoveries” begin. Nicholas understands that something significant is about to happen, that it is somehow linked to Alison, and that it restores his desire to live. Conchis exposes Nicholas to a series of experiences to teach and test him. Some he describes for Nicholas, others make Nicholas an observer, and still others give him an active, sometimes frightening role. In all, whether he is repulsed, fascinated, or puzzled, Nicholas wants more; he allows himself to be led deeper and deeper into the mysteries. These culminate in a trial scene during which Nicholas is examined, his personality dissected, his person humiliated. Finally, he is put to the test of his ability to choose. Longing to punish Lily/Julie, the personification of woman Nicholas romantically and unrealistically longs for, he is given the opportunity at the end of the trial to flog her. His understanding that his freedom of choice gives him the power to resist the predictable, to go against the dictates of reason alone and follow the voice of the unconscious, signifies that he has become one of the “elect.” Nicholas emerges from the underground chamber reborn into a higher state of consciousness. He must then make the return crossing into the real world.
To begin the return journey, he is given a glimpse of Alison, although he has been led to believe that she has committed suicide. Realizing that she is alive and that she offers him “a mirror that did not lie” in her “constant reality,” he understands that the remainder of the quest must be toward a reunion with Alison. Apparently, however, he is not yet worthy of her, being dominated still by the ratiocinative side of himself, that part that seeks to unravel logically the mystery that Conchis presents. On his return to London he is put through additional tests until one day, completely unsuspecting of her arrival, he sees Alison again and follows her to Regents Park, where they are reunited.
Signifying the experience of the Garden of Eden, when man and woman existed in wholeness, the park provides an appropriate setting for their reunion. Echoing lines from Eliot, Nicholas has arrived where he started. Now he must prove that he is worthy of Alison, that he can accept the love she once offered freely, but he must win her just as Orpheus attempted to win Eurydice from the dead. Becoming his own magus, he acts out a drama of his own making, challenging Alison to meet him at Paddington Station, where their journey together will begin. Unlike Orpheus, who was unsuccessful in bringing Eurydice from the dead, Nicholas has the confidence gained in his quest to leave Alison and not look back, knowing that she will be at the train station to meet him. While there is some question among critics as to whether Nicholas and Alison do meet and continue their journey together, Fowles has indicated that “Alison is thewoman he will first try to love.” Certainly, in either case it is the element of mystery that is important, not whether Nicholas wins this particular woman. The significance is in his yearning for her, demonstrating that he has learned to accept and give love, that he has journeyed toward wholeness.
What makes such a journey significant for the reader is that he or she partakes of the experience as an insider, not as an outsider, owing to the narrative technique that Fowles employs. In Fowles’s first-person narrative, Nicholas reveals only what he knows at any particular point on his journey; thus the reader sees only what Nicholas sees. Not able to see with any more sophistication than Nicholas the twistings and turnings of Conchis’ “godgame,” the reader must do exactly what Nicholas does: try to unravel the mystery in its literal sense rather than understand the “mystery” in its sacred sense. Believing every rational explanation Nicholas posits, the reader learns as he learns. As his own magus, Nicholas leads the reader into the mystery he was led into, not spoiling the reader’s sense of discovery as his was not spoiled, and providing the reader with the experience of the journey as he experienced it. Of course, behind Nicholas is the master magus Fowles, whose design is to lead each reader to his or her own essential mysteries. The technique provides an immediacy that allows each reader to take the journey toward self-discovery; the novel provides a paradigm by which the mystery of Fowles’s other novels can be deciphered.
The Collector, in sharp contrast to The Magus, presents the other side of the coin, sounding a warning. Here the protagonist is the antihero; his captured lady, the heroine. She goes on the journey he is incapable of taking, which, in his incapacity to understand her or himself, he aborts.
Frederick Clegg, the protagonist, is similar in many ways to Nicholas of The Magus. Each is orphaned, in his twenties, and aimless. Each forms an attachment to a blond, gray-eyed woman, and each goes to a remote land in which he explores his relationship with this woman. Each is given the opportunity to become a quester in that land, and each tells a first-person narrative of the experience. In each, the narrative structure is circular, such that the novel arrives where it started.
The major difference, of course, is that Nicholas journeys toward wholeness; Clegg, while given the same opportunities, does not. The reason for Clegg’s failure lies in the fact that he cannot understand the mythic signals, and so he cannot move beyond his present confused state. The novel begins and ends in psychic darkness; the hero does not grow or develop. While Clegg remains unchanged, however, the captive Miranda, trapped as Clegg’s prisoner, undergoes a transforming experience that puts her on the path of the quest Clegg is unable to take. The tragedy is not so much Clegg’s lack of growth as it is the futility of Miranda’s growth in view of the fact that she cannot apply in the real world the lessons learned in her quest. She is incapable even of having any beneficial effect on her captor.
Part of the problem between Miranda and Clegg lies in the differences in their cultural backgrounds. Miranda has the background of a typical Fowlesian quester in terms of education and social standing; Clegg’s background, however, is atypical in his lower-class roots and lack of education. Part of the thesis of this novel is the clash between these two as representative of the clash between the “Many” and the “Few,” which Fowles describes in detail in The Aristos. The novel, presented as a divided narrative told first by Clegg and then by Miranda, depicts in its very structure the division between Miranda and Clegg that cannot be bridged.
The first problem for Clegg as a quester is that he captures the object of his quest, keeping her prisoner in a hidden cellar. In psychological terms, Miranda, the feeling side of Clegg, is kept in the cellar “down there,” which disallows the possibility of union. Clegg remains a divided man, living above in the house, with Miranda imprisoned below. Miranda, however, discovers that her “tomb” becomes a “womb” in which she grows in selfconsciousness and understanding. Thus, the quest centers on her and the antiquest centers on Clegg.
As a butterfly collector, Clegg sees Miranda as his prize acquisition. He hopes that she will come to love him as he thinks he loves her, but what he really prizes is her beauty, which he has hoped to capture and keep as he would a butterfly’s. When she begins to turn ugly in her vitality and lack of conformity to his preconceived notions of her, she falls off the pedestal on which he has placed her, and he then feels no compunction about forcing her to pose in the nude for photographs.
Clegg’s problems are many. On a social level, he identifies too closely with what he sees as the judgment of the middle class against his lower-class background. On a psychological level, he is possessed by images from his past, the negative influences of his aunt, and his upbringing. His sexual fears and feelings of personal inadequacy combine to lock him into his own psychological prison in the same way he locks Miranda into hers. As he is trapped in his internal prison, the outward presence of Miranda remains just that, outside himself, and he cannot benefit from her proximity. She, however, while externally imprisoned by Clegg, is not prevented from making the inward journey toward self-discovery. At the same time, there is within Clegg, although deeply buried, a desire to break away and move onto the mythic path, and Miranda sees that aspect of him, his essential innocence, which has caused him to be attracted to her in the first place. Nevertheless, it is too deeply buried for Miranda to extract, and his power over her becomes his obsession. When he blurts out, “I love you. It’s driven me mad,” he indicates the problem he faces. Love is madness when it takes the form of possession, and Clegg is possessed by his feelings in the same way that he possesses Miranda. As Miranda asserts her individuality and Clegg becomes repulsed by her, he is able to shift blame for her death to her as a direct consequence of her actions.
Whereas Clegg learns nothing from his experience and uses his narrative to vindicate himself, Miranda uses her narrative to describe her growing understanding and sense of self-discovery, aborted by her illness and subsequent death. After her death, Clegg cleans out the cellar, restoring it to its original state before Miranda’s arrival. This circular structure, returning the reader to the empty cellar, echoes the circular structure of The Magus, except that Clegg has learned nothing from his experience, in contrast with Nicholas, who has learned everything. It is not that Nicholas is essentially good and Clegg essentially bad; rather, it is that Clegg cannot respond to the good within him, rendered inert by the warring aspects of his personality. Clegg’s failure to respond to the elements of the quest is, in some respects, more tragic than Miranda’s death, because he must continue his death-inlife existence, moving in ever-decreasing circles, never profiting or growing from the experience of life. In his next conquest, he will not aim so high; this time it will not be for love but for “the interest of the thing.”
Reflecting the bleakness of Clegg’s situation, the novel is filled with images of darkness. The pattern of The Collector is away from the light toward the darkness. Miranda’s dying becomes a struggle against “the black and the black and the black,” and her last words to Clegg—“the sun”—are a grim reminder of the struggle between them: the age-old struggle of the forces of light against those of darkness. Miranda’s movement in the novel is upward toward light, life, and understanding; Clegg’s is one of helpless descent toward darkness, evil, and psychic death.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman
With The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Fowles returns to the theme of the successful quest. Here the quester is Charles Smithson, much like Nicholas in social standing and education. The important differences between the novels are that The French Lieutenant’s Woman is set in Victorian England and that Charles, in his thirties, a decade older than Nicholas, reflects the older viewpoint of the author. Like Nicholas, his twentieth century counterpart, Charles is representative of his age and class. Also like Nicholas, Charles is somewhat bored with his circumstances, despite the fact that he is finally taking the proper course of marriage to the proper lady, Ernestina. Not nearly so aware of his boredom as is Nicholas, Charles is nevertheless immediately attracted to Sarah upon their first meeting, sensing instantly that she is not like other women. Meeting her again in Ware Commons and its more secret Undercliff, Charles finds in this “other world” the mythic encounter for which he unconsciously yearns. A seeker after fossils, he subconsciously fears his own extinction in the receding waters of the Victorian age, a gentleman left behind in the face of the rising tide of the Industrial Revolution.
Sarah, having recognized her uniqueness in a world of conformity, relishes her position apart from others, particularly in its ability to give her a freedom other women do not possess. As the French lieutenant’s woman (a euphemism for whore), she is outside society’s bonds. Capitalizing on her position, she has already begun her own quest when she meets Charles; thus, she leads him to his own path for the journey. Ernestina represents the known, the predictable, the respectable. Sarah represents the opposite: the unknown, the mysterious, the forbidden. Torn between the two choices, Charles eventually comes to know himself well enough to be able to make the more hazardous choice, the one more fraught with danger yet far more likely to lead to wholeness.
The feeling and reasoning aspects of Charles’s psyche war within him. Seeking advice from Dr. Grogan, he gets the proper scientific viewpoint of Sarah and is prescribed the proper course of action: Return to Ernestina. One side of Charles, the rational, longs to do so; the other side, the feeling, cannot. Thus, after much wrestling with the problem, Charles chooses Sarah, breaks his engagement to Ernestina, and returns to Sarah for what he thinks will be the beginning of their beautiful life in exile together—only to find her gone. At this point, Charles’s real journey begins. Sarah has brought him to the point of resisting the predictable and recognizing his feeling side; he mustnowlearn to live alone with such newfound knowledge.
Such a choice is not a simple one, and the reader must choose as well, for there are three “endings” in the novel. The first is not really an ending, as it comes in the middle of the book. In it, Charles rejects Sarah, marries Ernestina and lives, as it were, happily ever after. One knows, if only by the number of pages remaining in the book, that this is not really the ending; it is merely Victorian convention, which the author-god Fowles quickly steps in to tell the reader is not the actual ending. The reader thus passes through another hundred pages before coming to another choice of endings, these more realistic.
The first is happy; the second is not. The endings themselves indicate the evolutionary process that Charles, as well as the novel, takes, for if one includes the hypothetical early ending, one moves from the traditional Victorian view to the emancipated view of Charles and Sarah’s union to the final existential view of the cruelty of freedom that denies Charles the happy ending. Fowles wanted his readers to accept the last ending as the right choice but feared that they would opt for the happy ending; he was pleased when they did not.
In the first ending, the gap between Charles and Sarah is bridged through the intercession of Lalage, the child born of their one sexual encounter. The assertion that “the rock of ages can never be anything but love” offers the reader a placebo that does not effect a cure for the novel’s dilemma. Fowles then enters, turns the clock back, and sets the wheels in motion for the next ending. In this one, the author-god Fowles drives off, leaving Sarah and Charles to work out their fate alone in much the same way that Conchis absconds from the “godgame” when Nicholas and Alison are reunited in The Magus. In both cases, Fowles is trying to demonstrate that the freedom of choice resides with the individual, not with the “author.” Since Sarah fears marriage for its potential denial of her hard-won freedom and sense of individuality, she cannot accept Charles’s offer to marry, nor can he accept hers of friendship in some lesser relationship. Sarah then gives Charles no choice but to leave, and in his leaving he is released from his bonds to the past, experiencing a new freedom: “It was as if he found himself reborn, though with all his adult faculties and memories.” Like Nicholas in The Magus, the important point is not whether he wins this particular woman but that he has learned to know himself and to love another. This is what sets him apart as an individual, saves him from extinction, and propels him into the modern age.
The Ebony Tower
Intending to name his collection of shortworks “Variations” because of its reflection of various themes and genres presented in his longer fiction, Fowles changed the name to The Ebony Tower (after the title novella) when first readers thought the original title too obscure. Anyone familiar with Fowles’s themes, however, immediately sees their variations in this collection. The volume contains the title novella, followed by a “personal note,” followed by Fowles’s translation of Marie de France’s medieval romance Eliduc (c. 1150-1175), followed by three short stories: “Poor Koko,” “The Enigma,” and “The Cloud.” In his “personal note,” Fowles explains the inclusion of the medieval romance, relating it first to the novella The Ebony Tower, more generally to all of his fiction, and finally to fiction in general.
The novella describes a quester who inadvertently stumbles into the realm of myth only to find that he cannot rise to the challenge of the quest and is therefore ejected from the mythic landscape. The three short stories are all centered on enigmas or mysteries of modern life. These mysteries arise because “mystery” in the sacred sense no longer appears valid in modern humanity’s existence. The movement of the stories is generally downward toward darkness, modern humankind being depicted as less and less able to take the journey of selfdiscovery because it is trapped in the wasteland of contemporary existence. The variations in these stories thus present aspects of the less-than-successful quest.
David Williams of The Ebony Tower leaves his comfortable home and lifestyle in England and enters the forests of Brittany, the land of the medieval romance, to face an encounter with Henry Breasley, a famous (and infamous) painter. Because David is a painter himself, he is interested in the journey from an artist’s perspective; he does not anticipate the mythic encounter that awaits him in this “other” world. Within this other world, Breasley attacks the “architectonic” nature of David’s work in its abstraction, in contrast to Breasley’s art, which has been called “mysterious,” “archetypal,” and “Celtic.” In defaming David’s art for its rigidity and lack of feeling, Breasley serves as a guide to David. David also finds the essential woman here in the figure of Diana, “The Mouse.” The two characters offer him the potential of becoming a quester. The story represents the forsaken opportunity and its aftermath.
David’s problem, like that of Nicholas and Charles at the beginning of their quests, is that he is so caught up with the rational that he cannot understand the emotional, in others or in himself. To all that he finds bewildering, he tries to attach a rational explanation. When finally confronted with pure emotion in his meeting with Diana in the edenic garden, he hesitates, fatally pausing to consider rationally what his course of action should be. In that moment, he loses the possibility of responding to his innermost feelings, failing to unite with the woman who represents his feeling side; as a result, he is evicted from the mythic landscape.
Caught between two women, his wife and Diana, David cannot love either. His situation is in sharp contrast to that of Eliduc, who also encounters two women but can love both. For Eliduc, love is a connecting force; for David, it is a dividing force. When David leaves the Brittany manor, he runs over an object in the road, which turns out to be a weasel. Here the weasel is dead with no hope of being restored to life; in Eliduc, love restores the weasel to life.
The rest of the story is David’s rationalization of his failure. Like Clegg of The Collector, David first recognizes his failure but knows that he will soon forget the “wound” he has suffered and the knowledge of his failure. Already the mythic encounter seems far away. By the time he arrives in Paris, he is able to tell his wife that he has “survived.” Had David succeeded in his quest, he would have done far more than survive—he would have lived.
The remaining stories in the collection are connected to the title story by the theme of lost opportunities. In “Poor Koko” the narrator, a writer, is robbed by a young thief who burns his only possession of value, his manuscript on Thomas Love Peacock. The story is the writer’s attempt to understand the seemingly meaningless actions of the thief, which he finally comes to realize extend from the breakdown in communication between them. On a larger scale, the clash between the boy and the old man is the clash between generations, between a world in which language is meaningful and one in which it is empty.
In the succeeding story, “The Enigma,” a mystery of a different kind is presented: the disappearance of John Marcus Fielding, member of Parliament, and the subsequent investigation by Sergeant Jennings. The first mystery focuses on the reason behind the disappearance of Fielding, whose body is never discovered and whose motive is never revealed. What is hinted at by Isobel Dodgson, the former girlfriend of Fielding’s son and the last person to have seen Fielding before he disappeared, is that Fielding absconded from life because it offered no mystery; thus he provided his own by disappearing.
The second and more engaging mystery is seen in the developing relationship between Jennings and Isobel. While theirs is not of the dimensions of the relationship between Charles and Sarah, Nicholas and Alison, or even David and Diana, since they are not on the mythic journey, it is nevertheless interesting because it provides a sense of mystery. In a world that motivates a Fielding to walk out, it will have to suffice.
The last story, “The Cloud,” is probably the most mysterious in the literal sense, although it describes a world most lacking in mystery in the sacred or mythic sense. The setting is a picnic with two men, Peter and Paul, and two women, sisters, Annabel and Catherine. While the setting describes an idyllic day, one senses from the outset that this is not paradise, because the women are lying in the sun, “stretched as if biered,” an image of death that pervades the story. Catherine has apparently suffered the loss of a loved one, presumably her husband, and is in deep depression. She seems unable to make the crossing back into the world. Language does not serve as a bridge, and her feelings elicit no depth of response from the others. Thus, by the end of the story, she enters a myth of her own making, which is described in the story she invents for her niece about the princess abandoned by her prince. Catherine remains behind, unbeknown to the others when they leave the woods, and the reader is left with the assumption that she commits suicide, symbolized by the presence of the dark clouds rolling over the scene. Thus, the dark image of the ebony tower in the first story is replaced by the dark cloud in the last, and the reader has come full circle once again.
Having described aspects of the failed quest in The Ebony Tower, Fowles once again returns to the theme of the successful quest in Daniel Martin. This time the quester is a mature man in his forties, as was the author at the time of the novel’s composition, and this time Fowles is able to write the happy ending that had eluded him in his other fiction. The first sentence of the novel contains its thesis and the summation of Fowles’s philosophy: “WHOLE SIGHT OR ALL THE REST IS DESOLATION.” Like the questers in The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Daniel Martin must take the mythic journey to learn the meaning of whole sight and to change his world from a place of desolation to one of fulfillment.
While the first sentence of the novel states the thesis, the epigraph states the problem: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears.” Trapped in the wasteland of contemporary existence, Daniel experiences “morbid symptoms” in his failure to feel deeply and to be connected to a meaningful past. It is the movement of the novel from the crisis to whole sight that constitutes the quest.
The call to adventure comes with a phone call announcing the impending death of Anthony, an old friend. In going to England to be at his friend’s bedside, he returns to the land of his youth and to the time when love was real. That love was with Jane, who later married Anthony, forcing both Daniel and Jane to bury their true feelings for each other. With Anthony’s death, Daniel is once again faced with the dilemma of his own happiness and the role that Jane can play in it. At the same time, Daniel is wrestling with the problem of his desire to write a novel; subsequently, as the story unfolds, Daniel’s novel unfolds, such that at the completion of the story one also has the completion of Daniel’s novel, the demonstrable product of his successful quest.
Moving in and out of time, the novel skips from Daniel’s boyhood to his present life in Hollywood with Jenny, a young film actor, to his memories of happy days at Oxford, and to his continuing relationship with Jane in the present. It also has several narrative points of view: Daniel tells certain sections, the omniscient author tells others, and still others are told by Jenny.
Daniel is aided on his journey by several wise old men: among them, Otto Kirnberger, the professor he and Jane meet on their trip up the Nile; and the Hungarian Marxist literary critic György Lukács, whose writings explain Daniel’s choices as a writer. Daniel also describes several edenic settings that he calls the experience of the “bonne vaux.” Remembrance of these experiences at Thorncombe, at Tsankawi, and at Kitchener’s Island reinforce his desire to bring them more fully into his life; thus he quests on.
Realizing that the essential element of the quest is his ability to express his love for Jane, he worries that he will be rejected by her. Jane, less certain of her ability to choose her own future, tries to retreat from his declaration of love, telling him that she sees love as a prison. Jane is not yet ready to accept Daniel, but they journey on together, this time to Palmyra, a once beautiful but now desolate and remote outpost. In this wasteland, they experience the renewal of love. The catalyst comes in the form of a sound, “a whimpering, an unhappiness from the very beginning of existence.” The sound is that of a litter of forlorn puppies, followed by another sound from their bedraggled mother, who tries to protect her puppies by acting as a decoy to distract the couple. The scene propels Jane out of her own wasteland into an enactment of a private ritual. Burying her wedding ring in the sand, she symbolically severs herself from her restrictive past to connect with the present and Daniel.
On his return to England, Daniel then severs himself from his remaining past by rejecting Jenny, recognizing all the while the importance of compassion in his relations with her and others. Following their last meeting, he enters a nearby church and is confronted with a living picture of all that he has learned: the famous late Rembrandt self-portrait. In this vision of compassion and whole sight, Daniel sees how far he has come and where the path into the future will lead. In Daniel’s experience of the happy ending, the reader sees also a beginning. Thus, the last sentence of the novel one reads becomes the first sentence of the novel that Daniel will write. Again the experience is a circle, arriving where it started, with the circle expanding as it does in The Magus and in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
The movement of Fowles’s fiction through Daniel Martin suggested the completion of a cycle: from a statement of the thesis in The Magus, to a statement of its opposite in The Collector, to an examination of the thesis from a different historical perspective in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, to variations in The Ebony Tower, and to arrival at the long-sought happy ending in Daniel Martin. One could easily anticipate that the next novel would be very different, and so it was. Mantissa, which Fowles defines in a footnote, is a term meaning “an addition of comparatively small importance, especially to a literary effort or discourse.” The novel’s critical reception was mixed, some critics applauding the obvious departure from Fowles’s customary style and others deploring its seeming frivolousness. Fowles contends that it should be taken as “mantissa,” a kind of lark on his part. In it, he explores the role of creativity and freedom for the author, expressed through his protagonist Miles Green, as he wakes up to find himself an amnesiac in a hospital. The action of the novel, although it appears to have numerous characters entering and leaving the hospital, is really taking place in the protagonist’s head, with the various characters representing manifestations of the muse Erato. The debate between muse and author gives Fowles the opportunity to turn the essential question of “freedom to choose,” which he makes the object of the quest for his protagonists in his novels, into the object of the quest for the author/protagonist in this one. It also gives Fowles the opportunity to poke fun at the literarycritical approaches of the day, especially deconstruction. Finally, it gives Fowles the perfect opportunity to write graphically about sexual encounter, which he claims is one of the reasons he revised The Magus: to correct a “past failure of nerve.”
In his next novel, A Maggot, he again chooses a title that requires explanation, his use of the term being in the obsolete sense of “whim or quirk.” He goes on to explain in his prologue that he was obsessed with a theme arising out of an image from his unconscious of an unknown party of riders on horseback, and his desire was to capture this “remnant of a lost myth.” This same obsession with an image is what led to the writing of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the historical novel set in the nineteenth century. In A Maggot, the temporal setting is the eighteenth century, and, as in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the struggle of a man and a woman to break out of their trapped existence is once again the focus. The man is Bartholomew, the son of a wealthy lord, and the woman is a prostitute named Fanny whose real name is Rebecca Lee. Bartholomew leads Rebecca into the quest, but he disappears, and the remainder of the novel becomes a search for the truth behind the events leading to his disappearance. To conduct this investigation, Bartholomew’s father hires the lawyer Henry Ayscough, and the form of the novel shifts from third-person omniscient to first-person depositions, as Ayscough locates and questions everyone connected with the journey leading to the mysterious disappearance of Bartholomew. Everyone has a different view of the event, none of which Ayscough finds convincing. His desire for the truth is based on a belief that there is a rational, logical explanation; yet, despite the thoroughness of his inquiries, he cannot come up with one, finally concluding, without the evidence to prove it, that it must have been a murder.
The crux of the problem lies in his statement to Rebecca: “There are two truths, mistress. One that a person believes is truth; and one that is truth incontestible. We will credit you with the first, but the second is what we seek.” Rebecca’s belief, that Bartholomew has been transported by a maggot-shaped spaceship to June Eternal and that she has been reborn into a new life, frees her to break out of the trap of her existence by founding what will become the Shaker movement, which the daughter to whom she gives birth at the end of the novel will take to America. The mystery of Bartholomew’s disappearance is never solved, and the reader is left to decide where the truth lies. For Rebecca, the central quester, the truth she experienced in the cave gives her the freedom to choose a new life, which is the object of the quest.
Poetry: Poems, 1973.
Nonfiction: The Aristos: A Self-Portrait in Ideas, 1964; Shipwreck, 1974; Islands, 1978; The Tree, 1979; The Enigma of Stonehenge, 1980 (with Barry Brukoff); A Short History of Lyme Regis, 1982; Lyme Regis Camera, 1990;Wormholes: Essays and Occasional Writings, 1998; Conversations with John Fowles, 1999 (Dianne L. Vipond, editor); The Journals, 2003 (Charles Drazin, editor; also known as The Journals: Volume 1, 1949- 1965, 2005).
Acheson, James. John Fowles. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
Aubrey, James R., ed. John Fowles and Nature: Fourteen Perspectives on Landscape. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999.
Butler, Lance St. John. “John Fowles and the Fiction of Freedom.” In The British and Irish Novel Since 1960, edited by James Acheson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
Foster, Thomas C. Understanding John Fowles. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.
Huffaker, Robert. John Fowles. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Pifer, Ellen, ed. Critical Essays on John Fowles. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.
Reynolds, Margaret, and Jonathan Noakes. John Fowles: The Essential Guide. London: Vintage Books, 2003.
Tarbox, Katherine. The Art of John Fowles. Athens:University of Georgia Press, 1988.
Warburton, Eileen. John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds. New York: Viking Press, 2004.
Wilson, Thomas M. The Recurrent Green Universe of John Fowles. Atlanta: Rodopi, 2006.