Analysis of John Fowles’s The Ebony Tower

In “The Ebony Tower,” John Fowles wrote a variation on his novel The Magus (1965). Both narratives present a young man who, guided by an older mentor figure, has to make life-determining decisions while being tempted by an artistic young woman. In this short story, the artist and art critic David Williams travels to France to interview fellow painter Henry Breasley, an old man who lives with Diana (the Mouse) and Anne (the Freak), his two beautiful young muses, in an enchanted forest, “the sacred wood of the mythical quest” (Barnum 134). The theme of mystery and romance introduced through the almost magical quality of its location finds reinforcement through the story’s intertextual links to Marie de France’s medieval lai “Eliduc,” a translation of which Fowles included with his short stories. Both narratives investigate the trials of romantic love, the conventions of society, and the necessity to stay true to personal feelings. Williams, however, proves to have an immature, or at least conventional, personality, being driven by the rules and regulations of British bourgeois life. Drawn between his unexciting marriage and the temptations that the highly intelligent, artistic, emotional, and sexually uninhibited Mouse represents, he chooses to honor his marital vows and thereby betrays his emotional self. Indeed, Williams’s inability to express his innermost thoughts and feelings in a personal, truthful fashion also characterizes his critical writing, in which he succumbs to recent aesthetic fads and squanders his original artistic talent.


Echoes of the kinds of psychoanalytic theories popularized by Carl Jung are omnipresent in the short story. They find their way into the constellation of characters, with Breasley representing a mentor figure and the two characters Diana and Anne representing realizations of womanhood as either spiritual muse or sexual vamp. Williams’s confl ict also stands for the struggle between his repressed needs and wishes, what Jung called shadow, and his outer mask of convention and conformity, the persona. His inability to bring these two sides into harmony shows Williams to be a highly fl awed and inauthentic character. His excessive reliance on theoretical frameworks appears as his fundamental deficiency.

Where Williams is cerebral, Breasley is physical. While the former sees in art predominantly an intellectual exercise, the latter thinks of his work as an emotional, sexual, and fundamentally intimate activity. The confl ict between mind and body that these two approaches represent comes down heavily in favor of Breasley’s physical version of art. Williams’s highly abstract views on (often also highly abstract) art Fowles presents as inauthentic, irrelevant, and self-congratulatory. In Barry Olshen’s words, Fowles ostracizes “the failures of the age” (95). The story’s implicit references to Williams’s repressed and futile sexuality further emphasize the masturbatory tendencies of his theoretical discourse.

In “The Ebony Tower,” Fowles draws a negative picture of his contemporaries’ modes of criticism, condemning them as overly abstract and out of tune with real-world issues.

Analysis of John Fowles’s Novels

Acheson, James. John Fowles. London: Macmillan, 1998.
Conradi, Peter. John Fowles. London: Methuen, 1982.
Foster, Thomas C. Understanding John Fowles. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.
Fowles, John. The Ebony Tower. 1974. London: Cape, 1984.
Olshen, Barry. John Fowles. New York: Ungar, 1978.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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