Analysis of John Fowles’s The Enigma

“The Enigma” is one of five short stories included in the collection The Ebony Tower. John Fowles’s working title for the collection was Variations; although he was convinced by his publisher to discard the original title, the stories constitute variations in more than one sense. They recapitulate and prefigure the themes of Fowles’s novels, offer variations on narrative techniques and generic conventions, and playfully subvert customary distinctions between fiction and reality.

All of these aspects can be seen in “The Enigma.” The title refers to a quasi detective mystery: the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of John Marcus Fielding, a 57-year old, rich, happily married Tory member of Parliament. After some discreet and futile investigations led by Fielding’s wife, the police are approached and a young detective, Michael Jennings, is assigned the case. Jennings questions Fielding’s family members, friends, colleagues, and political rivals. All he receives are variations, competing versions of the man’s personality, motives, and possible whereabouts. The more he questions, the less he knows. As Fielding has never been a major political figure, and as the investigation into his disappearance yields no results, the police lose interest in the case. The official inquiry gradually dwindles, and the young investigator’s professional interest in the (potentially) criminal mystery gives way to his passionate interest in another kind of mystery. He falls in love with Isobel, Fielding’s son’s girlfriend, and comes to realize that “the tender pragmatisms of flesh have poetries no enigma, human or divine, can diminish or demean” (247).

“The Enigma” anticipates the major themes and narrative strategies of Fowles’s later novels: the endorsement of freedom as the highest human good; the view of life as an ultimate mystery that defies all attempts at rational explanation; the refusal of closure, suggesting the impossibility of resolving the mystery of human existence; female characters as existential heroines triggering the male protagonist’s awakening; a metafictional element of a story-within-a-story, ironically and playfully undermining the customary distinction between fiction and reality.

English writer and essayist John Fowles (1926 – 2005) poses in Central Park, New York, 1985. Fowles was best know for his two novels ‘Maggot’ and ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman.’ (Photo by Oliver Morris/Getty Images)

The notion of freedom is explored on several levels. In the fictional world, none of the characters (but Isobel) is free. They are all scripted by their social roles. The most conventional figure is Fielding’s wife, for whom the fear of scandal overrides the concern for her husband. The omniscient narrator describes her as a woman who believes that “what one did was never so reprehensible as letting it be generally known” (196); the young investigating sergeant comes to see her as “a woman welded to her role in life and her social status” (222). Fielding’s son, Peter, is torn between his criticism of his parents’ conformism and his enjoyment of its benefits. Fielding, the missing man, seems to be the least free character; this lack of freedom, his total subservience to his public persona, is one of the hypothetical reasons for his absconding and potential suicide.

Freedom is a central notion in existentialist thought, and John Fowles has often been considered an existentialist writer (although he repudiated this classification late in life). In existentialist philosophy, existence precedes essence: Humans do not have an essential, innate nature but create themselves and their fate through their actions, and principally through interactions with other human beings. The only character in the story representing this kind of freedom is Peter’s girlfriend, Isobel. As noted by most critics, Isobel is cast in the mold of Fowles’s typical female protagonists—independent, free, full of life. In his collection of essays, Wormholes, Fowles acknowledges, “The female characters in my books tend to dominate the male ones. I see man as a kind of artifice, and woman as a kind of reality. The one is a cold idea, the other is a warm fact” (23).

From a different (and playfully ironic) perspective, the story celebrates not only the male protagonists’ (Fielding, Jennings) liberation from the shackles of duty and convention, but also the fictional characters’ emancipation from the tyranny of their author. John Marcus Fielding is a rebel character who walks out on his creator. In the famous chapter 13 of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Fowles professes his belief that “it is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live” (81). The fictional characters’ freedom to evolve independently of the novelist’s plot entails the readers’ freedom to supply the ending to this plot. Therefore, the mystery of Fielding’s disappearance has no closure; each reader is left to supply his or her own conjectures regarding Fielding’s motivation and his fate. “The kind of writing I have always admired,” admits Fowles, “makes reading active too—the book reads the reader, as radar reads the unknown” (Wormholes, 11).

Mystery is the narrative kernel of the detective story, and “The Enigma” is framed as a detective story. Traditional detective fiction is a genre that foregrounds the pursuit of knowledge. It proceeds from a twofold assumption: Truth exists, and it can be discovered by the inquiring mind. But in “The Enigma” the opposite is the case. The more the young sergeant inquires, the less he knows. The impossibility of knowledge is refracted from the characters to the reader, transforming “The Enigma” into a paradigm of the postmodern metaphysical detective story, which, in the words of Patricia Merivale and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, “ask[s] questions about mysteries of being and knowing [that] transcend the mere machinations of the mystery plot” (2).

“The Enigma” is distinctly postmodern in two other respects, its metafictional concern and the blurring of distinctions between reality and fiction. Both are suggested in the final conversation between Isobel and Jennings. The young girl, who is a writer, offers her own theory of Fielding’s disappearance and teases the investigator: “Let’s pretend everything to do with the Fieldings, even you and me sitting here now, is in a novel. A detective story. Yes? Somewhere there is someone writing us, we are not real” (236). Isobel’s hypothesis offers a playfully ironic instance of metafiction, defined by Patricia Waugh as “fictional writing which . . . draws attention to its status as an artefact, in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality” (2). These questions, conveying the characters’ concern about their ontological status, are refracted from the fictional world to the world of the reader, who begins to wonder whether he also, like Fielding, Jennings, and Isobel, has not been scripted by a master novelist.

Fowles, John. The Ebony Tower. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1999.
———. The French Lieutenant’s Woman. New York; Barnes and Noble, 1998.
———. Wormholes. London: Vintage, 1999.
Merivale, Patricia, and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, eds. Detecting Texts: The Metaphysical Detective Story from Poe to Postmodernism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.
Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction. London: Routledge, 2001.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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