John Fowles Essay

John Fowles 1926–

(Full name John Robert Fowles) English novelist, short story writer, novella writer, poet, nonfiction writer, and screenwriter.

The following entry provides an overview of Fowles's career through 1994. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 15, and 33.

Fowles's reputation as an important contemporary author rests on novels that incorporate elements of mystery, realism, and existential thought. An allusive writer, Fowles has experimented with such traditional prose forms as the mystery novel, the Victorian novel, and the medieval tale, and his writings are characterized by strong narration; vital, resourceful characters confronted with complicated situations; and lavish settings permeated with references to historical events, legends, and art. Other distinguishing features of Fowles's works include his rejection of the omniscient narrator and his use of ambiguous, open endings lacking resolution. Readers have often been annoyed at this refusal to offer satisfactory conclusions, but Fowles believes his responsibility as an artist demands that his characters have the freedom to choose and to act within their limitations. This practice parallels his conception of "authentic" human beings, or people who resist conformity by exercising free will and independent thought.

Biographical Information

Born in Essex, England—on the outskirts of London—Fowles attended a suburban prepatory school until his family moved to Devonshire to escape the German air raids of World War II. There, in England's southwestern countryside, he first experienced the "mystery and beauty" of the natural world, the importance of which is evident in his fiction, philosophical writings, and his avocation as an amateur naturalist. He served two years as a lieutenant in the Royal Marines, but never saw combat since the end of his training coincided with the end of the war. After receiving a B.A. with honors in French from Oxford University in 1950, Fowles taught English at numerous schools in England and Europe, including the University of Poitiers in France, Anargyrios College on the Greek island of Spetsai, and St. Godric's College in Hampstead, England, where he was head of the English department. The two years he spent in Greece during the early 1950s were particularly important to his artistic development. It was there that he first began to write, and the fictive island of Phraxos from The Magus (1965) is modeled on Spetsai. In 1963 Fowles published The Collector, and the novel's success allowed him to retire from teaching. Though not his first attempt at a novel—Fowles had produced several manuscripts since 1952—it was the first he deemed worthy of publication. Since 1966, Fowles has lived in Lyme Regis, a coastal town in southern England and the setting for The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969).

Major Works

The Collector concerns the interaction between a kidnapper, a lower-middle-class clerk named Frederick Clegg, and his victim, an upper-class art student called Miranda Grey. Narrated by Clegg and Grey, the novel highlights the struggle between the elite and the masses, criticizing contemporary society's obsession with control and possession. One common interpretation of The Collector is that the authentic individual, who represents a code of behavioral excellence, is endangered by the pressures exerted by conventional society. Fowles discussed this idea in The Aristos (1964), a nonfiction work outlining his thoughts on art, religion, politics, and society. The concepts outlined in The Aristos—specifically the need "to accept limited freedom … [and] one's isolation …, to learn one's particular powers, and then with them to humanize the whole"—are integral to The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman. Set primarily on the fictitious Greek island of Phraxos, The Magus centers on Nicholas Urfe and his experiences as a participant in Maurice Conchis's illusive and seemingly amoral "godgame," a type of living drama or metatheater which, in the case of Urfe, includes many scenes of humiliation and perverse, malicious cruelty. Designed to provoke participants into reevaluating their identities through confronting their weaknesses and the mystery of existence, the godgame is a central device in many of Fowles's works. In The French Lieutenant's Woman, for instance, Charles Smithson undergoes a godgame at the hands of Sarah Woodruff, who guides him to an understanding of his desire to free himself from Victorian restraints. Considered Fowles's most ambitious and innovative work, The French Lieutenant's Woman examines Victorian manners and morals from a present-day perspective. While Fowles's manipulation of time and space in the novel allows his characters to discover certain truths, they also lead to further ambiguities for the reader, as Fowles includes a number of possible resolutions to the novel, all of which are consistent with earlier events in the narrative. The novella and short stories contained in The Ebony Tower (1974) are variations on Fowles's previous themes and narrative methods, and focus on failed attempts at self-discovery. They also imitate and expand on elements contained in Marie de France's twelfth-century romance Eliduc, a translation of which is included in the book. Daniel Martin (1977), which Fowles has described as "emotionally autobiographical," is a long, discursive work about a man's search for himself. In this novel, in which the protagonist appears to be its author and reader, events from different time periods intertwine as Daniel relates them from multiple perspectives in order to see himself objectively. Although some critics have regarded Daniel Martin as an attempt by Fowles to achieve a more realistic style, others have viewed the characters in the novel as symbols of the relationship between individuals and generations. Described as an allegory of the creative process, Mantissa (1982) combines such diverse topics as sex and literary theory in an examination of the writer's role in modern literature. A sexual scenario between an author named Miles Green and his psychiatrist becomes a literary debate between a writer and Erato, the Greek muse of poetry. Set in eighteenth-century England, A Maggot (1985) consists of court transcripts of an inquiry into the disappearance of an unnamed nobleman and facsimile excerpts from the "Historical Chronicle," a column appearing in the eighteenth-century journal Gentleman's Magazine. Rebecca Hocknell, an unreliable narrator who has presented at least two contradictory accounts of the lord's disappearance, is the key witness at the proceedings and the future mother of Ann Lee, the founder of the Shaker movement. In her responses to barrister Henry Ayscough, Rebecca tells a fantastic tale about an otherworldly spaceship or "maggot." While the science-fiction aspects of the novel are a departure from Fowles's previous works, A Maggot embodies one of his characteristic themes: a concern with freedom from social conventions.

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Fowles's work has centered on his treatment of historical and existential themes and his narrative methods. Scholars have noted, for instance, that in both The French Lieutenant's Woman and A Maggot, Fowles assumes a modern authorial consciousness, presenting history as incomplete and thoroughly connected with the present. Commentators have looked to such devices as the godgame and recurring traits ascribed to his characters to thematically link Fowles's works. They note that his characters frequently live outside the conventional moral boundaries of society and typically reach crucial turning points requiring a reevaluation of self. The women are intelligent and independent, while the men are usually uncertain and isolated, in search of answers to the enigmatic situations in which they are enmeshed. In most cases, however, they do not find simple solutions; rather, their quests for answers result in additional mystification. Critics argue that Fowles's concern with mystery and ambiguity, which is particularly evident in his reluctance to provide authoritative resolutions to many of his works, prompts active audience participation in the quest for answers and emphasizes that reality is illusory and alterable. Describing Fowles as a literary explorer, Ellen Pifer has commented: "Fowles has investigated a wide range of styles, techniques, and approaches to writing…. He has affirmed the resources of language and at the same time delineated the strictures inherent in representing reality within literature and art. By acknowledging these limitations, yet continuing to struggle against them, Fowles has indeed proved himself a dynamic rather than a static artist."

John Fowles’s fiction has one main theme: the quest of protagonists for self-knowledge or wholeness. The collection of short stories in The Ebony Tower is no exception, as Fowles’s working title for the volume, Variations, suggests. The working title was abandoned in favor of the title of the novella in the collection when first readers did not see the connections, but the connections are clearly there. In each of the stories of The Ebony Tower, the protagonist is faced with having to learn how to choose, having to learn how to quest in a world in which today’s quester is cut off from the traditions and rituals of the past that gave questers of old a purpose and direction. Despair permeates the vision of contemporary life in these stories. All Fowles’s characters are unable to communicate with others successfully. His translation and inclusion of Marie de France’s quest tale is in homage to the connection that he recognizes between the ancient quest pattern and the pattern not only of his fiction but also of all Western fiction. The five stories of The Ebony Tower—elegant tales written for an elite audience—are variations on the Celtic romance, a form which Fowles regards as the origin of all fictional forms.

What separates the journey of the Fowlesian hero from the journey of the medieval hero is that much of it has become internalized. Whereas the quester of old fought actual battles with dragons, monsters, and mysterious knights, the modern quester has no such obvious obstacles. For today’s quester, the battles are largely inward as the quester must struggle against ignorance and inertia. Thus, the modern journey can be seen in psychological terms with the results measured by the quester’s ability to attain self-understanding. In the stories in The Ebony Tower, Fowles experiments not only with the genre of the short story but also with the darker aspects of the failed journey, a motif he developed earlier, in The Collector.

“The Ebony Tower”

The Ebony Tower includes the title story, followed by “A Personal Note,” about his inclusion of “Eliduc” (c. 1150-1175), Marie de France’s medieval romance, and the stories “Poor Koko,” “The Enigma,” and “The Cloud.” The first and longest story, “The Ebony Tower,” sets the stage in terms of theme and tone for those which follow. It is also intended as a modern mirror to the medieval romance which comes next.

David Williams, the protagonist of “The Ebony Tower,” is the typical Fowlesian protagonist in his complacency about his unexamined life. When challenged, as all of Fowles’s questers are, he finds that the surface veneer or mask which he wears so cleverly hides a lack of creativity that prevents him from being a great painter or a whole person. He has the opportunity, however, in the “mythic landscape” of Coetminais, to change. Coetminais is the French estate of Henry Breasley; its name means “wood of the monks.” It becomes Williams’s dark tower. His experiences there recall those of Childe Roland in Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Williams recognizes the challenge and sees the path but does not take it. The knowledge he gains concerns the realization of his failure to break out of his safe world into a higher state of consciousness and expression in his art. Williams is a divided man, one caught between two worlds and one who suffers from what poet T. S. Eliot calls “dissociation of sensibility.” Like Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, Williams survives but does not succeed.

Breasley, the famous old rake whom the much-younger Williams wants to interview for a book to be called The Art of Henry Breasley, represents all that Williams is not. A traditionalist who continues to live life to the fullest, the seventy-seven-year-old Breasley challenges Williams to move beyond the safe abstraction of his art and life, which he calls “the ebony tower,” and to reconnect with the lifeblood of his own being and art. Breasley’s art is called “mysterious,” “archetypal,” and “Celtic”; Williams’s is called “architectonic.” Also, Breasley has been a lifelong profligate, who has two mistresses living with him presently. Williams has a wife and a daughter back in England and has never had an affair. Notably, the setting for Williams’s adventure at Coetminais is “a garden of Eden,” one in which the Eve character is a young girl named Diana—nicknamed by Breasley “the Mouse”—an aspiring artist who was formerly a talented student at the prestigious Royal College of Art where she had what she calls a disastrous affair. She tempts Williams, but to his own regret he does not fall.

Williams’s problem is typical of many of Fowles’s protagonists, especially Nicholas Urfe in The Magus and Charles Smithson in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Like Williams, they are caught up too much in the “head” side of life and the rational analysis of mystery, and they fail to understand the “heart” side, the intuitive response to mystery. Williams needs to express himself verbally, to compartmentalize all experience within the boundaries of language. Breasley’s broken sentences and half-formed thoughts, though laden with meaning, contrast sharply with Williams’s precise, fully formed sentences. When the drunken Breasley, a British expatriate, attacks Williams after dinner one evening for being “a gutless bloody word-twister,” Williams responds coolly by saying, “Hatred and anger are not luxuries we can afford anymore.” Williams does not want to offend Henry Breasley. The conflicting views of the two form the essence of the argument and the challenge. Will Williams live his life through carefully controlled language structures, which his abstract art also presents carefully, or will he abandon controls, as Breasley has done, to experience the intuitive life force, the feeling side? The story deals for the most part with issues of art but ends with Williams’s deciding whether to bed “the Mouse.”

It is through the feeling side that Williams responds so readily to the Mouse. His moment of temptation, his quest for true knowledge, comes...

(The entire section is 2561 words.)


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