John Robert Fowles (1926 – 2005) was a prolific British author who wrote both fiction and non-fiction. Before beginning your John Fowles essays you should decide which of his books you want to focus on. It would be impossible to write about all his work in an essay. You could choose to write about his less famous books, such as ‘Mantissa’ (1982), or ‘The Tree’ (1946) or his most popular, those that were turned into films, for example ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ (1969).
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John Fowles was born in the English county of Essex, in Leigh-on-Sea. The sea, of course features in his novels, particularly in ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman,’ which is set in the seaside town of Lyme Regis in Dorset.
Fowles studied at Oxford University’s New College where he read French and German. Before entering the university, he completed his military service. This was in 1947. It was while he was at Oxford that he began to think about writing. He read widely, focussing on the works of the Existentialists, particularly Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Although Fowles was not himself an existentialist he identified with their notions that the world was absurd.
After leaving Oxford, Fowles taught at the University of Poitiers, and then, a year later, he moved to Spetses, a Greek island in the Saronic Gulf, where he taught English. It was this experience that he drew on when he wrote ‘The Magus.’ He lived on Spetses for some years. Although Fowles loved the island life, he was forced to return to the UK when all the teachers at the Anargyrios and Korgialenios School on Spetses were sacked because they had wanted to introduce reforms.
Fowles devoted his time to writing and was duly rewarded when his first major novel ‘The Collector’ was published in 1963, commanding what was then possibly the highest fee that had been paid for a first novel. It was adapted for the big screen in 1965 and was a success.
‘The Collector’ is about a butterfly collector named Clegg, who carefully pins and catalogues the specimens he catches. Miranda is just like another butterfly for Clegg to add to his collection. The collector lives in a large country house which he could afford because he won the football pools. The country house has a huge basement, and the collector hatches a plan to kidnap Miranda Grey, played by Samantha Eggar. He finally carries out his plan and locks her in the basement of his house. He wants to get to know her a previously he had only admired her from afar. In order to get her to like him, he buys her presents, clothes and books, and in the beginning, she agrees, somewhat foolishly, to stay in the basement for a month.
Miranda tries various methods to make her escape, but they all fail. She even makes an attempt to seduce him as she believed that his motive for kidnapping her was a sexual one. Unfortunately for her, perhaps, this wasn’t his motive. Clegg becomes angry and confused by her behaviour. He refuses to release her, and she concocts plans to kill him, but realises that is she did, she would be stooping to his level.
She dies in the basement after becoming gravely ill. Clegg want to commit suicide when he finds her dead, but then he reads the diary she had been writing. She explains in it that she had never loved him, and this confession leads him to plan to kidnap another young woman.
‘The Magus:’ all three versions of this book (including the screenplay) have different endings. Therefore, if you write about it give the edition you used to write your John Fowles essay.
The book is autobiographical to some extent as its main character is an English teacher on an unspecified Greek island. The teacher, Nicholas Urfe, is employed by a very rich Greek (think Aristotle Onassis) to teach his daughters. Urfe had an ambition to make his living by writing poetry. However, he finds life on the island unbearably lonely, and even contemplates suicide.
Ten as he wanders around the island he comes across Conchis, a very wealthy Greek who may have collaborated with the Nazis in the Second World War. Conchis and Nicolas become friends of a sort, and Nicholas is drawn into his psychological games (godgames). Conchis puts on masques to entertain Nicholas, who is drawn into them against his will. In the beginning Nicholas takes these games with a pinch of salt, but he soon loses his grasp of what is real and what is not. He is sucked into them without his realising it and becomes one of the performers. He finally understands that the games are about his life, not that of Conchis. Nicholas becomes enamoured of the young woman who also participates in the masques.
The book’s ending is ambiguous, leaving readers puzzling over what it all means. This is perhaps why Fowles wrote the second version of the book, which was published in 1977.
‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ follows on from the Gothic novels of the 19th century. This is the book that was universally acclaimed. The hero, Charles Smithson is wealthy, an aristocrat who studies palaeontology. He is supposed to marry Ernestina, an heiress whose aunt lives in Lyme.
While there, Charles meets Sarah Woodruff, whom the locals have ostracised because of her relationship with a French lieutenant. Sarah works as a secretary for Mrs.Poulteney, a widow. Sarah is miserable in her employ because the elderly lady is determined that Sarah will repent what she considers to be her evil ways.
Charles becomes obsessed with Sarah despite the fact that local people tell him that she lost her virginity to a French lieutenant whom she had thought would marry her. However, he didn’t and marries someone else after he leaves Lyme. Charles wants to help Sarah, who is dismissed by her employer. She writes a letter to Charles, who meets her and who believes that eventually Sarah will marry him. He gives her money and she goes to Exeter. Charles visits her there and they begin a sexual relationship. It becomes apparent that Sarah is a virgin, so the stories out her and the French lieutenant were false.
Charles uncle decides to marry and so disinherits Charles. He breaks off his engagement to Ernestina and goes to Exeter to find Sarah. He can’t find her and is desolate. He leaves for America, asking his friends to continue looking for her on his behalf. He hears that she has been found living with the Rossettis, so he goes back to England.
Now Fowles gives readers two alternative endings to his story. The first is that Charles and Sarah meet, and by this time she has his daughter. As this is the conventional ending, they marry.
The second ending is more modern. Charles finds Sarah but cannot reconcile her unconventional behaviour. As for Sarah, she doesn’t want to marry. She prefers her freedom. She turns down his marriage proposal and he return to America.
‘Daniel Martin’ is a complex book to read. it follows the life of Daniel Martin, using both 1st and 3rd person narration. Daniel Martin is a British playwright who deserts his craft and country to emigrate to the States. He becomes a screen writer, which is very lucrative. He is experiencing a mid-life crisis and is not totally comfortable with his abandonment of the theatre.
Despite becoming disillusioned with his life and work, he continues to accept screenwriting jobs. He embarks on an affair with a younger British actress who is also disillusioned with her life as an actress in the States. His American sojourn ends when he learns that his ex-brother-in-law, Anthony is dying. Anthony had been a close friend of Daniel’s when they were at college, so when Anthony asked him to return to England, he went, despite the fact that the two had had their differences. Martin had had an affair with Anthony’s wife. Daniel tries to avoid a deathbed meeting with his friend, but he can’t. One of the problems that Daniel must face is that he had lampooned his friend’s family and another is that he had had an affair with his wife. He also has problems with his daughter, who is having an affair with a man old enough to be her father. He has to contend with many problems and Fowles describes these perfectly.
These are considered to be the most important of John Fowles’ novels. Fowles poetry usually takes second place to his novels, rather like that of the British author D.H. Lawrence, which is why it is not discussed here.
In ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’, ‘The Magus’ and ‘The Collector’, readers are presented with the theme of dual reality. In ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’, the heroine, Sarah Woodruff constructs her own fantasy world. and lives as an outsider. She allows people to believe that she is worldly wise and something of a femme fatale. She appears to be unconventional, living apart from her restrictive society. The reader finally realises that her real life is an illusion, as she is not as worldly as she seems.
The dual reality in ‘The Magus’ is clear. There is the actual life on the Greek island of Phraxos (which exists only in the novel), the life that the protagonist, Nicholas Urfe despairs of, and the unreality of the masques that are performed for his entertainment, and in which he is also a performer. Nicholas also has a dual reality, as he wants to be liked and sympathetic, but comes across to the reader as quite shallow and without true self-knowledge. However, his intuition and guesses are more right than wrong. He thoroughly enjoyed being at the centre of things and having so much attention. Nicholas’ first idealised images of himself were taken apart so he had to reconstruct his vision of himself and of reality.
As with ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’, ‘The Magus’ really does have two endings, three if you count the ending of the film. They have one thing in common, they are not definite but indeterminate. The reader and Nicholas, have to continually assess, and then reassess, our various understandings of the world we inhabit.
In ‘The Collector’, the heroine, Miranda, constructs her own world to escape from the awful reality of her real world. She is imprisoned in a large basement and although fed and generally cared for by her captor, she can’t see daylight. Frederick Clegg prefers to be called Ferdinand, a reference to Shakespeare’s hero in ‘The Tempest.’ Miranda, of course, is also a character from the same play, the daughter of the sorcerer Prospero. Ferdinand/Frederick is also a Caliban character, who is devoid of human feelings, as evidenced in the fact that he kidnaps and imprisons Miranda, and then allows her to die. He treats her as one of his butterflies, impaled on a pin for him to look at when the mood takes him.
Frederick is psychotic and shies away from the idea of ‘nastiness.’ He imagines living with Miranda as husband and wife who do not have sex with each other, which he regards as nasty. His fantasy world is far from the reality of his and Miranda’s situation. Everything, as far as Frederick is concerned, is fine, just so long as he can believe that he can make Miranda fall hopelessly in love with him. This is almost a modern-day story of Beauty and the Beast. However, the basement is not conducive to a fairy-tale love story where all turns out well and happily in the end.
The reader understands that Frederick’s actions are unacceptable, but he or she can sympathise with him at the same time. His love for Miranda, accompanied by his deep sense of values, makes the reader strangely sympathetic to the man who, in reality is a monster. In this way, the well-read reader is reminded of Caliban, who had not really wanted to harm his Miranda.
At the end, even the most sympathetic reader recoils at the way in which Frederick callously allows Miranda to die because of his selfish need to keep her rather than release her.
In ‘Daniel Martin’ we have John Fowles’ alter ego. Daniel is an older version of Nicholas Urfe and in a way, of Charles, the protagonist from ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’. The male characters in Fowles fiction can be seen as evolving from the younger Nicholas to the older, middle-aged Daniel Martin. Interestingly, Nicholas and Daniel have occupations that attracted Fowles, at least initially.
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