Getting started

Discussions relating to John Fowles' novel Daniel Martin.

Getting started

Postby drkellyindc on Fri Nov 28, 2008 8:54 pm

Some readers find Daniel Martin difficult in the initial chapters. Here’s a rundown of some of the reasons:

    The first chapter is a densely written scene set in a remote part of the English countryside. It has poetic phrases interspersed with words that don’t appear in standard dictionaries (examples: "stooking," "barton," "linhay"). It has strange dialect lines like “Doan’ee ’ee dreadle the corn,” and even stranger grammatical formulations, like “I feel in his pocket and bring out a clasp-knife.” The main action is a wheat harvest, a gruesomely detailed slaughter of rabbits, and the violent appearance of a German war-plane. As the plane passes overhead it seems poised to kill a 15-year-old harvest worker--presumably the novel’s main character, but nothing is certain yet. The most stable information comes in the final line, which sets the date at August 21, 1942.

    The second chapter brings a radical shift in style, period, and setting, but nothing to explain or smooth the transition. The only potential continuity is a character named Daniel, but here he’s an adult talking about his life’s disappointments. The other character in the chapter is his girlfriend, an actress named Jenny, who is not from Daniel’s generation. The time period is uncertain. The setting is Los Angeles, but this isn’t made clear until near the end. The chapter lacks action. Daniel considers writing his life story, and puts up defenses against Jenny’s suggestions. The two seem to be in relationship limbo. Then the phone rings.

    The third chapter brings another major shift of period and setting. Two students, Daniel and Jane, are idly boating on a river in Oxford one day, and suddenly discover a dead woman lying face down in the water. They alert others, but before long the mystery of the dead woman is sidelined. Later, Daniel and Jane sit on the bank discussing whether they’ve been happy at Oxford, and Jane throws an unopened bottle of champagne in the river.

    The fourth chapter begins with a new narrator. This turns out to be the actress from the second chapter, writing about her first meeting with Dan, and her expatriate life in L.A. She’s smart, well-read, and has a snarky sense of humor, but her impressions come out in no apparent order.

    Before reaching the fifth chapter many readers may flip ahead to see the number of pages (over 620 in most editions), and then set the book aside.

This discussion thread is about how to get started on Daniel Martin if you haven’t already read it, or if you’ve tried and found the early chapters challenging.

Here’s a quick primer:

    Fowles makes us share in Daniel Martin’s initial disorientation as he tries to bring the various threads of his life-story together. Formative moments in his Devon youth, and in his student years at Oxford, are interspersed with the main plot, in which Daniel at age 47 hears from his long-estranged friend and former Oxford classmate Anthony. Anthony is dying of cancer and wants a chance to make things right with Daniel.

    The first chapter (“The Harvest”) is set in the countryside of Devon, England, in August 1942. Daniel is a lad of 15, helping out with the community harvest. The densely poetic and dialect-heavy style of this chapter is not used elsewhere in the novel.

    The second chapter (“Games”) is set in Los Angeles in 1974, at the apartment of Daniel’s girlfriend Jenny, an Anglo-Scottish actress about the age of Daniel’s daughter. Daniel is now 47, well-paid but unfulfilled as a screenwriter. A script he wrote is serving as Jenny’s rising-star Hollywood debut. He is now mulling over the prospect of writing his life-story. Jenny randomly finds the name “Simon Wolfe” and proposes that Daniel use it as his fictional name in the book. Their discussion is suddenly interrupted by a phone call from Oxford, which is continued in the fifth chapter.

    The third chapter (“The Woman in the Reeds”) is set in Oxford in the late summer of 1950. Daniel is 23, and boating on the Cherwell River with his best friend’s fiancée, Jane. Jane’s sister Nell is Daniel’s girlfriend (and future wife). On this particular morning, Daniel and Jane are seeking a quiet place to study for finals.

    The fourth chapter (“An Unbiased View”) offers Jenny’s first-person account of her first meeting and subsequent involvement with Daniel. She assumes that her contribution may prove helpful to the life-story Daniel wants to write.

    In the fifth chapter (“The Door”), Daniel’s ex-wife Nell, and Anthony’s wife Jane, call Daniel in Los Angeles to let him know that Anthony wants a chance to meet with him. Daniel has been estranged from all of these people for many years, but through his daughter Caro has heard about Anthony’s cancer diagnosis. After the call, Daniel talks to Jenny about his reasons for going to England.

The first chapter was my least favorite when I first read the novel, but on subsequent readings it has turned into my most favorite. If you find it difficult, I recommend reading through it quickly the first time, and then more slowly later on. You may find better traction with it after you’ve finished the rest of the novel.

I’ll write more about the opening chapter in the next posting. I welcome others' views about how to approach the early chapters.

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Re: Getting started

Postby drkellyindc on Wed Jan 07, 2009 3:48 pm

Below I've gathered various material on chapter 1, “The Harvest”:

Period and setting:
    The date is August 21, 1942.

    It is late summer, with a sky so blue it puts the narrator in mind of California (“The sky’s proleptic name was California; the imperial static blue of August”).

    The setting is Old Batch field, bordered by Fishacre Lane, near Thorncombe Woods, in remote Devon County, in the southwest of England. Devon County has two separate coastlines, with the English Channel to the south and Bristol Channel to the north. See map at

Chapter summary:
    Fowles scholar Simon Loveday offers this chapter summary:
    Daniel, the fifteen-year-old son of the local vicar, is helping with the harvest on a remote Devon farm. The chapter records the gradual progression of the day through noon to sunset as the patient work of reaping and stooking proceeds to its close. It is interrupted by two violent contrasts. The first is the sudden irruption of a German bomber which has just carried out a hit-and-run raid on Torquay and now charges terrifyingly low over the field in order to avoid the fighters and anti-aircraft batteries on the coast. The second is the organized slaughter of the rabbits trapped in the diminishing rectangle of wheat left by the binder. In the course of this, one rabbit is caught in the blades and has its hind legs sliced off: it is Dan who finds it, finishes it off by breaking its neck, and “casually . . . throws the corpse towards a pile of others.” (from The Romances of John Fowles, 105)

Critical viewpoints:
    Robert Alter describes “The Harvest” as “a virtuoso performance of descriptive writing.” (Critical Essays on John Fowles, ed. Ellen Pifer)

    The ecocritic Thomas M. Wilson regards Daniel Martin’s first chapter as “Fowles’s greatest excursion in prose.” He calls it “a hymn to the culture of the traditional English farm of the first half of the twentieth century.” Wilson writes, “The pain of the harvest labour, the tiredness that night, all is mixed inextricably with the poetry of the place and its rituals: ‘Ambrosia, death, sweet raspberry jam.’ (The Recurrent Green Universe of John Fowles)

    Morton Levitt helps to account for why “The Harvest” gains on re-reading:
    There is an extraordinary opening scene in . . . John Fowles’s Daniel Martin, of a world and of narrative forms in transition. . . . there is no single, identifiable narrative center to the scene . . . So immediate is the scene that we experience it directly and not through intermediaries: there is no question of questioning its reliability. . . . On re-reading, we may well come to believe that the boy . . . whom we can now identify as the title character, Daniel Martin, a novelist in his later years, provides the scene’s sole point of view. It is impossible to do more than suspect this on first reading—and even that is unlikely. . . (The Rhetoric of Modernist Fiction: From a New Point of View)

    This is from Adrienne Gardner’s 1987 doctoral research on Fowles:
    Fowles’s lyrical incantation in “The Harvest” mesmerizes the reader, the heavy rhythms of his prose replicating the weight of the wheat sheaves and the beat of the mower blades, until like Danny, whoosy from sun and cider, the reader is drunk on words. The scything of the wheat and the harvest feast that follows evoke a feeling of timelessness, of celebrations ritually performed for thousands of years. Danny’s experiences that autumn day likewise have a greater than personal, a symbolic, significance.

    Roger Fowler says it is best to read this chapter “carefully, clearly, slowly, and relevantly.” This is from his book Linguistic Criticism:
    The whole passage is worth studying for the mechanics of these visual movements and transitions. The author’s control of the reader’s perception—focus, survey, and scanning of relationships—is strict, and dependent on linguistic artifices which, though unobtrusive, are clearly defamiliarizing, since the language instructs us to perceive carefully, clearly, slowly, and relevantly.

    More from Simon Loveday’s book on Fowles:
    As ever when Fowles is describing actual scenes, the chapter is wonderfully evocative. The sights and sounds, the sensations—the soreness of tired wrists and scratched forearms, the ‘sour green’ of cider—are made intensely real to the reader; traditional methods of threshing and stooking are explained with unobtrusive precision.

    Michael O. Bellamy, describing language use in “The Harvest”:
    The Devon dialect which pervades the episode segregates the chapter itself from the rest of the book in much the same manner as Daniel’s language separates him from those who speak the local dialect—or any other except the dialect of the public schools. In addition to “Danny’s” personal separation from the pastoral experience, we have the intrusion of the German war plane, the literal arrival of the machine in the garden, a signal of the destruction not only of individual lives but of an era as well: “The long combe is flooded with the frantic approach, violent machinery at full stretch, screaming in an agony of vicious fear. The boy, who is already literary, knows he is about to die.” (from “John Fowles’s Version of Pastoral: Private Valleys and the Parity of Existence”)

Echoes of Thomas Hardy:
    Thomas Foster describes Daniel Martin’s opening chapter as “Hardyesque” in its setting, dialogue, and action, but as cinematic in how it is told. Echoes of Fowles’s “Harvest” chapter may be found in the wheat-threshing and rat-catching scenes in Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, chapters 47 and 48.

Critical roundup:
    Numerous critics have commented on the compression of first- and third-person narration in “The Harvest” and other chapters. A prominent example of this comes near the end of the first chapter: “I feel in his pocket and bring out a clasp-knife . . .” (10). Some scholars describe this shift from “I” to “his” as Fowles’s method of splitting perspectives: the story’s hero is both Daniel the 15-year-old parson’s son, immersed in the direct experience of the annual harvest ritual; as well as Daniel the middle-aged writer and artist, recalling and narrating the scene several decades after it transpired.

    With this split perspective also comes a split approach to time. H. W. Fawkner, Simon Loveday, Susana Onega, Sue Park, and Mahmoud Salami have all commented on the untraditional use of verb tenses in this chapter. Park notes the gradual shift in tenses in the chapter, from past (“the field sloped,” “Lewis sat”), to present (“the boy waves,” “thistledown floats southward”), to future (“the day will endure,” “the reaper’s noise will stop”), and back to present. For Salami the shifting verb tenses reflect the fragmented nature of Daniel’s consciousness as he gathers the various threads of the memoir he is writing.

    Further reading on this chapter is found in writings by James Acheson, Patricia V. Beatty,
    Nicholas Delbanco, Katherine Tarbox, and Thomas M. Wilson, among others.

    In her biography of John Fowles, Eileen Warburton describes the period of the author’s life spent at Ipplepen, a village in Devon county, which was the basis of the rural sections of Daniel Martin. She also describes the process of his writing “The Harvest”:
    He had begun writing a first chapter set in Los Angeles, as he had always planned, ‘then suddenly switched back to Ipplepen in the war.’ The entire episode of the wartime harvest, completely forgotten until he began to ‘re-evoke’ it in a single day’s writing, came whole in an ‘unexplained intuition.’ (John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds, 341)

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Re: Getting started

Postby drkellyindc on Tue Jan 13, 2009 7:56 pm

Why the opening chapter, “The Harvest,” was my least favorite when I first read the book at age 23:

    Initially it didn’t make much sense to me. The narration was hard to follow, and I couldn’t get a clear sense of who the characters were or which ones to get invested in.

Why it has become my most favorite chapter:

    Examining the chapter up close, and reading what other scholars have to say about it, I now see “The Harvest” as supporting the deepest feelings one might harbor about one’s youth, about growing up, and about losing or recapturing innocence.

    Despite the rabbit slaughter and the German war-plane, the chapter evokes an Eden-like place and time before the industrial age, when people’s connection to the earth was paramount. There are Biblical references (Solomon, Nimrod, “Our daily bread”), and echoes of Dylan Thomas’s lyrical childhood poem “Fern Hill” (“And the day will endure like this, under the perfect azure sky . . .”). The chapter is told in a submerged-consciousness style reminiscent of stories by James Joyce (such as “Araby” or “The Dead”), where moments of epiphany emerge as a shower-burst, illuminating and transforming the preceding material. The concluding eight paragraphs may be seen as an epiphany shedding light on the rest of the chapter, even as the chapter itself may be seen as an epiphany shedding light on the rest of the novel.

    What we learn about Dan in this chapter alternates between sharp detail and poetic suggestion. His name appears half a dozen times; much more often he’s referred to as “the boy.” We know just as much as we need to know about him at this point, and no more: he’s a lad of 15 wearing cotton trousers and an apple-green Aertex shirt, his “teeth deep in white cartwheel, bread and sweet ham, all life to follow” (4). He’s clumsy at physical labor and socially maladroit as well; among the other harvesters he is “shy and ashamed of his own educated dialect” (4). It’s not just education and social class that single him out, though, but his fate as the village parson’s son; he is alone even when he’s surrounded by others--“nursing his solitude, his terrible Oedipal secret” (9).

    The chapter hints at how the 15-year-old Dan’s mind works. He “clings to his knowledges . . . since he lacks so much else” (10); but he’s also puzzled by the gaps in his knowledge. He has a sense of mystery (“Mysteries: how the pheasant heard the bombs before the men. Who sent the ravens and that passage?”); and much of who he is remains shrouded in mystery (“Inscrutable innocent, already in exile”). In what is for me one of the novel’s most moving lines, Daniel is permitted a glimpse into his own future (“And his heart turns, some strange premonitory turn, a day when in an empty field he shall weep for this”).

    Another deeply moving aspect of this chapter is how Dan has to face up to the fact of dying. This is no whitewashed or soft-focus treatment of youth: Dan performs a mercy killing of an injured rabbit (8), and also faces the prospect of his own immediate death as a German plane flies overhead: “The boy, who is already literary, knows he is about to die” (5). With his whole life ahead of him (“all life to follow”), Dan in this chapter is an unfulfilled promise extending into the future. He’s like an acorn dreaming of the mighty oak tree it may one day become. Dan has a partial grasp of what would be lost if he were to die at this point, “before the other wheat was ripe” (10).

    The chapter has its roots in the mythic past (“old Celtic softness for metal Romans,” “a time when men were hunters,”), but it also foreshadows the imminent and distant future (“the sky’s proleptic name is California,” “a day when in an empty field he shall weep for this”). “The Harvest” shows us Dan both as a social creature familiar in the village; and as a private soul mysterious even to himself. It also brings together Dan's striving adolescent self and his artistic, reflective adult self. In its style, the chapter incorporates both literary and cinematic modes of perception; and in its content, it incorporates both sacred and profane aspects of existence.

    I think that even the most extensive commentary would fail to exhaust this chapter of its secrets. It’s truly a harvest on many levels, even though it may initially look to some like a “No Trespassing” sign.

I’d be glad to hear what other readers have found in this chapter.

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Re: Getting started

Postby drkellyindc on Mon Aug 10, 2009 6:12 pm


The transition between the first and second chapters of Daniel Martin involves a radical and jarring contrast--perhaps the greatest single leap of the imagination in all of Fowles’s writings. The reasons for the contrast are not immediately clear, and ultimately are up to readers to intuit and determine for themselves.

The separation between “The Harvest” and “Games” happens on a number of levels, including:
  • from Devon county, an obscure section of rural England, to Hollywood, a world-famous part of suburban southern California
  • from a naturally verdant Old World setting to a professionally landscaped New World setting
  • from outdoor to indoor
  • from daytime to nighttime
  • from 1942 to 1974; from an era of war to an era of leisure
  • from an agrarian economy rooted in ancient earth-based ritual to a perpetually shifting capitalist subculture based on box-office status, business deals, and expense accounts
  • from hard, honest physical labor to mental, linguistic, and interpersonal game-playing
  • from the height of summer to the dead of winter
  • from kinetic movement to relative stasis
  • from the energy and optimism of youth to the disappointments and depletion of middle age
  • from dozens of native-born Devoners collectively working for a community-wide goal connected with the natural order to two expatriates working in the image industry in a city of artifice
  • from classic references about plenitude and fullness (Breughel, Oedipus, Solomon, Nimrod, Argus) to references to second-rate literature (“Harold-Robbins land”), knockoff design (“a fake Biedermeier table”), and literature about fragmentation (Eliot’s “Waste Land”)

A number of scholars have described this transition and interpreted it with respect to the novel’s themes. Here are some excerpts:

Adrienne Gardner:
. . . having tasted paradise, the artist-god ejects his younger self (and his reader) from Eden; the rest of the novel is an attempt to recover that bliss.

Carol Barnum:
. . . At this point [in “The Harvest”], Daniel is on the threshold of adulthood with “all life to follow.”

Now boyhood and promise are gone. In the swift transition to the second chapter, we move to the contemporary world of the wasteland, symbolized by Hollywood and the unnatural lifestyle it suggests. It is the antithesis of Daniel’s Devon boyhood and shows how far removed he is from his idyllic past, and it is characterized by his relationship with Jenny McNeil. The contrast between Hollywood and Devon sets up the two paths of experience out of which Daniel must carve a middle road.

Susan Klemtner:
Between “The Harvest” and “Games” lie distances in time from past to present and from day to night, in place from the countryside of Devon to the cityscape of Hollywood. From the natural fields and woods of the first chapter, the second moves to the interior of Jenny’s apartment with its “fake Biedermeier table.” Against the harvest labor of the first, the second chapter contrasts language games played with artifice by both speakers. With “all life to follow,” the young Dan looks forward . . . Replacing uniqueness with complexity, the adult Dan feels he can only look back on “the betrayal of myths. As if I was totally in exile from what I ought to have been.” Summing up these contrasts between the boy’s natural and promising world and the man’s artificial and compromised one are the opposed tenses of the two chapters . . .

Peter Wolfe:
The first chapter of Daniel Martin exudes harmony and wholeness. The date is August 1942, and some Devonshire farmers are harvesting wheat. The tightness of the language describing their well-coordinated efforts recalls the knotty severity of Anglo-Saxon verse. We are witnessing a rite older than Camelot.

Then a Heinkel, a German airplane, slices the distant sky; a rabbit loses its legs to the snapping blades of a reaper; young Dan Martin, who has been helping with the harvesting, gets a premonition of early death. Bloodshed and fear have marred the English Eden Fowles has been evoking . . .

Chapter two cuts ahead some thirty years and five thousand miles to that seedbed of America’s wildest dreams, Los Angeles, where, looking out at “the infamous city’s artificial night,” a young English woman says, “It’s the one thing I’ll never understand about this . . . town. How they’ve so totally managed to ban naturalness from it.” Dan, to whom she’s been talking, fits his unnatural surroundings. Like Nicholas Urfe, main character and narrator of The Magus, he spends most of the novel trying to regain what he had and threw away—the ability both to choose and to feel within an inherited context of Englishness.

Thomas M. Wilson:
[Of “The Harvest”] . . . This pastoral scene is almost Roman with the blood of the kill and the nectar of the gods mixed together in a single, intoxicating mélange. The narrator does not flinch in describing the brutality of the rabbit hunt, the difficulty of harvesting the wheat, or even, obliquely, the destructive potential of steel technology, and yet the overall impression this chapter leaves with the reader is of humans contentedly at one with the land. The workers live alongside the rhythms of the season, an experience of community surrounds and sustains them, the sights, even tastes, of the land are intimately enjoyed.

With the second chapter of the novel, there is a swift translocation to present day . . . Los Angeles. This transition . . . to a place antithetical to regional consciousness—an assemblage of motorists, parking lots, and the billboards of multinational corporations—highlights the way in which the older Daniel has lost his boyhood connection to the land. Out of the window . . . he sees “palms and poinsettias and castor-oil plants in the garden, beyond the garden. Downtown, the endless plain of trivial jeweled light.” Suddenly the reader is moved from the country to the city, from pastoral to the hollow glamour of contemporary conurbation, a place where even the flora is “rootless” (castor oil plants are native to India and tropic Africa, not Southern California). The jewels of globalization here heaped up for Daniel’s pleasure are, we are invited to think, meretricious.

Despite the extreme distance between the two chapters, there are still mysterious links between them, including the concept of second sight (see pp. 2, 16, 18), and this unexpected line ending the novel's third paragraph: "The sky's proleptic name was California; the imperial static blue of August."

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