Home

The Novels of John Fowles

Note: The following are synopses of John Fowles' seven novels, taken with permission from Professor James Aubrey's excellent 1991 book John Fowles: A Reference Companion. This book contains the most detailed biography of Fowles to date, along with explanatory notes about obscure details and references in all of Fowles' novels.


Click on one of the following or simply scroll down:

The Collector
The Magus
The French Lieutenant's Woman
The Ebony Tower
Daniel Martin
Mantissa
A Maggot


The Collector

The Collector is the story of the abduction and imprisonment of Miranda Grey by Frederick Clegg, told first from his point of view, and then from hers by means of a diary she has kept, with a return in the last few pages to Clegg's narration of her illness and death.

Clegg's section begins with his recalling how he used to watch Miranda entering and leaving her house, across the street from the town hall in which he worked. He describes keeping an "observation diary" about her, whom he thinks of as "a rarity," and his mention of meetings of the "Bug Section" confirms that he is an amateur lepidopterist. On the first page, then, Clegg reveals himself to possess the mind-set of a collector, one whose attitude leads him to regard Miranda as he would a beautiful butterfly, as an object from which he may derive pleasurable control, even if "collecting" her will deprive her of freedom and life.

Clegg goes on to describe events leading up to his abduction of her, from dreams about Miranda and memories of his stepparents or coworkers to his winning a "small fortune" in a football pool. When his family emigrates to Australia and Clegg finds himself on his own, he begins to fantasize about how Miranda would like him if only she knew him. He buys a van and a house in the country with an enclosed room in its basement that he remodels to make securable and hideable. When he returns to London, Clegg watches Miranda for 10 days. Then, as she is walking home alone from a movie, he captures her, using a rag soaked in chloroform, ties her up in his van, takes her to his house, and locks her in the basement room.

When she awakens, Clegg finds Miranda sharper than "normal people" like himself. She sees through some of his explanations, and recognizes him as the person whose picture was in the paper when he won the pool. Because he is somewhat confused by her unwillingness to be his "guest" and embarrassed by his inadvertent declaration of love, he agrees to let her go in one month. He attributes her resentment to the difference in their social background: "There was always class between us."

Clegg tries to please Miranda by providing for her immediate needs. He buys her a Mozart record and thinks, "She liked it and so me for buying it." he fails to understand human relations except in terms of things. About her appreciation for the music, he comments, "It sounded like all the rest to me but of course she was musical." There is indeed a vast difference between them, but he fails to recognize the nature of the difference because of the terms he thinks in. When he shows her his butterfly collection, Miranda tells him that he thinks like a scientist rather than an artist, someone who classifies and names and then forgets about things. She sees a deadening tendency, too, in his photography, his use of cant, and his decoration of the house. As a student of art and a maker of drawings, her values contrast with his: Clegg can judge her work only in terms of its representationalism, or photographic realism. In despair at his insensitivity when he comments that all of her pictures are "nice," she says that his name should be Caliban--the subhuman creature in Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Miranda uses several ploys in attempts to escape. She feigns appendicitis, but Clegg only pretends to leave, and sees her recover immediately. She tries to slip a message into the reassuring note that he says he will send to her parents, but he finds it. When he goes to London, she asks for a number of articles that will be difficult to find, so that she will have time to, try to dig her way out with a nail she has found, but that effort also is futile.

When the first month has elapsed, Miranda dresses up for what she hopes will be their last dinner. She looks so beautiful that Clegg has difficulty responding except with cliches and confusion. When she refuses his present of diamonds and offer of marriage, he tells her that he will not release her after all. She tries to escape by kicking a log out of the fire, but he catches her and chloroforms her again, this time taking off her outer clothing while she is unconscious and photographing her in her underwear.

Increasingly desperate, Miranda tries to kill Clegg with an axe he has left out when he is escorting her to take a bath upstairs. She injures him, but he is able to prevent her from escaping. Finally, she tries to seduce him, but he is unable to respond, and leaves, feeling humiliated. He pretends that he will allow her to move upstairs, with the stipulation that she must allow him to take pornographic photographs of her. She reluctantly cooperates, and he immediately develops the pictures, preferring the ones with her face cut off.

Having caught a cold from Clegg, Miranda becomes seriously ill, but Clegg hesitates to bring a doctor to the house. He does get her some pills, but she becomes delirious, and the first section ends with Clegg's recollection: "I thought I was acting for the best and within my rights."

The second section is Miranda's diary, which rehearses the same events from her point of view, but includes much autobiographical reflection on her life before her abduction. She begins with her feelings over the first seven days, before she had paper to write on. She observes that she never knew before how much she wanted to live.

Miranda describes her thoughts about Clegg as she tries to understand him. She describes her view of the house and ponders the unfairness of the whole situation. She frequently remembers things said by G. P., who gradually is revealed to be a middle-aged man who is a painter and mentor whom Miranda admires. She re-creates a conversation with Clegg over, among other things, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She gets him to promise to send a contribution, but he only pretends to. She admits that he's now the only real person in her world.

Miranda describes G. P. as the sort of person she would like to marry, or at any rate the sort of mind. She lists various ways he has changed her think- ing, most of which involved precepts about how to live an authentic, committed life. Then she characterizes G. P. by telling of a time that he met her aunt and found her so lacking in discernment and sincerity that he made Miranda feel compelled to choose between him and her aunt. Miranda seems to choose his way of seeing, and he subsequently offers some harsh but honest criticism of her drawing, which seems to help her to become more self-aware and discriminating. Her friends Antoinette and Piers fail to appreciate the art G. P. has produced, and Miranda breaks with her Aunt Caroline over her failure to appreciate Rembrandt. Miranda describes her growing attraction to G. P., despite their age difference and his history of sexual infidelity. In the final episode about him, however, G. P. confesses to being in love with her and, as a consequence, wants to break off their friendship. She is flattered but agrees that doing so would probably be for the best.

Miranda says that G. P. is "one of the few." Her aunt--and Clegg--are implicitly among "the many," who lack creativity and authenticity. Indeed, Miranda associates Clegg's shortcomings with "the blindness, deadness, out-of-dateness, stodginess and, yes, sheer jealous malice of the great bulk of England," and she begins to lose hope. She gets Clegg to read Catcher in the Rye, but he doesn't understand it. Miranda feels more alone and more desperate, and her reflections become more philosophical. She describes her reasons for thinking that seducing Clegg might change him, and does not regret the subsequent failed attempt, but she fears that he now can hope only to keep her prisoner.

Miranda begins to think of what she will do if she ever gets free, including revive her relationship with G. P. on any terms as a commitment to life. At this point, Miranda becomes sick with Clegg's cold, literally as well as metaphorically. As she becomes increasingly ill, her entries in the journal become short, declarative sentences and lamentations.

The third section is Clegg's, and picks up where his first left off. He tells of becoming worried over her symptoms and over her belief that she is dying. When he takes her temperature, Clegg realizes how ill Miranda is and decides to go for a doctor. As he sits in the waiting room, Clegg begins to feel insecure, and he goes to a drugstore instead, where the pharmacist refuses to help him. When he returns and finds Miranda worse, Clegg goes back to town in the middle of the night, to wake a doctor; this time an inquisitive policeman frightens him off. Miranda dies, and Clegg plans to commit suicide.

In the final section, less than three pages long, Clegg describes awakening to a new outlook. He decides that he is not responsible for Miranda's death, that his mistake was kidnapping someone too far above him, socially. As the novel ends, Clegg is thinking about how he will have to do things somewhat differently when he abducts a more suitable girl that he has seen working in Woolworth's.

Back To Top


The Magus

The Magus is told from the point of view of Nicholas Urfe, who is bored with life. Having attended Oxford and taught for a year at a public school, he decides to take a position as the English teacher at the Lord Bryon School in Greece, on the island of Phraxos. Nicholas looks up a former teacher there, and is warned to "Beware of the waiting-room," without explanation. Nicholas is not deterred, but during the last few weeks before he leaves, he meets Alison Kelly, an Australian girl who is about to begin training as an airline stewardess. They are both sophisticated about sex and somewhat cynical, but each experiences some regret as they go their separate ways.

During his first six months on Phraxos, Nicholas finds the school claustrophobic but the island beautiful. He realizes that he cannot write good poetry and that he is having difficulty forgetting Alison. In a funk, he visits a brothel in Athens and contracts a venereal disease. He seriously contemplates suicide. The first of the novel's three parts ends at this point.

The mysteries begin as Nicholas goes swimming and someone leaves a book of poems, evidently meant for him to find. As he looks in the woods nearby, he finds a gate to a villa with a nearby sign Salle D'Attente, French for "waiting room." One of his colleagues at the school explains that the villa is owned by a rich recluse named Maurice Conchis. Nicholas decides to look him up and finds, inexplicably, that he is expected. After some conversation, as Nicholas is leaving, he finds an old-fashioned glove on the path and surmises that someone has been watching them.

Invited back for the next weekend, Nicholas is astonished by Conchis' collection of art and by his claim to be psychic. After dinner, Conchis tells Nicholas about an episode in his boyhood when he was fifteen and met a fourteen-year-old girl named Lily Montgomery, whose image haunted him afterward. They were both musically inclined and fell in love, but in 1914, she led him to feel that he ought to volunteer for the army. Conchis explains that he deserted at the battle of Neuve Chapelle, and offers Nicholas a chance to gamble with his own life by rolling a die and promising that he will take a cyanide pill if the die comes up six. It does, but Nicholas refuses to take the pill; Conchis seems to approve his decision, and reveals that the die was loaded against the roller--as was World War I against the soldiers. That night, as Nicholas is going to sleep, he hears voices singing a war song and smells a foul stench.

The next day Conchis encourages Nicholas to read a pamphlet by Robert Foulkes, written as he was waiting to be hanged in 1677. Nicholas takes it with him on a walk, falls asleep, and awakes to see a man in 17th-century dress staring at him from across a ravine. The man disappears before Nicholas can reach him.

At dinner that night, Conchis tells of his wartime pretense to be on leave so that he could return to England to visit Lily. As Nicholas retires, he hears a harpsichord accompanied by a recorder, and investigates, to find Conchis and a beautiful girl dressed in Edwardian clothes, but he declines to interrupt them.

The next weekend "Lily" joins them after dinner and speaks in the language of the early 1900s. Their conversation is interrupted when a horn sounds, a spotlight illuminates a nymph who runs by, pursued by a satyr, and another woman seems to shoot the satyr with an arrow. Nicholas is bewildered but decides that Conchis must be re-creating masques for his own amusement. Lily refuses to explain, and Conchis talks in parables. He describes an attempt to found a Society for Reason after the war, and he tells the story of a rich collector whose mansion is burned by a resentful servant. Nicholas begins to fall in love with Lily, who professes to be as mystified by what Conchis may be up to as Nicholas is. Conchis explains that she is a schizophrenic whom he indulges by letting her manipulate men in the controlled environment at Bourani, but that Nicholas must not believe what she tells him. For the weekend's culminating experience, Conchis hypnotizes Nicholas, who experiences the separateness of himself from everything else. Nicholas leaves eager to return for more adventures.

Alison has invited Nicholas to Athens the next weekend. Nicholas finds the villa closed up, so he meets her and falsely tells her that he is suffering from syphilis. They have an enjoyable weekend climbing in the mountains, at the end of which, back in Athens, Nicholas confesses his lie and tells her about Bourani and Lily. Alison is hurt, and gives him an ultimatum: She will quit her job and join him on Phraxos, or she will leave him. When Nicholas hesitates, a violent argument ensues, and she refuses to let him back in their hotel room.

When Nicholas returns to the villa, Conchis drops the pretense that Lily is a schizophrenic and tells him that she and her twin sister are actresses named Julie and June, whom Conchis has hired for a theatrical experiment. The first evening, Conchis tells Nicholas the story of Henrik Nygaard, a blind madman who believes that he talks with God. Afterward, Nicholas goes to a passionate rendezvous with Julie in the woods, where he is shocked to discover that Julie has sent her twin sister instead. June explains that they feel like prisoners, always watched by Conchis' black valet, Joe, repeatedly told to learn lines and to prepare for improvisations, but never told what it all means. The next day the twins tell Nicholas their backgrounds and show him documents to support their statements. After a day of being shadowed by Joe, even while they are inside an empty chapel, the twins leave with Conchis on his yacht, vowing to insist that he begin to be forthright with them all.

The next Wednesday the yacht returns, and Julie meets Nicholas at night to assure him that there will be no more pretense of schizophrenia; however, Nicholas is to join the twins in the improvisation the next weekend, after which all will be explained. Julie again avoids sex with Nicholas, pleading her menstrual period. On his way back to school in the dark, Nicholas is stopped by a patrol of soldiers in Nazi uniforms, who proceed to beat up a captured partisan. To Nicholas's dismay, he receives a letter on Friday that he will not be welcome, after all, at the villa that weekend.

Nicholas receives two letters the next Thursday, one from Julie indicating that Conchis has told her that Nicholas was sick and the other from Alison's roommate telling Nicholas that Alison has committed suicide. He does not reveal this to Conchis the next weekend, but demands to know the truth. Conchis explains that he is experimenting with a new form of theater, without audience, in which everyone is an actor.

Conchis continues the supposed story of his life with the narrative of the German occupation, when he served as mayor of Phraxos. A crucial event, interpreted differently by different characters in the novel, occurred after the killing of three Austrian soldiers by guerrillas. Conchis was told that the lives of eighty villagers about to be executed in reprisal would be spared if he would club the guerrilla leader to death; he refused, and took his place with the hostages, but managed to survive the mass execution.

Conchis then explains that Julie is his mistress and that they are all about to leave. When Nicholas tries to confront Julie, she disappears, playfully demonstrating one of their hiding places in an old bunker. Inside, she denies what Conchis has said, but as she climbs out of the bunker, she is grabbed and Nicholas locked in. When he gets out, he finds the villa shut up and a skull and a doll hanging from a nearby tree. Nicholas does not know what to think and returns to school.

Several nights later, June appears at the school in distress, concerned about Julie. She says that they have lied to Nicholas and falsified documents about who they are. Nicholas explains that their games have cost the life of Alison. She apologizes, and explains that Conchis is really a psychiatrist doing research and that Julie is at his house in the village, to which June offers to take Nicholas. When he arrives, Nicholas and Julie make passionate love, after which she tells him that Julie is not really her name, and walks out. Three men walk in and restrain Nicholas as they administer an injection that makes him lose consciousness.

Some days later, Nicholas revives, is dressed in ritual garb, and is taken to a chamber decorated with symbols, where he is seated on a throne facing 12 figures in bizarre costumes. As they unmask, they are introduced as psychiatrists, including the former Lily as Dr. Vanessa Maxwell, who reads a clinical diagnosis of Nicholas's psychological problems. She is then stripped to the waist and tied to a flogging frame, as Nicholas is handed a cat-o'-nine-tails and invited to judge her--and the others--by choosing to flay her or not. He declines. Then Nicholas is tied to the frame, to watch Lily and Joe make tender love in front of him. Afterward, he is again made unconscious.

Nicholas awakens on the mainland, alone. He returns to the school and gets himself fired. He goes back to the villa and searches for clues. Although he finds a typescript of a story about how a prince learns to become a magician by accepting that life is full of illusion, Nicholas goes on looking for expla- nations. The second part of the book ends with his discovery that Alison is still alive, her supposed suicide evidently part of the charade.

In the last part, Nicholas continues his research. Nicholas finds no record of Conchis' supposed credentials in psychology. He interviews one of his predecessors at the Lord Byron School, now living as a monk in Italy, but the monk is not interested in helping Nicholas. He finally succeeds in locating a house in which a Montgomery lived during World War I and the inhabitant directs him to one of the Montgomery daughters, a Mrs. Lily de Seitas. At first, she toys with Nicholas, but when he finds out that she has twin daughters of her own, she admits that she is a friend of Conchis--and of Alison. Nicholas is angry, partly over her refusal to tell him where Alison is, but he gradually overcomes his resentment and they meet again.

Nicholas begins to appreciate what has happened, and even declines to discuss it with his immediate predecessor at the Lord Byron School. Finally, Alison appears when he least expects her, and they have a confrontation in Regent's Park, where he at first imagines that they are being watched from Cumberland Terrace. Nicholas issues her an ultimatum--"them or me." She rejects the ultimatum, and Nicholas walks away from her. When she follows him, he slaps her without understanding why. Then he realizes that they are unobserved and asks forgiveness. The novel ends at that point, with their future relationship uncertain.

Back To Top


The French Lieutenant's Woman

The first chapter describes Lyme Regis and its Cobb, a harbor quay on which three characters are standing: Charles Smithson, Ernestina Freeman, and Sarah Woodruff. The describing narrator has a distinctive voice, all-knowing yet intimate, with a wide-ranging vocabulary and evidently vast knowledge of political and geographical history. In one sentence the narrator sounds like a Victorian, as he remarks that the male character recently "had severely reduced his dundrearies, which the arbiters of the best English male fashion had declared a shade vulgar--that is, risible to the foreigner--a year or two previously." In the next sentence he sounds modern, as he describes how "the colors of the young lady's clothes would strike us today as distinctly strident." The narrator's double vision and double voice make him as important as the characters in this novel.

Charles is a middle-aged bachelor and amateur paleontologist; Ernestina is his fiancée, who has brought him to spend a few days with her aunt. Out of a chivalric concern for Sarah, Charles advises her to return from the end of the Cobb to a safer position, but she merely stares at him. As he reflects on this curious meeting, the narrator begins to comment on Charles's outlook on life and on the attitudes that were typical of the age in 1867, with occasional comparisons with 1967.

Ernestina is revealed to be a pretty but conventional young woman. Sarah is an outcast who is reputed to be pining for the French lieutenant who has jilted her. Charles is earnest but intelligent enough to be aware of Ernestina's limitations. When he is looking for fossils along the wooded Undercliff, Charles discovers Sarah sleeping, and must apologize when she awakes and sees him observing her. As he returns to Lyme, he inquires about her at a nearby farm, whose owner tells him that the "French Loot'n'nt's Hoer" often walks that way. Sarah's employer, having separately become aware of that fact, forbids her to walk there any more. Sarah spends that night contemplating suicide, and Chapter 12 ends with two questions: "Who is Sarah? Out of what shadows does she come?"

Chapter 13 begins "I do not know," and the narrator proceeds to discuss the difficulty of writing a story when characters behave independently rather than do his bidding. Charles, he complains, did not return to Lyme as the narrator had intended but willfully went down to the Dairy to ask about Sarah. But, the narrator concedes, times have changed, and the traditional novel is out of fashion, according to some. Novels may seem more real if the characters do not behave like marionettes and narrators do not behave like God. So the narrator, in effect, promises to give his characters the free will that people would want a deity to grant them. Likewise, the narrator will candidly admit to the artifice of the narration and will thereby treat his readers as intelligent, independent beings who deserve more than the manipulative illusions of reality provided in a traditional novel.

Subsequent chapters contain representations of domestic life--a quiet evening with Charles and Ernestina, a morning with Charles and his valet, a concert at the Assembly Rooms. During this last, Charles reflects on where his life seems to be leading and on the fact that, as he puts it, he has become "a little obsessed with Sarah…or at any rate with the enigma she presented." He returns to the Undercliff, again finds Sarah there, and is shocked to be told by her that she is not pining for her French lieutenant, that he is married. The next time Charles encounters her in the Undercliff she offers Charles some fossils she has found and tells him that she thinks she may be going mad; she asks him to meet her there once more, when she has more time, so that she can tell him the truth about her situation and obtain his advice.

Charles decides to seek advice himself and visits Dr. Grogan, an elderly bachelor and an admirer of Darwin, whose theories they discuss. When the conversation turns to Sarah, Grogan expresses the belief that she wants to be a victim. Sarah seems to bear out his view when she explains to Charles that she indeed became infatuated with the French lieutenant when he was recovering from an injury in the house, where Sarah was governess, and that she followed him when he left to return to France. She tells Charles that she quickly realized that he had regarded her only as an amusement, but that she "gave" herself to him nonetheless, doubly dishonoring herself by choice as well as by circumstances. She seems to be proud of her status as outcast, for it differentiates her from a society she considers unjust. Charles accepts her story--even finds it fascinating.

When Charles returns to his room at the inn, he finds a telegram from his bachelor uncle Robert, summoning him home to the family estate he is in line to inherit. To Charles's surprise, Robert has decided to marry Bella Tomkins, a young widow, whose sons--if she has any--would displace Charles as heir. On Charles's return to Lyme Regis, Ernestina mentions that Sarah was seen returning from their last meeting in the Undercliff, where she had been forbidden to walk, and has been dismissed by Mrs. Poulteney. At his hotel, Charles finds a message from Sarah, urging him to meet her one more time. Charles has Dr. Grogan call off the search for Sarah, who, it was thought, might have killed herself Grogan again warns Charles against Sarah, this time by offering him a document to read about a case of bizarre behavior by a young woman in France who manages to get one of her father's officers unjustly convicted of attempting to rape her. Charles decides to meet Sarah again, despite the possibility that she may be deranged and trying to destroy him.

When he finds her, she confesses that she deliberately allowed herself to be seen and, hence, dismissed. Charles is unable to resist kissing her but is bewildered. His feelings turn to dismay when they are stumbled on by Sam and Mary, his valet and Ernestina's aunt's servant, who have come to the Undercliff for their own privacy. Embarrassed, he swears them to secrecy.

Now even more of two minds about his marriage, Charles decides to go to London to discuss his altered financial prospects with Ernestina's father, a prosperous merchant there. Mr. Freeman is more concerned for the happiness of his daughter, who evidently loves Charles dearly, so the engagement stands; but Charles is increasingly uncomfortable with, even trapped by, his situation. He goes to his club and drinks too much. He visits a brothel with two of his friends, but finds the entertainment repellant, and leaves. He picks up a Cockney streetwalker and returns to her flat with her; when she tells him her name is, coincidentally, Sarah, Charles becomes ill and, subsequently, returns to his room. The next morning Charles receives a letter from Grogan, and a note from Sarah with the name of a hotel in Exeter.

Because the train station nearest to Lyme Regis is in Exeter, Charles must pass through that town on his way back from London. Having steamed open the note from Sarah, Sam is confident that they will spend the night in Exeter, so that Charles can visit Sarah, but they proceed to Lyme, where Charles and Ernestina are reunited. The narrator recounts that they go on to marry, have seven children, and live well into the twentieth century. In the next chapter, the narrator explains that this traditional ending is just one possibility, a hypothetical future for his characters. Charles recognized his freedom of choice and "actually" did decide to put up at Exeter for the night, precisely as Sam had expected.

As the story resumes and continues to unfold, Charles visits Sarah at her hotel. He must see her in her room because she has supposedly injured her ankle, though she has purchased the bandage before the "accident" occurred. Charles is overcome by passion and takes her to bed, only to discover that she is a virgin, despite what she had told him about the French lieutenant. She confesses that she has deceived him, says that she cannot explain why and, furthermore, cannot marry him. Stunned by the whole experience, Charles visits a nearby church and meditates on the human condition. He decides that Sarah has been trying to "unblind" him with her stratagems, so that he would recognize that he is free to choose. He writes a letter to Sarah, telling her how much she means to him, and then returns to Lyme to call off his engagement.

Sam does not deliver the letter. Ernestina is distraught when Charles tells her that he is unworthy to be her husband, more so when she realizes that the true reason is another woman. Sam correctly surmises that his master's star will wane as the marriage is called off, so determined to protect his prospect of marriage to Mary, he leaves his position as Charles's valet in hope that Ernestina's aunt and her father will help him.

When Charles returns to Exeter, he finds Sarah gone to London, having left no forwarding address. As he follows her, by train, a bearded figure sits opposite Charles and watches him as he dozes. The character is the narrator himself, who professes not to know where Sarah is or what she wants; indeed, he is wondering what exactly to do with Charles. He compares writing a novel to fixing a fight in favor of one boxer or another; to seem less dishonest, he decides to show the "fight" as if "fixed" both ways, with different "victors," or endings. Because the last ending will seem privileged by its final position, he flips a coin to determine which ending to give first.

The narrative resumes the description of Charles's search for Sarah. He checks agencies for governesses, patrols areas frequented by prostitutes, and advertises--all without success. He visits the United States and advertises there. Two years after she disappeared, Charles gets a cable from his solicitor saying that Sarah has been found. Charles hopes that Sarah has decided to answer the ad, but the narrator explains that Mary has seen Sarah enter a house in Chelsea, and that it is Sam who responded to the ad, now that he is a thriving employee of Mr. Freeman as well as a happy father and husband, but still slightly guilt-ridden over his having intercepted the letter at Lyme.

When Charles arrives at Sarah's house, he finds her surprised to see him and not apologetic about having left him in ignorance of her whereabouts. She gradually is revealed to be living in the house of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and several other artists and models of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Charles is shocked, partly by the rather notoriously unconventional company she is keeping and partly by her lack of repentance for having deceived him and left him in uncertainty. He accuses her of implanting a dagger in his breast and then twisting it. She decides not to let Charles leave without revealing that she has had a child by him, named Lalage. Chapter 60 ends with the three of them evidently on the threshold of some kind of future together.

Chapter 61 begins with the bearded narrator in front of Sarah's house with a watch, which he sets back fifteen minutes and drives off. The narrative resumes with the same piece of dialogue from Chapter 60, about twisting the knife. In this version of the conversation, Charles sees that she cannot marry without betraying herself, and that he cannot accept her on more independent terms. He leaves without realizing that the child he notices on the way out is his. The narrator ends the novel by noting that Charles has at least begun to have some faith in himself, despite his not feeling that he understands Sarah, and that the reader should not imagine that the last ending is any less plausible than the one before it.

Back To Top


The Ebony Tower (a novella)

David Williams, an English art critic and color-field painter, arrives in northern France to interview an older painter named William Breasley, who is living in self-imposed exile from England and Paris. Away from his wife, David finds himself affected by the atmosphere at Breasley's manor, which is deep in one of the old woods of Brittany, filled with priceless paintings, and inhabited not only by the great painter but also by two young art students, Diana and Anne.

The girls befriend David, and warn him that he can expect to be baited by their host. At dinner, as Breasley becomes increasingly drunk, he attacks the art establishment and, sometimes, Williams himself. Finally, the girls put Breasley to bed, and Diana explains that Breasley's reference to an "ebony tower" was his attempt to denigrate contemporary artists who work with abstraction because they are afraid to be clear; then she encourages David to dismiss what Breasley has said by telling David that an ebony tower is where you dump things you are too old to appreciate.

The next day Breasley is back to his usual cantankerous self. They all go on a picnic in the woods, where Diana and Anne go swimming in the nude as Breasley explains to David that he passed a kind of test the night before. After lunch--an enactment of Manet's Le Dejeuner sur I'herbe--Breasley goes to sleep and the women tell David about their lives. The three of them go swimming, and then the four of them return to the house, where David conducts one more interview, about Breasley's politics and his sources.

That night's dinner is friendlier. Afterward, Diana puts Breasley to bed early, and Anne explains that Breasley wants Diana to marry him. The two women take David upstairs to look at Diana's artwork, which he is impressed by. After Anne leaves, Diana tells David more about herself. They then decide to take a walk in the garden, where David kisses Diana and she responds with passion. He hangs back, and she senses that sexual intercourse would be a mistake. "She had broken away; and he had let her, fatal indecision." He then tries to persuade her to come to bed with him, but she goes to her room and locks the door. He believes that he has both come alive and been prevented from living, that he has both lost his principles and feared to act against them.

The next day Diana absents herself from the house until David has left. He spends the drive back to Paris thinking about her with regret, feeling that he has been in a dream. At the airport, he meets his wife, who is flying in from England for a holiday. When she asks him how things went, he answers, "I survived."

Back To Top


Daniel Martin

The novel begins in 1942 as 15-year-old Danny Martin is helping with "The Harvest," title of the first chapter. He is terrified by a low-flying German bomber and repelled by the more localized violence against rabbits that have become trapped in the center of a field as the circles of the reaper grow nearer. The chapter ends with his retreat into a beech wood, "innocent, already in exile..."

The second chapter, "Games," takes place in the early 1970s, in Hollywood, when Daniel Martin is now a middle-aged, successful screenwriter who is divorced from Nell, with a daughter named Caro. He is dissatisfied with script-writing as well as with his life, and is thinking of trying to write a novel. He receives encouragement from his girlfriend, a young English actress named Jenny, who proposes that he name his fictionalized self Simon Wolfe. The chapter ends as Dan receives a telephone call from England.

The third chapter, "The Woman in the Reeds," takes place in a third time period, when Dan was attending Oxford University in his early twenties. Dan is on a picnic with Jane, sister of his girlfriend Nell, when they discover a body in one of the canals. Andrew, a baronet's son, helps them recover from the shock while they wait for the police to arrive. Dan uses the word "games" to describe their superficial lives at Oxford.

"An Unbiased View" is written by Jenny as a contribution toward Dan's novel. The chapter describes the world of filmmaking as well as how they met, and how she found him attractive because she could not read him easily. "The Door" picks up with a telephone call from Jane, who tells Dan that her terminally ill husband, Anthony, wants to see Dan before he dies. Dan is stunned, and the next chapter, "Aftermath," helps to account for his reaction. After they had returned from their Oxford outing, Jane proposed that they go to bed together, just once, as a gratuitous, Rabelaisian act. "Passage" switches the scene back to the United States, where Dan is flying from Los Angeles to New York, en route to England, and thinking about what it means to be English.

"The Umbrella" returns to Dan's boyhood in the 1930s, as Dan describes how the son of a vicar grew into an atheist. Allusions to Citizen Kane help to emphasize Dan's father's lack of demonstrative love for his son. The next chapter, "Gratuitous Act," describes Dan and Jane's sexual intercourse in Dan's room at Oxford, where they are almost discovered by Barney Dillon, who lives in the room above. "Returns" takes place on the airplane from New York to London, where Dan coincidentally encounters the older Barney, who is now a media critic for a London newspaper. Dan's daughter, Caroline, is his secretary.

"Tarquinia" provides another reminiscence of the Oxford days, on a vacation when Dan, Nell, Jane, and Anthony visited Italy and "played Pagan" in the sea near the Etruscan ruins. In "Petard," while Dan stays over in London with Caro, she tells him that she is having an affair with the still-married Barney. On the subway to Padding- ton Station, in "Forward Backward," Dan thinks back to a trip he took to Devon with Caro to show her where he grew up and ended up buying a farm he found for sale, named Thorricombe. In "Breaking Silence," while riding the train from London to Oxford, Dan thinks back further to the early years of his marriage to Nell--his successes as a playwright that gained him entrée to the film world, his infidelity with an actress, Nell's acquisitiveness and growing discontent with their marriage, her accusation that Dan must be having an affair with his assistant, and her demand for a divorce.

In "Rencontre," Dan meets Jane for dinner, and in "Crimes and Punishments," he recalls how a play of his with obvious parallels in their lives had led to anger all around and a letter from Anthony that wrote him out of their lives. Now, in "Catastasis," Dan goes to the hospital to meet Anthony and finds that Jane long ago told her husband of her gratuitous act, with Dan. Anthony explains that they have had a somewhat bloodless relationship in their marriage, due in part to his religiosity, and he wants Dan to be a friend to Jane when he is gone. After he leaves, in "Jane," Dan takes Jane to dinner, where she explains why she is thinking of joining the Communist Party. When they return to Jane's house, in "Beyond the Door," they learn that Anthony committed suicide shortly after Dan left. In "Webs," NelI arrives with Andrew, whom she has married, and their daughter Rosamund. Dan and Caro drive back to London, where Dan watches an old man on the street and thinks about how separated people are from one another.I

Jenny writes "A Second Contribution," which describes her view of Dan's Jewish friends Mildred and Abe and of Dan, whose discussions have enabled her to see that he is in love with loss, and that his seeming untypicality is really what is most typical of the English: their ability to hide their true selves from others. "Interlude" provides a narrator's view of Dan, who does expect to lose women, and illustrates Dan's life with a "fable" about twin sisters, Miriam and Marjory, whom Dan allows to move in with him; they are unsophisticated (except as sexual partners), but Dan genuinely likes them. At the end of the chapter, they have moved away, and Dan is haunted by their loss.

In "Hollow Men," Dan meets Barney for lunch, and they discuss his life, including Caro. At breakfast the next day, in "Solid Daughter," Caro tells Dan that Jane thinks him to be two persons, and Caro suggests that he does not want her to know him either. The topic leads Dan to write "The Sacred Combe," about why Robin Hood is the perfect myth for England because the English love to retreat behind masks, to melt into the trees. Dan notes that his own impulse to write a novel may be evidence of this wish to escape from social responsibility into a self-chosen exile, into a private world of self-indulgence.

In "Rituals," Dan meets with David Malevich, his producer, about their next film project, and David suggests that Dan visit possible shooting locations in Egypt. Dan attends the inquest into the suicide and then takes Rosamund, Jane's oldest daughter, to dinner. Dan spends the weekend at "Compton," the title of the next chapter and country estate of Nell and Andrew, where he ponders the existence of the upper class and discusses the state of England with a cynical ultraconservative named Miles Fenwick.

"Tsankawi" is another reminiscence, of a visit to an archeological site in New Mexico. Dan identifies strongly with the place, and is offended that Jenny wants to make gifts out of potsherds she finds there.

In "Westward," back in England, Dan invites Jane and her teenage son Paul to visit Thorncombe. Paul is somewhat obsessed with medieval agriculture, so he agrees to come along if he can visit some sites of historical interest. Dan recalls how he acquired his gardener and housekeeper, Ben and Phoebe, and then, in "Phillida," how he fell in love as a boy with Nancy Reed, who then lived on the farm Dan has bought, until their parents put an end to the romance. After they have arrived, in "Thorncombe," Dan tells Jane about his wish to try writing a novel, and she tells him about Marxist views of the novel and of culture. On impulse, Dan invites Jane to accompany him to Egypt. That night, "In the Orchard of the Blessed," Dan ponders the devaluation of happy endings in contemporary culture but decides that his novel will have one nonetheless. In "Rain," Jane reluctantly agrees to go along to Egypt, and Dan has two strained transatlantic telephone conversations with Jenny.

In "A Third Contribution," Jenny describes a supposedly fictional but extremely detailed sexual liaison with her costar, Steve. When they talk by telephone again, in "The Shadows of Women," she apologizes for having sent it.

Jane and Dan arrive in Cairo in "Pyramids and Prisons," where Dan discusses the film project with an Egyptian agent and Jane visits the pyramids. They attend a dinner party at which the jokes told by an Egyptian playwright reveal much about Egyptian culture, including, in Dan's view, much it has in common with Jewish culture. In "Barbarians," they start a tour up the Nile at Karnak and reflect on the ancient Egyptian obsession with size, which reminds them of ancient Rome and the modern United States. An old German archaeologist named Otto Kirnberger befriends them and offers suggestions about purchasing artifacts. In "Nile," they encounter other tourists, including an American couple, the Hoopers, who disagree about Vietnam but are enthusiastic about visiting Palmyra, Syria. In "The River Between," Kirnberger tells about himself and offers insights into cultural and biological differences. When they arrive at Aswan and "Kitchener's Island, they find a paradise surrounded by technology run amok. Jane imagines living in a house there and accepts some beads from a little girl. Dan increasingly wants to reveal the growing affection he is feeling toward Jane, but instead, he proposes a side excursion to Palmyra on their trip back to England. Back at the hotel in Aswan, "In the Silence of Other Voices," Dan experiences a mental crisis of anxiety that he must choose himself, and of confidence that he alone can create a world in film or fiction, let alone in life, but he sits down and composes a scene that he believes will work. The chapter title "Flights" refers to the return by air to Cairo and to Jane's demurral when Dan declares that he does not want to leave Jane, that there was something right about their day in Oxford, that they should try living together.

In "North," Dan feels depressed. After they arrive in Beirut, he sits in a bar and feels that he must be condemned to pursue emotional situations that contain the structure of their own destruction, for which his thwarted relationship with Nancy Reed was the seed crystal. The drive to Palmyra in the fog takes them to "The End of the World," a desolate landscape Dan compares to the possibilities Jane has destroyed over the courses of their lives. He persuades her that she should stop conforming to an ideal of nobility and sacrifice, acting as if Anthony is still watching her, and instead join him in movement toward a sympathetic, loving relationship. For the first time on the trip they sleep together. The next day, in "The Bitch," still wary of love but proceeding on instinct like the mother dog of the chapter title, Jane buries her wedding ring in the sand.

In the last chapter, "Future Past," Dan meets Jenny in a London pub to discuss why he is ending their relationship. They walk on Hampstead Heath and part. Dan goes into the Kenwood Museum and looks at the Rembrandt self-portrait there, which seems like a sentinel. Dan will not turn back but will continue to choose and to learn to feel and to write his novel. Indeed, the last sentence of Dan's novel, which exists only as an idea in Daniel Martin, John Fowles as Dan's "ill-concealed ghost" has adopted as the first sentence of this novel: "Whole sight; or the rest is desolation."

Back To Top


Mantissa

Part I begins with an attempt by Miles Green to regain consciousness, as a pair of eyes above him gradually takes the form of his wife, Claire--or so she tells him, for Miles seems to be suffering from amnesia. His wife leaves, and the female attendant explains that he has been under sedation, but when Miles asks how long he has been in the hospital, she answers, "Just a few pages." Her name is Dr. A. Delfie, and she introduces her West Indian assistant as Nurse Cory. They explain that he must learn to relax, and as part of his treatment, they begin to massage his penis. Miles is shocked as they encourage him to fondle their bodies, more so as Dr. Delfie mounts his erection. She tells Miles to try to provide a climax from as deep as possible, in the interest of his baby, to keep going "to the very last syllable." After he finishes, Nurse Cory brings him a small sheaf of papers, cradled in her arms, which she refers to as "a lovely little story." He begins to wonder if his lost identity is that of "a mere novelist or something" when a crash interrupts and ends this first part of the book.

The cause of the crash becomes apparent in Part II. A woman appears who looks like a twin of Dr. Delphie but has spikes of hair and black eye-makeup, is dressed in boots and a black leather jacket, and holds an electric guitar. She slashes at the guitar strings and the nurses disappear. Then she turns to Miles and accuses him of antifeminist, bourgeois elitism, among other literary crimes, in what he has just written. He defends himself by saying that it could have been worse, that he at least did not represent her running through the olive groves in a transparent nightie-- though she would look terrific that way. She begins to run scales on her guitar and it changes to a lyre, as she changes into a traditional muse, dressed in a white tunic. She warns him that she will not, however, be a brainless female body at his perverted beck and call, and she gives him 10 sentences to provide a formal apology. As he does so he begins to play with her. She is not very interested--is still a bit queasy from her flight from Greece--and tells him that it is not easy to be the muse of love poetry, Erato, and find that you have been stuck with fiction as well.

Erato tells Miles to listen to a story for a change, and tells him about her sexual awakening in ancient Greece, when a satyr discovered her rubbing herself with olive oil. She tells Miles that he must not repeat her story, that she's told it to only one other person, a French poet who blabbed. As she tells her erotic story, Miles undresses her and mounts her. Erato continues to talk and tells Miles that her point is, that he should not be a modern satyr, who invents women who are implausible wish-fulfilIments of his diseased mind. In fact, she reminds him, any witness to what they are doing would think it ridiculous, so he should get off her. Erato then lectures him on how she has no freedom to be herself as long as she depends on him to create her as a character, even to kill her off. At that point, Erato gradually changes into an independent-minded, serious woman who speaks intelligently, even intellectually about the sympathy she feels for Miles as a male, a victim of "the overwhelming stress the prevailing capitalist hegemony puts on sexuality." They discuss fictional possibilities for her, which quickly degenerate into soft-core romance scenarios with crude symbolism and exotic trappings. Miles turns and accuses her of exceeding the bounds of artistic decency, and starts lecturing her on how out of fashion her ideas about novels are. He tells her that she should not expect to be able to think and to be a universal girlfriend at the same time. After having delivered several intellectual parting shots and turning to leave, Miles cannot find a door in the wall. Erato tells him that he cannot walk out of his own brain. Miles now accuses her of dictating to him, and whines that he, as author, feels as "written" as she does as a character. She shows him that there is a door, after all, but when he opens it, he sees only a reflection of himself and the room behind him. When he turns around, Erato knocks him out with an uppercut to the jaw.

Part III begins with Miles on the floor and Erato retransformed into Dr. Delphie. An elderly staff nurse enters and accuses Delphie of letting the ward turn to ruin, if not to a striptease show, and departs. Delphie turns to Miles and kicks him in the ribs. When he sits up, she tells him that it was a dirty trick by him to make the elderly nurse look like her sister, Clio, the muse of history. Delphie reminds him that she is an archetype and that he has been lucky that she appears to him; indeed, she says that she is never going to do so again, and disappears. Her now disembodied voice explains that literature is a manifestation of mental illness, that he has merely been acting out a primal scene trauma. She advises him to become a ditchdigger. He attempts to make her jealous by telling her that he preferred the black nurse. She tells him that he has never been any good as a writer or lover. Suddenly, a clock on the wall cuckoos, Dr. Delphie reappears, they make up and make love, not noticing that the walls of the room have become transparent and that people are watching them.

As Part IV begins, they wake up and begin to discuss how it was--both the sex and their previous dialogues. Miles and Erato discuss how they found each other, were perfect for each other in their desire for endlessly revisable textuality. Miles unwisely remarks that he especially liked her as Nurse Cory, and Erato replies that she has singled him out for her affection because he's such an incompetent writer that she can be sure he will never succeed in telling about her. He retorts that he has lots of readers, and that she does not know what it is like to be a writer. She confesses that she did once write an epic satire revealing how immature men are, called The Odyssey. He confesses that he wants Nurse Cory. Erato admits that she is not perfect, indeed gets a lot of facts wrong, but her business is to inspire people. Miles complains that they do too much talking.

As they lie together, Miles reflects that he should not complain about his situation, but that Erato does not appreciate his importance and is becoming "just one more brainwashed, average twentieth-century female." As he begins to imagine a compliant, sexy Japanese woman, he finds that Erato has turned him into a satyr. He threatens to write everything down, but she just smiles. When he tries to jump on her, Erato disappears, and he knocks himself out on the wall above the bed. He returns to the form of Miles Green, and Nurse Cory covers him up. The book ends with the cry of "Cuckoo" from the clock above the oblivious patient.

Back To Top


A Maggot

The story begins with a narrator's description of five characters on horseback in the West Country in April. The party is composed of a Mr. Brown and his nephew, a deaf-mute servant named Dick, a woman called Louise, and a bodyguard named Sergeant Farthing. Their journey began in London and has taken them into Devon, where the nephew is to meet his beloved for an elopement---or so they tell the staff at the Black Hart, an inn near Exmoor. When the narration becomes dialogue, relationships seem different. The uncle Is subordinate to the nephew, who is referred to as Lacy, not Brown. The woman seems unperturbed when Dick unbuttons his breeches and stands near her with an exposed erection. She does plead for an explanation, however, when the nephew--whom she refers to as "my lord" and who calls her Fanny--chastises her for having worn a bouquet of violets beneath her nose as they traveled that day.

After 50 pages of this narration, whose dialogue is from the 18th century but whose narrator is from the late 20th, a facsimile page with no immediately evident connection appears, part of the "Historical Chronicle" from The Gentleman's Magazine, for April 1736, when the fictional story has been taking place. The next page is fictional but purports to be an item from The Western Gazette reporting the discovery of a corpse in the woods near Exmoor, hanging from a tree, with a bouquet of violets growing from its mouth.

The next 10 pages are in a different, dramatic mode, an interrogation of the Black Hart's innkeeper, Thomas Puddicombe, with the questions and answers marked by Qs and A's, and the whole transcript signed by one Henry Ayscough. After two more interviews and two more excerpts from The Gentleman's Magazine, Ayscough's role becomes clearer with a letter to his employer, addressed as "Your Grace," who is evidently the father of the young lord in the party of travelers. Ayscough is confident that the so-called nephew is indeed "his Lordship," this unidentified duke's younger son, but Ayscough cannot imagine what he was doing in this part of the country or why he brought the extra companions, besides his now-deceased servant.

The next section is narrated, in which Ayscough intimidates the actor Francis Lacy into admitting that he was indeed hired by a man he knew was only pretending to be "Mr. Bartholemew," and agreed to pretend to be his "uncle," Mr. Brown, to help him reach the vicinity of his fiancée undetected. Lacy recounts several of their conversations in which Lord ------- revealed an interest in Stonehenge, mathematics, and philosophy. Lacy further reports that Farthing told him that he had once seen the woman in their party entering a London house of prostitution owned by a Mrs. Claiborne, that Dick and "Louise" were having a clandestine sexual relationship as they traveled, and that his lordship had stolen out with Dick and her during the night that they lodged in Amesbury, near Stonehenge--all of which information leads Lacy to suspect that more has been going on than he can now explain to Ayscough. He does point out that he and Farthing separated from the rest of the party on the morning after the night at the Black Hart, so he is unable to account for the disappearances of his lordship and the woman.

The next interview, with Hannah Claiborne, establishes that "Louise" is "Fanny," one of her prize prostitutes, who came to her as Rebecca Hocknell, of a Quaker family in Bristol; her ability to feign religiosity and chastity made her an especially sought-after prostitute, known as "the Quaker maid." Lord -------- had paid Claiborne for Fanny's services for one week, for a party in Oxford he told her, but for a trip abroad he told a friend. His real purpose remains obscure.

Ayscough next interviews Jones, the real name of Farthing, whom his agents have located, and learns that Jones decided to follow the three others after they had parted on the road, He tells Ayscough of having seen them meet a woman dressed in silver trousers near a cave in the woods by Exmoor. Sometime after they all entered the cave, he reports, Dick came running out looking terrified and disappeared into the woods; then Rebecca emerged, naked; his lordship never came out. Jones recounts that he assisted Rebecca in reaching Bideford, from which port he shipped to Wales and she to Bristol, but not before she told him that she had seen witches inside the cave, had been raped by Satan, and had witnessed what appeared to be a mock marriage between his lordship and the younger witch.

Several letters follow, from Ayscough's agents who are searching for Rebecca, who is found in Manchester, married to a blacksmith named John Lee, member of a faction that has broken off from the Quakers. When Ayscough interviews her, Rebecca explains that she has repented her past life and is now a devoted servant of God--as well as a mother-to-be. She tells Ayscough that she lied to Jones about what happened in the cave, first to keep him at a distance, physically, and second because he would not be able to understand what really had happened. First she explains that when they visited Stonehenge at night, she saw a bright, "floating lantern" and observed two men watching them. She then explains that she was told to engage in sexual intercourse with Dick while his lordship watched, and that she accepted Dick's subsequent advances out of pity for him. About the cave, Rebecca explains that inside she saw a large maggot-shaped machine floating in the air, with a door and lights inside. She was taken inside it by a gray-haired woman who had previously been three women of three ages who merged into one. She was shown moving pictures of a green world with large buildings that serve as communal housing, which Rebecca now refers to as "June Eternal." The two men she saw at Stonehenge she recognizes were God the Father and God the Son, and the three women were a female trinity of Christ's daughter, widow, and "Holy Mother Wisdom." Ayscough then interviews one of the leaders of the religious sect and learns that Rebecca's views are largely her own, which she has not revealed to the others, even though they do believe in a female aspect of the Trinity. When he calls Rebecca back, she stands by her bizarre story, claiming that she awoke to find the cave empty and his lordship gone, having left with the spiritual "deities" and left his fallen half--that is, Dick--behind. Before the interview ends, she has apparently seen a vision of his lordship in the room and the narrator has explained that she and Ayscough have radically different ways of seeing the world--hers artistic, female, and right-brain hemispheric, and his scientific, male, and left-brain.

Ayscough does not believe her, and he writes in his last letter to the duke that probably his son killed himself in the cave, having felt more and more vile about not being able to accept the world as it is and himself as impotent. The Stonehenge incident, he concludes, must have been staged. Dick, in despair over his master's suicide, probably imitated his master. The narration concludes in Manchester, where Rebecca has just given birth to a baby girl, whom she names Ann.

Fowles concludes the book in his own voice, with an essay explaining that Ann Lee became the founder of the Shakers. Even though Fowles is, he declares, an atheist, he admires religious dissenters and sees the year 1736 as a convenient marker between the English Revolution of 1688 and the French Revolution of 1789. He observes, too, that sometimes novelists must use far-fetched tropes to convey truths, and that Rebecca represents an emotional enlightenment, a "painful breaking of the seed of the self from the hard soil of an irrational and tradition-bound society."

Home