California Literary Review

The Collector by John Fowles

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April 11th, 2007 at 11:20 am

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The Collector
by John Fowles
Back Bay Books, 320 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

The Butterfly Effect

The English novelist John Fowles died recently, aged 79. Widely known for his self-reflexive take on Victorian fiction, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and The Magus, a lengthy tale of psychological game playing on the Greek island of Spetsai, Fowles was a writer who always seemed content to remain in the shadows, on the edge of things. He would emerge now and again to play the part of the cantankerous recluse, but he was, in essence a private, even hermetic man.

Fowles lived for more than forty years on the South Coast of England in the small town of Lyme Regis, far from the cosseted, closeted, Metropolitan literary elite in London. It was there, in Lyme, that Fowles, in his own particular manner, produced a series of novels and essays notable for their philosophical introspection, their psychological richness, and their stretching of the boundaries of what is possible in storytelling.

Although I consider both The French Lieutenant’s Women and The Magus to be remarkable novels, to my mind, Fowles’ single greatest achievement is his debut, The Collector, published in 1963. (In fact The Collector was not the first book he wrote, that honour goes to The Magus, which was eventually published in 1965.) The Collector established Fowles’ reputation as a writer of what The Sunday Times called, “great imaginative power.” Given that it was a commercial as well as a critical success, he was able to give up his job as a teacher and concentrate on writing full-time. Short, at least in comparison with some of his other books, and immediately engaging, The Collector works by stealth, its creepiness slowly crowding you, until the experience of reading the novel becomes almost as claustrophobic as the captivity in which one of the protagonists is held.

The Collector is the story of Frederick and Miranda. Frederick is a solitary, withdrawn clerk at the local council who has won a large sum of money on the Football Pools. Uneducated and lonely, his great passion in life is for collecting butterflies. He also likes photography. “I always wanted to do photography, I got a camera at once of course, a Leica, the best, telephoto lens, the lot; the main idea was to take butterflies living like the famous Mr S. Beaufoy; but also often before I used to come on things out collecting, you’d be surprised the things couples get up to in places you think they would know better than to do it in, so I had that too.” Frederick has been watching Miranda, a young art student, for a long time, ever since he caught sight of her at her boarding school opposite the Town Hall where he worked. “I can’t say what it was, the very first time I saw her, I knew she was the only one. Of course, I am not mad, I knew it was just a dream and it always would have been if it hadn’t been for the money.” Frederick’s winnings allow him to give up his job and buy a secluded cottage in the Sussex countryside. One day he kidnaps Miranda and takes her there. He imprisons her in the cellar which he has transformed into a small living space. Miranda is to be the pride of his collection. From this moment on, the novel is a battle between the two characters, prisoner and guard, naïve suitor and disgusted belle, a fascinating interplay between two people with conflicting attitudes and expectations of life, a war between hope and derision, a clash between two people who have no meeting point, no area of mutual interest. Frederick believes that Miranda can, given time, come to love him. Once she has come to see him as he is, rather than through the distorting lens of class, then their love will grow. Miranda eventually becomes aware that Frederick is unable to see beyond his delusions, and that it is only by engaging in a game with her captor that she may be able to escape him. She therefore employs a variety of tricks, all the while believing that her superiority in every quarter (Miranda comes from a wealthy upper middle-class family) will help her get away from him.

As is often the case with John Fowles, it is the way in which the story is told that provides much of the pleasure. The first part of The Collector is narrated from Frederick’s point of view, the second, from Miranda’s, in diary fragments. Frederick’s detached rationality contrasts with Miranda’s more lyrical, questioning voice. Unlike the neutral, artless tone of Frederick’s narration, Miranda’s account swings through several emotional states, marking moments of resolution and despair, of terror, contempt and stultifying solitude. She laments “endless panic in slow motion,” indulges in existential rage, “I hate God, I hate whatever made this world…if there’s a God he’s a great loathsome spider in the dark,” and throws herself into flights of melancholic fancy:

The essences. Not the things themselves.
Swimmings of life on the smallest things.
Or am I being sentimental?
Depressed.
I’m so far from everything. From normality. From light. From what I want to be.

Miranda decides to call Frederick Caliban, the name of a character in The Tempest. In Shakespeare’s play Miranda is the daughter of Prospero, a magician exiled to an island in the Adriatic Sea. Caliban, the son of a witch, is a deformed monster who is desperate to have sex with Miranda so as to populate the island. It is a cultural reference that would be lost on Frederick; Miranda delights in knowing this. She cannot see how her captor can be anything other than beneath her. The irony is of course that in their story together, he is the man with the key, the puller of the strings; however much the caged bird thinks it might sing, only one person will decide if anyone shall ever hear its tune.

Fowles’ ability to create two such distinct voices is one of the great achievements of the novel. In setting up his characters in opposition to one other we are of course invited to choose between them. You would think that this is what the Americans call a “no-brainer” (and what the British are beginning to call a “no-brainer” because they can’t think of a better phrase.) But Fowles could never be such an easy writer; that Miranda is not purely sympathetic, or Frederick a one-dimensional, see-through villain, means The Collector moves beyond the confines of the traditional thriller. As an example of what the novel can do if is utilised by a writer who has nothing but respect for the form, The Collector is an essential starting point; and for anyone coming fresh to one of the most original novelists of recent decades, there is no better place to begin.

(By the way, the film version with Terrence Stamp is worth watching for its marvellous mid 60s feel when Britain was at it hippest, but is in no way equal to the book; unless of course you are particularly attached to the youthful charms of Mr Stamp.)

  • anonymous

    good for Fowle!

  • Kim

    I read this book in two sittings. It was absolutely wonderful. I couldn’t sleep the day after I read it. I kept thinking about the characters…and what they are like. I was frightened, yet intrigued.

  • anonymous

    Amazing. One of the few books I can read in such a short time without falling asleep. Something I can read over and over again. More books should be like this one.

  • Pedro Blas Gonzalez

    September 22, 2006

    Very good article. Clear and measured. I enjoyed it, and learned something in the process. Congratulations. In good will,

    Pedro Blas Gonzalez
    Associate Professor of Philosophy
    Barry University
    Miami, Florida, U.S.A

  • anonymous

    I have read this book about 10 times since I was 16, I am 50 now. It is quite captivating, to say the least!

  • anonymous

    Im studying the collector for my yr 12 tee english course and i found that this book was the best ive ever studied the two points of view Clegg and Miranda are realy interesting and thought provking

  • anonymous

    This book got on my last nerve. I was completely sick of Miranda and Frederick way before page 100, which was the first assignment in my lit class. Frankly, I despise both Frederick and Miranda. She and her friends are so pretentious that they’re a joke, and he’s such a slimy creep that I’d gladly bury this awful mess if not for my grade relying on my finishing the horrid experience.

  • Wanda

    A good review of a good novel!

  • shreya

    this book in my perception was quite interesting and intriguing … the last 3 pgs were the most disturbing in my perception … however i am doing this book for my extended essay for IB and cant seem to make a thesis on the relationship between normalcy and lunacy … the way he expresses crazy and lunatic ideas in such as cool fashion… it lies in the language i guess but i cant quite put my finger on it !!

  • Charlotte Bailye

    Another of Fowles’ intriguing, captivating novel’s. The inclusion of enigmatic characters captures our deepest imagination – I visualised and metaphysically re-lived Miranda’s experience within my irrational, subconscious – dreams.
    G.P. is the most awe inspiring character. We visualise him through Miranda’s nostalgic rose-tinted spectacles creating the most beautiful description of G.P’s and Miranda’s (perhaps Fowles) thought provoking inhibitions released into the context of lyrical literature.

  • Kym

    I enjoyed reading this book. The whole thrill and adventure. Fowle is one of my favorite authors to read now.

  • Josh

    I think this article gives too much praise to the novel. Though beautifully written, the book reached it’s climax on every level by page 100. After, it was a long ramble of Miranda reflecting and remenissing of her life before being abducted, and how she should call G.P after she gets out (if). And then the absolute expected happened, and the last three “chilling” pages of the novel are only welcomed with relief for the dreadful novel is at an end. An expected, boring end.

  • Feli_cia

    Although I`ve read many books throughout my existance,few of them have made me cry like this one in the last 10 pages.
    It is exceptionally written,an it depends on the type of personality who reads such a book…I have totally identified myself with Miranda and therefore actually “lived” every word of this novel….
    In a few simple lines I reccomend this book to everyone who wants to find out how NOT to treat women

  • Caroline Wood

    I thought the review was very well stated. I have the book and for some reason only read the beginning. I will though give it a read. I’ve seen the film and loved it. Terrence Stamp is amazing and he mood of the film is captivating. What I like about these characters is that they are flawed but in another way they are perfect at who they are and like the butterfly they are thrilling to watch. The layers of these characters are build and revealed and like the fine dust on a butterflys’ which enable flight to happen, it is the almost graspless aspect of this story that intrigues. I wonder what John Fowles thought of the film?

  • Sally

    Where can I find the book?
    I am so keen now to read it? I already seen the movie … was fascinating yet i need to read it.

  • Chris Lees

    Errrrrr.. I am English, and I’d like you to know that we actually can think of our own phrases, and would never call anything a “no-brainer”. We would actually refer to something as being ‘obvious’ or ‘clear.’ Indeed, we can think of our own words, and do not need to rely on your unnecessary Americanismns thank you very much.

  • Chezza

    The Collector by Jhon Fowles wasnt bad, i enjoyed it up to page 100 then when we were told the novel from Mirandas diary it got really boring. I felt it went too in depth about her friends and i got sick of hearing about this G.P

    I didnt find it gripping now ive to write an essay on it and im not influenced at all.

  • Megan Planck RDG-020

    I’ve recently read the book “The Collector” by John Fowles at first I had felt sorry for Clegg because he was very lonely he didn’t have anyone but than later on in the book when I found out who he really was I thought Wow!!!!!! this guy’s horrible especially not taking Miranda the love of his life to the doctor when she developed pneumonia. I liked the book at first until it got to Miranda’s diary it kept repeating over and over and just talking about GP which was very boring.

  • KH RDG-202

    I never felt sorry for Clegg, I think you are what you make yourself, I did feel sorry for Miranda, couldn’t imagine being kidnapped and not being able to see the outside world, or having any contact with family or friends! I think the diary was way to long and was really boring. It really surprised me the way the book ended, and I really thought he would get her some medical attention, he doesn’t deserve to live! How could he live with his self every day?

  • d tucker

    The Collector was the book i just read and it was an okay book. Fowle really kpet me on the edge of my seat. I liked when Miranda kept her diary that was cool. Clegg really needs to get a life and stop stalking women and kidnapping them. They both were kinda mean and hateful to each other but they had it coming to them. But you should read the book to find out for your self

  • http://http *Mistie* -RDG 20

    I have recently read the book “The Collector” at first when i started to read the book i was feeling a little bit sorry for Clegg. But as i read on threw the book i did not feel a bit sorry for him at all. I think that he is a very corrupted man. Now i did feel sorry for Miranda because of what she had to go threw especially at the end of the book. I think that Clegg should really get a new hobby and leave women along and stop kid napping them.

  • Kayla/ RDG 20

    Just recently in my reading class I read The Collector. At first I had a little sympathy and felt sorry for Clegg. There was this one girl that he was in love with but was unable to get. It was like there could never be anyone else in his dreams. Then as I read on into the story I relized that he was becoming syco. I felt so sorry for Miranda. I never imagined that to happen. I felt that if you couldnt get the love of your life you shouldnt kidnap them, that is just wrong. As the story was coming to and end I begin to hate Clegg especially the way he treated Miranda. I think that the least he could of done for the love of his life was take her to the doctor when she got ill. He was a cruel man.

  • Rhonda RDG 020

    I just read the collector for my Reading class and I thought it was a okay book. I think that it ended wrong because Clegg should of been caught and pay for his crime. I felt sorry for Miranda because her life was taken away from her by a crazy man that didnt know the true meaning of love. Miranda wanted a family and children and Clegg took that away from her for what. She developed pneumonia and ended up dying and Clegg got away scott free to take someother innocent girl and keep her prisoner until her last day also.

  • RR_RDG 20

    I just read the book the Collector in my reading class and as i must say it was okay. I felt really sorry for Miranda cause she really didnt get to live a life or had no contact with her family and the life that was going on while she was trapped kidnapped by him. I think that the reason why he changed at the end of the book cause he wanted the girl and she didnt want him so i think that is why he done what he had done. And is going to keep on doing the same with diffrent girls.

  • JTACK RDG 20

    I thought that this book was pretty good. As you read it though you think that it is going to end a different way than it does. He has got a really good imagination. at first you feel sorry for Miranda but then when you hear her side of the story you get to see what type of girl she really is. He collects butterflies but at the end he like to collect women

  • adm 0003

    I thought this book was good. As I read it, it left my mind thingking about what he would do next. You always had the thought that she was going to get away or he was going to that her good. Know would have never guess for it to end the way it did. I felt sorry for both Mirdanda and Clegg. As I kept on reading my feelings change for both of the. Miranda is just a _____ and Clegg is someone who really needs help. He don’t just collect butterflies now he also collect women.

  • RDAVIS rdg 20

    I have not read many book but i must say this one was not very good.I did not like the book because of it changing back and forth.It jus seamed like the book just jumped from one subject to another.

  • Ian Gross

    this book was one of my favorites and i don’t read very much but it was one of the best books i have ever read so far. i enjoyed reading it because it kept my attention not like some of the other books i have read in my day.
    i give it an a for that.

  • T Fryman rdg

    I thought that the collector was a great book. As you start to read you think that clegg is a crazy man who couldn’t take that miranda didn’t love him. so he kidnapps her and hold’s her hostage. You think that clegg is a bad person but when you start to read you find out what type of person miranda is. you don’t think that the story will end like it did you think that clegg will let her go in the end but it turns out that the end is tottally different.

  • Icegirl

    It is breathtaking novel! I am writing my thesis on it and it just keeps me thinking and thinking all over again. Very exciting!

  • Amy

    I though this novel was amazing, it really draws you in. It’s so strange how at times you feel yourself almost pitying and sympathising with Clegg, but simultaneously despise him. I actually got quite angry with Miranda at times (political differences), and then really feeling for her. The ending was brilliant (horrible but brilliant). Recommend!

  • Grut

    I also had to read this book for year 12 English and I do not like it at all. Clegg is a completely self-centered, supposed psychopath who kidnaps an innocent art student for his own benefit, claiming he loves her. How dare he? The more I read, the more I found I could relate to Miranda and gradually grew to hate the character of Clegg. Cleverly written, but Fowles must have a somewhat twisted imagination.

  • TDandL

    Amazing book! A real good read. Read it in about 5-6 hours. Couldn’t bring myself to put it down!!

  • Lisa

    I’m reading this for my year 10 English class at the moment. Part one, I could get through just barely. Everything after that was just so laborious to read. The novel didn’t pull me in at all. I found it very difficult to get into and to even care about the characters at all. I feel ripped for the two days of my life that were wasted. I very much would rather have been re-reading the fantastic books on my bookshelf.

  • Steinbecker

    Im on page 160. In the beginning, it was absolutely captivating, but when it started from miranda’s POV it became really really boring. I really just want the story to progress instead of re-reading what just happened from her POV. Still, I could probably deal with the re-telling of the same story, but it is made worse by her talking about her family and friends. A detail here or there would be fine but it is almost agonizing reading about her past life when its not very interesting and does not progress or add to the story. I am only continuing to read because I am sure once I get past this part it will become interesting again.

  • Dan

    I actually found Miranda’s point of view very interesting. I think that’s because I love the relationship between Miranda and G.P. I also relate to her because I share her views on buddhism and art. I also despise people who don’t understand that. Throughout the novel I found myself loving some parts but getting bored at others, but overall i really enjoyed it. I genuinely believed Clegg would get help for Miranda when she caught pneumonia, however I think the way the novel ended and Clegg finding a lower class girl to kidnap helps the reader come to conclusion that we shouldn’t feel sorry for Clegg. Although I wanted Miranda to live and have her happy ever after with G.P, I found myself feeling sorry for Clegg at certain points in the novel so the ending helped me realise that he isn’t remorseful and was a cruel character. I would love to know what G.P was thinking when Miranda went missing, but my interpration is that he thought he was the reason disappeared.

  • http://window blerina

    I think the book was great. I took a great pleasure in reading it.I love the art of fowles.

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