The Collector by John Fowles
Since its publication, John Fowles’ The Collector continues to disturb and challenge its reader. Published as his literary debut in 1963, The Collector deals with Fowles’ major concern, human freedom, focused from two major perspectives: for Clegg, a seemingly ordinary man, freedom is his individualization; for Miranda, a woman absorbed in society, it is a power bondage relationship.
Although limited to only two characters, and somewhat outdated to a reader of the digital age, the book raises critical questions about men and women, and the use and abuse of power. I felt drawn to the powerful portraits of Clegg and Miranda through Fowles brilliant use of literary techniques, which make the villainous Clegg at times almost sympathetic.
Frederick Clegg, the protagonist, or arguably the antagonist, narrates majority of the novel. Frederic Clegg, a lower middle class worker, is a young recluse and an amateur lepidopterist who has an obsession with a young and beautiful art student, Miranda Grey. Lacking confidence and education, he has never spoken to her. Obsessed with watching Miranda
as a voyeur, as he once observed butterflies, Clegg starts keeping an “observation diary” about her as he does when engaged in butterfly collecting. Thinking of her as a “rarity,” Clegg turns his attention from rare butterflies to Miranda. Through his perspective, the tone is callous and prosaic, underscoring the horror and heartlessness of act of kidnapping Miranda, who he refers to as simply his “guest” rather than prisoner. The novel is written in four parts: the first, third, and fourth are narrated by Clegg, and the second by Miranda. Although Clegg’s narrative makes up less than half the book by quantity, this order of narration, in which Miranda’s narrative is enclosed by Clegg’s, allows Clegg to dominate and control Miranda not just physically, but linguistically as well. Through this narrative structure, Fowles conveys Miranda’s imprisonment and entrapment in the underground cell.
The role of chance transforms Clegg’s financial situation when he wins the pools. He buys an isolated house in the suburbs of Sussex where he abducts Miranda and imprisons her in the underground cellar.
Fowles constructs a narrative based on the unlikely and timid criminal, Frederick Clegg, and his target, the young, beautiful, fine art student, Miranda. They disagree in their morals and ideals, and they are completely incapable of understanding each other; thus Miranda is unable to love Clegg as he wishes her to.
Miranda represents Clegg’s impossible dream. He denies to himself that she is a kidnapped victim, rather than a guest, or like one of the butterflies he has collected. To the readers’ relief, Fowles does not construct a one-dimensional villain who rapes Miranda; instead, Clegg wants her to fall in love with him. However, their relationship is characterized as one of violence and survival, as Miranda attempts to escape but fails time after time. Ultimately, Miranda catches pneumonia, and since Clegg does not want his captor to be discovered, he refuses to call a doctor, leading to Miranda’s death. As the novel ends, Clegg is evaluating and calculating how he would kidnap and treat his new target. Fowles’ artistry intrigues the reader by constructing a series of lies and inconsistencies, which deem
Clegg as an unreliable narrator and consequently, the novel as an amalgamation of doubt and conflict.
The setting and its changes throughout the plot heighten Miranda’s claustrophobia and absolute helplessness. The setting moves from a suburb to an isolated house, then to a bolted cellar, and finally a coffin. Each setting is progressively more isolated and contained than the previous, thus adding to Miranda’s confinement throughout the novel.
On the surface, The Collector is a crime fiction or a thriller, but a close reading proves the novel as a complex psychological story, which Fowles himself makes it clear in an interview: “I don’t want it taken as a thriller and reviewed in the crime columns.” Some critics believe that the stark contrasts in the novel ranging from good and evil, light and darkness, life and death, or creative impulse and destructive mentality create a novel of morality. However, I believe that this approach downplays the dynamic of the interpersonal relationship between Miranda and Clegg. Instead, the novel’s sharp delineations and double narrative technique create a complex psychological tale, in which the protagonists physically and mentally struggle and yearn for something more than freedom: power.
Fowles has skillfully constructed a prose that switches between the perspectives of Miranda and Clegg, and even in the narrative of one of the characters, the perspective of the other character invariably percolates though. Thus, though each narrative is biased, the readers are yet able to form well-informed opinions. Ultimately, narrative is the portrayal of life in words, which is often the most misleading of all accounts, as it is inevitably doomed to subjectivity, so eventually, it is in the hands of the reader to reveal the identity of either the characters, the author, or perhaps, even themselves.
Moreover, Fowles further heightens an undertone of containment throughout the novel’s use of circularity and repetition. Clegg himself illustrates this: “It was like a joke mousetrap I once saw, the mouse just went on and things moved, it couldn’t ever turn back, but just on and on into cleverer and cleverer traps until the end” (296). Miranda repeatedly tries to escape, but Clegg prevents her from doing so every time. Variations of this episode recur throughout the novel, until Miranda’s death. This circularity in plot structure extends to the end of the novel, in which Clegg is planning to kidnap another victim, Marian. This circular flow of events displays the inescapability of the situation Clegg has constructed for himself and Miranda, further adding to the idea of Miranda’s containment.
Repetitive narrative in the novel extends to overlapping plot structures, which Fowles employs when he retells the one of the episodes of Miranda’s attempt to escape. This recursive organization forces the reader to circle back to familiar events and compare partial narratives in order to gain a complete story. Through these contrasting accounts of the same episode, Fowles conjures a fragmented story, leaving the readers dubious as to which narrator to believe.
The double narrative structure in The Collector not only give the novel strength and uniqueness, but also portrays the struggle for power between Clegg and Miranda. While the novel initially seems to follow an antithetical framework, Fowles’ use of two contrasting narrative voices to structure the novel renders any possible truth and certainty in the text as ambiguous, creating a complex psychological tale. The two isolated narratives presented in the text offer the reader freedom of interpretation. By giving his readers this control over the meaning of the text, Fowles conjures a power play in the author-reader relationship, reflecting that of Miranda and Clegg.
The Collector exemplifies the idea that a human being is never one-dimensional but instead subtly nuanced, and Fowles’ creation of characters that have multifaceted personalities construct a sense of realism despite the seemingly impossible story that they narrate. Both of the protagonists are imprisoned within their own subjectivity and narratives, and this serves as the greatest conflict of the plot