Friday, December 10, 2010

The Collector, by John Fowles

The Collector is a fascinating novel that approaches an age-old horror premise with a unique perspective. F. Clegg is a butterfly collector who, by result of a lottery, suddenly finds himself with more money than he knows what to do with. He's been watching this girl named Miranda, an art student, who fascinates him, but he's socially inept, and has little to offer such a smart and sophisticated girl. Little by little, he talks himself - almost inadvertently - into kidnapping Miranda and locking her up in the cellar of his newly bought home. The majority of the novel details the girl's involuntary stay, from both the perspective of the keeper, as well as the collected.

But what makes this story shine is the characterization of Clegg and Miranda - their opposing personalities, and what is revealed by the way that they each handle the ordeal. Clegg is relatively uneducated. He's smart, but not particularly intelligent. His lottery winnings can't disguise his lower class origin; and though he tries hard to be prim and proper, it comes off as being a stale act, a lifeless mask of sophistication. Miranda, on the other hand, is intelligent and wise beyond her years. She comes from a more affluent background, but is conscious not to take that for granted. She is an artist, a creator, with a passion for life and vitality and the experience of living. She is a beautiful trophy to Clegg, but he is a stuffy dimwit by her standards - a collector, one who would snuff the life out of a beautiful specimen for the dull reward of owning it.

Through Miranda's diary we learn much of her humanity, and her education as an artist - mostly through her deep friendship with an older man who taught her how to be principled but honest. How to be real, yet maintain integrity. She struggles with her captivity, and tries in many ways to come to terms with her fate. On the other side of the locked door we have Clegg, who, in lieu of engaging Miranda, can at best watch her, admire her, and inevitably fall prey to her clever insults. Clegg's social repression is so strong that he wouldn't dare dream of assaulting Miranda - he in fact endeavors to make her captivity as comfortable as possible, using his newfound riches to buy her anything she could ask for. Anything, that is, except the one thing she desires most - her freedom.

But the true horror of the story comes from the gradual realization of what the almost-sympathetic Clegg is capable of. That with seemingly pure intentions he can talk himself into doing such horrible things - like the kidnapping of Miranda - and then rationalize them afterwards. At least a sex-crazed lunatic is honest about what he wants, and knows how to get it. Clegg fumbles awkwardly forward with little idea of his ultimate goal, allowing others to suffer in the meanwhile, without any demonstration of an understanding that his prisoner is an independent agent that deserves freedom from enslavement. He thinks that by treating his prisoner well he avoids guilt for any wrongdoing. He doesn't want Miranda as a means to an end - owning her is the end in itself, like the dead butterflies in his collection.

This is a highly intelligent novel with lots to say beyond its narrow premise. It's about culture and society and class and education and art and life, above all. And it's a riveting read. I felt myself not wanting to put it down, eager to read just another day, just another day, to find out what would happen next. I give it my highest recommendation.

Here is a short excerpt from Miranda's diary, just to give you a taste of what you can expect:

"M. It's despair at the lack of...feeling, of love, of reason in the world. It's despair that anyone can even contemplate the idea of dropping a bomb or ordering that it should be dropped. It's despair that so few of us care. It's despair that there's so much brutality and callousness in the world. It's despair that perfectly normal young men can be made vicious and evil because they've won a lot of money. And then do what you've done to me.
C. I thought you'd get on to that.
M. Well, you're part of it. Everything free and decent in life is being locked away in filthy little cellars by beastly people who don't care." [140-141]

1 comment:

  1. An enjoyable read The Collector John Fowles . loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and original, this book is going in by "to read" list.

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