The quest for selfhood : the novels and short stories of John Fowles
The literary career of John Fowles has coincided with a period of lively aesthetic debate about the condition of the novel. His work reflects same of the anxieties that have disturbed a serious contemporary writer who cannot ignore demands for new form but remains nostalgic about the humanist values of traditional realism. The occasional tension created by an attempt to negotiate a middle-ground is responsible for the special difficulties of The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman, fictions whose moral movement is compromised by textual ironies that tease, deceive and frustrate the reader's expectations. Yet the true significance of his art has less to do with its capacity for experiment than might be thought. Although his fiction exploits the formal mannerisms associated with postmodernism, its innovative quality is ultimately less rewarding than the ritual drama of the human situation that his world seeks to promote. Nevertheless, his defence of a threatened liberal ideal is rigorously tested, and the paradoxes of his fictional strategies raise interesting critical problems. The opening chapter discusses the intellectual setting by attending to the impact of French culture. The implications of nouveau roman theory and structuralist poetics are noted, though priority is given to the influence of existentialist concepts of freedom and authenticity, which provide the philosophical climate of all Fowles' work, and of archetypal patterns found in Celtic romance, which describe its emotional experience. Subsequent chapters examine the narrative presentation of Fowles' characteristic education fable, with particular regard to its erotic and spatial symbolism. The moral dimension of his existentialist vision is stressed, especially where this receives its most generous expression in Daniel Martin, whose method suggests a recovery of confidence in the powers of traditional realism, and whose resolution represents the mature culmination to date of Fowles' exploration of the nature of selfhood.