I have always believed that true horror is at its best when it involves ordinary people in realistic situations. For example, I think Misery as one of the best of Stephen King’s “horror” novels. While The Collector by John Fowles is not considered a work of horror fiction, it is an extremely frightening work that is one of the best first novels by a writer I’ve ever encountered. Considered a classic, I selected this from my 1001 books list. Although the plot has been recycled countless times (in novels such as the one listed above, television, and movies), I found this to be a compelling read due to the strong writing and the interesting philosophical questions it raises. Make no mistake, this is not a “feel good” book. I was left feeling quite emotionally drained long after finishing it. Through my review, I will explore the philosophical themes but first let’s talk about the plot and characters.
Frederick Clegg is a loner devoid of any real friends or any passion in life. The one hobby that provides him with any joy is his collection of butterflies. Clegg becomes obsessed with Miranda Grey, a beautiful and intelligent art student. Admiring her from afar for many years, Clegg makes the decision one day to kidnap Miranda in order to “add” her to his collection with the hope that she will fall in love with him. Fortunately, circumstances work out that allow his dream to become a reality. After winning a huge sum of money, Clegg purchases a remote house that he modifies in order to contain the ultimate prize of his collection. He is successful in his plan and locks Miranda down in the cellar of the house where he will provide for her every need. She can have anything she wants, no request is too large. The only luxury Miranda is not allowed is her freedom.
Fowles constructs an interesting narrative that is divided into three sections. While Clegg serves as narrator for the first and third acts, the middle section is told by Miranda in the form of a secret diary she keeps hidden from her captor. There is a very claustrophobic feel to this work that grows in intensity as Miranda’s situation becomes more and more desperate. I’ve always said that it takes a talented writer to make your primary narrator someone sadistic like Clegg. What makes this character so interesting is his very clinical view of the situation and the justification of his actions. He believes his feelings are genuine, and Miranda is someone who must be worshiped and protected like a rare exotic butterfly. Unlike other stories of captivity, he never abuses either physically or sexually his captive. In fact, he is a very asexual being who is detested by the idea of physical intimacy.
Through their conversations and Miranda’s diary, we learn that she is not just some innocent person. In many ways, she is quite unlikeable often criticizing Clegg for his lower class and lack of passion towards intellectual pursuits. I think this quote best sums up her perspective:
“I hate the uneducated and the ignorant. I hate the pompous and the phoney. I hate the jealous and the resentful. I hate the crabbed and mean and the petty. I hate all ordinary dull little people who aren’t ashamed of being dull and little.”
At times Miranda becomes more frustrated, not just because of her imprisonment, but also for the lack of intellectual fire that her captor has. She comments at one point that he is more of a prisoner than she is because he is part of the mindless herd that doesn’t strive to be something more. There are several references to Shakespeare’s The Tempest in this novel. While Clegg considers himself to be Miranda’s “Ferdinand” the hero, she views him as a “Caliban” instead.
Our sympathies tend to shift at times between the two protagonists. As Clegg opens up more about his past, he becomes more vulnerable and we sympathize towards him. Through her diary, we learn that Miranda was in love with an intellectual who she only refers to by his initials G.P. Despite being twice her age and extremely arrogant, Miranda held a deep fascination for him. G.P. is the opposite of Clegg, which seems to fuel Miranda’s disgust of her captor even further. Despite considering herself to be anti-establishment and someone that is for the people, she does hold herself up to be someone better than Clegg. If the kidnapping had never occurred, she would never have given the time of day. I won’t spoil the ending to the novel, but I did feel like crying.
Once again, the 1001 books list has led me to an author I would not have found on my own. Describing this work as a “parable,” Fowles explains that the purpose of this book is is not just to create a psychological thriller but to also explore the problem of class separation. I look forward to reading more from this author to gain a better understanding of his philosophies.
“We all want things we can’t have. Being a decent human being is accepting that.”
Please share your thoughts on this book or this review. Comments are always welcome.