Home English Lang. Literature Verbal Struggle for Power in “The Collector” by John Fowles

Verbal Struggle for Power in “The Collector” by John Fowles

Verbal Struggle for Power in “The Collector” by John Fowles

John Fowles is an immensely popular and one of the most significant of living English writers. His strong power of imagination and an extraordinary gift of writing make him a novelist worth admiration. He was capable of writing a novel in 18 days and the drafts for The Collector and The Ebony Tower took him less than one month each.

[ – first published in 2005 – ]

His writing includes a number of genres: historical fiction, a detective story, a thriller, mystery and romance. However, he tends to concentrate on certain themes, which become his obsessions, especially imprisonment and liberation and seduction and betrayal. His work remains distinguished by its attention to such ideas as existentialism, the conflict between the sexes and the relationship of man to nature. He also strongly believes in the autonomy of the individual, especially the creative artist.

John Fowles was born in 1926 in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex. He recalls the English suburban culture of the 1930s as oppressively conformist and his family as conventional. He says of his childhood ‘I have tried to escape ever since’. He also wrote, ‘The rows of respectable little houses inhabited by respectable little people had an early depressive effect on me and I believe that they caused my intense and continuing dislike of mankind en masse’[1]. Therefore he is widely criticized for his attitude towards his family, as they tried hard to create him good conditions for a happy childhood. And he seemed to be a happy child as at the time he fitted comfortably into the system and rose to become Head Boy. When he was charged with this task, he allowed himself to exercise tyranny over the younger boys. He said, ‘Being Head Boy was a weird experience. You had total power over 800 other boys; you were totally responsible for discipline and punishment. I suppose I used to beat on average three or four boys a day. Very evil, I think. Terrible system.’[2] After a brief period in the Royal Marines, Fowles studied Modern Languages at New College. He later lectured at the University of Poitiers in France and then moved to the Greek Island of Spetsai to teach English. There he met Elizabeth Whitton, who proved to be a strong, sensitive critic of his fiction and the inspiration for nearly all his heroines. Between 1952 and 1960 he wrote several novels. However, it was only in 1962 that he submitted his first novel, The Collector, to the publisher. It appeared in spring 1963 and was an immediate best-seller. As a result, he could devote all his time to writing and give up his teaching posts.

The inspiration to write The Collector came from the boyish fantasy of Fowles, who frequently imagined the imprisoning of a woman and exerting power over her. He also saw a performance of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle about a man imprisoning women underground.

The Collector is a story of Frederick Clegg, a self-pitying, mean-minded council worker, who has sentimental and sadistic daydreams about Miranda Grey -a beautiful and talented art student. His dreams come true when he wins a fortune on the football pools and proceeds to kidnap the object of his desire. Miranda, who does not want to be ‘collected’ by Clegg, like his butterflies which he keeps impaled on the point of a pin in his drawer, struggles to escape. She wants to do it by all means, no matter what the consequences might be. She is a determined and well-educated person, who can utter all her feelings and thoughts. For Clegg it is much more difficult to express his will and demands through speech at the same time being firm and not rude for Miranda. Throughout the entire book this verbal struggle for power is very much visible. And although Miranda seems to be doing better than Clegg, it is him who has the complete control over her and the whole situation. He also tries to gain control over Miranda, however his lack of proper education stands on his way and is his biggest obstacle. The whole book is filled with struggle and imprisonment; however, this work will tackle only one aspect of it, mainly verbal.

The book is divided into two parts: Clegg’s story and Miranda’s diary. Each of them shows a different attitude towards the same situation. On a verbal level it is also a very different experience when we get to know Miranda through Clegg’s words, and then her describing herself. Alan Pryce Jones in his article ‘Obsession’s Prisoners’[3] writes that for entire success the novel should have been shortened to the length of a nouvelle and confined to Fred’s point of view. He also notices that as it is more than half its length is given over to Miranda’s diary and in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the whole the second voice is an intrusion. Furthermore, by the time we reach the diary we already know most of the facts. We also know Miranda, so he claims that we do not need to re-experience her martyrdom in her own words. Nevertheless, both parts differ so much that it would be hard to properly assess the whole situation without Miranda’s part. For Clegg, with his constant use of euphemisms, continually presents Miranda as an almost unearthly creature, beautiful, intelligent and fragile. Whereas, only after reading Miranda’s part can we really get to know her, her moods, passions and feelings. Therefore, this work will describe both parts and both characters so as to give the full image of their ‘fight’.

Clegg belongs to so called ‘New People’, the ones that H. Fawkner describes: ‘drab, petit bourgeois social climbers, who have become spiritually dead in a vacuum and by compensation live a life of material accumulation as nondescript economic cogs in the vast clock-work of the acquisitive society’[4]. Miranda hates those New People and throughout the book she states that she is one of the Few that have to face the Many and fight with them in order to help some values prevail and not be destroyed by the ‘calibanism’, as she calls it. Peter Conradi[5] says that she preserves civilized values against what she snobbishly calls ‘the new class people with their cars and their money and their stupid vulgarities and their stupid crawling imitation of the bourgeoise’- a view that Fowles endorses, with the qualification that ‘The dividing line between the Few and the Many must run through each individual, not between individuals’.However, she knows there is something that differs Clegg from them. She says: ‘Of course, Caliban is not typical of the New People. He’s hopelessly out of date (he will call the record-player the gramophone). And there is his lack of confidence’. And later she adds: ‘The only unusual thing about him – how he loves me. Ordinary New People couldn’t love anything as he loves me. That is blindly. Absolutely. Like Dante and Beatrice.’[6]

When Clegg first sees Miranda, he behaves like a knight towards his lady; he treats her like a goddess:

‘Only once, before she came to be my guest here, did I have the privilege to see her with it (her hair) loose and it took my breath away it was so beautiful, like a mermaid. …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. I used to have daydreams about her, I used to think of stories where I met her, did things she admired, married her and all that. Nothing nasty…’[7]

As I mentioned earlier, the rhetorical figure that characterizes Clegg’s language is euphemism. That is why he refers to Miranda not as his prisoner but as his guest. Peter Conradi[8] gives more examples of the use of euphemisms by Clegg. ‘Death’ is ‘The Great Beyond’, and to murder is to ‘put out’. A bikini is ‘Wotchermercallit’ (when Miranda specifies it, he says ‘I can’t allow talk like that’). ‘Nice’ is a genteelism for non-sexual, garment for clothes, sex is ‘the obvious’ or ‘the other thing’, naked is ‘stark’ and ‘artistic often means ‘pornographic’. By using such words, he tries to ‘make’ the world seem better, or at least ‘proper’. He also tries to diminish the importance of the whole situation. He treats it like an every-day event, something obvious that she is with him, in his house. He wants it to look like their marriage: a beautiful, although fickle wife served by good natured and loving husband. About his own crime he does not speak much and the words to Miranda ‘You are my guest’ are repeated several times in the book, perhaps to create in her the feeling of being grateful for such hospitability. In that way, he tries to make Miranda feel in his prison like at home and by his being polite, he tries to make her feel guilty of such bad behaviour on her part. She says: ‘When I’m being beastly to him, he has such a way of looking sorry for himself that I begin to hate myself. But as soon as I begin to be nice to him, a sort of self-satisfaction seems to creep into his voice and his manner and I begin to want to goad and slap him again’[9]. He is driving Miranda crazy by his humble way of speaking, because, in fact, he is the oppressor and most of the times he behaves like a victim of his own passions and needs. Miranda feels sorry for him, but at the same time, she has the feeling that she should not, as he tries to reverse the relation victim – criminal. Clegg very smoothly tries to place the guilt on Miranda, and there are even moments when the readers sympathize with him, not Miranda. He behaves like a real gentleman, while Miranda very often breaks down and does or says things she probably wouldn’t have done or said in ‘normal’ circumstances. Clegg usually can’t understand her moods and that is when readers begin to feel sorry for him:

She was just like a woman. Unpredictable. Smiling one minute and spiteful the next. She said ‘You’re loathsome and you make me loathsome’. Than she said something I’ve never heard a woman say before. It really shocked me. I said, I don’t like words like that. It’s disgusting. Then she said it again, really screamed it at me. I couldn’t follow all her moods sometimes.’[10]

She also criticizes him and his language, in this way manifesting her superiority. She says, ‘You know what you do? You know how rain takes the colour out of everything? That’s what you do to the English language. You blur it every time you open your mouth’[11].

Miranda hates not only his language, but his manner and his lack of self-confidence. By her use of words, she can easily manipulate him and although it is her who is imprisoned physically, Clegg is the one who stays in his own mental prison. His lack of education, lack of ability to utter his desires and needs make him feel like in a trap. That is why he feels confused and silly while talking to Miranda.

Miranda uses her ideas and thoughts so skillfully, at the same time being able to say them in a beautiful, fluent language, that she completely controls any conversation held with Clegg. During their first meeting, when she learns his name – Ferdinand, she thinks about the two lovers – Ferdinand and Miranda from ‘The Tempest’ and she immediately corrects him by saying that the best name for him would be Caliban. However, according to Andrew Branny[12] this name is not good either. He claims that Caliban is a child of nature who does not want to and cannot rule his emotions and instincts. Clegg has got the mentality of a puritan: there is nothing natural in him. In his feeling for Miranda there is the passion of possessing, just like in the case of his butterflies. There is also idealization of his object of desire. Although he terrorizes her, he paradoxically loves her, like knights loved their ladies. Clegg is prepared to serve her till she agrees to become his wife. Whereas Miranda thinks that she has to do with a sensual Caliban and that loses her.

Because at first Clegg treats Miranda like a princess, she also tends to avoid verbal ‘impropriety’. Peter Conradi[13] notices that she speaks of ‘things from the chemist’s’, ‘time of the month’, ‘down the place’ for lavatory, she even shares Clegg’s ‘the other thing’ for sex. She tries to behave like a lady in order to gain Clegg’s trust and favour, and run away as soon as it is possible. When it does not work, Miranda offers herself sexually both to humanize and redeem  him and to secure her own release. Unfortunately, Clegg always divides women into princesse lointaine and ‘the other sort’, which means seductress and whore. After this event of giving herself to Glegg, Miranda descends in his eyes and becomes not worth his respect. He says, ‘She was like all women, she had a one-track mind. I never respected her again. Because I could do it’[14]. The way Clegg talks to her and treats her from that moment change. He is harsher in his words. He is not afraid that he might insult her by what he says or does. Miranda stays the same. She tries to control the situation: She says at one point[15],

M. Let me have some fresh air and daylight.
C. I’ll think about it.
M. No. Now.
C. You’re forgetting who’s the boss.
M. Now.
C. I can’t say now. It needs thinking.

She can feel that she has no longer the power she had before. Now Clegg is more self-confident, he can say ‘no’ to Miranda, which he almost could not do earlier. He obeyed all her orders except for the one: letting her out. Miranda also can feel it and is much worried by this fact. She lost his trust and now he seems to be taking over. When he gets mad at her, he once says, ‘You are no better than a common street woman. I used to respect you because I thought you were above what you done. Not like the rest. But you’re just the same. You do any disgusting thing to get what you want’. And then he thought: ‘I felt happy, I can’t explain, I saw I was weak before, now I was paying her back for all the things she said and thought about me’[16]. Clegg is not the same person any more. He wants Miranda to obey his orders and when she refuses, he does to her what he wants; mainly he takes photographs of her naked, while she is very ill. Peter Conradi[17] claims that his photographic violation of her integrity at the book’s core is simply ‘what they call a culmination of circumstances’ – after which perverse intimacy he cannot write a note to her beginning ‘Dear Miranda’ because it would be ‘too familiar’. When she is dead he distances his guilt further by referring to her through the unctuous formality of ‘The Deceased’.

            However, it is not only Clegg that changes. Miranda, on the surface stays the same, but inside she feels that she acts as Clegg wants. She plays his own game and that is the thing that worries her. Miranda knows very well that although she has intellectual power over him, it is him who is the aggressor and she has no physical power to release herself. She tells the readers about it in her diary, ‘I hate the way I have changed. I accept too much. To begin with I thought I must force myself to be matter-of-fact, not let his abnormality take control of the situation. But he might have planned it. He’s getting me to behave exactly as he wants’.[18]

            This change of their characters and the attitudes towards each other came, unluckily for Miranda, just during her getting ill. It all starts because of the contact she initiates with Clegg and from which she probably catches the cold, that developing into untreated pneumonia kills her. Clegg is not able to call the doctor, because he is afraid of the possible consequences. He wants Miranda to get better, at times he leaves the room, because he cannot stand her suffering, but he is too passive to do anything else than to give her an aspirin.

            John Butler[19] describes ‘The Collector’s’ theme as the relationship between inarticulate power and articulate intelligence, between body and mind, between imprisonment and freedom, between Caliban and Ariel, and more literally, between Ferdinand and Miranda. He adds that Clegg/ Caliban is imprisoned in inarticulacy and the commonplace; in revenge he imprisons Miranda in a converted cellar. The twist is that Clegg is unable successfully to fulfil his role: where Shakespeare’s Caliban has at least a healthy lust, Clegg is effectively impotent. Only when Miranda discovers it, does Clegg completely change his attitude towards her and his own life. After Miranda’s death, he looks for a new victim. At the end of the book the only thing he learns is that Miranda was not of the same class as he was and in order to make his plan more feasible, he decides that another girl should be not so intellectual.  Then, he meets a girl, Marian, and he says, ‘I have not made up my mind about Marian (another M!), this time it won’t be love, it would just be for the interest of the thing and to compare them and also the other thing, which as I say I would like to go into in more detail and I could teach her how. And the clothes would fit. Of course I would make it clear from the start who’s boss and what I expect. But it is still just an idea’.[20]

            Judging by the ending of the book, it is certain that Miranda’s power was only superficial and the responsible for all the events was Clegg. Words and mind are of no use here, as Miranda dies saying ‘I forgive you’. Nevertheless, Caliban does not understand that he sentenced an innocent person to death; he tries by all means to defend himself, claiming that it is all Miranda’s fault. The book has got two endings. One of them is Clegg’s fantasy: ‘She was waiting for me down there. I would say we were in love, in the letter to the police. A suicide pact. It would be ‘The End’’  The second ending is the actual one and proves that the protagonist has, as Miranda stated many times, no humane feelings. And she, although being intellectually superior, loses ‘the battle’ for her own life and values, both, physically and, as it seems at the end, verbally- as her language and mind die together with her.


[1] J.Wakerman, World Authors 1950-1970 (New York, 1975), p.485.

[2] Richard Boston, ‘John Fowles, Alone but Not Lonely’, New York Limes Book Review, 9 November1969, 52-3.

[3] Alan Pryce Johnes ‘Obsession’s Prisoners’,  http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/05/31/specials/fowles-collector.html

[4] H.W.Fawkner, The Timescapes of John Fowles, London: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1984: 73.

[5] Peter Conradi, Jon Fowles, Great Britain, Richard Clay, 1982.38.

[6] Jon Fowles, The Collector, http://www.fictionbook.ru/author/fowles_john/the_collector/fowles_the_collector.html

[7] Jon Fowles, The Collector, http://www.fictionbook.ru/author/fowles_john/the_collector/fowles_the_collector.html

[8] Peter Conradi, Jon Fowles, Great Britain, Richard Clay, 1982.36.

[9] Jon Fowles, The Collector, http://www.fictionbook.ru/author/fowles_john/the_collector/fowles_the_collector.html,p.39.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Andrew Branny, ‘John Fowles’, Kraków : Universitas, 1997:21.

[13] Peter Conradi, Jon Fowles, Great Britain, Richard Clay, 1982.38.

[14] Jon Fowles, The Collector, http://www.fictionbook.ru/author/fowles_john/the_collector/fowles_the_collector.html

[15] Ibid.p.41

[16] Ibid.p.41

[17] Peter Conradi, Jon Fowles, Great Britain, Richard Clay, 1982.36.

[18] Jon Fowles, The Collector, http://www.fictionbook.ru/author/fowles_john/the_collector/fowles_the_collector.html, p.47.

[19] Lance ST Jon Butle, ‘John Fowles and the Fiction of Freedom’, The British and Irish Novel Since 1960, London: Macmillan Academic and Professional LTD, 1991:70.

[20] Jon Fowles, The Collector, http://www.fictionbook.ru/author/fowles_john/the_collector/fowles_the_collector.html, p.98.


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