Volume Five, December 2004

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The stories within stories of The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman bespoke Fowles’s promise as a short story writer. They already demonstrated his capacity for rapid portraiture, immediate evocation of mood and atmosphere, and brief but striking narrative effects. John Fowles turned out the first drafts of all short stories of The Ebony Tower in just a few days.1
In “A Personal Note,” the author explains that the working title he used for this collection of stories was: “Variations, by which I meant to suggest variations both on certain themes in previous books of mine and on methods of narrative presentation....”2 These comments emphasise certain important aspects of the volume. They suggest, firstly, that Fowles sees The Ebony Tower as integral to his œuvre and not as the aberrant and rather peculiar experiment with the short story form, which some critics have taken it to be.3 Fowles himself ironically signals this fact in self-referential detail in the title story: Anne, “the Freak,” is reading The Magus, which David Williams dismisses as about “astrology” and “all that nonsense” (61). The informed reader is implicitly invited to associate the story, and even the volume that contains it, with Fowles’s second novel. The Ebony Tower is thus consciously placed in line with major work of the author’s corpus.
Fowles’s observations in his “Personal Note” can be used effectively as a model for discussing the element of “variation” between these stories and his previous novels.
These variations are best depicted through the structural motifs that recur throughout the collection. The motifs include the situation of one man torn between two women and the clash between existential choice and loyalty to conventions and static principles. Another important motif involves the disappearance of characters or texts as a means of allowing freedom to others, and probably the most important motif is the failure of communication among characters as a sign of misunderstanding among human beings.4 A motif that unites all the stories of The Ebony Tower but also this volume of short stories with other works by Fowles is the setting, which recalls the lost domain, the forest motif that we witnessed in The Magus.
Since all five stories in The Ebony Tower share thematic and structural variations, I shall analyse them thematically, mainly to avoid repetition and the constant shifts from one theme to the other in every story.
The desire to retreat from commitment – commitment to authenticity, to other people, or to life itself – plagues most of the protagonists in The Ebony Tower. Carol Barnum observes that, in contrast to the majority of protagonists in Fowles’s novels, the protagonists of these stories, each in his own way, she observes, gives in to despair, a condition underscored by numerous allusions to Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land.”5 The lack of commitment characterising the inhabitants of the wasteland is a symptom, Eliot suggested, of a deeper deprivation: the absence of belief, purpose, community and communication.
The writing of woman as a mystery and as an object of quest is best illustrated through Catherine in “The Cloud.” The main narrative of this story involves a group of characters who spend a day beside a river in a forest (another Celtic and romantic setting) in “Central France and late May” (222-223). They are two families: Paul (a writer), his wife Annabel, their two children Candida and Emma, and Catherine, Annabel’s sister. The other family consists of Peter (a television producer), his girlfriend Sally, and his son Tom. Catherine becomes very quickly the centre of attraction for all the characters. She is an intellectual woman, an artist, and a writer who is editing a translation of Barthes’s Mythologies. She is in mourning for her late husband who died mysteriously.
Catherine’s insoluble mystery is epitomized in her silent and eternal waiting at the end of the story. Her ambiguous waiting resembles that of the princess in the parable who awaits the return of the prince. Indeed Catherine’s constant silence could be attributed to the death of her husband; it is only the princess’s story she is interested in and wants to tell to the other characters. Her deep depression is aggravated by the fact that no one desires to listen to her except little Emma. She links the romantic story of the princess to her own situation with her late husband (the prince) for whom she is waiting in silence. This image of silent waiting can be compared to Sarah’s constant waiting in her own forest near the sea in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, as she waits for her Lieutenant to come back and rescue her. The story shares an Edenic setting and a variation of the absconding god/satan with the other stories in the collection. It is set in a timeless forest setting in France, and references to snakes, lizards, and serpents abound.
The question of disappearance is a central motif in the stories of The Ebony Tower. The godlike figure (author or character) disappears in order to allow freedom to others and to create balance among other characters. For example, Breasley disappears towards the end of the story to allow David the possibility of choice; the burglar in “Poor Koko” absconds in order to allow the narrator to write about him; and both Catherine and Fielding disappear in order to allow freedom to other characters. Fowles in fact emphasises the importance of disappearance of such godlike figures in his personal text, The Aristos: “If there had been a creator, his second act would have been to disappear.”6
The disappearance of character is then considered as the exercise of an existential choice to free oneself from all forms of domination.
“The Ebony Tower” reflects the themes of The Magus. In an interview Fowles confirms this close reference: “In a way I wanted to demystify The Magus which I think was altogether too full of mystery. This is a kind of realistic version of The Magus.”7 This suggests that “The Ebony Tower” is less mysterious and that is probably the case. But whether or not it is a realistic text is doubtful since it is a fantasy of the same type as The Magus. In this story, the protagonist, David Williams, fantasises a journey of self-discovery through a magic land and its female inhabitants. He faces a similar dilemma to that of Nicholas Urfe. David has to choose between his dream world with Diana and his wife, who is the representative of the real world. Indeed this question of reality in Fowles’s fiction is always problematical since this reality itself is fictional and illusory. This conflict between reality and illusion is a major motif that recurs in all Fowles’s fiction, and as I shall argue later, it becomes the subject of “The Enigma.”
A further similarity between “The Ebony Tower” and The Magus is in fact concretized by Breasley, the magus figure, who echoes Conchis himself. Breasley is an artist of high reputation; like Conchis, he helps David to achieve self-realisation after visiting Coetminais, which is a striking parallel to Nicholas’s journey through Conchis’s domain. David’s brief encounter with Diana and Anne reflects that large-scale encounter of Nicholas with Julie and June. Julie’s challenge to Nicholas’s power foreshadows Diana’s own challenge to David’s abortive attempts to manipulate her sexually.
Henry Breasley and David Williams are both artistic types and realistically drawn individuals. The contrast of the two men contributes to the theme, already well established in The Collector and further developed in The Magus. In every way Breasley is a contrast to Williams: the contrast becomes a conflict between reality and abstraction. Reality and Breasley stand for life, passion, and mystery; abstraction and Williams stand for convention, security, and death. Breasley tells Williams: “Don’t hate, can’t love. Can’t love, can’t paint” (40). Diana translates for him: “Making is speaking... Art as a form of speech. Speech must be based on human need, not abstract theories of grammar” (40). The challenge has been made to David: throw off your conventions, your abstractions, and embrace reality and all its mystery. Conchis offers Nicholas the same challenge in The Magus when he forces Nicholas to see life as reality and to stop viewing it as art, as if he were a character in a novel. Conchis finally teaches Nicholas that man “needs the existence of mysteries. Not their solutions” (223). David never fully grasps this truth, although he is plunged into self-knowledge.
Breasley is a god figure (like Conchis in The Magus, which Fowles wanted to title The Godgame), standing for a counterpole of existence for David to compare himself with. David at the end of the novella feels like “the laboratory monkey allowed a glimpse of his true lost self ... . Underlying all this there stood the knowledge that he would not change” (96). David remains Adam; he falls only briefly: “a moment’s illusion; her reality just one more unpursued idea kept among old sketchbooks at the back of a studio cupboard” (98).
David is married to a loving and faithful wife. He is torn between his duty to her and his desire for the other. The scene is an already familiar one in Fowles’s oeuvre, erotic but unconsummated. Diana ultimately rejects him, though her motive is less than crystal clear. Perhaps it is David’s hesitation, perhaps her realisation that the relationship would never grow into anything more, or perhaps – as Lorna Sage suggests – it is a matter of their “wanting each other in successive moments, coming achingly close, but never coinciding.”8 The scene provides the climax, or anti-climax, of the novella, following which is a weighty scene of recognition and self-analysis. Emerging quite clearly is David’s sense of loss and failure: “He had failed both in the contemporary and the medieval sense; as someone who wanted sex, as someone who renounced it” (93). The dynamic power of Breasley finally and fully impresses itself upon him. At first the old artist is merely an object of curiosity, a subject for an essay. The weekend encounter, however, proves traumatic for the young man. His life and his art have been harshly tested. Both unfortunately attest to the “jettisoning of the human body and its natural physical perceptions” (96). This is the principal message of the story. Driving away from the enchanted forest, toward the plane that will take him back to his wife and family, David ultimately realises that nothing will change him or his painting: “... he would go on painting as before, he would forget this day, he would find reasons to interpret everything differently ... He was crippled by common sense, he had no ultimate belief in chance and its exploitation, the missed opportunity would become the finally sensible decision, the decent thing: the flame of deep fire that had singed him a dream, a moment’s illusion; her reality just one more unpursued idea” (97-98).
Unlike The Ebony Tower, The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman end with their protagonists’ awareness of expanded horizons and new directions because they stress the translation of important perceptions into freely chosen acts. The point here seems to be that without action, the insights are lost and the transformation of personality not possible.
As “The Ebony Tower” recalls The Magus, so “Poor Koko” takes us back to The Collector. The story is told in retrospect by the elderly victim of a burglary. This narrator is staying in an isolated cottage belonging to friends and working on a book about nineteenth-century novelist Thomas Love Peacock. When he hears a burglar downstairs, he remains quiet, but the burglar discovers him in bed. As the burglar continues to work, he treats his victim kindly and engages him in conversation about crime, society, even Joseph Conrad. Before the burglar leaves, without explanation, he ties up the narrator and burns his notes and manuscript while the writer watches. Then he gives a thumbs-up gesture as he leaves. The last ten pages of the forty-page story is the narrator’s attempt to understand why the burglar destroyed his book. The narrator rejects his friends’ belief that the burglar was a Marxist, like their son, who saw the old man as a parasite on an outmoded, bourgeois novelist-host. He also rejects the explanation that the burglar was schizophrenic. He constructs a theory based partly on the cocked-thumb gesture, that the burglar may have felt that they were in a contest with each other – and that he was the underdog. The burglar burned the book, in part, because he resented and was even afraid of the seemingly magical power of its writer, someone far abler than he to use the language.
The story is a variation on The Collector, with an artist imprisoned by a criminal. Like Clegg, the burglar is aware of the insurmountability of the gap between the many and the few, but he seems to understand much better than Clegg does the nature of the gap. The burglar’s situation is not just the result of a “wrong” class accent, the narrator concludes, but of an inability to wield language in ways that could empower him. Understanding his situation makes him resentful. He concedes that he was not entirely blameless for what took place but deep down his outlook has not changed. He has not learnt that “a life devoted to biography is a wasted life.”9 He has finished rewriting his book on Peacock and refuses to see the real meaning of his ordeal.
The settings and situations of the two works are similar. Both depict an episode in the class conflict and both give the victory to the philistine. Miranda Grey in The Collector and the anonymous author in “Poor Koko” are too weak to fight their antagonists effectively. Their hatred of violence, even when necessary for self-defence, proves totally enfeebling in the circumstances in which they find themselves.
The next story of the collection, “The Enigma” begins with the mysterious disappearance of John Marcus Fielding, a prominent English businessman, a family man of strict character and habits, and a member of Parliament. He was last seen entering the British Museum, but Scotland Yard can find no further evidence of his whereabouts. When solving the case is beginning to seem hopeless, a young detective named Michael Jennings is assigned to it because his public school accent will better enable him to deal with the upper-class family and friends of Fielding. His interviews turn up little new but solidify the impression that Fielding was a responsible, upstanding person.
The last part of the story is Jenning’s interview with the former girlfriend of Fielding’s son, Isobel Dodgson, a graduate student in English. They have a long talk in Hampstead Heath, and she decides to reveal that she told Fielding on the night before he disappeared that she would be working in the British Museum the next day. He might have drowned himself in the pond near his house, in the woods he knew well, and might have passed through the British Museum just to signal her that he knew that she knew that there was more to him than others had discerned. When Jennings offers this explanation to Scotland Yard, no one is interested in such a psychological theory, without evidence.
The story ends with a dinner date and lovemaking between Michael and Isobel, which the narrator observes was caused by an enigma that had walked out.
The idea of walking out has been mentioned earlier in the story, as “God’s trick,” which Fielding has imitated by writing himself as an open-ended mystery story. Isobel explains that if he is found, he will cease to “write” who he is and start to “be written” by others, be labelled as a victim of a “nervous breakdown. A nut case. Whatever” (214). What Isobel calls “God’s trick” (214) is reminiscent of the final move in the godgame of The Magus. Also not dissimilar to the image of God in The Aristos and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, he is compared to “the God who went missing,” who walked out on his creation. Fielding will gain a sort of immortality by never being discovered: “The one thing people never forget is the unsolved. Nothing lasts like a mystery” (213).
When Sergeant Jennings meets Miss Dodgsons, the focus of “The Enigma” begins to shift from the problem of Fielding’s disappearance to the mystery of love. Abandoning search for the solution to an abstract problem, Jennings recognises the priority of the enticing mystery before him: “The act [Fielding’s disappearance] was done; taking it to bits, discovering how it had been done in detail, was not the point. The point was a living face with brown eyes, half challenging and half teasing; not committing a crime against that” (209). Part of Isobel’s attraction for Jennings is her inscrutable air of independence. Her effect on him in some ways resembles Sarah’s on Charles Smithson: “Something about [Isobel possessed something that he lacked: a potential that lay like unsown ground, waiting for just this unlikely corn-goddess; a direction he could follow... An honesty” (208). The power Jennings perceives in Isobel is associated with the source of growth, fertility, or fruition in nature. A “corn-goddess” whose vital power promises to nurture new life in him, Isobel recalls Lily de Seitas, who appears before Nicholas, the seeker in The Magus, “like Demeter, Ceres, a goddess” on her “corn-gold” throne.
Isobel is one more lovely variation on the intelligent, sensitive, and independent female who plays so active and essential a role in the dramatis personae of the Fowles canon.
Hampstead Heath is to London what the Undercliff is to Lyme Regis, and Isobel’s revelations during her meeting there with Jennings parallel an idea that is implicit in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, that the “real” Sarah lies somewhere behind the labels that people or the doctors assign to her; like Fielding. Sarah must remain difficult to label – enigmatic – if she is to be herself. Fielding’s scrapbook about his life reminds Isobel of the way actors behave, and she guesses that he may have finally overcome the sense that he was on stage, playing some role expected by others instead of writing his own script – the same breakthrough Nicholas experiences at the end of The Magus when he realises that no one is watching him any more.
The final message of the story is that the search for the absconding god is irrelevant besides being impossible. Reality, the human relationship, is what is important. Fowles ends the story with a poetic flourish in stark contrast to the way he began: “The tender pragmatisms of flesh have poetries no enigma, human or divine, can diminish or demean – indeed, it can only cause them, and then walk out” (218).
The final piece, “The Cloud” ends the way “The Enigma” begins, with a disappearance and possible suicide, this time that of the inscrutable Catherine. The events take place in central France, where a group of English acquaintances are relaxing, on vacation. Paul Rogers is an English writer, a Francophile-Anglophobe. His wife, Annabel, is a placid, nurturing mother to their daughters, Candida and Emma. Annabel’s sister Catherine has recently lost her husband to suicide and is subject to bouts of depression. A divorced television producer named Peter has with him his son, Paul, and a girlfriend named Sally. As they converse, their personalities are revealed. The men consider Sally sexy, whereas the sisters consider her vapid. Rogers is a would-be intellectual who likes to explain everything, and he delivers a lecture on why he likes the French better than the English. Catherine is taciturn but is drawn into a discussion in which she tells the others about Roland Barthes. Peter, who is always looking for marketable idea, asks her to give him a script. The children play and argue. Catherine takes Emma to a secluded spot and makes up a story for her about a princess who falls asleep in the woods and then is awakened by a prince and helped by a magician-owl. The prince’s parents, however, reject her as a bride. Catherine refuses to end the story, leaving the princess waiting in the woods for her prince to return.
The last part of the story takes place in the afternoon. As Paul reads “The Scholar Gipsy” to Annabel, Peter goes climbing among the rocks. He finds Catherine; she does not resist his sexual advances. Peter returns to the others and lies about having seen her; one of his remarks suggests that she may be dead. As they prepare to leave, to avoid a thunderstorm that suddenly and mysteriously has started to build up, Catherine does not respond to their calls. They leave, and the story concludes: “The princess calls, but there is no one, now, to hear her” (274). Catherine is unaffected by the clichés that help ordinary, that is, less sensitive and more compromising, people to maintain their emotional balance and their ability to carry on. She is a lost ‘island’ in a ‘limitless sea.’
There is a complex life of feeling beneath the surface of this picture, always pulsing, occasionally correlated with a gesture or a word, but difficult to articulate with precision. This is the soul of the piece, evoked by words that hint at states of being for which words are ultimately inadequate. The basic clash in “The Cloud” is between the rippling surface illusions and the dark and deep undercurrent of emotional realities. If, as Fowles has reiterated in The Aristos and elsewhere, existence is the tension of the opposites, then this short, delicately fashioned piece, with its uncharacteristic absence of didacticism, may constitute a slice of life as he sees it.
By late afternoon the cloud has come, mysteriously, ominously from the south, making the still peaceful, sunny sky immediately overhead appear “eerie, false, sardonic, the claws of a brilliantly disguised trap” (272). As we observe the subtle interactions of the group, we come to realise that its relative calm and gaiety is as sardonic as the trap which is the sky overhead. It forms a false impression, at first unrevealing of the emotional storm beneath the surface. The gathering cloud is an epiphany in James Joyce’s sense of the immediate and potent spiritual manifestation associated with an object or an event, the significance of which the observer suddenly apprehends. In this connection, Fowles has remarked that he perceives in “The Cloud” a feeling of “The Dead”, the last story in Joyce’s early collection entitled Dubliners.10
The impromptu sex act, which has ambiguous elements of rape and seduction, is a variation on the crucial episode between Charles and Sarah at Exeter in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The discussion of Barthes, too, is an elaboration of a theory of discourse referred to in Chapters 13 and 55 of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and underlying some of Fowles’s rhetorical decisions. Paul’s diatribe against the English behaviour, which is a variation on an important theme in Daniel Martin, the novel Fowles had been working on for several years before he wrote “The Cloud.”
What separates The Ebony Tower from the majority of Fowles’s novels is that the protagonists of these stories are less and less able to take the mythic journey of self-discovery because they are trapped in a contemporary wasteland which bewilders and confounds them. The title story describes a quester who inadvertently stumbles into the realm of myth, only to find that he cannot rise to the challenge and is therefore ejected from the mythic landscape. The other three stories by Fowles all centre on enigmas (one is titled “The Enigma”) or mysteries of modern life that arise because “mystery” in the sacred sense no longer appears valid in modern man’s existence.
Although the general tone of these stories is dark, Fowles’s view of life is not one of despair as his novels The Magus, The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Daniel Martin attest, each treating protagonists who break out of wasteland existences into self-awareness and understanding because of their ability to take the mythic journey. As Robert K. Morris writes: “Fowles’s intent as a novelist, and as a writer of these fictions, is to strike the sane balance between art and life at a time when both, seem vulnerable to excess, and neither seems susceptible to control. Perhaps only when art descends from the ebony tower will it be able to light up Fowles’s cheerless “bottomless night” and once more tell us, as it has in the past, something about life.”11
Even though the collection’s original title was abandoned, Variations is nonetheless an appropriate and illuminating title in that the stories do reflect the overall pattern of Fowles’s fiction: modern man’s quest for wholeness or individuation.

1. David North, ‘Interview with Author John Fowles,’ Maclean’s 90 (14 November 1977): 6; and John F. Baker, ‘John Fowles,’ Publisher’s Weekly 206 (25 November 1974): 6.
2. John Fowles, The Ebony Tower (Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1974), 117-19. All other page references appear in the text and are to this edition.
3. Critical reaction to The Ebony Tower has itself been rather peculiar. While critics like Conradi and Huffaker devote chapters to it in their books and treat it as part of the Fowles canon, others, like Woodcock and Fawkner, mention it only in passing. See H. W. Fawkner, The Timescapes of John Fowles (Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1984).
4. Simon Loveday, The Romances of John Fowles (London: Macmillan, 1985), 87.
5. Carol Barnum, “The Quest Motif in John Fowles’ss The Ebony Tower: Theme and Variations.” Texas Studies in Literature and Languages 23 (1981): 147.
6. John Fowles, The Aristos (1964; rpt. London: Triad/ Panther, 1981), 18.
7. Robert Robinson, “Giving the Reader a Choice: A Conversation with John Fowles”, The Listener, 31 October, 1974, 584.
8. Lorna Sage, “Profile 7: John Fowles,” New Review 1 (October 1974): 37.
9. Loveday, op. cit., 100.
10. James Baker, “An Interview with John Fowles.” Michigan Quarterly Review 25, no. 4 (1986): 661-83, 671.
11. cited in Carol Barnum, op. cit., 149.


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