Book Review: The Collector

The Collector (1963) by John Fowles

“We all want things we can’t have. Being a decent human being is accepting that.”


Story

Frederick is an introspective loner who collects butterflies and is obsessed with a beautiful stranger named Miranda, an art student whom he stalks and fantasizes about. After winning a huge chunk of money he concocts a plan to kidnap and imprison her in a remote countryside house he buys, renovating its cellar with all necessary mod cons while bolting doors and barring windows to ensure that escape would be impossible, hoping that given enough time his captive will grow to love and understand him.

Miranda is an intelligent and bright young artist who must be cunning, crafty, and empathetic if she’s to have any chance of escaping her situation while staving off the horrible isolation from her friends, family, and the outside world.

Roughly half of the novel is each allotted to the perspectives of Frederick and Miranda respectively and provides an interesting dynamic as to the mindsets of captive and captor.

Aside from its disturbing scenario the novel explores themes such as the differences of class, the artist and the layman, and of course men and women, often in forms of dialogue between the two main characters and introspection from either perspective.

Review

The Collector is an unorthodox story in which one has to look past its initial shock factor of abduction and forced cooperation to get at its underlying commentary on difference. Frederick and Miranda exhibit extremely different personalities from each other and are acutely aware of this as is shown throughout the novel.

In general Frederick is an all round nihilist, not caring much about the world or of various mediums of art like Miranda. He is primarily selfish, despite the great lengths he goes to in providing for his captive, be it the necessities such as food and clothing or amenities such as art supplies, his only ambition in life is for Miranda to be his. Yet he doesn’t come off as narcissistic, he is constantly in doubt of himself and realizes he is not cultured enough to ever start up a likely relationship with Miranda under normal circumstances hence the initial plan to kidnap her. His unhealthy obsession over Miranda has made her an idol in his eyes and his fantasized idea of her is his only reason for living.

Miranda on the other hand is much more passionate about life. She cares deeply about world issues and of the deeper contexts behind works of art and often tries to instil these values onto Frederick, who is unsurprisingly unreceptive. She goes through multiple phases throughout the novel, from being determined to escape, horribly depressed, full of rage and anger, and deeply contemplative of her own life, reflecting the effect her situation has on her state of mind. Indeed there’s a point in the novel where she goes very picture-of-Dorian-Gray-esque in proclaiming she hates everything ugly and everything that cannot be considered art, ‘the ordinary man is the curse of civilisation’ and all that, a bit melodramatic but very humanizing given her imprisonment. She comes off as pretentious (that old stereotype attributed to artists) as well as mean and empathetic at times as she tries different approaches to escape, be it shaming Frederick, resorting to violence, or trying to understand him. She is very diplomatic or demanding towards the passive Frederick and cleverly opens up avenues to escape utilizing these skills.

The first half of the novel is written very simply. We get a little background on Frederick before diving into the main events that make up the story. This first half has a lot of thriller elements and has many notable events as the standoffish relationship between him and Miranda develops and she makes many attempts at escape (I won’t spoil any here). All this is told through the disturbed and apathetic mind of Frederick himself, giving the reader an avenue of intimacy in their reading experience. Fowles has wisely refrained from the graphic sad reality of sadism that would most likely occur in such a scenario (the reason for this is explored later on in the novel but is still quite a stretch from reality I would guess).

I did feel that the novel took a strange turn when switching to Miranda’s perspective. Up until that point the action and narration is provided by Frederick himself. Miranda’s perspective is told in an almost epistolary fashion as the novel resets itself to her initial kidnapping and events are retold in the form of journal/diary entries she keeps hidden from Frederick. The author must have realized that essentially rehashing the same events twice would come off as somewhat cheap and so we get enormous amounts of background and an entire recap of a relationship between Miranda and an elderly artist whom she admired before her abduction. It feels out of place in the grand scope of the novel and came off as if the author decided he was bored of the main story, went off and read the only Oscar Wilde novel, wrote his own version of it, and then mashed it into the novel for added fluff.

Cutting off a story at the precipice of its culmination is a sure-fire way to create dissatisfaction and unless its substitute leverages that dissatisfaction in order to rise to a greater height, the story as a whole will be diminished as a result. The Collector does not regain its sense of urgency or interest after the transition. It lingers too long in trying to flesh out Miranda’s character retroactively and at the same time pushing forth philosophical rants on the nature of art and ordinary people. This in and of itself isn’t a bad form of writing but looking back on the first half of the novel you can see that there is a lot of opportunity of achieving all of this wasted in favour of ‘restarting’ and piling on pseudo-objectivist dogma onto its readers.

The Collector was an enjoyable enough read, even if it missed out on a lot of opportunities in its first half and dragged on in its second. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a great novel or that it stands out from any other alleged ‘vintage-classics’ in circulation. It provides some food for thought but in a very unskilled and self-destructive way, sacrificing quality and enjoyment in a risky style that doesn’t really pay off in the end. I ultimately felt disappointed as the Author managed to create a decent scenario but decided not to do much with it.

~Giuseppe Gillespie March 2022

Verdict:

Rating: 5.5 out of 10.

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