On the surface, John Fowles’ debut novel, The Collector, seems simple, even cliché. And I’d agree it is simple – the story revolves around Ferdinand Clegg, a lonely, awkward young man who becomes obsessed with a young woman named Miranda whom he kidnaps and keeps locked in a basement in the hopes that she will eventually love him. But Ferdinand is not a typical slasher movie villain or Machievellian mastermind. Maybe he would have been if Fowles had not structured the book so we understand him completely, but that is exactly what Fowles did, and it’s the key to why this is such a terrifying novel. Miranda isn’t the only one who is trapped. Ferdinand is trapped as well, because his fears and anxieties and insecurities have made him simultaneously pathetic and sinister. No matter what Miranda says or does, we know that nothing will save her. The most frightening part about this novel is not that Miranda is trapped but we know, long before she does herself, that she will never, ever escape.
Getting back to the structure of the novel, Fowles’ novel is divided into thirds. The first is narrated by Ferdinand and, much like Nabokov does with Humbert Humbert in Lolita, the author manages to make us feel at the very least sorry for the tortured narrator, despite our own consciences demanding we unequivocally condemn the character as a monster. But we can’t. We feel Ferdinand’s loneliness, his isolation, and when he finally commits the terrible act that gets the plot moving, we are overwhelmed with disappointment. We know Ferdinand is a kind of victim, which makes it all the more tragic when he becomes the victimizer.
And he is a victimizer, as the second third of the novel makes absolutely clear. This section is narrated by Miranda, and we see Ferdinand exactly as anyone else not privy to his inner thoughts (i.e., anyone except us) would. Yet even she is able to analyze and understand his warped psyche to the point where this novel starts to feel like a case study as much as a novel. For instance, she soon understands that Ferdinand sees her as an object to collect, much like the butterflies he collects for fun. She also begins to piece together the strained sexual confusion that is crucial to understanding Ferdinand (though this eventually leads to one of the most harrowing parts of the story). At the same time, we get to know the undeniably flawed Miranda, whose own personality traits make her a perfect foil to Ferdinand, yet also doom her in the end.
Finally, we reach the last section of the novel, which is also narrated by Ferdinand. This brief section ends the psychological tale we have just endured but hints at the beginning of another tragedy to come. And this ambiguous ending encapsulates what makes this novel about being trapped feel so absolute. After reading the novel I tried so hard to imagine what I would have done or said if I were in Miranda’s position, how Ferdinand could be reached and, perhaps, even saved. But there is nothing to do, nothing to say, nothing.
This novel is a masterpiece of psychological realism, a compelling portrait of a damaged soul, and a raw story that feels all the more rich because of its deceptively simple plot and sparse cast.
The Collector is a dungeon with endless doors, none of which will open, in which Ferdinand, Miranda, and all of us, are prisoners.
So go read it. Now.