John Fowles’s The Collector dates from 1963 and in some ways it is dated. In characterisation, in particular, its central characters are, to a large extent, archetypal sixties sorts. Given that one of them kidnaps and imprisons the other in a cellar this may seem an unusual – and provocative – suggestion but, for all Frederick Clegg’s weirdness, he is at core just a typical, inadequate social misfit of the sort commonly found in 1950s and 1960s literature. In the 70s, the type became bastardised and cheapened into simple buffoons, caricatures of their more philosophically rendered postwar predecessors. And Miranda, the girl who is imprisoned by Clegg, is a bright, almost independent gel, the sort who in those heady years of the 1960s are beginning to throw off the shackles of sexist society and will pave the way for the feminists of the seventies and eighties and the free spirits of the nineties and noughts but who are at that point still, fatally, trapped in a kind of middle class, straight-laced sense of the order of things. So we have archetypes, characters who are products of their time. And therefore, you might suppose, the events of this novel couldn’t happen today.
But they could, and this is what makes Fowles’s novel so frightening, and so special.
Frederick Clegg, a City Hall clerk and butterfly collector, wins the football pools and realises that with his new-found wealth he can live a new life. He has become obsessed with a young art student, Miranda Grey but, lacking any social abilities, is unable to do anything to engineer any sort of communication between them. Rather, in the manner of his collecting of defenceless butterflies, he decides to capture and imprison her. This he does, showing meticulous attention to detail and a facility for planning that would be impressive were it not being put to such malign purposes. His belief is that, if only Miranda can come to know him, she will realise what a good and honest person he is, how much he is devoted to her, and she will naturally grow to love him, too. It is, of course, a hopelessly impossible notion, a lunatic dream, but Clegg believes in it completely. And his love for her is genuine, too, albeit in a twisted, stuntd way. Even as the days and weeks of the imprisonment go by, and the situation deteriorates, he cannot quite relinquish hope that she will come to her senses and see the beauty of his nature and prostrate herself before his undying love.
The first section of the story is told by Clegg himself, in a chillingly dispassionate voice, like the overseer of some minor experiment of no great consequence to anyone but himself. Of his captive, despite his real and heartfelt obsession for her, he can permit no genuinely human feelings: he seems incapable of seeing her as a living entity in her own right, rather than as a totem of his own misguided feelings. She is doubly trapped: literally so in her sealed cellar, and mentally so through Clegg’s inability to perceive her as anything other than the chimera of fractured love he has turned her into. You fear for the girl.
The second section is told through Miranda’s diary of her captivity and, through this, the terrifying and desperate nature of Clegg is fully revealed. He adores her but cannot express love. He wants her but cannot bear intimacy. He is stunted in every imaginable way. For Miranda, a bright, intelligent, questing young woman on the verge of a fulfilling adult life, this containment by a man so dull, so soulless, in a world that is lifeless, stultifying, hopeless, is too much to bear. She craves escape but Frederick, for all his lunacy, is not given to carelessness. She feigns illness. Finally she really succumbs to illness but Frederick at first will not, then cannot do anything to help her. The reader can only observe, helpless and dismayed, as events take their course.
The final section, a short and chilling coda, is told by Clegg again. And in this, finally, the truest reflection of his nature is revealed to us. Innocents beware, there are among us people of unspeakable cruelty.
There is, throughout The Collector, a philosophical and psychological quest for understanding of human nature. The two protagonists, captor and captive, master and slave, are trapped in what can only ever be a danse macabre because no dance of life is available to them in which they could each participate. One cannot exist without the other – Miranda ponders at one point what would happen to her if he died and realises that she, too, would die – but nor can they ever happily co-exist. They are incompatibles manacled together by the vagaries of life and tragedy is the only possible outcome. Clegg is simultaneously sexually attracted to and repelled by Miranda. She wants to understand him but craves escape. Both of them are trapped in an impossible existence. Neither is capable of finding release. We are in a world of terrible isolation and dangerous incomprehension, ensnared between good and evil.
Fowles once declared – but later renounced it as an unfulfilled hope – that he wished to alter the society in which he lived. In this, he is therefore the opposite of a writer like Cormac McCarthy, for whom “the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea.”
Although McCarthy and Fowles could, then, be said to reside at opposite poles in their perception of human nature, experience nonetheless draws them closer together. In the end, both writers would probably ascribe to Nietzsche’s observation:
For every strong and natural species of man, love and hate, gratitude and revenge, good nature and anger, affirmative acts and negative acts, belong together. One is good on condition one also know how to be evil; one is evil because otherwise one would not understand how to be good.
In the claustrophobic cosmion of The Collector we begin to see some of what McCarthy hints at in his dismissal of the prospects of improving the species, and we understand the duality that is at the core of all of us. This is why The Collector remains a terrifying and worrying book: because Frederick Clegg exists and must exist. What’s more, he exists, in some small way, in all of us. But so, too, does Miranda.