History: This book was published in 1963.
Plot: The Collector is the story of the abduction and imprisonment of Miranda Grey by Frederick Clegg, told first from his point of view, and then from hers by means of a diary she has kept, with a return in the last few pages to Clegg's narration of her illness and death.
Clegg's section begins with his recalling how he used to watch Miranda entering and leaving her house, across the street from the town hall in which he worked. He describes keeping an "observation diary" about her, whom he thinks of as "a rarity," and his mention of meetings of the "Bug Section" confirms that he is an amateur lepidopterist. On the first page, then, Clegg reveals himself to possess the mind-set of a collector, one whose attitude leads him to regard Miranda as he would a beautiful butterfly, as an object from which he may derive pleasurable control, even if "collecting" her will deprive her of freedom and life.
Clegg goes on to describe events leading up to his abduction of her, from dreams about Miranda and memories of his stepparents or coworkers to his winning a "small fortune" in a football pool. When his family emigrates to Australia and Clegg finds himself on his own, he begins to fantasize about how Miranda would like him if only she knew him. He buys a van and a house in the country with an enclosed room in its basement that he remodels to make securable and hideable. When he returns to London, Clegg watches Miranda for 10 days. Then, as she is walking home alone from a movie, he captures her, using a rag soaked in chloroform, ties her up in his van, takes her to his house, and locks her in the basement room.
When she awakens, Clegg finds Miranda sharper than "normal people" like himself. She sees through some of his explanations, and recognizes him as the person whose picture was in the paper when he won the pool. Because he is somewhat confused by her unwillingness to be his "guest" and embarrassed by his inadvertent declaration of love, he agrees to let her go in one month. He attributes her resentment to the difference in their social background: "There was always class between us."
Clegg tries to please Miranda by providing for her immediate needs. He buys her a Mozart record and thinks, "She liked it and so me for buying it." he fails to understand human relations except in terms of things. About her appreciation for the music, he comments, "It sounded like all the rest to me but of course she was musical." There is indeed a vast difference between them, but he fails to recognize the nature of the difference because of the terms he thinks in. When he shows her his butterfly collection, Miranda tells him that he thinks like a scientist rather than an artist, someone who classifies and names and then forgets about things. She sees a deadening tendency, too, in his photography, his use of cant, and his decoration of the house. As a student of art and a maker of drawings, her values contrast with his: Clegg can judge her work only in terms of its representationalism, or photographic realism. In despair at his insensitivity when he comments that all of her pictures are "nice," she says that his name should be Caliban--the subhuman creature in Shakespeare's The Tempest.
Miranda uses several ploys in attempts to escape. She feigns appendicitis, but Clegg only pretends to leave, and sees her recover immediately. She tries to slip a message into the reassuring note that he says he will send to her parents, but he finds it. When he goes to London, she asks for a number of articles that will be difficult to find, so that she will have time to, try to dig her way out with a nail she has found, but that effort also is futile.
When the first month has elapsed, Miranda dresses up for what she hopes will be their last dinner. She looks so beautiful that Clegg has difficulty responding except with cliches and confusion. When she refuses his present of diamonds and offer of marriage, he tells her that he will not release her after all. She tries to escape by kicking a log out of the fire, but he catches her and chloroforms her again, this time taking off her outer clothing while she is unconscious and photographing her in her underwear.
Increasingly desperate, Miranda tries to kill Clegg with an axe he has left out when he is escorting her to take a bath upstairs. She injures him, but he is able to prevent her from escaping. Finally, she tries to seduce him, but he is unable to respond, and leaves, feeling humiliated. He pretends that he will allow her to move upstairs, with the stipulation that she must allow him to take pornographic photographs of her. She reluctantly cooperates, and he immediately develops the pictures, preferring the ones with her face cut off.
Having caught a cold from Clegg, Miranda becomes seriously ill, but Clegg hesitates to bring a doctor to the house. He does get her some pills, but she becomes delirious, and the first section ends with Clegg's recollection: "I thought I was acting for the best and within my rights."
The second section is Miranda's diary, which rehearses the same events from her point of view, but includes much autobiographical reflection on her life before her abduction. She begins with her feelings over the first seven days, before she had paper to write on. She observes that she never knew before how much she wanted to live.
Miranda describes her thoughts about Clegg as she tries to understand him. She describes her view of the house and ponders the unfairness of the whole situation. She frequently remembers things said by G. P., who gradually is revealed to be a middle-aged man who is a painter and mentor whom Miranda admires. She re-creates a conversation with Clegg over, among other things, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She gets him to promise to send a contribution, but he only pretends to. She admits that he's now the only real person in her world.
Miranda describes G. P. as the sort of person she would like to marry, or at any rate the sort of mind. She lists various ways he has changed her think- ing, most of which involved precepts about how to live an authentic, committed life. Then she characterizes G. P. by telling of a time that he met her aunt and found her so lacking in discernment and sincerity that he made Miranda feel compelled to choose between him and her aunt. Miranda seems to choose his way of seeing, and he subsequently offers some harsh but honest criticism of her drawing, which seems to help her to become more self-aware and discriminating. Her friends Antoinette and Piers fail to appreciate the art G. P. has produced, and Miranda breaks with her Aunt Caroline over her failure to appreciate Rembrandt. Miranda describes her growing attraction to G. P., despite their age difference and his history of sexual infidelity. In the final episode about him, however, G. P. confesses to being in love with her and, as a consequence, wants to break off their friendship. She is flattered but agrees that doing so would probably be for the best.
Miranda says that G. P. is "one of the few." Her aunt--and Clegg--are implicitly among "the many," who lack creativity and authenticity. Indeed, Miranda associates Clegg's shortcomings with "the blindness, deadness, out-of-dateness, stodginess and, yes, sheer jealous malice of the great bulk of England," and she begins to lose hope. She gets Clegg to read Catcher in the Rye, but he doesn't understand it. Miranda feels more alone and more desperate, and her reflections become more philosophical. She describes her reasons for thinking that seducing Clegg might change him, and does not regret the subsequent failed attempt, but she fears that he now can hope only to keep her prisoner.
Miranda begins to think of what she will do if she ever gets free, including revive her relationship with G. P. on any terms as a commitment to life. At this point, Miranda becomes sick with Clegg's cold, literally as well as metaphorically. As she becomes increasingly ill, her entries in the journal become short, declarative sentences and lamentations.
The third section is Clegg's, and picks up where his first left off. He tells of becoming worried over her symptoms and over her belief that she is dying. When he takes her temperature, Clegg realizes how ill Miranda is and decides to go for a doctor. As he sits in the waiting room, Clegg begins to feel insecure, and he goes to a drugstore instead, where the pharmacist refuses to help him. When he returns and finds Miranda worse, Clegg goes back to town in the middle of the night, to wake a doctor; this time an inquisitive policeman frightens him off. Miranda dies, and Clegg plans to commit suicide.
In the final section, less than three pages long, Clegg describes awakening to a new outlook. He decides that he is not responsible for Miranda's death, that his mistake was kidnapping someone too far above him, socially. As the novel ends, Clegg is thinking about how he will have to do things somewhat differently when he abducts a more suitable girl that he has seen working in Woolworth's.
Review: The Collector established Fowles’ reputation as a writer of what The Sunday Times called, “great imaginative power.” Given that it was a commercial as well as a critical success, he was able to give up his job as a teacher and concentrate on writing full-time. Short, at least in comparison with some of his other books, and immediately engaging, The Collector works by stealth, its creepiness slowly crowding you, until the experience of reading the novel becomes almost as claustrophobic as the captivity in which one of the protagonists is held.
As is often the case with John Fowles, it is the way in which the story is told that provides much of the pleasure. The first part of The Collector is narrated from Frederick’s point of view, the second, from Miranda’s, in diary fragments. Frederick’s detached rationality contrasts with Miranda’s more lyrical, questioning voice. Unlike the neutral, artless tone of Frederick’s narration, Miranda’s account swings through several emotional states, marking moments of resolution and despair, of terror, contempt and stultifying solitude.
Fowles’ ability to create two such distinct voices is one of the great achievements of the novel. In setting up his characters in opposition to one other we are of course invited to choose between them.
Opening Line: “When she was home from her boarding-school I used to see her almost every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town Hall Annexe.”
Closing Line: “It would be “The End”.
Quotes: “I am one in a row of specimens. It’s when I try to flutter out of line that he hates me.”
“The essences. Not the things themselves.
Swimmings of life on the smallest things.
Or am I being sentimental?
I’m so far from everything. From normality. From light. From what I want to be.”