The Collector - John Fowles
Recommended for: Art, Literature, and Society students (FaSoS)
‘We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on; and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep.’ – Prospero in The Tempest (Act 4 Scene 1)
Frederick, a lonely, uneducated butterfly collector leading an unremarkable existence in the English countryside kidnaps Miranda, a young and attractive art student who grew up in his village. John Fowles’ novel, The Collector, uses this straightforward plot to explore the existential realities of what it means to be human and to take responsibility for our actions.
At the outset of the first section, told from Frederick’s point of view, it is difficult to believe that he is capable of committing a crime. Maybe he really will just watch Miranda from afar, like another butterfly momentarily catching his attention. But of course, by nature of being a collector, Frederick must capture the object of his fascination.
Just like the butterflies Frederick painstakingly preserves and pins onto a cloth backdrop, Miranda is kept in a carefully tailored environment. The collector leaves nothing to chance in the acquisition of his newest object: her basement prison is equipped with a heater, clothing, and books for comfort and a thick door concealed from the outside to prevent escape or discovery. With his adoration and attention to detail it is nearly possible to believe that he wants the best for his ‘guest’ (the word he uses to describe Miranda).
When we hear from Miranda in the second part, we are reminded that Frederick’s caring demeanor is an illusion he has drawn around himself and, nearly, drawn the reader into. If he truly had her best interests at heart he would not just provide her with fresh fruit and drawing materials when she requests them but he would satisfy her most pressing demand: freedom. Choosing to ignore her pleas he traipses through the plot as if in a deep fog.
The threat of violence, sexual or otherwise, hangs heavy over the narrative like darkly brewing storm clouds but he never touches her in an uninvited way. It is difficult not to imagine physical transgressions but the reader’s imagination outstrips any real-life violence in the plot. Instead, Frederick is able to rob Miranda of her humanity in a far more violent way: his crime is to let the illusion that drives him forward dominate the world (intellectually and literally) of another. Miranda is driven by ideas, beauty and people. Because Frederick cannot understand her reasons for living, he steals her freedom and denies her the possibilities to realize her humanity. He can satisfy as many of her creature comforts as he wants to but denies the most fundamental one. Dehumanization can take many forms.
Frederick exemplifies what happens when we let our ‘dreams’, the process through which we give our life meaning, eclipse the dreams of others. He demonstrates how the biggest horrors are those that are not committed acts but acts left undone. Frederick’s crime is letting the passivity, the grey-zone that lies outside of the worlds we construct for ourselves seep into our lives. Ultimately, it is through doing nothing that he perpetrates the biggest violence.