Interpretation and Analysis of John Fowles's Postmodern Novel "The Magus"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2008 21 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1) Introduction

2) Interpretation
2.1) Nicholas’s Role-Playing and Hunt for Freedom
2.2) The Masque
2.2.1) Conchis’s Stories
2.2.2) The Meta-Theatre
2.2.3) The Women of the Masque
2.2.4) The Meaning of Names
2.3) The End

3) Narrative Structure and Techniques
3.1) Structure
3.2) Narrators
3.3) Postmodern Devices
3.3.1) Metafiction
3.3.2) Intertextuality

4) Conclusion


'Know thyself' was written over the portal of the antique world. Over the portal of the new world, 'Be thyself' shall be written.[1]

1) Introduction

The Magus is John Fowles’s first written – though not first published – novel which he began to write in the 1950s. But only in 1977 after 12 years of revising did he publish the version he was finally satisfied with, which “is the one [he wanted] to see reprinted.”[2]

Its complexity and its richness of stories, symbolism and metaphors gained The Magus not only a lot of criticism but just as much success. The organised chaos of the masque distracts as well as interests and fascinates the reader. Even though there is no ‘real meaning of’ or ‘right reaction to’ the novel as such[3], there are possibilities of interpretation.

The first part of this paper will be an interpretation of the most important features of the story, concentrating principally on Nicholas’s hunt for freedom, the symbolism of the women in the masque as well as the masque itself and the end. After that, the narrative techniques will be looked at more closely, leading to the question: In which aspects is The Magus postmodern?

2) Interpretation

As The Magus contains a vast variety of elements which are worthy to interpret and this paper cannot do justice to all of them, it will concentrate on the ones which are most important to get an overall understanding of the novel.

2.1) Nicholas’s Role-Playing and Hunt for Freedom

Already in his life before Greece, Nicholas is constantly trying to (re)gain his freedom. While his parents are alive, he is leading “two lives” (18): suiting his father and being (what he imagines to be) himself. After his parents’ death, he feels free (cf. 19) for the very first time and capable of being the person he wants to be (cf. 17). Unfortunately, he does not know yet who this person is and so he defines himself by what he does not want to be: like his parents. Nicholas therefore forms the club Les Hommes Révoltés with some other men, their meetings mainly consisting of talking about (and misunderstanding) French existentialist novels, while drinking dry sherry and wearing dark-grey suits (cf. 19). This merely shows that Nicholas is “the prototype of the upper-middle-class with a sensitivity towards tradition and “class” that he so thoroughly despised in his parents.”[4] Moreover, the purpose of the club at bottom is simply “to look different” (19). However, by looking different, he only plays another role[5] because he is not yet able to see who he is.

The next mask he puts on by accepting a post as a teacher in a public school “like countless Oxford men before [him]” (20), doing what he detests most: being like the others. Unsurprisingly, Nicholas quits after one year. He realises that the school is “a toy model of the entire country” (20) and that if he could not be free and himself in the school, he would never achieve this goal in England either. He therefore plans to leave the country for the first time. Incidentally, he mentions that “[t]here was also a girl [he] was tired of” (20); this hints to another part of his life in which he feels unfree and forced to play certain roles: women.

In contrast to his other role-playing, he boasts about his ‘game plan’ (on the analogy of Conchis’s godgame) of winning a woman’s heart:

[A]nd even more important, I had my loneliness, which, as every cad knows, is a deadly weapon with women. My “technique” was to make a show of unpredictability, cynicism, and indifference. Then, like a conjurer with his white rabbit, I produced the solitary heart. (23)

But he soon loses interest in her. One reason is that he is dividing women into two categories: “those who are meant to be loved (virgins) and those who are meant to be used (whores).”[6] He makes sure “that the current victim knew, before she took her clothes off, the difference between coupling and marrying” (23, my italics). This leads to the second reason: Once feelings get involved, he feels constricted and afraid of losing his freedom, so he breaks up early enough and mistakes “the feeling of relief that dropping a girl always brought for a love of freedom” (23 and cf. 24).

When he meets Alison, this seems to change at first. He slides into a ‘normal’ relationship with her: living together in his flat, talking “about a [shared] future” (37) and being “too close to need each other’s names” (260). But when they are in public, he feels ashamed and degrades her to one of these girls he just uses, telling a friend that she is “cheaper than central heating” (38) and when he feels love for her, he mistakes it for sexual desire:

I suddenly had a feeling that we were one body, one person, even there; that if she had disappeared it would have been as if I had lost half of myself. A terrible deathlike feeling, which anyone less cerebral and self-absorbed that I was then would have realized was simply love. I thought it was desire. I drove her straight home and tore her clothes off. (37)

Ironically, he later accuses Alison of not knowing the difference between love and sex, but the other way round: “It irritated me still that she put so much reliance on the body thing, the shared orgasm. Her mistaking that for love […]” (271). Nevertheless, despite his love for her or rather because of it – being frightened of these feelings, their imperative outcome of having to marry Alison, of having to abandon his ‘freedom’ – he finally leaves her to go to Greece; once again feeling released (cf. 50).

On Phraxos, a whole new, even alien (cf. 50-51) world welcomes him. Nicholas feels sure that now he can live the life he is made for, be his true self – he wants to be a poet (cf. 59). When he realises that he is not a poet, that this was just another role he wanted to play, he decides to kill himself but he does not succeed: The realisation that this is also just another role, which he likes to play, keeps him from it.[7]

I was trying to commit not a moral action, but a fundamentally aesthetic one; to do something that would end my life sensationally, significantly, consistently. It was a Mercutio death I was looking for, not a real one. A death to be remembered, not the true death of a true suicide, the death obliterate. (64, my italics)

Nicholas sees himself clearly for the first time: “I had […] been, and always would be, intensely false; in existentialist terms, inauthentic” (64). By realising this, he becomes ‘ready’ for the experiences and lessons that await him at Bourani.

2.2) The Masque

The purpose of the masque or godgame is to “guide [Nicholas] towards greater self-knowledge”[8] so that he can finally find his freedom. Conchis summarises all this in one sentence: “Greece [meaning the masque] is like a mirror. It makes you suffer. Then you learn” (101). The masque consists of three levels that alternate, blend and even meld into each other. The most clearly bounded one is Conchis’s story-telling. In the second level, there are live performances, for example the Apollo scene (cf. 184-187). The introduction of Lily Montgomery’s ghost blends the first two levels together: Conchis’s story becomes alive. Up to this point, Nicholas’s reality, the third level, has not got involved yet, as he is enjoying the ‘show’. However, this changes completely when he becomes part of the performance – at first unwittingly.

2.2.1) Conchis’s Stories

Nicholas is told six stories: One is about a Swiss shepherd, four are autobiographic stories about Conchis’s past and the sixth is the fairytale The Prince and the Magician (cf. 560-562), which is the only one Nicholas is not told directly by Conchis but finds it in the Earth, in written form. The key task of the stories is to mirror Nicholas’s life and to teach him important lessons that should help him “to understand his position in the world.”[9]

The first story which is about a Swiss shepherd who came to the island to live the rest of his life happily in isolation with his goats is also the shortest. Nevertheless, it communicates the main message of the whole novel: by thyself.[10]

The second story, Conchis’s desertion, goes a step further. It mirrors Nicholas’s own past: playing roles to suit certain environments and people. Its message is a deduction from the first: If you know yourself, you have to be true to yourself; when Conchis left the army, he did not betray his ‘true self’.[11]

Nicholas sees a parallel in the third story – about de Deukans – to his life, but only the superficial one:

I thought I had grasped, during Conchis telling, the point of the caractère of de Deukans. He had been talking of himself and me – the parallels were too close for it to mean anything else. (188)

The real parallel is between Nicholas and de Deukans, though. He, like de Deukan, is a ‘collector’. De Deukans “had devoted all his life to [the] collecting of collections” (181), whereas Nicholas collects meaningless, sexual relationships instead of valuing the one real love he could have with Alison.[12] Another resemblance is symbolised by Mirabelle, de Deukan’s ‘Maîtresse-Machine’: Nicholas’s egoism, his “masturbatory personality.”[13] When fantasising about Alison or Lily/Julie, he is rather performing an autoerotic act, similar to using pornography[14], which allows him to make love to himself instead of admitting to feel love for another person (Alison).


[1] Wilde, Oscar. The Soul of Man under Socialism. 1891. (online-literature.com – 08.03.2009)

[2] Vipond, Dianne L. (Ed.) Conversations with John Fowles. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. 108.

[3] Cf. Fowles, John. The Magus. A Revised Version. New York: Random House Inc., 1985. 9-10. (Subsequent references to this edition will be made within the text.)

[4] Onega, Susana. Form and meaning in the novels of John Fowles. Ann Arbor, Mich. (a.o.): UMI Research Press, 1989. 39.

[5] Cf. Acheson, James. John Fowles. Basingstoke (a.o.): Macmillan Press, 1998. 20.

[6] Tarbox, Katherine. The art of John Fowles. Athens, Ga (a.o.): University of Georgia Press, 1988. 21-23.

[7] Cf. Acheson, James. John Fowles. 23.

[8] Ibid. 23.

[9] Onega, Susana. Form and meaning in the novels of John Fowles. 58.

[10] Cf. Ibid. 58.

[11] Cf. Acheson, James. John Fowles. 23.

[12] Cf. Onega, Susana. Form and meaning in the novels of John Fowles. 41.

[13] Tarbox, Katherine. The art of John Fowles. 24.

[14] There are also a couple of pornographic ‘hints’ to this topic in Conchis’s house and even demonstrations after the trial. (cf. Tarbox, Katherine. The art of John Fowles. 24.)


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Postmodernism English Literaturwissenschaft Postmodern John Fowles The Magus Postmoderne




Title: Interpretation and Analysis of John Fowles's Postmodern Novel "The Magus"