Gender in the Collector and the Comfort of Strangers Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Gender in Fowles and McEwan

[Woman] is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute -- she is the Other. -- Simone de Beauvoir.

Simone de Beauvoir's influential analysis of gender difference as somehow implying gender deference -- that the mere fact of defining male in opposition to female somehow implies placing one in an inferior or subaltern position -- becomes especially interesting when examining how fiction by male authors approaches questions of gender. I propose to examine in detail two British novels of the post-war period -- The Collector by John Fowles, published in 1963, and The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan, published in 1981 -- and hope to demonstrate that, in point of fact, the existence of the feminist movement has managed to shift the portrayal of gender in the work of male novelists. To some extent, I think we can see Fowles' The Collector as a pre-feminist novel, which employs a traditional set of gendered associations in order to approach a topic which is actually quite different, and McEwan's Comfort of Strangers as a post-feminist novel, self-aware in its handling of the issue of representing gender issues.

Fowles' The Collector is an early work by a novelist better known for more subtle structural and metafictional construction. Here, there is some effort at metafictionality -- the novel's two central characters both compose their own diaries -- but the overall central scenario is so lurid that it feels nearly pornographic, and has earned substantial ire from feminist critics as a result. But it is worth noting that Fowles has already asked the reader to consider his or her own complicity in a sort of criminality that the novel depicts: the parallel between Clegg's sexualized voyeurism, and the sort of voyeurism entailed in reading someone else's diary, is fully exploited by Fowles, and seems to invite the reader to consider the morality of the aesthetic (or indeed pornographic) experience unsparingly. If Fowles' is an anti-feminist work in some way, it cannot be called a morally or ethically uncomplicated book, or a book in which substantial thought and analysis are taking place. However it is true that the novel is about a man who stalks, kidnaps, and sexually torments an attractive woman -- but it is worth mentioning that it should be possible to treat such subjects without indulging them. To a certain degree, this is the reason Fowles adopts a detached tone in narration to a certain extent: as Katherine Tarbox puts it, in Clegg's "camera eyes, he sees everything from a distance, voyeuristically" (Tarbox 48). This may be a late ramification on the willingness of modernist writers in the 20s and 30s to permit film techniques to influence fictional composition: the detached cool gaze of Clegg is meant to be one that invokes a whole environment of mediated detachment, above and beyond the sort of sexual objectification at the heart of the book.

To a certain degree, we must regard The Collector as a pre-feminist novel. Obviously this is not entirely true, as John Fowles writes well after earlier writers who can be characterized as feminist, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Virginia Woolf to Simone de Beauvoir herself (who was active in 1963 but had emerged as a public intellectual substantially earlier). But it is worth noting that the year of publication for The Collector was also the year of publication for Betty Friedan's noteworthy best-selling feminist work The Feminine Mystique. In other words, ideas of objectification were very much in the air -- but Fowles does not have the benefit of writing after Friedan. Instead, we must try to understand both these writers as expressing something in the early 1960s which would be borne out by subsequent events, and the emergence of a full-scale women's movement in the 1970s. Certainly Clegg views Miranda purely in terms of beauty, but that beauty is likened to the butterflies he collects -- the divide between himself and her is almost one of species. This bears out Fowles' own interpretation of the book as being intended to capture more a difference in social class than a difference in gender. Gindin emphasizes Fowles' own claim in his characterization of The Collector as a work where " Fowles attempted to probe psychologically and sociologically on a single plane of experience, to demonstrate what in a young man of one class caused him to collect, imprison, and dissect the girl from another class he thought he loved." (Gindin 331) At the same time Gindin is forced to conclude that this motif of the unknowable alterity of the female is something of an obsession in Fowles' work overall, seeing

The sexual focus, however, with its attendant guilts and metaphorical expansions, is characteristic, and the novels develop the rational and sometimes manipulative means the male uses to try to understand and control the amorphous and enigmatic female. The male is always limited, his formulations and understandings only partial. And, in his frustration, the necessity that he operate in a world where understanding is never complete, he acts so as to capture (The Collector), desert (The Magus), betray (The French Lieutenant's Woman), relate to through art (Mantissa), or both betray and finally recover (Daniel Martin) the female he can only partially comprehend. (Gindin 332)

Feminist criticism is aware of the double bind that Fowles' fiction places the reader in. It is entirely possible to read The Collector as being a novel which is more about class than gender, as Fowles himself has contended. Indeed, one of the sharpest feminist critiques of Fowles' novel, by Lenz, acknowledges this fact openly: as Lenz concedes, "the violence and ignorance embodied in Clegg are endemic to a society fractured by rigid stratifications, and illustrates the impossibility of communication across social, economic and cultural boundaries." (Lenz 49). But this does not lessen the discomfort that Lenz registers in her reading of The Collector, where she ultimately decides that Fowles -- especially in the passages which ventriloquize Miranda's journal -- "exploits rather than explores a woman's standpoint, and offers no alternative vision to the troubling pornographic objectification and fragmented disjunction of its characters' socially conditioned interactions" (Lenz 50). Still, Pamela Cooper seems to believe that the depiction of gender here is subordinated to class issues, noting that "The Collector dramatizes the clash between a socially entrenched, wealthy middle class and an underprivileged but upwardly mobile working or lower middle class, dubbed 'The New People' in the book" (Cooper 21).

It is worth noting, then, that the act which sets the plot into motion is depicted by Fowles with substantial numbers of class indicators:

I did the pools from the week I was twenty-one. Every week I did the same five-bob perm. Old Tom and Crutchley, who were in Rates with me, and some of the girls clubbed together and did a big one and they were always going at me to join in, but I stayed the lone wolf. I never liked old Tom or Crutchley. Old Tom is slimy, always going on about local government and buttering up to Mr. Williams, the Borough Treasurer. Crutchley's got a dirty mind and he is a sadist, he never let an opportunity go of making fun of my interest, especially if there were girls around. "Fred's looking tired -- he's been having a dirty week-end with a Cabbage White," he used to say, and, "Who was that Painted Lady I saw you with last night?" Old Tom would snigger, and Jane, Crutchley's girl from Sanitation, she was always in our office, would giggle. She was all Miranda wasn't. I always hated vulgar women, especially girls. So I did my own entry, like I said. The cheque was for GBP73,091 and some odd shillings and pence.

The notion that someone of Clegg's social standing could win such a substantial sum on the football pools is taken by Fowles from life, from the notorious case of Viv Nicholson, who won a large sum of money (larger than Clegg's) in the football pools and announced that she planned to "spend, spend, spend" only to wind up living in public housing penniless in less than a decade. Nicholson's case was the subject of horrified fascination in the class-conscious Britain of the early 1960s, and so it manages (along with the low sort of slang entailed in the nicknames and joshing) to place Clegg's financial windfall in a context of panic about the ability of the lower orders to cope morally with increased money. To that extent, Clegg's free money (permitting him to do what he likes) seems more like a lurid metaphor for the notion that the postwar British welfare state was basically handing people large sums of cash to enable them to exercise a hyperactive and depraved sexuality.

We may ask ourselves if Fowles similarly portrays Miranda in class-based terms, and to a certain extent it is true. Miranda…

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