The Collector is English author John Fowles’s debut novel, published in 1963. The story follows a 20-something lepidopterist, Frederick Clegg, who becomes obsessed with a beautiful art student named Miranda Grey. After winning a fortune, Frederick kidnaps Miranda and imprisons her in his cellar, keeping her like a rare butterfly. Fowles combines psychological thriller, romance, and dark comedy genres into a tale that satirizes romances such as Shakespeare’s The Tempest by exposing their psychological and gothic horror. The novel tackles themes of class conflict, existential choice, and the destructive nature of collecting.
This guide uses the e-book version of the 2012 Hachette Books edition.
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Content Warning: The plot of this novel features stalking, sexual assault, kidnapping followed by prolonged captivity, psychological torture, and violence.
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The Collector is divided into four chapters. The first, third, and fourth are written in first person from Frederick’s perspective. The second chapter is Miranda’s first-person epistolary account of her imprisonment. As Frederick begins his story, he’s already killed Miranda through neglect; however, he conceals this fact until Chapter 3. His periodic allusions to her fate indicate his unreliability as a narrator.
When Frederick is two, his father dies in a drunk driving accident and his mother abandons him. Subsequently, Frederick is raised by his Uncle Dick and Aunt Annie, who, like Frederick’s parents, are working class. Dick loves Frederick like a son, and together they share the happiest years of Frederick’s life, including time spent butterfly collecting. These halcyon days end abruptly: When Frederick is 15, Dick dies suddenly. Left with his aunt, who demeans his lepidoptery, Frederick joins the army. Following his service, he begins work as a clerk. He hates his coworkers for their vulgarity and flirtations with each other.
Frederick becomes obsessed with a high schooler named Miranda Grey, who reminds him of a rare butterfly. Educated in private schools, Miranda comes from a bourgeois family. Her father and mother oppose her dream to become an artist, and her mother is also abusive and has an alcohol addiction; this makes Miranda resentful and rebellious. She nonetheless pursues her dream, matriculating at an art school in London.
Frederick stalks Miranda for a year, until she moves to London for art school. After he wins a fortune betting on soccer pools, Frederick moves to London and resumes stalking Miranda. He fantasizes about forcing Miranda to disregard their class difference and fall in love with him. As he prepares to kidnap her, he insists that his original intention was not to abduct Miranda. He buys a camper van, ostensibly for a butterfly-collecting tour of England, and a secluded cottage, the cellar of which he outfits as a bedroom prison cell. After carefully following Miranda for two weeks, Frederick abducts her and drives her to his cottage two hours away.
The following two months are a battle of wills. Frederick keeps Miranda caged like a prized butterfly; however, having Miranda isn’t what Frederick expects. She outmatches him in conversation and he finds himself constantly on the defensive. Miranda despises Frederick—whom she insultingly calls Caliban, the monstrous slave in The Tempest—but also pities his misfortune of being working class. After a series of failed escape attempts, Miranda negotiates with Frederick for better accommodations and release after one month. He agrees. Over the course of the month they develop the peculiar intimacy of prisoner and warden, of lord and bondsman. Although he has total power over Miranda, Frederick plays the servant to win her favor. Acting out of noblesse oblige and self-preservation, Miranda tries to rescue Frederick from his ressentiment and class anxiety. She teaches him how to decorate, how to speak, and what art to admire. Her efforts fail and Frederick grows resentful of her patronizing lessons.
Miranda keeps a secret journal during her imprisonment, which appears in epistolary form as Chapter 2. Her account corroborates much of Frederick’s own. In her journal, Miranda tries to discern Frederick’s inscrutable motives and stylizes conversations they have as theatrical dialogues. Over the course of her imprisonment, Miranda cycles between being defiant, defeated, conciliatory, and enraged. She spends a lot of time reminiscing about a 41-year-old painter she fell in love with, George Paston. Miranda worships George because he disabused her of her conventional views on art, introducing her to a world of better opinions. Miranda adopts George’s personality as her own; in her eyes he can do no wrong. However, in her journal she begins realizing George’s faults and gains confidence in her own opinions on art. By the end of her imprisonment, Miranda sheds her mask and becomes her authentic self; to her surprise she finds herself grateful that her ordeal transformed her.
At the end of the month Frederick proposes to Miranda. When she rejects him, he reneges on his promise to release her and becomes violent for the first time in a month, chloroforming her, undressing her, and photographing her unconscious. Following this incident, the charade of civility between the two fractures. Between escape attempts, Miranda tries to rebuild rapport so that she can try to escape again; however, each attempt brings Frederick closer to violence. Finally, Miranda resorts to seducing Frederick. Her attempt is disastrous: Frederick is too repressed to get aroused and becomes angry. Days later, when Miranda is sick with a cold, Frederick takes his revenge by forcing Miranda to pose nude for photos.
In her diary, Miranda becomes increasingly desperate; in her final entry, she beseeches God to save her. After she becomes delirious, Frederick moves her into the cottage, but continues to delay getting a doctor. Miranda dies while Frederick is in another room dusting. Blaming himself for her death, Frederick plans to destroy the evidence of his abuse, write a letter to the police describing himself and Miranda as a Romeo and Juliet story, and kill himself. However, he abandons these plans after finding Miranda’s journal, from which he learns that she never loved him and thought only of George. He rationalizes that he wasn’t responsible for Miranda’s death and buries her in his backyard. Weeks later in the nearby town, Frederick begins stalking a shopgirl named Marian, who resembles Miranda.
By John Fowles