Frederick Clegg is a shy and awkward man raised by aunts, a collector of butterflies and a forefather of Buffalo Bill (of Silence of the Lambs) and countless other twisted men whose heads novelists put us inside. Frederick’s interest in young Miranda is harmless until he wins a major lottery prize and decides to collect this beautiful specimen. His justifications are almost sympathetic – he knows she would never notice him otherwise. Frederick’s fantasy is not primarily sexual either, his greatest fantasy is that Miranda will come to love him. However, as Miranda repeatedly attempts escape, he comes to despair of this scenario and instead forces her to pose for salacious photos. Just as their conflict is building to a head, however, the narrative re-starts, now through the lens of the diary Miranda keeps during her captivity.
Fowles masterfully manipulates his readers – even as you know how this scenario must turn out, you are lulled by the descriptions of Miranda’s attempts to civilize Frederick (who tells her his name is Ferdinand, but whom she calls Caliban). She believes that if she can find some kernel of fellow feeling in him, she can convince him to let her go. This is not merely a conflict between a deeply damaged man and a smart young woman; Fowles makes quite clear it’s also a conflict between bourgeois middle-class desires to control, and thus deaden, the world and idealism, hope and most of all art. The novel was published in 1963, and certainly reflects conflicts of that era, but I kept thinking it was from the 1920s, mostly because the blatant class consciousness was so alien to me. While belief in the transcendant power of art feels a little dated now, the psychology of The Collector holds up well, and in eschewing the stomach-churning acts of The Silence of the Lambs, permits a sickening degree of identification with and understanding of Frederick.