Design and Meaning in The Ebony Tower

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Author: Thomas Loe
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,938 words

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[(essay date 1995) In the following essay, Loe focuses on the narrative design of The Ebony Tower, arguing “that it inhabits both a metaphoric and realistic form that convincingly portrays the sometimes contradictory, existential ordeals that permeate much of Fowles’ fiction.”]

Part of the attractiveness of John Fowles’ fiction comes in its teasing allusiveness and suggestive hints of an underlying symbolism. The evocative settings and the journeys that organize The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Magus are especially enhanced through such thematic suggestiveness. At the same time the powerful realism of the mimetic journeys of self-discovery in these novels tends to disrupt any metaphorical substructure. In his novels the presence of such a substructure is also obscured by Fowles’ predilection towards drawing attention to himself as author and towards dramatizing the problems of the fictive process. The foreshortened format of the novella employed in The Ebony Tower, however, offers a design better suited than the novels to balance the presentation of the real and the symbolic, but this design has elicited little comment. Fowles’ use of metaphoric constructs in a genre different than those he usually employs deserves more attention if only because it includes him within an active twentieth century tradition and connects him with other writers of the novella. Much as Fowles may dislike being placed within types and categories (Foreword 9), the appreciation of his fiction within a larger context helps to identifiy and compare the strengths his fiction shares with the work of other eminent fabulators of our century like Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, or Thomas Mann.

My argument is that the narrative design of The Ebony Tower is particularly well suited for its symbolically allusive texture and that this format follows the general structural patterns of the novella in the twentieth century. In other words, I wish to argue that the design of The Ebony Tower falls into the structure of a particular genre, but I am more interested in showing that The Ebony Tower is maintaining the traditions of allegory as it appears to be practiced in the twentieth century rather than trying to bracket that work in a particular form. Excessive critical nomenclature can easily obscure the very art it seeks to explicate, so I propose to keep my approach and terms limited to those that are the most pragmatic and familiar. Like anyone working with genre, I am aware of the tautological dangers and the elusiveness of genre definition and the uniqueness of every individual work. Genres are only metaphysical concepts and this essay is only a venture in naming. At the same time, I would argue that genre distinctions help locate our understanding of literary concepts and provide an important vocabulary for identifying and describing literature. Approaching a work from the vantage of genre, I have discovered, can be particularly useful in teaching. All literary criticism seeks to establish its own terms for defining ideas and yet, unless literary criticism is construed as an end in itself, these ideas are...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100124114