How to Understand the Criminal Mind By Reading This Novel

To truly understand the criminal mind turn to a forgotten novel that has inspired writers such as Stephen King and Thomas Harris: John Fowles’ The Collector. Casey N. Cep on a tale of depravity and horror. 

When Ariel Castro took his own life in September, many felt the closure offered by the criminal justice system had been thwarted. However impossible Castro’s thousand-year sentence, that he served so little was shocking, partly because it leaves us with so many questions about why he kidnapped three women, raped them repeatedly, and tortured them for more than a decade.

There is no slaking our need for answers when it comes to criminality, and when we cannot find them in life, we seek them in fiction. Many novels take such violence for their subject, but one of the most ambitious attempts to represent both those who commit violence and those who are its victims is John Fowles’s often overlooked The Collector. The novel is an ingenuous pairing of first-person narration by both its antagonist, the kidnapper Frederick Clegg, and its protagonist, the kidnapped Miranda Grey.

Clegg, a lonely lepidopterist employed as a government clerk, becomes obsessed with Grey, a beautiful student at London’s Slade School of Fine Art. He stalks her between his tasks at City Hall. When he tires of his butterflies, he decides to collect Miranda: he buys a remote country house and converts its priest’s hole into a cellar room, where after drugging her with the same chloroform cocktail that he uses on his insects, he holds her captive.

Fifty years have passed since John Fowles published The Collector, but the novel has not aged. Its gripping, thrilling plot is regularly reenacted on small screens and big screens alike. A series of novels like it have followed: most recently, Emma Donoghue’s The Room, narrated by a child being held captive with his mother.

Although Fowles had already drafted his more famous novel The Magus, he delayed its publication until he finished The Collector. The initial reviews were tepid, but the book sold well enough that Fowles could devote himself to writing, including revising The Magus for publication and then writing The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which became his most famous work after an adaptation by Harold Pinter was made into an acclaimed film starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons.

Many of the themes so admired in The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman are already present in Fowles’s debut novel. He intended The Collector to be a commentary on class, not psychopathy. Clegg’s windfall is from the lottery, and Fowles dedicates pages and pages to explaining the character’s lack of culture and education, juxtaposing his circumstances with those of his victim: while Clegg comes from a broken home, his victim has loving, affluent parents and a host of friends whom she remembers while in captivity.

A year after publishing The Collector, Fowles explained in a philosophical autobiography that the novel had been inspired by Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher. In Fowles’s words, Heraclitus divided society into two parts: “a moral and intellectual élite (the aristoi, the good ones, not—this is a later sense—the ones of noble birth) and an unthinking conforming mass—hoi polloi, the many.”

Fowles accepted Heraclitus’s categories, but not their terms. The Aristos, as he called his autobiographical tract, argued that the categories of the Few and the Many “run through each individual, not between individuals.” In a later preface, Fowles made clear: “My purpose in The Collector was to attempt to analyse, through a parable, some of the results of this confrontation.”

Clegg and Grey illustrate that the categories of Heraclitus are not static, but fluid: Miranda, who fancies herself part of the aristoi, proves herself unthinkingly arrogant in trying to reform rather than escape Frederick. Fowles wrote in The Aristos that: “The actual evil in Clegg overcame the potential good in Miranda.”

It’s easy to accept the indictment of Miranda offered by Fowles, particularly when he assigns her cloying dialogue like: “I just think of things as beautiful or not. Can’t you understand? I don’t think of good or bad. Just of beautiful or ugly. I think a lot of nice things are ugly and a lot of nasty things are beautiful.”

Clegg accuses Gray of “playing with words,” but it’s Fowles playing with characters for his class allegory. Miranda boasts early in her captivity, “We’ll make you into someone really modern. Someone really interesting to meet,” as if all Clegg needed to escape his psychopathy was an education in art and culture. The novel preempts so many of the questions that drive empathy studies today: asking whether art and literature alone can make us into better people.

Fowles takes his victim’s modernist aesthetic beliefs and transforms them into agents of domination, directing Miranda to act in a way that mirrors Frederick’s own violent actions to control her. Clegg first introduces himself to Miranda as Ferdinand, but she later dubs him Caliban. Fowles’s invocation of The Tempest reveals Frederick’s romanticism and Miranda’s classism. She writes in her dairy at one point: “It’s a battle between Caliban and myself. He is the New People and I am the few.”

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Fowles succeeds in humanizing his antagonist more than his protagonist. Those who love the novel love it less for its class commentary than its compelling representation of a criminal mind. The Collector is forever ensconced in the pantheon of psychopathic core texts. Thomas Harris tipped his hat to Fowles in The Silence of the Lambs when he created the moth-loving antagonist Jame Gumb. CBS’s Criminal Minds devoted two whole episodes to a killer who communicates by using the novel as a cipher. Stephen King, who wrote an introduction to The Collector for the Book of the Month Club edition, even has a character reading the novel in his series The Dark Tower.

Clegg’s first-person narration is what readers have found so compelling. Clegg doesn’t come off as the everyman Fowles had hoped for: the character terrifies, disgusts, and enthralls. We witness his obsession with Miranda and its devolution into the evil acts that follow; through week after week of Miranda’s captivity, we observe Clegg’s delusions darken and madness deepen. The beauty of the book is in its horror.

The dyad of male captor and female captive is all too familiar, in life and in fiction, but The Collector distinguishes itself in the genre by allowing both abductor and abducted to speak. It balances criminal chronicle with captivity narrative. While so many of the details about the Cleveland kidnappings and cases like it may never emerge, novels like The Collector provide their fictional equivalents.

The answers we so desperately seek from news stations and newspapers may only be found in novels. The interiority of Frederick Clegg is something we rarely find elsewhere, certainly not in the case of Ariel Castro. His testimony during the sentencing hearing suggests he himself did not understand his actions. Most terrifying was his insistence: “I’m not a monster, I’m a normal person.”

Normalcy is the possibility entertained by The Collector, a novel in which the antagonist’s monstrosity cohabitates with normalcy. While we may never have answers for why women are held captive in attics, basements, and secret complexes around the world, The Collector provides surrogate understanding. We read and read and read such a novel with the hope that we might understand not only the fictional case, but the real cases as well.

Much has been made lately of the ability of literature to improve our empathy and social skills. Recent scientific studies even suggest that the sophistication of what we read has something to do with fiction’s ability to change us: the more literary the text, these studies have shown, the more potent its effects. But what if instead of sophistication, subject had something to do with literature’s power to change us? Reading the life of Frederick Clegg, for instance, might stretch our empathy muscles more than the life of some more common criminal and it might require more of us than reading the story of a survivor like Miranda Grey. Even if it doesn’t, The Collector is remarkable because it asks us to try and do both: to read the same experience through the voices of Clegg and Grey. John Fowles might have failed at creating an allegory of class, but he succeeded in crafting a drama in two voices, captor and captive both.