Unsolved Mysteries: Agents of Historical Change in John Fowles's A Maggot

Article excerpt

In the prologue to A Maggot (1984), John Fowles specifically defines the aims of the story he is about to tell: "What follows may seem like a historical novel; but it is not. It is a maggot." Locating the origin of the tale in his recurring dream of five travellers crossing the English countryside, Fowles connects the source of his story to a "maggot," meaning a whim or quirk, and suggests that he wrote it out of his obsession with the image. Fowles recognizes, however, that readers will tend to see the work as a historical novel. Indeed, the detailed description of eighteenth- century culture included here, like the vivid portrait of the Victorian age in The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), offers a rich vision of life in a previous century. It is in the context of this historical erudition that we must interpret Fowles's comment that A Maggot "may seem" like a historical novel, though it really is not. I want to suggest that what Fowles rejects here is an older, more traditional sense of historical fiction and that A Maggot lays the groundwork for re-conceiving historiography as a critical practice, one as much concerned with addressing social and political issues of the present as with offering an objective depiction of the past. Simply put, despite his protestations, Fowles has written a historical novel that helps redefine the genre.

In many ways a self-conscious reflection on historiographic issues, A Maggot poses important metahistorical questions about the narrative form of historical knowledge and the individual's role as an agent of historical change. Fowles raises these concerns most obviously through the narrative structure of the novel, which centers on the mysterious disappearance of a young aristocrat in a cave in Devonshire in the eighteenth century. Not dramatized as it occurs, the disappearance becomes the focus of a detailed investigation that ultimately cannot explain or solve it. Invoking the tropes of anti-detective fiction, Fowles here confronts both the main character, Rebecca, and the reader with an essential mystery. Ultimately, by offering Rebecca's spiritual transformation in the face of this mystery as a model for the reader's response to the unsolvable textual mystery, Fowles challenges totalizing conceptions of both the self as utterly subject to, or determined by, historical forces, and the self as an autonomous, unified individual capable of rationally controlling his/her destiny. Fowles instead offers the reader a model of a historically situated agent, acting without pretense to complete knowledge of the trajectory of history, who earns a degree of freedom by dissenting from established, and so conventional, social and religious values.[1] The novel thus redefines history-writing as Fowles promotes his democratic, feminist vision of social change.

Invoking the reader's desire for solution, Fowles establishes a sense of mystery from the beginning of the narrative. The first section of the novel offers a brief account of a journey undertaken by a young aristocrat who goes by the name of Bartholomew; with four companions, he travels through the English countryside and stays overnight at The Black Hart Inn. The four companions include Dick Thurlow (Bartholomew's mute servant), Mr. Brown (Bartholomew's Uncle), Louise (a maid), and Farthing (a guard). As the narrative progresses and dialogue is introduced, it becomes apparent that these travellers are playing roles in a drama, designed by Bartholomew, that they do not understand. For example, Mr. Brown's deference to Bartholomew in private suggests that he is not the young man's uncle. And the bizarre sexual scenes further confuse the reader about the relationships between the characters: how should the reader interpret the scene in which Dick exposes himself to an unconcerned Louise, or the one in which Louise strips before Bartholomew? This confusion multiplies as the reader learns that the alleged point of the journey--Bartholomew's elopement with his lover--is not the real reason for the trek. …