- The Enigma of The Ebony Tower:A Genre Study
The stories collected in John Fowles's The Ebony Tower constitute two books. One book is a grouping of stories written and translated by one author, apparently associated with but not fastened to each other very firmly, to be read in any order, with or without reflection on the whole. The second book, however, is an integrated collection of short stories, a contemporary example of the genre that includes 1001 Nights, Merrie Tales of Skelton, and Dubliners, to name some others spanning the centuries and cultures. This genre has developed through a long history predating and then coexisting with the novel and, more recently, with the unintegrated collection of stories. Briefly, this often unrecognized genre consists of separate stories (sometimes novellas, sketches, or parables, sometimes interspersed with poetry or even essays) that form a dynamic relationship with each other and with the reader. For the integrated collection is known above all for its tension between cohering, centripetal forces and separating, centrifugal forces. My purpose here is to show how this generic classification informs the thematic and structural bases of The Ebony Tower.
A commonplace of genre criticism holds that the category in which we place a work of art affects an audience's perception of the art; knowing [End Page 135] that one is reading a detective story, for example, sets up expectations for its language, structure, and characters. Moreover, one appreciates a work differently by apprehending how the author uses genre conventions. Thus, to read Fowles's stories as an integrated collection is to perceive a different book, one that uses the conventions of the genre in a particular way for particular results.
Quickly listed, those genre conventions involve the two basic dynamic centripetal and centrifugal forces. The centripetal are explicit and implicit framing devices readers encounter at the beginning of the collection, between, at the end, and/or among the stories. Explicit frames exist in prologues or "frame stories" (as in The Canterbury Tales or The Pastures of Heaven), interchapter pieces (discussion after the tales in the Decameron, Hemingway's news report chapters between the stories in In Our Time), and/or epilogues (The Canturbury Tales, The Pastures of Heaven). These frames function as organization, explanation, and justification for the stories they enfold. Yet they are not only pretexts for gathering the stories, however different they seem to be, but also contexts for the effects of the stories, offering thematic clues through tone, setting, and image patterns. In addition, the explicit frames may provide a fixed time period, a set of characters or narrators, a basic theme—sometimes in a stripped-down or abstract form—that the stories echo, develop, or oppose. Therefore, the explicit frames contribute organizing and unifying elements to stories that otherwise may seem arbitrarily grouped. The overt frame invites and encourages its readers to perceive the stories in a meaningful association.
Many integrated collections substitute for or reinforce the explicit frames with implicit ones. Instead of or in addition to prologues and epilogues, these examples use a continuous or related setting or chronology, a single or limited set of characters or narrators, and repeated themes or motifs. The Merrie Tales of Skelton, for instance, uses the fictionalized English poet as the implicit linking device, whereas Faulkner's The Unvanquished or Go Down, Moses uses a multitude of such techniques to create association and unified reference. The implicit frame also invites and encourages its readers to perceive the separate stories as a meaningful grouping, sometimes so effectively that critics misclassify integrated collections as novels.
In contrast to the centripetal, the centrifugal forces pull the stories apart. Should the explicit and implicit frames fail to convince a reader, or if the reader fails to perceive the frames, these separating elements disrupt the process of integration. Such elements include the discontinuities of the stories, with or without interchapters; the reader's sense of closure in each story; the variety in types or genres of stories (parable, fable, Lai, sketch, detective story, fantasy, and so on); and sometimes the sheer numbers of stories. The collection may seem too complicated [End Page 136] or chaotic...