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  • Time and Ruins in John Fowles's Daniel Martin
  • Sue Park (bio)

Daniel Martin, besides being a good story, demonstrates John Fowles's "technical wizardry" (Gardner 22), in part through the novelist's handling of time, one of the book's major motifs and a dominant concern from the first chapter. "Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation" (3), Fowles writes, and initiates the attempted achievement of that whole sight through an examination of all the days of Daniel Martin. The chapter is a beautifully detailed recreation of a day in Dan's youth, a summer day some thirty years before the present of the novel. Its opening paragraphs are written in the past tense, setting the scene in a Devon wheat field: "the field sloped," "Lewis sat," "the younger horse . . . stood." Then, for four paragraphs, the verb tense is present: "there are four figures," "the boy waves," "thistledown floats southward." A brief section using future tense follows: "the day will endure," "the reaper's noise will stop," "Mr. Luscombe will pull out his old fob"; then there is a return to the present tense for the remainder of the chapter, but with frequent transitions suggesting the passing of time: two dozen thens, for example, in five pages.

This first chapter prefigures the total work's concern with time. "Whole sight" demands an examination of past, present, and future, and the novel continually moves back and forth in time, a kaleidoscope of scenes from the life of Daniel Martin. Of the forty-six chapters, [End Page 157] twenty-eight are set almost wholly in the past, nine are retrospective accounts of past episodes, and nine are an amalgam, with occasional particularly striking passages of this sort: "in the night of the future he kisses tears from invisible, surrendered eyes; and in the electric light of the present tells Phoebe the apple-pie was superb but he can't eat a mouthful more" (447). Finally the last chapter, titled "Future Past," ends thus:

That evening, in Oxford, leaning beside Jane in her kitchen while she cooked supper for them, Dan told her with a suitable irony that at least he had found a last sentence for the novel he was never going to write. She laughed at such flagrant Irishry; which is perhaps why, in the end, and in the knowledge that Dan's novel can never be read, lies eternally in the future, his ill-concealed ghost had made that impossible last his own impossible first.


Dan's "ill-concealed ghost"—John Fowles—takes that "impossible last" sentence as his own first, "Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation," and the reader is back at the starting point.

The novelist's preoccupation with time, then, is evidenced by his use of schematic elements such as fractured chronology, shifting verb tenses, and the recircling at the end back to the beginning. More subtly a part of the pervasive time motif is setting, particularly the ruins of long-dead civilizations. Through the pages of the novel, scene after scene makes use of the geography of ruins. Three such scenes, one in each third of the book, function both structurally and thematically. The first is Chapter 11, "Tarquinia." The Etruscan civilization, of which Tarquinia was the mother city, controlled much of the Italian peninsula before the rise of Rome, achieving its peak of power and wealth during the sixth century BC. A rich source of knowledge about the lives and deaths of the ancient Etruscans has been the Tarquinian chamber tombs, the walls of which are painted with once-bright murals depicting banquets, festivals, and dances. The second major ruins section is Chapter 28, "Tsankawi." Tsankawi, a cliff dwelling dating from the Pueblo period of New Mexico's prehistory, is located on the Pajarito Plateau, northwest of Santa Fe. A large mesa has superimposed upon it a second and higher mesa whose abruptly rising rock walls are etched with still-discernible petroglyphs; on the summit of this higher mesa is the main ruin, a "three-story pile of stone outlining approximately 200 ground-floor rooms" (New Mexico 280), where, it is estimated, the inhabitants lived until the sixteenth century. And...


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pp. 157-163
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