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  • The Gaze of the Magus:Sexual/Scopic Politics in the Novels of John Fowles
  • Alice Ferrebe (bio)

John Fowles's fiction conducts a complex interplay between the deconstruction and reinscription of traditional gender roles. This intermittent complicity may be aligned with the "scopic politics" of Fowles's novels; that is, the epistemological structures and power relationships inherent in the act of looking. The way in which the act of looking is both conceived and executed has, it will be asserted, a profound influence upon the narrative structures of Fowles's work—both within its diegesis and on a metafictional level. The central novels of Fowles's oeuvre, The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman, will be examined to determine the extent to which visual apprehension is questioned as a means of exerting power within gender relationships. The concept of a male gaze, that omniscient, omnipotent, objectifying mode of looking, remains an influential relic from the first swell of Second Wave feminism, most particularly Laura Mulvey's 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Just as the masculine/feminine binary conceals the true multiplicity within gender identity, so, as Kaja Silverman notes, "All binarizations of spectator and spectacle mystify the scopic relation in which we are held" (151). Fowles's fiction will be used to complicate and extend Mulvey's uncompromisingly gendered binary of an active/passive gaze.

In the study of voyeurism in film The Cinematic Gaze, Norman K. Denzin nominates Hitchcock and Antonioni as two auteurs who "rejected [End Page 207] the notion of the objective observer and each made the voyeur part of the spectacle that was witnessed" (163). In the relationship between Conchis, didact and director, and Nicholas Urfe, audience and actor, in The Magus1 , the possibility (and desirability) of objective observation is similarly interrogated. Further, it is gendered as quintessentially male; in a long speech preceding his description of the Nazi torture that took place on Phraxos, Conchis identifies what he claims to be "the great distinction between the sexes":

Men see objects, women see the relationship between objects. Whether the objects need each other, love each other, match each other. It is an extra dimension of feeling that we men are without and one that makes war abhorrent to all real women—and absurd. I will tell you what war is. War is a psychosis caused by an inability to see relationships. Our relationship with our fellow-men. Our relationship with our economic and historical situation. And above all our relationship to nothingness, to death.


In the essay "Notes on an Unfinished Novel," a documentary of the creative process written alongside The French Lieutenant's Woman, Fowles noted that, "If the technical problems hadn't been so great, I should have liked to make Conchis in The Magus a woman" (146). These "technical problems," presumably, involve Conchis's role in the Nazi occupation. Yet despite his tribute to it, Conchis does not demonstrate this purportedly female way of looking within the narrative. Rather, his optical mode is characterized to be utterly without either empathy or desire—as Nicholas notes: "outwardly he seemed to have very little interest in me, yet he watched me; even when he was looking away, he watched me; and he waited. Right from the beginning I had this: he was indifferent to me, yet he watched and he waited" (OV 76).

Mulvey's essay has been rigorously recycled and criticised since, but to include a brief summary: it defined the tradition of Hollywood narrative cinema by means of the fact that its gaze (of the camera, and by implication, of the audience) was "male." The male gaze is defined by the fact that it is active, and to achieve this power, the female object in film is routinely styled to connote passivity, to constitute "to-be-looked-at-ness" (19) [End Page 208] rather than an active, looking, subject position. The title of one section, which functions as a good summary of the basic argument, is "Woman as image, Man as bearer of the look" (19). Mulvey's political assertion, then, is that the construction of looking in Hollywood cinema establishes limits on women's agency. The spectator...


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