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Obsession as Depicted in 'The Collector' and 'Enduring Love'

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Obsession as Depicted in 'The Collector' and 'Enduring Love' essay

Both John Fowles in The Collector and Ian McEwan in Enduring Love use complex symbols and metaphors to expose the theme of obsession. In Enduring Love, the opening events and metaphor of the balloon act as a foreshadowing device for obsession. This is shown by John Logan’s laudable but obsessive refusal to let go of the rope which drags him further away from safe ground and the sanity that it represents. This idea is also analogous to all obsessive actions which unfold from this ‘pinprick on the time map’ such as Joe and Jed’s mutual obsession and Jean Logan’s obsession with her husband’s death. In Enduring Love, the symbol of balloon is an inanimate object whereas The Collector’s main symbol is the butterfly. In The Collector, this symbol is more of a recurrent motif and not something the reader can trace as the beginning of obsession. However, it still acts as the metaphor and pre-figurative device through which the reader can infer Miranda’s future including her capture and imprisonment. The visual aspect of the butterfly and the concept of pinning it down to spread its wings and then photograph it from every angle for “science” definitely finds shocking visual parallels in Clegg’s obsessive behaviour, ‘I took her till I had no more bulbs left.’

The balloon of Enduring Love is also a striking visual metaphor which foreshadows uncontrollable obsession in the book. The author imbues it with a transcendental quality by relating it to the formation of the universe ‘the generation of multiplicity and variety of matter in the universe’ and cosmology. This scientific authorial voice characterises the novel’s narrator and suggests the grand implications of the balloon on the narrative. Rose describes this as ‘the colossus at the centre of the field that drew us in’. The exaggerated size suggests the author is going beyond the balloon as a physical object but more like a force of nature or scientific abstraction for obsession which seems to drag the men inexorably towards it. Similarly, the lexicon used by Fowles to describe butterfly catching, for example Clegg’s ‘entomological observations diary’ is akin to someone trying to emulate a scientific tone and this creates a similarly distinct narrative voice for Clegg and his related obsession. The ‘observations diary’ of Clegg also parallels the capture of butterflies and beautiful women as being of equal importance, dehumanizing Miranda and making his obsession easier to justify. Clegg freely admits that, ‘Seeing her always made me feel like I was catching a rarity,’ again juxtaposing Miranda and the butterflies.

McEwan’s use of the balloon as a symbol begins a complex network of ambiguity. The reader is left unsure as to whether Logan’s hanging onto the rope is truly an obsessive action or one projected into that role by those who selfishly let go. Ironically, Joe’s seemingly rational action of dropping from the balloon sets in motion the events which lead to the central obsession. For the narrator, the balloon episode marks a ‘branching and subdivision’ opening up ‘pathways of love and hatred’ which are borne out through the novel. Therefore, in Enduring Love, the events surrounding the balloon act as the catalyst which opens ‘pathways’ for obsession to propagate. However in The Collector, the obsession has already begun. Instead, Fowles builds a slow awareness of Clegg’s danger and creates tension by his specific obsessive observations, ‘very pale, silky, like burnet cocoons’ with the simile again showing the concurrence between Miranda and the butterfly. The symbol of the butterfly juxtaposed with Miranda also explicates the novel’s title; he is not merely a collector of butterflies but a collector of people as well.

The title of Enduring Love is not fully understood until far later in the novel. Instead there is a sense of the balloon being a transformational device for McEwan, ‘a kind of furnace’ out of which ‘identities and fates would buckle into new shapes’ facilitating the change from normality to obsession. The language of accurate scientific observation is again evident particularly the ‘mathematical grace’ of the situation suggesting the aforementioned fateful inevitability. Similarly, language usually used to describe butterflies in The Collector, ‘elusive and sporadic’ is instead attributed to Miranda. Clegg however, does not realise that the beauty of the butterfly is in the delicate movements of flight when it is truly ‘elusive’ not when captured and “scientifically” scrutinized (similar to the paradox of Art and Photography). Fowles creates a dichotomy by juxtaposing Clegg’s dull personality with the spontaneity of the butterfly (Miranda) which represents the balance of their personalities. This juxtaposition also represents the other paradoxes of obsession within the novel including art and science, dangerous and normal obsession, and even the opposition of class.

However, before such an exploration, one must first trace the growth and beginning of obsession. The opening of Enduring Love including the metaphor of the balloon is formative in the creation of obsession. McEwan acknowledges this, distinguishing between the ‘large-scale events’ of the balloon and the ‘subtler elements’ such as Rose’s first encounter with Jed Parry; A seemingly innocuous moment of sustained eye contact, ‘(his) clear blue-grey eyes held mine’. McEwan’s retrospective eye intimates that this is the absolute specific moment in which the obsession begins because beyond this ‘every gesture, every word’ is ‘gathered and piled, fuel for the long winter of his obsession.’ McEwan is ambiguous as to why this specific moment begins Jed’s obsession though it is implied to be a combination of shock from the accident and loneliness. In contrast, Fowles presents Clegg’s obsession as born out of a lack of education and the obsessive inadequacy with his background, ‘(everybody) seemed to look down on us’.

Interestingly, both the central obsessive characters’ parents are “absent” meaning that their obsessive actions are largely unregulated, including those taken by Clegg corresponding to his growing obsession, ‘I used to see her…I stood right behind her…watch(ed) her for thirty five minutes.’ These accurate and specific observations characterise most of the first chapter and the detail with which Fowles describes the events, ‘she sat three seats down and sideways to me’ points to Clegg’s potential dangerousness. A sense of dramatic tension is created because the reader is left unsure as to how Clegg will “consummate” his obsession. In fact, both authors use structural devices to contrive that their protagonists come into large sums of money, Clegg from ‘the pools’ and Jed from his inheritance, giving the characters the means to pursue their obsessions unencumbered by the need to work, and thus money.

Parry’s obsession is presented by McEwan in the context of his religious beliefs, ‘god has brought us together in this tragedy’ and contact with Joe provides fuel both for Parry’s obsessive love but also his need to “convert” Joe. Parry’s obsessive religious fanaticism is evident referring to himself as a ‘messenger’ and God’s word as ‘a gift’. This early encounter sets the tone for the rest of the novel in which Parry uses religion and denial to create an imaginary obsessive world. His obsession is hard to classify and clearly not conventional love. Joe in a typical scientific fashion labels it ‘de Clerambault syndrome’ as if by classification the condition suddenly becomes explicable. Fowles on the other hand, doesn’t classify Clegg’s condition but leaves the reader to make inference from the text as to his clearly disturbed mental state. This is achieved by the unreliable narrator used by Fowles creating ambiguity as to the true nature of his obsession. Like Parry one suspects his perception of the world is delusional and stilted, ‘if more people were like me… the world would be better’ though it unclear whether this is a self imposed delusion. Clegg attempts, early on, to suggest his intentions towards Miranda ‘were of the best’ but despite this, later in the novel, his feelings towards her are clearly of a sexual nature, ‘the photographs…I could take my time with them.’ Furthermore, his obsessive infatuation seems to be born solely from her physical appearance, ‘so beautiful’ and his idealistic vision of her, ‘like a mermaid’.

From this conclusion stems one of the main differences in the authors’ presentation of obsession. Clegg is obsessed with physically controlling Miranda, both in a sexual sense but also as a ‘Collector’ whereas Jed’s obsession is with winning over Joe’s mind to God and platonic love. In this way, the presentation of obsession is inverted by both authors; Joe is physically free in the outside world, ‘Our prison grew larger’ but captured in his mind, ‘my mental state was very frail’. On the other hand, Miranda is confined and controlled ‘in this little small room’ and yet finds solace in her imagination, ‘I wrote myself into another world’ and is able to transcend her physical capture.

It would seem therefore that the author’s construction of primary obsession is used to create an obsessive counter-reaction from the victims. In Enduring Love, Joe becomes equally obsessed with Jed and McEwan uses the technique of the unreliable narrator and similarities between the two to make their relationship still more ambiguous. The similarity of their names suggests a wilful comparison by McEwan as if under slightly different circumstances they might occupy similar roles. This parallel of Joe and Parry, insinuated by McEwan, is encapsulated when Clarissa remarks ‘His writing’s rather like yours’ reinforcing the ambiguity as to whether Jed is even real. Joe’s seemingly irrational response to someone who ostensibly appears harmless (or otherwise absent) makes the reader question who is the true dangerous obsessive. McEwan develops this further through multiple perspectives, first from Clarissa, ‘the Parry described by Joe, does not exist’ and then from Inspector Linley (whose ‘globular face’ has echoes of the balloon) ‘as Stalker’s go he’s a pussycat’ to cast doubt upon Joe’s obsessive assertions. Essentially, Joe’s obsession forces him to reciprocate Jed’s attention which, in turn, fuels the obsession Jed feels.

In contrast, Clegg’s obsession causes Miranda to be driven further away from him. Fowles uses Miranda’s obsession with GP (the antithesis of Clegg) to add to the narrative richness of the text and interestingly we can see the progression of her thought process up to the epiphany, ‘I’ll marry him.’ The contrast of normal love (a form of healthy obsession) and Clegg’s possessive and repressed sexual feelings are juxtaposed by Fowles. Interestingly, the polarity established through the juxtaposition of these two extremes show Clegg’s obsessive ‘love’ for what it truly is. Miranda’s captivity and love for GP also lead her towards a more understandable obsession: escape. Her willingness to do ‘anything’ to achieve freedom, ‘she did some things which I won’t say’ reflects upon the zeitgeist of sexual liberation synonymous with the 60s but also contrasts with Clegg’s sexually repressed emasculation.

From a structural perspective, Miranda’s sexual advances break the equilibrium of obsessions between the two characters. She rejects Clegg’s obsessive behaviour and seeks to act positively against it. However instead, her actions highlight his sexual ineptitude and drive them ‘further apart than ever’. Similarly, McEwan marks his protagonist’s purging of obsession through the somewhat crude and visceral metaphor of excretion. Unlike Miranda’s epiphany of love forcing her to take positive action, Joe’s is one set against a realisation that humans are detached from the ‘grand cycles’ of nature and human existence is insignificant compared with every other organism and process upon which it depends. This reflection, essentially from McEwan, highlights how solipsistic and ego-centric obsessive behaviour truly is and leads to Joe buying a gun, thus breaking obsession between them.

Structurally, these events also cause an imbalance leading to the inevitable climax of obsession. In The Collector, this is shown by Clegg’s statement, ‘I had enough…I went and pulled the bed clothes off her’ revealing his true obsessive behaviour. Miranda’s earlier attempts to fulfil Clegg’s sexual obsession are used to justify his subsequent treatment of her, ‘All I did later was because of that night.’ Miranda’s eventual demise and Clegg choosing his next target, ‘Marian’ reveals his specific obsession for Miranda is destroyed but his obsessive personality remains. In Enduring Love, the obsessive love also (somewhat unsurprisingly) endures and is expressed in the appendix, ‘P writes daily to R’. Interestingly, despite the climactic confrontations, both authors ensure that the abnormal obsessive behaviour endures.

Set against these principal obsessions is a rich tapestry of secondary obsessions shown in the various sub-plots and extensive allusions to Shakespeare. The faint parallel of the Tempest is used ironically by Fowles and is shown in Clegg’s delusion in re-naming himself ‘Ferdinand’ reflecting his idealistic view of the obsession. However, this is subverted by Miranda who sees through his fa?ade and aptly calls him ‘Caliban’ instead, creating a parallel of Clegg’s delusion of who he wants to be, against who he really is. The fact that Caliban famously attempts to rape Miranda in ‘the Tempest’ also foreshadows Clegg’s own sexual obsession. Interestingly, the novel’s parallel to the Tempest is not fully borne out by the book. Miranda is not the idealistic and submissive woman appearances suggest, but strong, independent and drawn to someone who shares her obsessions: GP. Ironically, he is a Caliban of sorts in his vulgarity and hedonism. Similarly, in Enduring Love, McEwan alludes to Othello in Joe’s suspicion that Clarissa is having an affair with ‘Some hot little bearded fuck-goat’ though the story’s Iago is, unusually, Joe’s obsessive and irrational mindset. Jean Logan’s obsession with her husband’s fidelity is a further example of every obsession emanating from the balloon and GP’s obsession with living as a ‘truthful’ artist (shown by his manifesto) creates a rich textural backdrop of obsessive behaviour.

In a way, every character is identifiable by the obsessive stereotype which they maintain. Clarissa’s interest in John Keats represents an artistic obsession in Enduring Love through the manner in which she draws inference from his letters. Yet ironically, when it comes to the letters of Jed she is unable to see his potential danger. Similarly, Joe’s character is the epitome of science within the novel and this is shown in his scientific tangents ‘Elkman’s celebrated cross cultural study’ but also the way he recounts every detail of the balloon incident. As such, one would expect him to maintain the same cold rational logic in the face of Jed’s obsession, though he quickly becomes paranoid. In this way, we can see the manner in which McEwan creates three dimensional characters by subverting stereotypes through obsession. Similarly, Fowles presents Clegg, ostensibly, as a man of science yet this guise is subverted through Clegg’s justification of his obsessive behaviour. For him, the capture of butterflies is, in fact, an obsessive and empowering pursuit not a scientific one. This is reinforced in the language spoken of his new target at the end, ‘for the interest….and to compare’ where the guise of a ‘scientific’ experiment somehow justifies kidnap. Therefore, whilst in Enduring Love, McEwan presents the opposition of Art and Science as part of the ‘equilibrium’ between Clarissa and Joe, Fowles shows that love can never foster in an abnormal obsessive and pseudo-scientific context. This though, is only truly realised when the authors introduce the third protagonist, Jed and GP, and their obsessions (religion and art) alter the balance of obsession within the novels.

This three way structure is alluded to in Joe’s epiphany where he discusses the river ‘two atoms of hydrogen, one oxygen bound together by a mysterious force’ which parallels the obsessive network between Jed, Joe and Clarissa. McEwan places this petty human struggle of obsession in the context of ‘billions, trillions, of them’, suggesting the vast nature of obsession. Despite the continuation of his scientific thinking, Joe is able to disengage with his over-rationalising mind and play with the children. Furthermore, the co-operative attitude between him and them as they face ‘the slow brown expanse of water’ is one fatally ‘absent’ from the initial balloon incident and also Joe and Clarissa’s earlier attempts to resolve obsession within the novel.

Similarly, Jed watching the ‘sun’ coming up and turning the trees ‘black’ strongly recalls the rising balloon suggesting the cyclical and eternal nature of obsession. Jed’s obsession, like the sun and the balloon, is one destined to continue and transcends everything. He feels the sunlight is the enduring love of God and Joe, who as a confessional figure has almost been elevated to the status of such a deity. Interestingly this creates a counterpoint with The Collector. Miranda’s death and the discovery of her diary, prove to Clegg that she was not the idealised woman he thought her to be. The loss of her dignity, her burial and his subsequent disregard, relegate her to the status of previous lesser obsessions proving that, obsessive love is not always the love which endures.


1.Fowles, John; The Collector, Vintage Classics, London, 1963

2.McEwan, Ian; Enduring Love, Vintage, London, 1997

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Obsession as Depicted in ‘The Collector’ and ‘Enduring Love’. (2018, May 23). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from
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