Places: The Magus

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1965; revised, 1977

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1953

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedWaiting Room

Waiting Magus, TheRoom. Facetious name that the wealthy Greek-English philosopher Maurice Conchis gives to his villa, where the novel’s narrator, Nicholas Urfe, finds himself the subject–or perhaps victim–of a series of shifting realities orchestrated by Conchis. At first the experiments seem like a strange game, but it is one that eventually comes to have a more sinister cast. The isolation of the villa is emphasized in several ways. It is on the southern tip of the island of Phraxos, with no other human habitation anywhere near. It is surrounded by barbed wire, left over from World War II, it has its own private beach, and only its rooftop is visible from the forest outside the estate.

The character of the villa itself seems to change as the nature of Conchis’s experiments on Urfe change; at times the novel emphasizes the richness of the villa’s furnishings, which include original paintings by Amedeo Modigliani and Pierre Bonnard. At other times, the novel focuses on the plainness and simplicity of the villa’s fittings. Readers quickly understand that the Waiting Room–whose name comes from a salle d’attente sign from a French railway station, left behind by German occupation troops after the war–is a stage set whose different features are emphasized depending on each new mystery that is played out there.

The appearance of attractive English twins, June and Julia, turns the villa into a place of sexual attraction, even though their roles within Conchis’s ever-shifting drama make it difficult to get the measure of them. The villa is a place whose mysteries constantly befuddle and bedazzle visitors. It also becomes the embodiment of the warm and liberal atmosphere that makes the eastern Mediterranean so attractive to the buttoned-up English: “It was Greece again, the Alexandrian Greece of Cavafy; there were only degrees of aesthetic pleasure; of beauty in decadence. Morality was a North European lie.”

Lord Byron School

Lord Byron School. Private school on the island of Phraxos at which Urfe is a replacement teacher; it is modeled on the Anargyrios and Korgialenios College on Spetsai, where Fowles taught in 1952. Named after the great English poet who died in Greece while supporting the country’s struggle against its Turkish master, Lord Byron School is run along the lines of an English school. Its atmosphere is suffocating; only one other teacher speaks any English, and Urfe initially speaks no Greek. Although Fowles has elsewhere stated that his fictional school is nowhere near as grotesque as its real-life counterpart, he clearly presents it as a place from which to escape–in contrast to which even the mysteries of Conchis’s villa seem attractive and liberating.

The school’s island is also described in terms of its lack of amenity. All its tiny village has is a bar where Urfe can drink with his fellow teachers and a woodland where, for much of the year, there are not even goatherds tending their flocks. The island’s loneliness is evoked constantly.


*Athens. Capital of Greece, where Urfe attempts to discover the sexual liberty he dreams of finding in Greece during his periodic excursions from the school. However, the actual city is depicted as a crowded, bustling city of unlovely aspect where, on one occasion, Urfe thinks he has contracted syphilis from a prostitute. The true liberty he seeks is to be found only by threading through the maze of Conchis’s mysteries on Phraxos.


*London. Great Britain’s capital city appears twice in the novel. At the beginning of the book it is the impersonal city that ideally suits Urfe’s selfishness. There he starts a relationship with Alison, little understanding what a cold and uncaring person he really is. At the end of the novel, he finds that he must return to reality in London, where he again meets Alison and hence realizes the degree to which he has been changed by his experiences in Greece.

BibliographyGarard, Charles. Point of View in Fiction and Film: Focus on John Fowles. New York: Peter Lang, 1991. Important because three of Fowles’s novels–The Collector (1963), The Magus, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969)–have been made into films and because Fowles’s narrative techniques are often cinematic in nature.Huffaker, Robert. John Fowles. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A fine introduction to Fowles and his work, including a critical bibliography.Onega, Susana. Form and Meaning in the Novels of John Fowles. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989. Includes essays on Fowles’s novels of the 1980’s. Notes that the structures of the novels always reflect their meanings.Palmer, William J. The Fiction of John Fowles. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1974. A brief but stimulating reading of Fowles’s novels in the light of philosophical, social, and cultural contexts.Wolfe, Peter. John Fowles: Magus and Moralist. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1976. Especially interesting in that the author applies the concepts of magic and ethical behavior, two concerns of The Magus, to all of Fowles’s fiction.
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