The Magus is the first novel that John Fowles actually penned, although it would only be published after two subsequent efforts were completed. Fowles is perhaps most famous for later writing The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Anyone who has read that groundbreaking novel or even seen the acclaimed film adapted from it is familiar with the fact that Fowles artistic signature is playing around with reader expectation. Fowles was a leading light in the world of postmodern fiction before that term lapsed into pop culture meaninglessness capable of application to pert near anything. And The Magus makes The French Lieutenant’s Woman look like a completely straightforward example of Modernism by comparison.
The Magus is purposely and notoriously unclear as far as reaching the kind of ending that most people would seem—judging by standards codified through a century of Hollywood films—to prefer. As a result, the ending naturally feels incomplete, but in literary terms the very lack of determinacy is often successfully utilized for the purpose of creating a coherence synonymous with ambiguity. In turn, a lesser known synonym for ambiguity, but one endowed with a more facilitative estimation as a device for the creation of a work genuinely deserving of being designated as postmodern literature is plurisignation. Plurisignation is the preferred alternative term called into action for the purpose of expanding on the concept of ambiguity.
The term was coined by author Philip Wainwright in his study of the language of symbolism, The Burning Fountain. Wainwright rejected the constriction of the inherent “either/or” meaning connotatively contained with literature seeking to create layers of possibilities through a heightened demonstration of ambiguousness meaning. His aim expanding upon the imprecision of the mysterious quality of ambiguity to lend it a “both/and” concept under the term plurisignation. Perhaps even more to the point is Wainwright also intended the quality of plurisignation within a text to employ ambiguity as an essential part of its overall meaning. Such an example of the type of ambiguous writing that employs the particular technique of plurisignation is John Fowles’ debut effort, The Magus.
The novel is short on plot, long on character and even longer on the ambiguous nature between what is real and what is unreal. Or, perhaps more appropriately, less real. Or, maybe even more appropriately, less unreal. At the heart of the narrative motion that carries readers of The Magus to appointment with disappointment if they are of a mind that needs to have some sort of definite ending spelled out for them by the author are what the author refers to as “godgames.” These amusement constructed upon the foundation of blurring the line between what is reality and what is merely artifice eventually place the reader front and center in the extricating some sort of unambiguous meaning from the wealth of plurisignatious possibilities that author has provided for them.
Or, put in a less plurisignatious manner, the ending of The Magus is left entirely until to reader. And there is no ambiguity about that, as the many letters addressed to Fowles from readers pleading for a definitive qualification of the outcome of the novel that was intended by the author. Confirmation that The Magus fulfills Wainwright directive that plurisignation requires the ambiguity to be essential to the meaning of the story, when Fowles took upon himself the task of responding to such pleas, his answer would depend on how he felt at the moment and could be an outcome utterly oppositional to his most immediately previous response to a reader.