The narrator, Frederick Clegg, is a young clerk at the Town Hall Annexe of his hometown in England. Clegg has grown obsessed with Miranda Grey, a beautiful teenager. He has seen her around town a few times and has fallen deeply in love, or so he tells himself. In addition, Clegg is an amateur butterfly collector; he compares Miranda's beauty and rarity to the splendor of the butterflies he has seen and captured. He soon learns that Miranda has won a scholarship to attend the Slade School of Art, a college in London. After venturing to London himself, Clegg keeps tabs on this young woman and gets upset whenever he sees her with another man.
Clegg then explains his personal history: he was raised by his Aunt Annie and Uncle Dick after losing his parents during his youth. (His father died when he was two and his mother subsequently left him.) Clegg was close to his uncle Dick, but Dick died when Clegg was fifteen. When Clegg turned 21, he started to play the football pools (a low buy-in, high potential rewards betting system for soccer games). At the start of the story, Clegg has won 73,000 pounds, a vast sum equivalent to $2-3 million American dollars today.
Despite his new-found wealth, Clegg finds that he is still looked down upon for his relatively low class origins. He tries to have sex with a prostitute but finds himself unable to become aroused. He grows tired of the presence of Aunt Annie and his disabled cousin Mabel; he wants more privacy, especially so that he can buy books with images of naked women, and he gets this freedom when his aunt and cousin go on an extended trip to Australia. Clegg sees them off and makes plans for what to do with his money; in particular, he wants to become more involved in collecting rare butterflies.
With his aunt and cousin out of the way, Clegg begins to pursue Miranda. He buys a van, though he says that this vehicle is only meant to carry his butterfly collecting gear, and parks outside Miranda's school to try to see her. On the second day of doing this, Clegg sees Miranda emerge with friends and go to a coffee shop. He follows her there and watches her. He even begins to dream about having a future together with the young art student, a future in which he keeps her captive and she comes to love him and, despite their unconventional beginning, they live together forever.
Clegg drives to see an old house in Lewes, Sussex (which is an hour outside London) and finds that the property is available for purchase. The property broker talks down to Clegg because Clegg appears to be lower-class. Yet Clegg finds the house perfect, both because of its remote location and on account of a special chamber within the cellar, perfect for housing a captive; nonetheless, Clegg reiterates that he never undertook any of these preparations with the intention of actually kidnapping Miranda. Clegg buys the house. He hires workmen to prepare the place as his residence. And he personally makes the hidden cellar room escape-proof.
He then returns to London and searches for Miranda once more. After several days of searching, he figures out where she lives. By this point, Clegg is certain he is going to capture Miranda. He prepares a bed in his van and readies a pad of chloroform to subdue her. Ten days later, on a rainy evening, he sees Miranda getting off the Tube and follows her in his van to a movie theater, where she watches a film until the rain subsides. When she exits, Clegg drives ahead of her to a secluded place that he knows she will pass on her way home. Once Miranda reaches him he asks her if she can help him, and pretends that he has been driving and has hit a dog, which is alive in his van. Once Miranda moves to the open back of the van, Clegg presses his pad of chloroform to her mouth and nose. She struggles, but is finally subdued. He gags her, drives for a bit and then ties her down tightly so she will be safe and silent for the journey.
With Miranda now his captive, Clegg begins driving back to his new house. During the journey, he goes to the back of the van to see how Miranda is. He takes off the gag and she vomits. He replaces the gag, panicking, and drives home as quickly as possible. It is late in the evening, 10:30 at night, when he arrives. Miranda tries to struggle free, but Clegg tells her that he will use the chloroform again if she does so. Without further incident, he carries her into her basement room and bolts her in. He waits for an hour outside the door and then goes upstairs. He spends the night dreaming of her, reflecting that the night he captured her was the best night of his life, after winning the pools. He was able to fulfill a dream that always seemed impossibly out of reach.
In the morning, Clegg goes down to see Miranda, who is angry and demands that he release her. When she recognizes him from a photograph in the newspaper, he pretends that he brought Miranda to his house under the orders of Mr. Singleton, a man who knows Miranda's father. Miranda clearly does not believe Clegg but plays along, hoping still to be set free.
When Clegg brings Miranda her lunch, she confronts him about the Mr. Singleton story, which is clearly untrue. Clegg admits that he kidnapped her of his own will, and says that he wants her to be his guest and for her to love him. He explains to her his whole history of following her from afar and falling in love. Yet Miranda tells him that she could never fall in love with him while he keeps her prisoner, and asks him to let her go; then, she will be friends with him on the outside. He leaves the room, upset.
The next day Miranda again asks Clegg to let her go. She asks him his name. He reveals his real last name, Clegg, but lies about his first name, telling her that it is Ferdinand instead of Frederick. She tells him again that she could never fall in love with someone who kidnapped her. He says that, in London, they would have been of such different classes that Miranda never would have noticed him. The kidnapping is the only way for them to be together. Miranda insists she is not a snob, but Clegg reflects that class was always a barrier during Miranda's term of imprisonment.
Clegg eventually goes into the nearby town, Lewes, to look at the newspapers. All of them have articles about Miranda's disappearance. Clegg gains a feeling of power because no one knows where Miranda is, except for him. Later, Miranda asks him about the news, but he does not tell her about her disappearance making the papers. As her imprisonment drags on, she will repeatedly ask to see newspapers or to hear the radio, and Clegg will always deny her these privileges.
That night, Clegg makes Miranda a nice dinner, and she allows him to stay in her room and talk to her. They look at one of the art books he has bought for her and placed in her room. He says he would do anything to make her happy. She asks him again to let her go, though she realizes that her freedom is the one thing he will never give her. She says that if he wants her to stay until she loves him, she will be there until she dies.
The next morning she makes her first escape attempt. She tells him that the back of her bed feels like it is going to collapse. While Clegg is bent over examining the bed, Miranda pushes him off balance and runs to the door. Yet Clegg has wedged the outer basement door shut as an extra precaution and catches up to her. He drags her back to the room and locks her in.
At the beginning of the novel, Clegg clearly claims that he was not making many plans to entrap Miranda; in retrospect, though, Clegg reflects that he viewed his scheme as a possibility that might or might not materialize, much like a dream. The language that Clegg uses to describe all that led up to his capture of Miranda is especially interesting, because his descriptions show the depths of his delusional mentality: he went to great lengths to kidnap Miranda yet construes his actions as though they were beyond his will or desire.
According to Clegg, "What I'm trying to say is that having her as my guest happened suddenly, it wasn't something I planned the moment the money came" (16). He also tries to justify himself by explaining that "I didn't buy [the van] for the reason I did use it for," even though he later admits that his car is perfectly equipped for capturing a victim (17). Clegg appears to have done many things that enabled him to capture Miranda, all while living in a dream world where his capturing her would be wonderful, but not necessarily possible.
"All this time I never thought I was serious. I know that must sound very strange, but it was so," explains Clegg (24). His sudden flush of wealth has changed his life circumstances so dramatically that he barely realizes the truth of his actions until it is far too late to reverse course. He goes so far as to buy a house that is effectively set up for keeping Miranda captive, but he continues to deny that carrying of Miranda was his intention: "I still say I didn't go down there with the intention of seeing whether there was anywhere to have a secret guest. I can't really say what intention I had. I just don't know. What you do blurs over what you did before" (20). The last line makes it clear that whatever the future holds, this future will be in opposition to whatever Clegg expected. The entire quotation is creepy and foreboding.
Most of all, this early section of Fowles's novel shows just how warped Clegg's view of the world is. His isolation as a child and his less-than-delightful work experiences do not excuse his actions, but his back-story does explain his desperation to find companionship. "There was always the idea she would understand," he explains, talking about Miranda (19). He even hopes that she will come to love him and that they will raise a family together in the house, despite his having kidnapped her.
What makes Clegg's mindset especially scary is that he delivers all his abnormal thoughts in a very rational voice. The juxtaposition of his calm language and the horrors that he will inflict perfectly sets a tone of realistic madness; this contrast entails a breakdown of logic, which the novel will explore at length. "But I thought it would be better if she was cut off from the outside world," he says, thinking about his connection to Miranda. "She'd have to think about me more" (23).
The novel's prominent themes of class and collection also begin to appear in these sections of The Collector. Differences in class will always stand between Miranda and Clegg: "There was always class between us," Clegg reflects (41). Miranda does not think she is a snob, yet Clegg accuses her of being an elitist and maintains that Miranda would never have taken notice of him in London. Miranda also becomes aware of how well she fits into Clegg's obsession with collection: "Now you've collected me," she says (44). Both these themes are crucial to the psychological warfare that will be waged between the two characters throughout the rest of the novel.