The novel is about a lonely young man, Frederick Clegg, who works as a clerk in a city hall and collects butterflies in his spare time. The first part of the novel tells the story from his point of view.
Clegg is obsessed with Miranda Grey, a middle-class art student at the Slade School of Fine Art. He admires her from a distance but is unable to make any contact with her because he lacks social skills. One day, he wins a large prize in the football pools. He quits his job and buys an isolated house in the countryside. He feels lonely, however, and wants to be with Miranda. Unable to make any normal contact, Clegg decides to add her to his "collection" of pretty, petrified objects, in the hope that if he keeps her captive long enough, she will grow to love him.
After careful preparations, he kidnaps Miranda by drugging her with chloroform and locks her up in the cellar of his house. He is convinced that Miranda will start to love him after some time. However, when she wakes up, she confronts him with his actions. Clegg is embarrassed and promises to let her go after a month. He promises to show her "every respect", pledging not to sexually molest her and to shower her with gifts and the comforts of home, on one condition: she can't leave the cellar.
The second part of the novel is narrated by Miranda in the form of fragments from a diary that she keeps during her captivity. Miranda reminisces over her previous life throughout this section of the novel; and many of her diary entries are written either to her sister or to a man named G.P., whom she respected and admired as an artist. Miranda reveals that G.P. ultimately fell in love with her and consequently severed all contact with her.
At first, Miranda thinks that Clegg has sexual motives for abducting her; but, as his true character begins to be revealed, she realises that this is not true. She begins to pity her captor, comparing him to Caliban in Shakespeare's play The Tempest because of his hopeless obsession with her. Clegg tells Miranda that his first name is Ferdinand (eventual winner of Miranda's affections in The Tempest).
Miranda tries to escape several times, but Clegg stops her. She also tries to seduce him to convince him to let her go. The only result is that he becomes confused and angry. When Clegg keeps refusing to let her go, she starts to fantasize about killing him. After a failed attempt to do so, Miranda passes through a phase of self-loathing. She decides that to kill Clegg would lower her to his level. She refrains from any further attempts to do so. Before she can try to escape again, she becomes seriously ill and dies.
The third part of the novel is narrated by Clegg. At first, he wants to commit suicide after he finds Miranda dead; but, after he reads in her diary that she never loved him, he decides that he is not responsible for what happened to her and is better off without her. The book ends with his announcement that he plans to kidnap another girl.
In his second book, The Aristos, a collection of philosophical essays, Fowles wrote that he intended the novel to explore the danger of class and intellectual divisions in a society where prosperity for the majority was becoming more widespread, and power (whether by wealth or position) was gained by those intellectually unsuited to handle it.
He further discusses his inspiration for The Collector. He said that the Greek philosopher Heraclitus saw mankind as divided into two groups. The first was a moral and intellectual elite known as the aristoi, or "the good", (not necessarily meaning those of noble birth), and the second was hoi polloi, or "the many", who were viewed as an unthinking, conforming mass. Fowles wanted readers to understand that "the dividing line should run through each individual, not between individuals."
"I tried to establish the virtual innocence of the many. Miranda, the girl he [Clegg] imprisoned, had very little more control than Clegg over what she was: she had well-to-do parents, a good educational opportunity, inherited aptitude and intelligence. That does not mean that she was perfect. Far from it – she was arrogant in her ideas, a prig, a liberal-humanist snob, like so many university students. Yet if she had not died she might have become something better, the kind of being humanity so desperately need."
Fowles goes on to explain that the purpose of the novel was not to say that a precious elite was threatened by the barbarian hordes. Rather, that people had to face up to an unnecessary brutal conflict based on envy and contempt, and accept that we will never be born equal until The Many can be educated out of a false sense of inferiority and The Few can understand that biological superiority is not a state of existence but rather a state of responsibility. He strongly opposes the view that the idea behind The Collector is a fascist one.
The Collector has been adapted as a film and a dramatic play. The Collector also is referred to in various songs, television episodes, and books.The novel was adapted as a feature film by the same name in 1965. The screenplay was by Stanley Mann and John Kohn, and it was directed by William Wyler, who turned down The Sound of Music to direct it. It starred Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar.
The 1980 Tamil language film Moodu Pani, according to its director Balu Mahendra, is 60% based on The Collector.
A stage version of the novel (written by John Fowles) was performed in London in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Marianne Faithfull starred as Miranda. It was poorly received by the critics.
It has also been performed at the Camden's People Theatre.
Adapted again with permission from Fowles Estate by Tim Dalgleish and Caz Tricks for Bare Bones Theatre Company, Wolverton, Milton Keynes, 1999
Another adaption was written by Mark Healy and first performed at Derby Playhouse in October 1998.
Mark Healy's adaptation was also performed at the 'Arcola Theatre' in Hackney, London from 26 August to 20 September 2008.
The play was also performed at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe by 'Vivid Theatre Company.'
The play will be performed again at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival by 'Arkle Theatre Company'.
Blink. Theatre produced the play at The Space from 3–14 March 2015.
The play had its 2016 American premiere at 59E59 Street Theater in Manhattan, running from October 26th to November 13th.
"The Collector", a song inspired by the novel, was written by Sonny Curtis. It was recorded by The Everly Brothers in 1966 and included on their album Two Yanks in England. The song was also recorded by 'The No. 1' band in 1967 on Kapp records (K824/K-10643) b/w "Cracks in the Sidewalk" (Kapp K824/K-10644).
The song "The Butterfly Collector" by The Jam (the B-Side of the 1979 single "Strange Town") was said to be inspired by the book. It was about Soo Catwoman who, upon the implosion of the Sex Pistols, attempted to become part of The Jam's entourage.
The song "Purity" by metal band Slipknot has lyrics related to the novel.
The song "Prosthetics" by Slipknot recount a story similar to that in the novel.
The song "The Collector" by Russian band Deadushki has lyrics related to the novel.
The Smiths song "Half A Person" is thought to be titled after the quote, "Caliban is half a person at the best of times."
The song "International Rock Star" by the Canadian band Stars is loosely related to the plot of the book and features soundbites from the film.
The song "The Man Who Stole A Leopard" by British band Duran Duran (All You Need Is Now album) was inspired by the movie, according to the keyboardist Nick Rhodes.
The song "Index" by UK artist Steven Wilson (album Grace For Drowning Kscope 2011) was inspired by the novel.
The song "Chastity" by pop-rock group The Raves (album Past Perfect Tense Hologramophone 1992) has lyrics related to the novel.
The basic plot of The Collector: a lonely maladjusted person kidnapping the object of his or her desire, has become a standard plot device of a number of TV shows, ranging from soap operas to crime series. Some more explicit references to John Fowles' book are:In the Criminal Minds two-part episode, "The Fisher King", a kidnapper uses a copy of The Collector to send a coded message to the Behavioral Analysis Unit.
In an episode of The Simpsons, "Treehouse of Horror X", Comic Book Guy uses the supervillain persona "The Collector" and kidnaps Lucy Lawless from a comic book convention.
In the book The Dark Tower by Stephen King, Finli O'Tego, also known as The Weasel, reads The Collector. Later Finli noticed another character, Dinky, reading Fowles' The Magus.
In the book Misery by Stephen King, the character Paul Sheldon compares his situation to that in Fowles' novel. A quote from The Collector prefaces part three.
In Neil Gaiman's comic The Doll's House, there is a reference to The Collector. "Collectors" episode is about a convention of serial killers who watch the film and discuss it in terms of themselves.
In several cases since the novel was published, serial killers, spree killers, kidnappers, and other criminals have claimed that The Collector was the basis, the inspiration, or the justification for their crimes.
In 1985, Leonard Lake and Charles Chi-Tat Ng abducted 18-year-old Kathy Allen and later 19-year-old Brenda O'Connor. Lake is said to have been obsessed with The Collector. Lake described his plan for using the women for sex and housekeeping in a "philosophy" videotape. The two are believed to have murdered at least 25 people, including two entire families. Although Lake had committed several crimes in the Ukiah, California area, his "Operation Miranda" did not begin until after he moved to remote Wilseyville, California. The videotapes of his murders and a diary written by Lake were found buried near the bunker in Wilseyville. They revealed that Lake had named his plot Operation Miranda after the character in Fowles' book.
Christopher Wilder, a spree/serial killer of young girls, had The Collector in his possession when he killed himself in 1984.
In 1988, Robert Berdella held his male victims captive and photographed their torture before killing them. He claimed that the film version of The Collector had been his inspiration when he was a teenager.