When considering the story-telling style of Possession in light of Oscar and Lucindaand Waterland, it becomes immediately evident that Byatt employs few of the tropes that fall under the heading of postmodern. The past occasionally exists on the same plane as the present, hinting at synchronicity. For example, both couples, Maud and Roland and LaMotte and Ash, have matched fast paces where few others walk to suit their step. Yet the events of the past and present are firmly linked in cause and effect, showing the narrative to be not fully synchronic at all. Where Waterland's present is merely an inessential dot along an endless expanse of time, Possession's final present moment, the one on which the novel ends, is a crucial one, that will change the future forever. The characters even declare the importance of the Here and Now. Christabel tells Ash after they have first made love, "'This is where I have always been coming to. Since my time began. And when I go away from here, this will be the midpoint...we are here, we are now...other times are running elsewhere" (309). We see a similar instance in which Maud and Roland discover that they have the same ideal: "'...a clean empty bed in a clean empty room, where nothing is asked or to be asked'" (290). Roland comments, "'How funny -- how very funny -- that we should have come here, for this purpose, and discover -- that -- about each other'" (291). In Possession, there is hardly an event in the past that does not later play an integral part in a specific and glorious future.

Possession does allow for the fact that historical inquiry can't clear away all the dust of the past. The novel's final pages, entitled "Postscript 1868", tell us of a meeting between Ash and his daughter Maïa. On this "hot May day...in a meadow" (552), Ash tells Maïa to give a message to her so-called Aunt Christabel that she "'met a poet, who was looking for the Belle Dame Sans Merci, and who met you instead, and who sends her his compliments, and will not disturb her, and is on his way to fresh woods and pastures new'" (555). However, Maïa, forgets the message, neither Christabel nor the present-day scholars ever know that Maïa once met her real father. Byatt shows how no amount of literary analysis or letter-stealing can disclose every truth -- but we can certainly come within an impressive distance.

In Possession, then, the metanarrative of history is still powerfully intact. Not only is the past an integral part of the present, but an otherworldly force seems to propel the present-day characters toward uncovering the past. In retracing the Yorkshire trip of their Victorian counterparts, Maud and Roland decide to visit a place called the Boggle Hole solely because they like the name, not realizing that Ash and LaMotte walked the same stones; their trip to a jewelry shop to buy a present brings the discovery that Maud's brooch once belonged to Christabel. Roland expresses suspicion about this, wondering

partly with precise postmodernist pleasure, and partly with a real element of superstitious dread, that he and Maud were being driven by some plot or fate that seemed, at least possibly, to be not their plot or fate but that of those others... [C]onnections proliferate apparently at random, apparently in response to some ferocious ordering principle, which would, of course, being a good postmodernist principle, require the aleatory or the multivalent or the 'free' structuring, but controlling, but driving -- to what end? Coherence and closure are deep human desires that are presently unfashionable. (456)

Roland's ruminations are extremely revealing of the goal behind Byatt's narrative strategy. Roland (through the voice of the narrator) concludes that "[f]inding themselves in a plot, they might suppose it appropriate to behave as though it was that sort of plot" (456). He is saying, in essence, to hell with postmodernism and all its theories. After all, Roland

"had been trained to see his idea of his 'self' as an illusion, to be replaced by a discontinuous machinery and electrical message-network of various desires, ideological beliefs and responses, language-forms and hormones and pheromones. Mostly he liked this. He had no desire for any strenuous Romantic self-assertion. (459).

This thought is echoed by Maud throughout the novel, and is certainly in the style of postmodern theorists, Jameson, Lyotard and McHale inclusive. Byatt rebels against this, showing that Roland realizes that "[h]e was in a Romance" (460, italics mine) -- a double entendre on the part of the author, whose novel's full title is Possession: A Romance. Byatt's quote-page at the beginning of the novel bears a lengthy quotation from Hawthorne's Preface to The House of Seven Gables, which states that the label of Romance (as opposed to novel) allows the author to "attempt to connect with a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us" (xi).

Byatt's own era -- our era -- is full of challenges to the individual, in which not only the subject is in question, but, as Maud observes, "all the possible thoughts about literary subjectivity [have] recently and strenuously been explored" (272). Cropper concludes that, having reconciled himself with the truth of man's insignificance, Ash

turned away, like many, from individual sympathies with dying or dead men to universal sympathies...It was a kind of Romanticism reborn...intertwined with the new mechanistic analysis and the new optimism not about the individual soul, but about the eternal divine harmony of the universe. (272).

Could this possibly be a more exact description of Byatt's own strategy? Like Ash, Byatt revives an older literary form, and incorporates "new mechanistic analysis" with "new optimism" not about individuals, but about the necessity of metanarratives of history and subjectivity. Possession's final sentence -- excluding the post-script -- describes the morning after Maud and Roland have consummated their relationship as full of "the smell of death and destruction and it smelled fresh and lively and hopeful" (551). This death and destruction could be that of the bounds of self that have inhibited Maud and Roland for so long; and equally, the death and destruction of the yoke of postmodern literary theory upon narrative form. As with Oscar and Lucinda and Waterland, narrative form is in full support of narrative content.

Byatt's revolt against Lyotard's refutation of metanarrative in fact goes beyond simple reactionarism. Rather, it points to a loophole in Lyotard's argument, one also seized upon by Jameson in his introduction to Lyotard's text. That is, that we tend to doubt metanarrative structures specifically during scientific periods of history, such as capitalism, that of the present day. The so-called revolution of our present-day storytelling modes are thus perhaps nothing more than a predictable phenomenon, and not a departure from previous of narrative form. Further, that we can document the so-called retreat of diachronic narrative turns this phenomenon itself into a narrative one. As such, this aspect of postmodernism "becomes itself a symptom of the state if seeks to diagnose" (Jameson xi). In light of this, Possession represents not a throwback to earlier (or even outdated) narrative form, but a progression along a line of narrative theory that, like all other philosophies across time, shift and evolve and incorporate the old with the new. Jameson asserts what Lyotard is unwilling to, which is that masternarratives do not evaporate but go underground, and continue to impact our thoughts and actions (xii). Possession is clearly an example of this.

The way in which these three novels reference and solve the problems of the past in fact tells us a great deal about the present. What is still left to be told, however, is the future. Will the next great wave of literary or cultural theory portray our subjectivity in an ever more fragmented manner? Or will it attempt, like Byatt, to assert that we are, instead, more sewn up than we could ever imagine? Recent developments in computer technology have brought us to hypertext, a veritable road-trip of the fictional form with multiple possibilities for readership. Perhaps, in a step toward both the past and the future, the A.S. Byatt of hypertext will incorporate the sweeping hand of metanarrative into this new mechanistic analysis.


Neo-Victorian sitemap A. S. Byatt