The line between purity and isolation, simplicity and emptiness lies hidden, even blurs, in A.S. Byatt's Possession. The protagonists, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, find a common desire in the absence of desire: the image of a clean, empty white bed. The motif of whiteness resurfaces throughout the novel, in descriptions of Maud and her ancestress Christabel Lamotte, in landscapes and in the poems attributed to the fictional poets Lamotte and Randolph Henry Ash. Whiteness signifies both purity and desire, a paradox the novel both struggles with and values.
"Sometimes I feel," said Roland carefully, "that the best state is to be without desire. When I really look at myself — . . . At my life, at the way it is — what I really want is to — to have nothing. An empty clean bed. I have this image of a clean empty bed in a clean empty room, where nothing is asked or to be asked. Some of that is to do with — my personal circumstances. But some of it's general, I think."
"I know what you mean. No, that's a feeble thing to say. It's a much more powerful coincidence than that. That's what I think about, when I'm alone. How good it would be to have nothing. How good it would be to desire nothing. And the same image. An empty bed in an empty room. White."
"Exactly the same. . . . Maybe we're symptomatic of whole flocks of exhausted scholars and theorists. Or maybe it's just us." [290-1]
1. Earlier in the book, when the image of the bed is first introduced, Byatt writes, "Freud was right, Maud thought, vigorously rubbing her white legs, desire lies on the other side of repugnance" (63). Does this statement represent the views of the text, or is it simply a personal feeling brought on by Maud's turbulent relationship with Fergus Wolfe? What is the effect of interposing the image of Maud practically attacking her "white" body between the identification of Freud and his idea? The mention of Freud ties in with the idea in the above passage that perhaps the focus of literary theory on sexuality creates a backlash/anti-desire. Does the text support or deny this view, in the progression of Maud and Roland's relationship or elsewhere? p>
2. What parallels does the text draw between the modern characters' need to distance themselves from sexuality and Victorian denials of sexuality? Is Ellen Ash's fear of sex the same as Maud's? Similar? Parallel? Are there characters from Victorian novels we've read that share (less explicitly) this fear of (physical) intimacy?
3. Dickens' Estella, in Great Expectations, who functions as a sexual object for the narrator, Pip, is, like Maud, described in terms of her regal brightness, her whiteness. On the other hand, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is small and dark, contrasted against the insipid but palely beautiful Blanche Ingram. What parallels, if any, is Byatt drawing between Estella, brought up to be cold and aloof, and Maud, who becomes cold and aloof to combat her own fear and the pressures of her environment? Why is the pale, cold and haughty woman so desirable in Great Expectations and Possession but not in Jane Eyre?
4. In Aurora Leigh the metaphor of white dresses represents the conflict over a woman's place in the domestic sphere or in the wider world. Aurora's cousin Romney tells her she should keep her pretty white morning dresses clean by becoming his wife and avoiding the horrors of the wider world; Aurora disagrees, claiming she will happily muddy her dresses becoming a poet. This view almost directly contradicts Christabel's use of whiteness in her poetry and in her letters to Randolph Ash, specifically her claim that she exists inside a white egg; her solitude protects her and allows her to write poetry (151-52). Does Possession ultimately support Christabel's view that for a woman, solitude is necessary, or does it bolster Aurora's claim that a poet must be in the world? What do the two different visions of feminine whiteness — as pretty and impractical or as necessary and protective — say about the works and the contexts they were written in?
Byatt, A.S. Possession: A Romance. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
Last modified 5 April 2004