Throughout A.S. Byatt’s Possession, we see a turn away from flashy, trendy scholarship in the French tradition toward a renewed interest in lives, events, and meanings that have been largely abandoned by contemporary critics. The main protagonists Maud and Roland live largely unsatisfying lives as young scholars. Roland lives “in the basement of a decaying Victorian house, [where] he progressed through his usual states of somnolence, sick juddering wakefulness, and increasing worry about Val” (11), finds only part-time work as an academic, and toils over texts in the basement of the British Museum in Blackadder’s “Ash Factory.” We see less of Maud’s interiority, but her life seems largely unpleasant from Roland’s perspective, “Her voice was deliberately blurred patrician; a kind of flattered Sloane. She smelled of something ferny and sharp. Roland didn’t like her” (44). Her solitary home does not resemble a habitable space for him, “Roland felt wakeful and misplaced, as though he was in an art gallery or a surgeon’s waiting-room” (58).

The quality of their lives seems intimately related to the kind of scholarship undertaken in their particular context. Theories of deconstruction and the fragmentation of the subject make up an integral part of Roland’s understanding of his own subjectivity just as he perceives Randolph Henry Ash’s subjectivity to rely upon his Victorian consciousness:

It mattered to Randolph Ash what a man was, though he could, without undue disturbance, have written that general pantechnicon of a sentence using other terms, phrases and rhythms and have come in the end to the same satisfactory evasive metaphor. Or so Roland thought, trained in the post-structuralist deconstruction of the subject. If he had been asked what Roland Mitchell was, he would have had to give a very different answer. [13]

Whether Roland actively ascribes to the poststructuralist teachings of his day, he believes himself to be in part the product of a certain kind of context that includes the teachings of Lacan and Derrida. As Ann Marie Adams similarly argues in “Dead Authors, Born Readers, and Defunct Critics: Investigating Ambiguous Critical Identities in A.S. Byatt’s Possession,” the contemporary context produces different kinds of subjects than the Victorian context. We see this in the ways the characters and narrator compare themselves to the Victorians, “These comparisons may be offered by the narrator or by the modern characters themselves, but they always demonstrate how ‘modern’ beliefs in the ‘decentered’ self have distanced contemporary people from great Victorian intellectuals, who had faith in ideas, words, and themselves” (Adams 111).

However, the text leaves room for limitations of Roland’s account of subjectivity. Byatt’s text challenges the idea that theorizations such as Lacanian psychoanalysis or deconstruction fully account for subjectivity. More precisely, the text challenges a limited notion of the capacity of these theories to engage in real world problems outside of the realm of basement scholarship and hygienic feminism. In order for Maud and Roland to lead more fulfilling lives, they must be true to their intellectual instincts and follow the leads they acquire through a more old-fashioned form of scholarship founded on personal intrigue that they both ascribe to beneath the rubble of the dispersed subject. For Adams, the two are able to change their lives and scholarship of Ash and La Motte by their careful investigation of the text and their use of these texts in situations that arise in their lives:

Roland and Maud are able to discover the relationship between Ash and La Motte because they have done so much “old-fashioned” textual work with the poems. Roland, for example, knows to go find Ash’s copy of Vico because his careful (if too often “dutiful”) reading of The Golden Apples showed him the importance of Vico’s thoughts on Ash’s work. Maud is able to find the hidden letters because she is so familiar with La Motte’s cryptic verse; indeed she has memorized it. [Adams 114]

As the two delve deeper and deeper into the mystery and rely less and less on French theory, their lives become more fulfilling as they discover groundbreaking details about the interconnections between the two poets. When the mystery seems solved and the investigative work has been done, Maud and Roland make love and profess their love to one another. The novel ends with a hopeful, fertile image of rebirth:

In the morning, the whole world had a strange new smell. It was the smell of the aftermath, a green smell, a smell of shredded leaves and oozing resin, of crushed wood and splashed sap, a tart smell, which more some relation to the smell of bitten apples. It was the smell of death and destruction and it smelled fresh and lively and hopeful. [551]

Maud and Roland emerge from their dilapidated (“the basement of a decaying Victorian house”), hygienic (“art gallery or a surgeon’s waiting room”) enclosures of theory into a world of open spaces filled with death and life and the living text. This is no longer the space of crumbling art or art on display, but a space that is actively “oozing” with life and death.

However, Byatt’s ending is a false ending. The final words of the text come in the form of an 1868 postscript that reveals more than the two will ever be able to reveal in their own scholarship. Here, we see that not all messages will be delivered, “And on the way home, she met her brothers, and there was a rough-and-tumble, and the lovely crown was broken, and she forgot the message, which was never delivered” (555). Sometimes life gets in the way of messages and knowledge cannot be transmitted. Ash’s child does not relay the message and the secret of his meeting his daughter is buried with him. Byatt suggests the limitations of even the most thorough scholarship here. What seems most important is a kind of Da Vinci Code research that compels scholars to live their lives outside of libraries. All scholarship is fundamentally limited by messages that are never received, but Byatt illustrates that the kind of scholarship most conducive to breaking out of the dusty language games is the kind ultimately undertaken by Maud and Roland. Despite the fact that they will never learn the message related in the postscript, they have succeeded in changing their own lives.

Questions

1. What is the significance of scholarship in Byatt’s text? Does the addition of the postscript modify its significance from what we see throughout the rest of the text?

2. Does Byatt engage earnestly with the potential practical utility of poststructuralist or psychoanalytic theories? Are they really so hermetically enclosed as they seem in the text?

3. Lacan and Derrida both talk about the deliverability of messages in their work (e.g. Derrida’s La Carte postale and Lacan’s discussion of Poe’s purloined letter in the seminars). Much of Byatt’s text relies on letters and messages being deferred, destroyed, delayed, and delivered. How might psychoanalysis and post-structuralism both be useful ways of thinking through the text? In what ways are these approaches to the text more limited than looking at Byatt’s biography?

4. Are the two approaches (something resembling a form of historicism and French theories such as Lacanian psychoanalysis and post-structuralism) mutually exclusive? Does Byatt’s text suggest abandoning a substantial part of the critical thought made available to us by these French schools? Isn’t there a danger of hermetic isolation in terms of social responsibility when we direct our scholarly projects toward the pursuit of love and literary adventures through Brittany?

Works Cited

Adams, Ann Marie. “Dead Authors, Born Readers, and Defunct Critics: Investigating Ambiguous Critical Identities in A. S. Byatt's Possession. The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 36.1 (Spring, 2003): 107-124.

Byatt, A.S. Possession: A Romance. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

References

Derrida, Jacques. La carte postale: de Socrate Freud et au-delà. Paris: Flammarion, 1980.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1966.

Wills, David. “ Post/Card/Match/Book/‘Envois’/Derrida.” SubStance 13.2 Issue 43 (1984): 19-38.


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Last modified 4 April 2010