Dedicating more time to the present than do either Waterland or Oscar and Lucinda, Possession an elaborately portrays the ways Victorian progress and doubt affect the present. Close to losing his job and girlfriend, Roland appears stifled in his present environment and an embodiment of modern-day alienation. Roland, who is detached from his girlfriend and his colleagues, works in the Ash factory which Byatt compares to "the Inferno" (31), and he lives in an apartment that smells like "cat-piss" (22). Described as "full of old underwear, open pots of eyepaint, dangling shirts and stockings, sticky bottles of hair conditioner and tubes of shaving foam," (63) Roland's bathroom mirrors the chaos and disorder of the modern world. Furthermore, the novel portrays Roland as stagnating in an almost non-existent job. Describing Roland as having "this thing about this dead man. Who had a thing about dead people" (23), Val characterizes Roland's career interests in terms of a linear time that constructs the past as dead. Trapped, Roland's stagnant life lacks meaning until he finds the letter, and then the past starts to come to life.
Possession portrays Maud, its other leading contemporary character, as hiding from the chaotic, modern world that originates from a lack of faith and from technological progress. Maud creates an orderly, clean world for herself in which she can avoid the disorder of reality. Noting the orderliness of her apartment, Roland compares it to "an art gallery or surgeon's waiting room" (58). Describing her as "repressive and cold" (83), Roland reveals that in order to function outside of her created world, Maud must detach herself from others. Signifying her fear of disorder and her "emotional limitation" (Giobbi, 45), Maud covers her hair under scarves; an act that symbolizes her sexual repression. Realizing her emotional detachment, Maud asks herself, after an awkward interaction with Roland why she can "do nothing with ease and grace except work alone, inside these walls and curtains, her bright safe box" (151). Maud wants to find a way to live in the outside world but also to retain a sense of order. Trapped in the modern world, Roland and Maud feel detached from others and desire the "young vitality of the past" (151) which Maud claims feeds her life once Roland and her begin their quest.