Mirror-games and Plot-coils in A. S. Byatt's Possession

Bryce R. Covert, English 156, "Victorians and Moderns," Brown University, 2004

There are many different plots in A.S. Byatt's novel Possession, which all flow together, washing back and forth on each other, getting tangled and confused. There is the modern day plot, the one which the reader partakes in, that of Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey. There is also, running under and parallel to that, the plot of the Victorian poets that each is interested in: Roland's poet Randolph Henry Ash, and Maud's poetess Christabel LaMotte. As the two modern day literature historians unearth the secret passion between Ash and LaMotte, their own lives begin more and more to mirror the plot of the Ash/LaMotte correspondence. Roland himself can recognize this phenomenon:

Roland thought, partly with precise postmodernist pleasure, and partly with a real element of superstitious dread, that he and Maud were being driven by a plot or fate that seemed, at least possibly, to be not their plot or fate but that of those others. He tried to extend this aperçu. Might there not, he professionally asked himself, be an element of superstitious dread in any self-reflexive, inturned postmodernist mirror-game or plot-coil that recognises that it has got out of hand? That recognises that connections 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," but structuring, but controlling, but driving, to some -- to what? -- end. Coherence and closure are deep human desires that are presently unfashionable. But they are always both frightening and enchantingly desirable. "Falling in love," characteristically, combs the appearances of the world, and the particular lover's history, out of a random tangle and into a coherent plot. Roland was troubled by the idea that the opposite might be true. Finding themselves in a plot, they might suppose it appropriate to behave as though it was that sort of plot. And that would be to compromise some kind of integrity hey had set out with. [p. 456]

This mirroring of the Victorian past with the modern plot brings up the issues of how literature relates to both history and to the lives of the modern readers, of the lasting power it might or should have. It also brings up the fact that there is a third plot being mirrored: that of the actual reader, who is in the same position as Roland and Maud. We are placed at their point of view, and follow the unveiling of the correspondence through their eyes. In that sense, we share their plot. But we are also detached, and therefore have the same problem of how our own lives enter into and mirror the text being read. Byatt is bringing up the issue of the relevance of Victorian literature, and even of her own modern literature, to the lives of the readers. Do readers partake in the plots? Are their lives affected by what they read? What should be the relationship between the author and his or her reader?


1. What is the reader supposed to make of the mirroring of the two plots, the modern day and the historical? What meaning does this make for literature on modern day life? What role is literature supposed to take, both historically and in the life of the reader? What is the relationship between the author and the reader?

2. We find out how the lives of the Victorian poets end up, because it has already been lived, but we never see what happens in the end with Roland and Maud; we are left hanging at the last scene between them. Is there "coherence and closure" in this novel, in either story? Is this something Byatt sees as desirable, or is closure a useless convention? What is the end to which this novel drives?

3. How does fate work in this novel? Is there a greater force in this book? Are the two plots guided together by something larger, or are we to think that this mirroring is purely coincidental?

United Kingdom Leading Questions

Last modified: 5 April 2004