Cropper and the Yew: Liminality and Intertextuality as Functions of the Nonlinear Narrative in A.S. Byatt's Possession

Sarah Eron '05, English 156, "Victorians and Moderns," Brown University, 2004

Thus far in this class, we have encountered a number of novels, both Victorian and modern, which can be read as prime examples of non-linear narratives. Certainly, A.S. Byatt's Possession is not exempt from this structural tradition. In many senses, Possession is simply another coincidental Dickensian novel, or perhaps a Bronte-esque Bildungsroman. In fact, Roland's discovery of Ash's first letter to LaMotte is something like a boy's threatening encounter with a convict who ultimately will make his fortune, and Maud's experience in the broach shop or with the opening of the final letter is, perhaps, akin to the experience of a young girl, who having escaped from her only shelter, happens upon a little place called Marsh End, which houses not only her long-lost cousins but ultimately a sizeable inheritance as well. Filled with coincidence and littered with subplots, Possession is in essence a Victorian text.

Nevertheless, there are ways, of course, in which this novel establishes itself within a Modern tradition by reworking and expanding off of the narrative skeletons of its Victorian predecessors. For one, Byatt plays with a kind of intertextuality similar to that of books like Jack Maggs, in which the subgenres embedded within the text function in a manner akin to Suzanne Keene's narrative annex. Here, the letter or the poem not only diverges from the general forward progression of the text, but it also establishes a tangent both in the narrative and, more importantly, in time. As Byatt's reader happens upon the texts within the text, he or she is cast out of a more immediate present only to find him or herself in the subsurface of the novel, that is in the storyline and the atmosphere of the past. This type of tangential structure is one which is dependent upon certain disjunctures in time and, therefore, reveals the ruptures and fragments characteristic of Modernist narratives. The subtext thus functions in the same way as does coincidence in the novel, moving the reader from the plot into subplot, from the present into past. Ultimately, Byatt allows us to draw a connection between Victorian conceptions of narrative and modern conceptions of time; the two, at least in Possession if not in literature as a whole, are practically equivalents in terms of their shared nonlinearity.

Furthermore, there is a sense in which this structural trend is indicative of a larger theme within Possession. We now realize that the subtexts in the narrative along with the novel's moments of coincidence lie on the fringe of two worlds, or rather, of two spheres of time. This unstable physical position and this constant experience of the in-between bring us back to Maud's dissertation and the thematic presence of liminality. Possession is essentially about the sensation of a liminal existence, the experience of being caught between two time periods, two lives, and two worlds. Of course, Maud and Roland become the primary examples of liminal figures in the text as they search the present for wormholes into the past. However, this theme of liminality also exists on a metaphorical level in the novel as Byatt plays with constant attempts to uncover or reawaken the dead. Apart from Cristabel's routine séances, we see this theme most clearly in Cropper's literal attempt to unbury the dead at the end of the novel. Here, however, Byatt places a moral forewarning on this perilous desire to loophole into the past. Turning to the natural world as a place of symbolic premonitions and ghostly terror, Byatt calls upon the image of the yew in order to restrain Cropper from his unnatural disturbance of the dead:

He came back towards Ash's grave, pushing against a howling tide of air, hearing other trees crash all around. As he came to the knoll and turned his storm lantern on it, he saw the yew tree throw up its arms and a huge gaping white mouth appeared briefly in the reddish trunk, close to the thick base of the tree, which leaned giddily over, and went on cracking slowly, slowly, descending in a burst of needle-leaves, and finally snapping and shuddering to rest across the grave, obscuring it utterly. He could now go neither forwards or backwards. He cried out "Hildebrand!" and his own voice seemed to curl uselessly back like smoke in his face. Was he safer near the church? Could he get there? Where was Hildebrand? There was a momentary lull and he called again. [Chapter 28, p. 495]

A Hermes-like figure, the yew tree in this passage acts not only as a creature of distinct liminality, but also as a guard who watches over the borders between the realms of the living and the dead. As Tennyson states of this tree most typically found in graveyards, it is like the "Old warder of these buried bones" who feeds death with life and life with death, both blurring and establishing the line between the opposite worlds of the living and the dead. It is possible that Byatt wants us to recall here the entire first stanza of Section 39 of Tennyson's In Memoriam, which reads:

Old warder of these buried bones,
And answering now my random stroke
With fruitful cloud and living smoke,
Dark yew, that graspest at the stones.

There is a sense in which Cropper becomes a liminal figure in the above passage as he is suddenly trapped, unable to move "neither forwards nor backwards." However, when Byatt writes that Cropper's voice seemed to "curl uselessly back like smoke into his face," she may very well be pointing to Tennyson's poem and the smoke from the yews. Is this a viable connection, and if so, what are other reasons for Byatt's comparison between Cropper and Tennyson's yews? Also, the "smoke" from Tennyson's poem is, we must note, a mere metaphor for the tree's pollen, which thus for Tennyson is almost emblematic of the spreading, or fertilization, of both life and death. What is Byatt's reason for using this image, and how do cycles become linked to the theme of liminality in the above passage from Possession?

Finally, although Cropper is forewarned by nature and nearly prevented by the yews in his attempts to uncover the possessions of the dead, he ultimately succeeds in his endeavors. Why then does Byatt insinuate that this digging up of the past is unnatural and then never attribute any consequences to the characters' actions? Can we go so far as to say that Byatt strays from the novels of the middle Victorian period in which actions normally have moral consequences, or is this inconsistency a mere function of her more or less comedic novel?

The final section, or postscript, to the work could possibly be seen as a sort of consequence to these actions and certainly reveals the impossibility of a complete knowledge of, or return to, the past. Does this ending mark a paralysis in the novels tangential or spiral-like structure? That is to say, can we sufficiently see the end as the missing piece which prevents the characters from regressing into the past and then leaves the reader once again in the progress of linear time? Or is the life of Roland and Maud, of the two academics, always dependent on a kind of liminality and intertextuality that places them forever on the cusp of story and sub-story, reality and text?


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

United Kingdom Leading Questions

Last modified: 8 April 2004