Posession and Seeing Double

Sasha Khmelnik '06, English 156, "Victorians and Moderns," Brown University, 2004

A. S. Byatt's Possession is a work of double vision, telling a story within a story, as well as being in itself a book about books. Byatt thus refers in her work to three non-intersecting worlds -- that of the reader reading the book, that of Roland and Maud researching Ash, and that of Ash falling in love with Miss Lamotte -- asking us, even if only implicitly, to find the parallels between them. This sense of universality seems to be at odds with the individualistic approach that Byatt takes in constructing the story, a contradiction echoed in Roland's contemplations of Blackadder's job as a researcher of Ash:

There were times when Blackadder allowed himself to see clearly that he would end his working life, that was to say his conscious thinking life, in this task, that all his thoughts would have been another man's thoughts, all his work another man's work. And then he thought it did not perhaps matter so greatly. He did after all find Ash fascinating, even after all these years. It was a pleasant subordination, if he was a subordinate. [p. 33]

It seems as though the prevailing attitude toward Blackadder is one of pity, even though he admits that he's happy. If by paralleling the vastly different worlds of her stories Byatt is suggesting that there is a sense of universality that unites us all, and that perhaps, to invoke a cliché, there is nothing new under the sun, why are we nonetheless critical of Blackadder for his self-termed "subordination?" Is Byatt making a distinction between scholarship and art, with the latter a triumph and the former a subordination, or is she instead trying to suggest that the individuality expressed in art can be expressed elsewhere in less obvious terms? Where does Roland fit into this argument? Can possession be a kind of self-expression?

How do Byatt's views of a literary tradition compare to Browning's perspective in Aurora Leigh? Is Byatt advocating a break with all convention for the sake of individual expression, or a conformity to tradition? How much is Byatt aware of the literary tradition she is working with?

What are the similarities between Aurora's and Lamotte's histories? How do literature and romance interact in each of their lives and which does each of these women consider more important?

How important to our understanding of the themes and characters are the parallels between the modern and the historical parts of this novel? What do we learn from finding the parallels? Are we intended to look for them?


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

United Kingdom Leading Questions

Last modified: 5 April 2004