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Possession, a critically acclaimed novel by British author A.S. Byatt, contrasts the sexuality and social issues of these characters from the Victorian area and the nineteenth century. Through multiple scholarly journals, the fascination with the sexual identity of Byatt’s characters are extensively studied and debated. The opinions and comments of these authors discuss the plausibility of homosexuality during the different time periods and contemplate the various perceptions of sexual orientation. Byatt initiates love affairs between characters in order to depict the contrast of the Victorian idea of relationships to the nineteenth century interpretation. Various authors write about the factors of homosexuality that characters personify in Byatt’s novel. Other scholarly journals oppose the view of homosexuality and believe that analysis is erroneous in certain aspects. The struggle with relationships and society’s impact on relationships prove to be a topic of intrigue in Possession. The focus of critical response will be to discern what is acceptable for each gender when dealing with relationships, the fascination and confusion of sexual orientation, and the issues regarding true love and faith.
Byatt introduces several unusual relationships throughout her novel. The nuclear family consists of Randolph Ash and his wife Ellen. Their marriage is seen as a superficial and this outlook give way for the affair Ash succumbs to with LaMotte. Susan E. Colon writes: “Byatt associates Ellen’s theological orthodoxy with a sexual prudery that inhibits her. Most conspicuously, Ellen’s neurotic frigidity means that her marriage is never consummated” (83). In “Byatt’s Reinscription of Milton,” Susan E. Colon vividly elaborates the depth to which this mental blindness overcomes Ellen: “While her husband enjoys a liberating sexual liaison with LaMotte, Ellen agonizes over what to do with a pregnant, unmarried servant” (83). Ellen’s orthodox views inhibit her from having a marital relationship with her husband and render her useless when dealing with anything concerning this issue. Colon continues on this thought: “Byatt’s association of Christian orthodoxy, intellectual timidity, and sexual repression in the character of Ellen is an indication of her prejudice against the strict religious attitude. . .” (83). Many women of the Victorian era were not able to associate the positive physical relationship between a married couple because of the strict ideals the church imposed during this time. During the Victorian era, women were more limited than men. It was not acceptable for women to have affairs, but men were held to a different standard. In “A.S Byatt, the Woman Artist and Suttee”, Kathleen Williams Renk sheds light onto the hardships women faced: “More self-reflexive than the oral tale that may have hinted at how women’s lives were enclosed and limited by patriarchy, Byatt reveals the extent of those limitations and how the fairy tale itself shaped women’s lives” (617). In “Crossing Boundaries: The Female Artist and the Sacred Word in A.S. Byatt’s Possession,” the description of Ellen expresses the pain and inaccessibility she feels from events that happen in her life (Morse 6). The character of Ellen is seen as a “victim of patriarchy” because her father so vehemently opposed to her marrying Ash and the literary conventions that make Ash desire her in an inaccessible manner (Morse 6). Ellen’s limitations in her life are similar to many women during this time period who felt inhibited by a strict religion, insecurity regarding living conditions, or fear of the reactions of men. These limitations are distinct during the Victorian era and Byatt is not shy to introduce these concepts in Possession.
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These boundaries are seen clearly through limitations due to gender, but relationships are also challenged due to the impact social acceptance and intrusion. In” The White Bed of Desire in A.S. Byatt’s Possession,” Jennifer Jeffers contemplates the love affair of Ash and LaMotte and the relationship of Mitchell and Bailey. The affair between Ash and LaMotte emphasize the feelings of romance, illicit passion, and desire. Jeffers insists that Byatt makes it evident throughout the novel that it is “a game of desire played out between the text and the reader” (2). The evident passion and excitement feels like a “private electric storm” between Ash and Lamotte (Jeffers 2). The intense physical and mental attraction between the two poets moves from an attraction through correspondence to a physical relationship. Their correspondence through letters allowed the lovers to “get to know one another,” which is a key element in their blooming relationship (Jeffers 4). The relationship and desire intensifies as the exchange of letters continues and the two eventually meet in person. The secret love affair of Ash and LaMotte create the beginnings of a relationship between Mitchell and Bailey. In “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” Jackie Buxton connects the interconnections of these four characters. Buxton grapples with the idea that it may be “possession” that this novel deals with instead of “romance” (3). In her opinion, Byatt often plays with the meanings of both with a “postmodern obsession” and debates about how can be the past be known or understood by the people of today (Buxton 3). In “Women: a Cultural Review,” the discontinuity of the past and present is connected through the family history, which is predominantly is accompanied by romance (201). Although the time periods are distinctly removed from one another, the bond over a shared bloodline and respective romances allow the characters to interact with one another, even though decades separate the different lives.
Byatt introduces another obstacle to the relationship between Ash and LaMotte. The first obstacle is his obvious marriage to Ellen. The second obstacle, less known and debated upon, is LaMotte’s relationship with the painter, Blanch Glover. This secret love affair involves the scandal of sexual orientation during the Victorian era. The relationship is kept quiet, until Glover commits suicide after discovering the relationship between Ash and LaMotte. In “Lesbian disPossession: The Apparitionalization and Sensationalization of Female Homosexuality in A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance,” the politics of lesbian sexuality is discussed and questions the insinuations that LaMotte and Glover were lesbians (Carroll 348). Byatt only alluded to the fact that these two women were involved in a sexual relationship. Carroll observes that Byatt may refuse to reveal this homosexual relationship in order to discredit the lesbian romance, which in turn will allow the novel to favor the heterosexual relationship (349). This allows Byatt to restore the idea of a traditional romance story to this novel. The concept of a “traditional” romance depends on the view of society. Byatt creates a contemporary for Glover in the character of Leonora Stern. Stern’s character represents the twentieth century view on sexual orientation. Stern is a “larger than life presence” who has an “observable appetite women” (Carroll 359). These proclamations present a different idea of what it means to be homosexual. The twentieth century is more adept in dealing with sexual orientation, where as the Victorian era focuses more on social acceptance. Glover is viewed as the “good lesbian” because she can control her sexual desires; Stern is viewed as a “dangerous lesbian” because she fearlessly acts upon her desires (Carroll 360). Byatt remains silent on the exact purpose for this supposed lesbian relationship (Buxton 102).
The relationships that develop in Possession: A Romance intertwine through the present and past. Bailey and Mitchell seek out to understand the lives and relationships of Ash and LaMotte. In “Fantasies of (Re)collection: Collecting and Imagination in A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance,” the Victorian belief on life and love appears more alive and colorful (Su 699). Through the development of their relationship, it is evident that the intensity and passion of a Victorian era couple drastically differs than a couple from the twentieth century. Through research and exploration into the lives of Ash and LaMotte, Mitchell and Bailey start to find a connection between one another (Su 700). Mark Hennelly in “Repeating Patterns’ and Textual Pleasures: Reading “(in) A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance,” discusses the intertwining patterns between the relationship of Ash, LaMotte, Mitchell, and Bailey. The blond hair of both Bailey and LaMotte seduces both men into “being moved” (Hennelly 1). The intensity of feeling are felt more by the Victorian poets, but eventually the twentieth century researchers reflect more intensity in their lives due to their findings. The repetitive nature in Possession is seen in its many themes: “variations of dependency in love, repression of passion, professional rivalry, supernatural powers, and the obsession of biographers and academic writers with the object of their study” (Hennely 3). The obscurity of the many interconnected relationships allows for many opinions on the same matter, such as the depth into which the affair between LaMotte and Glover actually goes. The connections of the characters in the novel portray how the individuals create imaginative identities for themselves in order to accomplish their desires (Su 685). Therefore, the characters create their futures through situations in which their reality begins to be altered by imagination.
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Faith, in both the Victorian era, impacts the characters in their lives, relationships, and actions throughout the novel. As previously discussed, the depth to which Ellen Ash feels her spirituality causes her to misinterpret many aspects of her life and to disengage in her reality (Colon 83). The Victorian Christian, especially the women, appear to enforce the Christian ideals more than men and certainly more than the characters of the twentieth century. According to Colon, LaMotte appears worried about Ash’s apparent unorthodoxy and she presses for a profession of faith from him during their correspondence (84). This is quite distant from the obligations Ellen Ash believes Christianity requires, but shows that LaMotte have an interest in spirituality. This interest in spirituality comes from her father who trained her in mythography (Colon 83). Reincarnation especially interests her and affects her outlook on spirituality. Colon states: “Byatt thus makes LaMotte a portrait of the Victorian intellectual woman with an uneasy relationship to Christianity and its attendant patriarchy,” yet she is a “diligent churchgoer” until late age according to Maud Bailey (86). Byatt indicates two very different responses to Christianity. LaMotte characterizes the Christian who is unstable and makes mistakes, such as having an affair which produced an illegitimate child. Ellen Ash depicts a strict Christian who is repressed physically, sexually, and mentally. This repression extends over Ellen’s life until her death.
Possession: A Romance embodies the essence of a true romance story. The aspects of the intertwining centuries, the romances between multiple couples, and the expected ending result in a bewitching tale. The information in this critical response will guide to articles regarding to gender issues, the different views on religion, and the questions pertaining to sexual orientation in order to understand the complexities of this novel.
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