"This Is Not Science. This Is Storytelling": The Place of the Individual and the Community in A.S. Byatt's Possession and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (1)

By Martyniuk, Irene | CLIO, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

"This Is Not Science. This Is Storytelling": The Place of the Individual and the Community in A.S. Byatt's Possession and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (1)


Martyniuk, Irene, CLIO


The era of the postmodern narrative is one in which truth is revealed as unknowable; reality is ludic and the game of fiction can be played in infinite ways. But what happens when the postmodern text is also a historical one? Can such a text exist? A.S. Byatt and Tom Stoppard attempt to create just such a beast in their respective postmodern texts, Possession: A Romance (1991) and Arcadia (1993). Byatt believes in the constant quest to find hard truth, even knowing it is ultimately unavailable. This belief allows Byatt to craft a quasihistorical novel that provides a satisfying ending for both her characters and her readers, although each group is satisfied in different ways since each is given a different type of knowledge about the plot. In the end, Byatt's readers stand alone with their knowledge: they believe in what they have read and feel confident in the history being conveyed, but that knowledge does not remove them from their subjective, individual reading experience, as the historical novel once did. The information they know is given only to them and not to the characters in the story. They remain separate and thus above the characters to whom they have become so close. Although, according to Derek B. Alwes, "Stoppard [has] acknowledged only one text as inspiration for his play--James Gleick's Chaos," (2) in typical Stoppardian fashion, Arcadia builds directly off Byatt's novel and even acknowledges its debts to its precursor. However, also in typical Stoppardian fashion, the play offers a different view of the same issues examined in Byatt's text. In a crucial difference from Byatt's approach, Stoppard makes the audience share in his characters' ignorance. And when one of the mysteries is successfully solved, it is solved for everyone--both the characters and audience in the same way. There is still, as with Possession, much that the modern characters do not understand that the audience does. But there is also a shared ignorance that actually creates a community, particularly in performance--real or imagined. Stoppard's audience knows less, but believes more.

The depiction of history in a novel can be troubling to those who believe that historical events can never be completely apprehended or objectively rendered. Before the emergence of postmodernism, the historical novel was viewed as a genre with identifiable parameters. William Harmon and Hugh Holman define it quite simply in their Handbook to Literature: "a novel that reconstructs a past age." (3) However, despite this simple definition, it is just as clear that the historical narrative (now broadened from just the novel) is not so easily defined or written. Hayden White has argued that all histories are narratives, crafted and shaped by historians, in the same way that fictional plots are written and crafted by creative writers. In his essay "The Historical Text as Literary Artifact," White argues that histories are formed by "emplotment," a process he describes as "the encodation of the facts contained in the chronicle as components of specific kinds of plot structures." (4) Using emplotment, the historian, according to white, then coordinates the "elements" of the event: "the events are made into a story by the suppression or subordination of certain of them [the components] and the highlighting of others, by characterization, motific repetition, variation of tone and point of view, alternative descriptive strategies, and the like--in short, all of the techniques that we would normally expect to find in the emplotment of a novel or a play" (emphasis in original, 1715).

The slippery slope of White's theories comes when authors try to become historians, even in fiction--when they write historical narratives. What are the facts that must be kept, what are the rules of the event that must be followed, and what are the truths about which lies cannot be told? This becomes a particular problem when discussing Byatt's Possession, which appears to be both historical and postmodern. …

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