"What's in a Word?" Possessing A.S. Byatt's Meronymic Novel

By Shinn, Thelma J. | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

"What's in a Word?" Possessing A.S. Byatt's Meronymic Novel


Shinn, Thelma J., Papers on Language & Literature


A meronym, such as gray, is an "image of parts," one which can encompass seeming opposites and can be applied to any balance or blend of its components--all of which are coterminous. Thus gray must always be a balance of black and white, although that can include a myriad of variations, for each of which we assign a unique term, such as charcoal or platinum. In my current study of women's fiction I have borrowed this term to describe novels which seek to balance and encompass seeming contradictions in style and in content. Possession: A Romance by A [ntonia] S [usan] Byatt is such a novel, balancing poetry and prose, past and present, and numerous shades and meanings of the word "possession" in a blend of the Romance and Realism styles of the Victorian and contemporary novel. As Jay Parini asserted in his review, "Possession is a tour de force that opens every narrative device of English fiction to inspection without, for a moment, ceasing to delight" (11). This is not simply "literary game-playing," as Donna Rifkind calls it (77), but an attempt to re-unite the fragmented traditions of narrative style.

Both Romance and Realism began as meronymic novelistic traditions, balancing ideas and their concrete expressions in our sensually apprehendable world. The Romance, as Nathaniel Hawthorne has explained in his "Custom House" introduction to The Scarlet Letter, achieves its meronymic perspective by placing the story in the "neutral territory" of the author's imagination, within which the real objects of life can be seen freshly in the "spiritual" light of the moon, with the warmth of the human spirit tempering the scene (66). Realism, as Henry James assures the reader in his preface to The American, must equally embody the romantic idea:

The real represents to my perception the things we cannot possibly not know, sooner or later, in one way or another; it being but one of the accidents of our hampered state, and one of the incidents of their quantity and number, that particular instances have not yet come our way. The romantic stands, on the other hand, for things that, with all the facilities in the world, all the wealth and all the courage and all the wit and all the adventure, we never earl directly know, the things that can reach us only through the beautiful circuit and subterfuge of our thought and our desire. (The Art of the Novel 31-2)

Later writers of the Romance obscured the realistic surface of their imaginative constructs, barely clinging to the logical extension of scientific theories in journeys Elsewhere and Else when in science fiction or blithely fulfilling hopes and dreams in our time and place by ignoring the complexities of human character and the logic of probability, until the word itself came to mean escapism and fantasy for most critics. Conversely, Realism became mired in the "things we cannot possibly not know" until that tradition fragmented, railing outward at a naturalistic universe or retreating inward to explore the modernistic individual consciousness. Once broken by the Victorian Realist's rejection of Romance, the novelistic mirror has since shattered into so many shards that critics have abandoned trying to name them all, settling for "experimental" and "post-modern" as catch-all terms or attaching a "fantastic" term--such as "Mythic" or "Magic" Realism--to describe attempts to return Romance to the novel. Ann Hulbert suggests this in her review of Byatt's "Romance," noting that the two main characters/researchers must "confront the glacial anti-romanticism at the heart of their studies and their lives so far" (47).

To balance Romance and Realism, Byatt returns to a Victorian "foremother" for stylistic guidance. In 1990, the same year Possession appeared, Byatt co-edited and introduced George Eliot: Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings, and that Introduction reflects her stylistic and ideological similarities to Eliot. Included is an Eliot essay which expresses a balancing view of civilization and religion as "`an anonymous blending of lifeless barbarisms, which have descended to us like so many petrifications from distant ages, with living ideas, the offspring of a true process of development"'(xxi). …

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