The Double Voice of Metaphor: A. S. Byatt's "Morpho Eugenia"

By Hansson, Heidi | Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

The Double Voice of Metaphor: A. S. Byatt's "Morpho Eugenia"


Hansson, Heidi, Twentieth Century Literature


Analogy is a slippery tool.

A. S. Byatt (100)

The double voice of postmodern fiction presents a challenge because it requires that we question the way we read and interpret not only postmodern literature but also literature as a whole. [1] This doubleness is particularly noticeable in works that openly display their affiliation with generic conventions or older works, such as J. M. Coetzee's Foe (1986), which rewrites Robinson Crusoe, Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor (1985), which is structured like a detective story, or A. S. Byatt's Possession (1990), Lindsay Clarke's The Chymical Wedding (1989), John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), and Susan Sontag's The Volcano Lover (1992), which all build on romance conventions. Such doubleness resembles allegory, insofar as allegory defines the moment when one text is read through the lens of another (Owens Pt. 1, 68). By thus allying themselves with previous texts in their genres and by fusing conventional and postmodern narrative strategies, these literary hybrids destabilize our interpretations of trad itional works, and, at least in the case of the postmodern romances, manage both to reread their tradition and revitalize its twentieth-century appearance. [2] Thus the multiple narrative voices, the open contradictions, and the consistent resistance to totalizing answers in a postmodern romance like Possession can be seen as continuing the allegorical mode of the "high" romances of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as questioning the apparent uniformity of women's popular romances, and as restoring those complex and sophisticated qualities that formerly characterized the romance but seem to have disappeared from its twentieth-century manifestations.

Even though Possession in its parodies of scholars influenced by French feminism and Lacanian psychoanalysis contains a fair amount of critique of poststructuralist and postmodern attitudes, it signals its own postmodernity through devices like fluctuating narrative perspectives, paradox, ambiguity, and self-reflexivity. The short stories in Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (1994) can also be categorized as postmodern fictions, especially through the inclusion of magic and fairy-tale structures in apparently realistic tales, and the disjunctive narrative style of Babel Tower (1996) is another example of Byatt's interest in postmodern literary techniques. Works like these, which openly display their postmodern links, need to be approached in a way that can acknowledge the multiple meanings produced. Works that at least on the surface look like straightforward narratives might appear to be another matter. But are they? Consider the novella "Morpho Eugenia" in Byatt's Angels and Insects. In contrast t o Possession, "Morpho Eugenia" is firmly set in the past, and there is no visible twentieth-century perspective in the telling. The story is mainly told by an omniscient narrator, and even though it is interspersed with fictional texts ostensibly written by the various characters in the novella, these do not represent different voices and shifting perspectives to the extent they do in Possession.

"Morpho Eugenia" opens like a women's historical romance and continues like a Victorian novel about love, marriage, society's expectations, nineteenth-century hypocrisy, social injustices, Darwin, and religion. Because the stories in Angels and Insects are set in the 1860s and 1870s and deal with Victorian concerns, reviewers have described the diptych as "resolutely mid-Victorian in tone and content" (Hughes 49), and A. S. Byatt as "a Victorianist Iris Murdoch" (Butler). The postmodern connection is consequently overlooked. One reviewer, however, sees continuities between the Victorian novel and postmodernism when he refers to Byatt as a "postmodem Victorian" who finds the grounds of her postmodernity in "an earnest attempt to get back before the moderns and revive a Victorian project that has never been allowed to come to completion" (Levenson 41). …

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