Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Glass Beauty: Coffins and Corpses in A. S. Byatt's Possession

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Glass Beauty: Coffins and Corpses in A. S. Byatt's Possession

Article excerpt

Glass is a paradoxical substance. Its transparency allows us to see all that lies behind it, but we cannot touch what we see. On the molecular level glass is unusual in that when it solidifies, it retains the random molecular structure that it had when it was a liquid, instead of cooling into the crystalline structure of a conventional solid (Klein and Lloyd 9). This accounts for the fragility of glass, because it lacks the strength of a more systematic structure. Hard and impermeable as it may seem, it can be shattered in an instant. Its message is, "Look, but don't touch." In this paper 1 trace the metaphorical transposition of this concept onto human beauty and the ways in which A. S. Byatt, in her 1990 novel Possession, reimagines and partly redeems a glassy beauty who is fragile, cold, and untouchable. The metaphor of the glass coffin in Possession provides a key instance of the transformative reworking of beauty undertaken by much anglophone fiction since 1980.

Many glass objects are blown using human breath, which often leaves tiny bubbles and swirling imprints. In Victorían Glassworlds Isobel Armstrong describes these as "the congealed residues of somebody else's breath" (4). Yet the image of a person behind glass does not convey humanity but rather a cold, preserved inhumanity. Warm flesh can take on a ghostly, unnatural sheen when viewed through glass. These properties have made glass the perfect material to represent a chaste, unattainable type of human beauty. It appears with striking consistence as a fairy-tale motif, one of many fairy-tale elements rewritten by contemporary novels, such as Possession. Even after centuries of Snow White and Cinderella tales, glass continues to exert influence as a fairy-tale and literary metaphor. Whether it is a beautiful princess placed at the top of a glass mountain, the glass castles that proliferate in seventeenth-century French fairy tales as luxurious prisons, the glass slippers, distaffs, axes, and keys that represent sexual virtue and beauty, or perhaps most significantly the glass coffins that confound life and death in their exquisite display of a motionless body, glass remains a prominent image, and always a beautiful one. It is particularly associated with transformation and the desire to transcend the ordinary. This may be due to the transformative nature of glass itself: it is a material of sublimation, changing from commonplace sand and ash into delicate, crystalline objects. As a metaphor, it can effect the same kind of transformation in people.

Fairy tales are full of transformations. As Max LUthi writes, "The folktale [or fairy tale] transforms the world; it puts a spell on its elements and gives them a different form" (24). Cinderella, for instance, is transformed from a ragged slave into a lovely princess, wealthy and royal - all by becoming beautiful. Significantly, Cinderella rises from the ashes to become this delicate beauty, exactly mirroring the production of her glass slipper, glass being made with ash. When she flees at midnight, it is the glass slipper she loses that comes to represent her exquisite beauty, further transforming her into an object of pursuit. Isobel Armstrong writes that glass is both "medium and barrier" (7), providing visual access to beauty but denying all other access. Concentrating Cinderella's beauty in her glass slipper makes that beauty unattainable and sublimates it into the realm of art as a metaphor. It is precisely this process of rendering human beauty abstract through the metaphor of glass that 1 examine in this paper. In particular, 1 look at how the process has been negotiated or challenged by Byatt. In Possession we see the beautiful princess figure, Maud, learning to renegotiate her position as an object of pursuit and achieving this by modifying the image and signification of her own beauty. In more practical terms Maud does not try to destroy the untouchable remoteness of her glassy beauty but instead makes room inside it for color, movement, and human connection. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.