The Reader’s Power in A.S. Byatt’s Possession

 

The word “read” has diverse, and even unlikely, etymological roots; according to the OED in Old and Middle English the word was used in a wide range of senses, such as ‘to advise’ or ‘to deliberate;’ furthermore, its original variant, the archaic verb rede meant ‘to rule, direct, or guard.’ So what does this tell us about the exercise of reading? to keep it overly simple, it may very well tell us that reading goes beyond occupying oneself with perusing a written text. Reading is an exchange taking place between the text and the reader, interactive as it is unstable. The text is rendered vulnerable to the readers’ will: we are able to challenge, debate and reinvent a it, as well as its author. This presentation will focus on A.S. Byatt’s reinvention of the past in Possession and how evidence from the text can nurture a discussion on how interpretative writing and reading are exercises of our intellectual and creative sovereignty over a text. This discussion, it must be noted, stems from my (problematic) assumption that Byatt’s writing of Possession and its imaginative restoration of the Victorian era is, in itself, an act of authoritative reading. We should not, however, forget Possession is a self-conscious exercise of a reader’s AUTHORity, as it satirizes the intellectual communities that seek to accurately break down and portray the reality of the past it studies.

Byatt’s extensive knowledge on Victorian and Romantic literature allows her to invent Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte and situate them perfectly into a historical context. Byatt does not speak as LaMotte or Ash, but rather for them, through their poems, critical works and epistolary evidence which, as the author, Byatt obviously controls. LaMotte and Ash are linked to the present through Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell, scholars consumed by their research interests. We might assume that Byatt offers us a well-rounded window into the minds and hearts of famous poets and the scholars who trail after them. However, the subtitle’s telling us that Possession is to be a romance commands authority, as “it demands we inhabit a world it offers” (Fletcher 141). The subtitle, along with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s preface act as a disclaimer of sorts: we have agreed to enter a world which, in the words of Hawthorne, “has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation” (Byatt 1).Possession’s allure undoubtedly lies within Byatt’s interpretative power as a reader, as well as her ability to cater to our assumptions and desires as readers. Through the construction of Possession’s main characters, Byatt addresses our anxiety as readers based on the assumption that we cannot understand text if we do not fully “possess” its surroundings— the author’s dreams and thoughts, where they spent the night and what they had for breakfast—. By carefully building this intellectual universe uncannily like our own and creating a link between its past and present Possession tells us more about our power as readers than the text itself.

This exercise is not, however, without caution. Possession does not read anything assumingly, and even this subtly acknowledged power of the reader is satirized. I get this (unsettling) feeling that the different viewpoints in Possession are only able to happen because Byatt is the “ventriloquist” behind them all. Is Byatt trying to convey this feeling to us? If so, what can we learn from it? For Wednesday’s discussion, I would like to pay close attention to the correspondence between Ash and LaMotte. Firstly, the letters show Byatt’s control over the imagination and hearts of the central literary figures of the text and fulfills our desire to possess as readers. Yet secondly, and most importantly, the authority that Byatt imposes on the subject-matter is exquisitely self-aware. Byatt seems to assert that the only truthful reality we can ever know is that which we simulate; as her Ash writes to LaMotte “the only life I am sure of is the life of the Imagination…Poetry can make man live for the length of the faith you or any other choose to give to him…Do you touch at my meaning? When I write I know.” (Byatt 185).  By having Ash pose the same thought that inhabits our reading conscience, Byatt makes us aware that we often find in the text what we initially set out to look for, and not necessarily what the text contains.

Questions:

 

1) Do you agree or disagree with my thesis that the reader imposes his/her authority over a text when he/she reads it? Why/ why not?

 

2) Though my presentation dealt chiefly with our individual, personal engagement with the text, can we extend the idea of a reader’s power to critical theories that A.S. Byatt eludes and resists in her text? Think specifically about the “death of the author,” feminism, reader response theory and new historicism.

 

About Maria Jaramillo

She looked at the object with suspicion and a magnifying glass.
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3 Responses to The Reader’s Power in A.S. Byatt’s Possession

  1. mjaramillo says:

    The article cited here is from the chapter “Performatives and Narratives: A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance,” found in Lisa Fletcher’s Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity (Ashgate, 2008). It is easily found online through the Library’s catalogue.

  2. Kirk Pearson says:

    Maria,
    Your thesis, as I understand it, is difficult to argue against in principle. For example, I cannot say “no, a Reader does not impose his authority over a text when he reads it,” because, given the opportunity, a Reader does. For the purposes of our class discussion, I wanted to disagree with your thesis in order to provoke spirited discussion, but I cannot do so, for I do not see the validity in the other side. What I can do, however, is attempt to provide my judgements on the potential limitations and implications of your thesis, as ably as I can. While I will do my best to refrain from speaking in absolutes (because there is always some grey area), I will attempt to take up the following positions: (1) Readers impose their authority over a text when they read it, only if the Author permits the Reader that luxury. (2) A Reader’s interpretations may not reflect the Author’s intended meaning for a text, rendering their interpretations as essentially valueless. These positions may seem either moderate or extreme, depending on whether or not you agree to my points, but I aim to address some possibilities that are not explicitly expressed in your blog post.

    To illustrate that a Reader is not always permitted sovereignty over a literary text in the first place, allow us to turn back the page and briefly discuss Laurence Sterne. In his novel, “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,” Sterne demonstrates his control over his Reader on numerous occasions by taking away the Reader’s ability to impose his own authority over his text. If, for instance, we look at pages 51-53, in which Sterne demands that his Reader turn back and reread the preceding chapter, we see that the meta-fictional elements of his novel allow Sterne to bind his Reader in chains and subject them to the author’s authority. When looking at pages 96-97 (or the blank page on 423), on the other hand, Sterne invites his Readers to impose their own authority and only then does the interpretive exercise become a possibility. In both cases, Sterne commands his Reader’s interpretation, much more than the Reader commands it. So, hopefully, I have here given rise to the fact that there are instances of Authors superimposing their authority over a literary text, thus preventing Readers from imposing their authority over it.

    Moving on I would like to make a statement about T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” to give an example of what I mean when I say that interpretations may not reflect the author’s intended meaning for a text. The poem begins with a section entitled “The Burial of the Dead,” which includes a stanza on the clairvoyant, Madame Sosostris. The clairvoyant reads a series of tarot cards to the Reader which, in effect, seems to leave much interpretation open to the Reader’s imagination, but in reality does not. The endnote on this section reveals that Eliot uses these tarot cards because they suit his purpose and, to him, in his own mind, these tarot cards make reference to specific individuals. For Eliot, the underlying meanings of the tarot cards are very clear and, given that Eliot tells his Reader what his meanings are in the endnotes, it is rather futile for the Reader to try to exercise their interpretive capacities in determining to what these cards allude. At this point, I hope to have more or less demonstrated that even though the tarot cards could potentially mean anything to the Reader, Eliot uses them for precise purposes and meanings and not to allow the reader an opportunity to reign sovereign over the text. By extension, it should not appear too extreme of a position to say that any interpretations a Reader arrives at which are not in line with the explanations provided by Eliot ultimately say nothing about Eliot’s intended meaning and, therefore, are essentially valueless interpretations.

    To summarize my lengthy response: I agree that “interpretive reading is an exercise of our intellectual and creative sovereignty over a text,” but I have suggested that this exercise is only possible if the author gives us the opportunity to do so. Also, if what you say is true (and I believe it is), that “we often find in the text what we initially set out to look for, and not necessarily what the text contains,” then there is an implication here that interpretive reading will often result in misconceptions – and where is the value in that? Interpretive reading is a matter of extrapolating meaning from words’ denotations/connotations and finding a coherent summation of these. This summation should ideally be the Author’s intended meaning, but an Author could conceivably have a hidden agenda, an ulterior motive, or some other desire which is never stated in the words of the text. If the Author’s reasons for writing are not overtly stated, have we really accomplished anything in the exercise of interpretive reading? No matter how much we, the interpreters, would like to have total control over the meaning of a text, the circumstances which resulted in the creation of the text must be taken into account if we are to arrive at the text’s true meaning. As you put it, “we cannot understand [a] text if we do not fully “possess” its surroundings.”

  3. ullyot says:

    “Interpretive reading is a matter of extrapolating meaning from words’ denotations/connotations and finding a coherent summation of these.” Well said, but I think this is the line most of your colleagues will disagree with.

    People have said that Shakespeare would be astonished to return in 2013 to see what kinds of interpretations we are making of his works. But to suggest that his intentions should circumscribe or limit our interpretations is to give him too much authority, I think. Northrop Frye wrote (somewhere) that Shakespeare’s interpretation of his text is no more definitive than a performance he directed would be the definitive performance.

    Is that a fair analogy, between directing a play and interpreting it?

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