The Reflecting Relationships

Creating believable and human characters is a difficult task for many authors to accomplish successfully. In this aspect, Byatt succeeds tremendously: she creates so many amazing characters, with flaws and virtues of their own that rise off of the page due to their many faceted natures, and are given real life and true form. Conversely, the less important characters are colorless and dull, fading from our memories almost as soon as we are done with them. However, the relationships of the characters in the novel are what really and truly bring the novel to life. They are what lend credibility to the whole of the story and make us want to read the rest of Ash’s and LaMotte’s works, even when we know they do not really exist.

I will be doing a traditional presentation on the nature of these relationships, and discussing the similarity and duality of the characters in those relationships, present in the novel. I will argue in my presentation that Maud and Roland’s relationship is a mirror of that of Christabel LaMotte’s and Randolph Ash’s, and the characters are cleverly created by Byatt to reflect similar personality traits and characteristics in one another.

The females, LaMotte and Maud both display a deep love of freedom, of autonomy and an unrestrained life. They have great difficulty imagining successful lives while being caught up in relationships and ‘love’ (which Maud refers to more than once with disdain.) Even within LaMotte’s writing, specifically in the segment of The Fairy Melusine, we are introduced to a female character of extreme power who is only content when he owns the knight “Body [and] soul” (298).

The male halves of these relationships, Ash and Roland, display similar mannerisms in that they are both awkward when dealing with their female compatriots. They often have difficulty expressing themselves vocally, particularly when discussing sensitive subjects, and while each of the two faces their own problems with their ‘significant other,’ (Val for Roland and Ellen for Ash,) they each choose to run away in a sense, to find their relief and make room for their new relationship.

I will also demonstrate the ways in which Ellen Ash and Val display similar traits, each of them coming to terms with the ‘other woman’ in their respective relationships and the way in which they grow as people when they do begin to realize the truth about their partners. Ellen Ash in particular, shows extraordinary strength of character when she realizes her husband’s deceitfulness, though she never reveals to him the amount she knows or the pain she feels. She resembles Val in that they both dislike conflict, though Val is a person who draws into herself in anger, whereas Ellen chooses to avoid and ignore the topic of disagreement as much as is humanly possible for her (as is seen by her reluctance to bring up Christabel’s letter to her dying husband.)


Discussion Questions:

  1. Independence is very important to the strong female characters, Christabel and Maud. What does it mean to them and how does it affect their lives/relationships?
  2. Are there any other characters that you feel can be reflections of one another? Why/how so?


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One Response to The Reflecting Relationships

  1. kathleen says:

    Your presentation sounds promising, Gazelle, and I hope my responses to your questions can help further an engaging discussion.

    In response to your first question, my reading of female independence within Christabel and Maud’s characters closely aligns with female power. Their independence is a result of their art, intelligence, and sometimes even beauty; both women are powerful enough to break the societal bonds that constrain them, at least for a while.

    Christabel believes that women are characteristically portrayed as evil because of this power (“But let the Power take a female form / And ‘tis the Power is punished” (292)). Female power both furthers autonomy and solitude. She uses the example of Melusina, a woman who is a good mother (“…”a slender hand / Would part the hangings, and lift sleepy forms / To curl and suck the mother’s milky breasts” (289)), and yet her power instills fear in others. Christabel’s own definition of independence causes an inner battle between her artistic and societal demands, because her differences set her apart from the easily accepted. When Christabel becomes pregnant, her poetic desires are challenged as she is now an unwed mother.

    Similarly, Maud appreciates her independence, and her autonomy is a challenge when building relationships. Though she is clearly intelligent and self-sufficient, the modern dichotomy of beauty or brains plagues Maud; she at once fits into both categories and neither because she does not fit the societal expectation of one or the other. Because of this, Maud is not only independent, but also solitary, and this causes her to fear relationships in which she could lose her autonomy. Her fear of a close friendship with Roland comes from a fear that her work will be interrupted, similar to Christabel’s relationship with Ash.

    In response to your second question, I would like to further the reflections between Christabel and Melusina; while Melusina is not a true character of the novel, their mirroring is significant. Christabel embodies Melusina in many ways, particularly in that she is forced to be two women at once. Christabel struggles to reconcile the poet within her and the woman she is expected to be in a patriarchal Victorian society. Though Christabel is expected only to be an admirable wife and mother, she instead chooses to practice her art, rejecting societal constructions of the woman. In this way she reflects Melusina’s similar struggle, as Melusina and Christabel are only able to live freely when secluded from others. Eventually, a pregnant Christabel will be forced to make a choice, and the paralleling thus far perhaps foreshadows a similar fate as Melusina, particularly since Christabel herself recognizes their similarities (“…how can I be supposing you want my life-history in place of my Melusina-epic? Yet they are so intertwined…” (174)). Christabel’s situation enhances her inner battle between remaining an artist and accepting her station as a woman of Victorian society.

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