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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Verbal and visual language and the question of faith in the fiction of A.S. Byatt Sorensen, Susan D.


This study investigates the relation between faith in a transcendent reality and faith in language, both verbal and visual, in the work of English novelist and critic Antonia Byatt. Her ideal conception of communication combines the immediacy and primal vigour of the visual with the methodical pragmatism of words. However, Byatt's characters who exemplify this effort at double vision - in particular Stephanie Potter Orton in the 1985 novel Still Life - find in their quests frustration and even death rather than fulfillment. My investigation focuses on A. S. Byatt's presentation of the way language attempts to represent and interact with three particular areas: fundamental personal experiences (childbirth, death, love), perceptual and aesthetic experiences (colour and form, painting), and transcendent experiences (supernaturalism and Christian religion). I consider all stages of her career to date - from her first novel The Shadow of the Sun (1964) to Babel Tower (1996). Although Possession: A Romance (1990) has garnered most of the critical attention accorded to Byatt, I argue that this novel is not generally representative of her principles or style. A neo-Victorian romance, part parodic and part nostalgic, combined with an academic comedy, Possession shares neither the sombre mythological and psychological fatalism of her 1960s fiction nor the modified realism of her middle-period fiction. Still Life and The Matisse Stories (1993) are the works that best elucidate Byatt's major preoccupations; they intently strive to combine the most powerful aspects of verbal and visual knowledge. The methodological basis for this study is pluralist; it emphasizes close reading, combined with phenomenological, biographical, and thematic criticism. As Byatt does, I rely principally on the ideas of writers and artists rather than theorists; she cannot be understood without specific reference to George Eliot, Donne, Forster, Murdoch, Van Gogh, and Matisse (among others). Byatt's quest for truth and transcendent meaning and her investigation of the trustworthiness of words have undergone recent changes; she seems more sharply aware of the limitations of language and the unattainability of absolute truth. Her writings in the 1990s about paintings and colour emphasize their intrinsic value rather than their ability either to revitalize the word or suggest the numinous.

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