Citation
Bodies, theories, realities

Material Information

Title:
Bodies, theories, realities reading fiction as social science discourse
Portion of title:
Reading fiction as social science discourse
Creator:
Gradziel, Rande E
Publication Date:
Language:
English
Physical Description:
vi, 93 leaves : ; 29 cm

Thesis/Dissertation Information

Degree:
Master's ( Master of Social Science)
Degree Grantor:
University of Colorado Denver
Degree Divisions:
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, CU Denver
Degree Disciplines:
Social sciences

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
Feminism and literature ( lcsh )
Genre:
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

Notes

Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 92-93).
General Note:
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree, Master of Social Science.
General Note:
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Statement of Responsibility:
by Rande E. Gradziel.

Record Information

Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
39729943 ( OCLC )
ocm39729943
Classification:
LD1190.L65 1997m .G73 ( lcc )

Full Text
BODIES, THEORIES, REALITIES:
READING FICTION AS SOCIAL SCIENCE DISCOURSE
by
Rande E. Gradziel
B. A., Metropolitan State College of Denver, 1994
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Social Science
1997


This thesis for the Master of Social Science
degree by
Rande E. Gradziel
has been approved
by
Charles L. Moone II

Date


Gradziel, Rande E. (MSS, Master of Social Science)
Bodies, Theories, Realities: Reading Fiction as Social Science Discourse
Thesis directed by Professor Jana Everett
ABSTRACT
This thesis attempts a re-reading of The Matisse Stories that
combines contemporary feminist theory with the author's positionality,
processes and understanding while writing it. A. S. Byatt's three stories
collectively titled, The Matisse Stories, helps to reveal the consequences of
patriarchy as it is perceived and lived by women. The stories provide a
vehicle for feminist protest against forces that exclude women from power
and discourse. This thesis journeys into the acts of reading and writing by
creating juxtapositions between feminist social science theory and Byatt's
fiction. The association between language and power is brought out by
characters who attempt to conform to the principles of domestic ideology,
but who are discomforted by the requirements of self-abdication to achieve
public and private affirmation. The study attempts to bring coherence to
how gender relations problematize representation, and how through writing
and reading fiction women can disrupt the mechanisms that dispossess
them from their bodies and from their environments. Each story reveals a
gender-gap at work and the complex predicament in which the protagonists
find themselves because of it. Some discover subjectivity in relationship to
image and text. Others discover it in remaking patriarchal discourse to
undermine it from within its own assumptions. Byatt's fiction provides a
stage for discerning how women identify through love and cultural
constraints. Her characters' responses to external authority and to
socioeconomic status connect realties relevant to many women's situations.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidate's thesis. I
recommend its publication.
Signed:
\J Jana Everett


DEDICATION
I dedicate this thesis to my mother and to my sister, Barbara, for their
unwavering encouragement and support while I was writing this.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
My thanks to the staff of the Graduate School for their support and understanding
and to my advisor, Jana Everett, for her patience with me during these past three
years. Thanks also to Myra Bookman, for without her craft and wit, I might have
missed the dinner party. And thanks to Charles Moone for his friendship and
conversation.


CONTENTS
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION.............................1
2. MEDUSA'S ANKLES.........................13
3. ARTWORK................................ 33
4. THE CHINESE LOBSTER.....................65
WORKS CITED ................................... 92
VI


CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION
I selected The Matisse Stories by A. S. Byatt (1993) for analysis
because I found the language precise and eloquent. For me, The Matisse
Stories animates a multi-factored interactive model of how both fiction and
social science theory seek to address what humankind calls reality. I have
quoted Byatt's work at length because it deserves to be read as itself rather
than as paraphrasing, and because her words are dense with meaning.
Blending social science theory and literary criticism, I hope to convey my
observations about how fiction transforms what some would call the
esoteric and elitist vocabulary of social science theory into accessible
narratives about the lives of women on the cusp of a postmodern era.
Although the term, postmodern, is overworked, I use it from within a
feminist framework to contrast traditional, masculinist theories found in
modernist, patriarchal frameworks. I understand feminism to mean a
political and personal movement for social change. I view feminist politics
as a space where what women call "play," and men might call "work," can
take place; and where a "series" of women, as Iris Young depicts in her
1


paper, "Gender as Seriality" might occur. Young argues that the categories
by which people identify themselves and others "are social constructs that
reflect no natures or essences" (189). These constructs have a
"normalizing power" (190), an ability to homogenize and make orderly that
which is disordered. From a patriarchal framework a series might also be
said to represent "choices" made outside cultural norms that camouflage
the role-player's ability to blend-in with her shifting environments. This
does not account for the possibility that no role can be outside cultural
norm. On one hand, Young cautions against assuming that women are a
homogeneous, "already constituted, coherent group with identical interests
and desires, regardless of class, ethnic or racial location, or contradictions"
(189). On the other hand, she warns that "[without conceptualizing women
as a group in some sense, it is not possible to conceptualize oppression as
a systematic, structured, institutional process" (192). Young advocates
what Linda Singer has called "the feminist philosopher as a 'Bandita,' an
intellectual outlaw who raids the texts of male philosophers and steals from
them what she finds pretty or useful, leaving the rest behind" (198). In
many ways this research methodology differs little from the technique
employed by traditional philosophical systems. As a Bandita, however, this
method is a constituent element in meaning-making construction. By
2


conceptualizing women as a group arising from the need for resistance to
patriarchy, rather than as "a serial collective defined neither by any
common identity nor by a common set of attributes that all the individuals in
the series share" (212), one can shift focus to the action and interaction
where the surfaces of women's desires and identities meet with the world
as it is constructed by the dominant judgment.
Fiction and social science theory lend understanding to how people
see themselves and how they see others. As tools for social change,
fiction and theory can stimulate and inspire re-viewing of the world, perhaps
acting as catalysts for improving intellectual and material conditions. I am
conscious of the connotation of non-reality inherent in the word fiction, but
the beauty of fiction is that there is an expectation of altered reality. I am
the reader, the co-constructor of the read, reacting and responding to a
text. My premise is that reality describes that which is constantly being "re-
presented" through the media of language and image. Reality is a word we
use to describe an active meaning-making apparatus that supports a
specific view, or ontology. By selecting a work of fiction, a reader is already
open to the notion of suspended disbelief, aware that the text is subject to,
and fabricated by, her imagination and the historical moment.
3


Byatt embraces a place where the diverse fictions of representation
and self-representation come together, a place where there are
opportunities to play with words, and to destabilize the arcane baggage of
language. As Virginia Woolf put it:
'English words are full of echoes, memories, associations,
naturally. They have been out and about, on people's lips, in
their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many
centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing
them today. They are stored with other meanings, with other
memories', (qtd. from Braidotti, Theories 278)
Despite this inconvenient situation, as reader, I have also to contend with
what Donna Haraway defines as my own "situated knowledges" (Braidotti
259). I co-construct meaning as I read, contributing new and flexible
meanings with each reading that are subject to revision and re-view upon
subsequent readings. Whatever meaning is evoked by the language of
each reading is radically altered by the ever-changing context of my private
and public realities. Nancy Fraser posits that the rhetoric defining public
and private depends on who decides where these boundaries lie.
Inevitably the power to delineate boundaries is held by the dominant group.
By contrasting "[t]he modern liberal conception of the public sphere" (290)
against a postmodern conception, Fraser suggests that a "widening of
discursive contestation" (291) can be "a movement toward greater
democracy" (292). Using the Anita Hill/ClaranceThomas case, she
4


illustrates how class, race, historicity, sexuality and a number of other
variables are erased in public discourse to protect the dominant view.
Public and private discourses are, at best, manipulations of "hegemony and
of cultural common sense" (287-88). Both fiction and social science theory
help to collapse gender dualisms. They subvert patriarchal presuppositions
by making private interests a focus for analyzing power differentials
inherent in public forums, and by creating discourse that combines "the old
words in new orders, so that they survive,...create beauty,...[and] tell the
truth" (Braidotti 278). Byatt congeals the best of fictional and theoretical
discourse to create a text that is both subversive and liberatory.
My personal interests in postmodern feminist theory and fiction stem
from an understanding of how, through our narratives and stories, we
become the women we are. With the reading of The Matisse Stories, I
want to observe where the surfaces of our different selves make contact
with the world. My curiosity is fueled by a "playfulness" more fully explored
in Maria Lugones1 article, "Playfulness, 'world'-traveling, and loving
perception". Lugones confesses that her fear of "ending up a serious
human being, someone with no multi-dimensionality, with no fun In life,
someone who has had the fun constructed out of her" (399) helps motivate
5


her to "travel" into constructions of other's reality where she is not
necessarily at ease. She asserts that
[playfulness is, in part, an openness to being a fool, which is
a combination of not worrying about competence, not being
self-important, not taking norms as sacred and finding
ambiguity and double edges a source of wisdom and delight.
(401)
Lugones argues that "travelling to someone's 'world' is a way of identifying
with them...because by travelling to their 'world' we can understand what it
is to be them and what it is to be ourselves in their eyes" (401). Reading
and writing fiction is a way of traveling, and a way of practicing feminist
theory.
My positionality in the social network cannot be separated from my
readings. That I am a woman and many other beings simultaneously
influences what I read (or rewrite) into the text. My goal is not to interpret
or find "truth" in the text, but to build onto a trajectory that expands the
population of "us" in empathetic understanding of how women are different
from, and similar to, one another. This trajectory might uncover
resonances and dissonances that illuminate the relationships between
power and discourse, semiotics and praxis. Following this trajectory might
create new tools for change, and it might acknowledge and expose sites for
resistance. Moving beyond description, it might unpack the broader
6


political, economic and cultural forces that impact the everyday experiences
of women, exposing the inconsistencies, contradictions, and values of the
dominant "gaze," wherever it is directed. Destabilizing what is traditional,
real, natural, and logical, is a function of both fiction and social science
theory. My observations can be no more than partial, provisional, and
contingent. Considering my current and historical subject positions my
narrative is a blurring of the interactive boundaries between myself, the
characters, the author, the people with whom I share my work, and a
combination, product, result, and effect of where these multiple
constructions surface toward one another. I know that time and space will
have changed everything between the reading of The Matisse Stories and
the writing of this paper, and that editing has woven new realities that
exceed those independent, active and passive events.
Throughout The Matisse Stories, the question, "Why Matisse?"
weaves in and out of the consciousness of the writer and the reader.
Matisse is for Byatt what the woman (or sea-coast, or gourd, or bedspread,
or apple) is for Matisse, a starting point for constructing an art-world--a
world parallel to, but in no way identical with, the real world. The work,
painting or story is a screen on which the viewer projects part of her
content, which blends with the content the artist has also projected there
7


(Moone). From a feminist postmodern perspective, I see evidences of
trajectory embedded in a modernist tradition that values interpretation of
symbols above their aesthetic appreciation. As a feminist reader/writer, I
find trajectory in a conversation between a "master" of modern art and an
anonymous woman; the operative word being, anonymous. When
approached by this woman who said, "Mr. Matisse, that woman's arms are
too long", Matisse replied, "Madame, that is not a woman. It is a painting"
(Moone). A discursive analysis might unveil multiple opportunities for
readings that can destabilize the trajectory.
Both theory and fiction are spaces where the most obvious claims to
the normative are the ones we interrogate most vigorously. The neglect of
the study of the legitimization of empirical theories is augmented by fiction.
Where else than in art can one legitimize subordinating science to fantasy?
In fiction and in theory there is a co-construction and complicity of meaning
between writer and reader, a space where the patriarchal theme of
universalism can be undercut by insurgents simply practicing the acts of
reading and writing. In printed fiction, unlike other media, the individual's
brain, body, experience, social position, imagination, environment, loyalties,
sensibilities, and more intersect to create specific, yet largely unsharable
images. Theory means to manipulate these images to evoke a pattern
8


through which recognition and communication, or resonance, can be
accomplished. A postmodern feminist reading attempts to perceive power
relations in a manner that undermines truth claims, and that which appears
to be given, or natural. A discursive battle for possession of a subject is
waged in what is traditionally referred to as the subconscious, a modernist
artifact of Freudian psychology. A fictive text does not pretend to deliver
new knowledge, but rearranges that which we already know. It is at once
comforting and discomforting. As an embodied text, fiction shifts discourse
occurring in a particular time, place, and culture to the present. The multi-
dimensional combinations of fiction, the subject's knowledge, and social
science theory are spaces where social phenomena can be identified, and
where subjectivity can be created and re-created.
One of the primary features of a feminist postmodern reading of
fiction is that it uncovers the contradictions of the universal theme,
deconstructs its assumptions, finds similarities and differences, and
recognizes series that destabilize the norm. Social science is a way of
sharing knowledge and information, and creating new language,
connections, and rapport. It is an interdisciplinary way of negotiating the
contradictions between what women "ought" to know and feel, and
determining how resonant or dissonant these contradictions are. In the
9


spaces between subject and object, a text might provide both action and
dialog, passivity and silence. Keeping in mind that what is not read into the
text is as important as what is, a postmodern feminist reading questions the
text's verity as representative of "women," and challenges an identity that is
embedded in a narrow framework of reality. In the linear language of
dominant discourse, or in the language for which "there is no other" (This
140), Luce Irigaray proposes that women must write themselves as sexed,
and gender-specific entities. She reminds us that
alphabetical writing is linked historically to the civil and
religious codification of patriarchal powers. Not to contribute
to making language and its writings sexed is to perpetuate the
pseudo-neutrality of those laws and traditions that privilege
masculine genealogies and their codes of logic. (Je, 53)
She asks, "how could discourse not be sexed when language is?" (Je, 32).
The transference of image into language is not restricted to the
interpretation of alphabetical writing. Indeed, the study of womens fiction
has created spaces for play where before there were none. Donna
Haraway writes that "[rjeading fiction has had a potent place in women's
studies practice" (114) and suggests that,
Readings may function as technologies for constructing what
may count as women's experience and for mapping
connections and separations among women and the social
movements which they build and in which they participate in
local/global worlds. Fiction may be mobilized to provoke
identifications as well as oppositions, divergences, and
convergences in maps of consciousness. Fictions may also
10


be read to produce connections without identifications. The
fictions published by and about 'women of colour' occupy a
particularly potent node in women's studies practice at the
present historical moment in many locations. Appropriations
through particular reading practices of these fictions are far
from innocent, regardless of the locations in the intersecting
fields of race, class, and gender of any reader. (114)
When I selected The Matisse Stories, I thought that one of the most
challenging shortcomings might be its neglect of women of color. Besides
a brief mention of a Chinese waitperson in "The Chinese Lobster", Mrs.
Brown in "Artwork" may be the only one, and there are few and ambiguous
clues to her self-identification and ethnic heritage. Issues of class,
however, are more fully explored and inform much of the discourse and
narrative among the subjects of these stories. Reading Young's paper
convinced me that constructions of women, race, and class, can be
detected and interrogated, even in their absence, by remembering that
these are culpable variables in a patriarchal paradigm.
Jane Flax cautions that some feminist theories might have a
tendency to reduce "a very complex and contradictory set of social
relations" into "simple, unified, and undifferentiated wholes" (52). In
addition to assumptions about race and class, this tendency includes "the
constricting of embodiedness to a glorification of the distinctively female
aspects of our anatomy" (53). This approach has the effect of precluding
11


"the many other ways in which we experience our embodiedness (e.g.,
nonsexuai pleasure, the processes of aging or pain). It also replicates the
equating of women with the body--as if men did not have bodies also!" (53).
Flax writes that
physically male and female humans resemble each other in
many more ways than we differ. Our similarities are even
more striking if we compare humans to, say, toads or trees.
So why ought the anatomical differences between male and
female humans assume such significance in our sense of our
selves as persons? Why ought such complex human social
meanings and structures be based on or justified by a
relatively narrow range of anatomical differences? (51)
A critical aspect of reading and writing fiction as social science discourse
requires cultivating an awareness of how the reduction of women to
biological and psychological essences contributes to reifying the status
quo, and to supporting speculative patriarchal themes about womanhood.
To read and write women, and to resist the notion of women as an
undifferentiated, homogeneous caste, feminists should focus on identifying
how and why women are constructed the way we are, and ask, who
benefits from these constructions. With this in mind, I chronicle my reading
of The Matisse Stories.
12


CHAPTER 2
MEDUSA'S ANKLES
As a reader/writer, I cannot avoid thinking about the author.
Although It is impossible and superfluous to try to guess what Byatt had in
mind when she titled the first story "Medusa's Ankles", my re-writing of this
story resonates with Helene Cixous's essay, "The Laugh of the Medusa"
(1975). Both these pieces share humorous language and horrific images.
For Cixous, the image of Medusa "both calls for and demonstrates what
Cixous hopes is a new way of using language, specifically female but also
powerful" (Byzill and Hersberg 1227). The title might refer to what Patricia
Byzill and Bruce Hersberg describe as "the monster of ancient Greek
Mythology" who projects "a negative image of the female sex" (1227). In
their critique, Byzill and Hersberg summarize Cixous's observations that
[t]he Medusa's beautiful female face, surrounded by hair
made of poisonous snakes, grimaces horribly. To see the
Medusa is to be turned to stone. In the Freudian
interpretation, the Medusa's open mouth ringed with curling
'hair' resembles the female genitalia, at once arousing and
terrifying because no penis is there. The viewer turned to
stone is a man with an erection, or a man struck dead with
horror. Cixous refashions the grimacing lips into a laugh and
the threatening void into a mouth filled with beautiful
language. She hopes to bring about, by celebrating in this
essay, a rejection of male-dominated systems of
13


interpretation that classify female bodies, mouths, and words
as inferior. Hence Cixous is said to advocate women's
'writing their bodies."' (1227)
According to Barbara G. Walker, Medusa "was the serpent goddess
of the Libyan Amazons, representing 'female wisdom'" (629). She was said
to be the "Destroyer aspect of the Triple Goddess called Neith in Egypt,
Ath-enna or Athene in North Africa" (629). Medusa gave birth to all the
gods before childbirth among mortals ensued, and she was said to
symbolize and embody the past, present, and future. As a veiled woman
concealing the future, Medusa is also associated with the menstrual taboo,
who with her magical blood, "could create and destroy life; thus she
represented the dreaded life-and death-giving moon blood of women"
(629). Medusa was also the mother of Pegasus who was born out of her
neck after her decapitation, thus confirming her patriarchal displacement as
an avatar of The Great Goddess. Although there is nothing here about
ankles, the reader wonders if ankles have more to do with the author's
whimsy or with her attempt at deliberate obfuscation. Is it a challenge to
the lazy, or am I making too much of it?
In "Medusa's Ankles," Byatt presents Susannah, who re-presents
some of Medusa's mythical qualities. Susannah sits in a salon chair,
reminiscing about the day she had walked into the hair salon "because she
14


had seen the Rosy Nude through the plate glass" (3). She had thought it
odd
to have that lavish and complex creature stretched
voluptuously above the coat rack, where one might have
expected the stare, silver and supercilious or jetty and
frenzied, of the model girl. They were all girls now, not
women. (3)
In Susannah's mind, the rosy nude is a figure of "pure flat colour," that
"suggested mass" (3). Matisse had painted her with "huge haunches and a
monumental knee, lazily propped high. She had round breasts,
contemplations of the circle, reflections on flesh and its fall" (3). For this
first visit, Susannah had cautiously requested a simple "cut and blow-dry"
(3).
The owner and namesake of the salon, Lucian, whom she describes
as "slender and soft-moving, resembling a balletic Hamlet with full white
sleeves and tight black trousers" (3) had attended to the task himself.
Their physical proximity might be read as frame for a hierarchical political
relationship, or to unmask relative prestige in the power grid of the salon.
Proximity is everything. What has brought them together are preconditions,
assumptions, and givens about the potential for bodies and knowledges.
Byatt studies Susannah's and Lucian's positionalities from an anatomical
point of view:
15


The first few times she came it was the trousers she
remembered, better than his face, which she saw only in the
mirror behind her own, and which she felt a disinclination to
study. A woman's relation with her hairdresser is
anatomically odd. Her face meets his belt, his haunches skim
her breathing, his face is far away, high and behind. (3-4)
Susannah makes polite conversation by mentioning that she likes
his Matisse, then noting his blank look, says, "The pink nude. I love her"
(4). Lucian responds,
Oh, that. I saw it in a shop. I thought it went exactly with the
colour-scheme I was planning.... I thought she was
wonderful...so calm, so damn sure of herself, such a lovely
colour,...I fell for her absolutely.... She gives the salon a bit of
class. I like things to have class. (4)
He views the monumental nude as having qualities Susannah might never
have otherwise considered, or imagined. Although Susannah hates piped
music, here the music is tolerable, a kind of "tinkling, and tripping and
dropping, quiet seraglio music, like sherbet" (5). The salon is decorated
with an atmosphere like "the interior of a rosy cloud, all pinks and creams,
with creamy muslin curtains here and there, and ivory brushes and combs"
(4-5). She notices the frames of the mirrors and supply trollies are "a kind
of sky blue, a dark sky blue, the colour of the couch or bed on which the
rosy nude spread herself' (5). Lucian served
coffee in pink cups, with a pink and white wafer biscuit in the
saucer. He soothed her middle-aged hair into a cunningly
blown and natural windswept sweep, with escaping strands
and tendrils, softening brow and chin. (5)
16


Susannah reminisces about the hair salon
of her wartime childhood, with its boarded wooden cubicles,
its advertisements for Amami shampoo, depicting ladies with
blonde pageboys and red lips, in the forties bow which was
wider than the thirties rosebud. Amami, she had always
supposed, rhymed with smarmy and was somehow related to
it. When she became a linguist, and could decline the verb to
love in several languages, she saw suddenly one day that
Amami was an erotic invitation, or command. Amami, love
me, the blondes said, under their impeccably massed rolls of
hair. (5-6)
She remembers her mother "bristling with metal rollers, bobby pins and
pipe cleaners" then emerging from "under a rigidly bouncy 'set', like a
mountain of wax fruit, that made her seem artificial and embarrassing,
drawing attention somehow to the unnatural whiteness of her false teeth"
(6). Susannah recalls her own "electrically shocking initiation into
womanhood" (6) and elects to keep a "natural look" during the sixties and
seventies, growing "her hair long and straight and heavy, a chestnut-glossy
curtain" (6), and avoiding salons altogether. But now her hair had begun to
age, "[t]he ends split, the weight of it broke, a kind of frizzed fur replaced
the gloss" (6-7). Lucian had assured her that "curls and waves...would
dissimulate, would render natural-looking, that was, young, what was
indeed natural, the death of the cells" (7).
17


On her first visit, Lucian had posed with his hands suspended above
her head, "like the hands of a priest round a Grail. She looked, quickly,
quickly, it was better than before, thanked him and averted her eyes. She
came to trust him with her disintegration" (7). Here, the choice of religious
images might evoke a sense of confidence and serenity, but from her quick
movements, Susannah's body language speaks the contradiction.
Now, because Lucian has become routinely late for their
appointments, Susannah often finds herself reading articles from hair
magazines "about the hairdresser as the new healer, with his cure of souls.
Once, the magazine informed her, the barber had been the local surgeon,
had drawn teeth, set bones and dealt with female problems" (7-8). Today,
however, the hairdresser was expected to perform "the all-important
function of listening. He elicited the tale of your troubles and calmed you"
(8). Lucian, however, did not perform this way. Instead,
[h]e created his own psychiatrist and guru from his captive
hearer. Or at least, so Susannah found, who may have been
specially selected because she was plump, which could be
read as motherly, and because, as a university teacher she
was, as he detected, herself a professional listener. He
asked her advice. (8)
In his search for meaning, Lucian tells Susannah that he has tried
"Tantric Art and the School of Meditation" (8) and asks Susannah if she
knows "about that sort of thing, about the inner life?" (8). She informs him
18


that she is "an agnostic" (8). He assumes that she knows art because she
has recognized the pink nude as a Matisse and solicits her advice about
how he can convene with art more intimately. She advises him to read
Lawrence Gowing, and Lucian makes a show of writing down the name "in
a little dove-grey leather book. She told him where to find good extra-mural
classes and who was good among the gallery lecturers" (9). Upon
subsequent visits, Susannah learns that he has not followed up on her
recommendations. She wishes he would be silent and simply attend to the
task at hand. She considers his "flitting mind" and it frightens her: "What
she knew, what she cared about, what was coherent, was separate shards
for him to flit over, remaining separate" (9). Obviously disconnected from
Susannah's reality, Lucien complains, "I don't want to put the best years of
my life into making suburban old dears presentable,...! want something
more" (9). Somewhat startled by his candor, she briefly looks up and says,
"What?" (10). He continues,
'Beauty, I want beauty. I must have beauty. I want to sail on
a yacht among the Greek isles, with beautiful people.' He
caught her eye. 'And see those temples and those
sculptures.' He pressed close, he pushed at the nape of her
neck, her nose was near his discreet zip. (10)
Lucian changes the subject before she can respond by scolding her for not
using conditioner after washing her hair. "She bent her head submissively,
19


and he scraped the base of her skull" (10). Without enthusiasm, he
suggests highlighting her hair with 'Bronze or mixed autumnal' (10) and she
declines, saying that she prefers it natural. Lucian sighs, disappointed, but
resigned. Susannah is incredulous when he begins to tell her about his
love life. She had justified her assumption that Lucian was homosexual
because
[t]he salon was full of beautiful young men, who came,
wielded the scissors briefly, giggled together in corners and
departed. Chinese, Indonesian, Glaswegian, South African.
He shouted at them and giggled with them, they exchanged
little gifts and paid off obscure little debts to each other. Once
she came in late and found them sitting in a circle, playing
poker. The girls were subordinate and brightly hopeless.
None of them had lasted long. (11)
Susannah's styling sessions began to take longer. There were
"phone calls and...lengthy explanations, which he would accompany with
gestures, making her look at this mirrored excitement, like a boy riding a
bicycle with hands off' (11). He begs her indulgence for his distraction and
attributes it to having found what he has been looking for all his life. He
scrapes her eye, making her blink, as he casually wipes suds "from her wet
brow" (11). He announces that he has found love; "Total affinity. Absolute
compatibility. A miracle. My other half. A perfectly beautiful girl" (12).
Susannah asks, "And your wife?"
'She told me to get out of the house. So I got out. I went to
her flat--my girlfriend's. She came and fetched me back-my
20


wife. She said I must choose, but she thinks I'll choose her. I
said it would be better for the moment just to let it evolve. I
told her how do I know what I want, in this state of ecstasy,
how do I know it'll last, how do I know she'll go on loving me?'
(12)
It seems that for Lucien, these women are different, but interchangeable.
Neither is ever named in the story. They are part of a series in which he is
the central or pivotal subject, a series that describes the surfaces where
Lucian touches, and is touched by them. He frowns impatiently, waving
"the scissors dangerously near" Susannah's "temples" (12). He claims his
wife loves him, but that all she really cares about is what the neighbors
think. His biggest concern about destroying his marriage is that he is fond
of his house and his wife keeps it well. Susannah realizes, during the
course of the next few months, that Lucian is not a good storyteller. The
stories are shards of information that are always about him:
None of the characters acquired any roundness. She formed
no image of the nature of the beauty of the girlfriend, or of the
way she spent her time when not demonstrating her total
affinity for Lucian. She did not know whether the wife was a
shrew or a sufferer, nervous or patient or even ironically
detached. All these wraith-personae were inventions of
Susannah's own. About six months through the narrative
Lucian said that his daughter was very upset about it all, the
way he was forced to come and go, sometimes living at
home, sometimes shut out. (13)
Susannah is astonished to learn that Lucian has a daughter, whose age he
cannot quite remember, either fifteen or seventeen years old. She watches
21


"him touch his own gleaming hair in the mirror, and smile apprehensively at
himself' (13). He dismisses her comment that it is difficult for young girls
when there is conflict at home. He comments that it is "hard on everyone"
and tells her that his major fear is that if he sells the house he will "be left
with nothing" (14), and his girlfriend might not go on loving him if she has
him all the time. There is also the problem of keeping up two mortgages.
He asks her if she thinks his wife "has a right to more than half the value of
the house" and Susannah tells him that she is a classicist, "not a lawyer"
(15). Then he casually mentions that he has purchased scuba gear, and
that he and his girlfriend are going on a month-long holiday, "[sjailing
through the Greek Isles" (15), and that the salon will be closed.
On her return, Susannah is astounded and dismayed that the salon
has been redecorated in a color scheme that she especially dislikes.
Although it was very fashionable in the newest colors, "battleship-grey and
maroon", Susannah thought it resembled "[djried blood and instruments of
slaughter" (15). The image of the salon as hospital is confirmed by the
accouterments:
The blue trollies had been replaced with hi-tech steely ones,
the ceiling lowered, the faintly aquarial plate glass was
replaced with storm-grey-one-way-see-through-no-glare
which made even bright days dull ones. The music was now
muted heavy metal. The young men and women wore dark
grey Japanese wrappers and what she thought of as the
patients, which included herself, wore identical maroon ones.
22


Her face in the mirror was grey, had lost the deceptive rosy
haze of the earlier lighting. (15-16)
Matisse's Rosy Nude had been removed and replaced with large
"photographs of girls with grey faces, coal-black eyes and spiky lashes,
under bonfires of incandescent puce hair which matched their lips, rounded
to suck, at microphones perhaps, or other things" (16). Susannah
considers going elsewhere, but decides that Lucian understands her hair,
and this is a particularly important appointment. She asks about his holiday
and politely listens while he extols the virtues of the islands, then complains
about the matrimonial disaster to which he has returned. When Lucian
finally takes a breath, Susannah abruptly changes the subject. She tells
him, "I need to look particularly good this time. I've won a prize. A
Translator's Medal. I have to make a speech. On television" (17). He
seems not to reflect a moment before he says in one breath, "We'll have to
make you look lovely, won't we? For the honour of the salon. How do you
like our new look?" (17). Lucian does not congratulate Susannah, but
immediately thinks in terms of personal benefit.
There is no further mention of her television appearance in the story,
yet it seems that this news has had some effect on Lucian. He works
above her, and "[wjhen her head involuntarily followed his he said quite
23


nastily, 'Keep still, can you, I can't work if you keep bending from side to
side like a swan'" (17-18). Susannah apologizes and keeps
still as a mouse, her head bowed under his repressing palm.
She turned up her eyes and saw him look at his watch, then,
with a kind of balletic movement of wrists, scissors, and
finger-points above her brow, drive the sharp steel into the
ball of his thumb, so that blood spurted, so that some of his
blood even fell on to her scalp. (18)
Susannah confronts him, saying "I saw you cut yourself' (18). Without
meeting her eyes, he confesses that it is a common trick hairdressers use
when they have "been driving ourselves and haven't had time for a bite or a
breather, we get cut, and off we go, to the toilet, to take a bit of Mars Bar or
a cheese roll if the receptionist's been considerate" (18). He excuses
himself and Susannah is left sitting for an extended period looking at
herself in the mirror while water begins to drip down her collar and into her
eyes. She begins to undergo what Carol Gilligan describes as a
transformation of a woman's development from a "nonentity" into a person
who sees an opportunity "to take control" of her life (Gilligan 213). As
Susannah sits dripping and looking into the mirror,
[s]he felt a gentle protective rage towards this stolid face.
She remembered, not as a girl, as a young woman under all
that chestnut fall, looking at her skin, and wondering how it
could grow into the crepe, the sag, the opulent soft bags.
This was her face, she had thought then. And this, too, now,
she wanted to accept for her face, trained in a respect for
precision, and could not. What had left this greying skin,
these flakes, these fragile stretches with no elasticity, was
24


her, was her life, was herself. She had never been a
beautiful woman, but she had been attractive, with the
attraction of liveliness and warm energy, of the flow of quick
blood and brightness of eye. No classic bones, which might
endure, no fragile bird-like sharpness that might whitely go
forward. Only the life of flesh, which began to die. (Byatt 19)
But Susannah is conflicted by the reflection of her image. She sees
through the transparency of herself "as ultimately giving and good, as self-
sustaining in her own creativity and thus able to meet the needs of others,
while imposing no demands of her own in return" and "she questions not
the image itself but her own adequacy in filling it" (Gilligan 209).1 Clearly,
she is beset by fear and panic about her television appearance, "which had
come too late, when she had lost the desire to be seen or looked at" (Byatt
19-20). She knew that
[t]he cameras search jowl and eye-pocket, expose brush-
stroke and cracks in shadow and gloss. So interesting are
their revelations that words, mere words, go for nothing, fly by
whilst the memory of a chipped tooth, a strayed red dot, an
inappropriate hair, persists and persists. (20)
Her desire is simply to look natural. She surveys the activities going on
around her, considers going home, then realizes she can't because she is
wet. She looks at the other women who "stare transfixed at their respective
ugliness" (21). Lucian returns only to ask her how much she wants cut off
and to scold her again for the broken and "deteriorating" ends of her hair,
which he again accuses her of not feeding in his absence. She starts to
25


answer when he interrupts, "I've been talking to my girlfriend. I've decided I
shan't go back any more to my wife. I can't bear it" (21). Susannah asks if
it is because his wife is too angry and is shocked when he answers, "She's
let herself go altogether. She's let her ankles get fat, they swell over her
shoes, it disgusts me, it's impossible for me" (21). Susannah says, '"That
happens to people. Fluid absorption....' She did not look down at her own
ankles" (21). Immediately, they are interrupted by the hairdresser next to
them who is having trouble with a perm and Lucian trades places with her.
Though Deirdre tries to engage her, Susannah
would not speak. Vaguely, far away, she heard the anxious
little voice. 'Do you have children, dear, have you far to go
home, how formal do you like it, do you want back-
combing?...' Susannah stared stony, thinking about Lucian's
wife's ankles. Because her own ankles rubbed her shoes,
her sympathies had to be with this unknown and ill-presented
woman. She remembered with sudden total clarity a day
when, Suzie then, not Susannah, she had made love all day
to an Italian student on a course in Perugia. She
remembered her own little round rosy breasts, her own long
legs stretched over the side of the single bed, the hot, the
wet, his shoulders, the clash of skulls as they tried to mix
themselves completely. (22)
The image of Medusa is evoked once again as Deirdre continued
"rolling up curls, piling them up", creating "[s]ausages and snail-shells,
grape-clusters and twining coils" while Susannah's temper builds. The
[r]age rose in her, for the fat-ankled woman, like a red flood, up from her
26


thighs across her chest, up her neck, it must flare like a flag in her face, but
how to tell in this daft cruel grey light?" (23). Apparently finished, Deirdre
says, '"There,...[t]hat's nice. I'll just get a mirror.' 'It isn't nice,"' says
Susannah, '"It's hideous'" (23). Silence falls over the salon and Lucian
intervenes, saying, "'She did it better than I do, dear,...She gave it a bit of
lift. That's what they all want, these days. I think you look really nice'" (24).
Susannah responds, "It's horrible,... / look like a middle-aged woman with a
hair-do.... Not natural'" (24). Lucian says he will have Deirdre "tone it
down" (24), but before she has a chance, Susannah picks "up a bottle, full
of gel" and slams it down, cracking "the grey glass shelf' (24). Lucian
starts to approach her, apologizing, beseeching her to calm herself, but
Susannah warns him away. Then she
seized a small cylindrical pot and threw it at one of his
emanations. It burst with a satisfying crash and one whole
mirror became a spider-web of cracks, from which fell,
tinkling, a little heap of crystal nuggets. In front of Susannah
was a whole row of such bombs or grenades. She lobbed
them all around her. Some of the cracks made a kind of
strained singing noise, some were explosive. She whirled a
container of hairpins about her head and scattered it like a
nailbomb. She tore dryers from their sockets and sprayed the
puce punk with sweet-smelling foam. She broke basins with
brushes and tripped the young Chinese male, who was the
only one not apparently petrified, with a hissing trolley,
swaying dangerously and scattering puffs of cotton-wool and
rattling trails of clips and tags. She silenced the blatter of the
music with a well-aimed imitation alabaster pot of
Juvenescence Emulsion, which dripped into the cassette
27


which whirred more and more slowly in a thickening morass
of blush-coloured cream. (25-26)
Fearful of what might happen when she finishes, Susannah does not stop
until there is nothing left to hurl. Although there are no human sounds, the
sounds of material destruction continue to reverberate for minutes after she
has stopped. Her hands are bleeding when "Lucian advanced crunching
over the shining silt, and dabbed at them with a towel. He too was
bloodied--specks on his shirt, a fine dash on his brow, nothing substantial"
(26). Susannah looks around at the destruction. It is an empty, strange
"battlefield, full of glitter fragments and sweet-smelling rivulets and puddles
of venous-blue and fuchsia-red unguents, patches of crimson-streaked
foam and odd intense spills of orange henna or cobalt and copper" (26).
The faces of the witnesses betray their suspicion that Susannah might
benefit from psychotherapy, but the explosion of Susannah's rage might be
understood as not just the result of a bad hairdo, but rather the culmination
of the play and touch of multiple surfaces of past, present, and future
events playing themselves out on her body.
Here, psychotheory might be useful for discovering a new trajectory
on which to plot these events. In her discussion of the importance of
Freudian psychoanalysis to feminist theory, Nancy Chodorow says that "it
shows us that we also live our past in the present. We do not just react to
28


our contemporary situation and conscious wishes, nor can we easily
change values, feelings, and behavior simply if we have an encouraging
social setting" (171). Chodorow argues that psychoanalysis is useful for
explaining "our commitment to this past" (171) and theorizes that
People appropriate, fantasize, transform, react against,
repress, resist, and symbolize their experiences. They create
their inner object world and self. The goal of psychoanalysis
is to make this individually created unconscious conscious, to
move beyond being powered or directed by these active,
though not always desirable to the individual, fantasies.
Psychoanalysis, then, is a theory of human nature with
positive, liberatory implications, a theory of people as active
and creative. (171)
Chodorow suggests that perhaps only within the boundaries of theory
based on psychoanalysis, can we find the bricolage of influences on what
the reader reads, and what the writer writes into a discourse. Using the
materials at hand, a gendered discourse is inevitable. In "Medusa's
Ankles" we see how, according to theorist Jane Flax,
much of the discussion of...the distinctively female tends to
avoid discussing women's anger and aggression-how we
internalize them and express them.... Perhaps women are
not any less aggressive than men; we may just express our
aggression in different, culturally sanctioned (and partially
disguised or denied) ways. (55)
After the last tinkling of glass has ceased, Susannah finally speaks,
"I'd better go" (26), but Lucian rejects the idea, and steers her toward a
chair, saying, "Deirdre'll make you a cup of coffee,... [yjou'd better sit down
29


and take a breather" (27). Susannah stands and stares while Lucian
encourages her to "[g]o on. We all feel like that, sometimes. Most of us
don't dare. Sit down" (27). Then, at once, "[t]hey all gathered round, the
young, making soothing, chirruping noises, putting out hands with vague
patting, calming gestures" (27). Susannah tells Lucian that she will send
him a check for the damage, but he announces,
The insurance'll pay. Don't worry. It's insured. You've done
me a good turn in a way. It wasn't quite right, the colours. I
might do something different. Or collect the insurance and
give up. Me and my girlfriend are thinking of setting up a stall
in the Antique Hypermarket. Costume jewelry. Thirties and
forties kitsch. She has sources. I can collect the insurance
and have a go. I've had enough of this. I'll tell you
something, I've often felt like smashing it all up myself, just to
get out of itlike a great glass cage it is-and go out into the
real world. So you mustn't worry dear. (27-28)
Although his salon has been utterly destroyed, and his patron devastated
on a day particularly important to her, Lucian visualizes personal benefit.
This story would be far different if Susannah did not have the resources to
pay for the damage, or if the salon had not been insured. It seems Lucian
can afford this chivalry.
The final scene shows Susannah sitting at home, "her cheeks
flushed, her eyes bright with tears" (28), her plan being that "[wjhen she
had pulled herself together, she would go and have a shower and soak out
the fatal coils, reduce them to streaming rat-tails" (28). Her husband
30


arrives unexpectedly, "she had long given up expecting or not expecting
him, his movements were unpredictable and unexplained. He came in
tentatively, a large, alert, ostentatiously work-wearied man. She looked up
at him speechless. He saw her. (Usually he did not)" (28). He says, "'You
look different. Youve had your hair done. I like it. You look lovely. It
takes twenty years off you. You should have it done more often.' And he
came over and kissed her on the shorn nape of her neck, quite as he used
to do" (28).
In her discussion of the work of Theresa Bernardez, Gilligan writes
that sometimes
cultural injunctions against anger in women turn into
psychological inhibitions which 'prevent rebellious acts,' with
the result that women come to feel complicit in their own
misery. The process of psychotherapy then involves a kind of
reverse alchemy whereby anger which has soured into
bitterness and hatred becomes once again simply anger-'the
conscious response to an awareness of injustices suffered or
losses and grievances sustained...[the anger]... involves self-
love and awareness of the responsibility of making choices.'
(Joining 38)
Rather than concluding with sanctions against Susannah, Byatt endorses
the therapeutic benefits of mind-body unity in rejecting the values and
symbols of patriarchy. Tangible conventional images and linguistic signs
are rescued from metaphoric abstraction and planted firmly in the quotidian
present, rendering meaningless any interpretation, and undoing universal
31


themes of who women are, how they act, and why. This interpretation
does not exclude the irony of the ending in that Susannah's hairdo has the
effect of rekindling her husband's conjugal libido through pandering to his
stereotype of glamour. Or, perhaps we find what we expect. "Medusa's
Ankles" investigates the multiplicity of women's experiences as they are
constructed, accumulated, and lived in culture past, present and future.
32


CHAPTER 3
ART WORK
There are multiple and obvious incongruities in Byatt's selection of
the Matisse painting, Le Silence habite' des maisons and the
subjects/objects of this story. Repeated references to silence contradict
lengthy descriptions of background noise and its sources. Contrary visual
juxtapositions appear between this painting and its re-presentation in Sir
Lawrence Gowing's book, Matisse. She writes that the reproduction is
"very small and in black and white" (31). Throughout his life, Matisse had
produced very large canvases preoccupied with color. The characters in
this story, and their view of this painting are given the first of many forms
and connections to one another. The reader sees at once the whole room
and zooms-in on the picture where Byatt, addressing the reader as "we"
who "may imagine it" (32), describes the painting:
Two people sit at the corner of a table. The mother, it may
be, has a reflective chin propped on a hand propped on the
table. The child, it may be, turns the page of a huge white
book, whose arch of paper makes an integral curve with
his/her lower arm. In front, a vase of flowers. Behind, six
huge panes of window, behind them, a mass of trees and
perhaps sunlight. The people's faces are perfect blank ovals,
featureless.... The pictures, Gowing writes, have
33


extraordinary virility. 'At last Matisse is wholly at ease with
the fierce impulse.' (31-32)
We bear in mind that not everyone would agree with Gowing's appraisal of
the "virility" represented by the painting. The reader is transported to the
Dennison family residence where
[t]here is an inhabited silence...in the sense that there are no
voices, though there are various sounds, some of them even
pervasive and raucous sounds, which an unconcerned ear
might construe as the background din of a sort of silence.
(32)
Byatt describes the quality of this din as "the churning hum of the washing-
machine" (32)...and the "banshee-scream of the spin-cycle, accompanied
by a drumming tattoo of machine feet scrabbling on the tiles" (32-33). It is
mid-moming in the front room where the television chants to itself in "the
wilfully upbeat cheery squitter of female presenters of children's TV,
accented with regular, repetitive amazement" (33). The Dennison children,
Natasha and Jamie, are in their rooms listening to dins of their individual
creations. Byatt describes Natashas face as one possessing
the empty beatific intelligence of some of Matisse's supine
women. Her face is white and oval and luminous with youth.
Her hair is inky blue-black, and fanned across her not-too-
clean pillows. Her bedspread is jazzy black forms of ferns or
seaweeds, on a scarlet ground, forms the textile designer
would never have seen, without Matisse. (34)
34


Toward the end of his life, Matisse had used scissors to cut out very large
pure chunks of color when he could no longer physically paint.
Natasha's mother, Debbie, is working at her typewriter in her small
office-study tapping out her contribution as "design editor of a magazine, A
Woman's Place, of which the, perhaps obscure, premise is that a woman's
place is not only, perhaps not even primarily, in the Home" (36). Matisse's
statement about the female form is repeated in Debbie's oval chin
suspended above the typewriter, and her oval nail which alternately creates
sound and silence between taps on her tooth and the typewriter. Debbie
works at home this day because her son has the chicken pox, and she
waits for the doctor who is unable to tell her what time he will come. Her
room is decorated with pictures of the children and their drawings, as well
as with more sophisticated paintings, presumably executed by her
husband, Robin. As Debbie types and listens for the sound of the doorbell
indicating the doctor has arrived, the phone rings.
It is her editor, asking when she will be able to make a layout
conference. She speaks, placating, explaining, just sketching
in an appeal for sympathy. The editor of A Woman's Place is
a man, who reads and slightly despises the pieces about the
guilt of the working mother which his periodical periodically
puts out. Debbie changes tack, and makes him laugh with a
description of where poor Jamie's spots have managed to
sprout. 'Poor little bugger,' quacks the editor into Debbie's
ear, inaudible to the rest of the house. (Byatt 38)
35


The reading is directed back to sound and how it is linked to Le Silence
habite des maisons. There are a number of auditory clues, and they seem
more contradictory and more striking than the unperturbed silence the
painting suggests: The characters seem to weave through the sound and
the silence, participating both abstractly and materially. Byatt's privileging
sound over vision might be a method of bonding characters to their
environment and to Others in that what they hear instead of what they see,
destabilizes customary readings. One sees sounds. Byatt extends
significant detail to associate members of the household with the sounds
they generate. For example, she writes that
[u]p and down the stairs, joining all three floors, surges a
roaring and wheezing noise, a rhythmic and complex and
swelling crescendo, snorting, sucking, with a high-pitched
drone planing over a kind of grinding sound, interrupted every
now and then by a frenetic rattle, accompanied by a new,
menacing whine. Behind the Hoover, upwards and
downwards, comes Mrs. Brown, without whom, it must
immediately be said, Debbie's world would not hold together.
(39)
Then, abruptly, a visual representation is presented of Mrs. Brown, the
housekeeper, who arrived ten years ago in response to an advertisement
for domestic help. Pregnant, and mother of a four-year-old, Debbie had
indicated that hers was an "'artistic family..., expecting perhaps to evoke
some tolerance, if not positive affection, for the tattered wallpaper and
36


burgeoning mess" (39). Byatt's visual portrayal of Mrs. Brown leaves little
to the imagination. She writes that
Mrs Brown had a skin which was neither black nor brown but
a kind of amber yellow, the sort of yellow bruises go, before
they vanish, but all over. She had a lot of wiry soot-coloured
hair, which rose, like the crown of a playing-card king, out of a
bandeau of flowery material, tied tightly about her brow, like
the towelling of a tennis star, or the lace cap of an
oldfashioned maid. Mrs Brown's clothes were, and are,
flowery and surprising, jumble sale remnants, rejects and
ends of lines, rainbow-coloured jumpers made from the ping-
pong-ball-sized unwanted residues of other people's knitting.
(39-40)
When she accepts the job and removes her trench-coat for a chat, Mrs.
Brown reveals
pantaloons made of some kind of thick cream-coloured
upholstery linen, wonderfully traversed by crimson open-
mouthed Indian flowers and birds of paradise and tendrils of
unearthly creepers, and a royal-blue jumper embroidered all
over with woollen daisies, white marguerites, orange black-
eyed Susans. (40)
Mrs. Brown bears no likeness to the rounded luxurious oval of a Matisse
representation of woman. Rather, she is a representation of a Matisse
painting whose face resembles "a primitive mask, cheeks in triangular
planes, long, straight, salient nose, a mouth unusually tightly closed. Her
expression can be read as prim, or grim, or...perhaps resigned" (41).
The political and social relationship between Debbie and Mrs. Brown
is an unequal, yet for the moment, compatible arrangement. Byatt writes
37


that Debbie's "most powerful emotion in relation to Mrs Brown is terror that
she will leave" (41). Posited within a hierarchy, their relationship mirrors
limited possibilities for change, reflecting what Patti Lather calls "'the whole
inherited inventory' of phantom foundations and absolutes" (331). Debbie
and Mrs. Brown constitute a series that demonstrates resistance to, and
compliance with, the "contested cultural space" they share (Lather 317).
Byatt expresses multiple sites where the surfaces of their relationship
emerge from what has been historically repressed. She writes that
If Mrs Brown is not Debbie's friend, she is the closest person
to Debbie on earth, excluding perhaps the immediate family.
Debbie and Mrs Brown do not share the usual intimacies,
they have no common chatter about other people, but they
have a kind of rock-bottom knowledge of each other's fears
and pains, or so Debbie thinks, knowing, nevertheless, that
Mrs Brown knows more about her than she will ever know
about Mrs Brown, since it is in Debbie's house that the
relationship is carried out. Mrs Brown washes Debbie's
underwear and tidies Debbie's desk, putting Debbie's letters,
private and official, threatening and secret, in tidy heaps. Mrs
Brown counts the bottles and sweeps up the broken glass
after parties, though she does not partake of the festive food.
Mrs Brown changes Debbie's sheets. (41)
Although Debbie was eager to ask Mrs. Brown whether she had
children, she resisted, knowing how resentful she felt during her own
interviews when she had been asked the same. She did not make
assumptions about Mrs. Brown in relation to Mrs. Brown's family, but did
ask if she had a telephone. Mrs. Brown had assured Debbie that she was
38


dependable, and that barring "'Acts of God,"' she would advise Debbie if
she was unable to come. '"Well, and acts of Hooker too,' says Mrs Brown,
without saying who Hooker might be" (43). Eventually, Debbie discovered
"that Mrs. Brown had two sons, Lawrence and Gareth, shortened to Gary
by his friends, but not by Mrs Brown" (43). The boys "were ten and eight
when Mrs Brown came to Debbie" but now the older, Lawrence, attended
University and the younger, Gareth, had "made the wrong sort of friends"
and worked in an unskilled position "'in distribution'" (43). She also found
that Hooker was the boys' father, though she could not determine if he was
Mr. Brown. During the early part of their relationship, Hooker had appeared
in Mrs. Brown's life on several occasions, until Mrs. Brown took a rare day
off to get an injunction to prevent his coming to her home. Debbie learned
that
Hooker was the cause of Mrs Brown's bruises, the chocolate
and violet stains on the gold skin, the bloody cushions in the
hair and the wine-coloured efflorescence on her lips. Once,
and once only, at this time, Debbie found Mrs Brown sitting
on the bathroom stool, howling, and brought her cups of
coffee, and held her hands, and sent her home in a taxi. It
was Mrs Brown who saw Debbie through the depression after
the birth of Jamie, with a mixture of carefully timed
indulgences and requirements. 'I've brought you a bowl of
soup, you'll do no good in the world if you don't eat.' Tve
brought Baby up to you, Mrs Dennison, he's crying his heart
out with hunger, he needs his mother, that's what it is.' They
call each other Mrs Dennison and Mrs Brown. They rely on
the kind of distance and breathing space this courtesy gives
them. Mrs Brown was scathing about the days in hospital,
39


when she was concussed, after one of Hooker's visits. They
call you love, and dearie, and pet. I say, I need a bit of
respect, my name is Mrs Brown'. (43-44)
The mystery surrounding Mrs. Brown's marital status remains. Whether
she uses the title, Mrs. to appropriate respect, create professional distance,
or to shield her children is unknown and inconsequential. Mrs. Browns
rejection of terms of endearment, and her liaison with Hooker, create
complex questions about the binary positions between her private and
public lives. Her time is woven between the private life of another family
and her own private life, which is occupied, but not colonized by, three male
figures. She maintains a confident and efficient disposition, bringing order
to the chaos and disruption of all these lives.
Returning to the present, Debbie continues to type her article,
having some difficulty concentrating and finding the right words. She types,
"new moulding techniques give new streamlined shapes to the most banal
objects. Sink trays and storage jars...' Banal is the wrong word...Everyday?
Wrong too" (45). Finding appropriate words to define the mundane
challenges both her professional and practical abilities. The Hoover is
running on the stairway when the doorbell rings, and simultaneously "A
voice of pure male rage rings out from the top floor" (45). Enter Robin,
Debbie's husband and occupier of the attic, formerly three bedrooms, which
40


now serve as his studio. Mrs. Brown intervenes in Debbie's indecision
about which direction she will turn, and instructs Debbie to "attend to him,
and I'll just let the doctor in and say you'll be down directly" (45). Clearly,
from her tone and emphasis on him, Mrs. Brown has a low regard for Robin
and little interest in his requirements.
Mrs. Brown is regarded by Robin with less ambiguity. He complains
to Debbie: "Look what she has done. If you can't get it into her head that
she mustn't muck about with my work-things she'll have to go" (45).
Debbie is feeling both rage that she should have to arbitrate their disputes,
and gratitude that he complains to her instead of to Mrs. Brown. She tells
him that the doctor has arrived for Jamie and that she must go. Robin
dismisses her plea and launches into a diatribe against Mrs. Brown. He
says:
'This bowl,' says Robin Dennison, 'this bowl, as anyone can
see, is a work of art. Look at that glaze. Look at those huge
satisfactory blue and orange fruits in it, look at the green
leaves and the bits of yellow, just look, Debbie. Now I ask
you, would anyone suppose this bowl was a kind of dustbin
for things they were too lazy to put away or carry off, would
they, do you suppose, anyone with their wits about them,
would they?' (46)
With her ear tuned to the stairway, Debbie asks, neutrally, what the
problem is. She takes inventory of the desecrated bowl. The fragments of
what his attention is annoyingly fixed upon are
41


a few random elastic bands, a chain of paperclips, an obscure
plastic cog from some tiny clock, a battered but unused
stamp, two oil pastels, blue and orange, a piece of dried
bread, a very short length of electric wire, a dead
chrysanthemum, three coloured thumbtacks (red, blue,
green), a single lapis cufflink, an electric bulb with a burnt
patch on its curve, a box of matches, a china keyhole cover,
two indiarubbers, a dead bluebottle and two live ants, running
in circles, possibly busy, possibly frantically lost. (46-47)
When Robin accuses Mrs. Brown of having filthy habits, Debbie defends
her, reminding him that she has found the missing cufflink that he had been
"going on about" (47). She looks around at the room, thinking that this "is
not the habitation of a tidy man", and remarks that "It is hard for anyone to
tell what to leave alone, up here, and what to clear up" (47). Robin resists
her appeal to logic and says, "No, it isn't. Dirt is dirt, and personal things,
things in use, are things in use. All it requires is intelligence'" (47). Debbie
knows that her participation in these conversations are for the survival of
them all, that Robin "needs to assert himself and win", and she knows that
"if she does not stand between [them]...Mrs Brown will leave" (48). Like a
plant that turns its flowers to face the sun, "she turns and harkens to it, like
Donne's other compass half, like a heliotrope" (48), and reluctantly gives
her full attention to Robin.
Carol Gilligan might view this scene as one in which Debbie and
Robin have succumbed to roles where "relationships are narrowed and
42


distorted by gender stereotypes or used as opportunities for distancing,
abuse, subordination, invalidation, or other forms of psychological violation"
(Voice 29). Byatt unveils what Gilligan calls the "experience/'reality' split" in
Debbie's and Robin's relationship. Both individuals are aware of "the
prevailing conventions of relationship (30) in a patriarchal paradigm that
for women encourages
self-sacrifice or self-silencing and the holding out of purity and
perfection as conditions for relationship and the mark of good
women, in the case of the feminine ideal, and, in the case of
the masculine ideal, the encouragement of self-
aggrandizement and the desire to be in the dominant position,
to be in control. (30)
Gilligan argues that these "debilitating cultural norms and values-times
when a person buries her feelings and thoughts and manifests confusion,
uncertainty, and dissociation...are the marks of a psychological resistance"
(30) brought on by cultural "assumptions in which we are drenched" (Rich
qtd. in Gilligan 30). Debbie negotiates these norms and values by meeting
Robin's demands. Mrs. Brown is compiicit in both creating conflict by using
"exactly that dish as a picking-up receptacle for exactly that reason" (Byatt
48), and for bringing about its resolution, telling Debbie, "You attend to
him," (45). Debbie is aware that "Mrs Brown has her own modes of silent
aggression", but [s]he does not raise this idea" because she knows that
"Robin is neither moved by nor interested in Mrs Browns feelings" (48).
43


Neither is he interested in the resolution of the immediate problem, and
when Debbie offers to throw away the "work things" and dust the bowl,
Robin urges her to "[wjait a minute. Those are quite all right rubber bands.
I was using that bread for rubbing out. The matches are OK, nothing wrong
with them. Some of us can't afford to throw good tools away, you know"
(49). He asks her to "stick them on the table over there. I'll see to them
myself. Dust the bowl, please" (49). When she has finished her assigned
tasks, Debbie looks at him and he "glares back at her, and then gives a
smile, like a rueful boy" (49). Byatt describes Robin's immaturity as well as
his physical appearance as that of "a long, thin, unsubstantial man in jeans
and a fisherman's smock, with big joints, knuckles and wrists and ankles,
like an adolescent, which he is not" (49). Emotionally, however, Robin is a
child, a little boy trapped in an adult body. One could explore further the
issues of real vs apparent power in this kind of relationship, and indeed, the
ending of this story indicates where the real power resides, obviously in
Mrs. Brown. Byatt describes Robin's face, which is
long and fine and pink and white, like a worried colt. His soft
hair is pushed up all round his head like a hedgehog and is
more or less the same colour as one. His eyes are an
intense blue, like speedwells. (49-50)
Part of the illusion and romance of patriarchy is normalized by a
belief that those who have the goodies will take care of those less
44


fortunate. The unspoken agreement is that Debbie will continue to
appease and flatter Robin, saying, "You have managed to make her
understand about the fetishes" (50) and Robin will accept, in a long-
suffering way, the credit for his ability to educate Mrs. Brown, despite his
belief that it should not be unnecessary. On her way out Debbie offers to
bring him a mug of coffee, which he accepts, and asks if he has heard from
Shona McRury from the Callisto Gallery. Robin detains Debbie once more,
saying that he does not believe she ever meant to come, and that she was
probably drunk when she offered to. Debbie consoles him, saying she
knows McRury will show up to see his paintings because she was so taken
by one in particular. She says, "Don't be silly, Robin. She'll turn up, I
know. I don't say things I don't mean, do l? (51). Both trust that neither
will interfere with the delusions they have created between them. This
almost text-book example of symbiosis of the dysfunctional corroborates
and substantiates the fact that it is only Mrs. Brown who represents virtual
autonomy.
Here there is white space in the text, perhaps transmitting a lapse of
time, a silence, or a change of role. Power is handed to Debbie by means
of Robin's symbolic neediness, and her own ability to adapt to it, and
transform it into something concrete, some action. Byatt writes that
45


"Debbie doesn't know whether the girl, Shona McRury, will turn up or not,
but she says she will, with force, because it is better for her, as well as for
Robin, if he is in a hopeful mood" (51). Here Byatt intentionally changes
Debbie's name to sustain the passage of time, silence, and a different role.
Deborah loves Robin. She has loved him since they met at
Art School, where she studied Graphic Design and he studied
Fine Art. She wanted to be a wood-engraver and illustrate
children's books. What she loved about Robin was the
quality of his total dedication to his work, which had a certain
austere separateness from everyone else's work. (51)
Robin is and has been immersed in the same work more or less
continuously since they met. Debbie, however, is doing work unrelated to
what she was doing when they met, work that is unsatisfying, work that
requires compromising with an editor. She has adapted to Robin's
situation, abandoned fulfillment of her desire to create wood engravings,
and has instead become the family breadwinner. Robin seems to have
changed little from the sixties when he "was a neo-realist before neo-
realism. He painted what he saw, metal surfaces, wooden surfaces,
plaster surfaces, with hallucinatory skill and accuracy" (52). Both then, and
now, Robin
painted expanses of neutral colours-wooden planks, glass
table-tops, beige linen, crumbling plaster, and somewhere,
somewhere unexpected, not quite in a corner, not quite in the
centre, not where the folds were pulling from or the planks
ran, he painted something very small and very brilliant, a
46


glass ball, a lustre vase, a bouquet of bone china flowers
(never anything alive), a heap of feathers. (52)
Debbie understands his work as an attempt to solve "the question every
artist must ask him or herself, at some time, why bother, why make
representations of anything at all?" (52). She tells him that his paintings
are miraculous, they are like those times when time seems to
stop, and you just look at something, and see it, out of time,
and you feel surprised that you can see at all, you are so
surprised, and the seeing goes on and on, and gets better
and better. (53)
Robin is reassured by this understanding, but comments that '"Sometimes I
think, it just looks--ordinary~to other people. Unprivileged things, you
know"' (53). The sexual component of their relationship is associated with
privilege or lack of privilege. Byatt writes that "[s]ex makes everything
shine, even if it is not privileged" (53). Robin is happy because Debbie
makes him happy, and this "happiness made his pictures seem stranger
and brighter, perhaps even made them, absolutely, stranger and brighter"
(53). It is difficult to determine who is creating what, and in what context.
The dynamics of representation are contaminated by their experiences and
roles both from within and from without. They contribute to each other's
delusions. The gendered expectations between Robin and Debbie are
conflicted in part by the fact that Debbie is the breadwinner in the family.
The notion that women are the dependents of men is contaminated by the
47


fact that Robin isolates himself in the attic, having given up his job as a
university instructor which provided only a paltry contribution to household
income. But Debbie's "more marketable skills" (53-54) make her an
enigma in that she is more successful in both the domestic and public
spheres than Robin is in either, but she is still power-less. This notion
repudiates the idea that these spheres are mutually exclusive and instead
demonstrates how, for both people, they are blended, virtually and actually.
Robin copes with the threat to his belief that public and private realms are
separate, organized, and identifiable, by controlling and manipulating
Debbie's stress levels. He demands that she submit to, and soothe his
tantrums about Mrs. Brown, and nearly insists that she evoke sympathies
toward his art. Gendered expectation is the rule through which harmony
between them is powered.
Stephanie Coontz speculates that "[t]he mutual reliance between
individualism and interdependence" (58) is a tool through which the status
quo remains so. This mutual reliance can be "preserved only by first
sharpening the division of labor between men and women, then by
emphasizing the ways that men and women required each other" (58).
Social and cultural norms institutionalize "the incompleteness of one
without the other" (58). One of the tricks of patriarchal language in
48


maintaining the illusion of completeness is the use of the word, dependent.
Coontz recalls the words of "political scientist, Virginia Sapiro" who wrote
that traditionally "women were defined as the dependents because
everyone else was dependent on them" (59). Then, "[a]s men shed their
social identities and embraced individualism and self-reliance, collectivism
and dependence were frequently imposed on women" (59).
Paradise is contaminated by the contradictions between love and
hate, which manifest both inside and outside of the Dennison household.
As the primary breadwinner, Debbie cannot mimic what historian Barbara
Welter calls "True Womanhood", although at times she seems to represent
a model of submissivness and domesticity. She resents the fact that she is
tied to her job and unable to do what would make her happy. Her physical
body dutifully performs what is expected of her, but her spiritual body is
located elsewhere. Byatt writes that Debbie's
fingers remembered the slow, careful work in the wood, with a
quiet grief, that didn't diminish, but was manageable. She
hated Robin because he never once mentioned the unmade
wood-engravings. It is possible to feel love and hate quite
quietly, side by side, if one is a self-contained person. Debbie
continued to love Robin, whilst hating him because of the
woodcuts, because of the extent of his absence of interest in
how she managed the house, the children, the money, her
profession, his needs and wants, and because of his resolute
attempts to unsettle, humiliate, or drive away Mrs Brown,
without whom all Debbie's balancing acts would clatter and
fall in wounding disarray. (Byatt 54-55)
49


Though each feels autonomous, "self-contained," they are not. Their day-
dreams are strikingly different. Debbie's images administer to the concrete,
present-tense management of the home, and care for all who occupy it.
But it is Mrs. Brown who actually does this. Debbie imagines the actual
doing of wood engravings as an absence, an unfulfilled longing. Robins
self-images are abstract, and administer to a "vision" of himself he
imagined many years ago. But it is actually Debbie who supports this
vision. His concerns center around issues of age, and who he should or
might be, rather than who he is.
Left to himself, Robin Dennison walks agitated up and down
his studio. He is over forty. He thinks, I am over forty. He
prevents himself, all the time now, from seeing his enterprise,
his work, his life, as absurd. He is not suited to the artistic
life, in most ways. By upbringing and temperament, he
should have been a solicitor or an accountant, he should
have worn a suit and fished for trout and played cricket. He
has no great self-confidence, no braggadocio, no real or
absolute disposition to the sort of self-centered isolation he
practises. He does it out of a stubborn faithfulness to a vision
he had, a long time ago now, a vision which has never
expanded or diminished or taken its teeth out of him. (55)
Robin fails to see that his stasis and unrealized potential is a self re-
creation, rather than an original act. His meeting Debbie, falling in love,
and marrying might have felt at the time something like power. However,
the structure in which he is now trapped has become something, some
social force outside himself that seems to have taken on a life of its own.
50


He has forgotten his part in creating it and thus feels he has lost control.
His agitation is a result of his inability, or lack of desire and motivation to
change. His performance as an artistic man in the social framework
constrains his movement outside that cultural context, and his dependency
on Debbie and Mrs. Brown compels him to remain unaware of his agency.
Robins individualistic model ignores vulnerability and impedes his
development. His fantasy is that the individual exists apart from
relationship and history. His discourse exemplifies acceptance of social
status as inevitable. His material and social circumstances induce him to
act as if this were true. It is a self-referential, never-ending loop, in which
all who enter are assimilated (like The Borg on Star Trek).
Robin loves Debbie, though Byatt does not state this explicitly. His
love is an amalgam of discord and desire, power and dependence. He is
not unique in that he wants both to have power-over, and to be dependent-
on. Byatt writes that
[h]e could talk to Debbie. Debbie knew about his vision of
colour, he had told her, and she had listened. He talked to
her agitatedly at night about Matisse, about the paradoxical
way in which the pure sensuousness of Luxe, calme et
volupte could be a religious experience of the nature of
things. Not softness, he said to Debbie, power, calm power.
(56)
51


Robin's power is in part sustained by the realization of behaviors practiced
within a framework of interdependence and individualism. Byatt writes that
"Robin has ritualized his life dangerously, but this is not, as he thinks it is,
entirely because of his precarious vocation" (57). His father had behaved
similarly, "particularly with regard to his distinction between his own
untouchable 'things' and other people's, especially the cleaning-lady's 'filth'"
(57). His father "used to shout at and about the 'charwoman'" when she
threw out "pipe-dottle" or other trash (57), and "[h]e, like Robin with Mrs
Brown, used to feel a kind of panic of constriction, like the pain of sinus-
fluid thickening in the skull pockets, when threatened by tidy touches" (58).
His power registers in the management and organization of abstract
concepts instead of material objects, and Robin
does not ask himself if his hatred of Mrs Brown is a deflected
resentment of his helplessness in the capable hands of his
wife, breadwinner and life-manager. He knows it is not so:
Debbie is beautiful and clean, and represents order. Mrs
Brown is chaotic and wild to look at and a secret smoker and
represents--even while dispersing or re-distributing it'filth'.
(58)
While Robin fastidiously manages abstract concepts, even when they
appear to be material, he has no power over Mrs. Brown's presentation.
He cannot control what he sees. In the truest sense of the word, Mrs.
Brown is a bricolour: "She makes all her own clothes, out of whatever
52


comes to hand, old plush curtains, Arab blankets, parachute silk," Robin's
"discarded trousers" (58-59). These creations are flamboyant, "with
patches and fringes and braid and bizarre buttons. The epitome of tat"
(59), busy and cluttered images that contrast with the simplicity of Robin's
perception of Matisse's art. Some would argue against Robin's ability to
see Matisse or Mrs. Brown. He cannot avoid seeing Mrs. Brown, "for she
always strikes the eye, in a magenta and vermilion overall over salmon-pink
crepe pantaloons, in a lime-green shift with black lacy inserts" (59). He
objects to the gifts of clothing Mrs. Brown makes for his children. They are
"awful rainbow jumpers in screaming hues, candy-striped jumpers, jumpers
with bobble-cherries bouncing on them, long peculiar rainbow scarves in
fluffy angora, all sickly ice-cream colours" (59). Although one or two of Mrs.
Brown's creations have been successful, "[t]he children are ambivalent,
depending on age and circumstances" (59). This leaves Debbie yet
another opportunity to orchestrate everyone's feelings because she knows
precisely
how it feels to wear clothes one doesn't like, isn't comfortable
and invisible in, is embarrassed by. She also believes very
strongly that there is more true kindness and courtesy in
accepting gifts gratefully and enthusiastically than in making
them. And, more selfishly, she simply cannot do without Mrs
Brown. (60)
53


Among Robin's austere collection of fetishes is a wooden soldier he
purchased for himself as a child. Although the cheeks of the painted
soldier are useful as a "model for slivers of shine on rounded surfaces"
(62), Robin rarely paints his full figure because "he cannot clear him of his
double connotations of militarism and infantilism" (62). Instead, he "paints
his shadow into little crowds of other things" (62). Perhaps, for Robin, this
is a way of both holding on to the past and dispatching it. The soldier is
both there and not-there. He prefers the fetishes that "are pure
representations of single colours" (63), though there are a few multi-colored
items. Once, he spent 50 pounds, which he did not have, for a
reproduction of a Monet sauceboat because he wanted that particular
yellow. He "often stands an orange and a lemon amongst the things, to
make the colours complete" (63) and becomes enraged when Mrs. Brown
moves or throws out these things, especially "when they begin to darken
and grow patches of sage-green, blue-specked mould" (64). Interestingly,
Robin's collection contains a "present red thing" (64) that makes him feel
uneasy because he knows it is "the, or a, right thing, and at the same time
he didn't like it. He still doesn't. Like the poor soldier, but in more sinister
ways, it has too much meaning" (64-65). The red thing turns out to be a
"large red, heart-shaped pincushion, plumply and gleamingly covered in a
54


poppy-red silk which is exactly what he wants" (65). Robin alters it by
removing the "vulgar white lace frill, like a choir-boy's collar" (65) from
around its edges. His discomfort with this right thing might be driven in part
by the fact that the pincushion is clearly something Mrs. Brown would
treasure.
Mrs. Brown's rearranging of Robin's fetishes leads to many
disagreements between them, and it is Debbie who patches up these
differences, suggesting that Robin explain his deployment of the fetishes to
Mrs. Brown. In one attempt, he shares his vision of yellow made by placing
a green apple and the pincushion next to each other. Mrs. Brown
concedes that "[i]t's interesting, once I know what you're up to", but her
concession is "unsmiling, not wholly gracious" and she, feeling she has won
the battle, walks "out, head high" (68). Robin can't help notice that she is
"wearing a kind of orange and green camouflage Afro-wrapper, and a pink
headband" (68).
Again, there is white space in the text, perhaps indicating the
passage of time and maintenance of the status quo. Then Shona McRury
calls Debbie to congratulate her on a feminist article she wrote for A
Woman's Place. The article is
about the amorphous things that women make that do not
claim the 'authority' of 'artworks', the undignified things
women 'frame' that male artists have never noticed, tampons
55


and nappies but not only those, and the painted interior
cavities of women, not the soft fleshy desirable superficies
explored/exploited by men. (68-69)
Debbie writes about artists who work in the kitchen using children's
materials, crayons, felt pens, etc., "creating works that are a savage and
loving commentary on their lives together" (69). At the end of their lengthy
conversation Shona asks to see Robin's work and Debbie makes an
appointment for him. Though he "is perturbed and threatened" by the
suddenness of their appointment, he concedes, "in terror, to have his work
viewed" (69-70).
When McRury arrives, the four of them climb the stairs to the attic
where "Robin goes first, then Shona McRury, then Debbie, then Mrs
Brown, with a bottle of chilled Sauvignon and three glasses on a Japanese
lacquer tray" (71). Debbie's indecisiveness about "whether to leave Robin
alone with Shona McRury, or to stay and put in a word here and there" is
soon resolved by Mrs. Brown's "odd behaviour" (71). She has positioned
"herself inside the studio door for the showing, and makes no attempt to go
away, staring with sombre interest at Shona McRury's elegance and
Robin's canvases" (71). Debbie's sensitivity for Mrs. Brown's feelings win
out and she says, "Come on, let's leave them to it" (71) and Mrs. Brown
follows her downstairs.
56


Shona evaluates Robin's paintings, occasionally murmuring an
approval, but largely remaining quiet. When she says they are "about the
littleness of our life", Robin is quiet, sensing that he "cannot overbear her
as if she were Mrs Brown", and "he cannot tell her that they are not about
littleness but about the infinite terror of the brilliance of colour, of which he
could almost die, he doesn't think those things in words anyway" (72). He
tries to explain that his paintings attempt to solve the problems of light and
color, but quickly realizes that she cannot see. For Shona, the paintings
are "a bit frightening; a bit depressing, all that empty space", and she says
they remind her "of coffins and bare kitchen tables with no food, no
sustenance, all those bare boards" (73). Before she leaves, Shona asks
Robin a crucial question about whether he plans to change direction, or if
he anticipates a new phase or focus in his painting. He replies that he has
his work cut out for him, doing "[o]ne thing at a time" (74). She even tries
to coach him, saying that to the "uneducated eye"
[a]ll those prints of lonely deckchairs in little winds, in gardens
and on beaches. When you see the first, you think, how
moving, how interesting. And when you see the tenth, or the
twentieth, you think, oh another solitary deckchair with a bit of
wind in it, what else is there? You know? (74)
57


Robin, however, does not know and he does not take the hint. Rather, he
validates the notion that he is only acting the role of artist instead of being
an artist. He seems to have successfully banished any possible change.
When Shona leaves, Debbie is surprised to see Mrs. Brown scurry
to catch up with her. Debbie can't imagine what Mrs. Brown might say to
Shona and her "mind fantastically meditates treason, subversion, sabotage.
But Mrs Brown has always been so good, so patient, despite her disdainful
look, to which she has a right" (75). Close to tears, Debbie's thoughts are
interrupted when she "hears Robin's voice on the stairs, saying it is just like
that woman to go home without removing the wineglasses or wiping up the
rings on his desk and drawing table" (76).
Later, when Debbie and Robin receive a jointly addressed postcard
from the gallery, Debbie understands this to mean Shona is not interested
in Robin's paintings. She begins to treat Robin "like a backward and stupid
child, which worries her, since that is not what he is" (76). When A
Woman's Place sends her to review "a new feminist installation, she goes
in a friendly enough mood. She is a reasonable woman, she could not
have expected more from Shona McRury, and knows it" (76-77). The
photographer who accompanies her is immediately bedazzled by the exhibit
58


and enthusiastically begins taking pictures. Debbie views the scene as a
transformation of the entire space of the gallery
into a kind of soft, even squashy, brilliantly coloured Aladdin's
Cave. The walls are hung with what seem like huge
tapestries, partly knitted, partly made like rag rugs, with
shifting streams and islands of colour, which when looked at
closely reveal little peering mad embroidered faces, green
with blue eyes, black with red eyes, pink with silver eyes.
Swaying crocheted cobwebs hang from the ceiling, inhabited
by dusky spiders and swarms of sequined blue flies with
gauzy wings. These things are brilliantly pretty, but not like a
stage set, they are elegant and sinister, there is something
horrid about the netted pockets with the heaped blue bodies.
The spiders themselves are menaced by phalanxes of feather
dusters, all kinds of feathers, a peacock fan, a fluffy nylon.
(77)
She sees "half-open treasure chests with many compartments containing
crazy collections of things" (78). There are "[w]hite bone buttons. Glass
stoppers. Chicken bones. Cufflinks, all single. Medicine bottles with
lacquered labels, full of iridescent beads and codliver-oil capsules" (78).
One of the most striking sectors of the exhibit is the centerpiece, which is
"a kind of dragon and chained lady, St George and the Princess Saba.
Perseus and Andromeda. The dragon has a cubic blue body and a long
concertina neck" (79). Byatt depicts the lady as "flesh-coloured and
twisted, her body is broken and concertinaed, she is draped flat on a large
stone" (80). The lavish detail of dragon and lady could be analyzed in a
sizable paper by itself. Aspects of gendered expectation are introduced
59


and explored in the context of time and space, presence and absence,
passivity and action. Byatt writes that
[a]t first you think that the male figure is totally absent, and
then you see him, them, minuscule in the crannies of the
rock, a plastic knight on a horse, once silver, now mud-green,
a toy soldier with a broken sword and a battered helmet, who
have both obviously been through the wheel of the washing-
machine, more than once. (80)
It is unlikely that the soldier's rough treatment is an accident. Mrs. Brown's
politics and power are demonstrated by the fabrics of personal contexts.
Debbie notices retired bits and pieces of familiar colors and textures that
Mrs. Brown has selected from her discards, including a "mulberry-coloured
dress" that she wore to the Chelsea Arts Ball, "which is now the dragon-
scales" (82), an appropriate application for it.
Upon closer look, Debbie notices that in the centerpiece, someone
appears "in the window hanging a series of letters, gold on rich chocolate,
on a kind of hi-tech washing-line with tiny crimson pegs. It says, SHEBA
BROWN WORK IN VARIOUS MATERIALS 1975-1990" (81). She feels at
once protective of Robin, "explaining his fetishes to Mrs Brown, and
roaring...about her forays into his workplace" (82), and envious that Sheba
Brown can express her artistry. Debbie is afraid that when Robin finds out,
he will think Mrs. Brown stole the exhibit from him, and "[s]he thinks of the
feel of the wooden blocks she used to cut" (82). Debbie becomes
60


embroiled in the fictions of time and space along with Mrs. Brown, knowing
that now, for sure, things will change and Mrs. Brown will leave.
The photographer excitedly arrives with an article hot off the press of
A Woman's Place, appraising Mrs. Brown's work as filled with feminist
commentary "on the trivia of our daily life, on the boredom of the quotidian",
and as art that "simply makes everything absurd and surprisingly beautiful
with an excess of inventive wit" (83). The article features Mrs. Brown's
ancestry and artistic history, and compares her work to that of other
successful contemporary artists. Toward the end of the article, Mrs. Brown
credits "an 'artistic family'" for teaching "her about colours (not that she
needed teaching)" (84). When she gets home, Debbie decides not to tell
Robin, but is quickly usurped "by Jamie, who rushes into the kitchen crying,
come and see, come and see, Mrs Brown is on the telly" (85). After
watching the interview, Debbie has to remind Robin that he has thrown out
a particular tie he accuses Mrs. Brown of stealing. He disputes this claim,
saying, "That, round that woman-sort-of-thing's neck, that was that school
tie l lost'" (86). However, for the sake of propriety, he asserts that they will
go to see the exhibit as a family.
Mrs. Brown arrives the next morning for work accompanied by Mrs.
Stimpson, whom she introduces to Debbie as her replacement. Both
61


Debbie's and Mrs. Brown's lives have completely changed. Mrs. Brown
explains to Debbie that her success is as much a surprise to her as it is to
Debbie. She says, "I kept meaning to say something, but it didn't seem to
be the moment, and I was concerned for you, how you would take it, for
you do need someone to rely on, as we both know" (87). She assures
Debbie that things will be the same, that she will show Mrs. Stimpson "the
ropes, and how not to interfere with Mr. Dennison" (87-88). Debbie feels
that things would have worked out differently had she and Mrs. Brown
actually been friends who shared their work with one another instead of
structuring their relationship on a patriarchal model. Indeed, as a truly
liberated person, Mrs. Brown has liberated Debbie in a fictional, almost
fantastical context. The content of their unrealized friendship and its
outcome, supports the theory that
Although the practice of women's liberation will cause pain
and hurt to the extent that women will no longer self-sacrifice,
the pain will be lessened in the practice and elimination of
self-sacrifice for the next generations. This creates a self-
perpetuating moral responsibility between people because
self-interest is related to other's self-interest (mutual
realization). (Whitbeck 63)
Caroline Whitbeck argues that the Self-Other model of masculinist
ontology is inadequate to explain the results of a multi-agent network of
"care-givers" and their influence on the development of others. Feminist
62


ontology, based on the "lived" model differs from masculine ontology in that
it seeks to understand the relationship with, and between, the Other and
the Self, rather than to "dominate or annihilate" (63). For Whitbeck,
"[r]eality is a practice of interaction between others who may be similar or
dissimilar in an unlimited variety of ways" (62). Within a feminist
framework, she describes the self in terms of relationships and historical
positionality. Lived relationships constitute the self, "not legal or biological",
or role relationships that constitute only the separate boundaries of
selfhood (64). The notion that the individual exists apart from the
community ignores dependence on "inferior" groups like women, children,
workers, slaves, and Others. Debbie considers the implications of the
missed potential for friendship between herself and Mrs. Brown, and though
involuntarily from Debbie's point of view, things do remain "more or less the
same", except for one remarkable change: "Debbie goes back to making
wood engravings" (89) of good and bad fairies for children's books. Some
of Debbie's engravings "have the carved, haughty face of Sheba Brown",
and some have "the sweet timeless face of Mrs Stimpson" (89).
Mrs. Stimpson learns to accommodate Robin by "rushing
energetically to and fro at his behest" (89) and Robin
develops an interest in oriental mythology, and buys tantric
mandalas and prayer-wheels. One day Debbie goes up to his
room and finds a new kind of painting on the easel,
63


geometric, brightly coloured, highly organised, a kind of
woven pattern of flames and limbs with a recurring motif of a
dark, glaring face with red eyes and a protruding red tongue.
'Kali the Destroyer,' says Mrs Stimpson, knowledgeably at
Debbie's elbow. (89-90)
Debbie feels uncomfortable, thinking that it is inappropriate "that the black
goddess should be a simplified travesty of Sheba Brown, that prolific
weaver of bright webs" (90). However, "at the same time she recognizes a
new kind of loosed, slightly savage energy in Robin's use of colour and
movement", and she agrees with Mrs. Stimpson that, indeed, Robin's new
painting has "got something" (90). Interestingly, the theme of competition
instead of friendship prevails as the basis for cooperation between Debbie
and Mrs. Stimpson. It seems likely that Debbie will remain on guard
against the potential that Mrs. Stimpson, too, might not be who she
appears to be.
64


CHAPTER 4
THE CHINESE LOBSTER
The story begins in a Chinese restaurant where the Dean of Women
Students, Dr. Gerda Himmelblau, waits to meet the Distinguished Visiting
Professor, Dr. Perry Diss, to discuss charges against him for sexual
harassment of a student. Dr. Himmelblau is in possession of a formal
document that specifies the charges, and a personal letter written by Peggi
Nollett accusing the DVP, as Nollett refers to him, of dismissing her
dissertation on the basis of her resistance to his sexual advances. Nollett
describes her dissertation, The Female Body and Matisse, as a rejection of
Matisse's authority to depict woman. She argues that the DVP's criticism of
her work is irrelevant due to his insistence on her documenting "the
chronology of Matisse's life or the order in which he committed his
'paintings'" (Byatt 101). Nollett writes further that she objects to Matisse's
distortion of the female body and the dominant masculine relationship to it
in maintaining and reproducing power relations. In her letter to Dr.
Himmelblau, Nollett accuses Professor Diss of being "completely out of
sympathy with its feminist project" (100). She writes that Diss
65


is a so-called EXPERT on the so-called MASTER of
MODERNISM but what does he know about Woman or the
internal conduct of the Female body, which has always until
now been MUTE and had no mouth to speak. (100)
Byatt writes that what followed was "a series of tiny pencil drawings which,
in the original, Dr Himmelblau could make out to be lips, lips ambiguously
oral or vaginal...sometimes parted, sometimes screwed shut," and
"sometimes spattered with what might be hairs" (101).
Nollett writes that the DVP is critical of what she has accomplished
so far, and that his remarks are "extremely agressive and destructive"
(101). She charges that Diss
does not understand that my project is ahistorical and need
not involve any description of the so-called development of
Matisse's so-called style or approach, since what I wish to
state is essentially critical, and presented from a theoretical
viewpoint with insights provided from contemporary critical
methods. (101)
In her letter to Dr. Himmelblau, Nollett alleges that the DVP reproaches her
for being "hostile and full of hatred to Matisse" (102). She defends herself,
countercharging that "Matisse was hostile and full of hatred towards
women" and that this did not constitute a "relevant criticism" (102) of her
work. Nollett writes further that Professor Diss had remarked that
Matisse was full of love and desire towards women (!!!!!) and
I said 'exactly' but he did not take the point and was realy
quite cutting and undermining and dismisive and unhelpful
even if no worse had hapened. (102-3)
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The DVP expresses disappointment about the volume of written work on
the dissertation and Nollett tries to explain that she has been ill and has
"reached a very difficult stage with the Work" (102). Her letter states that
she
had writen some notes on Matisse's distortions of the Femal
Body with respect especially to the spercificaly Female
Organs, the Breasts the Cunt the Labia etc etc and also to his
ways of acumulating Flesh on certain Parts of the Body which
appeal to Men and tend to imobilise Women such as
grotesquely swollen Thighs or protruding Stomachs. I mean
to conect this in time to the whole tradition of the depiction of
Female Slaves and Odalisques but I have not yet done the
research I would need to write on this. (102)
Nollett contends that Matisse's "[w]omen tend to have no features on their
faces, they are Blanks, like Dolls, I find this sinister" (102). Diss responds
by telling Nollett that she should not receive her degree, and she begins to
cry. She says he then patted her on the "shoulders and tried to be a bit
nicer" (103). He suggests that perhaps he should see the work she calls
"Erasures and Undistortions" (103) because "art students often had dificulty
expressing themselves verbally although he himself found language 'as
sensuous as paint"' (103). She objects to his assumption that the work will
be pleasing, and to his "prose style", but credits him for "graciously" and
"kindly" offering to come to her studio. Dr. Himmelblau notes that "[tjhis
sentence is heavily but legibly crossed out]" (103) of Nollett's letter.
67


When they arrive at her studio, Nollett immediately sees that Diss
finds her work repulsive. She states that her work "does not try to be
agreable or seductive" (103), and that she is not surprised by his reaction.
As Nollett sees it, the atrocities perpetrated against women by men is
expressed in
a three-dimensional piece in wire and plaster-of-paris and
plasticine called The Resistance of Madame Matisse which
shows her and her daughter being tortured as they were by
the Gestapo in the War whilst he sits like a Buddha cutting up
pretty paper with scissors. They wouldn't tell him they were
being tortured in case it disturbed his work. I felt sick when I
found out that. The torturers have got identical scissors.
(103-4)
For Nollett, sacrifice is part of the political and cultural structure that
supports torture against women's bodies because they are simply "more
vulnerable than male bodies" (Bordo 143). Susan Bordo supports the view
that "besides having bodies, [women] are also associated with the body"
(143), and that this association fosters social and institutional manipulation
of women which has "emerged as an absolutely central strategy in the
maintenance of power relations between the sexes over the past hundred
years" (143). Byatt's fictional account of a work in wire and plaster-of-paris
expresses how social manipulation occurs in various physical and
psychological extremes, among which are the historical and Zeitgeist
practices of genital mutilation and anorexia. Her linguistic ability to show
68


how institutional manipulation appears in religion and medicine are
examples of the practices postmodern feminists use to deconstruct
assumptions. Here, Nollett describes the DVP's actual commission of
sexual harassment. She writes that
[h]e put his arm about me and hugged me and said / had got
too many clothes on. He said they were a depressing colour
and he thought I ought to take them all off and let the air get
to me. He said he would like to see me in bright colours and
that I was really a very pretty girl if I would let myself go. I
said my clothes were a statement about myself, and he said
they were a sad statement and then he grabed me and began
kissing me and fondling me and stroking intimate parts of me-
-it was disgusting-l will not write it down, but I can describe it
clearly, believe me Dr Himmelblau, if it becomes necesary, I
can give chapter and verse of every detail, I am still shaking
with shock. The more I strugled the more he insisted and
pushed at me with his body until I said I would get the police
the moment he let go of me, and then he came to his senses
and said that in the good old days painters and models felt a
bit of human warmth and sensuality towards each other in the
studio, and I said, not in my studio, and he said, clearly not,
and went off saying it seemed to him quite likely that I should
fail both parts of my Degree. (104-5)
The interplay between personal and institutional forces creates discourse
about power and how it is played out on women's bodies. One of these
discourses is the language of sexual harassment, clearly a force played-out
on and about women's bodies. In Byatt's fiction, and in some postmodern
and feminist theories, gender is the framework from within which "culture
marks bodies and creates specific conditions in which they live and
69


recreate themselves" (Gatens 133). In her paper, "Power, Bodies and
Difference", Moira Gatens contends that writing is a subversive means to
expose the construction of difference as "a political issue and a political
practice for many contemporary feminists" (133). She says that difference
is a "way in which power takes hold of and constructs bodies in particular
ways" (132). In the case of Peggi Nollett, her body of work and her
physical body are inscribed by an unproblematized assumption that she has
a choice in her estrangement, either willfully, or as a victim of outside
forces. Her estrangement is partly rooted in what constitutes difference, its
expectations, and representation by male artists, and professors for
example. Gatens argues that social and institutional constructions of
women's bodies "have been articulated from the perspective of male
writers, who take it upon themselves to represent women, femaleness and
femininity" (135). She says that we must thoroughly interrogate "the means
by which bodies become invested with differences" (135), and reminds us
that [t]o insist on sexual difference...[is] to take for granted the intricate
and pervasive ways in which patriarchal culture [has] made that difference
its insignia" (135). In other words, ask why the whole category of difference
is the significant criterion for establishing hierarchy.
70


Throughout this story, food is a central part of the discourse
between Dr. Himmelblau and Professor Diss. Dr. Himmelblau greets him
after he enters the restaurant, noting his attire and good looks. She tells
him that she has selected this restaurant for "certain subtleties" in the food,
and for its apparent authenticity. She says she has "noticed that the
restaurant is frequented by large numbers of real Chinese people-families-
-which is always a good sign" (Byatt 107). Together, they compose "a meal
with elegant variations", and "chat agreeably" (108) until Dr. Himmelblau
"produces the document during the first course" (109). Diss reads it quickly
then says, "Poor little bitch,...What a horrible state of mind to be in.
Whoever gave her the idea that she had any artistic talent ought to be
shot" (109). Though she says nothing, Dr. Himmelblau, too, is offended by
his prose and "tells him in her head, wincing...Don't say bitch" (110). She
cautiously asks him if he remembers the occasion cited in the document.
He tells her that, although Nollett's "account isn't very recognisable", they
did meet "to discuss her complete lack of progress on her dissertation-she
appears indeed to have regressed since she put in her proposal, which I
am glad to say l was not responsible for accepting" (110). He continues,
blustering,
She has forgotten several of the meagre facts she once
knew, or appeared to know, about Matisse. I do not see how
she can possibly be given a degree--she is ignorant and lazy
71


and pigheadedly misdirected--and I felt it my duty to tell her
so. (110)
Diss admits to going to Nollett's studio, "to give her the benefit of the doubt"
(110) while Dr. Himmelblau probes for the "specific allegations" (111)
referred to in the document. He begins to rant about the harm done "by
misguided kindness to lazy and ignorant students who have been cosseted
and nurtured and never told they are not up to scratch" (110). He says he
understands that some painters "can use words and some can only use
materials-it's interesting how you can't always predict which" (111). Diss's
expectation is that if Nollett cannot articulate her work in language, then to
have merit as an artist, she must not disappoint him with the material
object. Dr. Himmelblau silently notes his use of the phraseology "so-called"
work as "[a] pantechnicon contemporary term of abuse" (111), one which
Nollett had also used to repudiate his authority. Diss paints a verbal
picture, describing Nollett's work as repulsive, insisting that
[i]t disgusts. It desecrates. Her studio--in which the poor
creature also eats and sleeps--is papered with posters of
Matisse's work.... And they have all been smeared and
defaced. With what looks like organic matter -blood, Dr.
Himmelblau, beef stew or faeces--l incline towards the latter
since I cannot imagine good daube finding its way into that
miserable tenement. Some of the daubings are deliberate
reworkings of bodies or faces-changes of outlines-some are
like thrown tomatoes-probably are thrown tomatoes--and
eggs, yes~and some are great swastikas of shit. It is
appalling. It is pathetic. (111-12)
72


Dr. Himmelblau states, neutrally, that Nollett's work "is no doubt meant to
disgust and desecrate" and that "[i]n recent times...art has traditionally had
an element of protest" (112). Though his neck turns red from frustration or
embarrassment, Perry Diss concedes that "protest is de rigeur, I
know"(112), but that his objection has more to do with the "shoddiness, the
laziness" of the work. He admits that
this caca offends something I do hold sacred, a word that
would make that little bitch snigger, no doubt, but sacred, yes-
-it seems to me, that if she could have produced worked
copies of those--those masterpieces--those shining-never
mind--if she could have done some work-understood the
blues, and the pinks, and the whites, and the oranges, yes,
and the blacks too-and if she could still have brought herself
to feel she must-must savage them-then I would have had
to feel some respect. (112-13)
Dr. Himmelblau exuding a quiet power, murmurs, "You have to be careful
about the word masterpieces" (113), but Diss resumes his diatribe,
challenging at length the idea that Nollett could have spent more than half
an hour creating her works. He says
'there's no evidence anywhere in the silly girl's work that she's
ever spent more than that actually looking at a Matisse-she
has no accurate memory of one when we talk, none, she
amalgamates them all in her mind into one monstrous female
corpse bursting with male aggression-she can't see, can't
you see? And for half an hour's shit-spreading we must give
her a degree?' (113)
73


Gerda Himmelblau reminds him that Matisse was known to "sometimes
make a mark, and consider, and put the canvas away for weeks or months
until he knew where to put the next mark" (113). Perry Diss says he doubts
Nollett's '"shit-spreading may have required the same consideration"', and
says that he did examine the works "to see if there was any wit in where all
this detritus was applied" (114). Dr. Himmelblau asserts that the work "was
meant to disturb you. It disturbed you" (114), to which he responds,
"whose side are you on?" (114), then asks if she has seen Peggi Nollett.
Dr. Himmelblau volleys his challenge and attempts to bring him back to the
purpose of their meeting and to her interest in the specific charges against
him. She informs him that she is giving him the benefit of the doubt by
advising him of these charges in an informal way, and reminds him that a
formal complaint would be inconvenient for all concerned. She says she
has "'seen Peggi Nollett. Frequently. And her work, on one occasion"'
(115). Professor Diss argues that Dr. Himmelblau must "know that I can
have made no such--no such advances as she describes" (115). He
assumes she will agree with his characterization of Nollett's body in terms
of dirt and inaccessibility. He asks Dr. Himmelblau,
Have you seen her legs and arms...? They are bandaged like
mummies, they are all swollen with strapping and strings and
then they are contained in nasty black greaves and gauntlets
of plastic with buckles. You expect some awful yellow ooze
to seep out between the layers, ready to be smeared on La
74


Joie de vivre. And her hair, I do not think her hair can have
been washed for some years. It is like a carefully preserved
old frying-pan, grease undisturbed by water. You cannot
believe I could have brought myself to touch her. (115)
His revulsion toward Nollett's body projects domestic images of food and
clothing, such as "her body is like a decaying potato, in all that great bundle
of smocks and vests and knitwear and penitential hangings" (115). Dr.
Himmelblau concedes that "[i]t is difficult" (115) to imagine him attacking
her, and though she believes him, she understands better than he how
Nollett's perceptions are animated by his assumptions. Confident of his
position in the hierarchy, Professor Diss does not hesitate to confess that
he "may have told her that she would be better if she wore fewer layers"
and may have "even, imprudently-thinking, you understand, of potatoes-
have said something about letting the air get to her" (115-16).
When Dr. Himmelblau tells him she believes him, he suggests that
this should be "the end of the matter", but she explains the repercussions if
Nollett does not "withdraw her complaint" (116). She tells him that right or
wrong, he will lose his job and that, even if he doesn't, "there will be
disagreeable protests and demonstrations against you, your work, your
continued presence in the University" (116-117), not to mention the effect it
would have on institutional funding. Diss suggests that he might "resign on
the spot" if he were not such a highly principled man, but he refuses to
75


"'give in to lies and blackmail'" (117). What is at stake is his belief that "that
woman isn't an artist, and doesn't work, and can't see, and should not have
a degree. And because of Matisse'" (117). What is also at stake for Perry
Diss is the power to enforce the standards of, and for, Matisse.
The duo "eat in silence for a moment or two" while a "Cantonese
voice asserts that it is a beautiful momincf' (117). There is both silence and
sound, reminding me of the ambiance of the Dennison's household and its
Matisse. Gerda Himmelblau intrudes on the ambiance, commenting that
"Peggi Nollett is not well. She is neither physically nor mentally well. She
suffers from anorexia. Those clothes are designed to obscure the fact that
she has starved herself, apparently, almost to a skeleton"' (118). Perry
Diss confidently emphasizes that even if Nollett had, on two occasions,
been rescued from threats of suicide, it didn't "alter the fact that she has no
talent and doesn't work, and can't see" (118). Dr. Himmelblau suggests
that Nollett might have talent "if she were well", but when Professor Diss
challenges her, "Do you think so?", she confesses that "No. On the
evidence I have, no" (118).
Sprinkled throughout their conversation are references to food and
its ritual consumption. Discussion about Nollett's anorexia is ironically
woven into their exchanges about passing beansprouts and bamboo-
76


shoots. The association between discourses and social practices is what
"construct female and male bodies in ways that constitute and validate the
power relations between men and women" (Gatens 133). Byatt
demonstrates how this power relation is played-out on the body of Peggi
Nollett, and how her writing Nollett's story is an act of resistance. What is
at stake is nothing less than Nollett's entirety being positioned in all
discourse as resistance, prefaced by the fact that "being a woman informs
whatever position one takes as a writer" (Chanter 28).
Perry Diss seems to relax, helping "himself to a final small bowlful of
rice" (118), and describes a food ritual he experienced in China. He says,
"I learned to end a meal with pure rice, quite plain, and to taste every grain.
It is one of the most beautiful tastes in the world, freshly-boiled rice" (118-
19). Then suddenly his mood changes. He erupts again, "Why Matisse?"
fortifying his argument that it would be impossible to "touch" Nollett
because he can "smelt' her illness (119). Gerda Himmelblau explains to
him that "[a]s Dean of Women Students" she has come "to learn a great
deal about anorexia" (119), and elucidates that the disorder
appears to stem from self-hatred and inordinate self-
absorption. Especially with the body, and with that image of
our own body we all carry around with us. One of my
colleagues who is a psychiatrist collaborated with one of your
colleagues in Fine Art to produce a series of drawings-
clinical drawings in a sense-which I have found most
instructive. They show an anorexic person before a mirror,
77


and what we see--staring ribs, hanging skin--and what she
sees--grotesque bulges, huge buttocks, puffed cheeks. I
have found these most helpful. (119-20)
Diss makes light of this intradisciplinary information, flippantly remarking,
"Ah. We see coathangers and forks, and she sees potatoes and vegetable
marrows. There is a painting in that. You could make an interesting
painting out of that" (120). Dr. Himmelblau reproaches him, "Please--the
experience is terrible to her", then strangely, apologizes, "I'm sorry, I am
trying to think what to do. The poor child wishes to annihilate herself. Not
to be" (120). Though he claims to understand, Perry Diss asks again, "But
why Matisse?" (120) and suggests that
If she is so obsessed with bodily horrors why does she not
obtain employment as an emptier of bedpans or in a maternity
ward or a hospice? And if she must take on Art, why does
she not rework Giacometti in Maillol, or vice versa, or take on
that old goat, Picasso, who did things to women's bodies out
of genuine malice? Why Matisse? (120)
Dr. Himmelblau explains that it is precisely because Matisse "paints silent
bliss. Luxe, calme et volupte'," and reasons, [h]ow can Peggi Nollett bear
luxe, calme et volupte?" (121). She reminds him that "[t]here has always
been a resistance to these qualities in Matisse, of course" (122). She says
that "feminist critics and artists don't like him because of the way in which
he expands male eroticism into whole placid panoramas of well-being"
(122).
78


This "intellectual method" (197), according to Kristeva, does not
translate well for women who are "inhaled by power systems (when they do
not submit to them right away)" (202). Kristeva gives an example of the
interplay between exclusion and violence in her discussion of women in
terrorist groups, writing that
when a subject is too brutally excluded from this socio-
symbolic stratum; when, for example, a woman feels her
affective life as a woman or her condition as a social being
too brutally ignored by existing discourse or power (from her
family to social institutions); she may, by counter-investing the
violence she has endured, make of herself a 'possessed'
agent of this violence in order to combat what was
experienced as frustration-with arms which may seem
disproportional, but which are not so in comparison with the
subjective or more precisely narcissistic suffering from which
they originate. (203)
Diss clearly misses the point by interpreting Nollett's paintings as attempts
to shock, which he claims has no relationship to Matisse's intent in saying
that "art was like an armchair" (122-23). Dr. Himmelblau recognizes that
Professor Diss sees life as the indulgence of purely masculine pleasure,
and says that "It would be perfectly honourable to argue that that was a
very limited view" (123). He retorts that those who understand pleasure are
old men like himself
who can only just remember their bones not hurting, who
remember walking up a hill with a spring in their step like the
red of the Red Studio. Blind men who have had their sight
restored and get giddy with the colours of trees and plastic
mugs and the terrible blue of the sky. Pleasure is life, Dr.
79


Himmelblau, and most of us don't have it, or not much, or
mess it up, and when we see it in those blues, those roses,
those oranges, that vermilion, we should fall down and
worship-for it is the thing itself. Who know a good armchair?
A man who has bone-cancer, or a man who has been
tortured, he can recognise a good armchair." (123-24)
Diss Insists that Nollett simply wants to shock "with simple daubings", but
that in contrast, "Matisse was cunning and complex and violent and
controlled and he knew he had to know exactly what he was doing" (122).
He tells Dr. Himmelblau that Matisse "knew the most shocking thing he
could tell people about the purpose of his art was that it was designed to
please and to be comfortable" (122), and that when Matisse made the
comment that "art was like an armchair" (122-23), people who knew
nothing of the context were horrified. Dr. Himmelblau asks him to remind
her of the context. He says that Matisse said art should be balanced, pure,
quiet,
'without any disturbing subjects, without worry, which may be,
for...the businessman as much as for the literary artist,
something soothing, something to calm the brain, something
analogous to a good armchair which relaxes him from his
bodily weariness'. (123)
Professor Diss does not entertain the idea that perhaps Peggi Nollett sees
him as Matisse in the same way that he sees himself as Matisse. He does
not believe that she can be serious about committing suicide because
80


'"[sjomeone intent on bringing an action for rape, or whatever she calls
it,...will want to savour her triumph over her doddering male victim"' (124).
Dr. Himmelblau constructs another reality for him to consider, saying it
would not be "beyond her capacities to~to take an overdose and leave a
letter accusing you-or me--of horrors, of insensitivity, of persecution" (124).
Perry Diss is confident that the situation would be seen for what it is and
summarily disregarded. Dr. Himmelblau feels compelled to defend Nollett
again when Professor Diss charges that her work is disgusting and
vengeful. He says, "Spite and malice can be seen for what they are", but
she argues that "despair is as real as the spite. They are part of each
other" (124). He retorts that Nollett's works are "failures of imagination"
(124).
In her attempts to understand Freud's notions of imagination, Julia
Kristeva claims that"imaginary formations readily perceivable in the
discourse of neurotics of both sexes" go "beyond his biologism and his
mechanism...characteristic of his time" (197) to bring out distinct
observations that can be applied in new ways. She argues that imaginary
formations are presuppositions "for the primal scene... hypotheses, a priori
suppositions intrinsic to the theory itself' (197). Kristeva proposes that
these presuppositions create a "neurotic discourse" that "can only be
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understood in terms of its own logic...an article of faith" (197). She
maintains that "a conception of the human being as determined by its place
in production and the relations of production," does "not take into
consideration this same human being according to its place in reproduction,
on the one hand, or in the symbolic order on the other" (196). She writes
that "[consequently, the specific character of women could only appear as
non-essential or even non-existent to the totalizing and even totalitarian
spirit of this ideology" (196). Defining himself as the universal man, and
Nollett as the deviant woman, Perry Diss falls into this ideology, reinforcing
the notion of what Kristeva calls a counter-society. She writes that,
As with any society, the counter-society is based on the
expulsion of an excluded element, a scapegoat charged with
the evil of which the community duly constituted then purge
itself, a purge which will finally exonerate that community of
any future criticism. (Kristeva 202)
One problem with this, however, is that by creating a counter to the existing
social relations, the rebellious instead reinforce the notion of good or bad
social hierarchy. Resistance is thus contained in the arbitrariness through
which the machine of social order claims dominance.
A deconstructive approach to reading this text lends itself to the
connections between reader and text in a way that foregrounds
positionalities rather than by describing or analyzing the author's or
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character's intentions. The reader's identification with the subjects is a
product of, and may vary with, a particular and specific identification at
each reading. This ambivalence is nicely expressed by the hidden narrator
in this story who says that
Any two people may be talking to each other, at any moment,
in a civilised way about something trivial, or something, even,
complex and delicate. And inside each of the two there runs
a kind of dark river of unconnected thought, of secret fear, or
violence, or bliss, hoped-for or lost, which keeps pace with
the flow of talk and is neither seen nor heard. And at times,
one or both of the two will catch sight or sound of this
movement, in himself, or herself, or, more rarely, in the other.
(Byatt 126)
The text does not contest dominant hegemony, but acts as a discourse
field where the movement of talking can augment and intensify the reader's
multi-level awareness of the play in her own subjectivities. Instead of fixing
the context, the text evokes movement produced from the fluid interactions
between characters, author, and reader, and provides a genesis for
possible new discourses. The technique of using third-person, present-
tense narration helps to facilitate the reader's insertion of herself into the
text. The heavy use of capital letters and multiple exclamation points in
Nollett's text emphasizes the movement and motion of resistance, yet
simultaneously the misspellings create uncertainty and arbitrariness about
her intention. Is she making deliberate errors in "proper" form, or is she
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unaware of the rules? Is this a test of Dr. Himmelblau's ability to treat her
as an equal to the DVP, or is Nollett struggling to define herself in different
terms? Theresa De Lauretis lends insight into how
disparity, which does exist in the world as constructed and
governed by the male social intercourse, is invested in
women by dint of their subjection to the institutions of the
male social contract, i.e., by their being objects of the male
symbolic exchange. To confront that disparity and to practice
it in the relationship of entrustment establishes the ground of
a symbolic exchange between women, a female social
contract whose terms can be defined autonomously from the
male social contract. (De Lauretis 22)
Gerda Himmelblau's view that Nollett's works are "messages of all kinds,
cries for help, threats", contrasts with Perry Diss's view that they are
"[djisgusting art-works" (124). He sees them only as "failures of
imagination" (124). Bound by prevailing standards in the social contract,
Dr. Himmelblau agrees that they are, indeed, failures. The tone and quality
of her voice suddenly changes, and she says, '"Anyone who could imagine
the terror-the pain--of those who survive a suicide-against whom a suicide
is committed-could not carry it through"' (125). Perry Diss glances at her
and frowns. It is obvious that she speaks from some experience, some
knowledge, some discourse, that has obviously just surfaced. Gerda
Himmelblau continues, "'Of course, when one is at that point, imagining
others becomes unimaginable. Everything seems clear, and simple, and
84


single] there is only one possible thing to be done'" (125). Bolstered by her
candor, Perry Diss concurs in a way that suggests he also has some
experience, knowledge, and discourse about despair. He says,
That is true. You look around you and everything is
bleached, and clear, as you say. You are in a white box, a
white room, with no doors or windows. You are looking
through clear water with no movement-perhaps it is more like
being inside ice, inside the white room. There is only one
thing possible. It is all perfectly clear and simple and plain.
As you say'. (125)
While [t]he flood of red" subsides "under Perry Diss's skin" (125-26)
and he sits silently thinking, Gerda Himmelblau travels back in time to her
last visit with her best friend, Kay Leverett, who, in Gerda's imagination, sits
in an armchair quite unlike one imagined by either Perry Diss or Matisse.
For Kay, the armchair is "a heavy hospital armchair covered with mock-
hide" (126). Kay is "wearing a long white hospital gown, fastened at the
back, and a striped towelling dressing-gown" (126), and there "are scarlet
spots of fresh blood spattered on her gown where needles have injected
calm into Kay" (127). The friendship between Gerda and Kay had been
robust and loving, full of shared memories and possibilities, until the day
"Kay's eldest daughter was found hanging in her father's shed" (127). The
girl had left a note "accusing her schoolfellows of bullying" (127). Thus
began the slow, cruel death of Kay's body from accidents, and deliberate
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acts. Perry Diss suggests that there are justifications for committing
suicide, but Gerda Himmelblau disagrees. They glance at each other,
knowing they share the white room in some remote and personal way. For
him, the white room is filled with indiscretions, divorce, scandals, "dirt and
hatred and anguish" (130), and the death of his first wife during an air-raid.
He believes there are times when suicide is "almost the only possible thing
to do" (129). For her, the white room is filled with memories of how Kay's
suicide was handed on to her, and how her own flirtations "with lumbering
lorries, a neat dark figure launching herself blindly into the road" (129)
figure into her present circumstances. She believes there is never a good
reason to succumb to the allure of the white room, that "the impulse is
wrong, to be resisted" (129). When Perry Diss offers Gerda Himmelblau an
orange segment, she notices "the old scars, well-made efficient scars, on
his wrists" (130).
The orange fruit propels Perry Diss into memories of visiting Matisse
in Nice "after the war" (130), which he shares with Gerda Himmelblau. He
says, "Matisse was the first to understand orange... [ojrange in light, orange
in shade, orange on blue, orange on green, orange in black" (130). He had
been "full of hope in those days, I loved him and was enraged by him and
meant to outdo him, some time soon, when I had just learned this and that--
86


which I never did" (131). Perry Diss had found Matisse recovering from a
"terrible operation" in a room "shrouded in darkness" (131). Cared for by
nuns, he was in the process of resurrection. Horrified by the material
conditions, Diss had blurted out his shock and said, "'Oh, how can you bear
to shut out the light?" (131). Matisse had responded "quite mildly, quite
courteously, that there had been some question of him going blind", and
that "[h]e thought he had better acquaint himself with the dark. And then
he added, 'and anyway, you know black is the colour of light"' (131).
Perry Diss asks Gerda Himmelblau if she is acquainted with the painting,
La Porte Noire, but before she answers, he interrupts with a description of
what he sees. He says,
'It has a young woman in an armchair quite at ease in a
peignoir striped in lemon and cadmium and...over a white
dress with touches of cardinal red-her hair is yellow ochre
and scarlet--and at the side is the window and the coloured
light and behind--above--is the black door. Almost no one
could paint the colour black as he could. Almost no one'.
(131-32)
As she eats the orange, Gerda Himmelblau interjects that Matisse "wrote, 'I
believe in God when I work'" (132), and Perry Diss adds,
I think he also said, 'I am God when I work.' Perhaps he is--
not my God, but where-where I find that. I was brought up in
the hope that I would be a priest, you know. Only I could not
bear a religion which had a tortured human body hanging
from the hands over its altars. No, I would rather have The
Dance.... That is why I meant what I said, when I said that
young woman's--muck-spreading-offended what I called
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sacred. What are we to do? I don't want her to--punish us by
self-slaughter-nor do I wish to be seen to condone the
violence-the absence of work. (132)
Gerda Himmelblau visualizes Peggi Nollett's "potato-pale" face
"peering out of a white box with cunning, angry eyes in the slit between
puffed eyelids" (132). She proposes a simple solution, that Peggi Nollett
should be given a more "sympathetic supervisor", one "who shares her way
of looking at things", someone "who cares about political ideologies of that
kind" (133). Perry Diss rejects the idea, saying it would be a crime for
Peggi Nollett to be given her degree and be left to continue. Rather than
launching into fruitless philosophical combat, Gerda Himmelblau suggests
they view it as "a question of how much it matters. To you. To me. To the
Department. To Peggi Nollett, too" (133). Gerda Himmelblau "is inwardly
troubled. Something has happened to her white space, to her inner ice,
which she does not quite understand" (133). As they leave the restaurant,
Perry Diss stops at the glass box containing the lobster, the
crabs, the scallops-these last now decidedly dead, filmed
with an iridescent haze of imminent putrescence. The
lobster, and the crabs are all still alive, all, more slowly,
hissing their difficult air, bubbling, moving feet, feelers,
glazing eyes. (133-34)
Gerda Himmelblau "experiences, in a way, the pain of alien fish-flesh
contracting inside an exo-skeleton" (134), an image analogous to melting
ice, or perhaps to the liberation of some rule, or to the shrinking of some
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valorized form of self-discipline. Perry Diss remarks that he finds the scene
"absolutely appalling...[a]nd at the same time, exactly at the same time, I
don't give a damn? D'you know?" (134). She knows, and "reaches up, in a
completely uncharacteristic gesture, and kisses Perry Diss's soft cheek",
then thanks him "[f]or everything" (134).
In many respects, "The Chinese Lobster" is the most challenging
story of the three because, while it addresses issues of concern to many
women, the way in which the protagonists are drawn is markedly
unsympathetic and no easy conclusion can emerge from the components
provided. Though the representational systems of class and values are
acknowledged, "the precise technical means of expression and the literary
or textual devices necessary for texts to function and mean something-are
also implicated in relations of power and domination" (Kristeva 40).
Kristeva writes that "[t]exts...have 'an unconscious', an unspoken, censored
debt to terms whose repression guarantees the privilege of other, valorised
terms" (41). She argues that by "forcing a text to approximate its own
unconscious", it becomes a powerful strategy "for (provisionally) undoing"
its "domination" (41). Byatt's fiction can be said to be "symptomatic of a
social organisation" in which "[t]extual analysis is thus simultaneously
political and psychological in its implications" (41). The constant deferral of
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meaning in competing discourses transforms the powers of text toward
more radical positions. Rather than reflecting meaning, it constitutes
meaning in the multiple and simultaneous subversions of the body politic.
Although this is one of Byatt's major strengths, it makes her work
challenging to read as social science.
NOTES
1 This passage reminds me of Medusa's link to women's body-
language and Suzanne Clark's analysis of the poetry of Louise Bogan. In
her book, Sentimental Modernism, Clark writes that as an avant-garde
revolutionary against modernism, Bogan's "poems exhibit and sound out a
femininity that is both lovely and furious-in fact, that threatens to be
sublimely awe-ful" (Clark 99). She describes the "reversal of irony in the
unexpected return of body and feeling to the distanced work of art" (99), a
distanced work that might help to illuminate the missing Matisse and
Susannah's reflections on her youth. Clark refers to Cixous's theory that
"men have made women hate themselves; male dominance has created an
antilove in language which women must rupture by the laughter of the very
Medusa which men figure as monstrous" (99-100). Clark also cites Jean
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Clair's, Meduse, "a study of mythological representation and the
problematic of art," in which he points out the "doubleness of human and
animal traits in the Medusa" (100), the binary choices between male or
female, and "the doubleness of meanings in the history of Medusa
mythology" (100). Clair writes that "[Medusa] was not only a monster but
also (my emphasis) a fascinating and seductive girl" (100), much like
Byatts portrayal of Susannah. Clair argues that Medusa's "face has much
to do with the history of art and seeing, and with the separation of mind and
body" (100). Susannah's separation from her youth, and the pink nude's
separation from the salon create movement between past, present, and
future. For her, this movement represents an absence more than filled by
the present circumstances of both her mind and her body.
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