'Repeating Patterns' and Textual Pleasures: Reading (in) A. S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance

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Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Date: 2006
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 10,927 words

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[(essay date fall 2003) In the following essay, Hennelly examines repeating patterns in Possession and finds them important to the understanding of the novel.]

Any novel is a complex tissue of repetitions and of repetitions within repetitions, or of repetitions linked in chain fashion to other repetitions.J. Hillis Miller, Fiction and Repetition

No "thesis" on the pleasure of the text is possible; barely an inspection (an introspection) that falls short. Eppure si gaude! And yet, against and in spite of everything, the text gives me bliss.Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text

A. S. Byatt's Booker Prize-winning novel Possession: A Romance (1990) tells the interrelated stories of two contemporary Victorian critics and two Victorian poets. The relatively unknown scholar Roland Michell and the more well-known Maud Bailey discover secret love letters between the two poets, the well-known, Browningesque Randolph Ash and the relatively unknown, Dickinsonian Christabel LaMotte. Through this correspondence, the postmoderns research and reprise the developing Victorian relationship, developing a corresponding relationship between themselves, one intimately "driven" by the Victorians' "plot or fate" (456). Possession, in fact, teases its reader with such "repeating patterns" of major and minor motifs, which, in turn, produce a variety of textual pleasures. Significantly, it even repeats the metatextual phrase "repeating patterns," as if to emphasize its various values.

Feminist scholar Maud's golden hair, for instance, is "so structured into repeating patterns" that it provokes the textual scholar Roland to be viscerally "moved--not exactly with desire, but with an obscure emotion that was partly pity" (295). When Maud later cites the "ancient taboo on seeing childbirth," including "versions of the Melusina myth," as a possible context for the mysterious disappearance of Christabel's illegitimate child, Roland again repeats "Repeating patterns. Again" (457). Footnote 27 to Mortimer Cropper's biography of Ash compares the poet's penned epistolary borders of ash trees to the "repeating pattern" in William Morris's floral designs (482). Significantly, though, the first time the phrase occurs it erases (even sacrifices) itself, since "no discernible repeating pattern" is traceable in the bathroom sink's suggestive floral design at Christabel's former home, Seal Court, where Maud and Roland discover the correspondence (164).

Repeating patterns, in fact, provide an endless series of textual metonymies: patterns themselves suggest previous repetitions even before repeating repeats them again. They seem, in part, a function of the metaphysical and metatextual quest for origins that motivates characters in and readers of Possession alike, what Roland terms the infinitely "regressive nature of the [reading] pleasure, a mise-en-abîme even, where words draw attention to the power and delight of words, and so ad infinitum" (511). A different function of the tail-eating plot, however, dispenses with origins and devotes itself to the enigmatic "end of the story." Even if the plot becomes some "self-reflexive, inturned postmodernist mirror-game or plot coil that ... has got out of hand" (456), Maud insists that "[w]e need the end of the story" for satisfying closure (541). As Elisabeth Bronfen relevantly suggests in her reading of the "two contradictory impulses" driving romance...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100072512