Readers' Guide: Possession by A.S. Byatt


by: A.S. Byatt

Category: FICTION
Guide Created By: Ginny
Discussion Leader(s): Ginny & Marcie
Read our discussion of this book

Book Description Book cover for PossessionTwo contemporary literary scholars are involved on a personal quest, a journey that parallels the past, to unearth the letters of two Victorian poets and reveal a passionate love affair. The book is full of imagery, poems, letters, reflections about literary criticism interwoven in this sensual tale of mystery, romance and adventure.

Relevant Links

Plot and Characters of Possession Contributed by participants in SeniorLearn discussion of Possession.

Audio Interview with A.S. Byatt, author of Possession (scroll down to the middle of the page) provided by BBC World Service.

A Zest for Pastiche by John Mullan on Possession by AS Byatt.

Discussion Questions

Chapters 1-5: Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

1. John Mullan, writing in the Guardian on Possession, refers to Possession as a "zest for 'pastiche.'"

Pastiche is: A French word for a parody or literary imitation. Perhaps for humorous or satirical purposes, perhaps as a mere literary exercise or jeu d'espirit, perhaps in all seriousness, a writer imitates the style or technique of some recognized writer or work...(

pas.tiche n [F, fr. It pasticcio] (1878) 1: a literary, artistic, musical, or architectural work that imitates the style of previous work; also: such stylistic imitation 2: a musical, literary, or artistic composition made up of selections from different works: potpourri b: hodgepodge -- pas.ti.cheur n

Would you agree our first section here fits this description? Why or why not?

2. What are some of the meanings or purposes served by the first two poems by Hawthorne and Robert Browning that preface the book?

3. In all the swirl of the first five chapters, what ONE thing struck you the most and why?

4. What did you like most about the first 5 chapters? What did you most dislike?

5. What are your initial impressions of each of the characters that have been introduced?

6. Do you see any significance in the names of the characters?

7. The book is full of literary and classical allusions. The vocabulary alone is staggering. What are:

----- Ragnarok (62)
----- Habitat anglepoise (19)
-----girning (66)
-----glaucous basin (63)
-----fin de siecle bindweed (86)
-----Gadarene swine (60)
-----blind mouldiwarp (52)

8. What parallels do you see between the main characters and the authors they study?

9. There are three female characters of myth and legend referred to over and over in these beginning pages. What part does each one play in the story, what are their backgrounds? Why are they introduced?

---- Proserpina
-----The Sibyl of Cumae ("I crave to die.")

10. "Well," she said, "the dates fit. You would make u p a whole story. On no real evidence. It would change all sorts of things."----what is the significance of this remark? What might it also pertain to?

11. Do you see a difference in the style of the poems of Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte?

Chapters 6-11

1. (Chapter 6) What are your impressions of Mortimer Cropper? How would you characterize his studies of/relationship with Randolph Ash?

2. (Chapter 7) What are your impressions of Beatrice Nest and her work related to the journals of Ellen Ash?

3. (Chapter 7) What does Roland discover in the journals of Ellen Ash?

4. (Chapter 8 ) What do we learn about Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte from their first exchange of letters?

5. (Chapter 8 ) What are some things you noticed about Roland and Maude early on in their quest to read the letters? Do you see parallels between the two pairs?

6. (Chapter 9) What do you make of LaMotte's story "The Threshold"?

7. (Chapter 10) What are your thoughts about the events and the imagery in the correspondence and poems in this chapter?

8. (Chapter 11) What are some of the themes and imagery that made an impression on you in Ash's poem "Swammerdam"? Do you see anything of LaMotte's influence there? Ash said she was his muse and influenced the poem, can you point out to her presence or influence?

9. Why does LaMotte capitalize every other word in her letters and not her poetry or fairy tales?

Chapters 12-17

1. "Dearest Ellen," (page 277 among others). We have Ash's letters to his wife. "It would require quite horrible self- control and dupliicity." (page 235). What do you make of Randolph Ash's loving letters to his wife at home while he is passing with his second wife in Whitby? Which one do you feel is the more innocent, Ash or Christabel?

2. "I have done wrong in her regard. I have behaved less than well....I should have... " (page 252). Do you agree with Ellen Ash's assessment of her treatment of Bertha? Why or why not?

3. Blanche Glover comes to see Ellen, what is the result? How does that compare to Fergus going to see Val?

4. This section contains some of the most beautiful writing of the book. Which passages struck you as especially fine?

5. "But Melusina sounds often as though he wrote it. To me. Not the subject matter. The style." (page 288). Can you tell a difference in Ash's poetry and Melusina? The entire Chapter 16 is an excerpt from Melusina. What did you see in it? Why did Ellen get so upset when she read it in the previous section?

6. "A clean empty bed. I have this image of a clean empty bed in a clean empty room, where nothing is asked or to be asked." (page 290). What do you make of this dual dream of Roland and Maude?

7. Why do you think Blanche killed herself?

8. "He would teach her she was not his possession" (page 304). What does this mean?

9. "If he loved her face, which was not kind, it was because it was clear and quick and sharp....a disdain masking itself as calm." (page 302). Why does Ash see Christabel in this way?

Chapters 18-23

1. "To whom it may concern:" (pages 332ff) What do you think of Blanche now that you've read her will/ suicide note? Are you more in sympathy with her than you were? How can you reconcile this note with her visit to Ellen Ash? What, realistically, were her options? Do you think she will attain the immortality she seeks?

2. "Do you not hear the little thing, dancing?" (page 392). What happened in the story told by Gode about the miller's daughter and the sailor? What do you think the "blood on the straw" signifies? (Page 388) Why do you think this story is included here?

3. Now we find out what happened to Christabel, or do we? Where did she disappear to when she left Sabine and her father? What do you think happened to the baby and why?

4. "I have seen Mrs. Lees Crowned with Stars, a true Persephone, a light in Darkness.....I have, it seems, the power of Scrying..." (page 419. "And then I would ask you, if you are wise, why those who come from, from that world--those visitants, those Revenants, those Loved Ones--why are they all so Singly and Singularly Cheerful in their mode of address?" (Page 420).

The theme of the desire for immortality is brought forcefully home again in the seance sequences attended by Ash and Christabel. The entire section resounds with "revenants" and Proserpine, (returned from the dead).

"Where is the child?" Tell me what they have done with the child?" page 429). How does Ash's testimony of his "Gaza Exploit" (page 425ff) differ from that of Mrs. Lees? Whom or what do you think Christabel is looking for? Why would Ash seem so vehement in his reactions?

5. "Of course what we hope for and at the same time fear, is some major discovery that will confirm, or disprove, or change at the least, a lifetime's work.' (page 417). "...he had a vivid imagination....his major asset in his craft." (page 415).

Now that the game's afoot and all the academics are getting involved in the chase, too, sometimes in parallel pairs, we find out more about them, sometimes surprisingly so. It's turning into the Keystone Kops. Which one surprised you the most? Which if any of them seem motivated for the right reasons? Who are you rooting for?

6. So much mention of color in this section, do any of the colors seem to symbolize anything? Why does Christabel wear green boots? What can be the significance of "white," first in the bed dreams and now in Christabel's face?

7. a... What is a "box bed" in Brittany, mentioned in Sabine's Journal?b.... Leonora Stern's husband had been a "happily meticulous New Critic, and had totally failed to survive Leonora and the cut-throat ideological battles of structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, deconstruction and feminism" (page 337). What does this mean?

8.. How does Christabel make Sabine "live a lie? "(page 403)

9. "A heavy Breath One two and three--- And then the lapsed Eternity." (page 412).

To what does this poem of Christabel LaMotte refer? How many instances are there in this chapter of death mentioned? Are they pointed foreshadowing do you think, or could they be red herrings?

10. Who is "Geraldine" in Mummy Possest? (page439)? What does the constant repetition of the word "widdershins" remind you of? What is the meaning and relevance of the title Mummy Possest?

Chapters 24-end

1. Chapter 24: What are some of the metaphors in this chapter that impressed you? What are Roland's primary thoughts and feelings at this time?

2. Chapter 25: What do we learn from Ellen Ash's journal? What do we learn directly from her thoughts to which the scholars don't have access?

3. Chapter 26: What transformations take place in Roland? What are some of the garden metaphors in this chapter?

4. Chapter 27: "We are driven by endings as by hunger. We must know...." (from the poem in the beginning of the chapter). "'All's well that ends well,' said Euan. This feels like the ending of a Shakespearean comedy--who's that chappie that comes down on a swing at the end of As You Like It?" What does the poem in the beginning of the chapter tells us. What about the reference to Shakespeare?

5. Chapter 28: What do you think of the grave robbing scene? "Maud said,'We need the end of the story.' 'There is no guarantee that that is what we shall find,' said Blackadder. 'But we must look,' said Maud." How do you see the end of the story? What happens with Maud and Roland? Are there parallels with Christabel and Randolph?

6. Postscript: "There are things that happen that leave no discernible trace, are not spoken or written of, though it would be very wrong to say that subsequent events go on indifferently, all the same, as though such things had never been." What do you think of the events we, the readers, see in the postscript?

7. What are your thoughts about the book? Did the last chapters and postscript change your mind about how any of the characters were portrayed? How did the postscript change the "ending" of the book for you?

8. If you've seen the film adaptation, what are your thoughts about it? Many of the characters were combined or left out. Did the film seem faithful to the "spirit" of the book?