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Part 3 – Voices and (In)Visibilities

Representing Precariousness and Vulnerability in ‘Raw Material’ by A.S. Byatt

Représentation de la précarité et de la vulnérabilité dans « Raw Material » de A.S. Byatt
Sylvie Maurel


À travers la représentation d’un atelier d’écriture et de ses participants, la nouvelle propose plusieurs modes d’écriture de la vie ordinaire, au sens que Guillaume Le Blanc donne à ce terme, et aborde plusieurs formes de vulnérabilité : précarité sociale, vulnérabilité ontologique et vulnérabilité à l’autre. L’article se fonde en partie sur les travaux que Guillaume Le Blanc a consacrés à la précarité et à l’invisibilité qui la sous-tend, pour tenter d’analyser l’omniprésence des maux sociaux et existentiels dans la nouvelle. Il sera également question de la notion d’interpellation développée par Judith Butler, afin d’étudier la fonction de l’écriture et de sa réception telles qu’elles sont représentées dans « Raw Material ». Enfin, dans le sillage de Jean-Michel Ganteau et de la réflexion qu’il mène sur l’esthétique de la vulnérabilité dans son dernier ouvrage, l’article propose une lecture de « Raw Material » comme texte vulnérable, récit qui non seulement parle de vulnérabilité mais qui l’incorpore dans sa forme même.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 Defining the genre of these embedded texts is no easy task. Contrary to the fictional stories that (...)

1In this story by A.S. Byatt, published in Little Black Book of Stories in 2003, Jack Smollett, a writer afflicted with writer’s block, teaches creative writing to a group of mature middle-class students, who consistently scribble substandard narratives where ordinary violence and frustration find clumsy and often melodramatic release. One old lady, however, Cicely Fox, writes two fascinating texts, included in the story, about domestic chores in the early 20th century.1 Jack’s passion for writing is rekindled by Cicely’s essays but, before he can put his Muse to good use, he makes a gruesome discovery: he finds the naked body of Cicely Fox lying dead in her dilapidated home, covered with scars and fresh wounds. It turns out that she has been killed by her housemate, subjected to torture over a long period of time, and that she has herself inflicted torture on her murderer, Miss Flossie Marsh.

  • 2 A.S. Byatt was invited to a conference held at the university Toulouse 2-Jean Jaurès in February 20 (...)
  • 3 ‘La vie ordinaire est toujours insérée dans une série de qualifications incontournables [...], parm (...)

2In an unpublished essay, A.S. Byatt explains that ‘Raw Material’ is a story about ‘various problems in writing about life, and lives’.2 The story self-reflexively investigates different ways of representing ordinary—rather than bare—life. According to Guillaume Le Blanc, there is indeed no such thing as bare life. Ordinary life, he argues, necessarily exists within a set of social norms which are not merely internalised but creatively tampered with in order for life to be livable within those norms.3 In ‘Raw Material’, it is through creative writing, which they use as therapy, that Jack’s students make do, in more or less creative ways, with the coercive norms that shape their ordinary lives, and through the representation of those lives, Byatt also writes about various forms of vulnerability: social precariousness, ontological vulnerability and vulnerability to the other. Guillaume Le Blanc’s work on precariousness, and especially the notion of invisibility which he sees as characteristic of social precariousness, will provide a very helpful frame of reference in the discussion of the ailing lives that are represented in ‘Raw Material’. When it comes to vulnerability to the other, I will turn to Judith Butler’s rereading of Levinas’s face and her examination of the structure of address, in order to analyse the role of writing and reader’s response as they are presented in ‘Raw Material’, and try to identify what it takes for a narrative to work as address. Finally, in the wake of Jean-Michel Ganteau’s work on vulnerable form, I will argue that both Cicely’s embedded texts and ‘Raw Material’ qualify as vulnerable narratives, formal analogons to the vulnerability of ordinary lives.

Invisible Ailing Lives

3Jack Smollett’s class forms a community of ailing, middle-class humans, gathered in a disused church in ‘a failed Derbyshire spa’ called Sufferacre (187), which, from the start, inscribes suffering and failure as the defining features of its citizens. We know next to nothing about their lives. We are just given their names and a list of their occupations. What we do know is that they invariably use writing as therapy and transform the raw material of their sufferings into sensational, violent and melodramatic tales. The list of the latest stories produced by Jack’s students suggests a number of social and relational ills which are not directly represented in ‘Raw Material’ but can be inferred from the titles of the stories, which the narrator obligingly provides (192–193). The badly-written texts are thinly-disguised autobiographies, crude transformations of their authors’ discontent: violent tales of martyrdom, rape, torture, slaughter, child abuse, etc. that are fed, or so it seems, by impotent rage, unemployment, divorce, aging or existential disregard.

4Thus ‘Raw Material’ and the stories it hosts seem to support Guillaume Le Blanc’s idea that, nowadays, the human is not so much defined by mortality as it is by suffering:

L’homme aujourd’hui n’est plus tant cet animal qui se sait mortel, voué à la finitude de son corps qui ne lui a jamais appartenu, qu’une vie vulnérabilisée par les conditions sociales de son développement. La gloire de la finitude héroïque de l’homme qui se sait toujours seul à mourir cède la place à l’anonymat monotone de l’homme souffrant, victime potentielle de la précarisation de ses conditions de vie. (Le Blanc 246)

  • 4 ‘Autant dire que la mort a évolué. Elle n’est plus la destination qui ramène à une origine enfin dé (...)

5Le Blanc goes on to say that the nature of death itself has changed. In our precarious times, the mortal man is primarily a man exposed to social death. The invisibility of death has given way to the visibility of the vulnerable man’s sufferings (Le Blanc 246).4

  • 5 The line between precariousness and vulnerability is not always clear. In Guillaume Le Blanc’s use (...)

6As for the character of Cicely Fox who writes the two fascinating essays that are fully transcribed in Byatt’s story, social death is actually combined with violent death, social precariousness with ontological vulnerability.5 She is an emblem of vulnerability in all its forms. When Jack goes to her place at the end of the story, he discovers a domestic space gone awry which testifies to social death and emotional dereliction. He goes through ‘a gaunt kitchen’ with an old cooker precariously standing on one leg and war-time ‘utility’ furniture (226). The house is bare, dark and spectral; time seems to have stopped in 1949, when the two ladies are said to have moved in. It is the haunt of two precarious women who have had little to no interaction with their neighbours and little to no visibility.

  • 6 ‘Sa vie forme le négatif de la cité, que celle-ci s’efforce de cacher ou de contenir mais qui ne pe (...)
  • 7 ‘[…] une cité injuste qui crée les pathologies dont elle a besoin pour s’imposer comme ordre normal (...)

7Le Blanc argues that the precarious man is made invisible by modern nations, his precarious life being concealed by the city because his precariousness challenges the city’s legitimacy (Le Blanc 115).6 The two old ladies live in ‘a respectable suburb’ (225), in a semi-detached Victorian house on a street called ‘Primrose Lane’ which smacks of homely normality. Yet within this space of middle-class normativity, the two ladies have lived as precarious recluses, invisible, faceless and voiceless—which is especially true of Cicely’s housemate, the murderer, who has not been seen or heard speaking for many years (228). As precarious women, they live both outside and inside the city (Le Blanc 116), outside because they have no definite social justification and are committed to social death, and inside because, as Le Blanc underlines, the unfair city, which creates the pathologies it needs to assert itself as normal order, has to keep the precarious within its confines (Le Blanc 116).7

8Miss Flossie Marsh, the murderer, paradoxically gains no visibility when Jack discovers her on the crime scene. The description that is made of her, focussed through Jack’s eyes, further dehumanises her:

Opposite him, in a chair, was a moaning bundle with huge face, grey-skinned, blotched, furred with down, above which a few white hairs floated on a bald pink dome. The eyes were yellow, vague and bloodshot and did not seem to see him. (227)

9This subhuman murderess who, we are later told, is mute and only produces inarticulate sounds (228), emerges as a figure of the demonised other, which amounts to dispossessing her of her status as human. In Precarious Life, commenting on the use of the face in the war coverage by the media after the 9/11 attacks, Judith Butler shows that representation or personification does not always humanise: ‘violence can happen [...] precisely through the production of the face’ (Butler 141). The face produced by the description of the murderess ‘seem[s] to conceal or displace the face in the Levinasian sense, since we [see] and [hear] through that face no vocalization of grief or agony, no sense of the precariousness of life. [...] And in this sense, we might say that the face is, in every instance, defaced’ (Butler 142). If Miss Flossie Marsh is dehumanised here, it is because she acquires visibility as the face of evil, as a defacement of the human, and ‘the “I” who sees the face is not identified with it: the face represents that for which no identification is possible, an accomplishment of dehumanization and a condition for violence’ (Butler 145).

10What Jack sees next in the sitting-room is Cicely’s naked body lying dead on the forget-me-nots of the old carpet, covered with raw wounds and older scars which tell a macabre story of torture and violent death. The exposure of her naked and dead body is a paroxysmal encounter with human vulnerability, as well as it exposes Jack to the fragility of the other. Thus, Jack is exposed by this exposure, exposed to the vulnerable other and to his own vulnerability and desperate dependence on the other. This exposure has actually started with the reading of Cicely’s essays, which act as a form of address and initiate a process of transformation in Jack, as we will now see.

Writing as Address

11As the title of the story suggests, ‘Raw Material’ is also about transformation. The phrase holds the promise of a process, of a becoming. At least two kinds of transformation are involved in the story. One is the transformation of the raw material of ordinary life into writing and the other is the transformation of the reader by the transformative process of writing.

12Most of Jack’s students cannot write; their stories are ineffectual transformations of what they know:

their inventions were crude, and he couldn’t find a way to perform the necessary operations to spin the muddy straw into silk, or turn the raw bleeding chunks into a savoury dish. (189)

  • 8 ‘Write what you really know about. Make it new’ (187).

13The defamiliarisation of the everyday, which is what writing is all about according to Jack8, does not happen. The failed transformations of the everyday, those ‘raw bleeding chunks’, also fail to transform (or, literally, to move) their readers. In spite of his repeated warnings that ‘creative writing is not a form of psychotherapy’ (187), Jack’s students invariably use writing as therapy, as an outlet for violence, as a vulgar purge of emotion, in ways that do not reach out to the other, and do not breach the boundaries of the self. One might say that they fail to address the reader.

14In Judith Butler’s description of the structure of address, that is to say the situation where someone is being addressed by someone else and feels under an obligation to respond, the notion is coextensive with issues of moral authority, moral obligation and responsibility: ‘the situation of being addressed’ is ‘the demand that comes from elsewhere, sometimes a nameless elsewhere, by which our obligations are articulated and pressed upon us’ (Butler 130). It would be wrong to say that any narrative is potentially a mode of address. Yet, narratives are expected to cause emotional reactions in their readers; they postulate a form of relationality between an addresser and an addressee, and in so far as the students’ productions themselves are not represented, ‘Raw Material’ places the emphasis on reader’s response. To say the least, there is not the slightest trace of empathy in Jack’s derisive response to the students’ bad tales. The inedible form of their stories actually deflects attention from the sufferings they seek to express, thus turning Jack and us away from the face, to borrow from both Butler and Levinas’s terminology (Butler 150).

  • 9 ‘I was terrified of what I have translated into English as “dailyness”, and this was to do with the (...)

15On the other hand, Miss Fox’s more sophisticated transformations of the everyday, or ‘dailyness’ as A.S. Byatt calls it in an interview,9 create a bond with the reader, a relationality that exposes the reader to the other, makes him/her vulnerable to the other. Cicely’s essays do not rely on one particular discursive or narrative device to address their reader. It is her fastidious attention to detail, her capacity to create the new out of the ordinary world of the kitchen, to make ordinary tasks reverberate with new meanings that address Jack, give him a glimpse of new creative paths and a sense of the other. Jack’s response to Cicely’s first essay illustrates what Le Blanc says about the situation of discourse and the emergence of the voice: ‘[l]a prise de parole n’est jamais une simple attestation linguistique de soi mais toujours une attestation sociale de soi dont le corollaire implique la capacité d’être entendu par autrui et d’être ainsi reconnu’ (Le Blanc 138). Cicely’s essay does not make any explicit demand on the addressee but, symptomatically, once Jack has read Cicely’s text, she acquires a face in Byatt’s story, a human face and a face that points beyond itself to human vulnerability; she becomes textually visible in a long portrait focused through Jack’s eyes (206).

16At this point in the story, looking at Miss Fox for perhaps the first time, Jack seems to be acknowledging the other, and the other seems to be acknowledged in all her vulnerability. Cicely appears as a woman who precariously stands between visibility and invisibility, presence and absence. She sits alone ‘in the shadow’ (206), cutting an evanescent figure, always on the point of receding into invisibility: she is a thin woman, with thinning hair and ‘paper-thin skin’, who covers her ‘bony sharpness’ in loose-fitting clothing (206). The description of her eyes signposts mortality:

[They] seemed to have retreated into the caverns of their sockets, being held to the outer world by the most fragile, spider-web cradle of lid, and muscle, all stained umber, violet, indigo as though bruised by the strain of staying in place. You could see, Jack thought fancifully, her narrow skull under its vanishing integument. You could see where her jaw-bone hung together, under fine vellum. (206)

  • 10 ‘Nobody had much spoken to her in the coffee breaks before Jack’s enthusiasm for her work became ap (...)

17Cicely is almost a dead body already. Indeed, as the story unfolds, her existence within the group of students is more and more precarious: she retreats into deafness and smiles vaguely, ostensibly oblivious to the group’s hostility.10

18Thus Jack becomes aware at once of the existence of Miss Fox, who now has both a voice and a face, and of the precariousness and vulnerability of her existence. And this might become raw material to be turned into writing: ‘paper-thin’ and ‘vellum’ suggest passage into writing; Miss Fox’s body is in the process of becoming a literary body. Indeed, reading Cicely’s texts revives Jack’s interest in writing and in his students. He sees Miss Fox as a means to overcome writer’s block and as a way of moving beyond the fixities of cliché or formulaic writing, for Jack, we are told, has lost the capacity to create the new out of the old:

Cliché spread like a stain across the written world, and he didn’t know a technique for expunging it. Nor had he the skill to do what Leonardo said we should do with cracks, or Constable with cloud-forms, and make the stains into new, suggested forms. (211)

19Eager to learn his trade at last, he becomes dependent on his Muse. In fact, the main effect of Cicely’s narratives on Jack is that they undermine the myth of autonomy on which he has built his life.

  • 11 The first sentence of the story is ‘[h]e always told them the same thing’ (187). We are also told t (...)

20The beginning of the story shows Jack as a self-reliant individual who lives in a caravan, travels extensively and likes to think of himself as free and footloose. After a few affairs with some of his female students, which result in exposure of Jack’s private world and private parts in vengeful narratives read aloud in class, he resolves not to get involved with any of his students in any way: ‘[h]e gave up, ever, talking to his students one at a time or differentiating between them’ (195). Jack, then, fancies himself as an autonomous subject. Yet, he is also a man of habit: ‘[h]e still thought of himself as wild and unattached, but he was a creature of habit. He liked things to happen at precise, recurring times, in precise, recurring ways’ (190). He is even caught in the throes of repetitiveness,11 obsessively rewriting his fifth novel with little hope of ever completing it (189). Jack conceals loss of agency and the precariousness of his life beneath the repetition and the ostensible stability of everyday forms. Guillaume Le Blanc argues that the everyday tends to obfuscate the precariousness of ordinary life:

[l]e quotidien tend à occulter cette dimension de la précarité. Il est tentant de célébrer la répétition de ses formes, de sa routine et de céder ainsi à l’illusion d’un quotidien structuré, accomplissant automatiquement son ordre réel et mythologique. […] Contre un enrôlement trop rapide dans l’ordre du quotidien, il faut donc chercher à saisir ‘l’inquiétante étrangeté’ des vies ordinaires. (Le Blanc 53)

21Capturing the uncanny dimension of everyday life is precisely what Cicely does in her essays, while Jack’s obsessive routine seeks to contain the tremors of precariousness.

22The myth of autonomy and everyday stability is shattered by Jack’s encounter with Miss Fox and her writing. What Jean-Michel Ganteau says about McEwan’s Saturday in his discussion of vulnerability could be applied to Jack’s transformation at the hands of Miss Fox: she teaches him ‘a lesson in dispossession of the first type defined by Butler and Athanasiou that cracks open the sovereign self, prevents all fiction of autonomy, and prefers openness to the other to self-sufficient closure’ (Ganteau 160). Jack learns a lesson in interdependence which is also relevant to the sphere of writing: good writing depends on good reads. However, the Muse dies and Jack finds himself in a state of bereaved relationality that leaves him speechless (he cannot write about the murder) and that seals his own precariousness. Judith Butler argues that we have to accept

not just that we address others when we speak, but that in some way we come to exist, as it were, in the moment of being addressed, and something about our existence proves precarious when that address fails. (Butler 130)

23I would be tempted to say that ‘something about our existence proves precarious’ even when the address is successful. Here, anyway, the address does not quite fail; it is interrupted by Miss Fox’s death and the voice of the relational self is suspended as a result.

Vulnerable Narratives

24Thus vulnerability affects speech and writing too. The question now is whether A.S. Byatt’s story falls under the category of vulnerable narrative, narratives which not only thematise vulnerability but incorporate vulnerability into the fabric of their poetics.

25Risk-taking is one of the features identified by Jean-Michel Ganteau as typical of the poetics of vulnerability. In ‘Raw Material’, risk-taking assumes the form of exposure to criticism and to ridicule. The students’ autobiographical productions are read aloud in class and exposed to Jack’s scorn:

He read contributions aloud, anonymously, himself. He had a fine voice, and, often, not always, he did more justice to the writing than its author might have done. He could also, in the right mood, use the reading as a mode of ironic destruction. (207–208)

  • 12 For a more substantial discussion of melodrama as black and white drama and of the play of black an (...)

26Those narratives, which are not fully transcribed in Byatt’s story, sound like closed and totalising formulae, built on clear, stable polarities such as can be found in melodrama, also called ‘black and white drama’, as Kent G. Gallagher reminds us (Gallagher 215)12. They are stories of vulnerability—after all vulnerability is the stuff of melodrama—but not vulnerable narratives, ‘a form that is not closed and totalizing but opens up to the risk of failure’ (Ganteau, 1). However, exposure to violent criticism, be it in the invisible shape of irony, does make them vulnerable. The following section provides an example of ‘ironic destruction’ carried out by raw quotation:

Tamsin Secrett [...] herself had written a heart-rending description of a mother lovingly preparing a meal for an ingrate who neither turned up to eat it nor telephoned to say she was not coming. ‘Tender succulent al-dente pasta fragrant with spicy herbs redolent of the South of France with tangy melt-in-the-mouth Parmesan, rich smooth virgin olive oil, delicately perfumed with truffle, mouth-wateringly full of savour...’ (209)

27No narratorial comment is needed to tear apart the work of Tamsin Secrett, where cookbook cultural stereotypes are mistaken for tokens of sophistication. The result is not just ‘al-dente’; it is a raw mess laid bare by the quotation marks. Cicely’s exquisite Byatt-like work is itself submitted to the critical scrutiny of her fellow students who, out of jealousy because she seems to have become the teacher’s pet, ‘f[a]ll upon it like a pack of hounds, snarling and ripping at it’ (208).

28Cicely’s exquisite texts are not just vulnerable because they are exposed to the spiteful evaluation of misguided amateurs. Theirs is vulnerable form. As Jack says, her stories work ‘on more than one level at once’ (210). They are multi-layered transformations of the unlivable lives of the two old ladies who torture each other until, eventually, one slaughters the other. This raw material is processed into accounts of exhausting housework in Edwardian times which, far from being nostalgic reconstructions of the past, contrary to what Tamsin Secrett believes (‘Memory lane. Yuk’ (210)), are transpositions of Cicely’s frightful and deviant ‘dailyness’, as well as oblique representations of the systemic violence that confines women to the kitchen or to the wash-house and subjects them to the endless repetition of alienating tasks. In the first embedded essay for example, ‘How We Used to Black-lead Stoves’, the oven is seen as ‘a hell-hole’ (199), and death, like the indomitable soot that covers everything, lurks everywhere, seeping into the slightest chunk of coal: ‘You can see the compacted layers of dead wood—millions of years dead—in the strata on the faces of the chunks of good coal’ (199). In ‘Wash Day’, the second embedded essay, the drying wash is compared to ‘shrouded hanging men’ or ‘dead choirboys’ (219), and the text is interspersed with allusions to torture: there is a ‘monstrous mangle’ and the washing is ‘swirled’, ‘squashed’, ‘punched’ and ‘mashed’ (217); ironing is responsible for permanent damage, ‘scabs which resolved themselves into pin-holes and were unredeemable’ (220), a foreshadowing of the scabs and burn marks which will be found on Miss Fox’s body.

29We are dealing with metaleptic texts, the use of metalepsis being one of the distinctive features of vulnerable narratives according to Jean-Michel Ganteau:

vulnerable narratives rely on metalepsis, i.e. in presenting the effects (or causes) instead of representing the events themselves, and in tapping the rhythmical potential of the texts to get the reader to share an experience through a mimesis of effect—as opposed to aspect—that solicits affects and the imaginative faculties in a paroxysmal fashion. (Ganteau 170)

  • 13 See for example ‘[l]ike all good polishing—almost none of which persists in modern life, for which (...)

30Miss Fox’s essays do not focus so much on the effects as on the possible causes of the violence she is experiencing at home. Thus ‘Raw Material’ draws a discreet parallel between her ‘paper-thin skin’, an emblem of human vulnerability, and the thin layers of recurring ‘black dust’, as well as the thin layers of poisonous chemicals which used to be indefatigably applied in order to remove or tame the ever-returning soot13. There is a suggestion that the relentless and dehumanising repetition of torture is a duplication of or results from the relentless and dehumanising repetition of agonising chores. The ubiquitous layers of ‘How We Used to Black-lead Stoves’ are a metalepsis for the ‘layers and layers of [...] old scars’ on Cicely’s body and on her murderer’s.

  • 14 Or perhaps precarious, if we go back to Le Blanc’s pairing of precariousness and invisibility.

31Thus, Miss Fox’s metaleptic texts imply another form of risk-taking. If they are vulnerable,14 it is also because they hover between visibility and invisibility. They are both testimonies of Cicely’s plight and cryptic transformations of it. They both reveal and cover wounds, like scars. The implicit connection between the daily chores of yore and present-day torture may easily be overlooked—which it is, it seems, by everyone of the diegetic readers. The vulnerable text therefore runs the risk of opacity; yet, it is a kind of opacity that, Byatt suggests, conditions literary achievement and allows the author to represent suffering and vulnerability in a mode that is neither melodramatic nor sensational.

  • 15 To give a few examples of the metaphor, Jack fails to turn the crude work of his students ‘into a s (...)

32So Cicely’s essays may be considered as vulnerable texts. What about ‘Raw Material’ as a whole? It is a multi-layered story which, like Cicely’s texts, works ‘on more than one level at once’ (210). It is obviously self-reflexive: a writer teaches creative writing; in the process, the story exposes human fragility, while showing how it should be done in two embedded essays, which themselves are multi-layered. To extend the cooking metaphor which runs throughout the story and signifies, among other things, the transformative processes at work in creative writing,15 ‘Raw Material’ is like puff pastry. As well as problematising closure, this structure may be defined as vulnerable form in the sense that it hinges on the interdependence of the various layers and offers an example of intense textual relationality that weaves connections between narrative levels, between themes and motifs, and between writing and its raw material. As we saw, Byatt’s story draws parallels between Jack’s perpetual rewriting of his fifth novel (189), the recurrence of daily painstaking cleaning, the ‘recurring’ soot (201) of ‘How We Used to Black-lead Stoves’, the ‘endless cycle of bubble, toil and trouble’ (219) of ‘Wash Day’, and the application of daily violence in Miss Fox’s current home. In such multi-layered structure, meaning is both elusive and expansive, simultaneously hidden and fed by the piling up of layers. No clear explanation for the gruesome ending is to be expected, even in retrospect. The correlated layers are just echoing transformations of diverse forms of suffering at the hands of a violent ‘dailyness’. The final twist also contributes something to vulnerable form. Far from being a totalising wind-up, it includes not one but two unhinging surprises: the unexpected murder of Miss Fox and the no less unexpected news that the quiet and elegant old lady has inflicted torture on her housemate:

There were layers and layers of those old scars. Not only on Miss Fox, on the mute Flossie Marsh also. He could not write that. (229)

33In just one economical sentence, the victim turns out to have been a victimiser too, an ironic challenging of melodramatic polarisation but also a discovery that calls for a complete reappraisal of the character of Miss Fox and of her essays. Taken aback, the flesh and blood reader, who has been made to feel more perceptive than the diegetic ones all along, is exposed to the humbling experience of failure and loss of certainties, and is kindly invited to start again, aware that reading too is risky business.

34At the end of ‘Raw Material’, the invisibility of the precarious culminates in the glaring visibility of the vulnerable, through the exposure of Cicely’s naked and dead body. After a brief spell of visibility brought about by the emergence of her voice, Miss Fox becomes almost monstrously visible as dead matter or raw material, as a snuffed life seized in all its vulnerability. She also becomes the raw material of more sensational stories to come since, in the final paragraph, Jack’s students are given the last word. While Jack himself remains wordless—‘He could not write that’ (229)—they cannot wait to write about Cicely’s violent death:

The class, on the other hand, buzzed and hummed with the anticipated pleasure of writing it up, one day. They were vindicated. Miss Fox belonged after all in the normal world of their writings, the world of domestic violence, torture and shock-horror. They would write what they knew, what had happened to Cicely Fox, and it would be most satisfactorily therapeutic. (229)

35As the clouds of sensational writing are gathering, Cicely is put at risk of becoming a sensational body, another violence done to her. In the closing lines—and only at the diegetic level—sensation prevails over the refinements of vulnerable form which, Byatt’s story metatextually intimates, lies somewhere between raw unrepresentability (Jack’s wordlessness) and crude sensational representation.

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Butler, Judith, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London: Verso, 2004.

Byatt, A.S., ‘Raw Material’, Little Black Book of Stories (2003), London: Vintage, 2004, 185–229.

Frosh, Steven, ‘Conversation between A.S. Byatt and Stephen Frosh’, Psychology and Psychotherapy: Research and Practice 77 (2004): 145–159.

Gallagher, Kent G., ‘Emotion in Tragedy and Melodrama’, Educational Theatre Journal 17.3 (October 1965): 215–219.

Ganteau, Jean-Michel, The Ethics and Aesthetics of Vulnerability in Contemporary British Fiction, New York: Routledge, 2015.

Le Blanc, Guillaume, Vies ordinaires, vies précaires, Paris : Seuil, 2007.

Maurel, Sylvie, ‘Cru-auté dans “Raw Material” de A.S. Byatt’, L’Acte inqualifiable ou le meurtre au féminin/Unspeakable Acts: Murder by Women, eds. E. Jouve, A. Guillain and L. Talairach-Vielmas, Bruxelles: Lang, 2016, 223–236.

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1 Defining the genre of these embedded texts is no easy task. Contrary to the fictional stories that the other students submit, Cicely’s texts are non-fiction pieces reminiscing about the black-leading of kitchen stoves and the taxing routines of wash days in Edwardian times or in the 1920s—the date is unspecified but can be approximately reconstructed. They are clearly based on personal memories but cannot be called autobiographical since the focus is not on the younger self. As one of the students reproachfully notes, they do not ‘give us a feeling of the poor skivvy who had to smear the stuff on’ (209), at least not directly. For want of a better word, Cicely’s texts may be referred to as essays.

2 A.S. Byatt was invited to a conference held at the university Toulouse 2-Jean Jaurès in February 2015. She was eventually unable to come and was kind enough to send a short essay about the genesis of ‘Raw Material’.

3 ‘La vie ordinaire est toujours insérée dans une série de qualifications incontournables [...], parmi lesquelles l’appréciation discriminante qui sépare l’ordinaire de l’extraordinaire et institue un ordre du quotidien. La vie ordinaire n’est donc pas une donnée primitive, antérieure à toute relation de pouvoir, à toute investigation par les normes. [...] Il n’existe donc pas de vie à l’état nu’ (Le Blanc 30–31). See also: ‘Ainsi la vie ordinaire n’est-elle pas là où on l’attend, dans la soumission aux normes incorporées et tenues pour évidentes puisque répétées. Elle circule dans des pratiques qui mettent en jeu un usage de soi pour faire émerger ce que le soi attend des autres. L’usage de soi est révélé dans une manière singulière de bricoler les normes [...]’ (Le Blanc 43).

4 ‘Autant dire que la mort a évolué. Elle n’est plus la destination qui ramène à une origine enfin dénudée, mais une frontière de la vie sociale repoussée dans ses marges les plus invisibles. C'est que l’invisibilité de la mort cède le pas à la visibilité des souffrances de l’homme vulnérable’ (Le Blanc 246).

5 The line between precariousness and vulnerability is not always clear. In Guillaume Le Blanc’s use of the term ‘precariousness’, the emphasis is on the social and economic dimension. Vulnerability refers to the ontological field, to the fragility of human life. In Judith Butler’s Precarious Life, precariousness is more or less synonymous with vulnerability. Let us say that economic precariousness is one aspect of and a contributing factor to human vulnerability.

6 ‘Sa vie forme le négatif de la cité, que celle-ci s’efforce de cacher ou de contenir mais qui ne peut apparaître que comme une contestation de sa légitimité’ (Le Blanc 115).

7 ‘[…] une cité injuste qui crée les pathologies dont elle a besoin pour s’imposer comme ordre normal’ (Le Blanc 116).

8 ‘Write what you really know about. Make it new’ (187).

9 ‘I was terrified of what I have translated into English as “dailyness”, and this was to do with the fate of women in my generation. I was terrified of being shut in a kitchen with a washing tub and, later, a washing machine. I was terrified of the repetitiveness of ordinary things, which can be made to seem glamorous in a novel’ (Frosh 148).

10 ‘Nobody had much spoken to her in the coffee breaks before Jack’s enthusiasm for her work became apparent, but now there was deliberate cutting, and cold-shouldering’ (222).

11 The first sentence of the story is ‘[h]e always told them the same thing’ (187). We are also told that he has been teaching the same class for fifteen years (187).

12 For a more substantial discussion of melodrama as black and white drama and of the play of black and white in Cicely’s embedded essays, see Maurel 223–236.

13 See for example ‘[l]ike all good polishing—almost none of which persists in modern life, for which on the whole we should be grateful—the sheen was built up layer by infinitesimal layer, applied, and almost entirely wiped away again, only the finest skin of mineral adhering and glimmering.

The time is far away when we put so much human blood and muscle into embellishing our houses with careful layers of mineral deposits’ (202–203).

14 Or perhaps precarious, if we go back to Le Blanc’s pairing of precariousness and invisibility.

15 To give a few examples of the metaphor, Jack fails to turn the crude work of his students ‘into a savoury dish’ when he tries to use their stories as raw material for his own (189). Reading ‘How We Used to Black-lead Stoves’ to the class, he does so ‘savouring the phrases that pleased him’ (208). In ‘Wash Day’, starch, likened to gruel, transforms garments into carvings or ‘pleated stones’ (218), and the smell of the iron on starched linen is ‘like a parody of cooking’ (219).

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Sylvie Maurel, « Representing Precariousness and Vulnerability in ‘Raw Material’ by A.S. Byatt », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 53 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2017, consulté le 14 décembre 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.3870

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Sylvie Maurel

Sylvie Maurel is a senior lecturer in English at the University Toulouse 2-Jean Jaurès. She is a member of Cultures Anglo-saxonnes (CAS). She is the author of a monograph and of a number of articles on Jean Rhys. Her more recent research engages with contemporary rewritings of fairy tales, Ian McEwan and A.S. Byatt.

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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