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“A Jinx is Feared . . . Knowledge Must Be Paid For”: The Configuration of the Ageing Woman as Crone and Witch in A. S. Byatt’s “The Dried Witch”

Alexandra Cheira
p. 57-72


Cet article examine la figuration de la femme comme sorcière dans “The Dried Witch”, nouvelle d’A. S. Byatt. Il étudie également la manière dont Byatt problématise de manière créative le lien historique entre la vieillesse et le fait de devenir une sorcière au travers de l’analyse de la figure archétypale de la Vieille Femme. Enfin, il explore les façons dont Byatt aborde la critique féministe de la conception masculine de la femme comme sorcière dans la construction de la protagoniste de sa nouvelle.

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Auteurs étudiés :

Antonia Susan Byatt
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1The particular female figuration of the ageing woman as a witch and/or a crone is not new in A. S. Byatt’s short fiction. While discussing the genesis of “The Dried Witch” in a 1993 interview with Jean-Louis Chevalier, Byatt made a significant remark regarding this association:

But it was towards the end of my days in the department of English in University College, London, and several women there were agreeing that we had all observed that women, once they got over the age of 45, began to be persecuted by groups of people, and, obviously if you want to write a story about that, you do better to choose a metaphor a long way away, the life of a Chinese lady, or possibly a Burmese lady, or possibly an Indian lady in a village seemed quite a good metaphor. So it was partly a story about the persecution of postmenopausal women, and the strange, somehow, became a metaphor in that case for both things, for my response to Shen Tsunh Wen. (Byatt, “Entretien” 14)

2Byatt’s critics tend to agree that she started, from Sugar and Other Stories—her first collection of short stories, which includes “The Dried Witch” and was published in 1987 when she was fifty-one years old—to address ageing, and female ageing in particular, as a thematic concern in her stories. In fact, Carmen Lara-Rallo has advanced the convincing hypothesis that “the key to the tales of this volume” lies in “the identification of a single thematic link underlying all the stories gathered in the volume,” namely the fictionalisation of “the phases of women’s lives from different perspectives,” and particularly “female ageing” (“Female Ageing” 52-53). In this light, Byatt’s comment suggests that her tale is shaped by ongoing present-day cultural anxieties over human nature and female ageing, explored through fictional and critical discourses—a practice of storytelling which “does not separate the literary from the critical imagination, but rather aims at a thoughtful and deliberate commingling of these two ways of seeing and describing the world” (Alfer and de Campos 3-4). Byatt has remarked—in the different context of Browning’s dramatic monologues—that “it is not either-or. At its best it is both-and” (Byatt, On Histories and Stories 94). I would appropriate this comment to argue in the present discussion that Byatt’s objective analysis characteristically eludes dichotomous oppositions of “either/or” to emphatically insist on an appraisal which comprises “both/and.” In fact, this refusal of binaries illustrates her unique position within the contemporary literary and cultural arena.

3In this light, I argue that Byatt evenly appraises apparently incompatible theories by soberly highlighting their strong points. At the same time, she dispassionately points out their inconsistencies. This remarkable ability, I would argue, is the catalyst for her rare combination of separate fields of research and subsequent metamorphosis into a unique “genetic code . . . inherited from several places” (Byatt, “Speaking” 22). Hence, I am particularly interested in first examining the ways in which several critical readings of female ageing intersect in “The Dried Witch.”

Critical Appraisals of Female Ageing in “The Dried Witch”

4Byatt’s remark as quoted in the introduction posits the onus of female ageing in an academic context only to remove it into the distant recesses of traditional communities in Eastern countries. As Lara-Rallo rightly notes, “[b]y setting the story in a distant landscape, Byatt manages to provide an alternative view on a biological process that has inescapable consequences for the western woman” who, unlike the female protagonist, does not live “in a far-away and exotic village dominated by magic and rituals” (“Female Ageing” 58). Likewise, Katsura Sako emphasises the story’s engagement with “the cultural stereotyping of an old woman as the threatening other” by offering “a highly condensed picture of how the gendered discourse of ageing operates in society” in order to affirm “the power of the otherness of the ageing body as matter that transcends cultural dictates” (117). Therefore, Byatt emphasises the point that distrusting, even persecuting elderly women, can be a universal given. Regardless of specifics such as place of origin, social background or (lack of) academic training, such mistrust is a disturbing expression of “ageism.” Kathleen Woodward defines “ageism” as “the denial of old age,” or the “widespread discrimination against the elderly based on prejudice rooted on the very fact of being older” which “characterizes our culture as a whole” (x-xi).

  • 1 This resonates strikingly in “The Dried Witch.”

5In his analysis of “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” J. Brooks Bouson evokes “the powerful and shaming cultural image of the old woman as a witch-like figure and a dried-up hag who has been emptied of her essential female body substance—her womb, that is, her youthful and valued reproductive capacities,”1 to argue that Byatt “self-consciously draws on the deeply embedded representation of the aging female as a deeply othered figure associated with aging sterility” (55). By focusing on the association between female ageing and “a monstrous and disgusting ugliness, and abject bodily deterioration,” Bouson further argues, Byatt ultimately reveals “the lethal—and shaming—power of the dominant decline discourse in the construction of the identity of the old woman as ‘the apogee of the disgusting’ in our culture” (55). Bouson thus seemingly agrees with Kathleen Woodward’s contention that “the internalization of our culture’s denial of and distaste for aging . . . is understood in terms of decline, not in terms of growth and change” (xiii).

6Other critics propose more optimistic readings of female ageing in Byatt’s short fiction. For instance, Emilie Walezak refers to Susan Sontag’s distinction between female ageing and old age in which the former is “much more a social judgment than a biological eventuality” (132) to point out that “Byatt’s stories speculate on ageing both in terms of biology and of representation” (129). By “[t]urning the fear of death and of the body’s deterioration into a challenge to traditional representations of female ageing,” Walezak argues, Byatt offers “an alternative to ageism” through “the exposure of the social ostracism that impacts older women” vis-à-vis the “construction of a new female identity, brought about by ageing” (129-30). Moreover, Walezak contends that “fantastic short stories about ageing” such as “The Dried Witch” (1987), “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” (1994), “A Stone Woman” (2003), and “The Pink Ribbon” (2003), “make use of the genre’s characteristic process of subversion of cultural representations to characterize ageing as a metamorphosis” (129). Likewise, Margarida Esteves Pereira argues that, in short stories like “Cold” (1999), “A Stone Woman,” or “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” “we find portraits of women who can only come to life when they forsake their bodies, becoming disembodied statues, spiritual and rational beings, no longer afflicted by their bodily and sexual existence” (186). For Sako, the fact that Byatt’s protagonist is “an ageing woman [who] transforms into a jinx” explores “the bodily dimension of the older woman’s ageing subjectivity” since “the unusual use of the word ‘jinx’ for a person” suggests that “the body bears the cultural and gendered signification of ageing as neither a surface nor an image but through its materiality” (127).

7Albeit very diverse, and sometimes seemingly contradictory or incompatible, these readings illuminate the construction of female ageing in Byatt’s fiction. Hence, to Walezak’s argument that Byatt deliberately resorts to the fantastic as an upset of dominant value systems (129), I would add Byatt’s particular reinterpretation of Freud’s definition of the uncanny as “that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar” (Freud 124) to describe female agency in this tale.

8By interrogating a negative cultural construction of female ageing, Byatt exposes its burdens on the perception of old women as wise crones. She thus highlights the provisional nature of the female self through the story’s preoccupation with the protagonist’s changed (ageing) body, and the latter’s ambivalent construction as “other.” The focus of these speculations is A-Oa, the elderly female protagonist in “The Dried Witch,” who is ultimately perceived as both crone and witch. Therefore, Byatt’s story problematises the trope of female ageing on several counts, so as to interrogate the gendered politics of sexual disempowerment vis-à-vis an investigation into female power and agency from contemporary perspectives.

9Byatt therefore complicates the portrayal of the Crone, or the old woman as a wise woman whose insightful acumen was duly acquired in the process of ageing, by the incisive juxtaposition of the wonder tale configuration of the old(er) woman as a witch. At the same time, by rewriting the qualities typically associated with it, Byatt revises the Crone archetype in her creation of A-Oa by deliberately subverting this archetypical figuration after she has examined the tenuous line which divides the positive configuration of woman as a crone from its negative counterpart of woman as a witch.

Byatt’s Examination of the Cultural Construction of Woman as a Crone in “The Dried Witch”

10In “The Dried Witch,” A-Oa’s identification with the Crone is suggested very early on in her physical description as “an old woman” who “had perhaps arrived” at an age “when a woman might become a jinx” (86). In the same paragraph, Byatt significantly investigates the connection between the self-perceived loss of sexual allure and the consequent de-feminization of the aged female body in the eye of the male beholder, which she contrasts with A-Oa’s empowering self-examination devoid of sexual connotations:

There were few men in the village . . . Those who were left no longer looked at A-Oa in the street in the way she had once feared and needed. Her breasts were small and soft and dry inside her shirt; the cloth was slack over slackness. A woman could not see herself in a man’s eye, that was simply what the old poems said, but she could read the firmness of her body in his attention, the spring of her step. When she combed her hair she caught up now long silver hairs, not many, among the dark ones. These hairs were thicker and livelier in texture than the dark ones, brighter. (86)

11This description of A-Oa’s aged body intimates “the post-childbearing years of life,” figuratively associated “with Autumn and Winter, sunset and night, and the winding down and ending of the growing season” (Chamberlain) suggested by the configuration of the Crone. As Wiccan author Lisa Chamberlain has explained, “[a]s the Moon wanes and the darkness of the night sky grows, the Crone steps into her power.” Named the “Hag” in earlier configurations of the Triple Goddess, the Crone symbolises the last stage of a woman’s life in her configuration as “the wise elder aspect of the Goddess,” and rules over “aging and endings, death and rebirth, and past lives, as well as transformations, visions, prophecy, and guidance.”

12A-Oa’s depiction of the “thicker,” “livelier,” and “brighter” silver hairs of her old age as opposed to the dark ones of her youth suggests a positive perception of ageing. More importantly, it also implies the existence of a new life brought about by ageing which may be even better than her mature years, as conveyed by the comparative form of the three adjectives used. In addition, there is the significant choice of the colour adjective “silver,” which signals self-contained female energy, as I have argued elsewhere (Cheira 116), over the more expected “grey,” “the colour of ashes and of mist” which sometimes “gives a feeling of sadness, melancholy and boredom” (Chevalier and Gheerbrant 456). For this reason, I entirely agree with Walezak’s argument that Byatt’s “positive approach to ageing” configures the “construction of a new female identity” (130).

13No longer needing to fear the objectifying male gaze which paradoxically also re-enforced her self-definition as a woman, A-Oa is ready to embrace her new life in the configuration of the Crone as the archetype “who reminds us that death is part of the life cycle” (Chamberlain). Despite A-Oa’s positive self-perception as entering a new phase of her life, the outside perception of the old woman is tinted with prejudices. Well aware of her precarious condition as “the old woman” (“Witch” 86), and publicly yelled at by the children who scatter when she approaches, A-Oa also understands the youngsters’ refusal to meet her eye as “a sweet way, a roundabout way, of saying something else, the other thing” (87), namely the clear suggestion of escaping the evil eye a jinx could fix on them. Hence, A-Oa’s awareness of her ageing body gives rise to a premonitory awareness of social exclusion: as Walezak remarks, “[d]etailed descriptions of sagging muscles and swollen flesh accompany self-derogatory feelings of inadequacy and irrelevance” whereby A-Oa’s aged body lends her “social invisibility” (131):

“I have always lived quietly and properly. I have had four sons, whose life was sucked out of them before it was theirs. I have kept my garden well and my house is clean. My husband is gone and I have no one to live for; also no one who would be unhappy if tomorrow I fell and died, or began to rave as She-At did some years ago, until the village cast her out and stoned her. I have no respect in the village. I have no sons to care for me when I am old and weak. Every year will be a little worse.” (“Witch” 92-93)

14While She-At’s fate anticipates that of A-Oa, another widow figure is introduced in the narrative to contrast male and female fates. The contrast built between the two widow figures of female A-Oa and male Kun emphasises the gendered disregard for female ageing. Unlike the elderly widower in the village, Kun, with whom she nevertheless shares the status of outcast since they are both “singletons on the edge of the circle, not woven in by kin or obligation” (88), A-Oa is the one to be singled out as a social pariah. Therefore, as Bouson puts it, “Byatt offers an extreme, but compelling, exposé of the deep fears of many ageing women: that as invisible and utterly devalued old women, they will become social refuse pushed to the margins of society” (52).

15In the implicit comparison between A-Oa and Kun with regards to their single status, the dominant impression is that the former may lack femininity in her self-description—which makes apparent “the physical revulsion associated with old women in our culture” (Bouson 55)—whereas the latter definitely lacks masculinity:

Like A-Oa he had now no close family in the village: his mother, with whom he had lived, had died at a great age, lovingly tended by her son, mourned with howls and streams of tears. Kun had never been wanted by the army or coerced by the bandits. He was a fat man, with soft triangular breasts like a woman, resting on his smooth pale belly like overlapping mountain ledges. (“Witch” 87-88)

16The gender reversal between A-Oa and Kun seems to suggest that being an old woman is more of a reason for social exclusion than being emasculated. In fact, there is more than a passing suggestion that Kun might be effeminate, or even gay: “The women said of him that he was like a woman, and shuddered a little: they knew what they meant by this but there were no stories to tell about Kun as there had been about other soft men who followed boys, or soft boys who followed soldiers” (100). There is a marked ambiguity concerning the moral judgement on A-Oa and Kun. In fact, while on the surface A-Oa may appear completely innocent and Kun may seem evil, because he is instrumental in the village turning against her, his following everyone and knowing everyone’s affairs can also be regarded as a way of protecting his village, as there are no men left there. Conversely, A-Oa’s social exclusion is both re-enforced by the connection between elderly females and witchcraft, and undermined by the association to her healing practice in the eye of her putative patients who seek her out to help them and respectfully address her as “Mother.” Lara-Rallo highlights this positive outcome of female ageing in the story by arguing that “the emphasis in the depiction of the biological transition between midlife and old age is not laid on the physiological marks, but on the psychological effects and the emotional responses to ageing” (“Female Ageing” 58). Therefore, she further argues, “the most important aspect of menopause, which is presented as a process of dryness that gradually sucks not only A-Oa’s ‘running blood’ but also her other body fluids” is not “the biological change itself,” but rather “the protagonist’s new feeling of self-esteem and usefulness springing from her neighbours’ respectful attitude after she becomes a jinx” (58). Yet, the fact that the villagers also fear A-Oa’s knowledge of the very potions and charms she concocts for them is duly illustrated in the tale. Hence, respect uncannily reverts into distressed apprehension, turning the familiar, well-known healer into the frightening witch:

It became widely accepted that A-Oa was a jinx when she cured the running sores on Bo-Me’s son’s legs. It was also of course accepted that A-Oa had caused these sores, had started to suck out the child’s life through the sores, through the daily thickening yellow pus on which flies gathered. (“Witch” 96)

17As Walezak observes, “[t]o appropriate the magic that will turn her into a jinx, A-Oa casts charms evocative of infertility: dried beans, an unhatched egg, the rotting entrails of a rat, a snake left to dry in the sun, the latter anticipating A-Oa’s fate” (131). At the same time, I would add, and in keeping with the Freudian reading of the uncanny, that Byatt uncannily turns the familiar—vegetables and animals—into the frightening: dried and rotting remnants which evoke death.

18In the end, fear is fanned by Kun, the elderly unmarried man who might otherwise have been thought to be a natural ally given their shared circumstances but who distrusts women, and especially jinxes, ever since “[h]is wife had been put to death for trying to bewitch him, to gain control over his thoughts with little cakes made with honey and other things, unmentionable” (“Witch” 100-01). The fact that it is a man who will eventually lead a female healer to her death is certainly not accidental, since it reflects a practice of exclusion and punishment whose targets were historically women. The negative figuration of A-Oa as a hag and a witch is therefore juxtaposed to her positive configuration as a wise woman.

On the History and Stories of the Ageing Woman as a Witch

19In “The Dried Witch,” Byatt has skilfully fictionalised the construct of woman as a witch. My understanding of “witch” is informed by Pam Grossman’s discussion of this concept, whereby she grounds the two extremes of this essentially female configuration in the same politics of otherness which Byatt represents in her short story:

Throughout most of history, she has been someone to fear, an uncanny Other who threatens our safety or manipulates reality for her own mercurial purposes. She’s a pariah, a persona non grata, a bogeyman to defeat and discard. Though she has often been deemed a destructive entity, in actuality a witchy woman has historically been far more susceptible to attack than an inflictor of violence herself. As with other “terrifying” outsiders, she occupies a paradoxical role in cultural consciousness as both vicious aggressor and vulnerable prey. (1)

20In this light, another deliberate ambiguity Byatt sets up concerns the degree of innocence of A-Oa as regards black or white magic. In fact, on the surface and to a feminist reader, she is wholly innocent and has every right to study herbs or concoct potions for medicinal use. Yet, Byatt’s story describes the consequences of the witch’s scapegoating as curing the ills she is assumed to have provoked with her spells. When Bo-Me’s son, Cha-Tin, dies, A-Oa is pointed at as the cause of his death because she gave a love potion to his brother, Cha-Hun, so that he might illicitly seduce his sister-in-law, An-At. The blame for breaking the sexual prohibition over another’s wife falls on A-Oa who is eventually sacrificed to restore order in Bo-Me’s family and the community.

21Clearly the hag is feared in relation to sexuality and reproduction. In Kristen J. Sollee’s apt words, “[t]he witch embodies the horror of the aging woman: the hag” (chapter “Witches, Sluts, Feminists,” n. pag.). By having A-Oa take the blame for An-At who “gave A-Oa one quick look of complicity, hostility, perhaps guilt, and abased herself deliberately beside her mother-in-law” (“Witch” 106), Byatt also draws a parallel between the old witch and her young counterpart—while Sollee precisely explains the contradiction at the heart of male fear regarding hags and witches by juxtaposing the hag’s “[f]emale fecundity dried up and worthless” to the “nubile flesh and [the] repository for [a man’s] seed” (Sollee, chapter “Witches, Sluts, Feminists,” n. pag.) that the young woman in the prime of her child-bearing years represents. Both of them are feared in the male imaginary:

Women are frightening for being unattractive, sexually unappealing, and past their prime, and yet, they are frightening when young and attractive because the witch is also charming, bewitching, beguiling, and sexually irresistible with her mysterious feminine wiles. (Sollee, chapter “Witches, Sluts, Feminists”)

22Byatt seemingly fictionalises this assumption in Kun’s claim that now that A-Oa is old “and can do no more harm with her beauty, she has turned to making spells, . . . to invading our thoughts and our pillows” (“Witch” 106). Both spiteful in its implicit construction of the youthful A-Oa as a femme fatale, and prejudiced in the suggested connection between female ageing and the dark conjuring powers of witchery, Kun’s accusation leaves no space for a separate female identity outside of these two figurations. Hence, female agency and power are first de-sexualised in the figure of the ageing woman, and ultimately cruelly punished in the witch’s harrowing death.

23Feminist critics have been very vocal about the persecution and demonisation of women who stood outside the social order by gathering knowledge, however empirical it was, on the human body and bodily functions, and specifically those closely related to reproduction and childbearing. As Marina Warner explains, “[o]f all the professions, official and unofficial, those which allowed women to pass between worlds out of the control of native or marital family seemed to pose the greatest threat to apparent due order” (35). A-Oa, unbound by any marital or familial ties, and therefore able to forfeit the traditional female domestic space in favour of the professional field of healing, emblematises this threat. As Adrienne Rich puts it, “the suppression of women healers during the centuries of witch-hunting, persecution, and murder” (135), was facilitated by the fact that “wisewomen, healers, and midwives were especially singled out by the witch-hunters” (135). In “The Dried Witch,” the male hand-picking of female witches is metaphorically represented in Kun’s gathering of evidence against A-Oa. In keeping with the infamous witch hunters’ methods to expose their victims, Kun likewise spies on his prey. He does that for full effect when A-Oa is tending to Cha-Hun’s request of an illicit, and ultimately lethal love charm to make his sister-in-law fall in love with him. Such outcome is punished by death for the adulterous woman and expulsion from the family for the man, since “such temptations were understood to be the fault of women—it was their nature” (“Witch” 100). Although A-Oa “knew that Kun did not like her, that he wished her ill” (88), she is not able to protect herself from his unwanted visits, any more than she can refuse the young man’s request even though she is fully aware that “‘nothing can come of this but death and misery’” (101).

24Other feminist critics, namely Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English (1970), Kristen J. Sollee (2017) and Pam Grossman (2018), have agreed that female knowledge on the workings of the female body, and especially reproduction and childbearing, was especially targeted by the male-dominated hierarchy of power, namely by male theologians as early as the Middle Ages, and by male obstetricians from the eighteenth-century on. In Byatt’s tale, there is no reference to male agency in the province of healing to counteract A-Oa’s resourceful handling of the aphrodisiac love charms which lead to her demise. These are lengthily described in the preparation of the cake which Cha-Hun is supposed to feed An-At. The charm, which is ritualistically prepared and whose potency is measured in Cha-Hun’s erection during its concoction, ultimately proves to be the undoing of all the people involved in an uncanny, ambivalent suggestion of magic tainted by voodoo and witchcraft:

She told him the things he must bring, things not easily obtained, hairs, slivers of nail, the girl’s blood, seeds from the sacks in her kitchen and honey from her combs, flour she had ground, and seed of his own which she would mix, when the moon was right, with things she herself would bring and which he would cook, in a way she would show him, in his own way. (102)

25This suggestion of black magic is quite in keeping with Ehrenreich and English’s description of the archetypal representation of the female witch-healer as an exceptionally clever and resourceful woman who only made the heavy hand of patriarchy crash upon her the more fiercely, since she was persecuted for being a practitioner of the dark wiles of magic (52). Sharukh Husain likewise argues that the active demonisation and persecution of this particular kind of women started in ancient Indo-European and Semite civilisations in order to bring women down several pegs and force them to enter the male pre-ordained social order in which they were either wives and mothers protected by the male power hierarchy, or they were witches and demons who had to be hunted out (ix). Consequently, the infamous witch hunting that swept across, and spanned more than four centuries in Europe is, in Ehrenreich and English’s view, both gender and class based.

26On the one hand, “[t]he great majority of [witches] were lay healers serving the peasant population, and their suppression marks one of the opening struggles in the history of man’s suppression of women as healers” (Ehrenreich and English 31). On the other hand, “[t]he other side of the suppression of witches as healers was the creation of a new male medical profession, under the protection and patronage of the ruling classes”—a profession which “played an important role in witch hunts” by “supporting the witches’ persecutors with ‘medical’ reasoning” (31). Ehrenreich and English defend that this double-headed attack on female healers was the palpable manifestation of a campaign of terror designed by a male ruling class which specifically targeted the female peasant population since female witch-healers were suspiciously regarded as a threat—in its political, religious, and sexual configurations—by both the Protestant and Catholic churches and the State (33). Both counts are fictionalised in “The Dried Witch,” since Byatt negotiates these interconnected dimensions in her construction of A-Oa as an outcast elderly healer who is gifted and resourceful, though she is distrusted by the same people who first sought her help. Walezak accurately sums up the seeming contradictions of A-Oa’s postmenopausal existence in the context of her experience of ageism vis-à-vis her liminal position as a witch-healer who is able to evade the severely gendered constraints of her community by stepping out of the traditional roles of wife and mother ascribed to women, since she is neither:

“The Dried Witch” demonstrates the cruelty of old women’s fates as hags in two ways. First, as an old woman, A-Oa no longer has any social position in the community. . . . To become a jinx is the only opportunity for her to retain some measure of respect in the village. Once she has been acknowledged as a healer—even though she is also identified as the one who cast the spell that needed healing—the villagers start addressing her as “Mother” (96). However, “her new authority” (101) stems from fear so that she is turned into a scapegoat at the first opportunity. Fearful respect easily turns to vengeful persecution in the case of women assuming positions of authority. The representation of old women as casting curses reflects the double curse that marks their statuses: that of being old and that of being female. (141)

27In fact, as Christabel LaMotte so poignantly writes in her poem “Fairy Melusina,” “But let the Power take a female form/ And ‘tis the Power who is punished” (Byatt, Possession 292). Nowhere in Byatt’s fiction is the accuracy of this reflection more keenly verified than in A-Oa’s horrific punishment at the hands of the very peasants she had helped:

A-Oa had seen this [sunning the jinx] done to others, in her time. They took her outside the village, pummelling her a little, but not much, made uneasy by her dogged silence. They tied her with linen bands and hemp cords to a dead stump in the middle of the dust and mud, in the space outside the village where they danced on sacred days. They tied her sitting down, in the hot sun, looking across at the row of thorn trees and the distant mountain slopes and rim, dancing with unreal blue and white. Three days, the time was. If she was still alive after three days, they could fetch her in and the evil would be judged to have been searched out by the sun and shrivelled away. (“Witch” 107)

28A-Oa’s fictional ordeal mirrors the real-life “witch” burning at the stake designed to purge evil. The focus is on her uncanny drying up in the merciless sun, whose beneficial effects for human health are turned into a frightening sucking of all of her body fluids. In Walezak’s words, “The Dried Witch” is “a tale of persecution” which bleakly presents “death as a welcome resolution” since “A-Oa is symbolically burnt at the stake for witchcraft when she is left to dry in the sun,” hence welcoming “death as a relief” after three days of torture (138).

Conclusion: A-Oa as both Crone and Witch

29While Byatt’s “The Dried Witch” may be noted as containing stereotypical cultural constructs of female ageing as narrative motifs, these are deliberately subverted in their apparent intention to illustrate that female identity does indeed integrate separate, and sometimes even conflicting, aspects and cannot be compartmentalised into fixed categories. In this light, I agree with Sako that this story describes “the experience of ageing and old age as both embodied and cultural experience and shows ‘the dialectical relationship’ between the body and the self in imaginative and illuminating ways” (117). Lara-Rallo terms this relationship “the original fictionalisation of a woman’s biological progress through old age” (“Time” 178), in addition to the construction of a new self brought about by old age.

30In fact, Byatt exemplarily illustrates in her tale “The Dried Witch” the way that even benign elderly female healers in traditional, tightly-bound, unsophisticated communities can stop being respected as healers and start being resented, and then persecuted as witches. Byatt duly represents the reason for such a change of heart by emphasising the fact that these women are believed to have acquired their powers by dealing with black magic, and then pretend to cure the ailments they themselves caused in the first place. “The Dried Witch” explores precisely the traditional configuration of the female healer as a witch doctor who, while emphatically not being a witch herself, resorts to traditional healing methods (such as the use of unguents or herb potions) to cure certain kinds of ailments. In addition, she can also use remedies which are popularly believed to hold white magic so as to either protect others from, or alleviate complaints commonly associated with witchcraft. Finally, Byatt skilfully portrays the growing perception of her female protagonist as a witch by the self-same people she once helped, since they both fear and resent her power.

31Byatt’s short story can also be said to engage in the wider feminist debate over the exposition of the historically attested gendered imbalance of power which dictated the rising of the male medicalisation of healing procedures, reproduction and childbearing from the eighteenth century on, at the expense of their understanding as a traditionally female province. In this sense, “The Dried Witch” dramatises the concern over the historical replacement of the configuration of woman-as-healer by woman-as-witch, via male biased intervention, a gendered change which has been seriously discussed in feminist scholarship as well.

32Finally, in her creation of an elderly female healer who pays the price of her herb knowledge by being sunned according to the custom of her peasant village, Byatt has both acknowledged and honoured the real-life histories of countless anonymous female victims who were likewise swiftly dismissed as witches, because their understanding of the workings of the human body as well as of herb lore challenged the misogynistic view that such knowledge should be a male prerogative.

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Alfer, Alexa and Amy J. Edwards de Campos. A. S. Byatt: Critical Storytelling. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2010. Print.

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1 This resonates strikingly in “The Dried Witch.”

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Alexandra Cheira, « “A Jinx is Feared . . . Knowledge Must Be Paid For”: The Configuration of the Ageing Woman as Crone and Witch in A. S. Byatt’s “The Dried Witch” »Journal of the Short Story in English, 76 | 2021, 57-72.

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Alexandra Cheira, « “A Jinx is Feared . . . Knowledge Must Be Paid For”: The Configuration of the Ageing Woman as Crone and Witch in A. S. Byatt’s “The Dried Witch” »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 76 | Spring 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2023, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL :

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Alexandra Cheira

Alexandra Cheira is a researcher at ULICES (University of Lisbon Centre for English Studies, Portugal). Her current areas of research include contemporary women’s writing, women’s studies and, particularly, gender issues and wonder tales in A. S. Byatt’s fiction. She has published articles and book chapters on Byatt’s fiction, The One Thousand and One Nights, the conteuses, Victorian women writers and contemporary gendered sexual politics. She is the editor of (Re)Presenting Magic, (Un)Doing Evil: Of Human Inner Light and Darkness (Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2012). She translated Byatt’s “Cold” into Portuguese and wrote an introduction to the tale for Contar um Conto/ Storytelling (eds. Ana Raquel Fernandes and Mário Semião, Textos Chimaera, 2014), an anthology of short fiction by contemporary British and Irish authors in translation.

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