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Fairytale Storyteller

“The Silver Glaze of the Mirror”: Fire and Ice in Byatt’s Fairy Tales

Francesca Arnavas
p. 99-118


Cet article propose d’utiliser le miroir comme un moyen pour décoder, interpréter et analyser la structure, le contenu et le style narratifs des contes d’A. S. Byatt. C’est par le biais du paradoxe du miroir, leurre transparent, que Byatt, dans ses nouvelles, réécrit les tropes des contes de fées : la duplicité de la surface réfléchissante devient possibilité créatrice. Des nouvelles telles que “The Glass Coffin”, “Cold”, “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”, ou une novella comme “Morpho Eugenia”, utilisent la mythographie du verre, s’appuyant sur des motifs de contes de fées, pour s’approprier le paradoxe, mettre en dialogue des dualismes rigides, et finalement proposer une réconciliation des contraires. Feu et glace, introspection et expérience, indépendance et partage, regarder dedans et regarder dehors : les miroirs deviennent des instruments de révélation, des outils narratifs pour questionner les structures binaires. Cet article commence par présenter les potentialités des surfaces transparentes dans les contes de fées postmodernes avant de s’attarder sur l’utilisation singulière et révolutionnaire des miroirs dans les nouvelles de Byatt. Au moyen d’exemples et de comparaisons, le verre se révèle « littéralement une substance éthérée paradoxale » (Armstrong 5), qui trouve sa place sous la forme, tour à tour, d’objets dans l’histoire, de métaphores omniprésentes, de structures narratives. Le verre lui-même se révèle être, en fin de compte, dans sa substance physique, la quintessence de la métamorphose.

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Auteurs étudiés :

Antonia Susan Byatt
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Research for this article was supported by the European Regional Development Fund (Mobilitas Pluss, MOBJD491), the Estonian Regional Development Fund (Centre of Excellence in Estonian Studies) and the University of Tartu (Grant PHVKU21921).

1Mirrors are made of glass: in French, glace and miroir are two interchangeable words (see Translator’s Note in Melchior-Bonnet vii). The demonstration of this article is based on this close proximity, this strong correspondence between mirrors and glass. Isobel Armstrong has pointed out that glass “is an antithetical material. It holds contrary states within itself as barrier and medium” (11): by means of its transparency, glass instantiates paradoxes, holding in itself this movement between “glass as pure transitivity and glass as barrier” (13). This paradoxical essence characterises the motif of the mirror as it is employed in postmodern fairy tales. They play with the mirror’s mimetic qualities, by reproducing reality while simultaneously epitomising the fragmentation of identity. If in the postmodernist context mirrors are often broken, empty, distorting, postmodern fairy tales offer a peculiar case in point. Building up on the long tradition of fairy tale magic mirrors—ranging from “Snow White,” to “The Snow Queen” and “Beauty and the Beast,” not to forget the complex mythography of glass elaborated in “Cinderella” (Armstrong 207-09), or in the Brothers Grimm’s “The Glass Coffin”—contemporary folktale re-elaborations interpret the role of glassy surfaces in new, bewildering ways.

  • 1 As Bacchilega puts it, postmodern retellings offer inquiries into the creation of mirrors in fairy (...)

2As pointed out by Cristina Bacchilega in her influential work Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies, postmodern fairy tale adaptations utilise the metaphor of the mirror to deconstruct the mechanisms behind the making of classic fairy tales, highlighting that what appears as a mimetic representation of reality is in fact purposely created with specific narrative strategies in mind. In particular, Bacchilega shows how in “Snow White” the mirror works as a pervasive structural element to substantiate a specific idea of female passivity. Postmodern re-adaptations of “Snow White,” as well as other stories, “hold mirrors to the magic mirror of the fairy tale, playing with its framed images out of a desire to multiply its refractions and to expose its artifices” (23). This unmasking is often linked to a feminist agenda, meant to reveal the controlling male gaze behind mirror-making.1

3The glass reflecting surface functions in recent re-interpretations of traditional fairy tales as a metaphor to signify the metafictional nature of many of these contemporary stories. It has been recently argued (see Praet and Kérchy’s edited collection) that the fairy tale itself, as a genre, embeds the characteristics of a self-conscious discourse. In this sense, postmodern experimentations playing with fairy tale tropes exacerbate self-reflexivity, offering complex intertextual and metafictional narratives. Thus, if “a self-conscious problematization of mimesis” is a common feature of the fairy tale genre, then “it becomes clear why fairy tale recurs so often in the modern texts whose more extensive deconstructive techniques are carried out in the context of postmodernism” (Tiffin, Marvelous Geometry 20). The “glass tales” of A. S. Byatt can therefore be defined as postmodern adaptations of classic fairy tales, or as postmodern narratives in which traditional fairy tale tropes, in particular the ones connected to the motif of the mirror, are embedded, questioned, parodied. The following analysis starts from the recognition that “the folktale, in all its aspects [is] a significant narrative model and source of material in both the literature and the narrative theory of the past fifty years” (Benson 12).

  • 2 The same is true of the way in which she employs the fairy tale elements she inserts in her short s (...)

4Byatt’s fairy tales2 display the complex metafictional aspects characterising the role of mirrors in postmodern fairy tales, and further elaborate on them, thus providing what I would define as an extremely original and multi-faceted cosmos of mirrors. The motif of the mirror can be employed as a way to decode, interpret, and analyse the narrative structure, content, and style of quite a few of Byatt’s short tales. Jessica Tiffin has already emphasised how, for Byatt, the medium of glass is particularly significant in its paradoxical essence, “simultaneously transparent and containing, invisible yet entrapping,” providing “a multiplicity of meanings within its apparently simple stasis” (“Ice, Glass, Snow” 52-53). The hybrid nature of glass is of primary importance here. With it, Byatt exploits the mythography of glass (as defined by Armstrong), building on fairy tale motifs, to engage with paradoxes, to discuss rigid dualisms, and to ultimately propose a reconciliation of opposites. Fire and ice, introspection and experience, independence and sharing, looking in and looking out: mirrors become instruments of revelation, narrative tools for questioning binary divisions.

“Silver Threads and Ice-Blue Threads”: Mirror-like Structures

5Byatt admits that “the fairy stories which I now see provided much of my secret imagery as a child are northern tales about ice, glass, and mirrors. It is surprising how often they go together” (qtd. in Tiffin, “Ice, Snow, Glass” 60). The importance of glass and mirrors in Byatt’s fictional universe cannot be underestimated, and it is no coincidence that Armstrong’s complex work on Victorian glass culture is actually dedicated to Byatt herself. Incorporating glass-like structures in her works, Byatt uses the mirror as Armstrong defines it, that is, as “the matrix of the imagination” (240): it goes far beyond pure mimesis, it works as a means to enlarge meanings, as “reflecting space enables one to think or see possibilities” (108).

6In this way, Byatt’s fairy stories mirror traditional fairy tale motifs and patterns, and, through the mirroring act, they open up new unexplored dimensions. Glass, says the djinn in “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” is “‘[f]ull of forever possibilities. And impossibilities, of course. It is a work of art, a great work of craft, it is a joyful thing’” (Djinn 272). This particular story can be read as a thorough, dense meditation on glass, mirrors and their multiple symbolic ramifications, and it contains a glass-reference in its title—“the nightingale’s eye” being a type of Turkish glass. The story is a distorted reflection of the tale of Aladdin (along other tales from the Thousand and One Nights): in it Gillian Perholt, a narratologist, is caught in a story herself, and from within its frame she reflects on the meaning of desire, granted wishes and Fate. The granted desires in the magic environment of the fairy tale, says Gillian (the narratologist) “tend to lead to a condition of beautiful stasis” (266). However, what Gillian’s own adventures show is that mirroring a well-known story enables one to modify it, to detect elements which had gone unseen, and to find a space, however small, for freedom. The beautiful stasis, the fixed mirror, the glass prison, are themselves much more than immobile containers, as Byatt points out. Re-working a fairy tale opens up a flexible space in which granted wishes may lead to a different ending.

  • 3 The Cockroach, and the other animals the Princess finds on her path and brings with her, have stori (...)

7Regularly, in her fairy tale adaptations, the mirror Byatt holds to the tropes of classic tales allows room not only for questioning these tropes, but also for suggesting new potential outcomes. In “The Story of the Eldest Princess,” collected in The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, Byatt reproduces the traditional story of the three siblings setting out on a “Quest.” However, the eldest princess is “by nature a reading, not a travelling princess” (Djinn 47), which helps her realize that she is trapped “in a pattern she knows” (48), a pattern she has no power to break. Instead of passively mirroring the fairy tale’s fixed pattern though, the eldest princess’s own story re-elaborates this pattern, by introducing elements taken from other tales (such as the Cockroach’s)3 and by making the princess a storyteller herself, able to re-adapt, mend, and spin, older tales.

8Byatt’s retelling of the Brothers Grimm’s “The Glass Coffin” has both been published as a separate, stand-alone story, in the collection The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, and embedded in the novel Possession. Catherine Delesalle-Nancey has demonstrated how the story appropriates “some classic fairy tale topoi: going through the dark forest, traditionally associated with the unconscious, and finding shelter in a small lighted house, in the middle of a clearing, where the strange inhabitants offer hospitality to the hero” (2, my translation). The revised story, however, whose title evokes transparency, showcases instead the complex nature of reflecting surfaces, by introducing elements of opacity, as shown by Delesalle-Nancey, who writes that “transparency is deceptive, and A. S. Byatt’s version introduces shifts, twists disrupting the limpid vision that the reader believed for a moment to be holding” (12, my translation). The apparently loyal reproduction of the Grimms’ original tale is disrupted by the introduction of elements which, while seemingly invisible (transparent) at first, gradually reveal themselves to be of a more kaleidoscopic nature. In this sense, the tailor acquires a more relevant role, and becomes a symbol for the Artist, while the princess encased in the coffin, despite marrying the tailor, as the story requires from her, retains some personal liberty and spends more time with her brother than with her husband.

9“The Glass Coffin” is not only a further demonstration of the mirroring process, interpreted as a creative act, involved in Byatt’s reproduction of classic tales: the story is also connected to another mirroring device permeating Byatt’s fairy tales, namely, the mise en abyme. The mise en abyme is, as famously defined by Lucien Dallenbach, “any internal mirror that reflects the whole of the narrative by duplication” (48, my translation). The mirroring effect of the mise en abyme implies a semantic and conceptual expansion of what is duplicated: it entails a new illumination of the meaning expressed through the mirroring technique. Brian McHale argues that mises en abyme actually provide potential for cognitive enlargements. He writes that they give us “cognitive purchase on phenomena both inside the text and outside it” (178).

  • 4 In an interview Byatt says again something very similar to McHale’s discourse on the mise en abyme: (...)

10More specifically, McHale analyses three types of meaningful additions made possible by the presence of a mise en abyme. A story within a story can enrich the understanding of the story it is inserted into. Alternatively, it can “model the reading process” (178), giving rise to an awareness of the mental processes underlying the encounter with the story world. Finally, it may yield knowledge of the extratextual world. Byatt’s use of the structure of the mirror in her wonder tales performs each of these functions. The author, in her essay “Old Tales, New Forms,” states: “I found myself using stories within stories . . . to make meanings” (131).4 In this sense, “The Glass Coffin” is not only a mirror of the Grimms’ original story, but it is also a mise en abyme, when inserted in Possession, and it contains mises en abyme, in the form of the tales told by the characters in the story (especially the tale of the Princess), and these embedded stories operate as complex meaning-expanding tools.

  • 5 The duplication mechanism characterises the whole novel Possession, with the main storyline implyin (...)
  • 6 Glassmaking in the nineteenth century took place in glass factories where big furnaces were employe (...)

11In Possession, Byatt’s retelling of the Grimms’ “Glass Coffin” is of paramount importance for the decoding of the whole story, as many critics have already emphasised (see Campbell’s A. S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination; Hadley; Hart). If the overall sense of the short story is “the embedded source tale in Possession” (Hart 215) and the characters of Christabel and Maud explicitly evoke the image of the princess isolated in her glass castle, it is also true that the little tailor, who finds the key to reach the imprisoned princess, is reminiscent of Roland, a scholar and “a small, unobtrusive man” (Hart 212). The story mimics the way in which the reading process enables a reproduction of what is read in the readers’ minds, and enacts what is much more than just a passive reflection, through the mental re-creation and re-elaboration the reader necessarily performs. In fact, not only does it enlarge the meaning and implications of the Grimms’ original tale it reproduces, but, by symbolically mirroring the events depicted in Possession, it also casts a new light on individual characters, elevating them to the role of universal symbols.5 Thus, “The Glass Coffin” also inspires larger reflections on the complexities of romantic entanglements, death, and artistic creation. It is also significant that the names of the two main Victorian characters in Possession, Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte, contain more or less open references to glass. The name “Christabel” resounds like the word “crystal” while “Ash” explicitly brings to mind the glassmaking technique,6 the fiery furnace of a glass factory: “thus the lives of the protagonists in Possession are both reflected in, and come to reflect, their literary productions” (Tiffin, “Ice, Glass, Snow” 48).

12The story the little grey man tells the tailor at the beginning of “The Glass Coffin” functions as a pre-figuration of what the following events will bring about, but it does not only mirror the rest of the tale: in telling it before it happens, it contributes to its creation. It anticipates what the tailor will choose, and, through this anticipation, it somehow dictates the choices made. The other embedded story, the one recounted by the princess after the glass coffin opens, works in the opposite way: if the little grey man’s tale prefigures the future, the princess’s reconstructs the past. However, the past portrayed by the princess’s story casts a defining light on the future too. If what caused the princess to be entrapped in the glass coffin was the black magic of an evil suitor, who did not respect the princess’s wish to remain unmarried and happy with her twin brother, then the tailor, if he wants to succeed, needs to behave in a different way with her, which is precisely what happens. This mise en abyme can be thought of as the black mirror of the story, what could happen again, if the tailor acted like the black artist: “paradoxically, the telling of the narrative both re-creates that entrapment and signals her freedom from it” (Tiffin, “Ice, Glass, Snow” 60). Thus, the story highlights the power of narrative to shape life, to bring things to life, to change the course of events (as the little grey man’s story does). Like Scheherazade, the princess guarantees herself a better future (and a better husband) through the narrative of her entrapment.

13A veritable proliferation of mises en abyme also characterises “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.” According to Tiffin, one of the functions of these embedded stories is to deconstruct the apparent realism of the frame narrative: “a fascinating process of overlap occurs, however: the frame tale in both these texts slides continually between marvellous and realist, as slippage from the embedded tales infects the frame narrative” (Tiffin, “Ice, Glass, Snow” 59). From the formal perspective then, the mises en abyme in “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” operate in order to destabilise the story’s genre. As a consequence, they work in the second sense employed by McHale as they assume a cognitive potential by yielding knowledge on the reading process, showing that the boundaries through which we define literary genres are unfixed and slippery.

14The specificity of the various mirroring stories in “The Djinn” is that they focus on “Stories of Women’s Lives,” to quote the title of the conference that Gillian attends at Ankara. These stories point towards the elucidation of desire and fate, and, in particular, they explore what women desire and how they can get it without ending up in another prison. They all seek to provide an answer to the question, introduced several times but never directly answered: “‘what do women most desire?” (Djinn 213). The stories containing the vicissitudes of different women (from Chaucer’s patient and unfortunate Griselda to the Queen of Sheba) seem to achieve the opposite goal though, encapsulating and entrapping the women they talk about in a story, and then another, in an endless game of magical boxes. The djinn, a creature of fire encaged in a glass bottle, is himself “both liberator and imprisoner in one” (227), simultaneously representing within his own self the possibility for freedom and the inescapable frame of the story.

15All these tales function as mirrors to Gillian’s own story: they provide a new perspective and possible answers to the leading question, but they also appear to reiterate the fixity of fate. The definitive answer does lay in the stories, but not by being a part of them: instead, what Gillian must do is “rediscover[ing] the voice of the female storyteller” (Dragas 247). She does so by using her last wish to grant the djinn his own wish: she turns into “a wish-granter herself” (Dragas 249), she becomes the one who makes stories happen, by allowing the djinn to create his own destiny. Thus, Gillian’s desire is revealed as that of acquiring the power to be the story maker. The glass of the djinn’s bottle does not break, but “dissolve[s] like tears” (Djinn 270): the dizzying multiplication of mirrors in all the different stories constellate the main narration, offering Gillian “the potential for multiple metaphorical identities” (Maack 123). It leads to the acknowledgement that the beauty of mirrors does not reside in their mimetic fixity, but in the flexible nature of their substance—glass:

At the molecular level glass is unusual in that when it solidifies, it retains the random molecular structure that it had when it was a liquid, instead of cooling into the crystalline structure of a conventional solid . . . it lacks the strength of a more systematic structure. (Hart 204)

16Symbolically, the final mirror, which represents Gillian’s story, is the glass paperweight the djinn gives her at the end of the tale, and in which Gilgamesh’s flower and the snake are depicted “side by side, held in suspension” (Djinn 276). It does not stand for the fixity of fate and of the granted wishes, but for chance—the old man who tells Gillian this story keeps repeating that what happened to Gilgamesh was “just by chance.” The flexible, liquid-like substance of glass allows Gillian to step out of the mirror, like Alice when she goes through the “bright silvery mist of the mirror” (Carroll 149), so as to stop repeating other stories and to experience the free chance of storytelling.

“Gillian Collected Glass Paperweights”: Glass Objects in the Stories

17The last remark from the previous section already anticipates the importance of mirrors and glass not only at a structural level, but also as physical presences, as real tangible objects, in Byatt’s tales. The role of materiality in Byatt’s fiction has been recently recognised as an essential one (Hicks; Hadley). Byatt herself has declared that objects, their physicality, their beauty, and the making of them, exert a key influence on her writing, saying that she has “memories of things, about half a dozen things that are part of my very early childhood, which in a curious way seem to be part of me as a writer” (“Interview”). Elizabeth Hicks, drawing on Benjamin and Baudrillard’s studies on the relationship between collector and collected objects, argues that fictional collections appear extremely often in Byatt’s stories, and that objects, in general, perform many functions in her fiction. Hicks emphasises that “for example, certain objects may stand in for characters, further the action, or elucidate themes such as the nature of beauty and aesthetics, while some are used to relate characters to their wider historical and artistic contexts” (175). Glassy objects/mirrors are indeed among the most recurrent physical entities in Byatt’s story worlds, especially when considering her most fairy tale-like short fiction.

18Gillian, in “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” is a collector of glass paperweights, objects whose descriptions exemplify many of the topics embedded in the story. Gillian likes glass “for its paradoxical nature, translucent as water, heavy as stone, invisible as air, solid as earth. Blown with human breath in a furnace of fire” (Djinn 182). It is inside a glass flask that she buys to enrich her collection that she finds the djinn, and it is the paperweight the djinn gives her at the end, the one with the snake and the flower, which represents her final awareness of her own story and empowerment as a storyteller. As stated in the previous section, paradox and its relation to stories is one of the fils rouges of Byatt’s tale about the narratologist and the djinn, and the paperweights physically represent it—it can be suggested that Gillian collects stories as she collects paperweights, the two sets of things being a reflection of one another. The simultaneous transparency and opacity of glass—that paradoxical quality which characterises the nightingales’ eye—similarly migrates from the single object to the overall sense of the story, and then back to the object. In fact, objects in Byatt’s tales are never mere insubstantial symbols of something else, their description comes alive: they are colourful, sensuous, and tactile; their very physical presence is outlined.

  • 7 “Cold” is partly a retelling of the Russian folk tale “The Snow Maiden,” but it uses the motif of t (...)

19The active role of glass and mirroring surfaces is even more apparent in “Cold,” a story which appeared in the 1998 collection Elementals.7 In the tale, the fact that “glass raises the problem of mediation by its very nature,” calling “paradoxes and contradictions into play that have to be worked through” (Armstrong 12), is what the characters of the fairy tale have to deal with, in order to achieve their own complex version of a happy ending. The contrast between the name of the princess protagonist of “Cold,” Fiammarosa, evoking flames and fire, and the nature of this princess as an “icewoman,” expresses these contradictions. She is a pale Northern princess with frozen eyelashes who experiences life only by dancing in the snow, a princess “framed for cold” (Elementals 132). And yet, she is born on a summer day, her black hair transforms into a pale golden mane, and she finds her final happiness by compromising with warmth and fire. Fiammarosa falls in love with a prince of the South, Sasan, a glass-blower, and the romance between the two seems at first a tragic physical impossibility: either the icy world of the princess will freeze the fire prince, or the hot desert where Sasan lives will melt and consume Fiammarosa’s heart of snow.

20It is precisely glass and its metamorphic essence which presents the couple with a potential solution for their seemingly inescapable problems. Before reaching the end of the story and this realisation though, objects made of glass, because of their resemblance with ice, but also because of the possibility for metamorphosis that they implicitly suggest, already beguile the princess and play an important part in her life. During her youth, the only present her brothers give her which she becomes attached to is “a little silver hand-mirror, engraved with twining roses” (120). Before meeting Sasan in person, it is the glass-made exquisite artworks he sends her that arouse her interest. Byatt dedicates entire pages to the description of Sasan’s gifts: a miniature castle made of glass (which recalls the glass castle in “The Glass Coffin”), a glassy beehive, complete with skilfully made transparent bees, and a splendid tree of life which features all the seasons through a variety of leaves, fruit, flowers, combined with glass snowflakes and icicles. To each gift is attached an elaborate metaphor expressing the prince’s love for Fiammarosa; however, it is not the message of affection embedded in the metaphor which enchants the princess, but the physical beauty of Sasan’s glass creations. She interacts with them, she looks intently at the elaborate details, she lays “her cool cheek against the cool glass dome” (144) of the glass castle, she stares at the play of reflections created by the mirroring surfaces.

21Hicks has underlined the importance of the role of haptics (from the Greek word hapticos, tactile) in the material universe described in Byatt’s novel The Children’s Book. Similarly, in “Cold,” the objects made of glass are depicted in a very physical manner, substantiating and matching the whole content of Fiammarosa and Sasan’s tale, which is one of sensuality and intense tactile encounters. In the end, as anticipated, it is again a glass object which legitimates the final twist. Objects thus go beyond their purely symbolic meaning; they practically and importantly determine the story’s events themselves. Building a glass palace in the heart of a desert mountain thus allows Sasan and the princess to coexist, materialising the contradictions of their opposite beings without bringing about their mutual destruction. Byatt minutely describes the palace’s space and chambers, in particular Fiammarosa’s bedchamber, with her bed “surrounded by curtains of spun glass, with white birds, snowbirds, snowflowers, and snow-crystals woven into them” (177). Craftsmanship ultimately saves the couple. While glass also works as a metaphor for transformation and compromise, its physicality is repeatedly emphasised.

22Another example in which a glass object plays a relevant part in the unfolding of the narrative can be found in the novella “Morpho Eugenia” (Angels & Insects). Mirror-like techniques are embedded in the narrative on a structural level, through the fairy tales written by Matty and their connection with the main story. However, I would like to focus here on the physical presence of the glass-made conservatory, in which a significant initial scene takes place. The conservatory—which has a floor of shiny black marble which is itself “a reflecting surface” (Angels 50)—is the place where William brings Eugenia to try to win her heart over, by creating for her “a cloud of butterflies” (50). Earlier in the story, he had given Eugenia’s sisters a glass hive and a glass anthill as gifts, but for Eugenia he wants to conjure up something more: the glass house becomes an enchanted transparent palace in which butterflies, like tiny fluttering jewels, come “down from the glassy dome” (51), to dance around Eugenia’s body.

23The glass conservatory in “Morpho Eugenia” is a place where metamorphosis, which is one of the key conceptual strands of the novella, is made possible. Rare tropical butterflies can come to life and survive there, and the initially impossible love between William and Eugenia seems to start inside the protective shining dome. It is said that William, afterwards, always remembered Eugenia surrounded by butterflies, “in this glittering palace where his two worlds met” (51). The conservatory projects towards the rest of the story, like a silvery mirror, what happens inside it. An element of uncanniness, of enigmatic disturbance, creeps in while Eugenia and William are there, promising each other mutual affection: huge dark male Emperor butterflies “attack” Eugenia, biting and burring against her skin, inspiring fear and discomfort in her. Once again, Byatt points out how the glass dome is both transparent and opaque; sometimes it is possible to glance at the sky through it, at other times it is not. The short but evocative scene in the glass dome already contains the elements which later characterise the relationship between Eugenia and William, and its disturbing ending (William finds out Eugenia has an incestuous relationship with her brother), and it shows the difficulty William experiences in realising it, half-seeing what is happening and being blind about it for quite a long time. Morpho Eugenia, the butterfly of the title, shares Eugenia’s name and embodies the idealised vision of his spouse William initially holds. The glass-made conservatory thus, like other glassy entities in Byatt’s short stories, accomplishes simultaneously different narrative tasks, from being a physical element which makes it possible for things to happen and evolve, to symbolising the deeply hidden meanings of the story itself.

“Glass . . . Is only a Solid Metaphor”: Looking into the Mirror

24While the previous section has focused on the relevance of mirrors and glass as material presences in Byatt’s tales, I now want to show their metaphorical function in relation to female identity. If metaphors are intrinsically dual, embedding doubleness, the metaphor of the mirror, an object that is already in itself something containing and projecting doubleness, offers further problematisations. Byatt’s penchant for questioning and multiplying meanings, as evidenced in the numerous semantic ramifications that mark the content of her stories, becomes even more evident in the metaphorical use of mirrors in relation to her characters’ identities. Mirrors are widespread symbols in the fairy tale environment and their connection with female identity is one of their most relevant features (Schanoe; Gilbert and Gubar). The mirror is often a patriarchal device, as emphasised by Bacchilega: in “Snow White,” for instance, “such mirroring frames and freezes Snow White as an image of beauty and suffering” (35). In postmodern retellings of classic fairy tale tropes, the metaphor of the mirror as related to female identity is employed in new, unsettling ways, questioning the traditional patriarchal frame.

25Although the stories under examination here are not fairy tales per se, they employ the metaphor of the mirror in a fairy tale mode, strongly relating it to the exploration of women’s identity, to the potentiality for metamorphosis, to the sense of something elusive, magical, and uncanny. In her references to mirrors and their identity-related implications, Byatt also establishes more or less explicit links with figures from previous stories, myths, and fantastic tales. Sophie in “The Conjugal Angel” (Angels & Insects) is equated with figures of mythical Victorian women such as Madeline and the Lady of Shalott. In “Doll’s Eyes,” collected in Byatt’s short story anthology Medusa’s Ankles, Carole may recall Hoffmann’s Olympia. In “The Thing in the Forest,” from Little Black Book of Stories, the two protagonists meet again, as adults, in front of a book of medieval folk tales. In the same collection, “The Pink Ribbon” compares the ghost of the wife who suffers from Alzheimer to Virgil’s Dido, whose name she shares. It is crucial, however, to bear in mind that “Byatt’s use of symbols, myths, and allusions is extremely subtle and intricate” (Campbell, “The Hunger of the Imagination” 155): this makes her sometimes sacrifice “completeness and consistency” (155) in favour of a more multi-faceted, dynamic interpretative landscape. The same can be said about the way she re-interprets the mirror motif, and the way she links it to mythical and fairy tale legacies. Therefore, mirrors as metaphors in these stories are associated with a doubling and problematising of meaning that puts female identity at stake.

26A close reading of the tales’ pivotal scenes, which represent essential revelations about the identity of a female character, shows that they systematically take place in front of a mirror. A prominent example is to be found in the novella “The Conjugal Angel,” in which the main events of the story—a story about love, spiritualism and obsession, in which the homosexual relationship between Arthur Hallam and Alfred Lord Tennyson is revealed through the mystical experience of the medium, Sophie Sheekhy—take place when Sophie is standing “in front of her mirror in her white shift” (Angels 243), while Lord Tennyson, miles away from her, is doing exactly the same. There are two mirrors and two people looking into them. Byatt multiplies the already complex metaphorical function of the mirror, emphasising its dimension of infinity. Furthermore, Sophie is compared to the legendary medieval figure of the Lady of Shalott, adding to the whole scene a mythical, and fairy-tale like element. Her identification with the Lady of Shalott comes from Tennyson’s poem—Tennyson, whose story she is helping to unfold, through her connection with the dead Arthur Hallam. Sophie stares at her own pupils in the mirror and the infinite multiplication leads to nothing: “so many was no one” (243). The fragmentation of her image seems to contain the danger of leading to a dissolution of identity. Simultaneously, there is also a fear of annihilation at a semantic level, with the idea that “too much message” may lead to nothingness (see Hansson). However, it is also because of its own self-awareness, that the mirror metaphor remains alive with its multiple semantic tendencies, together with its propensity towards the erasure of all meanings.

27This reference to nothingness is particularly significant in the context of “The Conjugal Angel,” which is, among other things, a story about the world of spirits, sometimes appearing more real and tangible than the creatures populating the world of the living. Sophie looking into the mirror sees the phantom of a dead man, Arthur Hallam, haunting the lives of the people around her. Sophie discovers the patriarchal legacy which had informed the relationship between Arthur, Alfred and Emily, and the mirror shows both the absence of Emily from the poem and the absence of the revelation about the homoerotic connection between the two men. Sophie is afraid of looking away from the mirror, “filled with the superstitious sense, like those poetic ladies, Madeline, the Lady of Shalott, that she must not look away from the plane of glass” (249). Yet the dead Arthur appears in the mirror, and when she finally looks directly at him, on her own bed, it is as though the mirror’s content had expanded into her room, as though she had entered it, or it had entered her vision. Sophie is a character alive only with reflections, reflecting other people’s desires and dreams during the séances, and reflecting the world of the spirits. The mirror seems to make a dead man more alive and relevant than Sophie herself: the problematic metaphor of the mirror shows Sophie’s own status as a mere mediating tool to make men, even dead ones, speak and affirm their identities.

28However, like metaphors and like mirrors, “spirit [is] a slippery word and a slippery thing” (264), and it can be argued that it is through the intense experience, made possible by looking into the mirror, of connecting with Arthur and with Tennyson, that Sophie becomes, like the Lady of Shalott, “half sick of shadows.” The story ends with Sophie seeing her friend Mrs Papagay reconnecting with her husband, whom she had thought dead for years: his name is, not by chance, Arturo, and Sophie understands she needs to finally enter the real world, by looking at the embrace between her friend and Arturo, somehow mimicking the embrace between herself and the dead Arthur. Byatt wrote that one of her goals as a writer is to create characters “who have thought processes which change them, which matter to them. Not beliefs, but thought processes” (“Identity” 25): Sophie disentangles from the world of spirits and her role as a mere vehicle of men’s stories, thanks to the revealing mystic experience she had in front of the mirror.

29In “The Pink Ribbon,” the connection between phantasmatic appearances and mirrors is related to the loss of identity. The old lady suffering from severe dementia is troubled by seeing herself reflected in the glass surface, “[h]er own face in a mirror . . . who’s that, I don’t want her here, she means no good” (Black Book 246). She displays the same reaction, using the same words (“she means no good”), when her husband is visited by her own ghost, the spectre of her young self. Her younger self is there to beg her husband to kill her older self, to free her from illness and old age. Confronting the mirror means confronting “the Fetch,” her “etheric body” (273), her remaining fragment of consciousness, wanting to set her free from the trap of dementia. Again, here the mirror image does not imply a fixed referent but the possibility for freedom, “invoking matter and spirit, and the tension between them” (Armstrong 5).

30In both “Dolls’ Eyes” and “The Thing in the Forest,” looking into the mirror is translated into a physical duplication. In these stories, what Freud would call the uncanny double becomes a material presence. The two pairs of women, Felicity and Carole (“Dolls’ Eyes”) and Primrose and Penny (“The Thing in the Forest”) look like inverted mirror images. Felicity and Primrose are blonde, plump, with blue eyes while Carole and Penny are dark, slim, and tall, with black hair and black eyes. The encounter between them, in both cases, has mysterious, frightening and eerie consequences which change forever the two sets of women involved.

31Primrose and Penny first meet as children and share the experience of encountering the eponymous thing in the forest. They meet again as adults, after having lived specular lives (“dead fathers, unmarried status, child-caring professions, recently dead mothers” [Black Book 26]). They see each other in front of a glass case in which a book, recounting the tale of the monster they have met in the forest, is exhibited, and “they came to see each other’s face, close up, in the glass which was both transparent and reflective.” It is the glass, Byatt specifies, which makes it possible for them to recognise each other, “and their breath misted the glass, obscuring the knight and his opponent” (24). The fable of the knight and the monster stands there between them, both symbolically and tangibly; it has shaped their (mutual) identity. Did they see the book when they were little girls, and did they use the story to save themselves from the truth of what they did? Whether the monster is really in the forest, or whether the real monster is inside them, having become manifest in the forest, because of their unkindness towards the little girl Alys—which brought about her death and the consequent following years of guilt and remorse—remains unspecified. As in “Dolls’ Eyes,” one of the women (in both cases, the “dark” one) does not end up well, while the other remains to tell the story (to other children, in “The Thing in the Forest,” and to her dolls, in “Dolls’ Eyes”).

32The dolls’ eyes, in the eponymous story, are the medium through which the story of Felicity and Carole unfolds. The hundred dolls in Felicity’s house, with their gleaming eyes, watch over Felicity and Carole’s vicissitudes, and play an active role in it. Eyes, and eyes like mirrors, revealing and hiding, reflecting and obscuring, function as catalysts for the women’s story, explicitly evoking the role of eyes in Hoffmann’s “The Sand-Man” (“Der Sandmann”). In fact, as in Hoffmann’s story, which is the main literary example Freud employs to explain the meaning of the uncanny (5-9), there is a disturbing confusion between living creatures and automata; both stories focus on the role of eyes in toeing the line of such uncertainty. The metaphor of the mirror, and, in this case, of mirror-like eyes, “has to do with the question of how we create what we see, and it also relates to our ability to visualise what we have never seen” (Campbell, “The Hunger of Imagination” 157). Felicity has to confront her darker self, in the person of Carole, and in the vengeful desire she fosters because of Carole’s abandonment. Felicity looks into her dolls’ eyes and whispers “get her, get her, get her” (120): a few days later Carole is stung in the eyes by a swarm of jellyfish, and loses her eyesight. Felicity’s cruel double, initially embodied by Carole, seems to have finally possessed her entirely. Simultaneously though, once again the meaning is not entirely transparent, reflecting on the relationship between life and art, which is precisely what Hoffmann does in “The Sand-Man”: “nothing is more wonderful, nothing more fantastic than real life, and that all that a writer can do is to present it as a dark reflection from a dim cut mirror” (Hoffmann). In all these stories, despite their differences, it is possible to detect a complex play with the traditional fairy tale metaphor of the mirror as linked to women’s identity: Byatt unsettles our expectations, shows us women looking into the mirror and unveils their deepest impulses and desires, endeavouring to explore and establish their personality.

33In Byatt’s more fairy tale-like short fiction, glass is “literally a paradoxical ethereal substance” (Armstrong 5), which finds its place in the multiple forms of objects in the story, ubiquitous metaphors, and narrative structures. The division I have proposed, in structure, objects, and metaphors, does not imply that there is actually such a rigid distinction: I use it as a heuristic division, with an explanatory scope in mind. Glass and mirrors affect Byatt’s stories on the formal level of their structure, with the widespread presence of mises en abyme, on the diegetic level of the stories’ content, with the presence of glassy objects and mirrors as physical elements of the stories, and on a symbolic level, with the complex metaphorical significance of reflecting surfaces, and its implications for reflections on identity. All these levels are interconnected, morphing variously from one level to another, instantiating contradictions and questioning them. Glass itself is, in the end, in its physical substance, an epitome of metamorphosis, holding “contrary states within itself as barrier and medium” (Armstrong 11): it needs fire to become a cold, solid, shiny element. In this sense, paradoxes and opposite elements are discussed and exposed through the widespread use of mirrors and glass: as Campbell has highlighted “the symbols of mirror and glass are even less open to a tidy interpretation” (“The Hunger of the Imagination” 157). Through them, Byatt reinforces the idea of the multiple possibilities embedded in the fictional discourse.

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1 As Bacchilega puts it, postmodern retellings offer inquiries into the creation of mirrors in fairy tales, answering the question: “who is holding the mirror and whose desires does it represent and contain?” (28).

2 The same is true of the way in which she employs the fairy tale elements she inserts in her short stories which in themselves cannot be defined only as fairy tales, such as the novellas in Angels and Insects.

3 The Cockroach, and the other animals the Princess finds on her path and brings with her, have stories of their own to tell. The Cockroach’s, in particular, prevents the Princess from going to the Woodcutter’s house and endanger her life.

4 In an interview Byatt says again something very similar to McHale’s discourse on the mise en abyme: “I think the story within the story always represents a different kind of grip on the world, a different kind of reality, and also it’s always of course about a reading experience” (“Entretien” 20).

5 The duplication mechanism characterises the whole novel Possession, with the main storyline implying two storylines, with two mirroring sets of characters, the main ones being the two couples, Roland and Maud on the one hand, and Randolph and Christabel on the other.

6 Glassmaking in the nineteenth century took place in glass factories where big furnaces were employed. As Armstrong explains, sand and ashes were transformed into the lustrous crystalline substance (5-6).

7 “Cold” is partly a retelling of the Russian folk tale “The Snow Maiden,” but it uses the motif of the mirror to give a different twist to the events, introducing glass as a way to find compromise and avoid the original tragic ending.

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Francesca Arnavas, « “The Silver Glaze of the Mirror”: Fire and Ice in Byatt’s Fairy Tales »Journal of the Short Story in English, 76 | 2021, 99-118.

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Francesca Arnavas, « “The Silver Glaze of the Mirror”: Fire and Ice in Byatt’s Fairy Tales »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 76 | Spring 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2023, consulté le 27 février 2024. URL :

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Francesca Arnavas

Francesca Arnavas is a research fellow at the university of Tartu, Estonia. She works within the research group on Narrative, Culture and Cognition, led by professor Marina Grishakova. Her theoretical interests are Victorian literature, cognitive narratology, fairy tale studies, unnatural narratology. Her first book, based on her PhD thesis (a cognitive approach to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books) will be published at the end of 2020 by De Gruyter.

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