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Time, Space, Ethics

Seeing Together: Shared Attention in A. S. Byatt’s Short Stories

Jennifer Preston Wilson
p. 163-181


Les nouvelles d’A. S. Byatt mettent souvent en scène deux moments de reconnaissance mis en tension l’un avec l’autre pour souligner à quel point il est difficile de saisir la vérité grâce aux sens. Ces moments de lucidité contrastent avec les habitudes que les personnages ont préalablement établies pour se préserver. S’appuyant sur l’idée du « bien » dans la philosophie d’Iris Murdoch, Byatt montre que ces instants de compréhension inédite n’ont lieu que dans des cas rares et accidentels qui rassemblent divers sujets dans des moments d’attention conjointe. Byatt place ces moments de « vision commune » dans l’étrangeté attachée au début ou à la fin des nouvelles (“Body Art” et “The Thing in the Forest”), ainsi que dans l’imagerie réfractée des arts visuels et des rêves (“The Chinese Lobster” et “Crocodile Tears”), lesquels éloignent l’attention de soi et mènent vers l’acceptation pleine d’affection des contingences de la vie.

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Auteurs étudiés :

Antonia Susan Byatt
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This article is dedicated to my fall 2020 “Studies in the Short Story” class with gratitude for a memorable semester of excellent discussions.

  • 1 In this conversation dated 2011, Byatt identifies a time in the recent past when short stories wer (...)

1While A. S. Byatt decries the epiphany due to its stock predictability (see Byatt, “World Literature”),1 she often stages two recognition scenes held in tension with one another in her short fiction. In doing so, Byatt explores the depths of what Terence Cave calls the “scandal” of anagnorisis (1). Cave contends that upon closer examination Aristotle’s seemingly straightforward concept of “a change from ignorance to knowledge” (56) can be seen to perform the very problem of knowing; according to his analysis, while recognition presents “the moment at which the characters understand their predicament fully for the first time,” it simultaneously enacts “a shift into the implausible: the secret unfolded lies beyond the realm of common experience” (1-2). By linking recognition’s insight with its marvellous impossibility, Cave highlights how this element of the Poetics puzzles us as a formal device immanent with its own meaning. Byatt goes a step further with her dual recognition scenes, urging that attention to truth involves a bridging of opposition, the release of unitary, selfish vision to allow openness to the other. As she incorporates this theme, Byatt draws significantly upon the ideas of Iris Murdoch, particularly her “other-centered concept of truth” that stands against the lure of self-generated fantasy (“Against Dryness” 293). During these moments of awareness in Byatt’s plots, silence intervenes, and the characters become transfixed in joint attention that supersedes the limits of the individual mind. The double structure, where a recognition shared by the group ushers in another related recognition, models an openness to contingency that traces back, through Murdoch, to the thinking of Simone Weil, yet Byatt also stands apart from her predecessors in her choice of short fiction and its uniquely concentrated evocations of meaning to affirm her message.

  • 2 In order of publication: “The Chinese Lobster” from The Matisse Stories (1993), “Crocodile Tears” (...)

2In her works that feature double recognition, including “Body Art,” “The Thing in the Forest,” “The Chinese Lobster,” “Crocodile Tears,” and “The Pink Ribbon,”2 Byatt engages the figurative richness of the short story to portray the complex problems of the isolated self. The condensation of short fiction works in her favour as it requires that every detail carries significance. The concentrated structure of story can be understood, argues Mary Rohrberger, as akin to Henri Bergson’s concept of durée, time experienced as synchronous coexistence rather than as successive clock movement (8). She explains that

The short story is characterized by multiple levels generated by substructures that underlie narrative surfaces. Embedded with images forming patterns, metaphoric designs, allusions that resonate, linking small actions or objects in the extensional world with cosmic wholes, short story surfaces occasionally parallel but usually diverge from their substructures, creating tensions, contradictions, ironies, ambiguities, paradox, flux. (8-9)

3Byatt makes the most of this depth of representation as she establishes what she has called the “Omnipotence of Thought” in her characters. This phrase, taken from Freud’s case study of the Rat-Man and considered at length in her volume of essays Passions of the Mind (112-14), represents the fantasies that distract most perception. In the five stories under scrutiny here, Byatt portrays such obsessive thoughts, particularly those of control and repulsion, largely in terms of the needless pain and isolation they can cause. Her recognition scenes, by contrast to this exposition, indicate that breakthroughs can happen, but only in uncommon instances when the noise of the self is “interrupted by accidents or visions” (Black Book 116).

4Byatt thus joins Murdoch and Weil in identifying decreation, or unselfing, as the key to attentive states of being that can make possible spiritual, moral and aesthetic change. When Byatt’s characters do experience a rare moment of joint attention, it “involves an abandoning of solipsism, a recognition that ‘reality’ is other than ourselves” (Passions 159). This dilation of the mind subdues our fixations on endings and resistance toward oppositional ideas, allowing us to perceive the path toward what Byatt, following Murdoch, defines as “the good,” which is “a respect for the contingent” (Degrees 5). In “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies,” Weil lays the foundation for both of her successors’ writing on this theme. Weil understands attention as a suspension of thought that is “a miracle,” allowing one to be “empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which is to penetrate it” (72). As Robert Zaretsky argues, “For Weil, attention is a ‘negative effort,’ one that requires that we stand still rather than lean in” (44-45). Byatt’s use of paired recognition scenes effectively fictionalises Weil’s idea of the suspension that infuses the moment of attention. Double recognition means that the first insight remains open to rewriting by the second, precluding either from encompassing a totality of meaning. Byatt’s audience is thereby encouraged to give meditative attention to the relationship between the interfused visions at the end of the story and participate in their realisation.

5In order to emphasise the rarity of genuine attention, Byatt establishes the difficulty of stepping back and unselfing through meticulous characterisation that portrays human misunderstanding as an ironic, but omnipresent condition. She constructs intricate parallels between her characters only to highlight the tragicomic fact that such connected lifelines exist in conflict. Byatt’s intense building of everyday detail ultimately engages with what Francis Spufford identifies as the core of her work, the interrogation of “the act of perception” itself (qtd. in Hadley 116-17). In this essay, the tension between exposition and recognition will be considered comprehensively in “Body Art,” before similar patterns across some of Byatt’s short fiction are identified more briefly.

“Body Art”

6In this particular story, a relationship develops between Damien Beckett, a skilled yet asocial obstetrician, and Daisy Whimple, the survivor of a botched abortion who volunteers to install holiday decorations in the hospital where Damien works. The two triangulate their feelings through Martha Sharpin, an art historian responsible for inventorying the institution’s history of medicine collections. Damien and Daisy are both isolated and damaged adults; art is the only aspect of their lives where they can find solace, respectively as collector and creator. Byatt emphasises this likeness through imagery of devotion and even fanaticism in their attitudes. Damien “worship[s] the absence of God in the material staining of paint and ink” (Black Book 75), and Daisy idolises “‘Beuys. He was the greatest. He changed everything’” (67). Their depth of belief effectively withdraws them from the world; both are ascetic figures who are tired, hungry, and do “not like to appear to be in need of anything” (57).

7Despite so many resemblances, these two figures are suspended in opposition to one another, with the rift magnified through Damien’s non-neurotypical point of view. His thoughts run in such a strictly rational track without factoring in emotional dynamics that it seems that he might have high-functioning autism. Damien openly admits, at one point, “I’m not good at people” (94), and he silently judges subjective, personal choices that he cannot understand, such as “the idiocy” of Daisy climbing ladders to install art while wearing “clogs, with high wedged soles, open at the back” (59). As we spend time in his mind-space, we realise how he has become aware of and compensated for his cognitive difference; he repeatedly bites back remarks and resists impulses because he is aware—through experience—that others will deem them inappropriate. Moreover, he takes action and learns protocols to imitate emotional immediacy; as he tells Martha, “‘It’s no trouble to be kind, if you remember to think of it’” (94). While Damien is a high-functioning individual who helps many people via his profession, he also stumbles, most often when he fails to self-edit and blurts out his thoughts directly. Soon after Daisy faints while working on her installation, for instance, he bluntly tells her that “she didn’t look too good” (60), and such lapses recur regularly throughout the story. Damien’s extreme focus on his profession and on art-collecting suggests the possible mental landscape of Asperger’s syndrome. Rather than cultivate a breadth of experience and interests, he adheres to the same patterns over and over: when it comes to art, Damien “preferred his abstract modernist brightness. Indeed, ‘preferred’ was too weak a word” (66). As the story proceeds, Damien’s categorical thinking comes into increasing conflict with Daisy’s eclectic and personal performance art.

8Byatt’s narrative structure drives her characters to antipathy before allowing recognition to mediate an alternative vision. When Damien sees the artifacts of Eli Pettifer’s medical collection repurposed in Daisy’s statue of Kali, he goes “white with pure rage” (105) and calls for the police while transferring his “disgust” at the statue to Daisy whom, he says, “seemed to be completely stupid, as well as deceitful and hypocritical and disgusting” (106). In this meltdown, Damien projects his own feeling of revulsion against the statue onto Daisy. Martha Sharpin, the more neutrally observant, finds a powerful image of suffering in the installation, and her selfless view exemplifies the “tolerance,” “agnosticism,” or “love” that constitute Murdoch’s quality of the good (Degrees 301). Damien, however, feels aversion toward the statue’s mixture of private artifacts reappropriated into a public space. To him, the representation is unlawful and Daisy is a thief. Although we do not get anywhere as near to Daisy’s thoughts, her repulsion from and wholesale condemnation of Damien’s work can be felt. Her accusation, “‘I think you lot are cruel, if you want to know’” (Black Book 76), stems from the dehumanising treatment of women she has personally experienced at the hospital. She recoils from efficiency measures taken at St. Pantaleon’s, particularly the corralling of “‘bad wombs next to good wombs and no-wombs mixed in’” without regard to the patients’ feelings (76). Speaking with “sudden venom” (76), Daisy uses her own embodied experience to critique and work change from within the impersonal institution.

9Between Damien and Daisy stands Martha, the Art Historian, and without her mediation, the story would never reach its moment of joint recognition. Both opposed figures turn to her for advice and support when they find out Daisy is pregnant by Damien. Martha’s balance finds a fitting emblem in her dissertation topic: the Vanitas theme in seventeenth-century painting (80). On their first meeting, Damien notices that she perpetuates the austere expression of the paintings she studies. In her thirties, Martha is young, but not youthful, and while her skin shows golden tones, the bony facial structure underneath makes us aware of her skull; her gathered scarf “resembled the stocks and neckties of the people” within the hospital’s Dutch anatomy painting (81). Her study of the intersection of material life with the certainty of death gives her a clarity registered in the cutting alliteration of her name: Martha Sharpin. She uses this acuity to hone her way past superfluous detail to key moments of ambiguity, always questioning if she sees “religious memento mori or simply an anatomical demonstration,” “[the] diagnostic or votive,” while also being able to recognise the complex paradox that brings together the “terrible” and the “good” (79, 87, 105).

10Byatt’s complex construction of characters and tensions prepares for the story’s two recognition scenes, yet when Damien, Daisy, and Martha stare at the new-born baby in the end, it is not a gathering of the same three people we have seen all along. Damien is “a changed man,” having gone to look at his daughter after the intensive labour of her delivery that nearly killed Daisy. “Dreadful love and grief” “overcome” him, and we are aware of the difference in his characterisation as his felt experience suddenly enters the narrative account—his eyes grow “hot with tears” and he senses the hospital as it “rustled and whispered behind him” (122). These descriptions directly counter his subjectivity at the beginning of the story where he operates in his own head, “not quite hearing” the ambient sounds of the ward (55). Daisy, too, has transformed. She now possessively grasps her child and speaks in a “perfectly grown-up voice” of her new understanding (123); as Damien has grown more embodied, Daisy’s worldview has become more reasoned. The two, in tension and not understanding each other since the beginning of the story, suddenly align in their felt experience of love at first sight for their child. Their shift fits within Byatt’s insistence on the truth of human biological drives; as she has staunchly maintained in interviews, “one’s instincts are there, you can’t theorize them away” (qtd. in Levenson, “Angels” 169).

11Yet the biological realism of this recognition mingles with myth, as symbolic forces intervene to unseat the characters’ previously stated principles. When Damien and Daisy gaze in “baffled adoration” at the infant laid out on a shawl between them (Black Book 125), they unironically enact the Nativity, even though they had both, for their own reasons, staunchly opposed Christian iconography in the past. Daisy’s earlier ridicule of crèche scenes with a dismissive “‘I can’t do that sort of stuff’” (67) and Damien and Martha’s scepticism about the artistic merit of live installations (89-90) collapse in this performance of the miracle birth. All three abandon their deep aesthetic reservations in an unsought instance of unselfing, which Murdoch defines as “attend[ing] ‘without thinking about’” (Metaphysics 245). In this shared attendance, their old, pre-formed ideas disappear, and they become present to the contingency of new life.

12As an instance of joint attention, this recognition scene places all three characters into a relational experiential state; because they are fellow subjects of this perception, they occupy an unusual moment of being more than objects within the separated consciousnesses of each other. As philosopher John Campbell points out, joint attention opens up “the possibility for collaboration or competition,” a potentiality that was not present before (175). By its very nature, joint attention expands the self to encompass the awareness of others as constitutive of a mutual reality. In plotting these recognitions, Byatt asks us to consider how we, too, might extend our attention, but does not underestimate the painstaking work involved in becoming “other-centered” (Degrees 5). When “Body Art” ends, that possibility has not yet fully entered into being, but the idea hovers over the frozen scene.

  • 3 This concept is from Plato’s Symposium, where Diotima explains to Socrates that Eros (love) is the (...)

13The likelihood that respect and openness might be extended depends much upon Martha Sharpin. Her presence in the joint recognition alters its energetics, and while Daisy wants to recant her past hostility to the baby and Damian wants to plan for the new-born’s future, Martha keeps them centred on the present time right before them. When asked what they should do, Martha’s deferred answer, “‘We’ll think of something. Because we shall have to’” (Black Book 125), gently redirects the new parents to dwell within the current moment. As Weil writes, “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them” (73). By sustaining Damien and Daisy’s attention, Martha functions as a metaxu,3 or an in-between who both separates and joins them. Her compassion for her friends has made her a third within their relationship, and as an intermediary she connects them to the paradox that “[o]ur conviction of a transcendent good is founded in our experience” (Larson 163). Weil writes that if we are attentive, then even when we do not seem to be solving our problems, “we have nevertheless been making progress each minute of that hour in another more mysterious dimension” (67). Murdoch also agrees that experience can transform us even while “reality is not a given whole” and we exist in a state of indeterminacy (“Against Dryness” 294). By translating these ideas into double recognition, Byatt makes us aware of the crucial role of mediation that allows opposing ideas to stand together without collapsing into partiality.

  • 4 In Shakespeare’s poem, Venus watches as Adonis’ dead body “[w]as melted like a vapor from her sigh (...)

14Martha’s emphasis on the current moment of being is powerfully reinforced by the still life iconography that surrounds the hospital bed and rewrites the Nativity scene. When we direct our attention to the details of this second recognition, we become aware of death prefigured in birth: a curtain sets the motionless symbolic scene apart from the workings of the busy ward, a fruit bowl overflows with produce that will ripen and rot, and the baby actively imbibes carcinogenically-laced milk from Daisy’s pierced nipple, all signs of life’s connection to eventual mortality (Black Book 123). Martha adds appropriately to the mixed display, offering “a posy of daisies and anemones,” with daisies representing innocence and childbirth and anemones associated with Aphrodite’s mourning the death of Adonis (124).4 All of the signs within this second recognition counter but do not erase the equally vivid elements of Nativity, and the reader is encouraged to participate in the unresolved ending, respecting the co-existence of life and death. As Michael Levenson observes in his study of Angels and Insects, the “word ‘between’ is a frequent resource [of Byatt’s work]. . . . The place between marks a condition of suffering . . . but it always stirs the imaginative life” (168). With Martha’s mediation between the beginnings and endings of life, Byatt affirms what Kate Larson calls Weil and Murdoch’s “metaxological thinking,” which holds that “being is relation” (164). While Weil comes to this concept through Christianity and the image of the trinity and Murdoch adapts it in pursuit of a polyvocal metaphysics, Byatt uses it within her short fiction to at once portray and practice a host of interpretive predispositions that cultivate a propensity for “the between.” In her double recognition plots, creative immersion in art, history, reading, dreaming, and even humane curiosity all nurture “an internal affinity between the aesthetical and the ethical, between immanence and transcendence” (Larson 164-65). Her dual recognition scenes bring into relation oppositional ideas and people in order to create a surprisingly new space for knowledge and awareness that did not exist before.

“The Thing in the Forest”

15The characters of “The Thing in the Forest” follow the counterpoised pattern of Daisy and Damien, but to such a disturbing extreme that readers must decide whether to break the third wall and mediate between them. The story’s plot is a dark fairy tale. It tells of two girls, Primrose and Penny, who are brought together in a WWII children’s relocation camp, wander in the woods, and together witness a gruesome worm: “Its most defined feature was a vast mouth, pulled down and down at the corners, tight with a kind of pain. . . . The rest of its very large body appeared to be glued together, like still-wet papier-mâché” (Black Book 16). Critics have analysed this monster as a symbol of the war (Alfer and Edwards de Campos 117) or of postmodernity (Matthews, qtd. in Hadley 134), but regardless of interpretation, the allegory clearly indicates that the worm marks a horrific trauma that cannot be forgotten.

16The girls separate and go on to lead disconnected yet congruent lives until they simultaneously return to the site of the camp. Their reunion is bookended by two occurrences of joint attention. At first, they recognise each other as they stare through a glass display case at an illuminated book that features the worm. “They had to lean forward to read it . . .  and that was how they came to see each other’s face, close up, in the glass which was both transparent and reflective” (Black Book 24). The glass that enshrines the book functions like memory, occluding the effects of time and accessing the child within. This trompe l’oeil allows the first recognition to occur: “they breathed each other’s names, Penny, Primrose, and their breath misted the glass, obscuring the knight and his opponent” (24). The act of naming is an act of creation, and as they engage in it, they make their shared past real.

17Yet, after an instant convergence at tea with a pledge to reconvene forces at dinner, they each fade into dejection and mount a solitary and unsuccessful attempt to confront the worm. On the way back to their respective homes, they catch sight of each other at a distance in the train station and once again experience joint attention: “Each thought that the other was the witness, who made the thing certainly real, who prevented her from slipping into the comfort of believing she had imagined it, or made it up” (47-48). This second recognition despairingly flattens their earlier avidity into a mutual hostility. Instead of holding caring and lassitude, love and death, in a single moment as in “Body Art,” the women alternately clutch at and repulse each other in the recognition scenes, ironically failing to find solace in the one person who might understand them.

18Between Primrose and Penny stands the figure of Alys, the little girl who tagged after them in the childhood encounter and disappeared. She is an absence, a proxy for the death that might consume anyone, but also a meta-reference to the logic games of Lewis Carroll, and, once this is realised, she provides an opening for reader involvement. Byatt’s Primrose and Penny follow distinct routes for dealing with their distressing history, much like Carroll’s White and Red Queens have special styles of movement in Through the Looking Glass. One pursues the “Primrose Path” and colours all of reality with her imaginary friends and stories of union. In revisiting the forest, Primrose superimposes a beautiful experience over her past, concluding that she has reached “the centre” of the sun-dappled grove (Black Book 36). The undeviating opposite approach, Byatt’s wordplay suggests, might be represented as “Penny Lane,” a reference to a real street and bus terminus in Liverpool made famous by The Beatles. In contradistinction to Primrose, Penny takes a grisly and direct path: “She forced herself to go into the dark, stooping, occasionally crawling on hands and knees. . . . She found odd sausage-shaped tubes of membrane, containing fragments of hair and bone and other inanimate stuffs. They were like monstrous owl-pellets” (41). As the grotesque imagery of her grim journey suggests, Penny faces her own death at the end of the story, while Primrose happily prepares to serve up her life story as a tale for youngsters at the mall. “The Thing in the Forest” thus tempts the reader to make a binary distinction and praise the healthiness of Primrose who seems to sublimate her trauma. And yet, this story has a circular structure, and we find out that Primrose’s tale seems to be the one that we have been hearing all along. While it could be coincidence that Primrose begins her mall narration with the exact same words as the text of “The Thing in the Forest,” it would be likelier that we are caught looping forever inside of Primrose’s art. If so, does Primrose offer Penny up as a sacrificial death to sanctify her own authority?

19Once we understand the ending (which is the beginning) of “The Thing in the Forest,” one way past the dilemma of “what are we to think?” is to reframe the question as “what are we to be?” and take on the role of intermediary ourselves. The story’s binary unresolvedness urges us to do the work of bridging the two “solutions” that really both reinscribe trauma. So, following Carroll, that must mean that we need to be like Alice, who at the end of the chess game realises that she does not like the outcome. We, too, are appalled by what we see. The stalemated scenes of joint attention between Primrose and Penny have only facilitated their resentment and competition, a conflict of the sort that Byatt joins Murdoch and Weil in understanding as “Até, the automatic handing-on of pain and cruelty” provoked by wartime horror (Histories 25). The extremity of the situation encourages us to actively imagine a bridge across the girls’ brokenness, and Byatt has stocked the story with the allusive resources to enable our intervention.

“The Chinese Lobster”

20While “Body Art” and “The Thing in the Forest” foreground the paradox that beginnings are also endings, “The Chinese Lobster” and “Crocodile Tears” explore the capacities of art and dream imagery as facilitators of joint attention, stillness, and respect. Set in the Orient Lotus restaurant, “The Chinese Lobster” details the luncheon meeting of a Dean of Women Students and a Distinguished Visiting Professor who convene to discuss charges of assault and discrimination against the “DVP” by an art student struggling with anorexia and depression. Their mealtime exchange engages with issues of vision, talent, beauty, and mental health. Like “Body Art,” “The Chinese Lobster” asks how love might be generated out of opposition, with the important change that it focalises through the meeting’s arranger and the story’s mediator, Gerda Himmelblau. Gerda is an academic woman who is at a different stage of her career than Martha Sharpin, but like the younger professor, she finds herself tasked with solving other people’s problems. We spend significant time with her as she arrives at the Orient Lotus and reviews Peggi Nollett’s letters, and by the time of the appearance of her lunch companion, Perry Diss, we already have significant trust in her attentiveness and judgement. While critics have questioned Gerda’s commitment to feminism (Jane Campbell 176; Kelly 61), they should also factor in her achievement as metaxu, as she bridges the opposed philosophies of the aggrieved student and of the DVP. Like the strategic framing of Primrose and Penny, the provocative names of Peggi and Perry, just a phoneme apart, already suggest that a recognition scene is possible.

21True to the meaning of her own name, Gerda is a reliable stronghold as she balances the views and demands of Peggi and Perry. Her portrayal draws upon Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen,” where a child called Gerda redeems people from their false visions, saving them so that they can rejoin “the ordinary and the everyday” (Byatt, Histories 155). Gerda in “The Chinese Lobster” also tempers the aesthetic idealism of Perry Diss, and she counters his argument that Peggi “isn’t an artist, and doesn’t work, and can’t see” (Matisse 112) by arguing for the complexity of Peggi’s perceptual position where “the despair is as real as the spite” (118); in short, she asserts the reality of Peggi’s experience and manoeuvres the opinionated DVP into asking Gerda what she would suggest (126-27). Throughout, she steadily and gently subdues his “roars” and “vatic enthusiasm” with alternating instances of concurrence, reasoned counterargument, and questioning (106, 116). Gerda’s ability to subtly direct his attention away from blame and toward sympathy is foreshadowed in Perry’s praise for her Mantegna monograph. Known for his sculptural sensibility and innovative use of perspective to present afflicted martyrs, Andrea Mantegna utilised a lowered horizon point to “direct our minds solely to nobility of form and gravity of sentiment” (Clark 140). Gerda likewise creates an alternative perspective from which to regard Peggi, and as a sign that she is getting through, Perry picks up her words in mid-sentence, eager to agree that the suicidal impulse is a “‘white room with no doors or windows. . . . It is all perfectly clear and simple and plain. As you say’” (Matisse 119).

22Then something uncanny happens in the story—the two look at each other and go silent. The narrative submerges in Gerda’s thoughts, propelled by a surge of memories of her friend Kay and the after-effects of Kay’s suicide; when Gerda returns to present awareness, “She looks at Perry Diss who is looking at her” (123). He has “used her secret image, the white room accurately; they have shared it. He knows that she knows, and what is more, she knows that he knows” (123). The reflexivity of these words emphasises the mirroring and opening movement of joint attention. Despite differences in temperament and history, Gerda and Perry are, at this point in time, both focused on the imagined white room. They know that it is a place they have inhabited separately in the past, and they also know that each of their white rooms will hereafter be different, changed through their awareness that they each have a replicate room, as does Peggi. The metaphor of the white room effectively condenses suicidal thoughts as a sterile cognitive space devoid of connections or possessions. Once the troubled student can be seen in this room, which Gerda envisions with “her mind’s eye,” the path forward becomes clear, and she draws Perry into a relenting agreement that the case “‘matters very much and not at all’” (127). Critic Peter Conradi calls this phrase, taken from Murdoch’s The Accidental Man, a “paradoxically affirmative nihilism” (263). He associates this capacity for being “generously unattached” with freedom and the good (264), and within “The Chinese Lobster” such unattachedness opens up a second recognition.

23If the white room represents an all-encompassing death wish—a psychic degeneration—the restaurant’s lobster tank emblematises death’s ubiquitous material degradation. In bringing the tank before our eyes in its beginning, end, and even its title, the story functions as a vanitas that puts pressure on the question of what matters. Life in the tank has decreased during the luncheon, and Gerda feels that loss as she passes it on the way out: “she experiences, in a way, the pain of alien fish-flesh contracting inside an exo-skeleton” (Matisse 127). Gerda’s embodied sympathy, for both Peggi and the dwindling life in the tank, encourages us to see her as another suffering creature. Indeed, in Laurence Petit’s analysis, the dual abjection of Peggi’s bodily and Gerda’s ontological distortion widens out to encompass all of literary representation itself as an inevitable distortion (41-42). Perry observes his companion’s pained reaction to the lobster and registers his paradoxical sense that such moments simultaneously make him appalled and not “give a damn” (Matisse 127). In other words, he reiterates the middle ground Gerda has just counselled with regard to Peggi Nollett—acknowledging one’s ideals while also letting go of judgment, given our entrapped state of being. The luncheon intertwines the two figures’ growing agreement, and the phrases “do you know?” and “I know” chime back and forth in the story as a negotiated peace emerges (122, 128).

“Crocodile Tears”

24While the surprise recognitions discussed so far have occurred at the very end of the plot, those in “Crocodile Tears” follow standard theatrical placement and bring about a reversal of fortune true to Aristotelian poetics. This more classical treatment of recognition fits well within a work that incorporates abundant allusions to Shakespeare and Ibsen. The story begins when the unexpected death of her husband sends Patricia Nimmo in flight from her homeland and from acknowledgement of her loss. In Nîmes, she meets another expatriate, Nils Isaksen, and circumstances entwine their lives despite their mutual disdain of connection. The story’s first revelation of new knowledge transpires at the bull fighting Arènes, a landmark that Patricia has previously avoided as “‘simply unpleasant’” (Elementals 31), but now braves for the sake of Nils. Shaped like a stone bowl baking in the heat, the site is ritualistic with “pretty and sinister” patterns swept in the sand below and parallel signs of death in the sky where “black birds circled” (67, 69). In this austere setting, Patricia and Nils give joint attention to the reverberating words of his life story; yet even then, Nils recoils from Patricia as joint subject of his reality. He icily rebuffs her attempt to comfort him, saying that he only “‘told it to hear it told aloud’” (71). With this attempt to recast his speech as a monologue, Nils makes Patricia, at best, just a “witness” that he is trying to evade, recalling the train station repulsion of Primrose and Penny.

25However, Nils’s comment about needing to hear his internal story told externally might also be taken as a figure for psychoanalytic therapy. What happens next binds Patricia to him, even though he is in denial: she internalises and transforms his articulated words into a dream that is ripe for analysis. Unconscious storytelling has long fascinated Byatt, and in her book of conversations with Ignês Sodré, she marvels at the capacity of dreams to represent another form of truth. Byatt seconds Freud’s assertion that “you may sometimes trust the dreamer to be using the dream images to think with, more intensely than they could with flat language” (Byatt and Sodré 236). Patricia’s dream certainly shows that this idea is true as its imagery effectively synthesises the shared stories, experiences, fears, and aspirations of Nils, Tony, and herself. Building upon the day’s moment of shared attention, the dream leads to a second recognition. Within the folds of sleep, Patricia unconsciously compares the two men’s disappointed interests in theatre and bullfighting, as she sees the Arènes with its sand lit up as if by footlights (Elementals 71). The dream also processes her fear of death as Tony appears, sitting right next to her where Nils had been placed earlier that day, and Patricia has no choice but to watch the gory dismemberment of the fighting figures that perform before her. Like the troll women referenced in Nils’s earlier storytelling, she is locked into her stone seat. Tony, as witness, is undisturbed, but Patricia must face what she has previously denied in her own selfish (and therefore trollish) way—the reality of her loss (72-73).

26While the dream’s imagery signals that Patricia is bound to death, its circular structure also offers a clue to the possibility of life within death and consequently suggests a path forward. After the horrible destruction of the fighters, their gashed bodies magically heal, and they begin the action again (72-73). The dream thus implies that Patricia, too, is capable of a new performance; she is not the same person she was at the time of Tony’s death, and she now has fresh resources to mediate her thinking. The repair of the fighters’ decimated bodies recalls aspects of her recent experiences with Nils—her encounter with the taxidermically-restored bulls in the museum and her memory of Nils’s tale of the man encased in ice who, upon release, wields magical items including “‘a pair of gold scissors, [and] a ball of gold thread’” (58). Patricia, back in her past avocation as costume designer, had sewn together the illusions of the playhouse. Her dream itself, in fact, can be seen as a form of sewing, stitching together her experiences until they inspire another kind of repair—the piecing together of her old life and her new. The painful yet productive unconscious performance of Patricia’s dream comes together “like a poem—where all the images fuse into a kind of intense symbolic knot or painting” (Byatt and Sodré 232). It allows a new story to emerge as Nils and Patricia in turn become supportive companions and begin to address their respective debts via dedicated service.

“The Pink Ribbon”

27“The Pink Ribbon” adopts many of the same narrative structures as the previously-discussed works, but shows how isolation sadly decays our capacities for attentive recognition. Like “Crocodile Tears,” this story features a school teacher who has been trapped as care-giver to an erratically violent, mentally-ill relative. Both stories pose difficult questions about premeditated evil that arises when the self is psychically and physically exhausted. Solo care for a severely declining family member calls for a perpetual unselfing in a way that is beyond most human capacities. In “The Pink Ribbon,” James Ennis has been caring for his Alzheimer’s-stricken spouse for so long and in such isolation that he has grown callous through exhaustion. In this time of affliction, James encounters a sense of emptiness that both Weil and Murdoch identify as the “void” (Rowe and Osborn 107). Although this condition is natural and temporary, during its sway it poses “the danger of allowing oneself to be diverted from reality” (Rowe and Osborn 108). James slips into the danger of the void when he indulges in petty cruelties that he thinks do not matter, given the “thick plaques and tangles” in the brain of his wife, Madeline (Black Book 236). While he has hired support to assist him, James blocks out the external perspective offered by his house aide, Deanna Bright. His aversion to the very person who is supposed to help him is a central irony of the story. Even though Deanna’s name evokes the protective power of Diana, the virgin huntress, James refuses to use it because he feels it has “inappropriate associations, nothing to do with a massively overweight Jamaican home help” (233). James instead clings to the idea of being “trained to do for myself” and allows his racist assumptions to obscure the fact that a metaxu exists right in front of him who could help bridge his current self with that of his wife (234). He refuses to invite Deanna into his reality, choosing to turn away from her proffered companionship and a path to healing.

28James instead opens the door to Dido, a stranger whose arrival coincides with his “harmless” torture of the Teletubbies figurine he has brought into his home as a sadistic gift for his transformed wife. From her first appearance, Dido uses James’s mind against him. She gains access to his home with a story that she is being pursued by “a huge black man,” playing upon James’s racial prejudices and fears (250). The more she interacts with James, the more she utilises his memories, eventually even channeling the sound of Madeline’s voice. As her influence waxes in the household, that of Deanna wanes. James reassures himself that Dido is “real,” noticing the lipstick-smudged glasses she leaves behind, but she is a reality that he has brought about (272). In posing as a “fetch” who represents Madeline, the evil spirit really represents James’s wish fulfilment, even bringing him the cellophane bag with which he will murder his wife (273). Lapsed into violent thoughts, James has become a counter-example to Murdoch’s central idea in The Sovereignty of Good. In this salvo against analytic philosophy, Murdoch proves that goodness can exist unseen, offering proof through an extended study of a mother who actively changes her thoughts about her daughter-in-law via disciplined interior work (16-39). If one’s mind can in this way enact the good, then, “The Pink Ribbon” suggests, it can also enact evil. As the last entry in The Little Black Book of Stories, this one could not get much darker.

29In a wide selection of her short fiction, A. S. Byatt thus avoids the singular epiphanic plot and instead stages two recognition scenes held in tension with one another to emphasise the overdetermined nature of metaxological openness. Her stories follow the thinking of Iris Murdoch, the friend and mentor she has called her “literary mother,” whose ideas in turn have roots in the work of Simone Weil (Levenson, “The Religion” 338). The good, for all these writers, involves attention turned outwards in loving openness to truth. Byatt stands unique among them in utilising the concentrated powers of short fiction to pursue this theme, with recognition only emerging after significant exposition that establishes human isolation and selfishness. Byatt’s stories also preserve a greater measure of scepticism, suggesting that new insight can only overcome habituation in instances of extremity—in the uncanny qualities of beginnings and endings (“Body Art” and “The Thing in the Forest”) and through the refracted imagery of the visual arts and dreams (“The Chinese Lobster” and “Crocodile Tears”). When these uncommon recognitions happen, they reveal paths that were not apparent before, namely unselfed service as an intermediary or a companion. Charles Taylor refers to these paths as “entering the forest,” a metaphor that describes a spiritual orientation ordinarily concealed by Western modernity. He argues that, paradoxically, the inner work of “[r]enouncing, aiming beyond life, not only takes you away but also brings you back to flourishing” (21). Taylor’s paradox animates Byatt’s short fiction as she uses the ancient practice of storytelling to question the habitual structures of the modern self. Through her two-fold recognition scenes, she urges her readers to surrender their selfish fortifications and to share open attention with the people who surround them.

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1 In this conversation dated 2011, Byatt identifies a time in the recent past when short stories were “dying.” She remarks: “There was a sense of them being all the same that made me stop reading them. I didn’t need to finish them because there would be an epiphany” (18:00-18:20). Byatt goes on to also object to the theory that a short story can only have one idea, interjecting: “That’s rubbish. They can go round corners and sideways” (19:00). Both of these comments reflect an interest in exploring complex and alternative narrative forms.

2 In order of publication: “The Chinese Lobster” from The Matisse Stories (1993), “Crocodile Tears” from Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice (1993), and “The Thing in the Forest,” “Body Art,” and “The Pink Ribbon” from The Little Black Book of Stories (2003). The concentration of double recognition plots in Byatt’s twenty-first-century collection is particularly noticeable.

3 This concept is from Plato’s Symposium, where Diotima explains to Socrates that Eros (love) is the child of Pena (want) and Poros (resourcefulness). Eros, a daemon, is the metaxu—or intermediate—between the gods and mankind. See Plato.

4 In Shakespeare’s poem, Venus watches as Adonis’ dead body “[w]as melted like a vapor from her sight, / And in his blood that on the ground lay spill’d / A purple flow’r sprung up, check’red with white” (1166-68).

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Jennifer Preston Wilson, « Seeing Together: Shared Attention in A. S. Byatt’s Short Stories »Journal of the Short Story in English, 76 | 2021, 163-181.

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Jennifer Preston Wilson, « Seeing Together: Shared Attention in A. S. Byatt’s Short Stories »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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Jennifer Preston Wilson

Jennifer Preston Wilson is a professor of English at Appalachian State University and co-editor of Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Henry Fielding (2015). Her recent work includes chapters in Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey: A Legacy to the World (2021) and Rewriting Crusoe: The Robinsonade Across Languages, Cultures, and Media (2020).

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