"There are things which happen and leave no discernible trace, are not spoken or written of, though it would be very wrong to say that subsequent events go on indifferently, all the same, as though such things had never been."
This quote appears at the start of the Postscript and reflects one of the novel's key themes: that biographies and historical records never capture the entire truth, and that some events are lost to time. However, those events are still impactful and meaningful. Explicitly introducing this idea at the end of the novel is an important choice to add nuance and complexity to the novel's plot. On the surface, it seems like the plot ends with the mystery having been solved, and the truth uncovered, but Byatt is careful to state that there is always more to the story.
"It is possible for a writer to make, or remake at least, for a reader, the primary pleasures of eating, of drinking, or looking on, or sex. Novels have their obligatory tour-de-force , the green-flecked gold omelette aux fines herbes, melting into buttery formlessness and tasting of summer, or the creamy human haunch, firm and warm, curved back to reveal a hot hollow, a crisping hair or two, the glimpsed sex. They do not habitually elaborate on the equally intense pleasure of reading."
This quote appears just before the description of Roland having a vivid experience rereading one of Ash's poems. It offers a moment of narrative interjection where it seems like a distinct character, presumably the author/narrator, is speaking directly to the reader about a challenge faced by writers. The narrator explains that novels often feature descriptions of some key physical pleasures but rarely delve into describing the pleasure of reading. The unspoken irony is that readers understand the pleasure of reading because they are doing that very thing at the moment they encounter these lines. This quote is a good example of how Byatt introduces metafiction (a technique in which the reader is reminded they are experiencing a piece of art that was deliberately constructed) into her novel.
"There were times when Blackadder allowed himself to see clearly that he would end his working life, that was to say his conscious thinking life, in this task, that all his thoughts would have been another man's thoughts, all his work another man's work."
This quote explores how one of the scholars feels about the way he has chosen to spend his time and energies. Blackadder is the eldest of the scholars, so he is in the best position to reflect on what it means that he has spent decades dedicated to analyzing and researching Ash. Blackadder does not seem to have regrets but he is keenly aware that his work has not been creative or independent. This awareness might reveal why Roland and Maud become so obsessed with their quest to uncover the secret: this type of discovery is closer to the creation of something new than typical scholarly analysis.
"And there it was, what Randolph Henry Ash called the kick galvanic, the stunning blow like that emitted by the Moray eel from under its boulders to unsuspecting marine explorers."
This quote describes the sudden sexual chemistry Roland feels when he accidentally touches Maud after they bump into one another. The fact that even at this highly charged moment Roland's mind immediately draws a comparison with Ash shows just how immersed he is in the poet, and how much he interprets his own experience through the filter of what Ash might have thought or felt. Roland also uses a highly specific simile to explain what he is feeling, which shows that he is a character who is prone to intellectualizing his experiences, even highly physical ones.
"I want to-to—follow the—path. I feel taken over by this. I want to know what happened, and I want it to be me that finds out. I thought you were mad when you came to Lincoln with your piece of stolen letter. Now I feel the same. It isn't professional greed. It's something more primitive."
Maud speaks these lines to Roland when she admits that she has now become equally obsessed with solving the mystery, and sympathetic to his strange behavior. She shows that she knows the way they are pursuing their research is unconventional, and possibly even unethical, but that she feels compelled to continue. This moment is significant because Maud is a character who focuses on behaving in rational and deliberate ways, and she is not usually inclined to be reckless.
"We never say the word Love, do we-we know it's a suspect ideological construct—especially Romantic Love—so we have to make a real effort of imagination to know what it felt like to be them, here, believing in these things."
Maud speaks these lines to Roland while they are in Yorkshire retracing the journey they believe Ash and Christabel took. She reflects on contemporary attitudes to love, especially amongst highly educated individuals who place a lot of value on being critical and skeptical. Given that Maude is quite wary of romantic relationships, these comments might reveal why she does not trust the idea of falling in love. Her comments are interesting because while many assume that the Victorian era was more repressed and unfeeling, Maud seems to suggest that the Victorian poets were the ones who were more free to follow their hearts and trust their emotions in comparison to modern individuals.
"I am afraid, of course. But that seems to be of no real importance. None of the old considerations—none of the old cares—seem to be of any importance. They are not tissue paper, but seem so."
These lines are spoken by Christabel to Ash as they travel together on their secret journey to Yorkshire. Christabel is taking a great risk and violating social conventions by pursuing an affair with a married man. These lines show that her feelings for Ash take precedence over these conventions, and she is willing to take risks if it gives her an opportunity to explore what it means to be in love. She is not reckless, but she is willing to follow her heart and trust her instincts.
"This is where I have always been coming to. Since my time began. And when I go away from here, this will be my midpoint, to which everything ran, before, and from which everything will run."
Christabel speaks these lines to Ash during their brief time together as lovers. They show the intensity of her love for him, and the way in which being with him has transformed her life. However, even as she celebrates the beauty of their love, she is keenly aware that they only have limited time together and that she will soon to go back to being alone.
Roland thought, partly with precise postmodernist pleasure, and partly with a real element of superstitious dread, that he and Maud were being driven by a plot or fate that seemed, at least possibly, to be not their plot or fate but that of those others.
This quote shows how self-aware Roland is, and how he can objectively observe the parallels between the relationship growing between him and Maud, and the love affair between Ash and Christabel. Because he is a keen reader, he can see the ways in which the events around him feel like the plot of a novel (which, of course, they also are). Roland is ambivalent about this recognition; partially it amuses him, but the sense that he is lacking agency also alarms him.
They were children of a time and culture which mistrusted love, "in love," romantic love, romance in toto, and which nevertheless in revenge proliferated sexual language, linguistic sexuality, analysis, dissection, deconstruction, exposure.
This description provides context for the tense situation in which Roland and Maud find themselves, and why it is challenging for them to negotiate their growing feelings for one another. In both their personal and professional lives, they are surrounded by expectations of embracing sexuality: characters like Fergus and Leonora celebrate freely pursuing sexual pleasure, and many scholars also ground their interpretations of literature in sexually charged readings. However, while the focus on sexuality has increased, comfort with love has decreased, and Roland and Maud are uncomfortable with recognizing that desire and affection are still mutually connected for them.
Possession Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Possession is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.