Possession Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Maude's Hair (Symbol)

Maude's striking blonde hair symbolizes her femininity, sexuality, and vulnerability. For much of the novel, she keeps her hair carefully concealed, reflecting how she believes that emotions and desire are dangerous and might obstruct her ability to pursue a scholarly career or be taken seriously. When she chooses to reveal her hair to Roland on the beach during their trip to Yorkshire, she symbolically indicates that she is beginning to open her heart, trust him, and consider the joy that might come from giving herself greater freedom.

Water (Motif)

Water is one of the most important motifs in the novel, reflecting the power of nature, desire, and freedom from living a life according to rules and social conventions. Christabel's poem Melusina retells a legend of a woman with a fish's tail having her privacy violated when her husband spies on her in her bath; here, water seems to reflect a raw natural experience that needs to be protected, and scholars such as Maud and Leonora have considered a connection between water and female desire. The brief period where Ash and Christabel are lovers takes place near the sea, and they also visit a waterfall; these water motifs reflect places where they are liberated and free to follow their desires. When Christabel needs to conceal her pregnancy, she finds refuge near another seashore.

The Dolls (Symbol)

When Maud and Roland discover the letters that confirm Ash and Christabel had a romantic relationship, they locate them in Christabel's former bedroom, amidst a pile of dolls. The dolls symbolize how appearances, especially appearances of being a traditional woman, can be deceiving. Dolls would traditionally be given to a young girl as part of educating her about social expectations, including maintaining an attractive appearance and preparing to be a mother in the future. The fact that Christabel has dolls in her room even though she was mature and even elderly might suggest that she lived an unfulfilled or stunted life as a woman who never married and seemingly never had children. But as the letters reveal, the dolls are part of an illusion she used to keep her secrets safe.

The Storm (Symbol)

On the night that Cropper and Hildebrand Ash rob Ash's grave (October 15, 1987), a severe storm strikes, endangering both Cropper and those out to stop him. Byatt incorporates a historical event (a storm did strike England on that night) to play with the lines between history and fiction; the storm also symbolizes a moment of violent crisis and climax. While the aim is to stop Cropper, all the scholars end up opening the box that has been retrieved from the grave, and looking at the contents. The months of investigation are finally clarified when they learn about the fate of Christabel and Ash's child. The storm also provides a melodramatic setting for a moment of high tension and drama in the narrative.

The Specimen Box (Symbol)

After Randolph Henry Ash dies, Ellen puts a number of items into a specimen box and buries it alongside him. The contents include the letters she exchanged with him during their courtship, the unopened letter from Christabel, and the lock of hair she retrieves from his watch. The box symbolizes how important realities are kept hidden and obscured, both during people's lifetimes and then after their death, meaning biographical understandings are always incomplete and speculative. When they open the box, the scholars will think they now know everything there is to know, but they are still misinterpreting and missing important facts, such as the knowledge that Ash's marriage was never consummated and that Ash was aware of, and even met, his daughter.