Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Byatt’s stories are well-constructed, clear narratives, rich in metaphor and vivid images. Her multilayered plots often incorporate references to specific artworks and are amplified by literary allusions. “Medusa’s Ankles,” for instance, is part of The Matisse Stories (1993), a collection of three tales inspired by particular Henri Matisse paintings. In addition, the volume includes a reproduction of a different Matisse drawing on each title page. The drawing for the “Medusa’s Ankles” frontispiece is La chevelure (1931-1932) and features a woman’s head inverted so that her long hair flows in opulent curves from the center to the bottom of the print. The drawing reinforces the setting of the beauty salon and also pictures Susannah’s sense of loss in mourning the change age has brought to her once beautiful fall of chestnut hair.

In the text of the story, Byatt includes the description of Matisse’s Pink Nude, which coaxes the protagonist into the beauty salon. Susannah is plump and therefore admires the “huge haunches” and “monumental knee” of the Matisse figure. However, her bond with the painting is brief because Lucian, the salon owner, eventually discards the artwork to suit his transitory tastes. The narrative describes the nude’s round breasts as circular “contemplations” and “reflections on flesh and its fall.” Susannah’s physical decline is in opposition to the unchanging beauty the Pink Nude embodies. The beauty of the painting is eternal, but hers is not. She must come to terms with her mortality, a result of time’s relentless movement and the fall of humankind.

In addition, Byatt constructs inherently ironic plots that incorporate unexpected events that produce a moment of discovery or revelation for the characters. For example, in the closing scene of “Medusa’s Ankles,” Susannah, the neglected wife, returns home after her destructive salon rampage still sporting the offensive middle-aged hairdo when, in a wry turn, her husband arrives. In uncharacteristic fashion, he actually notices her, praises the hairstyle that she despises, and bestows an unexpected act of affection by kissing her neck. Thus, the closing scene reinforces Susannah’s sense of isolation, suggesting that no one, not even Susannah’s spouse, understands how the woman perceives herself.