(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Morpho Eugenia opens with entomologist William Adamson watching a ball hosted by his benefactors, the Alabasters. Adamson watches the ball as his mind jumps back to the last ten years he spent collecting natural items as well as traveling about South America and the eventual shipwreck that lost most of his collection. He dances with Eugenia Alabaster and is entranced by her delicate beauty, but he also notes her unhappiness. Adamson learns that Eugenia’s fiancé, Captain Hunt, has recently committed suicide.

Eugenia’s father, the Reverend Harald Alabaster, who has in the past purchased Adamson’s collections of exotic butterflies, moths, and other insects, offers to provide Adamson the job of sorting his extensive collection of specimens. Despite wanting to go on another expedition to South America, Adamson accepts the job because he is penniless, and because the reverend promises to fund Adamson’s next trip.

Adamson dislikes sorting through the reverend’s disarrayed collection, but he is happy to be part of the Alabaster household to catch glimpses of Eugenia. He falls in love with her but hesitates to tell her because of their class difference, which makes marriage unlikely. When Eugenia’s younger sister, Rowena, becomes engaged, the Alabaster family worries about Eugenia’s already fragile emotional state, given that she should be married before her younger sister.

Adamson converts the reverend’s conservatory to a butterfly garden by carefully collecting butterfly and moth pupae. When they hatch and surround Eugenia, Adamson proposes. To Adamson’s surprise, the reverend consents and ignores the class difference between Adamson and his daughter, as long as Adamson agrees to engage in intellectual discussion on the topics of creationism and human origins. Adamson finds these debates monotonous because he disagrees with the reverend’s religious beliefs.

Adamson and Eugenia’s marriage begins a repetitive cycle in which Eugenia is seen only briefly by Adamson and disappears into what Adamson calls the “world of women” during her pregnancies and periods of confinement after the birth of each child. To fill the time and abate the loneliness, Adamson begins spending time in the schoolroom with the younger Alabaster children and their caretaker, Matty Crompton.

While working to create an indoor insect community, Matty and Adamson write a book chronicling the lives of the local ant population and soon develop a friendship. Matty also publishes her own collection of short stories.

Adamson is called to the house one afternoon by a servant who claims that Eugenia needs him. When he enters Eugenia’s bedroom, Adamson witnesses her having an incestuous relationship with her brother, Edgar. Eugenia explains that her relationship with Edgar stems back to childhood, and that despite trying to end the relationship when she became engaged to Captain Hunt, the relationship had continued. After learning about the incest, her then-fiancé, Captain Hunt, had committed suicide. Adamson...

(The entire section is 1254 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Angels and Insects consists of two novellas, “Morpho Eugenia” and “The Conjugial Angel,” both of which are set in Victorian England just after mid-century, leading to speculation that the book continues several themes Byatt had left undeveloped in her earlier novel Possession. It would seem that the first story explores the scientific questions of the day while the second wrestles with the spiritual, but Byatt resists such neat thematic divides. The laboratory of Bredely Hall in the first novella resonates with the spiritual implications of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, while in the second novella, sound scientific arguments are proffered in the living room of Tennyson’s sister for the séances held there, thus twining the two themes together in a sort of Gordian knot.

The Morpho Eugenia is a species of exotic butterfly, one of the few relics salvaged by William Adamson when he was shipwrecked on his return from the Amazon. The Alabaster home seems to offer him a rebirth in a modern Garden of Eden. The father, Harald Alabaster, offers to support Adamson’s research, while the two oldest boys spend their days on horseback, and three beautiful and eligible daughters are paraded before him. The most perfectly formed of these is also a Eugenia. In a dazzling scene, Adamson proposes to her in the family greenhouse as millions of live butterflies swirl around them.

Happily married, Adamson explores the land around the manor with the family’s younger children and their governess, Mattie...

(The entire section is 638 words.)