Angels and Insects Summary
by A. S. Byatt

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Angels and Insects Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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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 now doubts that he is the father of his children, all of whom favor the Alabaster side of the family in physical appearance.

After confiding to Matty about Eugenia and Edgar’s relationship, Adamson discovers that Matty and the servants already know about it. In hopes of traveling to South America, Matty has already booked passage on a boat for her and Adamson to leave together. After some reluctance to take her, Adamson agrees. He leaves the Alabaster home without taking any compensation from the family. He feels a profound sense of freedom. Before leaving, he tells Eugenia that she must find a way to live with the consequences of having sex with her brother.

Conjugial Angel begins with séances led by the medium Sophy Sheekhy. In attendance are Sophy’s benefactor Lilias Papagay, Captain Richard Jesse and Mrs. Jesse, Mr. Hawke, and Mrs. Hearnshaw, who all hope to communicate with dead loved ones. Grief has shaped and directed the lives of all of...

(The entire section is 1,892 words.)