Angels & Insects Themes
The two novellas explore the place of humans in the universe; they are somewhere, as the title suggests, between angels and insects and are part of both the physical and spiritual worlds. In "Morpho Eugenia," the society created by humans to distinguish them from what they view as lower life forms proves to be a thin veneer covering behavior very much like, and in some cases perhaps worse than, that of primitive humans and of animals. Tennyson's view of nature as "red in tooth and claw," quoted in the novella, has replaced the rosier Romantic ideal. In "The Conjugial Angel," an uneasy relationship between the living and the dead develops. Byatt suggests that excessive concern with the afterlife, especially if caused by grief for a lost loved one, is not only detrimental to the living person but to the dead as well. The sad young ghost of Arthur Hallam appears privately to the medium Sophy Sheekhy, apparently unable to rest because of the years of mourning by those who loved him most. She is in fact surprised by his youth, given the age of those who mourn his long-ago death. The still living Tennyson appears before the two of them as a ghostly vision, thinking of his dead friend as he prepares for bed. Clearly Tennyson, his sister, and the Hallam family have inadvertently kept their loved one from eternal rest by keeping him by their extreme grief in the world of the living. The conclusion, in which Emily in a humorous speech says that an afterlife in which she would be united with Arthur rather than her own husband would be "unfair" and in which Captain Papagay returns alive to his wife, emphasizes the theme, stated by the captain at the end of the first novella, that the business of the living is life.