(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In many ways the themes of the novel cannot be easily separated from the social concerns; Frederica's struggles as a woman are struggles many of Byatt's female characters in other novels engage in. Her work is consistently concerned with examining women's roles in society, often within the academy, and showing how women are oppressed. And because Byatt's work usually includes characters who are teachers and characters who are writers, she consistently explores what teaching should be and different ways in which readers and writers interact. By putting one of her fictitious works on trial she extends the discussion of the ethics and effects of fiction into the larger culture, but the underlying questions are not that different from those she poses in her 1967 novel The Game, in which a writer's book about her sister leads the sister to commit suicide.

The fear of Babbeltower is a cultural one, a fear that words will lead people to do murder, but the thematic question of what a writer's ethics are is the same as in The Game. The difference, perhaps, is that in the case of The Game the reader sees the effect of the novel in question while in Babel Tower the reader sees the effect of censure on the author and has no evidence that the novel Babbeltower causes harm. Because Byatt has included passages, some of them sexually graphic, from the imaginary novel the reader is able to consider the effects of the novel upon himself or herself and consider the effects of art and what power a writer has; the thematic concerns are enacted in the reader's own responses to the text of Babbeltower.

Besides the theme of a woman's struggle for independence and the continuing question of the power of writing, Byatt explores cultural alienation and the nature of language. Frederica's brother-in-law Daniel Orton, a minister, works as a counselor on a telephone help line. People call him because they are suicidal, because they are guilty about having abandoned their families, because they are worried. Jude Mason calls to debate about the existence of God. While Jude is not the typical caller, the...

(The entire section is 874 words.)