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Babel Tower Themes

(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 other people who turn to Daniel are representative of a group of people who feel as though they have no one who will listen to them but an anonymous voice on the other end of a telephone. Nor are these people the only ones who feel adrift and isolated. One of the novel's recurrent images is the work of J. R. R. Tolkien and the need for a fantasy world as a means of escape from the problems of the present, a theme which is itself the subject of Jude's novel. Very near the novel's end, Frederica goes to a "Happening" at the stage of an art school; one group of actors is dressed as elves and quoting Tolkien while another group quotes the poetry of William Blake. The Happening is interrupted by a group of people playing musical instruments, carrying protest posters and dead pigs' heads, and probably under the influence of one mindaltering drug or another. Tolkien and LSD sit side-by-side as ways for the despairing and disaffected to form small communities of their own.

The thematic exploration of language is less obviously connected to social and cultural concerns, although the image of the tower of Babel and its idea of a unified culture split by a change in language returns constantly. One member of the Steerforth Committee that is examining educational methods is a...

(The entire section is 874 words.)