Babel Tower

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

With impressive variety, A.S. Byatt’s BABEL TOWER illustrates the repeated failure of language to communicate with accuracy. It does this on a multiplicity of levels. Most basically, it explores the abusive marriage of Frederica and Nigel Reiver. Nigel desires literal possession of his wife. He attempts to control every aspect of her life, although he ultimately fails because of Frederica’s innate human need for independence.

In counterpoint with Frederica’s story are extended extracts from a controversial utopian novel called BABELTOWER. Its author, Jude Mason, is an artist’s model at the art school at which Frederica teaches once she has left Nigel. BABELTOWER tells the story of Culvert and Roseace, lovers in France during the Revolution. Culvert’s La Tour Bruyarde and the idyllic life he attempts to establish there correspond to Frederica’s married life at Bran House. Both women attempt to escape, and the men who love them punish them with slow death.

Legal actions provide the climax of Byatt’s novel: two relating to Frederica’s divorce and primary custody of her son Leo, and another on obscenity charges against BABELTOWER. A wealth of details reflecting the 1960’s supports Byatt’s central plot and the novel within the novel. These references are as varied as the Beatles, the poetry and lifestyle of Alan Ginsberg, the psychedelic religion of Timothy Leary, and as classically learned as myth, art, and religion in William Blake, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and the social behavior of snail communities. Readers of BABEL TOWER might well conclude that crustaceans have more efficient and possibly more just social codes than those of the human race.

Sources for Further Study

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 16, 1996, p. 6.

New Scientist. CL, May 18, 1996, p. 50.

New Statesman and Society. IX, May 3, 1996, p. 40.

The New York Review of Books. XLIII, June 6, 1996, p. 17.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, June 9, 1996, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, March 25, 1996, p. 62.

Time. CXLVII, May 20, 1996, p. 76.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 10, 1996, p. 24.

The Wall Street Journal. May 6, 1996, p. A12.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, May 12, 1996, p. 3.