The title Possession is a one-word summary of the novel's themes; with its many meanings, "possession" is an ambiguous word, meaning to own something as well as meaning the object owned. Another meaning is the state of being possessed, that is, obsessed or controlled by spirit or other forces. To the Victorians, "possession" also had sexual meaning. All of these meanings are explored in the novel, and the relationships among them lead to the novel's major theme; It is impossible to possess without being possessed. The only real and important type of possession is self-possession.
The physical possession of importance in the novel are the relics of long-dead Victorian poets which are collected by some of the modern characters. These characters, all literary scholars associated with various American and English academic institutions, compete for ownership of the property of the poets and ultimately for "ownership" of the poets themselves. Even one of the characters who has in the past looked down on those who admire everyday possessions if they were owned by the great finds himself stealing letters written by Ash. Ironically, the fact that so many different people or institutions own the literary relics means that no one has the whole picture or the whole truth about the writers; the novel's conclusion suggests that complete knowledge of the dead, even when they were people of a highly literate age who committed most of their thoughts and actions to paper, is impossible.
Moreover, the modern characters become possessed by the very things they seek to possess. The poets they study were a man and woman who thought and read widely, but the scholars are themselves the narrowest of specialists, unable to see the relative importance of their work in the larger field of literary study or of life itself. They become single-minded in their search, willing to sacrifice their own principles and relationships for minor academic triumphs. The "Ash factory" is the nickname of the part of the British Museum in which the work on the definitive edition of Ash's poems and plays is carried on. Roland Michell thinks of it as the Inferno because it is below ground and hot but does not recall that Dante depicted souls in hell as suffering punishments that fit their crimes, being less punishment for evil-doing than the natural result of individual choices. Those in the "Ash factory" are there by choice.
Those who try to possess other people likewise find themselves possessed. Randolph Ash falls in love with Christabel LaMotte and wants to possess her; as he is already...
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