A. S. Byatt Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

A. S. Byatt’s career as a fiction writer has always been on the move. She admits the influence of the French writer Marcel Proust and the English writer Iris Murdoch, both inclined to extending realistic fiction into areas which transcend simple tales of real life. Her short stories, like her novels, have always been stylistically and thematically dense. Her most successful stories often include an element of imaginative improvisation edging on Magic Realism, that late twentieth century movement in fiction which suffuses realistic fiction with incredible elements that, in the past, have been confined to fantasy literature. She is not satisfied with that; in The Matisse Stories, she develops tales that depend in subtle ways upon ambiguous connections with specific paintings by the French artist Henri Matisse. The reader does not have to know the paintings to appreciate the stories, but they are enriched by such knowledge. She takes another and different step into reshaping the short story in The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. The tales are stylistically and thematically incredible but are not for children. Intellectually and thematically, they are suitable only for adults.

Byatt is, despite her somewhat conservative moral attitudes, a part of the twentieth century movement in art that breaks the rules, thematically, structurally, psychologically, and aesthetically. Her stories are often a challenge to the reader’s preconceptions about what is proper for certain kinds of literary art. However experimental Byatt’s stories are, there is always a sense that she sees the form as capable not only of expansion and imaginative leaps but also of being used to examine the nature of the human predicament, if in a more ambiguous and less certain way than that of the tales of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Only the moral certainty of clever endings is missing.


This relatively early story is a good example of the way in which Byatt’s themes are often connected with the problem of literary composition itself. On its face it is a simple tale of a woman attending at her father’s deathbed in Amsterdam, where she chooses to tell the story of his life and that of her grandfather; this, in turn, leads her to think of her own life and her parents’, which are complicated by the fact that her mother was prone to lying. What looks to be a simple moment of poignant recollection becomes an investigation of what is true. The conversations with her father lead to memories of her own experience of her grandfather, and she remembers, or thinks she remembers, incidents that begin to lose credibility when compared to her memories of her mother’s tales of the family. Eventually she begins to realize that whether she likes it or not, the past is partly a fiction and she is not only a victim of it but also, like her mother, something of a perpetrator. There are, also, incidents in this story of a Yorkshire family which are similar to certain facts in Byatt’s own family history; she uses parts of her own experience with very little masking of their source. Byatt also has a strong affection for paintings by the great European artists, and she often brings them in to enrich her stories. In this tale, appropriately, she uses Vincent van Gogh and the museum in Amsterdam dedicated exclusively to his work.

“Medusa’s Ankles”

Byatt will occasionally examine the world of middle-class, middle-aged, female angst which has been so successfully explored by Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro, but her use of this theme in “Medusa’s Ankles,” one of three...

(The entire section is 1490 words.)