Black and white in Possession
The use of “white” and “black” in Possession by A.S Byatt is worth exploring. White is used 263 times in the text. “White” was used so many times that it has caught my attention and is impossible to overlook but perhaps ignored by many scholars. As a result, I will explore the different uses of the word white. Firstly, in Possession, the word white is associated with beauty while black is associated with “evilness.” When describing Maud, the protagonist, Byatt writes, “the whiteness of her, which was part of her extreme magnetism. (301)” While evident in the novel, it is mostly evident in the tale, “The Glass Coffin.” Perhaps Byatt is trying to show how the terms blackness and whiteness are used in language. However, an African-American reader reading “black” as evil and “white” as beautiful, may see it as an insult or even racist. Perhaps Byatt is showing the damaging effects of the terms in fairytales. The representation of dark of black as immoral is consistent in “The Glass Coffin” and makes one wonder if white represent the opposite in the rest of the book.
“The Glass Coffin” tale seems to highlight the repetitiveness of “white” in the novel. When the tailor first enters the “strange household,” in the fire corner stood a “black-and-white goat. (66)” Because of how hardworking the tailor is, the little man gave him the choice of three gifts. A soft leather purse, the second “a cooking pot, black outside, polished and gleaming inside. (67)” Lastly, “a glass key glittering with all the colors of the rainbow.(67)” When the tailor left the strange household, he stumbled upon a box and saw, “a face, the most beautiful face he could’ve dreamed of or imagined…a still white face.(71)” It is clear, the purported association of whiteness with beauty. The princess then goes on to describe how her brother let a stranger in their home. And how he took pleasure in his company and she felt sorrow clearly for feeling left out. She said the stranger strode into the chamber where she’d awaken with his, “black curly hair and dangerous smiley face. (72)” Persons of African descent have black curly hair so that can be interpreted as such.
“White” in the novel becomes the backdrop by which a stark contrast to “black” in the tale can be made. When the princess said her brother had gone hunting with the stranger—upon return, she states, “And out of the dark woods came the black man, leading his horse on one arm, and on the other a tall grey hound with the saddest face I have ever seen on any creature. This accentuates the notion that blackness leads to sorrow. She continues, “he told me my brother had suddenly gone away, and would return no more for a great and uncertain length of time and had left me, and the castle, in charge of him, the dark magician.(73)” By stating dark magician she is implying that his darkness is up to no good.
As with any fairytale, there is a winning victory of a knight in shining armor rescuing a white princess. “The Glass Coffin” is no different as this is how the “black man” died in the tale: “The black artist appeared on the threshold, wrapped in a swirling black cloak, smiling most ferociously…when he came up, put out a hand to touch the lady, whereupon our hero with all his might at his heart, and the glass splinter entered deeply and he fell to the ground.(73)” The author makes the black artiste dress black in an effort to make him more evil, bad, or immoral.
The tailor won the heart of the white princess by not only freeing her from the box with his glass key but by defeating the “black artist.” The tale concludes, “Then the lady told her brother that the little tailor had rescued her from her sleep and had killed the black artist and had won her hand in marriage.(75)” Symbolically, Maud is the white princess and the tailor is the ideal version of Roland, the male protagonist, who could win Maud’s heart.
Much later on in the novel, we find Byatt writing, “He waited. Two people, a black man and a white woman exhausted their cards. (370)” I believe that this line has significance. Why not just say, two people? A man and a woman? Why say a black man and a white woman? Perhaps Byatt is showcasing diversity and how black and white as words defined in the English language, are just that—language and are completely separated from the psyche of persons or should be separated from the psyche of individuals. We know that this is not the case in “The Glass Coffin” but we can say “black on the outside, polished and gleaming on the inside” means beauty is in the eye of the beholder or beauty is only skin-deep. Also, “the glass key glittering with all the colors of the rainbow” could symbolize diversity.
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