Analysis of A. S. Byatt’s Morpho Eugenia

“Morpho Eugenia” is the first of two novellas published together as Angels and Insects in 1992 (the other being “The Conjugal Angel”). Both novellas reflect and develop A. S. Byatt’s enduring interest in the Victorian period: Her previous novel, the Booker Prize–winning Possession: A Romance (1990) cut between the present day and the mid-Victorian period and has been a huge international success. The two novellas, however, remove the frame of the present-day detective story (as in Possession) and are set wholly in the 1860s and 1870s.

Eugenia is the youngest daughter of the affluent and philanthropic Reverend Harald Alabaster. Alabaster invites the impoverished, recently shipwrecked William Adamson to stay at their house. The young naturalist is recently returned from entomological research in South America. At the Alabasters’ home he meets and instantly falls in love with Eugenia. Their engagement is hasty and they quickly marry. Their marriage does nothing to quell Eugenia’s brother Edgar’s hatred for William, but this animosity is not the only reason for William’s feelings of unease. Even within the marriage, things are not straightforward. Eugenia’s enigmatic behavior is puzzling to him; while remaining socially distant, she is sexually enthusiastic, producing five children in quick succession. William finds a confidante in another outsider, Matty, a penniless and resident relative of the Alabaster family. Retreating from his marriage, he spends increasing amounts of time either with Matty or investigating local insect colonies. Through Matty, William discovers the terrible truth of the corruption at the heart of the well-to-do family. The passages in which Eugenia reveals her incestuous relationship with her brother are quiet, alarming, and unsettling. Adamson returns to the Amazon to continue his entomological studies with Matty Crompton.

A. S. Byatt’s sensational story touches on many of the key themes of the Victorian period and the late 20th century: sex and sexuality, the disjunction between religion and science, and the anxieties of class and sexual difference. The title of the novella also reflects one of the key themes of the text: the 19th century’s seeming inability to conceptualize womanhood. Eugenia is created and imprisoned by William’s incapacity to see beyond the categories of angel and insect.

The novella also attempts to articulate the seismic epistemological and ontological shift caused by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, espoused in On the Origin of Species (1859). But why should such a moment in the 19th century be of interest to a late 20th-century audience? Sally Shuttleworth accounts for it as kind of cultural and psychological shift. She suggests that “[f]or the Victorians, there was a decisive crisis of faith, a sense that the world was shaking under them, an ecstatic agony of indecision. For the postmodern era, no such form of crisis seems possible, for there are no fixed boundaries of belief. It is an age of ‘ontological doubt’ without any fixed points of faith against which it may define itself.” (155).

Angels and Insects was adapted for the cinema in 1995 starring Kristen Scott Thomas, Mark Rylance, and Patsy Kensit.

Analysis of A. S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects

yatt, A. S. Angels and Insects. London: Vintage, 1992.
Shuttleworth, Sally. “Writing Natural History: ‘Morpho Eugenia’.” In Essays on the the Fiction of A. S. Byatt: Imagining the Real, edited by Alexa Alfer and Michael J. Noble, 147–160.
Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2001. Todd, Richard. A. S. Byatt. Plymouth, England: Northcote, 1997.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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