(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 11. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1997)
'Intratextual passages': "The Glass Coffin" in the work of A.S. Byatt
Helen E. Mundler (Université Strasbourg 2)
'The Glass Coffin' (1), a tale which dates back to Grimm (although modified by Byatt), appears twice in Byatt's recent work, firstly in Possession (1990), and then in The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (1994). The repetition of 'The Glass Coffin' invites an analysis of the intertextual relationship of each of these works with this tale, and what Jean Ricardou terms the 'intertextualité restreinte' which operates between the two works (2). The tale functions within each work as a mise en abyme, for which Lucien Dällenbach admits the definition 'une citation de contenu ou un résumé intratextuel' (3). In each case it is attributed to the principal female voice within the wider text, and is used in dialogue (to use the Bakhtinian term) with contrasting myths and tales.
I will first examine the deployment of the tale in Possession, where it is attributed to the fictitious Victorian writer, Christabel LaMotte, as part of her ironically named Tales for Innocents. Its reception in the text is attributed, early on in the intrigue, to the modern-day character Roland, a literary critic researching Ash, prior to the discovery of the secret relationship between Ash and Christabel. The tale can be seen, on a second reading of the novel, to fulfill an anticipatory role, conveying information in an enigmatic way. It is in fact a locus for the delivery of coded messages on the part of Christabel. In this context, play is
1. In order to avoid confusion between The Djinn in the
Nightingale's Eye (the volume) and the short novel of the same title
which it contains, I will refer to the latter as 'the title story.'
made on the degree of consciousness of her hidden meanings, and the interpretation of these in the light of twentieth-century analyses. In The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, 'The Glass Coffin' is initially stripped of any surrounding narrative, and provides the first tale in a collection of four fairy and folk tales, followed by a short novel which, set in Turkey in the modern day, experiments with 'magic realism'. I will argue that the tale then becomes the 'theme' for a set of 'variations' expounded in the short novel, which is the title story.
'The Glass Coffin', in Byatt's version (which is identical in the two works), tells the story of a tailor who is honest but has no work. In the course of his wanderings in the forest, he discovers a cottage in which he finds a little man with grey hair, who shares his home with a variety of animals, including a large grey dog. This man gives the tailor a night's shelter in return for an evening's work, which the tailor carries out assiduously. He is rewarded for his work with the choice of three gifts, of which he chooses a fragile glass key, declaring that with it he will go in search of adventure. The grey-haired man advises him to go outside and give himself up to the west wind, which will carry him to his destiny. Following this advice, the tailor finds himself put down in front of three doors, of which, from a sense of destiny and duty, he chooses the least attractive. He makes his way underground through a disagreeable narrow corridor and, in an underground chamber, comes upon a pile of bottles and jars, a dome, and a coffin, all made of glass. Peering into the coffin, he finds of course a beautiful blonde young woman, whom he at once liberates with his glass key. The young woman tells him that she has been the victim of an enchantment by the black artist, who wanted to marry her against her will, and when she proved to be unwilling, first turned her beloved brother into a dog, then cast a spell on her so that she would sleep for a hundred years. She says that the bottles contain the staff of her castle, and that the castle itself is beneath the dome. The tailor effects the necessary transformations, dispenses with the black artist, and marries the young woman - who, curiously, continues to spend her time hunting with her brother, without this apparently affecting her husband's happiness.
Byatt's version of the tale varies in several regards from Grimm's, and the differences are in certain cases highly significant. In Grimm's tale, the tailor gets lost in the forest and his adventure begins when he comes upon a deer and a bull, involved in a fight. The deer kills the bull, then takes the tailor to a wall made of rock, in which he helps him to find an entrance. The tale then goes on in much the same way as in Byatt's version, until it is discovered that the deer is in fact the lady's brother. In this version it is the deer, not the tailor, who kills the black artist - who has been disguised as the bull (in fact, the black artist in this version is simply 'a stranger') (4). The sexual and hymenal symbolism of Byatt's
4. Grimm, Contes, p. 313-322.
version, including the centrality of the key, is almost entirely absent in Grimm's tale, and the stress on the symbolism of glass is also added by Byatt.
In seeking to situate this tale in the context of Possession, it should be noted that in Freudian criticism, as exemplified by Bettelheim, a long period of sleep corresponds to the time of latency undergone by the pubescent girl before she is sexually awakened (5). 'The Glass Coffin' can be read as a paradigm of female experience: the latency brought on by the psychic and emotional conflicts at the onset of puberty is resolved by the 'success' which is making a suitable marriage. In the Jungian criticism of Marie-Louise von Franz, the woman who sleeps for a prolonged period in a coffin represents the psyche dominated by the animus, and is thus an emblem of sexual repression (6). I would like to suggest that both these readings are allowed here, but subverted.
The tale gives Christabel an opportunity to give a coded commentary, by analogy, on the early stages of her relationship with Ash. No act of reception is recorded in the Victorian diegesis, but a century later, LaMotte's critics and biographers, unenlightened by the 'discoveries' exposed in the course of the novel, fail to grasp the significance of the tale. Its symbolism goes unread, and LaMotte, in reality Ash's illicit lover, is thought to be the archetype of repressed Victorian femininity, sustaining only a low-key lesbian relationship with her companion, Blanche Glover. However, this tale can be read as an avowal by Christabel of her relationship with Ash, an exposition of her fears, and, later, regrets, for the compromised happiness of Blanche.
Clearly the sleeping woman can be read as Christabel, a fact which is emphasized by the images associated with the awakening. Christabel has long protested to Ash her essentially inviolable nature, symbolised by, but not limited to, her prolonged virginity, by using the image of a smooth and unbreakable egg, 'edeilon of my solitude and self-possession (P 502). This description recalls that of the glass coffin, which has 'no visible cleft or split', and is 'whole like a green ice egg' (P 63). Moreover, the imagery of the tale is unmistakably sexual (although the novel as a whole maintains an ambivalent stance towards pan-sexualization). Notwithstanding, the tailor makes his way through dense undergrowth to find the sleeping lady, and comes up against a 'musty leather curtain . . . drawn away in folds like bat-wings' (P 61), a somewhat unpleasant hymenal image.
In spite of the resistance to the male these various images imply, the lady is nonetheless content to be liberated fom her sleep. The tale can thus be read as a suggestion by Christabel for compromise, more subtle than the attempt of Grimm's lady
5. Bettelheim, Bruno, The Uses of Enchantments, p. 199-215.
to take a pistol to the stranger (7). If we read the tailor as Ash, and the brother as Blanche - and the deliberate changing of the brother-figure from a deer to a large grey dog, resembling the dog kept by the two women (Dog Tray), encourages the reader to do this - it can be seen that an ideal solution for Christabel would be to continue her affair with Ash - here regularised by marriage - while not disturbing the stability and privacy of her relationship with Blanche, who would remain symbolically as guardian of her integrity, neutralising Ash's invasion: 'Then the lady told her brother that the little tailor had rescued her from her sleep and had won her hand in marriage. And the young man said that the tailor had offered him kindness, and should live with them both in the castle and be happy ever after' (P 67).
Ash, in his analogical manifestation as the tailor, serves as an instrument of liberation only, and, this duty discharged, leaves the lady free to be united with her brother - that is, with another manifestation of herself - rather than truly to accept the Other. No mention is made of this strange, triangular situation in Grimm's version. Although as adolescents the lady and her brother have sworn never to marry because they love each other to the exclusion of all others, the appearance on the scene of an eligible man, to whose coming the lady has actually, she says, looked forward, is a straightforward resolution of the situation (8). It may also be observed that Christabel's ambivalence towards her circumstances gives rise to the diffusing of Ash into two characters - the black artist, as well as the tailor - an expedient which allows Christabel to attribute her actions to a paralysing will which is beyond her control. At the same time, a certain emascualtion of Ash has taken place, in the replacement of Grimm's bull, a potent symbol of virility, with an artist.
'The Glass Coffin' in Possession has a complementary relationship with the myth of Melusina, upon which Christabel bases an epic poem (9). The Melusina myth is one of the rebellion of the female against her nature. On the one hand, as Christabel puts it, 'a most proud and loving and handy woman' (P 174), Melusina forbids her husband, Raimondin, to look at her on Saturday nights, for that is when she turns into a species of mermaid, with a particularly long and muscular fishy tail. In this state, most interpretations seem to agree, she has achieved androgyny, the tail being an obvious phallic symbol, and also autonomy, as she is impenetrable. Melusina thus becomes a symbol of the strength of the female, delivered from the bodily constraints which make her an object, a receptacle for the male. Given the Jungian interpretation of 'The Glass Coffin', it is interesting that
7. Grimm, Contes, p. 320.
according to Carol Shields, the myth of the mermaid in general, to which Melusina is related, represents 'the emergence of the anima from the unconscious' (10).
Christabel's emergent identification with Melusina can thus be seen as a resolution of 'The Glass Coffin', but one which ends in obloquy rather than triumph, for Melusina is soundly punished for her attempt at autonomy. Once found out by Raimondin, she takes the form of a winged serpent and flies away, coming back at night to feed her youngest children, when she signals her presence by a sinister cry. This, finally, is the part of the Melusina myth with which Christabel identifies most strongly, having had to give up her child - who is illegitimate: 'I have been Melusina these thirty years. I have so to speak flown about and about the battlements of this stonghold crying on the wind of my need to see and feed and comfort my child, who knew me not' (P 501).
Melusina is thus a symbol which oscillates between power and powerlessness (a theme which will be taken up in 'The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye'). Its deployment in Possession begins as the counterpart to that of 'The Glass Coffin', but ends as its confirmation: just as he has functioned analogically as the black artist, so Ash has also been Raimondin. By entering into a love affair with Christabel, he has violated her autonomy and brought about her ruin. Thus through these two mises en abyme, the text sets up a relationship between 'The Glass Coffin' and a complementary myth, a formal project which is much expanded in The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye.
The interpretations of 'The Glass Coffin' to which I have referred are to a certain extent undercut: Christabel is neither expressing a wish to put an end to her period of (Freudian) latency nor to give the victory to her anima: she is seeking, rather, a very limited sexual liberation, on her own terms: the tale in the context of Possession is rather less than an expression of readiness for conventional sexual love.
According to Flahault, in his analysis of the fairy tale genre, the significance of the symbol depends on the 'motif' which the context allows us to construct, by a process of creating new combinations (11). This is precisely the critical process demanded in interpreting 'The Glass Coffin' in the context of The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye. The tale appears alone at the beginning of the volume, where it is self-contained rather than hypodiegetic, and is separated from the title story by three other short tales. In theory, and space permitting, a whole series of 'intratextual passages' could be established between the five stories here: the second tale, 'Gode's Story', which also appears in Possession, is a stylised exploration of attitudes towards love and childbirth, both major themes of the title story. The third tale, 'The Story of the Eldest Princess', anticipates, with humour, the narrative as well
10. Shields, Carol, The Republic of Love, p. 366.
as the thematic concerns of the title story - in which, as I will show, both experience and art are explored in terms of the tale. The Eldest Princess, sent on a quest during which she comes up against all the usual obstacles, reflects: 'I am in a pattern I know, and I suspect I have no power to break it' (DNE 48). The fourth tale, 'Dragon's Breath', like 'Gode's Story' a folk- rather than a fairy-tale, deals with war and fear. The appearance of dragons perhaps begs a comparison with djinns, but more importantly, this tale both invites and rejects an allegorical reading, thus implicitly raising questions about the reception and interpretation of tales.
The links between the four shorter tales, apart from their relationships with the title story, could also be analysed, but the structure of the volume particularly favours the comparison of the first and last stories, which maintain a privileged relationship, stronger than that between any other two tales in the book. This is suggested in part by the redeployment of elements of 'The Glass Coffin' other than the image of the woman imprisoned in glass. Immobilised by the hallucination which overtakes her during her paper, the protagonist, Gillian Perholt, finds that her tongue 'lay like lead in her mouth, and the thing would not be spoken' (DNE 122). Although this is a banal simile, it is also a reference to the experience of the protagonist of 'The Glass Coffin' when she tries to protest to her brother about the evil intentions of the black artist: 'Next day I tried to warn my brother, and it was as the black artist had said. When I opened my mouth to speak on this topic it was as though my lips were sewn together with great stitches in the flesh, and my tongue would not move in my mouth' (DNE 18).
This clearly refers us also to the fact that Patient Griselda is deprived of language - this is a phrase taken directly from Grimm (12). She is an object, not a speaking subject; a figure in someone else's narrative. In a similar way, Gillian is prevented, by the apparition of the 'Griselda ghoul' from protesting as she would like to against male domination which prevents women from imposing their will. The glass splinters created by the breaking open of the coffin in the tale ('the long icicle splinters, that rang and vanished as they touched the earth' - DNE 15), are taken up in the title story. The splinters are used in the tale to kill the black artist (DNE 22); and the glass splinter is taken up later on as an image, anticipating the development and resolution of the story: 'Gillian . . . had had a kind of penumbral headache, accompanied by occasional stabs from stilettos or ice-splinters since she had seen the Griselda-ghoul' (DNE 147). Without Gillian knowing it, the manifestation of these 'glass splinters' heralds, as has been the case for the original woman in the glass coffin, her imminent liberation - in Gillian's case, by the intervention of the djinn. This cross-
12. '(J)e sentis un poids m'écraser la poitrine. J'étais privé du langage par une force inconnue et incapable de faire entendre le moindre son' (Grimm, Contes, p. 319).
referencing constantly underlines the fact that the first tale serves as a mise en abyme for the concerns of the title story.
In the title story, the significance of the tale of 'The Glass Coffin' becomes reduced to one central image, the woman imprisoned in glass, an image which is woven through the narrative. Although this fact indicates a respect in Byatt's work for the tale as an irreducible narrative, which does not necessarily exist to clarify a secondary text or even to generate meaning in itself, the tale nonetheless has close links with the title story, which stands in relation to 'The Glass Coffin' as an 'anti-fairy tale', charging the original images with revolutionary significance by mixing them with superficially similar images found in Eastern tales. Thus the glass coffin of the tale becomes merged with the glass chest of the frame story of the Arabian Nights, a symbol, as we will see, for sexual liberation for women, and the imposition of the female will. The tale and the title story share a network of imagery and thus maintain an intratextual dialogue: we can see in 'The Glass Coffin' a mise en abyme, to some extent inverted, of the protagonist, Gillian's, experience in the title story, and, inversely, in the title story the potential for the resolution of certain of the problems posed in the tale.
It becomes necessary briefly to summarise the subject of the paper which Gillian gives at the conference she attends, which concerns the story of Patient Griselda. The count Walter chooses a young peasant girl for his wife, on the condition that she obey him in everything, to which she readily agrees. Griselda produces two children, but Walter takes them away, claiming that he has killed them, and sends Griselda back to her parents, telling her that he is going to take a younger wife. As Walter's second marriage approaches, he sends for Griselda to help with the preparations, and finally admits that the 'bride' is no other than her daughter, whom she had believed to be long dead, and her companion, Griselda's son. At this, the family is apparently happily reunited.
Gillian sees in this story the paradigm of what she terms the 'stopped-off energies' of women through the centuries (DNE 121) (13), and protests vehemently against the degree of narrative power that Walter has assumed over his wife. Patient Griselda holds a particular significance for Gillian, and the appearance of the 'Griselda ghoul' emphasizes the strength of her identification with her. Gillian too feels that the best years of her life have been taken from her, ruined by a husband who has (indeed, and not only apparently) left her for a younger woman.
The image we find in 'The Glass Coffin' of the incarcerated woman, kept in a state of passivity by the demands of the male, is taken up in order to evoke the malaise Gillian undergoes in the course of her analysis of the tale of 'Patient Griselda', a story whose
13. Cf. Byatt, A. S. and Sodre, Ignes, Imagining Characters: Six Conversations about Women Writers, p. 84.
images are linked to 'The Glass Coffin', both tales reflecting her own experience: 'And Gillian Perholt stared out of glassy eyes and heard her voice fail. She was far away and long ago - she was a pillar of salt, her voice echoed inside a glass box' (DNE 117). The Old Testament imagery of the fate of Lot's wife, the eptitome of sterility, serves to emphasize the sense of entropy Gillian feels. It may be noted also that the fact that this woman is known only as somebody's wife harks back to the story of Patient Griselda (14). However, the symbolism of the tale of Patient Griselda is modified. Past fifty and with a failed marriage behind her, Gillian experiences a sense of euphoria on her husband's departure: 'She felt, she poetically put it to herself, like a prisoner bursting chains and coming blinking out of a dungeon. She felt like a bird confined in a box, like a gas confined in a bottle, that found an opening, and rushed out. She felt herself expand in the space of her own life' (DNE 103).
Far from representing the period of latency, which implies an at least partially welcome incarceration, the symbol of the glass coffin, box or chest represents for Gillian Perholt the constraints, concrete and narrative, inflicted on women by men. The woman in a glass coffin represents, in some recent feminist criticism, the paradigm of those qualities sought after by men - beauty, passivity, and so on. Gilbert and Gubar observe in it '[the] socially prescribed characteristics of femininity (the silence, immobility and beauty of the daughter-heroine), displayed in a glass coffin' (15). Although not a young girl worshipped for her beauty (in fact, she has been abandoned for one such by her faithless husband), Gillian nonetheless feels that she has been constrained by her marriage. The high degree of identification that she feels with Griselda results from the fact that, like her, she has seen her life subjugated to male needs and desires, and has felt like a minor figure in a drama directed by her husband, a circumstance at which she is now indignant: 'And yet our own response is surely outrage - at what was done to Griselda - at what was taken from her, the best part of her life, what could not be restored' (DNE 121).
Gillian's paper is followed by that of Orhan Rifat, whose title is 'Power and Powerlessness: djinns and women in The Arabian Nights' (DNE 106). He comments on the frame story, which provides thematically a marked contrast with the tale of 'The Glass Coffin'. Having left court disgusted with the infidelity of their wives, Kings Shahriyar and Shazaman come upon a djinn, who comes towering out of the sea, carrying a glass chest in which he has imprisoned a beautiful woman to satisfy his sexual appetite. He lets her out temporarily, but goes to sleep nearby. The woman manages nonetheless to force the two kings to assuage her sexual need, and reveals that she has now managed to be unfaithful to the djinn 100 times, showing the rings of her conquests as evidence. The climax of the story
14. See Genesis, 19:26 for the story of Lot's wife.
is her triumphant claim, 'When a woman desires something, nothing can stop her' (DNE 128), a sharp contrast with the passivity assumed by Griselda and her ilk.
The imagery of incarceration in a glass coffin, as it is taken up to evoke Gillian's experience, fuses here with the imagery, superficially similar but symbolically very different, of the frame story of The Arabian Nights. The woman imprisoned by the djinn uses her sexuality to assert her independence, and refuses to bow to the wishes of her captor. She is thus a strangely modern incarnation of the liberated woman: a series of parodic inversions is in operation here, for her escape from the glass chest refers us once again to the feeling of liberation Gillian has when her husband leaves her, and her empowerment in the course of the novel through sexual activity.
The djinn, bursting out of the glass bottle Gillian has bought, into her hotel bedroom, operates as a 'solid metaphor' for her deliverance. In this way, one of the central symbols of 'The Glass Coffin' is reworked in the title story. In one of her short stories, Byatt evokes the necessity of visualising metaphors, commenting, 'One must never allow a metaphor to lie dead and inert' (16), a remark which encourages us to see the metaphor here as, precisely, to refer to Ricur's phrase, alive.
Thus we cannot but integrate the central image of 'The Glass Coffin' with the images of the title story, where it has its counterpart (in the tale of Patient Griselda and elsewhere), its opposite (in the story of the woman incarcerated in a glass chest by the djinn), and in a sense its resolution, in the principal plot involving Gillian Peholt and her own personal djinn. Semantic syllepsis is in operation (17).
Apart from its thematic importance, the image of the glass coffin, or of glass in general, is also developed in the title story in order to provide commentary on its relationship to the fantastic, for which the appearance of Tzvetan Todorov as a character (DNE 256) provides an important indication: the fantastic is not in the nature of the thing looked at, but in the way it is looked at. The tension inherent in the double nature of the analysis the story invites is commentated at the end of the title story, where Gillian, in a shop selling paperweights, reflects on the nature of glass, in fact the central semantic syllepsis of the story: 'Oh, glass, said Dr. Perholt to the two gentlemen, it is not possible, it is only a solid metaphor, a medium for seeing things and a thing seen at once. It is what art is' (DNE 275).
In this way the concerns of 'The Glass Coffin' are transferred from the thematic to the textual. The significance of the proliferation of the glass symbolism in Byatt's version of the tale glass derives largely from the fact that it helps to create illusion, and the artist is valued above all in the aesthetic scheme of the novel. Like the glass of the paperweights Gillian
16. 'Racine and the Tablecloth,' in Sugar and Other Stories, p. 20.
comments on, the text itself becomes at once the medium for seeing, and the thing seen. It is significant that Gillian is left with a paperweight containing a flower, a symbol of eternal life, set in glass, at the end of her narrative. The funereal aspect of the coffin is cast off; what is important in the image is the glass.
Byatt, A. S: Possession, London: Chatto and Windus, 1990.
Dällenbach, Lucien, 'Intertexte et autotexte', Intertextualités, Poétique: revue de théorie et d'analyse littéraires, no. 27, 1976, p. 282-296.
Dupriez, Bernard, A Dictionary of Literary Devices, translated and adapted by Albert W. Halsall, University of Toronto Press, 1991.
Flahault, François, L'interprétation des contes, Paris: Éditions Denoël, 1988.
Franz, Marie Louise von, L'interprétation des contes de fée (traduction française par Francine Saint René-Taillandier), Paris: La Fontaine de Pierre, 1978.
Gilbert, Sandra and Gubar, Susan, No Man's Land, New Haven and London: Yale University Press; volume III, Letters from the Front, 1994.
Grimm, Contes, Paris: Gallimard, 1973.
Holy Bible, New International Version, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1979, p. 18.
Riffaterre, Michael, ''Syllepsis', Critical Inquiry, Summer 1980, volume 6, no. 4, p. 625-638.
Shields, Carol, The Republic of Love, London: Flamingo, 1993.
(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 11. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1997)