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Janine Dove-Rumé
Michel Naumann
Tri Tran

III. Littérature nord-américaine

The Other and Otherness in A.S.Byatt’s The Matisse Stories

Paulina Kupisz


This paper seeks to explore the concept of the other and otherness in A. S. Byatt’s The Matisse Stories, endeavouring to offer yet another level of reading and interpreting the collection. The idea of the other and otherness is considered here on the basis of the key philosophical, psychological, cultural and linguistic standpoints concerning the two notions. The discussion opens with the Other regarded as the unconscious, repressed part of the human psyche and proceeds to consider otherness in terms of the juxtaposition of different - often only apparently, people and attitudes as well as the relationship between men and women. The final part of the paper concerns the art of Henri Matisse being yet another prominent Other in the stories.

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1In his essay Of Prism and Prose: Reading Paintings in A. S. Byatt’s Work, Michael Worton aptly observes that ‘for Byatt the writing process [...] constantly takes her beyond the orbit determined by her own writing needs and into the realms of otherness’ (2001; 15). The idea of otherness in Byatt’s fiction covers a wide spectrum of implications, being not only an intertextual incorporation of and commentary on what she has read, but also an in-depth insight into the philosophical, psychological and cultural understanding of the notion of the Other. In one of her essays concerning the growing popularity of revoking the historical past by the postmodern writers, Antonia Susan Byatt interestingly notices that

‘the idea of writing about the Self is felt to be worked out, or precarious, or because these writers are attracted by the idea that perhaps we have no such thing as an organic, discoverable, single Self. We are perhaps no more than a series of disjunct sense-impressions, remembered Incidents, shifting bits of knowledge, opinion, ideology and stock responses’ (2000; 31).

2Byatt’s standpoint immediately puts to the foreground the concept of the Other, be it society, language, law, art or the unconscious part of the human psyche, that those ‘disjunct impressions’ and ‘bits of knowledge’ come from. The Matisse Stories are an intricate, manifold and highly accomplished literary interpretation of various shades of otherness. My paper endeavours to explore these aspects, basing on the key philosophical, psychological, cultural and linguistic terms and concepts concerning otherness and the Other, such as Lacan’s idea of the mirror stage and the ego formation; the Hegelian dialectical relation between the self and the other; the female and feminine regarded as Other; or, the implied necessity of the impassable distance and difference between the self and the Other.

3The focus of The Matisse Stories is primarily on women: Susannah, a classical philologist and translator from Medusa’s Ankles, Debbie Dennison, a design editor from Art Work and Gerda Himmelblau, the Dean of the Women Studies Department from The Chinese Lobster. Either they or the secondary female characters (such as Mrs Brown, the Dennisons’ servant or Peggi Nollet, a student from Gerda’s department) are the stories’ propelling agents. Susannah, Debbie and Gerda are middle-aged, intelligent, well-educated and only apparently satisfied with their professional, emotional or family lives. They are all presented in ordinary, everyday situations: Susannah having her hair cut; Debbie in her family house; and Gerda during a conversation in a restaurant. However, those seemingly neutral places and occurrences are loaded with inner tensions. The protagonists recurrently return to their ‘other’ self rooted in their youth, either with nostalgia, like Susannah and Debbie, or – like Gerda, with only apparently constrained and marginalised anxiety. The divergence between the realm of adulthood, loaded with experience, constraints and limitations and the realm of innocent youth results with a great tension between what is on the surface, at the conscious level, and what lies deep inside of them, hidden in the unconscious. In Art Work, the ideal other of Debbie Dennison is herself from her young days, full of energy, hope and plans for the future self-development. Although she seems to be happy with the present state of affairs, there is a visible and often painful yearning for the goals she did not manage to attain;

‘When they got married, Robin had a few hours part-time teaching in a college and Debbie, whose degree gave her more marketable skills, got a job doing layout in a corset-trade magazine, and then a subordinate job in A Woman’s Place, and then promotion. She was good, she was well-paid, she was the bread-winner’ (1996; 52);

4but at the same time the ‘ghosts of unmade woodcuts’ haunt her, bringing ‘a quiet grief that didn’t diminish, but was manageable'(53). A similar longing for the past can be observed in Susannah from Medusa’s Ankles, although here the tension between what she presently is and what she recalls emerges from the fact of ageing. As the setting of the story is the hairdresser’s salon, where the usual way of confronting one’s own appearance is the mirror reflection, the mirror becomes thus an important medium of communication between the conscious and the unconscious layers. However, unlike in the Lacanian concept of the mirror stage, when the child’s own reflection becomes the ideal other, in the story the Other reflected in the mirror is the unacceptable and rejected one for Susannah;

‘She looked at her poor face, under its dank cap and its two random corkscrews, aluminium clamped. She felt a gentle protective rage towards this stolid face. She remembered, [...] as a young woman under all that chestnut fall, looking at her skin, and wondering how it could grow into the crepe, the sag, the opulent soft bags. This was her face, she had thought then. And this, too, now, she wanted to accept for her face [...] but could not. What left this greying skin, these flakes, these fragile stretches with no elasticity, was her, was her life, was herself (18-19).

5The dichotomy between the body and the spirit, which is clearly visible in this passage, is also the divergence between the present self and the unattainable, unconscious Other, between Susannah – the grown-up and Suzie – the young student. After her hair has been done for a television speech, Susannah abhors her appearance, insisting that ‘I look like a middle-aged woman with a hair-do’ (23). She prefers it to be natural, but only in the sense of bringing back its vitality, vigour and energy from the past days.

6In case of Gerda Himmelblau from The Chinese Lobster, the clash between her external appearance and behaviour and what lies in her unconsciousness is even more striking. Gerda talks informally to Perry Diss, a visiting professor at her department, about the formal complaint put forward by an anorectic and slightly neurotic student, Peggi Nollett, against professor Diss, accusing him of sexual harassment and disdain for her artistic work. Throughout the talk Gerda endeavours to explain Peggi’s behaviour in a seemingly objective and uninvolved way. However, it is only during the end of their conversation that we realise that what she really speaks about is her other self hidden in the unconscious. This turning point occurs when they begin to discuss Peggi’s threats of committing suicide. ‘At that point’ says Gerda, ‘everything seems clear, and simple, and single; there is only one possible thing to be done -’. To which Perry Diss answers: ‘That is true [...]. You are in a white box, a white room, with no doors or windows [...]. It is all perfectly clear and simple and plain. As you say’ (119). With this sudden change of perspective the insofar seemingly impartial exchange of views and opinions becomes profoundly personal, even intimate. Byatt gives an excellent narratorial comment on the duality of what is manifested outside and what simultaneously proceeds inside:

‘Any two people may be talking to each other, at any moment, in a civilised way about something trivial, or something, even, complex and delicate. And inside each of the two runs a kind of dark river of unconnected thoughts, of secret fear, or violence, or bliss, hoped-for or lost, which keeps pace with the flow of talk and is neither seen nor heard. And at times, one or both of the two will catch sight or sound of this movement, in himself, or herself, or, more rarely, in the other. And it is like the quick slip of a waterfall into a pool, like a drop into darkness. The pace changes, the weight of the air, though the talk may run smoothly onwards [...]’ (120).

7The conversation evokes the other self – or, perhaps, the true self, of Gerda. What nonetheless becomes even more visible is that this concealed, repressed in the unconscious, Other is not solely an amalgam of past reminiscences, but and active, parallel part of Gerda’s ego, that is likely to overtake the dominance. During the talk she comes back in her mind to her friend, Kay Leverett, a woman peaceful and kindly and interested in plants, books, cakes, her husband, her children, Gerda. She was Gerda’s anchor of sanity in a harsh world’ (121) and, in a sense, her ideal other. But after her daughter’s suicidal death Kay gradually became overwhelmed with the thought of committing suicide, which she eventually did. Although Gerda had refused to understand her friend’s state of mind at that time, the memory of Kay became her alter ego, a ‘knot of quiet terror which has grown in her private self like a cancer over the last few years’ (120). It is worth noticing that Gerda fully realises that ‘she is next in line’ (122), that is, capable of committing the same act of self-destruction as her friend, only after facing Peggi Nollett’s problem as well as talking to professor Diss who also ‘carries inside himself some chamber of ice inside which sits his figure of pain’ and has ‘the old scars, well-made efficient scars, on his wrists’ (124). In The Chinese Lobster other people function as the mirror reflections of one’s inner, unconscious Other. The initial dialectical relationship between one self and the other, as well as the sense of separateness and alienation resulting from this encounter of seemingly opposing selves, is in turn resolved by means of a sudden and unexpected synthesis of shared experiences and sensations from the past. What is more, the insight into other people’s lives has a therapeutic function of re-forming one’s identity. Thence, the very end of the story brings a surprising turn in Gerda’s mind. After all the repressed painful memories have been brought to the conscious level, ‘something has happened to her white space, to her inner ice, which she does not quite understand’ (127) but which may help her to reduce the strain between her conscious ego and her unconscious Other.

8The other as a means of constituting one’s own self, and as a trigger for introducing changes in one’s own life is a recurrent pattern in The Matisse Stories. In Art Work, the housekeeper of the Dennisons is Mrs Brown, a reliable, slightly eccentric woman with an exotic look:

‘Mrs Brown had a skin which was neither black nor brown but a kind of amber yellow [...]. She had a lot of wiry soot-coloured hair, which rose, like the crown of a playing-card king, out of a bandeau of flowery material, tied tightly about her brow [...]. Mrs Brown does not smile very much. Her face has some resemblance to a primitive mask, cheeks in triangular planes, long, straight, salient nose, a mouth usually tightly closed’ (39-40).

9With her steadiness, patience and decisiveness Mrs Brown becomes Debbie’s complementary other, whom it seems impossible to live without and of whom she is in constant fear to lose. For Debbie’s husband, however, Mrs Brown represents all he is not (becoming, thus, the other in the sense of being entirely different, not alike). This both physical and mental divergence evokes in Robin the feelings of anxiety and disdain underlain, though, with a hidden yearning for the aura of originality and artistic independence that veils Mrs Brown:

‘He does not ask himself if his hatred of Mrs Brown is a deflected resentment of his helplessness in the capable hands of his wife, breadwinner and life-manager. He knows it is not so: Debbie is beautiful an clean and represents order. Mrs Brown is chaotic and wild to look at and a secret smoker and represents – even while dispersing or redistributing it – “filth’”(56).

10When it eventually turns out that Mrs Brown is truly a self-made artist making original, colourful, sometimes shocking, soft sculptures from bits of unwanted clothes, woollen sweaters and other easily accessible materials and has them successfully exhibited in a gallery, the entire life of the Dennison family must change. Apparently, with a new housekeeper recommended by Mrs Brown, everything ‘will be more or less the same. Or not quite the same. For one thing, Debbie goes back to making wood-engravings’ (85), achieving thus her longed-for goals. Also in Robin’s painting there appears’a new kind of loosed, slightly savage energy’ (86). The otherness of Mrs Brown has stirred their insofar restrained or repressed dreams and potentials. But sometimes the resurrection of withheld emotions and desires by means of the confrontation with the Other takes even more striking turns. In Medusa’s Ankles, one of the triggers for Susannah’s outburst of rage resulting in damaging the hairdresser’s salon by throwing bottles, scissors and other utensils everywhere is Lucian’s disgust with his wife because ‘she’s let herself go altogether. She’s let her ankles get fat, they swell over her shoes’ (21). As Susannah detests her own look also because of this particular reason, she immediately feels close to ‘this unknown and ill-presented woman’ (22). Thus, the thought about Lucian’s wife, unknown but friendly Other, is juxtaposed with the reflection of Susannah’s body (that is, the hostile Other) in the mirror. This, in turn, clashes with her other, younger self evoked by the sudden wave of memories of a love affair with an Italian student. Her fierce behaviour afterwards is surprising, even shocking, mainly to Susannah herself. But the whole occurrence does bring a change in her, which can be observed in her husband’s words: ‘You look different. You’ve had your hair done. I like it. You look lovely. It takes twenty years off you. You should have done it more often’ (27). This ambiguous, slightly ironic ‘it’ that she should have done more often so as to look younger and more attractive points to the fact that perhaps the change is not merely a result of a new hair-do but an emanation of the breakthrough in Susannah’s mind.

11While considering women figures in The Matisse Stories, it is worthwhile to devote some thought to the relationship between male and female characters, as Byatt interestingly dwells upon the traditional approach to the female (and feminine) Other, skilfully reconstituting the tiers of the gender hierarchy. In all three stories it is men who emerge as definitely mentally and emotionally weaker than they seem to be. Lucian, Susannah’s hairdresser, is a bright, easygoing and a bit affectedly sophisticated man, fulfilled professionally, emotionally and sexually; however, while telling Susannah about his family and love life, about his shifting interests either in art or archaeology or history, there arises an image of great instability and imbalance – that is, of the features traditionally attributed to women. ‘We all feel like that, sometimes. Most of us don’t dare’, he says to Susannah after her having damaged the salon interior, admitting that ‘I’ve often felt like smashing it all up myself, just to get out of it – like a real glass cage it is – and go out into the real world’ (26-27). The glass cage is yet another traditional fairy or folk tales motif associated with a girl or a woman captivated in it, waiting for a man to dispose of the glass and make her free; in Medusa’s Ankles, these conventional roles are thus reversed. An even more straightforward inversion of customary male-female social functions can be observed in Art Work, where it is Debbie who provides for the family’s upkeep; Robin Dennison is willingly subordinate to his wife mainly because of his emotional immaturity; ‘He prevents himself, all the time now, from seeing his enterprise, his work, his life, as absurd. [...] By upbringing and temperament he should have been a solicitor or an accountant’ (53). And professor Diss from The Chinese Lobster is yet another male figure who only apparently represents self-confidence and prominence but in the past ‘was almost an important painter, but probably not quite. At the moment his work is out of fashion. He is hardly treated seriously’ (123). At the same time, it is interesting to notice that these men tend to speak out unfavourable, stereotypical remarks about women, especially about those that they feel either inferior to or, paradoxically, alike. Perry Diss hardly ever uses any other expressions for referring to Peggy Nollett than ‘poor creature’, ‘poor little bitch’, ‘a coat-hanger’ or ‘ignorant and lazy and pigheadedly misdirected’ (105) because he considers her work – that is, the daubing of Matisse’s reproductions with organic substances, to be a sacrilege instead of an artistic protest. However, it is only after the bits of his extravagant, morally dubious life have been briefly hinted at that there arises a peculiar resemblance between Peggi’s and his internal drive to be a great, prominent, controversial but, above all, noticed and appreciated artist. Robin Dennison despises Mrs Brown not only because of her external appearance which is completely opposite to his ‘very English face, long and fine and pink and white [...] His eyes are an intense blue’ (48), but most of all because of her uniqueness that he, as an artist, lacks. The juxtaposition of the male versus the female, of the former as artists/creators and the latter as skilful crafts (wo) men is hence a deceptive, traditional view that is subverted in each of the stories so as to expose the power and potential of the womanly Other.

12Apart from the other considered in terms of physical presence of particular persons or mental images constrained in one’s unconscious, yet another prominent Other in the collection becomes the art of Henri Matisse. His paintings function much in the same sense as living persons, that is, they are also capable of either constituting the self or destroying it. Medusa’s Ankles begins with Susannah’s unexpected coming across the reproduction of the Pink Nude:

She had walked in one day because she had seen the Rosy Nude through the plate glass. That was odd, she thought, to have that lavish and complex creature stretched voluptuously above the coat rack [...] The rosy nude was pure flat colour, but suggested mass. She had huge haunches and a monumental knee, lazily propped high. She had round breasts, contemplations of the circle, reflections on flesh and its fall’ (3).

13It is interesting to notice that in this brief description of their first encounter, the Rosy Nude is not referred to as a painting, an inanimate object representation, but is rendered as the living, vibrant Other that Susannah yearns for. That naked, slightly monstrously shaped woman – ‘an outline of the human body’ (Worton 2001; 17), but at the same time frivolous and free, becomes a symbol of true womanhood for Susannah and a hope for confirmation and approval of her own identity, sexuality and carnality. When the interior of the salon is redecorated and the nude disappears giving her place to ‘photographs of girls with grey faces, coal-black eyes and spiky lashes’ (1996; 16), Susannah suddenly loses her object of aspirations. Paradoxically, the lack of the painting and its enlivening, rejuvenating rosy colour contributes to a large extent to the unexpected attack of fury, resulting in demolishing the salon. Hence, the Rosy Nude becomes here the Other that is both a restraining force, intimidating with its autonomy and at the same time a trigger for making oneself free. For Lucian, the Nude is also the desired other, not in the sense of the male sexual desire for a woman, but – because of the ambience of peace and independence, as an obvious contradiction of his own unstable life. Although initially Lucian states that the painting ‘went exactly with the colour-scheme I was planning’ (4), referring to the Rosy Nude as ‘it’, already in the following sentence he admits: ‘I thought she was wonderful [...]. So calm, so damn sure of herself’ (4; italics mine). However, the Rosy Nude does not operate as Lucian’s other in the sense of constituting or changing his identity. It is Susannah who benefits, somehow involuntarily, from this peculiar attraction to the painting that helps her to protest against that unacceptable Other of herself.

14An entirely opposite effect of the encounter with Matisse’s art is presented in The Chinese Lobster. For anorectic and emotionally unbalanced Peggi Nollet the representations of fat, opulent, vibrant and relaxed women become the hostile other. The difference between her appearance and Matisse’s concepts of female bodies is so great that it becomes destructive instead of constitutive, evoking hatred towards the painter and paintings and disdain for herself instead of admiration and longing. ‘How can Peggi Nollett bear luxe, calme et volupte?’ (115), asks rhetorically Gerda Himmelblau, pinpointing this divergence to professor Diss, for whom Matisse, both an authentic figure and a signifier of the particular artistic approach, is the sacred, unattainable desired other; ‘I loved him and was enraged by him and meant to outdo him, some time soon, when I had just learned this and that – which I never did’ (124). Similar failures in transgressing the master become a part of Robin Dennison’s experiments with ‘putting great washes of strong colour, a la Matisse, a la Van Gogh, and it came out watery and feeble and absurd, there was nothing he could do’ (55). Their efforts to imitate and exceed Matisse remain unsatisfying, for the constitutive power of the Other lies precisely in sustaining the distance and difference between the Other and one’s self and thus evoking one’s own artistic potential and uniqueness.

15The art of Henri Matisse inasmuch as his innovative approach to art as such can also be regarded as an intricate structure, much like the Lacanian systemic, primordial Other, that exists prior to the characters’ artistic awareness and is to be confronted with. This is especially visible in Art Work and The Chinese Lobster, in which the entire life of the characters is overtly subordinate to Matisse’s art. Their awareness is pervaded with and shaped by the painter’s imagination. Not only is it manifested in the direct considerations on Matisse’s vision of colours, on his attitude towards the representation of the female body or his controversial ideas on the function of art, but it can also be noticed in the everyday, banal details, such as the pattern on Debbie’s daughter’s bedspread, which is ‘jazzy black forms of ferns or seaweeds, on a scarlet ground, forms the textile designer would never have seen, without Matisse’ (34).

16Matisse also makes an indirect appearance as an authentic, historical figure, it is professor Diss, a fictional character, who describes his short visit to the painter after the war. By blurring the borderline between fact and fiction, which is a dominant feature of Byatt’s writing, Henri Matisse and his art become the Other not only for the protagonists but also for us, the readers. Thus, their everyday occurrences become ours inasmuch as their reading of the paintings becomes a part of our own reception.

17By making Matisse’s pictures and ideas central points of reference and triggers for particular situations, Byatt puts them in a new perspective, not only as independent, unfamiliar objects of art but as living images that can affect ordinary life, our life as well. Like Matisse, who deliberately clashed single patches of colours to achieve a vibrant contrastive tint at the border between the two, A. S. Byatt juxtaposes people and art to disturb the false harmony of life, bringing the characters to the confrontation with their Other.



BYATT A. S., The Matisse Stories, New York, Vintage, 1996.

BYATT A. S., On Histories and Stories, London, Chatto and Windus 2000.

WORTON Michael, “Of Prisms and Prose: Reading Paintings in A. S. Byatt’s Works”, Essays on the Fiction of A.S. Byatt. Imagining the Real, eds. Alfer et al., London, Greenwood, 2001, p. 15-31.


University of Warsaw

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2008

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