Technological Progress and Victorian Doubt in Possession

Maya Rao '97 (English 168, 1996)

Addressing Victorian conceptions of linear time, Possession suggests that they obscure truth and cause anguish and doubt in its holders. Intimating his weariness, Ash tells Christabel that

the truth is -- my dear Miss LaMotte -- that we live in an old world -- a tired world -- a world that has gone on piling up speculation and observations until truths that might have been graspable in the bright Dayspring of human morning are now obscured. (181)

Ash suggests that by complicating simple truths, progress can have adverse effects. The linear view of progress, which disregards the past, can cause the inhabitants of the present to feel uncertainty. Calling Ash's feelings "linear exhaustion," Thelma Shinn's article "What's in a Word?" suggests that Byatt consciously introduces this despair into the novel's Victorian period to connect with "the despair which nearly paralyzes her contemporary characters" (168). Inheriting this Victorian view of time, Roland and Maud attempt to escape this despair and rediscover the basic truths that the technological age has obscured.

In addition to using Ash and LaMotte's correspondence to produce Victorian progress linearly, Byatt also uses the letters to portray Victorian doubt. Depicting Ash's scientific, dissection experiments, the text portrays the Victorians as living in the age of Darwinism which had the effect of removing "the transcendent, designing, purposive Mind of God from the universe" (Hart). Showing how a scientific view of the world leads to religious doubt, Ash tells LaMotte that they "live in an age of scientific history" (185) and

the lovely lines of faith that sprung up in the aspiring towers of the ancient ministers and abbeys are both worn away by time and grime, softly shrouded by the smutty accretions of our industrial cities, our wealth, our discoveries themselves, our Progress. Now, I cannot believe, being no Manichee, that He, the Creator, if he exists, did not make us and our world. (181)

Ash suggests that scientific and technological progress have obscured religious faith. Though he ends his sentence affirming God as the creator, he reveals his own religious doubt by wondering "if" God exists. Responding to his letter, Christabel specifically attributes this religious uncertainty to the Victorian period: "doubt is endemic to our life in this world at this time" (182). Without faith in God, the characters must turn elsewhere to find meaning in life. Randolph searches for answers in his experiments and his writing, and Roland and Maud, the inheritors of this Victorian doubt, turn to the past to find meaning in the present.

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