White Masters and Dark Servants in A S Byatt s Morpho Eugenia

2011-12-01
Öztabak Avcı, Elif
The aim of this paper is to read A. S. Byatt's novella, “Morpho Eugenia, ” from the perspective provided by the postcolonial paradigm shift regarding definitions of the “domestic.” In the light of the postcolonial contestation of conceptualizations of the domestic as an insular site exclusive of the “foreign, ” this paper is built on the premise that domestic has always been informed by what it has left outside its boundaries. I will argue that the country house, Bredely Hall, where the story is set in “Morpho Eugenia, ” is a site deeply informed by Britain's imperial position in that the domestic hierarchies in the house are entangled with colonial / global hierarchies. Therefore, explicit references to “whiteness” and “darkness” in Byatt's text in relation to the masters / mistresses and servants in Bredely Hall should be read bearing in mind this entanglement of the domestic and the global. In “Morpho Eugenia” Byatt re-defines “whiteness” and “darkness” to contest, from a global perspective, their hierarchical associations with “masters” and “servants, ” respectively. Interestingly, in “Morpho Eugenia, ” the parties associated with hierarchical categories of “whiteness” and “darkness” do not change : both masters / mistresses and servants in Bredely Hall continue to be characterized by being “white” and “dark, ” respectively. Yet, “whiteness” is emptied of its association with “moral superiority” and luminosity emerges as a quality that could obstruct clear vision whereas “darkness” is foregrounded as a quality that can contribute to visibility. Furthermore, Byatt's text problematizes the hierarchical dichotomy between “culture” / “cultivation” and “nature” / “savagery” used in connection with the European (colonizer) and the non-European (colonized). One textual strategy contributing to this is the deconstruction of domesticity embodied in the figure of the “pure” domestic woman : Eugenia Alabaster, an upperclass white woman, is portrayed as sexually-desiring and in an incestuous relationship, which she attempts to “justify” by its “naturalness.” What is more, domestic life in an English country house is represented in terms of its glaring similarities to practices carried out in “nature.” As pointed out in many critical readings of “Morpho Eugenia, ” there is an explicit analogy between society in Bredely Hall and ant communities. The mistress of the house, Lady Alabaster, for example, is likened to a queen ant, which is constantly taken care of by her “servants.” The Mother / Queen and daughter / servant relationship was a dominant analogy used over the colonial period to describe Empire. Interestingly, the analogy established in “Morpho Eugenia” between the Queen and the queen ant de-naturalizes the ideologies that served to legitimize imperialism through such notions as mutual, familial love and responsibility by foregrounding the discrepancies between the elevated ideological representations of imperialism and the colonizing and predatory practices that can be observed in wild nature, particularly among ant communities.