Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


This thesis explores the ways in which English writer A. S. (Antonia) Byatt’s veneration of both realism and writing informs her use of ekphrasis, investigating the prominence of the still life in her fictional output to 2009. In doing so it distinguishes between visual still lifes (descriptions of real or imagined artworks) and what are termed for the purposes of the study ‘verbal still lifes’ (scenes such as laid tables, rooms and market stalls). This is the first full-length examination of Byatt’s adoption of the Barthesian concept of textual pleasure, demonstrating how her ekphrastic descriptions involve consumption and take time to unfold for the reader, thereby elevating domesticity and highlighting the limitations of painting.

In locating what may be termed a ‘Byattian’ aesthetic, this study combines several areas of scholarship, particularly literary criticism of Byatt and others, food writing, and feminist and postmodernist criticism. It investigates the ways in which Byatt’s still lifes demonstrate her debt to both French writer Marcel Proust and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of nineteenth-century Britain. The study also shows how, in her depictions of paintings by artists such as Henri Matisse, Byatt subtly engages with the issue of female representation. Further, it explores similarities between her writing and that of English modernist author Virginia Woolf.

The study reads a number of Byatt’s verbal still lifes as semiotic markers of her characters, particularly with regard to economic status and class. Further, it reveals how her descriptions uniting food and sexuality are part of her overall representation of pleasure. Finally, it discusses Byatt’s use of vanitas iconography in her portrayals of death, and shows how her fiction’s recurring motif of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” teases out the still life’s inherent tension between living passion and ‘cold’ artwork.