Medusa's Ankles by A. S. Byatt, 1993

views updated

by A. S. Byatt, 1993

The first of three stories in A. S. Byatt's Matisse Stories, "Medusa's Ankles" has a title as odd and aggressive as its action. Susannah, a middle-aged classics professor, distraught by the new coiffure her hairdresser's assistant has imposed upon her, smashes up his newly remodeled shop. The hairdresser consoles the professor and sends her home. There her husband notices her for the first time in a long time, compliments her on the hair she hates, and kisses her on the neck "quite as he used to do." Paradoxically, the hairdresser has perhaps been freed by the woman's action in breaking his mirrors, while she, momentarily released from passivity before her own physical decay, is either trapped or rewarded by the unexpected responses of the men around her.

The story's plot proposes an illusory release through violence, an American-style escape for very English characters. Through its juxtapositions and patterns of imagery, the story addresses in the protagonist the inevitability of physical decay, the loss of a sense of identity with one's body, the terror of turning into one's mother, the hideous otherness of one's old age. Of itself the body puts on the masks of Proust or the Gorgon. The minor characters trace light but intricate webs of hopes, tentative escapes, and disappointments. The cumulative effect proposes the possibility but the unlikelihood of significant change within the life one has chosen, unless such change is imposed from outside by forces beyond one's control—love, a violent client, an indifferent hairdresser.

Medusa and Matisse make an odd pair. In Matisse Stories Byatt couples each story with an image by Matisse. The image is centered on the story's title page, with the title of the story above the image and the image's own title and date below. The relationships between images, titles, and stories in the collection are deeply ironic, both suggestive and paradoxical.

In Greek as in Freudian myth, Medusa is famous for her once beautiful, now hideous head. Her hair is formed of writhing serpents, her gaze turns men to stone, and her decapitation is performed by Perseus with the help of a mirror. Athena curses her for fornicating with Poseidon in Athena's temple, and Athena also advises Perseus how to secure the head. The severed head becomes the aegis on Athena's shield. Waiting for Perseus to come, Medusa who makes men immobile is remembered as herself motionless. She does not dodge the decapitating, mirror-wielding Perseus. To suggest that Medusa had ankles, a body part at the other extreme from the part that gave her her fame, is bizarre but purposeful.

Byatt restores to Medusa not just a body but also feet; she was once a woman who stood, walked, and kicked stones. She was then turned into Medusa. In Freudian myth Medusa represents the phallic mother who threatens her son with castration and impotence. Helene Cixous has argued that Medusa laughed as her head was cut off, mocking the castration anxiety that destroyed her. The name suggests that we should look for snakes in Byatt's story and fear for violence done to the heroine with mirrors. Unobtrusively, Byatt exploits all elements of the myth, except for the psychoanalytic interest in men's fears. Byatt is interested in women's fears of time, loss, becoming, and the body. This new version of the myth includes echoes of ancient Greece, Italy, lovemaking, wisdom, and knowledge. Just as moments before she had again been transformed by the unnatural styling of her hair, the classics professor looks in the mirror at herself transformed by age and remembers making love in Italy with a young man in her own young body.

The ominous name is juxtaposed with Matisse's La chevelure. As always with Matisse, the image is lovely and luscious, with a slender face inverted, chin up, eyes closed, hair hanging. The hair, thick and voluptuous, flows down the page in relaxed, natural coils. The effect inverts Medusa, for the image draws rather than repels. There are no ankles anywhere in sight. La chevelure, an "ensemble" of hair, connotes abundance and naturalness. In French it contrasts semantically with coiffure, an artificial or artistic arrangement of hair, the English "hairdo" or "coiffure." Set beside Byatt's title, Matisse's image can be made to suggest serpents coiling in vigorous s 's. Reciprocally, the density and weight of Matisse's image give a sensuous, positive turn to the story's ominous descriptions of "thick locks [rolled] into snaky sausages … rolling up curls, piling them up…. Sausages and snail-shells, grape-clusters and twining coils."

The story begins by recollecting the protagonist's first visit to the salon, lured by the Matisse Rosy Nude visible through the window. Colorful, flat, massive, and bodied, the Matisse suggests fullness, maturity, "flesh and its fall." Over time there develops the simulacrum of a relationship with Lucian, the hairdresser. He natters on about his longings for more in life than doing hair for "old dears," and she listens, asks questions, and makes suggestions when they are wanted that seem never to be followed. The shop then closes and reopens remodeled, the Rosy Nude gone and the new color scheme suggesting "dried blood and instruments of slaughter."

Other changes have occurred. The hairdresser has decided to leave his wife for his new love because his wife's ankles are too fat. Today Susannah feels a need for help with her hair, for she has an appearance to make and wants to look her best. Indifferent and inattentive, Lucian abandons her first to the mirror and then to a young woman, his assistant. Like the wife he proposes to leave, Susannah has been dropped by her hairdresser just when she needs him the most.

The climax occurs when the young woman coifs Susannah's thick chestnut hair. The do reminds her of an effect Susannah has avoided for 30 years—her mother's artificial, rigid sets produced under domed plastic hair dryers. She sees herself "turret-crowned, snake-crowned, her mother straight from the dryer." She speaks the unspeakable, saying what one never says to one's hairdresser: "It's hideous." Having become Medusa and wanting back her younger body, hair, and love, Susannah smashes all of the mirrors in the shop. She is patted and sent home, and her husband kisses her on the neck. Is the kiss a release, a triumph, or the blade of Perseus?

The title justifies itself in a psychotic break that is not realistic but mythic. No classics professor would actually throw a bottle at a mirror in her hairdresser's, no matter how much she felt like it. The plot violates Aristotelian probability, yet the story communicates the frustration and despair that demand the mythic, futile release of shattering the mirrors. With a purity of line as precise as Matisse's, Byatt's protagonist sees the banal truth—"I look like a middle aged woman with a hair-do"—but she is also the chthonic earth mother crowned with snakes. The ankles—an awkward joint once sexy, now fat and filled with fluid—bring her down to earth even as they raise a promise of sexual excitement and enticement not usually associated with Medusa.

Oddly, the best thing in the story may be the representation of Susannah's mother at the hairdresser 30 years before. Susannah herself is a new version of Jane Eyre or Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Brown—all fire and spirit on the inside, nothing visible on the outside. When a character becomes visible, when Medusa or her mother rises toward her in the mirror, she cannot bear it. It is a story of Oedipal struggle, and Susannah's unwillingness to imitate her mother, to assume her mother's life, is fought indirectly, through mirrors and in relation to men. Medusa and Athena have yet to encounter each other directly.

—Regina Janes