The key moment in A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance comes when Roland Mitchell, a prematurely desiccated academic, wonders why he might have stolen letters written by an invented 19th Century poet from the British Library. In explaining why, he says, “Because they were alive. They seemed urgent[….]” Nothing else in his life does, which straddles comedy and sadness. The act propels the action of the novel as well as a return of urgency and of discovery to his own life, implying that when we lack such attributes, we begin to die ourselves.
I’ve previously discussed Possession here), and the novel concerns academics who begin emotionally dead, and their intellects are perilously close to the same state. The key to their resurrection—their return to what one might skeptically call “the real world”—comes in an act of very minor theft by Roland. It’s out of character but brings him rolling to a beautiful academic, to a secret, and to the double discovery of his own romance and of someone else’s. Tracing the path of another person’s romance teaches him how to live his own; without that signal, perhaps he would remain among the academic undead, or the undead more generally. A rare forbidden act—sex has lost its forbiddenness, so theft of an academic nature will have to do—has a rejuvenating effect, reminding us of the limits and limiting nature of bounds and boundaries, sexual, textual, and otherwise. For a novel that is composed heavily of invented texts, stealing carries a larger moral rigor that it might otherwise not, and it helps Roland see his own life and work in way that is, again, finally, urgent.