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AP Lesson Plan for a Unit on A. S. Byatt's Possession

by M. B. Landseadel
Nevada Union High School
Grass Valley, California

The novel Possession invites a veritable cornucopia of critical analyses. Byatt's masterful interlacing of the nineteenth-century romance and mystery novels, as well as her sublime revisionist infusion of arcane and contemporary epistolary, poetry, and myth linked to postmodern impressions, has been quite rightly lionized as a "tour de force." As such, it certainly is worthy of being a culminating feature of an AP English Literature and Composition course.

Before launching into such a venture, however, a little disclaimer is in order. Any unit based on Possession will necessarily require parental permission, as the novel has layers of sexual allusion, an extramarital affair, and a homosexual relationship. That said, the novel's postmodern features tend to express an important social currency that may prove meaningful for textual analysis.

Because this reading and the related activities will come at the end of the school year, you will have already addressed literary device recognition, textual analysis, and other exercises used in preparation for the AP Exam. Nevertheless, the study of this extraordinarily rich novel will still demand that students use a dictionary of literary devices and be aware, at least, of a basic definition of postmodernism.

The Novel
Byatt's novel plays with the term "possession" from a variety of approaches and so should the reader. The word itself can be defined in a number of ways. There is an element of the ghost story about this novel, which underscores the "possession" of the novel's modern protagonists in their pursuit of the buried past. English professors Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell, the protagonists, become obsessed over their discovery of certain letters by two late nineteenth-century poets and therefore possessed by what they find. The letters are important literary artifacts that tell a story previously unknown about these poets. Thus, the person in possession of these artifacts can control and define their use in the literary world.

A Long-Term Lesson Plan
Present Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" as a preliminary piece leading into the reading of the novel. Have students analyze his dramatic monologue and in the process underscore the "possession" question of the novel. This will supply a literary focus and relationship to Randolph Henry Ash (Byatt's creation) and to Byatt's successful "ventriloquising" of Browning, which students may later use for comparison and contrast.

Use a pre-reading activity before teaching the novel. A what, how, why-type activity will allow students to analyze an art transparency of any piece of sentimental nineteenth-century fine art depicting a woman or women in a scene tied to that period's "condition of England." The students provide notes about what the image may mean, how it relates to the literary work under consideration, and why the image is a significant and sufficient variation on the literary theme. Or use an image of "The Rape of Persephone" (either artwork will relate well with this novel). Have students present their findings after the activity and discuss what Browning's poem and the what, how, why activity might predict about the novel.

Begin the novel by breaking the class into two sections. Have both sections read the excerpt from Hawthorne's preface to The House of the Seven Gables (found just before the title page), then have them read the poem "Mr. Sludge: 'The Medium'" by Robert Browning, which appears in the introduction to Possession.. Give each group the task of analyzing these two pieces and then have the groups report their discoveries and assumptions about either work and what these may suggest about the novel.

Student Reading Presentations
Offer students the opportunity to present their knowledge about segments of the reading. The book presents great advantages for individual or group discussion of its literary styles and developments. Prepare a calendar with the pages that represent specific sequences of events in the novel. Have students research and provide the class with lectures about those sections. Allow for questions and discussion. This activity affords an end-of-the-year opportunity to hear oral presentations while students learn to more thoroughly analyze texts via their own minilessons based on the reading. Possible venues include reader response, compare/contrast, dialectical journaling and discussion, lecture/quiz, and SOAPS.

Later in your class's reading of the novel, give students the opportunity to study Samuel Taylor Coleridge's unfinished poem "Christabel," Robert Browning's "Women and Roses" and "Rabbi Ben Ezra," Christina Rossetti's "An Apple Gathering" and "A Daughter of Eve," Alfred Lord Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott," and Emily Dickinson's "In a Library." This is a great time for discussion and/or timed writings based upon the shorter poems.

When they've completed the novel, have your students write short literary comparisons of the novel and one of the poems.

This is also a good time to refer back to the earlier activities with "My Last Duchess" and the art images. If you used art or poetry referring to Persephone, have students make the correspondence between her threshold experience and that of characters in the novel. Students may choose to produce an art poster with a poem from one of the suggested poets above and one from the novel's fictional poets that bears comparison. Such a poster should include references to the poems' literary devices.

The following list includes possible theme or research titles concerning Possession. Depending upon prior studies in your class, some of these may actually be quite topical, and others might require further study.
  1. Jane Eyre and Possession
  2. Values and concerns of the epistolary novel
  3. The poetic universe in Possession versus the novel's postmodern conditions
  4. Dust and "ashes" (dead poets and the romantic or universal mind)
  5. "Ventriloquism" in A. S. Byatt, Randolph Henry Ash, and Robert Browning
  6. Christabel's poetry as humble analogue or Dickinson revision
  7. Reportage in the novel (autobiography, biography, epistolary, narrative poetry, and the novel form itself)
  8. The uncanny in Possession, Coleridge's "Christabel," Frankenstein, and Wuthering Heights
  9. Tensions between characters in Possession and the novel's various "literatures"
  10. Possession's allusions to Coleridge, Browning, and Rossetti
  11. Feminism and Possession
  12. The nineteenth-century "detective novel": Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and A. S. Byatt
You can find most of the poems referenced in Poetry of the Victorian Period, 3rd ed., by Jerome Hamilton Buckley and George Benjamin Woods (Chicago: Scott Foresman, 1997).

M. B. Landseadel  has taught English courses since 1990 at all levels, from middle school to adult learners and from English as a Second Language to AP. She currently teaches AP English Literature at Nevada Union High School in Grass Valley, California. 

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