People and Insects in A. S. Byatt’s “Morpho Eugenia”

In her novella “Morpho Eugenia”, A.S. Byatt questions the ideas people have about themselves as the most advanced species on the planet, addressing human weaknesses, but also stressing our most important values. One of the most noticeable themes of the novella is the comparison between human and ant societies which poses some ever-lasting questions and doubts about human character.

The 1860s is a period that suits this subject perfectly. After the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1959, the new insights on human nature forced people to rethink everything they considered unquestionable. “Morpho Eugenia” “reflects ideas, obsessions or feelings characteristic of that time.” (Nistor, 137) However, it also challenges the contemporary readers to ask themselves just to what extent our genetics and biology determines who we are and how we behave. Byatt obviously believes and is interested in science, but at the same time she explores the often unexplainable human emotions. This novella combines the two:

“Byatt refuses to accept the division between feeling and intellect as she refuses to accept the division between the “two cultures” of science and the arts, a division taken for granted at the time and place at which she was educated. She is acutely aware of the interplay between intellectual and emotional life… Increasingly her writing is concerned with the actual operations of the mind, the brain, whether physical or metaphysical.” (Sturrock 101)

One of the issues the novella deals with is the concept of humanity and what the term actually stands for. June Sturrock points out that this issue can be best presented in A. S. Byatt’s quote from her novel Possesion in which she asks: “Are we automata or Angelkin?” (qtd. in Sturrock, 100) More elaborately, Byatt makes the readers think about themselves in connection to animals which seem to be much more reliant on their instincts and certain behavioural patterns. As a man of science, William Adamson, the main character of the novella, accepts the idea that people might be dependant on some kind of patterns as well. Even the aspects of our personality that we consider to be independent of any genetic influences, such as our beliefs, might also be designated by our inborn instincts. William doubts the concept of belief, and wonders if what we believe in is a product of the history of mankind through which we learned what makes our survival easier. Therefore, belief itself has the instinct for survival at its core.

“I believe I have indeed been led by my studies – by my observations – to believe that we are all the products of intexorable laws of the behaviour of matter, of transformations and developments, and that is all. Whether I really believe this in my heart of hearts, I do not know. I do not believe that such a belief comes naturally to mankind. Indeed, I would agree that the religious sense (…) in some form or another – is as much part of the history of the development of mankind as the knowledge of cooking food, of the taboo against incest. And in that sense, what my reason leads me to believe is constantly modified by my instincts.” (Byatt, “Morpho Eugenia” 34)

Later on, William dwells on the subject, wondering: “How does instinct differ from intelligence?” (Byatt, “Morpho Eugenia” 111) He concludes that a combination of both is  necessary for survival. Instinct is what determines the behaviour, but intelligence is needed to cope with different situations in which certain behaviour has to be preformed.

“The terrible idea – terrible to some, terrible, perhaps to all, at some time or in some form – that we are biologically predestined like other creatures, that we differ from them only in inventiveness and the capacity for reflection on our fate – treads softly behind the arrogant judgement that makes of the ant a twitching automaton.” (Byatt, ‘Morpho Eugenia’ 113)

William concludes that insects are not just automation, and finds comfort in that fact after realising the similarities between them and people. What Byatt seems to be proposing is that people are even less automatically determined. Inventiveness and capacity for reflection that William mentions are more important than he thinks. That is what makes us able to determine our destiny – the ability to think and the ability to create: intellect and art.

The borderline between people as independent beings of free will and insects as programmed, almost machine-like creatures is here being questioned by constant comparisons between the two. The film adaptation, Angels and Insects, follows this rule by inserting the scenes with insects whenever the imagery or actions of people can be compared to that of the insects. It is almost as if the insects constantly appear just to draw attention to themselves, and poke the audience in the eye to make sure they do not miss the resemblance between them and the characters. However, as expected, Byatt does not conclude that this distinction is something completely vague. She herself says: “I see insects as the not-human, in some sense as the Other, and I believe that we ought to think about the not-human in order to be human.” (qtd. in Sturrock 97) The comparison to the insects almost serves as a warning. Do we really want to be like insects? Instincts may exist, but they do not necessarily make us less human. In an anthill, or a bee-hive, every insect has a certain role that it obeys throughout its entire life. However, that cannot be applied to people. Social structures that prescribe roles to people based on their background, sex, or some other feature, are made unnaturally, and are against the very nature of human beings who are complex creatures with more than just one aspect of personality. If we compare our society to that of insects, we pass into a dangerous area. Byatt herself warns: “I worry about anthropomorphism as a form of self-deception.” (qtd. in Nistor 138). Vanderbeke sums this problem in following words:

“Thus, the ‘visual image’ that first drew A. S. Byatt to her topic is also one of the aspects that actually undermine the analogy between human beings and the ant heap as presented in her text. One could well argue that the closer the analogy between the Victorian mansion and the ant heap, the less it applies to humanity in all its cultural diversity. Neither can the wider historical context and the specific perspectives on human natures as evoked in Byatt’s novella be taken as indications of biological universals, even if they appear as such to the protagonists.” (Vanderbeke 295)

It soon becomes obvious that Byatt applies the aforementioned issues not only on the individual human beings, but on the society as a whole. “Byatt goes back in time and, starting from Darwin’s idea of natural selection and the survival of the fittest, performs a difficult operation: that of revaluing Victorianism from the (rather curious) point of view of British postmodernism.” (Nistor, 135) She observes the Alabaster household and positions of individual characters inside of its strict structure. Similarities with the ant colony are easily noticed, but towards the end of the novel they become more and more extreme, up to the incestuous relationship between Eugenia and her brother Edgar. “First he (William) must understand the relation between incest and insect that is, he must see that Bredely Hall is, like the ant-hills, essentially an incestuous society, must become conscious of what Sally Shuttleworth calls the incestuous dynamics that lay at the heart of the Victorian family.” (Sturrock 100) This idea is proposed earlier in the novel, when the Alabasters are described as “an ancient and noble family, who has always been very pure-blooded.” (Byatt, “Morpho Eugenia” 22) This can also be seen as a certain critique of elitist society in which the aristocratic families never mix with those that do not belong to the high class society. That kind of social structure resulted in many marriages between close relatives, and from the contemporary perspective it is obvious that does not work out well.

The similarities between people and insects show the superficiality of human society. It is no wonder that the novella is set in the Victorian period when the roles were prescribed to people based on their sex or background, but it also speaks about the contemporary society in which the necessity to create systems at any cost still exists. In an interview for The Paris Review, Byatt says: “I don’t know of a system that I believe in. I do feel a compulsion to respect people who build systems, because it’s obviously a human thing. (…) They think it’s a form of sanity in an insane world, but I’m not sure it is.” In the novella, the comparison between people and insects is based on this human need to artificially create rules and systems even when they should not naturally exist. Therefore, it is mostly not a flattering comparison. At one point Byatt addresses the painful issue of slavery. “Matty at one point, possibly cynically, observes that slave-making ant species ‘resemble human societies in that, as in many things.'” (Vanderbeke, 295)

This is the point where Byatt’s warning about the anthropomorphism becomes more clear. If animals behave in a particular way, it does not mean that people should do the same. On the contrary, people have the ability to tell apart good from wrong, and should act upon their conscience. The comparison between insects and people in “Morpho Eugenia” therefore serves to make people aware of their weaknesses. “The way in which people are made to resemble insects, to behave like them, and still sound perfectly (and, in some cases, monstrously) human shows us how fragile and transient individuals may be.” (Nistor, 139) The desire to make order of things sometimes goes too far, and forcing human society to appear as the perfectly structured ant society cannot possibly work. When William says that an ant community cannot possibly function without a queen, it is possible to compare that to a human way of thinking. People often feel that they need a leader, someone who will tell them what to do. The consequences of that have often been proven disastrous. Even though people often need a sense that everything is organised and working well, it should not be taken to extremes. Freedom always means more responsibility and risk, but it is a price worth paying. There is no perfection, but people should try to do what is best for them, and not what is easiest. “The lesson to be learned from the analogy drawn by Byatt could be that insects are truer to the natural laws than humans; the latter try too hard to achieve perfection, in a world where beauty is only a transient thing.” (Nistor 139-140)

When it comes to perfection and beauty, Byatt even touches on the subject of eugenics, and the concept of desirable and undesirable qualities of people. “In 1865 [Francis] Galton introduced the idea that human traits (be they moral or mental) could be inherited, and, therefore, principles of animal breeding could be applied to humans. It is, probably, this idea that has inspired A. S. Byatt to think of characters that are obsessed with the idea of breeding, beauty and the survival of the fittest, and to prove them wrong in “Morpho Eugenia”.” (Nistor, 136) Eugenia is in the beginning of the novella portrayed as an image of perfection, a representative of desirable human traits. The main part of her description revolves around her beauty.

“He [William] looked down from his height at her pale face and saw her large eyelids, blue-veined, almost translucent, and the thick fringes of white-gold hairs on their rims. Her slender fingers, resting in his, were glowed and only faintly warm. Her shoulders and bust rose white and flawless from the froth of tulle and tarlatan like Aphrodite from the foam.” (Byatt, “Morpho Eugenia” 6)

Eugenia is mainly compared to a butterfly, especially the Morpho Eugenia which even shares her name. In the film, the scene in which a female moth emerges from its cocoon and spreads its wings is immediately followed by the image of Eugenia’s dress. Interestingly, the male moths soon begin to crawl up Eugenia’s dress. “They advanced, a disorderly, driven army, beating about Eugenia’s head, burring against her skin, thirty, forty, fifty, a cloud, the male Emperors propelling themselves out of the night towards the torpid female.” (Byatt, “Morpho Eugenia” 54) The male moths appear to be smitten, uncoordinated, driven by pure instinct, just as William is when he is around Eugenia.

In that sense, Byatt also questions the Victorian concepts of romantic love, based mostly on the physical appearance: “I wanted in Morpho Eugenia to depict my hero’s passionate attraction to the beautiful and well-bred Eugenia Alabaster as a question of pheromones and Victorian romantic love combined – disastrously.” (On Histories and Stories 81) Even though Eugenia seems like a perfect match, her marriage with William turns out to be a mistake. Her flawless features do not guarantee a harmonious marriage. The premise of eugenics, that only perfect specimens of a species should be allowed to mate, here proves wrong. Furthermore, two “perfect” human beings, Edgar and Eugenia, are put into in an incestuous relationship to show, in an extreme way, just how wrong eugenics can go. It can be seen as a comment on Galvin’s idea that the intermarriage within a social caste, and marriage between people with desirable, therefore similar features, should be encouraged. (Nistor, 136)

William finds himself entrapped in this superficial world. He cannot resist Eugenia’s beauty, even though he is aware that her behaviour and the dance he attends is “designed to arouse his desire in exactly this way, however demure the gloves, however sweetly innocent the daily life of the young woman in his arms.” (Byatt, “Morpho Eugenia” 6) He notices how it resembles the dances of the native peoples of the Amazon. The similarity is also shown in the film adaptation which starts with scenes of the native dances, and soon the body paint on the natives merges with the colours of ladies’ dresses in the ballroom. The dance is also similar to the mating rituals of some animals and insects. But as William is drawn into the aristocratic household, he seems to be neglecting his own insights. He becomes a part of the structure of an anthill, and transforms himself into the male ant whose only job is to serve the queen ant – Eugenia. She becomes his only desire and obsession, as he keeps repeating: “I shall die if I cannot have her.” (Byatt, “Morpho Eugenia” 13/14) William’s role is not only to serve Eugenia, but also to keep the whole household at peace by making everything seen normal. As Eugenia’s husband, his presence in the household  removes every possible doubt about her behaviour, glossing over the death of her previous fiancé, and possible suspicion about her relationship with her brother. That strongly resembles the behaviour of ants he later on describes: “…they exist, it appears, only for the good of the whole nest, and the centre of the nest, and the centre of the nest is the Queen ant whose laying and feeding the others all tend ceaselessly. (…) The worker ants lose their will to live without the proximity of the Queen – they become immobile and listless…” (Byatt, ‘Morpho Eugenia’ 37)

In the film, intimate scenes between William and Eugenia are followed by shots of ants, including the queen ant, to visually represent the connection which can be read from the novella. Also, the scene in which Eugenia announces her pregnancy to William is followed by William’s conversation with a maid who complains that the property is full of insects and that the more she kills more keep coming. Human reproduction is therefore put in comparison to that of the insects. As the number of the members of the Alabaster family grows, so does the number of insects; and Eugenia is obviously the “ant queen” of the family.

Another “ant queen” in the family is lady Alabaster. She even physically resembles the swollen, immobile ant queen. She is always inside the house, in her overheated chamber, and is tended by the numerous servants.

“Lady Alabaster appeared to be immobilised, by natural lethargy more than by any specific complaint, though she waddled, more than walked, when she progressed along the corridors to eat luncheon, or dine… She lay on a deep sofa, under the window, but with her back to it, oriented towards the fire. (…) She was hugely fat, and did not wear corsets except for special occasions, but lay in a sort of voluminous shiny tea gown, swaddled in cashmere shawls and with a lacy cap tied under her many chins. Like many well-fleshed woman, she had kept some bloom on her skin, and her face was moony-bland and curiously unlined, thought her pale eyes were deep in little rolling pits of flesh.” (Byatt, ‘Morpho Eugenia’ 26/27)

In the film, she also looks almost funny, colourfully dressed and almost completely dependent on her servants. She is always in a sitting or recumbent position, and never on her feet. Later on, Eugenia, while pregnant, starts to resemble her mother. She lies on the garden chair, surrounded by servants, immobile. “Swollen through idleness and or pregnancy, cosseted and waited on by their servants as the ant-queens are by the workers, they become much like the ant-queens, egg-laying machines, gross and glistening, endlessly licked, caressed, soothed and smoothed veritable Prisoners of Love.” (Sturrock 99) One of the scenes that show pregnant Eugenia sitting in the sun is connected to the scene of her mother breathing heavily in her room and consequently dying. The two of them amazingly resemble each other, as to show that though they are two different people, they both have the same role in the house, and as that role is the only thing that truly defines them, they are like two completely identical beings. However, they cannot both exist at the same time. Lady Alabaster cannot give birth to the successors of the family anymore, therefore she is no longer needed, and Eugenia is the one who takes over that role. And indeed, Eugenia seems to be constantly pregnant. On the other hand, there is the character of Eugenia’s sister Rowena who cannot have children. Just like the anthill, the Alabaster family can have only one queen. The disconcerting resemblance becomes even more disturbing in the end, when it becomes obvious that the father of Eugenia’s children is her brother. At that point, it is obvious that human society cannot naturally be a copy of a society of insects.

Matty (Matilda) Crompton is the one who enables William to resist this ant-like resignation with his life.

“From the luxurious Alabaster complex William does ultimately escape, to return to his lifework in the mysteries and hardships of the Amazon. The means of his release comes largely through the diligence and practical intelligence of a femme inspiratrice, Matty Crompton, who holds no classifiable role within the household, and is notably lacking in beautiful form.” (Richardson)

Matilda crosses the borders of the role that is prescribed to her. When William notices that she “thinks a great deal” (Byatt, “Morpho Eugenia” 41), Matty responds: “For a woman. You were about to add, ‘for a woman’, and then refrained, which was courteous. It is my great amusement, thinking.” (Byatt, “Morpho Eugenia” 41) She does not let the perceptions of what a woman is, and is not supposed to do define her, and does not neglect her interests. Unlike Eugenia, she does not represent herself by her looks. In a scene, both in the book and in the film adaptation, William is talking to Eugenia who does not seem to understand his fascination with the Amazon. In the film, Matty can be seen in the background, and when William mentions a paragraph from Milton’s Paradise Lost that he relates to the Amazon, she quotes the lines correctly, and Eugenia, a bit bitterly, comments: “Clever Matty.” Matty emerges from the background not because of her appearance, but because of her knowledge. The lines from Paradise Lost are Matty’s first lines  in the film, and it shows exactly what her personality is all about. Matty is bright, well-educated, interested in science, and a person William can talk to without restraints.

Matilda and William both feel that the life they are living is not enough for them. They are trapped in the situation they are in and cannot achieve anything they want to. William expresses his dissatisfaction indirectly when it comes to choosing a name for his son, and Eugenia wants to call him Edgar. He admits that the Alabaster family is treating him kindly, but still wants to give his son a name from his own family. “I should like something of my own” (Byatt, “Morpho Eugenia” 72) he says, as if he were becoming aware that he is no longer the one who has control over his life. Later on, when he finds out his wife’s secret, he admits that a part of him is happy that he is now able to leave, and admits: “I find that – my most powerful feeling – is that I am free. I ought to feel – shocked, or vengeful, or – of humiliated – and from time to time I feel these things – but mostly, I feel – I can go now, I can leave this house, I can return to my true work.” (Byatt, “Morpho Eugenia” 155) The truth liberated him, and he became even more aware of the feeling of uneasiness that had been following him for a long time. “Only then is he enabled to see Matty as the sphinx who set him this liberating riddle, the asker of riddles and the answer too. (…) After this, he can liberate himself and become like the phoenix, reborn out of his own ashes.” (Sturrock 100) William must realize that he does not have to behave as it is expected of him. He must sacrifice his role in the Alabaster family in order to become himself again, and to live a fulfilling life. Just like Matilda, he also becomes a character who rejects the imposed roles.

“…being the ‘new man’, the scientist, William the Conqueror, and sets off for the rainforest with Matty – Matilda – the predatory worker-turned-queen in the metaphorical anthill. It’s a quiet image of shifting class and sexual hierarchies, too – both Wallace and Bates were explorers from modest backgrounds, who travelled not in the British Empire, but the unknown Amazon, for reasons of pure curiosity.” (Byatt, On Histories and Stories 81)

Therefore, first of all, by leaving, William will quench his thirst for exploration and knowledge. Secondly, and more importantly, going back to the Amazon is his way of taking control over his life. It seems that he is going to a wild territory, but the real wilderness for him was living in the house where the rules of the ants were applied to people. Unlike any ant, William flees the anthill, proving that he is more than a creature with a predestined role.

All things considered, the comparison between people and insects in ‘Morpho Eugenia’ is more than obvious. It is the focal point of the whole story. However, this comparison does not exist in order to affirm that insects truly reflect the behaviour of people, but to undermine that conclusion. When William proclaims that people are not like ants, the reader has already drawn the opposite conclusion. However, even though the whole novella seems to be proving William wrong, the ending leads to another conclusion – William was actually right. The world of the aristocrats that resembles the behaviour of the insects is not the world William could ever live in. That thoroughly structured world is an anachronism. Even the characters who seem fit for that kind of life do not obey its rules. Incest, which is a component of the ant society, is forbidden to people and leads to serious consequences. Slavery as the way in which the ant society works, is most certainly not something that people should apply to their own society. The ant-like structure of the Alabaster household, and the ant-like organisation of Victorian society are artificially made structures that suit no one, and now, in the 21st century, it is important to finally accept and live by that conclusion. Life cannot be based on the sole fulfilment of the role the society imposes on a person. Every person is an individual and needs freedom. Therefore, it is not important to what extent we resemble the insects, but what makes us different.

I don't own a copy of "Angels and Incests, but I do own another Byatt's book, and it's also amazing!

I don’t own a copy of “Angels and Insects”, but I do own Possession, and it’s also amazing!


Angels and Insects. Dir. Philip Haas. The Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1995. Film.

Byatt, Antonia Susan. ‘Morpho Eugenia’ in Angels and Insects. London: Vintage. 1995. 1-161. Print.

—. Interview with Philip Hensher. The Paris Rewiew. No. 159. (2001): n.p. Web. 4/1/2013

—. On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. London: Chatto & Windus. 2000. Print.

Nistor, Cristina. ‘How to Translate Durable Science into Transient Fiction: The Case of A. S. Byatt’s “Morpho Eugenia.”’ University of Bucharest Review Vol. XI, no. 2 (2009): 135-140. Web. 2/1/2013

Richardson, Mary Lynn. ‘Jungian Paradigms in A. S. Byatt’s novella “Morpho Eugenia.”’ n.p. n.d. Web. 9/12/2012

Sturrock, June. ‘Angels, Insects, and Analogy: A. S. Byatt’s “Morpho Eugenia.”’ Connotations 12.1 (2002/2003): 93-104. Web. 9/12/2012

Vanderbeke, Dirk. “Analogies and Insights in ‘Morpho Eugenia’: A Response to June Sturrock.” Connotations 13.3 (2003/2004): 289-299. Web. 9/12/2012


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