Essay on Salvation and Meaning in Elementals

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Salvation and Meaning in Elementals

At least one of Byatt’s messages, possibly the overriding one in Elementals; is that art, curiosity, and stories save us. I would also agree with the philosophical premise that they do, in fact, give our existences meaning. Since these two facets are linked, I shall be pursuing both threads in my essay.

There is ample evidence in this volume that aesthetic expression and desire play an important role in the makeup of characters' lives. Think of Patricia Nimmo in Crocodile Tears, and her distraction of shopping; "a classical column of falling white silk jersey pleats ... a pretty pair of golden slippers, and a honeycomb cotton robe, in aquamarine. These things gave her pleasure." (p18)
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His fixation on capturing the vibrant reality of life on canvas is obsessional: "Why bother. Why does this matter so much ... Why bother to render the transparency in solid paint or air on a bit of board? I could just stop. He could not." (p87) His abstraction has become an alternate reality in itself.

Patricia Nimmo and Nils Isaksen are both detached from reality; the only pleasure each derives in existence in played out within a self-contained fantasy, a world of fiction. Ultimately it is their entwined destinies, their continuing interest in each other's ongoing life stories, which gives them the will to carry on living. This is further emphasised later in a different story in the volume: "And if Fiammarosa was sometime lonely in her glass palace, and sometimes wished ... this was not unusual, for no one has everything they can desire" (p181) The subtext here is that it would be extremely unwise for anyone to ever reach that position; curiosity is an important part of a healthy appetite for life. The subtitle of Elementals, "stories of fire and ice" is a particularly apposite extended metaphor: many of the volume's characters are frozen in some aspect of their lives; and are thawed and made human again by art, story and fantasy — Fiammarosa

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