Writing for A.S. Byatt


In the opening passage of her short story “Body Art,” A.S. Byatt establishes a definitive contrast between the cheerful and heavy­hearted areas of the Gynae Ward at St. Pantaleon’s through the use of strong language. This divide is the result of both the physical and emotional conditions of the families in each section as well how each group affects Dr. Damian Becker, the sole character introduced in the passage.  

The originally uplifting description of the Gynae Ward quickly shifts as the reader is informed about Dr. Becker’s various patients. One notable factor is the abrupt change in setting from a place of familiarity and comfort, where “there was customary banter…, about the race to bear the Christmas Day baby” (Byatt, 47),  to an entirely different setting lacking “the mewing and gulping of the infants or the greeting of the women” (47). he cry of a newborn is, somewhat counterintuitively, a symbol of life and good health. It is an instance that many people automatically associate with new birth, a sound that would be devastating not to hear, as is the case in the far end of the Gynae Ward. The imagery associated with this contrast of happy, smiling mothers in addition to the word choice of the “customary banter” occurring contribute to to the initial establishment of an optimistic setting. However, without further elaboration, the atmosphere shifts as the mood of the passage darkens. The less fortunate side of the ward is 

“curtained­off” in isolation instead of friendly conversation. This objective view of the Gynae Ward alone leads the reader to understand the shift in atmosphere despite the similar location. 

The language in the passage continues to support the idea of a separation between the two areas within the Gynae Ward as the perspective switches to the thoughts of Dr. Becker who is supervising both areas. From the beginning of the passage, Dr. Becker does not participate in the joys of the Christmas Day festivities. One possible explanation is that he is too exhausted from his responsibilities on the other side of the ward that he is unable to celebrate. This is the first evidence of the helpless tone that develops throughout the passage. The baby of one of Dr. Becket’s patients is described as “a scrap of skin and bone in an incubation” (47), causing the reader to question the purpose of the harsh word choice used. Perhaps, it is just easier for Dr. 

Becket, obviously already in low spirits, to dehumanize the patients with unpromising futures. The passage concludes with a sequence of sentences all beginning with “He” which describe the doctor’s emotions. The repetitive sentence structure indicates the demoralizing effect that having to face the challenges presented by his patients has had on Dr. Becket. The emotions expressed by Dr. Becket aid in the development of his character, which appears to be consistent yet incomplete.  

The drastic mood change from merry to meek within the opening passage of “Body Art” is conveyed through an objective setting description as well as insight into Dr. Becket’s thoughts. Throughout the passage, A.S. Byatt also relies on the use of language such as word choice, setting, and imagery to further develop the sharp contrast created within the hospital.  

Emma E. Wellington