Byatt, A. S. (Antonia Susan)
|Genre||Short Story (45 pp.)|
|Keywords||Aging, Anesthesia, Art of Medicine, Body Self-Image, Children, Chronic Illness/Chronic Disease, Communication, Cross-Cultural Issues, Death and Dying, Depression, Disability, Disease and Health, Doctor-Patient Relationship, Empathy, Family Relationships, Freedom, Grief, Hospitalization, Human Worth, Illness and the Family, Individuality, Loneliness, Love, Memory, Mother-Daughter Relationship, Pain, Patient Experience, Sexuality, Society, Spirituality, Suffering, Surgery, Survival, Time, Women's Health|
|Summary||The story opens with the death of the protagonist’s beloved mother, with whom she lives. Ines, a dictionary researcher, is soon jolted from her grief by the excruciating pain of a “twisted and gangrenous gut” (112). After a hospital stay and emergency surgery, she returns home to recuperate from the physical trauma and revisit her mourning. On the day when she can remove the wound dressings, Ines discovers a surprising change in her body: it seems to be turning to stone. Her incision has become a “raised shape, like a starfish, like the whirling arms of a nebula in the heavens” that gradually spreads to the rest of her body, forming "ruddy veins" across her belly and "greenish-white crystals sprouting in her armpits" (119).|
Ines assumes that this process is fatal and that she will "observe [death's] approach in a new fantastic form" (121). Deciding to write a record for those who will find her after her demise, she studies the names and nature of minerals in order to understand and describe her metamorphosis. From her new, mineralizing perspective, she realizes that stones can be dynamic and living as well as fixed and dead; minerals are memorials to the relationships and reciprocities between living creatures and dead ones.
Unable to write the record of her transformation, Ines finds herself passionate to be outdoors. She explores the city, looking for "a place to stand in the weather before she became immobile" (127). In an old graveyard, she meets and gradually forms a bond with Thorsteinn, an old Icelandic stonecutter who may also be mourning the death (apparently of a child). The Ines shares the secret of her metamorphosis with the stonecutter and eventually travels with him to his homeland, a geologically young country, where stones are alive and myths tell of “striding stone women.” Thorsteinn sketches here in this landscape and creates a standing stone image of Ines that reflects his ability to see her as she is and find her beautiful: "Petra faction saw that she existed, in there" (150).
Ines's metamorphosis culminates in her inability to see or speak as a human and her ability to perceive a whole new realm of living creatures, "earth bubbles and earth monsters" (151) and other stone people who are "flinging their great arms wide in invitation" (156). She joins their wild dance.
|Commentary||“The Stone Woman” is a rich exploration of the concept of “turning to stone” as both a literalized conceit and a figure for grief and other transformations. Petrification as Byatt imagines it, is a suggestive metaphor for chronic degenerative illnesses that may change not only embodiment, mobility, and appearance, but also perspective and modes of being in social and physical environments. The story also explores how we see and honor the living and the dead in monuments and memorials.|
Once we can imagine Ines’s metamorphosis as a mode of development, we can apply that concept to any other conditions her petrifaction seems to symbolize. At the same time, we may want to question why an essentialized, romanticized Iceland is the only radically "other" location that can be imagined as a home for the new Ines. She may have found a better place, but the story is still one of exile.
The medicalized moments early in the metamorphosis are but a small portion of the narrative, but memorable for Byatt's rendering of the physical and emotional pain of hospitalization, especially for patients without families, and for the brief but trenchant critique of an anesthetist who "had chosen his profession because he didn't like people feelings" (114).
Lyrically written and engaging, the story is a provocative focus for discussions of grief and disability as individual and social experiences. The story is productively read alongside Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (see this database). "A Stone Woman" and "Body Art” (in this database), are from Little Black Book of Stories, a collection that reflects Byatt's frequent focus on embodiment.
|Source||Little Black Book of Stories|
|Place Published||New York|
|Alternate Source||Little Black Book of Stories|
|Alternate Publisher||Alfred A. Knopf|
|Place Published||New York|
|Annotated by||Holmes, Martha Stoddard|
|Date of Entry||10/17/06|