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The loss of roses: mother-daughter myth and relationships between women in Mrs. Dalloway.

"The loss of the daughter to the mother, the mother to the daughter, is the essential female tragedy," writes Adrienne Rich in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (237) She laments that our society no longer recognizes the "mother-daughter passion and rapture," once celebrated in the now lost rituals of the mystery of Eleusis, a religious cult of ancient Greece whose mysterious rites were known only to initiates. I want to trace in this essay the way in which Virginia Woolf, in Mrs. Dalloway, recognizes the loss of the daughter to the mother (and more broadly, the loss of women to each other) by invoking in her work the Eleusinian Mysteries, "the most important of the widespread Greek mystery cults of antiquity" (Foley 65). The Homeric Hymn to Demeter is the oldest known version of the mother-daughter myth of Demeter and Persephone, whose cult was celebrated in the mysteries at Eleusis. (1) These rites would have held particular appeal for Woolf, for not only did they lack the kind of formal theology, authoritative scripture, and priests (Foley 84) that she found so unappealing in the Church of England, they "emerge[d] from the private and even secret world of female experience" (Foley 139).

Virginia Woolf labored to learn to read Greek and greatly respected the classics she was then able to read in the original, as her essay ironically titled "On Not Knowing Greek" demonstrates. William Herman in fact suggests that "probably Woolf knew a great deal more Greek than James Joyce ever managed to acquire" (266). (2) Woolf also respected, perhaps even revered, the classical scholar Jane Harrison, whose work she refers to in A Room of One's Own. Harrison wrote extensively on the ancient Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone. (3)

Woolf herself alluded to Eleusis in her letters: "O it is a hot afternoon, and I wish I were basking on the back seat of the carriage, driving to Eleusis. I heard a mystic story about Eleusis from Miss Case the other day: how all the fields are covered with flowers in the evening, as you drive back, and there are none at midday" (Letters 294). She would almost certainly have been sufficiently familiar with myth to use it in her work, either consciously or unconsciously. As Jane Marcus explains,
   Harrison's work on mothers and daughters in pre-classical Greece,
   her study of her-goddess worship into patriarchal Greek thought as
   we know it, was very important to Virginia Woolf's writing and
   thinking. The Hymn to Demeter and the story of Persephone were
   especially moving for a writer who always thought of herself as a
   "motherless daughter." (Marcus 13)

Woolf's use of the Demeter-Persephone myth has been noted and explicated by critics studying her other novels-specifically The Voyage Out and To the Lighthouse. (4) But the role the mother-daughter myth plays in Mrs. Dalloway--in which a living mother is grieved and angered by the temporary loss of her daughter-has been inexplicably overlooked. Reuben Brower, for example, has criticized as unnecessary two aspects of the novel which demonstrate its ties to the Homeric Hymn--first, the scene in which the solitary traveller encounters a figure described in Demetrian terms, and second, Woolf's use of "pseudo-Homeric similes" (Brower 135). The similes are only "pseudo," of course, if one fails to recognize their source. Woolf does openly refer to the myth at least once in the novel, although she uses the Roman version of Demeter's name (Kerenyi 29), when she notes that the War "smashed a plaster cast of Ceres" (MD 129). Yet the only critics who do note the connection either mention it briefly, in passing (Schlack 52-53), or relegate it to a footnote (Richter, "Ulysses Connection" 318, notes 22 and 31).

Her use of the myth would both strengthen and weaken the argument that Woolf was influenced by Ulysses. Her Homeric similes would no longer be either parodic allusions to Ulysses (Hoff, "Pseudo-Homeric"; Newman) or gratuitous echoes of Joyce's very different project, but signposts of her own revision of myth-thus confirming that "the use she makes of the classics is radically different from [that of] her male compeers" (Herman 266). For Woolf uses the Eieusinian Mysteries associated with the mother-daughter myth of Demeter and Persephone to suggest that, as Susan Gubar explains, "the grievous separation of mother and maiden implies that in a patriarchal society women are divided from each other and from themselves" (305).

Perhaps the most intriguing representation of the Demeter myth in Mrs. Dalloway is the anonymous "battered woman" (MD 122) whose singing Peter Walsh hears; she has "the voice of an ancient spring spouting from the earth" (MD 122)--a symbol of the myth--and sings of love and death. Like Demeter, she is both timeless and immortal: She has been there [t]hrough all ages" (AID 122) and "would still be there in ten million years" (MD 122, 124). She is associated with fecundity; her voice is "fertilising, leaving a damp stain" as she sings (MD 123). As Shirley Neuman notes, "[T]he fecundation is achieved without any male presence" (68). But the battered woman is only the most obvious reference to a myth that pervades the novel.

Clarissa is Demeter, goddess of vegetation. (5) She is associated with flowers from the opening sentence of Mrs. Dalloway--and flowers and vegetation are specifically and repeatedly associated with motherhood throughout the novel. Clarissa notes, for example, during her morning excursion, that "June had drawn out every leaf on the trees. The mothers of Pimlico gave suck to their young" (MD 9). Ciarissa's former suitor, Peter Walsh, thinking of her, comments to himself, "She enjoyed practically everything. If you walked with her in Hyde Park now it was a bed of tulips, now a child in a perambulator ..." (MD 118). At the party, Sally Seton, the girlfriend of Clarissa's youth, is remarkable both for her five sons and for what Clarissa terms her "miles of conservatories" (MD 286). Perhaps most telling of all is the only moment in the novel in which Clarissa's own mother is mentioned:
      "Dear Clarissa!" exclaimed Mrs. Hillary. She looked to-night, she
   said, so like her mother as she first saw her walking in a garden in
   a grey hat.

      And really Clarissa's eyes filled with tears. Her mother, walking
   in a garden! But alas, she must go. (MD 267)

At one point, the goddess-like Clarissa thinks to herself "that she filled the room she entered, and felt often as she stood hesitating one moment on the threshold of her drawing-room, an exquisite suspense ..." (MD 44). Her experience here is directly analogous to the bereaved Demeter's, who, when she enters the home of mortals, "stepped on the threshold./ Her head reached the roof and she filled the doorway with divine light" (Foley 12, lines 188-89).

Peter, in telling Clarissa that he is in love, speaks "not to her however, but to some one raised up in the dark so that you could not touch her but must lay your garland down on the grass in the dark" (MD 66). Clarissa becomes, then, a kind of high priestess (Henke 126): "In the world of the novel, shattered by the First World War, the perfect hostess, the mediator between people, is the closest thing to a holy person that there is" (Perazzini 410). And Clarissa's own thoughts link her to the torch associated both with Demeter's search for her daughter (Athanassakis 3 and Foley 4, 1. 48) and with the torches which "played an important role at all stages of the Eleusinian celebrations" (Richardson 167; see also Foley 38). When considering Septimus's suicide, Clarissa thinks, "Better anything, better brandish one's torch and hurl it to earth than taper and dwindle away like some Ellie Henderson!" (MD 255). In the opening pages of the novel, Clarissa recalls that "she, too, was going that very night to kindle and illuminate; to give her party" (MD 6). Similarly, in the Homeric Hymn, Demeter radiates light: "... from the immortal skin of the goddess a light/ shone afar, as her blond hair streamed down over her shoulders,/ and the sturdy mansion was filled with radiance as if from lightning" (Athanassakis 9, lines 278-80). Even Clarissa's name means light, while Demeter is given the epithet "light-bearer" (Keller 31).

Clarissa's image of orgasmic illumination--"a match in a crocus" (MD 67)--combines two of Demeter's symbols, the flame (of the torch) and the flower; the crocus is specifically mentioned more than once in the Homeric Hymn (Athanassakis 1 and 13 and Foley 2 and 24, 11. 6, 426, and 428) and was considered sacred to both Demeter and Persephone (Richardson 292). And her command to "Remember my party to-night!" (MD 72) recalls Demeter's command in the Homeric Hymn that the people of Eleusis celebrate rites to propitiate her (Athanassakis 9 and Foley 16, lines 273-74).

If Clarissa is a Demeter figure, then Elizabeth, her daughter, is assuredly a Persephone. Clarissa, in thinking of her, emphasizes Elizabeth's youthfulness: "In many ways, her mother felt, she was extremely immature, like a child still, attached to dolls, to old slippers; a perfect baby; and that was charming" (MD 209). Elizabeth reminds people of the flowers, water, and springtime associated with the ancient myth: "People were beginning to compare her to poplar trees, early dawn, hyacinths, fawns, running water, and garden lilies" (MD 204). She has the same effect at Clarissa's party: "She was like a poplar, she was like a river, she was like a hyacinth, Willie Titcomb was thinking" (MD 287). Interestingly, she has the same effect on women, as well: "She was like a lily, Sally said, a lily by the side of a pond" (MD 294). Clarissa compares her to "a hyacinth, sheathed in glossy green, with buds just timed, a hyacinth which has had no sun" (MD 186). Even "poor Miss Kilman," Elizabeth's history tutor, thinks of her as "a fawn in the open, a moon in a glade" (MD 205). Such images are common in Greek poetry (Foley 44). Like Persephone, "She had no preferences," and "She inclined to be passive" (MD 204). But this Persephone half-recognizes her own danger in the comic imagery associated with the omnibus: "The impetuous creature--a pirate--started forward, sprang away; she had to hold the rail to steady herself, for a pirate it was, reckless, unscrupulous, bearing down ruthlessly, circumventing dangerously, boldly snatching a passenger ..." (MD 205).

Woolf presents Doris Kilman as the Hades figure in her revision of the myth. As the novel progresses, Miss Kilman attempts to take Clarissa's daughter away from her. Kilman's very name suggests death (as well, perhaps, as masculinity), and Clarissa links her to both the underworld and the use of force by naming her "one of those spectres with which one battles in the night; one of those spectres who stand astride us and suck up half our life-blood, dominators and tyrants" (MD 16-17). She later thinks of her, equally melodramatically, as "Elizabeth's seducer; the woman who had crept in to steal and defile" (MD 266). After dismissing thoughts of Miss Kilman, Clarissa enters the florist's shop and, surrounded by flowers, envisions the scene that opens the hymn: "... as if it were the evening and girls in muslin frocks came out to pick sweet peas and roses after the superb summer's day, with its almost blue-black sky" (MD 18). Perhaps not surprisingly, Miss Kilman does not care for flowers (MD 198).

In trying to recover her lost daughter, Clarissa is trying to recover a lost part of herself. No wonder, then, that Clarissa wonders to herself, "What was she trying to recover? What image of white dawn in the country ..." (MD 12). Immediately afterwards, she spots in a bookseller's window a volume opened to the quotation from Shakespeare's Cymbeline that recurs throughout the novel: "Fear no more the heat o' the sun/Nor the furious winter's rages" (MD 13). In the play, the quotation is part of a funeral dirge sung over the apparently dead body of a young woman (disguised as a boy) who later revives; the characters who sing the dirge had earlier sung it over their mother's body (Ferrer 39). The allusion thus foreshadows both Elizabeth's return to her mother and Clarissa's own experience, in the novel's final pages, of a kind of rebirth. (6)

Relationships with other women are clearly primary for both Clarissa and her daughter, as Elizabeth Abel has so clearly explicated. (7) Abel sees in this novel a palimpsestic plot that further underlines the novel's association with the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. She describes Clarissa's reminiscences as "Woolf's subversive account of the force required to break the daughter's attachment to her mother" (144 note 4). (8) Sally is, of course, a maternal figure for Clarissa despite their closeness in age. Abel maintains that Peter's intrusion into what Clarissa calls "the most exquisite moment of her whole life" (MD 52), the moment when Sally Seton kisses her, "suggests a revised Oedipal configuration: the jealous male attempting to rupture the exclusive female bond, insisting on the transference of attachment to the man, demanding heterosexuality" (Abel 32-33). Clarissa describes his intrusion in rather violent terms:
   It was like running one's face against a granite wall in the
   darkness! It was shocking; it was horrible! ... She felt only how
   Sally was being mauled already, maltreated; she felt his hostility,
   his jealousy; his determination to break into their

      "Oh this horror!" she said to herself, as if she had known all
   along that something would interrupt, would embitter her moment of
   happiness. (MD 53)

Peter's action thus casts him as Hades, violently intervening in a mother-daughter romance. In an earlier manuscript, Woolf was even more explicit: Peter asks Clarissa outright, "Why didn't you marry me?" and Elizabeth walks into the room, almost as if in answer to Peter's question (Charles G. Hoffman 182).

Patricia Cramer identifies a similar pattern of men interrupting, silencing, and dividing women from each other in The Years, a pattern that she also links to the Demeter and Persephone myth ("Loving" 217-18). She further notes that the pattern suggests the cost to women of their initiation into compulsory heterosexuality ("Loving" 218)--a particularly significant theme given that Clarissa, Sally, and Doris Kilman have all been read as lesbian characters.

No wonder, then, that Clarissa and Sally share Demeter's apocalyptic view of heterosexuality: "they spoke of marriage always as a catastrophe" (MD 50). (9) It is interesting, too, that what Clarissa most fears and abhors is what she terms "the crime of 'forcing' the soul, where forcing has the meanings of forcible entry into a locked house, of rape, and of making a growing thing bloom out of its proper season" (Rose 134).

Lee Edwards has already done much to document the ways in which the sexes are segregated in this novel, and the painfully high cost society must pay to maintain such segregation. It is interesting, then, to note that other female figures in the novel echo Clarissa's longing for other women and share her pain at the cost of her separation from that loving female world.

Lucrezia mirrors Clarissa, for example (Abel 34). The abbreviated version of her name (Rezia) emphasizes its similarity to both Clarissa and to Ceres (Schlack 53). Rezia is also like Clarissa in her creative abilities, both in making hats and creating social occasions. As women, they share what Phyllis Rose calls "the creativity of everyday feminine life" (MD 130).

Like Persephone, Rezia is exiled from her mother's love: "'Septimus has been working too hard'--that was all she could say to her own mother. To love makes one solitary, she thought" (MD 33). (10) She sees herself as alone and in darkness (MD 35). Abel explains:
   Like Clarissa, Rezia finds herself plucked by marriage from an
   Edenic female world with which she retains no contact. Her
   memories highlight the exclusively female community of sisters
   collaboratively making hats in an Italian setting that is pastoral
   despite the surrounding urban context: "For you should see the
   Milan gardens!" she later exclaims, when confronted with London's
   "few ugly flowers stuck in pots" (34) .... Marriage and war
   explicitly coalesce for Rezia as agents of expulsion from this
   female paradise .... (34)

Rezia speaks of the cost of her exile in terms of death: "Every one has friends who were killed in the War. Every one gives up something when they marry" (MD 99). The parallel sentence structures suggest the losses are equal in her eyes--a startling statement of the painfulness of the break marriage has made in her life.

Rezia suggests, by her very presence, that Clarissa's experience is common for women ("Every one gives up something when they marry") Women share emotions to which men have no access. Even the pragmatic, hard-nosed Lady Bruton dreams, when she dozes, of herself as a young girl, as a daughter who, like Persephone, roams in "a field of clover in the sunshine this hot June day, with the bees going round and about and the yellow butterflies" (MD 169). The inimitable Sally, too, seems to mourn for a lost Edenic past much like Lady Bruton: "Despairing of human relationships (people were so difficult), she often went into her garden and got from her flowers a peace which men and women never gave her" (MD 293-94).

Even the brief appearance of Maisie Johnson further emphasizes Woolf's point. Maisie (whose name suggests maize) is frightened by the untoward appearance of Septimus and wonders why she had not stayed at home--thus suggesting that she is yet another Persephone in search of experience but frightened by heterosexuality. She is observed by an older woman who knows the perils of marriage and wishes that she could somehow warn innocent young Maisie As Foley suggests of the characters in the Homeric Hymn, "... it is as if all women are related-potentially mothers and daughters to each other" (125). Even the older woman's very name, Mrs. Dempster, recalls Demeter:
   That girl, thought Mrs. Dempster ..., don't know a thing yet; and
   really it seemed to her better to be a little stout, a little slack,
   a little moderate in one's expectations.... She had had a hard time
   of it, and couldn't help smiling at a girl like that. You'll get
   roamed, for you're pretty enough, thought Mrs. Dempster. Get
   married, she thought, and then you'll know.... Every man has
   his ways. But whether I'd have chosen quite like that if I could
   have known, thought Mrs. Dempster, and could not help wishing to
   whisper a word to Maisie Johnson, to feel on the creased pouch of
   her worn old face the kiss of pity. For it's been a hard life,
   thought Mrs. Dempster. What hadn't she given to it?
   (MD 39-40)

Impoverished, overworked Carrie Dempster shares Clarissa's sense of loss: "... she implored, pity. Pity, for the loss of roses" (MD 40).

This sense of loss pervades the entire novel, which could be described as preoccupied with death. Yet in the novel's final passages, mother and daughter are reunited. Abducted by what Clarissa terms "[t]he odious Kilman" (MD 192), Elizabeth, unlike Persephone, must rescue herself, and she does so "most competently" (MD 205), without expecting parental help. Woolf openly equates the daughter's decision to return to attend her mother's party with a return to Olympus. Once Elizabeth realizes that "it was later than she thought" and turns toward home, the clouds she sees "had all the appearance of settled habitations assembled for the conference of gods above the world" (MD 210).

Elizabeth's reunion with her mother admittedly lacks the emotional resonance of the one described in the myth, but it does signal Elizabeth's rejection of Doris Kilman in favor of a return to her mother. Even her clothing suggests rapprochement and perhaps even identification: She is wearing a pink dress (MD 252), which mirrors the "pink gauze" Clarissa wore the night Sally kissed her (MD 51). (11) This muted reunion lacks the emotional impact of Lily's coming to terms with the memory of Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse. But it is in some ways more hopeful, for Elizabeth achieves her successful identification with her mother while Clarissa is still alive.


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(1) See Apostolos N. Athanassakis or Helene P. Foley for translations of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. I have quoted from both translations in this essay.

For an introduction to the Hymn's symbolism, see Mara Lynn Keller. Carl Kerenyi offers the most thorough history and explication of the cult of Eleusis.

(2) On Woolf's knowledge of, and interest in, the Greek language and culture, see Rowena Fowler. Vassiliki Kolocotroni, Rebecca Nagel, Stephen J. Ramsay, and Angeliki Spiropoulou. For discussions of the influences of Greek literature on Mrs. Dalloway specifically, see June M. Frazer, Steven Monte, and Molly Hoff's notes on the novel for Explicator.

(3) Woolf's critics have begun to trace Woolf's use of Harrison's work in her writings; the staunchly feminist critic Jane Marcus has argued, for example, that Woolf's novel The Years "offers a ritual purification and purgation of the whole community such as the Eleusinian mysteries provided" (38). For other discussions of Woolf's use of Harrison's writings, see works by Eileen Barrett, Martha C. Carpentier, Patricia Cramer ("Notes" and "Loving"). Carolyn Heilbrun (58-77), Judy Little, K.J. Phillips, Annabel Robinson, Patricia Maika, Lise Schlosser, Sandra Shattuck, and Lisa Tyler ("Mother-Daughter Passion and Rapture").

Writing on Between the Acts, Melba Cuddy-Keane argues for parallelism rather than influence: "It is impossible to say whether Woolf was influenced by Harrison or whether Woolf and Harrison held similar views owing to common influences, but it is striking how closely Woolf's last novel approximates the communal art that Harrison longed to see" (275).

Molly Hoff, while also citing Harrison's work, argues that Woolf is both parodying Joyce's Ulysses and alluding directly to Homer's Odyssey in Mrs. Dalloway ("Pseudo-Homeric").

(4) See for example the work of Madeline Moore, Avrom Fleishman, Joseph Blotner, Carolyn G. Heilbrun (134-39), Anne Golomb Hoffman, Susan Luck Hooks, Tina Barr, Laurie Brands Gagne (125-42), and Lisa Tyler ("Mother-Daughter Passion and Rapture").

(5) Evelyn Haller's contention that Clarissa is an Isis figure is not necessarily incompatible with my argument: "The African Isis was closely related to Demeter ..." (Keller 36).

(6) Haefele makes a similar point in negative terms; after noting that Imogen is "only apparently dead," she notes, "For Clarissa, then, the dirge functions not just as a consolation for death and loss, but as a denial of their finality" (213). Haefele interprets the allusion as a denial of Britain's loss of status, "national vitality ... and imperial stability" in World War I.

See Diane E. Henderson's essay for a fuller discussion of the significance of the allusion to Shakespeare's Cymbeline. Henderson interprets this allusion in terms parallel to mine:

   [T]he borrowings from Cymbeline suggest as well the redemptive
   possibilities in reconceiving female experience outside the
   traditional plots premised on aristocratic blood ties or the
   bourgeois equation of love and marriage. They imply the importance
   of recovering that which conventionally must be displaced or
   discarded in a search for 'maturity' and social stability. (154)

(7) Roger Poole writes, "Apart from a certain pride in her daughter, Mrs. Dalloway seems to have no relation to her" (172). Audra Dibert-Himes more perceptively suggests, "The young woman is always described in contrast to Clarissa, with no mention of her family, but in comparison to Richard and the Dalloways.... Through this description, Elizabeth is at once connected to but distanced from a matriarchal inheritance" (255).

(8) See Marilyn Arthur, Ellen Handler Spitz, and Lisa Tyler (Our Mothers' Gardens) for discussions of the way in which women writers use the myth of Demeter and Persephone to revise Freud's theories of women's psychological development (and specifically his emphasis on the exclusive importance of the oedipal stage).

In noting Freud's own allusions to the myth, Mary. Jacobus characterizes it as both "the rope of the girl child (Proserpine/Kore) from her mother (Ceres/Demeter) by, the patriarchal father (Pluto/Hades)" and "the rupture of mother-daughter relations in the interests of patriarchal society" (15). Like Woolf, Jacobus notes the psychic cost to women: she also notes the myth's underlying incestuous implications, which might have held especial interest for Woolf, given her own experience of incest: "The story, could be summarized as the girl's rejection of her mother for failing to equip her with a penis and the forcible transfer of love from her first maternal object to a heterosexual love object, by way of incestuous desire for the father" (Jacobus 15).

(9) Foley repeatedly points out that, as she puts it, "... the myth probably served ... to promote women's psychological survival in a context where young daughters are separated at marriage from their family and circle of older women and to find religious significance in the mother's and daughter's transcendence of their deathlike separation" (137). See especially 81-82.

(10) The importance of the mother-daughter relationship in this novel suggests that Elise--whose name closely resembles Elizabeth's--is a surrogate daughter figure for Rezia, thus contradicting James Naremore's contention that she is an expendable narrative device:
   Little Elsie [sic] Mitchell serves no other purpose than to form a
   bridge between Septimus and Rezia ... Elise is altogether too patent
   a contrivance, of course, and for that reason the transition seems
   forced. (87)

Presumably Naremore means Peter rather than Septimus.

Smart Rosenberg makes the same complaint in "The Match in the Crocus: Obtrusive Art in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway":
   When a novelist creates a character such as the little Elise
   Mitchell ... solely to have her run from her nurse, who is seated on
   the same bench as Peter, into the legs of Lucrezia Smith, ... it is
   obvious that she is manipulating the novel's material as blatantly
   as when she provides a rhetorical transition from one aspect of a
   paragraph to another. (215)

On the contrary, Elise Mitchell recalls the world of feminine community. Rezia has lost and rekindles her longing for a child who could give her the emotional closeness that Septimus cannot consistently provide.

(11) Interestingly, as Audra Dibert-Himes notes, while Richard sees Elizabeth in pink, Sally sees her in red--a difference Dibert-Himes attributes to their differing perceptions of the young woman.
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Author:Tyler, Lisa
Publication:West Virginia University Philological Papers
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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