The Loss of Roses: Mother-Daughter Myth and Relationships between Women in Mrs. Dalloway

By Tyler, Lisa | West Virginia University Philological Papers, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

The Loss of Roses: Mother-Daughter Myth and Relationships between Women in Mrs. Dalloway


Tyler, Lisa, West Virginia University Philological Papers


"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). …

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