BMCR 2023.01.30

Virginia Woolf’s mythic method

, Virginia Woolf's mythic method. Classical memories/modern identities. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2022. Pp. 172. ISBN 9780814215135

T. S. Eliot coined the phrase “mythic method” to describe the way that James Joyce uses classical myths to organize the chaos of the human experience in his fiction. In her book Virginia Woolf’s Mythic Method, Amy C. Smith examines a similar phenomenon in the fiction of the titular author, finding that Woolf uses myth not to impose order on the jumbled confusion that is life, but rather to destabilize social hierarchies and criticize the prevailing ethos of her era, with its glorification of patriarchy and imperialism. Woolf’s modernist writing style reflects her goal of destabilization, as she uses what Smith calls parataxis, a literary device where clauses are sequential without being subordinated to one another. It is Smith’s contention that Greek myth, in its multifarious and fragmentary aspects, possesses a similar paratactic structure. Myth is therefore, like Woolf’s fiction, widely open to interpretation. By integrating aspects of myth into her fiction, Smith argues, Woolf works to “decouple Greek from misogyny and elitism” (11).

In “On Not Knowing Greek,” Woolf demonstrates her familiarity with classical literature and the myths it transmits. In its analyses, however, Smith’s book looks less at Woolf’s use of Greek texts than at her integration of mythic archetypes as understood by Cambridge classicist Jane Ellen Harrison. The myths that inform Woolf’s “mythic method,” then, are not classical, but pseudo-archaic. In particular, Harrison’s views of the virgin goddesses Artemis and Athena, the divine mother-daughter pair Demeter and Persephone, and a speculative prehistoric mother goddess inform Smith’s reading of Woolf’s fiction. The book is therefore informative on the history of classics as a discipline as well as on the topic of classical reception, illuminating how prominent scholars of the early 20th century understood classical literature and religion, and how that scholarship in turn influenced such an important literary figure as Woolf.

In Chapter One, Smith analyzes the title character in Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway with reference to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. The opening of the Hymn offers an interesting comparandum for Woolf’s novel: Persephone picks flowers with her friends, then is abducted by and forced to marry her uncle Hades. In an act of what Smith calls “revision,” Woolf opens Mrs. Dalloway with a similar narrative sequence: Clarissa Dalloway buys flowers from a shop, then is interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious and impressive figure in a car. In a second revision later in the novel, Clarissa reflects upon her romantic encounter with a girlhood friend, Sally Seton. Sally picks a flower and she and Clarissa kiss, before they are interrupted by the arrival of a jealous suitor, Peter Walsh. In these scenes, flower picking is associated with femininity and female companionship, and is intruded upon. Consideration of the Hymn alongside these scenes allows us to appreciate Woolf’s use of mythic narrative structures to depict female bonding. At the same time, Woolf notably deviates from the Hymn by integrating the innocence of girlhood with lesbian self-discovery.

The second and third chapters also look at mythic paradigms in Mrs. Dalloway. First, Woolf examines the character of Septimus Warren Smith as a version of the “dying god” or “vegetation god” favored by Cambridge Ritualists like Harrison and J. G. Frazer. This school of myth studies promoted the idea that many early societies celebrated the annual death of a community leader, which magically vivified the harvest, thereby bringing life through death. Septimus Warren Smith, whose death by suicide reinvigorates Clarissa’s dinner party, embodies a similar ritualistic function. Woolf shows an allegiance to Harrison over Frazer in her adaptation of the dying god myth, as she emphasizes not the exceptional individual who is sacrificed, but rather the community bonding that results. Furthermore, in the character Septimus Warren Smith, Woolf offers a critique of Enlightenment reason, an overdependence on which actually causes his irrational behavior. Next, Peter Walsh is considered in the light of contemporary trends in anthropology, where scholars like E. B. Tylor advanced the idea of “primitive” societies as both juvenile in terms of social evolution and admirable for their purity. At the same time, scholars were positing the existence of a prehistoric matriarchy, where an enigmatic female deity was revered. Walsh’s infatuations with random, mysterious women and with India reflect Woolf’s criticism of such views as shallow and paternalistic.

The next chapter also concerns the posited mother goddess as she appears in To the Lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsay, it is argued, possesses qualities reminiscent of the mother goddess and Demeter, as well as Artemis, Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, and Persephone. As Woolf makes use of each of these figures to characterize Mrs. Ramsay over the course of the novel, she seems to adhere to Harrison’s theory of a universal primordial goddess who was divided into her various aspects, represented by the goddesses in the Greek pantheon. This theory in turn reflects an important conversation happening in contemporary feminist circles, where the possibility of a prehistoric matriarchal culture was paradoxically both empowering and patronizing. Finally, Smith looks at Woof’s posthumous novel Between the Acts, wherein we again meet allusions “to several goddesses within one character and one goddess among several characters” (124). This diffusion of mythic archetypes exemplifies Woolf’s paratactic method, where she offers the reader a destabilized and inconsistent version of reality and challenges us to make sense of it.

In terms of substance, Smith’s arguments are overall convincing and allow for a nuanced understanding of Woolf’s authorial style and her works. Some vagueness about and oversimplification of myth may be explicable in light of the tendency of early 20th century scholars to categorize mythic figures according to simple archetypes, like the divine triad of maiden-mother-crone. Smith frequently uses these means of simplifying myths into a series of symbols, which are then complicated by their dispersal among various Woolfian characters.

This book is above all a contribution to Virginia Woolf studies, which the bibliography, replete with Woolfian scholarship, reflects.[1] But there is nevertheless plenty for the classicist to enjoy, as Smith illuminates important branches of classical scholarship and their cultural and literary impact in the early twentieth century. While our field is in a period of intro- and retrospection, intersectional studies such as this are important. It may join the shelf near V. Zajko and M. Leonard’s (2006) Laughing with Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought and T. L. Walter’s (2007) African American literature and the classicist tradition: Black women writers from Wheatley to Morrison. Somewhat more esoteric than these, Smith’s book does require a fairly extensive familiarity with modernism and with Woolf, but those with even a cursory knowledge will find insights into the historical uses of classics both to support and to hinder social progress.



[1] Throughout the book, citations include author names and titles, but not years. The years are found in the bibliography, naturally, but they would frequently be useful in footnotes as well.