International Journal of the Classical Tradition

, Volume 7, Issue 2, pp 256–264 | Cite as

Mythic designs and modern readers: The case of the invisible text

Thomas Hardy,Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Edited with Notes by Tim Dolin with an Introduction by Margaret R. Higonnet (London, New York, Ringwood, etc.: Penguin Books, 1998), LXVIII + 518 pp.
  • Felicia Bonaparte
Review Article


Classical Tradition Modern Perspective Modern Reader Modern Thought Modern Mind 
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  1. 2.
    Except for incidental comments in works devoted to other subjects, there is, unfortunately, no study of the influence of either Strauss or Feuerbach on nineteenth-century English thought or, what would be even more interesting, on the thought of Victorian writers. There are, however, some good studies of their importance to modern thought, among them: Richard S. Cromwell,David Friedrich Strauss and His Place in Modern Thought. With a Forword by Wilhelm Pauck (Fair Lawn, NJ: R.E. Burdick, 1974); Umberto Regina,La Vita di Gesù e la filosofia moderna: uno studio su David Friedrich Strauss (Brescia: Morcelliana, 1979); Eugene Kamenka,The Philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach (London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1970); Van Austin Harvey,Feuerbach and the Interpretation of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    The Rise of Modern Mythology: 1680–1860 (Bloomington, Indiana and London: Indiana University Press, 1972), p. 297.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Although there is no extensive study of this particular concept of myth and of its influence on the Victorians, Professor Haase has called my attention to two excellent recent surveys of the history of myth and mythological interpretation that briefly touch on some of the issues with which Victorians were concerned: the entry for “Mythos” by Aleida and Jan Assmann in Volume IV of theHandbuch religionswissenschaftlicher Grundbegriffe (Stuttgart, Berlin, Köln: Verlag W. Kohlhammer, 1998), 179–200, which opens with a particularly good summary of definitions; and the entry by various hands for “Mythos” in Volume XXXIII of theTheologische Realenzyklopädie (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter: 1994), 597–661.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    For a more extensive discussion of these and various related questions see my “Middlemarch: The Genesis of Myth in the English Novel: The Relationship Between Literary Form and the Modern Predicament,”Religion and Literature 13:3 (1981): 107–154. A different view of myth in this novel may be found in Roger Travis’s “From ‘Shattered Mummies’ to ‘An Epic Life’: Casaubon’s Key to All Mythologies and Dorothea’s Mythic Renewal in George Eliot’sMiddlemarch,” in this journal (IJCT) 5 (1998/99): 367–382.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    My soon to be completed study of aesthetic theory and practice in the nineteenth-century English novel,The Aesthetics of Poesis:The Making of Victorian Fiction, will do something, I hope, to explore the Victorian concept of myth and to establish mythical symbolism as the fundamental idiom of Victorian narrative and indeed of Victorian thought.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    I should, perhaps, distinguish here the philosophically essential from the literarily. The former uses mythical symbolism to identify what Strauss designates as “mythical” thought. But mythological symbolism may be essential literarily—to the meaning of a text, as it is in much of Joyce—without necessarily implying a commitment to mythical thought. And despite some important exceptions—T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound being two of the most prominent—writers of the twentieth century tend for the most part to use myth less philosophically than literarily. Nevertheless, to miss such allusions is to miss what the author is saying. As Theodore Ziolkowski points out in “The Fragmented Text: The Classics and Postwar European Literature,” in this journal (IJCT 6 [1999/2000]: 549–562), the ability to recognize classical allusions and texts is asine qua non to the reading of a good deal of modern literature.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    For discussion of Hardy’s use of the myth of Persephone in the construction of both the substance and the form ofTess of the d’Urbervilles see my “The Deadly Misreading of Mythic Texts: Thomas Hardy’s,” in this journal (IJCT) 5 (1998/99): 415–431. The only other work I know that deals with this subject in this novel is G. Glen Wickens’s “Hardy and the Aesthetic Mythographers: The Myth of Demeter and Persephone inTess of the d’Urbervilles,” University of Toronto Quarterly: A Canadian Journal of the Humanities 53∶1 (1983): 85–106, but Wickens takes this myth to have only a limited role in a narrative that is essentially realistic and attributes its importance to Hardy’s effort to incorporate in his text the mythological allusions common to the aesthetic movement.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Such figures, indeed, begin to appear even earlier in the century, as in Diana Rivers, for instance, in Charlotte Brontë’sJane Eyre (1847), but they multiply in number and in intensity of meaning as the century advances. Many, like Charlotte Brontë’s character, are actually given the name of the goddess: the title characters, for example, of George Meredith’sDiana of the Crossways (1885) and Margaret Oliphant’sDiana: The History of a Great Mistake (1892). Some, who are called by different names, are linked to Diana in other ways: inHenry Esmond (1852), W.M. Thackeray likens Beatrix, a flirt and a tease who, however, rightly thinks she was meant to live alone, to Artemis, Luna, and Diana. Association with the moon is a common symbolic device: Clara, who is described as “virginal” in George Meredith’sThe Egoist (1879), is frequently pictured in lunar imagery. Also common is the making of the Diana character a creature whose avocation is archery: in Anthony Trollope’sPhineas Finn (1869), Violet Effingham, whose intention is to live her life without men, is an enthusiastic archer, as is the fiercely virginal Gwendolen in George Eliot’sDaniel Deronda (1876). Henry James, who appropriated Eliot’s character as the paradigm for his female protagonist inThe Portrait of a Lady *1881) obviously understood the crucial importance of this metaphor, calling his heroine Isabel Archer. Nor did this mythological imagery terminate with the end of the century. Marie Corelli’sTemporal Power (1902) features a feminist character who completely despises men and who is consequently described in the imagery of the moon, the heroine of Mrs. Humphrey Ward’sThe Testing of Diana Mallory (1908) is given the very name of the goddess, and Fran in Sinclair Lewis’sDodsworth (1929), for the image is just as popular in America as in England, being by nature cool and distant, is characterized in silvery terms. We know, from some of his other novels, that Hardy also thought of Artemis not as a fertility goddess but as a prototypical virgin. InFar from the Madding Crowd, for example, one of his earlier narratives (1874), Hardy writes of Bathsheba Everdene, a complex character of a kind he was often to recreate, that without knowing the deity’s name, Diana was the goddess she worshipped. And he holds to the same belief in his last novel,Jude the Obscure (1895), in which Sue Bridehead, “sexless” and “epicene,” is distinguished by her silvery voice. What sometimes confuses Hardy’s readers is the fact that Hardy considers, which he makes clear in all his fiction, fertility rather than chastity to be the natural human condition. Women like Bathsheba and Sue are seen as perversions of themselves, tortured by inner contradictions, and they are, therefore, invariably characterized by two sets of conflicting images. Although a Diana, Bathsheba, for instance, is also conceived as an Aphrodite, associated, for example, with such telltale signs as the myrtle. In one perhaps ironic scene, she is dressed in a riding-habit, a costume fit for the hunter goddess, whose color, however, is “myrtle-green.” But it is clear that Hardy does not think of these deities as identical. It is, indeed, because they are opposites that he uses them to define the conflict in these characters’ souls. The Artemis reference inTess of the d’Urbervilles illustrates yet another device Hardy habitually employs, the mistaken identification by one character of another. The reference occurs when Angel Clare, the Apollonian man Tess marries when she fails herself to realize what her mythic identity is, calls her, in play, Demeter and Artemis. It is part of his blindness to myth that makes these gods interchangeable to him, and it is therefore no surprise when, having been attracted to her, without knowing it, by her fertility, he abandons Tess on discovering she is not the pure, chaste virgin he wished her, nonetheless, to be. Little if anything is ever done with Diana imagery in the critical literature devoted to these writers and works but there is one extremely fine study of Diana in modern literature (which grew out of a dissertation I had the pleasure to direct): Gil Haroian-Guerin’sThe Fatal Hero: Diana, Deity of the Moon, as an Archetype of the Modern Hero in English Literature (New York: Peter Lang, 1996). This book deals with somewhat different materials but it is a superb contribution to the study of mythological imagery in the modern period.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Felicia Bonaparte
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Departments of English and Comparative LiteratureCCNYNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Graduate CenterThe City University of New YorkNew YorkUSA

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