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Feb 19, 2021

Myths versus Novels

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Eva Brann Small

Eva Brann

St. John's College

Eva Brann, a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, is the longest serving tutor at St. John’s College.

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Myths versus Novels

The Funeral Procession of Agamemnon, Louis Jean Desprez, 1787

The Funeral Procession of Agamemnon, Louis Jean Desprez, 1787

This title might be accused of comparing apples and oranges. Myth denotes a type of tale, such as legends and fables, while novel names a genre: extended prose fiction. So I should begin by saying what I mean by these terms and how they seem to me to be joined in an antithesis.

I mean that I would like to be able to claim, for example, that Clytemnestra, the fierce female protagonist of Aeschylus’s drama Agamemnon, is less terrifying than Mrs. Dalloway, the snobbish central character of Virginia Woolf’s story Mrs. Dalloway. Clytemnestra is a mythical figure who kills her husband, Agamemnon, the chief of the Greek expedition to Troy, because he has sacrificed their daughter to assure the success of his campaign. It is a matter of judgment whether Clytemnestra assassinates or executes him. Mrs. Dalloway is a novelistic character who gives a party during which she receives the news that a young war veteran, unknown to her, has committed suicide. She says to herself, “What business had the Bradshaws to talk of death at [my] party?”1 It may seem ridiculous to compare a snobbish thought to a murder, but that is my claim.


Although myths and novels belong to different categories, they are alike in being the venues of human figures who are not presented as images of actually existent, “real-world” people. They live, they function, in other, in alternative worlds. In particular, they have their being in a specific work of art, a drama or a narrative, such as the Oresteia, which enacts the climactic last years of the House of Atreus, or a novel, such as Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, which is the story of a socialite and is a work I shall draw on, along with Mrs. Dalloway.

More generally, however, their setting is in the genres to which these works belong. Each genre has its own source—myth for ancient drama. The grandest examples of drama appeared in the fifth century BCE, when the novelistic genre was simply not yet in existence. For the modern novel, the source was news, such as was found in the newsy romances, nouvelles or novellas, of the seventeenth century CE, the precursors of the novel, a genre then in formation.


What characterizes myth as a genre? To begin with, myths have no known author. I say “known” because since a brain does not produce thoughts (though it subserves them) and a society does not create works of art (though it propagates them), we must suppose that, lost in the mist of time, a thoughtful and observant human being conceived a foundational or exemplary tale, which took hold and became a timeless myth. So myths are atemporal, or better, a-chronological, notwithstanding the fact that time-involved human beings, particularly rulers, attempt to—one might say—hijack mythical figures into their family history.

The second characteristic of mythical figures is that they possess to perfection the trait of being, what Vico calls “imaginative genera,”2 imagined types, that are also these particular men, women, and even children. Think of Hector and Andromache’s baby boy in the Iliad. Yet precisely in being individual, they express human generality; because they are themselves, they are human paradigms, embodied universals, sensualized types.

A third characteristic of a mythical figure is that it (he, she) is situationally adaptable. Clytemnestra can turn up in any number of epics or plays. The audience knows pretty well what will eventuate but waits with bated breath to see how. An example: Odysseus, in Homer’s epic, the most interesting, the most attractive man I’ve ever met in a fiction, falls into disrepute in classical times. In Sophocles’s Philoctetes, he is plain mean-spirited—this denigrating transformation must have been simply fascinating to Athenian theatergoers: an individual figure of myth can be transformed yet stay within its genre.


On the reasonable assumption that type and token—that is, class and instance—reflect on each other, I now put the first question of this essay: Does a fictional being living in the general world of myth and in a specific mythical environment draw into its nature a discernibly mythical mode of existing, of being embodied on the stage, of occupying the imagination? So I claim. 

The second question then concerns the generic antithesis of myth-dependent drama, the novel. Do the fictional beings in a novel have certain characteristics that inform them just by reason of their existence in a novelistic setting? Put specifically: Is mythical Clytemnestra a different kind of human being from Lily Bart of House of Mirth and Mrs. Dalloway of the book that bears her name? That too is my claim.


There is an anthropological incitement behind this inquiry. Nowadays, the human genus contains only one species, so that for all our talk of diversity, our basic condition is that of commonality—Homo sapiens, sapient mankind. But there was, apparently, a time when the human genus contained species of possibly unequal abilities, and probably this inferior kind of human was eradicated by its more viable cousins. This fact supplies the imaginative matter for the ultimate tragic drama. The question concerning mythical versus novelistic beings is a defanged version—defanged because it plays out in literature, which is, for all its human significance, a far less consequence-laden enterprise than is anthropology. For the latter is the study of real humankind (anthropos: human being; logos: account). So the literary genus homo, mankind, contains, I think, more than one species. I am discerning two of them.


This is the moment to say what a novel is. The simple and often cited definition is “an extended prose fiction.”3 So a novel shares with works like classical Greek drama, which are normally myth based, fictionality, a way of saying that the novel is, though it may borrow features from real lives, not intended to be taken as biographical or autobiographical. In fact, doing so leads to major falsifications of reality. Nor is length exclusively its particular feature; the Homeric epics are each as long as a midsize novel. What is distinctive in this definition and, I think, essential is the characterization of novels as prose works as opposed to verse. Prose is from the Latin prorsus, past participle of a verb meaning “to turn forward,” just as verse is from a Latin verb meaning “to turn [back].” Thus, prose runs away into the ever new, while verse returns to what is past; prose invents, verse repeats.

Clytemnestra, John Collier, 1882

Clytemnestra, John Collier, 1882

That, however, isn’t quite right. The ever new, novelty, which gives its very name to the genre, is not always invention. In this respect, the sensible definition of a novel as a long prose fiction is deficient. While novelists permit themselves an inventiveness that myth-based playwrights eschewed, they also admit given sources. One is the old prose romance called a nouvelle (Edith Wharton still struggled to find her way from that earlier genre to the modern novel).4 Another, closer to our time, is the newssheet, enabled by the technology of print to be serially published.5 That appearance was the realization of the prorsus, the forward motion referred to above. Reliable sequence, subscribable seriality, is the very vehicle of newsiness, meaning the reliable contemporaneous reporting of the world’s occurrences, especially of those, such as scandal or crime, that cause what in an older usage of a French term was called éclat, fascinated notoriety. 

One more word in the basic definition of a novel as an extended, long prose fiction remains to be considered. Prose fictions of fewer than two hundred pages are generally not called novels but novelettes or “long short stories.” Is extension, length, then after all the essence of a novel? I think so. Characteristically, novelistic writing seems to be expansive, to take up a great deal of printers’ space and readers’ time.

Thus, the greatest examples—for instance, Tolstoy’s War and Peace—tend to be enormous, in this case, fourteen hundred pages. That novel is, incidentally, particularly apt to my project since its heroine, Natasha Rostov, the young Muscovite countess and the very model of charming Russian girlhood, is what I might call the antithetical analogue of Nausikaa, the young princess of fabled Phaeacia and the very exemplar of mythical enchantment.

Lengthiness is, I think, both the enabler and the expression of novel writing. Classical drama was witnessed outdoors in a theater, a viewing place, in public, in daylight, with circulating sausage sellers. Novel readers’ snacks are more apt to be peanuts, since the hands are needed to hold the book. Reading is, perforce, a lonely activity; distracting company is unwelcome, especially if real attention is invested. Hence, it’s one book to each reader rather than a thousand eyes on one stage. It occurs mostly indoors, probably in a room with artificial lighting, at any time whatsoever—though there’s nothing like a rainy day holed up with an engrossing novel. But above all, it takes time, a long time: days, weeks devoted to silent perusal. And then, instead of leaving a theater in some way purified, cleansed, and probably silenced by the awful fates and superior suffering of these beings from the realm of myth,6 a novel reader might get on the phone or online to discuss with a fellow reader the story of human beings living in the novel, much on a level with the novel’s reader.


I should explain why I chose Clytemnestra in the antique drama Agamemnon of Aeschylus (458 BCE) for the exemplar of a myth-based character and Lily Bart of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth (1905) together with Mrs. Dalloway of Virginia Woolf’s novel by that name (1925) to represent the humanity typical of the novelistic genre.

Clytemnestra is a dominant inhabitant of the mythical world. She turns up several times in the Homeric epics, particularly in the Odyssey (especially Book 11, 404), when Odysseus learns in Hades, the treasury of Greek myths, of her murderous rampage.7 Murdered Agamemnon himself tells Odysseus of it. The passage serves to highlight the effective loyalty of his own kingly wife, Penelope. Together with Medea, Clytemnestra heads the crew of female holy terrors who people Athenian tragedy—in problematically fascinating opposition to the homebound recessiveness of actual Athenian women. (Here “home” seems to me a place of confinement.8)

Edith Wharton’s title The House of Mirth places the book not so far from the atrocities of the House of Atreus, the palace of Agamemnon, Atreus’s son. Perhaps that’s hyperbolic; the social sins of the House of Mirth are not as brutal as the crimes of Atreus, who serves his brother’s own children to him at a banquet. Yet they are possibly similarly destructive in a novelistic way—instantiating that same antithetical analogy, a contrast that invites comparison.

The House of Mirth is, in any case, not all that mirthful a title. It comes from the Hebrew Bible: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (Ecclesiastes 7:4). The context shows that a “house of mirth” is a whorehouse—Luther translates it as “Haus der Freude.”

Let me add here for future reference that, as Wharton’s title is from the Old Testament, the heroine’s name, Lily, comes, I’m sure, from the New Testament, since the verses fit her to a T: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. / And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matthew 6:28–29). Lily Bart is incapable of holding a job and is always attired to perfection.

Mrs. Dalloway, the most consummate fictional snob I know of, is practically conceived to be compared and contrasted to Clytemnestra.9 She queens it in her exclusionary realm, and her socially correct heartlessness makes her, at least to me, just as appalling—probably because I live in a world that might in fact contain her living model. Mrs. Dalloway, moreover, belongs to a category of novel known as modernist.10 In literature, one chief modernist technique, narrational stream of consciousness, particularly marks the terminal subjectivity of this modern mode of writing. For in it, the object is made fluid, liquescent in the solvent of the writer’s attentional flux. Subjectivity and its underlying subject, the self, will figure largely in my description of the novelistic mode. Who can doubt that when the author’s mental motion appears in the text, subjectivity will rule?


What, then, is characteristically mythical about Clytemnestra, as opposed to the novelistic nature of Lily Bart and Mrs. Dalloway? And let me remind myself first that none of the three are real humans. They are, in short, fictions—even if the people of novels are a smidgen closer to reality than the people of myth (who have other debilities). I might, in the middle of this meditation, go further to say that this inquiry is only a subpart, an approach, to a deeper perplexity, one oddly suppressed in critical writing on literature: Whence comes, what is, the origin of all artful human feigning?11 To the ancients, to Homer, the greatest of all poets (with Shakespeare) known to me, the answer was clear and clearly expressed up front. Here is Homer’s prayer in the first line of the first book of the Odyssey, rendered literally: “The man instill in me, Muse, the versatile [man],…” (Andra moi ennepe, Musa, polytropon…). This poet, this “maker,” received his figures from Olympus, the home of the Muses, the nine daughters of Zeus and Memory; their name is etymologically allied to mind, mindfulness. Our contemporaries will permit themselves to say that our brain, a pound plus of warm flesh, is the place of their birth. The necessary inquiry must eventually ask bluntly: Whence come artful feignings? Where lived fictional figures before they were projected into our world in works of art?

So back to Clytemnestra as mythical to the core. A first incitement to the inquiry is the blunt fact that in classical times, in the fifth century BCE, there was no recognized novelistic genre.12 There were surely genres; Herodotus, for example, gave history its name in the first line of his book: “This is the showing-forth by Herodotus of Halicarnassus of a history….”13 History, historia, means literally an “inquiry,” but will henceforth designate a work, such as The Persian Wars, memorializing great events that have passed into the past.

So, at that time, all great feigned figures were myths, that is to say, they were memories from time immemorial, handed down: traditions, “hand-me-downs.” These figures meet preeminently Vico’s understanding of “imaginative universals.” Clytemnestra is, though in a limited sense only, a fleshed-out human being, and so she is variable across the works in which she appears. Yet, in another sense, she is a prototype, a thickly delineated pattern, in her case, the very model of multiply infuriated royalty: infuriated by Agamemnon, who, as a father, ritually murdered her daughter Iphigenia; who, as her husband, returned from Troy with a concubine in tow; who, as a general, is pompously grandiose; but perhaps not least by her own adultery with the archenemy of the House of Atreus, Aegisthus. By the fierceness of her fury, she achieves a terrific grandeur as she kills her husband, the king of Mycenae and the victor of Troy.

Virginia Woolf

Portrait of Virginia Woolf

Her chief appearance is in Aeschylus’s trilogy the Oresteia, named after Orestes, her son, who kills her in turn to avenge his father. Its three dramas are called Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. Why is the drama that she dominates and in which she does her deed named after her victim rather than herself? Probably because in the kind of drama called a tragedy, the one who dies is the hero. (The protagonists of ancient comedy are often not mythical.) It is the central play, not, in fact, the most memorable of the three, that gives the trilogy its name, Oresteia, for in it, Orestes kills his mother, who, once again, doesn’t get into the title. In calling down upon herself this revenge, she has in effect annihilated the House of Atreus. For Orestes, though exonerated by Athena, remains a matricide and disappears from myth. None of Agamemnon’s children seem to have had offspring.

The third play is the fit culmination of the enacted myth of the House of Atreus—to my mind the most wonderful of plays in both its incidents and its figures. Here, Clytemnestra’s fierce mythicality is, in her absence, opposed both to the cold, blunt tit-for-tat rationality of the Furies as forces of nature and to the luminously persuasive reasonableness of Athena, the goddess from Olympus. For Athena, the venue shifts from Argos to Athens (a plural in Greek as in English), the city both of the living, present goddess and of her many images; the grandest surviving of these is the old carved bole shown onstage.14 Thus, the mythicality of Clytemnestra and the divinity of Athena are contrasted: to the devout, there is one true god, perhaps embodied as Olympians are—namely, visible in various ways to their folk, or even actually incarnate, enfleshed as is the Christian god. But of the different poetic presentations of a myth, one may be more memorable than another, if the poet is able to give “to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”15 But never is one occurrence meant to be more living than another, more seriously real; the tragedians may present a god as unlovely or uncanny but never as merely notional.

As for the Furies, whose moral logic is simple and plain—“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”—they are by the very fact of their logicality persuadable by Athena’s flexible reasonableness. They exchange their physical repulsiveness for a dignified elderliness; their roaming ways for a home under a hill, the Areopagus in Athens; and their scary name Erynyes, “the Strife-Makers,” for the lovely appellation Eumenides, “the Well-Minded.”16

Let me then turn to Clytemnestra’s best-known depiction, in the play in which she is truly the actor: the Agamemnon. What do we learn of her, or better, what remains untold? By looking, the Athenian spectator can tell nothing of her real looks, because ancient actors wore generic masks. Nor is her physicality, her sex, shown to us, because women were impersonated by young males.17 Moreover, Aeschylus gives her nothing we would call a social setting. She has attendants but does nothing one might call socializing with the Chorus of Argive Elders, who represent not local society but the polis, the city of Argos. Their relation to their queen is thus political rather than social—I introduce the term here because it is crucial to the modern novel.18 Succinctly put, Clytemnestra functions in a “regime” rather than a “culture,” a political setting rather than a set of fashions. 

These absences of ways of life, I want to say, define not a defective but a mythical being—powerfully concentrated on one passion, her righteous revenge; potent through her distinctive inhumanity, her larger-than-life isolation; unencumbered by copious personal specificity—and so an individual type: in short, a myth.


This is the moment to say something about the term myth. We have two divergent usages. One is typological: a myth is a legend or a fable. An honest myth has no maker but comes to us, I repeat, through memory as a tradition. We speak of Greek mythology and mean simply a genus of fictive beings in their fabled settings. Our own myths are, however, more ambiguous; they have a foot in reality. This other usage is usually derogatory: “That’s a myth,” we say, and mean it is something false, which if pursued into its dark hole, would lead us to a deceiving, self- concealed originator. America’s myths are always someone’s objects of exposure.

The word myth is simply a modified transcription of the Greek word mythos. Often it means simply a word, speech, saying, or a tale, story, narrative—you name it. Occasionally it is derogatory in Greek as well. Thus, Thucydides, in discrediting the old patriotic story of the Tyrant-Slayers, speaks of it as mythodes, “fabulous,” and its corrected version as less enjoyable but more accurate.19

The mythicality I attribute to Clytemnestra delineates her not only by the negations that turn her into a schema, an outline. As shown in the Agamemnon, she also has the positive features of a type (from typos, a blow, such as stamps a coin with a raised face). Aeschylus’s Clytemnestra is, accordingly, I might say, inhumanly human, as wife, mother, and sister (of the fatal Helen). She abounds in intelligent guile as she deceives her returning husband with dangerously seductive honors. She dispenses poetic justice as she drowns him in his own blood in the hospitable traveler’s bath, where she stabs him—the father guilty of his own blood’s death. The Chorus of citizen-elders thinks of her as manly, like her Scotch avatar, Lady Macbeth: “unsex me here.”20 She is, in sum, a myth with some flesh on her.21


And now to the two modern works, the novels—one, The House of Mirth, referred to in an article, with blunt acuity, as “old-fashioned” for failing to be “experimental”; the other one, Mrs. Dalloway, classified as “modernist,” in the sense presented above, for employing a flux-like stream of consciousness.22 The novelistic, post-mythical heroines to be compared and contrasted with Clytemnestra are Lily Bart and Mrs. Dalloway—compared because they are both somewhat horrifying, contrasted because they are scary in a more muted way; the muffling venue is society, as opposed to resounding myth. Even the greatest of novels, even one as grand in temporal and spatial scope as novels get, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, opens with a St. Petersburg soirée. So, by society, I shall mean here not only the common ways of life in particular places at particular times—lowercase society—but also capitalized Society, the collective fashions of a self-conscious elite. 

The society that harbors and finally banishes Lily Bart is the more anxiously exclusive for being largely based on money rather than birth. Lily’s sad fate—it is a thought-provoking question whether it is to be termed tragic—is materially determined by her very meager financial situation; it is psychologically sealed by her waffling will, and her infirmity of purpose. This flaw—I think it is, when all is said and done, not a tragic flaw—infects the very end of her life: she dies from overdosing on a sleeping medicine, a prescribed “soporific,” which she takes, I think, with half-intentional carelessness. The doctor, to societal relief, is content to accept the death as accidental. I think the verdict is: terminal indeterminacy.

Two men could have saved her: one is the cultivated, socially acceptable Lawrence Selden. But, as he himself knows, he is a moral coward; he fears for his comfort in a poverty-stricken marriage. The other is the hopeless social climber, the unintegrable outsider Simon Rosedale, a Jew. He is perfectly firm in his purpose, and he really loves Lily, but she is society-driven enough to treat him with contempt-laden aversion. It is a big mistake. 

How accurate Edith Wharton’s depiction of the rich New York society of the late nineteenth century really is, no one now alive is likely to be able to judge. But the portrait seems so coherent and convincing a similitude that it is persuasive as verisimilitude. She knew this scene inside and out. What she didn’t know, I imagine, were the contemporaneous mores of the rich Jewish families of New York. I wonder whether she knew that Rosedale is surely an anglicization of Rosenthal, and that Simon was probably a German Jew, thus belonging to a very exclusive social elite calling itself “Our Crowd.”23 These people would never have condoned his marrying a non-Jew, a gentile (derogatively, a goy), unless she converted, so that the children—Jewishness descending by the mother—would be born Jewish. Such Jews might be avid for assimilation into the gentile world but not for absorption into it. If Lily had been purposefully practical rather than weakly parasitic, she would have lived long and passed down her beauty, that great and fatal gift, to a band of handsome young Rosedales, thus redeeming the unhandsome father.

That decision she is not up to, but suicide she might have achieved. The only Greek figure of myth I can think of who committed suicide from despair is Ajax; he kills himself in a mad excess of humiliation because dead Achilles’s shield is awarded to Odysseus. Once he decides to fall on his sword, he sees the deed through efficiently. As for Clytemnestra, suicide does not fit into her picture. She can kill, but not herself.

One reason (and this is conjectural) that mythical figures aren’t given to self-destruction is that in their world the divinities are always present, as interveners or observers. In Edith Wharton’s novel, faith is oddly suspended, as I mentioned above. The heroine, Lily, and the title of her novel, House of Mirth, refer, as I’ve said, to a marginalized subtext: scripture, whose deity is a Deus absconditus, a “concealed God” for the novel’s people; faith is purely conventional in New York society. What these folks have by way of an Author of their Being is a novelist who is their inventor, discoverer, or perhaps best, their caller-forth.24

They have no god in their world, but they do have a devil. Lily’s personal demon is “dinginess”; she abhors what is shabby, worn-out, unprodigal. She is personally precise, orderly, as attentive in the service of her beauty as she is careless in containing her expenses. 

Both by reason of that living beauty, which is at the mercy of time, and her situation in Society, which moves with fashion, she is eminently temporally enmeshed, caught in the micro- temporality of dates and appointments and the macro-chronology of an era in New York.

The notion of Clytemnestra contemplating suicide but not carrying through her intention, of not living within the invigorating observation of hyper-human powers, goddesses or Furies, is ludicrous. But most laughable is an image of Clytemnestra interested in couture, in dressing fashionably. And that is precisely what fills Lily’s life. For though, following Matthew’s (and Luke’s) lily of the field, she does not make her own clothes, it is not because, like the flower, she goes unclad, naturally dressed up, but because she spends a lot on fashionable dresses and so is arrayed more finely than Solomon in his glory. In fact, her fashionableness, which is a condition of her being issued repeated invitations to the house parties she depends on for her environing elegance, is an element in her temporality, in the novelty that is the novelistic genre’s eponym, that is, its name-giver.25 She must not only be well-dressed but also in fashion, à la mode, ever new, “in the now” (Latin: modo).


So Clytemnestra is royally terrific and, in the tremendousness of her stature, the very image of tragedy. Lily, to the depth of whose shallowness (so to speak) I have not begun to do justice, is finally, as I’ve surmised, a figure of pathos rather than of tragedy. She elicits sympathetic sentiment rather than admiring horror. The same Society that drives her to destruction is rife with the indeterminacy of will, with the fluctuating ethical estimates that frustrate its members’ offers of active relief. 

So, as its people shrink from the dinginess of poverty and dither when faced with a decision, descriptive sufficiency requires length; the novel The House of Mirth is roughly a third again as long as the whole dramatic trilogy of the Oresteia.

Now, to reinforce my notion that literary genre and human types mutually determine each other—or that, once established, the genre is even somewhat in the lead—I shall turn to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. It is, in fact, routinely referred to as “modernist.” This term has, besides its indeterminate watchword “Make it new!”, specific meanings, for instance, the stream of consciousness technique already mentioned. In the light of both the general and the specific meaning of modernism, Edith Wharton might indeed be termed “an old-fashioned writer” (an attribution that tends, however, toward insignificant language).26


Of Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Dalloway, the character, I am tempted to say (and have indeed already implied) that compared with her, Clytemnestra is a very nice woman. Anyhow, they’re in the same business: annihilation. Clytemnestra brings to naught a royal house, grandly and by determined action. Clarissa discounts, subverts, a young warrior’s death, ignobly, though only by means of suppression. That’s the long and short of it. 

Let me, however, begin in more detail with the end of the novel, a much-lauded conclusion: Peter, Clarissa’s old suitor, is a guest at the party that is Clarissa’s main preoccupation that day. He sits by himself, seized by terror and ecstasy. What, he asks, is the cause? And he answers himself: “It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was.” He has in fact said it before. It’s a mantra.

Edith Newbold Jones Wharton

Edith Wharton; photo: E. F. Cooper / Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University & Wikimedia Commons

Who can help but call to mind Pontius Pilate’s exclamation: “Ecce homo,” “See there, the Man” (John 19:5)27. Thus, what Peter says may be read: “Ecce femina,” “See there, the woman.” He has divinized a philistine snob.

Virginia Woolf makes, I think, the same standoffish use of scripture as does Edith Wharton—lighthearted in tone and serious in intention. It is a reminder of a missing dimension in members of society. They are immersed—one might say, mired—in mundanity; they lack even occasional transcendence.28 Hence, many of them are continually seized by an indefinable uneasiness—deprived amidst privilege. It is an existential dis-ease, too much their proper mode to be a pathology; it is an intrinsic affliction. 

Intrinsic—specifically to a creature in a modernist novel, a stream of consciousness novel. Virginia Woolf refers to herself as a creator, one who does the work of the Abrahamic divinity, the Creator par excellence. The aquatic creatures borne along in this fluid, which is—the very artfully controlled—free flow of the artist’s self, are thus hers in an almost genetic sense, her embryos. 

But she is a novelist, devoted to novelty, here expressed in the experimental technique itself. Yet the figures themselves are perhaps not so novel, at least not as the breed of this procreator. What then truly marks Mrs. Dalloway as Virginia Woolf’s creature?

The author herself is a consummate snob, proudly so, and the “creator” of snobs. She asserts that, with respect to literature, we should be snobs. In a talk entitled “Am I a Snob?”, though she does not articulate an answer, she displays it. She says: “The essence of snobbery is that you wish to impress other people.” And: “If you ask me would I rather meet Einstein or the Prince of Wales, I plump for the Prince without hesitation…. I want coronets; but they must be old coronets.”29 So the full definition should add to “impress other people” the qualification “by your access to high social rank.”

She herself points out that aristocrats are not naturally snobs, for snobbery requires a socially superior class to bow to and boast of fawningly. In fact, Mrs. Dalloway and Lily Bart are both of the middle class, which is perfectly placed for snobbery. There is for these middling people a realm above to long for and one below to spurn.30

Three Young Woman Are Sitting At Table In A Garden Having Wellcome V0040193

Three young women having tea, Kate Greenaway, c. nineteenth century

To be a snob is to consign the Self, which, in its self-referentiality is ready for such a surrender, to externalities. The Self thrives and shrivels by social approval. The mounting of an elegant party, attended by big and high names, impeccably appointed and perfectly serviced, is, for this writer, the journeywork of a mastersnob. Mrs. Dalloway is the account of such an affair and its preoccupied inhumanity. 

As I have mentioned, a young, deeply traumatized veteran of the First World War (the dramatic date of the book is 1923) has just committed suicide. His name is Septimus Warren Smith. He could not get over the death of his officer, Evans. Clarissa Dalloway does not know him, though once they were accidentally in the same venue, where an unknown great man’s car drew everyone’s attention.

This suicide’s inhumanly clueless physician, another great man, is Sir William Bradshaw, a guest at Clarissa’s party. He talks of the young man’s death. She is outraged: “What business had the Bradshaws to talk of death at her party? A young man had killed himself. And they talked of it at her party—the Bradshaws talked of death.”31

She has a jumble of thoughts, visualizes him impaled, as she has heard, on the rusty spikes of a fence, quotes to herself lines from Othello she had happened to see that morning—“If it were now to die, ’twere now to be most happy”32and she feels glad he has done it, engages in some vagrant musings on death, and finally comes to this: “Somehow it was her disaster—her disgrace.” To me, it seems that she is sorrier for her jolted sensitivity than for Smith. At any rate, in the fluidity of her selfhood, her subjectivity, there is a freshet of cold-fish objectivity, a grotto of self-protective distance. As a first reaction of a hostess in her glory, hard-earned by anxiety, her first reaction is not inhuman, but then shame and humane action, if only a silent resolution, should surely supervene. In the pages following the appalling quotation various friends comment on her hard-hearted snobbery, but in no censorious way. It is an element in the middle class’s novelty, a fairly newfangled sensibility. 


Social success depends on couture, cuisine, and décor. Even—why even?—Jane Austen is a good observer of women’s wear and presumably knows as well how to prepare “white soup,” that party dish (Pride and Prejudice), as do her girls. In the two later novelists, even female undergarments play a role. So, of course, since domesticity, where women dominate, is to society what the club, where men are masters, is to politics, women are the predominant writers of novels. And although women are the holy terrors, both in myths and in novels, they are terrific in different modes: bold and cunning in antiquity, multipotent and ingenious in modern times, to speak very generally. Add the fact that although novel-writing is very demanding work, it requires a minimal setup. Jane Austen didn’t even have a room of her own and worked in the general sitting room, whose door had deliberately unoiled hinges; when visitors came, she hid her writing under the blotter and preserved her prized anonymity.33


So there are practical reasons, externalities, why novel-writing is so largely a women’s business. I think, however, that there are also more intrinsic, more essential causes. These two are most pertinent to this inquiry: one, already alluded to, is that, with the rise of domesticity, a new mode, dominated by women, namely social life carried on in homes, began to predominate over political participation, whose chief venues were public places. The other is more fugitive, since it requires the ever-dubious articulation of a certain typical male/female antithesis. It is one that is so often falsified by instances that it is no sooner enunciated than it is diffused into counterexamples. Let me nevertheless make an attempt to delineate the reasons so disproportionate a number of really good novels are by women. 

While it is surely true that men write very long books, these are, with spectacular counterexamples, such as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, most often about large and unwieldy objects, be they white whales or Hanseatic families.34

Domesticity, a most particularly feminine domain, is, as I said, a modern invention; perhaps it is truer to say that it is a strong founding element of modernity. (Here enters a problem to which I must return as I conclude: Does a period determine its elements or is the inverse true, so that a period has no causal antecedence but is just a set of elements viewed from a distant perspective? Is modernity just a summary reference to contemporaneous ways or is it a driving idea?35 Does history happen in the inhabitants of a time or in its periods and their predominant categories?)

Domesticity does seem to have a history. It originated in seventeenth-century Holland.36 It betokens sheltered seclusion, feminine control, physical cleanliness and comfort, family privacy, child-centeredness, and house-proud possessiveness. Certainly, these properties are positively or negatively reflected in the novels written in such venues.

Thus, both Lily Bart’s and Clarissa Dalloway’s ways of being are not so amenable to strong outlines and definitive characterizations as to a delicate pointillism, laid down in, sometimes intimate, detail. These female sentiments, these womanly sensibilities, are slow developing and sinuous, hence amenable to novelistic lengthiness. They are often better understood as feelings than as passions. As such, they are particularly susceptible to prosaic extension. For feeling is more long-breathed, passion more impulsive.

Take, for example, the domination attached to issuing or withholding invitations and the satisfaction or heartache attendant on inclusion or exclusion. Or take Lily’s fear of dinginess and Clarissa’s grateful pleasure in her servants’ helpfulness and in the accoutrements of her house, now being prepared for her party. Children too turn up in both books, though late or secondarily. Clarissa’s Elizabeth (“my Elizabeth”) comes slowly to the fore, and Lily, in the poignant climax and conclusion, dies with the sense that she has in her arms the baby of a poor but contented working girl, whom she had previously run into when distraughtly wandering the streets, once more let go from a job.

Finally, the family privacy of domesticity: I think it is not too much of a stretch to think of certain aspects of domestic life as making the human ground fallow for snobbery—in combining worldliness with exclusivity. Domesticity is a middle-class virtue, simultaneous with the rise of the bourgeoisie. In the privacy of its devotions, it reduces public worship to convention. With its “my home is my castle” consciousness, it turns society into a problematic preoccupation. In its proud prosperity, it worships money while masking its crude power. But above all, since domesticity is a virtue of the middle class, it incites deprecation downward and climbing upward—snobbery.37


Who, in sum, is Clarissa Dalloway? In looks, it is said early on, she has “a touch of a bird about her,” and again, is “beaked like a bird.” This Clarissa, “the brightest, most famous,” as her name signifies, is slight in stature. She is said by one who knows her well to be cold, wooden, unimaginative, prudish. She is regarded as a snob and knows it but denies it: “What she liked was simply life,” she claims. But for all her author’s efforts to make us believe her, she comes off as a conventional wealthy woman with the exasperating charm of antic egocentricity, a party-giving socialite who has landed in a modernist novel. 

Is she therefore derivatively novel, newfangled herself? Evidently not—just to be a character in a modernist novel does not make you a novelty. Yet the setting, the modernism (“just-nowness”) of the writer’s technique, the newsiness of the novel genre itself, work their magic on this insignificant fifty-year-old woman to turn her into literary news. 


Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Squire’s Tale” of The Canterbury Tales:

Man loven of propre kynde, newfangelnesse
As briddes doon that men in cages fede,

Yet right anon as that his dore is uppe
He with his feet wol spurne adoun his cuppe, 
And so to wode he wole, and worme ete;
So newefangel been they of her mete,
And loven novelries of propre kynde;
No gentillese of blood ne may him binde.
Man by his own nature loves
As do birds that men feed in cages,

Yet right away, when their door is open
They with their feet will kick down their
And they so long for the wood to eat
As they are newfangled about their
And love novelties by their very nature;
No nobility of blood is there that might
     tie them.38

I found these lines in Chaucer, the ever delightful. The class Aves, the birds that Mrs. Dalloway resembles, is a forerunner of the middle class that figures in my essay! Birds sometimes live in unnatural cages, their safe houses and their lockups, as humans live in conventional castes, their protection and their prison. Both classes are avid for novelty, the relief from the embedding coziness of their middling lives. No sooner let out, than birds revert to worms; no sooner at leisure, than humans sough up novels (or used to). But only the latter-day middle class possesses that magical contradiction in terms, the fictional news report, which documents the medium of our free-and-coerced life: society. 


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