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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Persephone in Canadian fiction Evans, Jane


The shaping of a work of art has its ground in the archetypal images in the mind of its creator. The novelist uses those myths which are true for him or her. When mythic criticism is applied to the work of a male writer, the themes are commonly recognisable, particularly that of the Odyssey, the great male quest. For women, however, the quest cannot be that of the wanderer, seeking to reconcile the psyche of the blood-thirsty warrior to a life of peace. The female quest must seek a different reconciliation, that of a union of the great female figures of maiden, mother, and aged woman. This is the earliest and most powerful of archetypes and is personified in mythic terms as the Persephone-Demeter-Hecate triad. There has been, in recent years, an attempt on the part of Canadian writers to come to terms with this myth, and with the self-actualised personality it represents. These three beings are at the same time one and separate; they are multi-facetted, yet represent the great principles of fertility and its obverse, death. The legend is well known: the maiden Persephone, while picking flowers, is abducted and raped by Pluto, King of the Dead, Her mother, the corn Goddess Demeter, searches for her the world over, decreeing in her despair- that, until her daughter is found, nothing shall grow. At last, through the intervention of Hecate and the Gods, mother and daughter are re-united and the land again made fruitful, Persephone is, however, Queen of the Dead; nothing can change this. Nevertheless, like the corn, the Kore, or archetypal maiden, is eternally renewed. She is an integral part of the cycle of life and death in which the green corn becomes the yellow corn and dies to be reborn. In the psychological context, we can see this as the rationale for the death of life in winter and an assurance that there will be renewal. The Great Goddess embodies all women; "in a single figure which was at once mother and daughter, she could represent all the motifs that recur in all mothers and daughters." (Karl Kerenyi, "Eleusis", New York: Pantheon Books, 1967, p. 32.) Thus there must be elements of this relationship wherever there are mothers and daughters. In this paper I will show that women writers in Canada, particularly two of our most important, Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence, have been making extensive use of this myth. It occurs in many forms; even where not used overtly, its resonances can be felt. The mother-daughter relationship is now being seen as the prime source of psychic strength for women; until a union of understanding is reached, characters are tormented and unable to mature, Hagar Shipley has despised her mother and is unable to free herself from the marble embrace of inhibited emotion; only in her journey into the unconscious can she find wholeness of self, Rachel, in Jest of God, must also descend, but into an actual kingdom of the dead, to see herself as more than just a figure of sterility. The youthful Vanessa, of Bird in the House, is a strong and forthright character who sees her grandfather as the centre of her world. Her struggles to break the hold of this patriarchal figure show her that it is the women in her life, her mother, grandmother, aunt, who have been the true world, and the wound which will not heal is the loss of her mother. The Diviners, in the ambiguity of its title, hints that Morag is not simply a seeker after personal fulfillment, but on a greater and more archetypal quest, Margaret Atwood's work is not so much the mythic journey as the shamanistic retreat inward and downward into a region of supernatural wonder. In Surfacing, the nameless heroine must break the hold of the father from the depths before she can be reunited with her true self which seeks the elemental mother. She herself seeks to be the gateway through which the mythical child can be born to reform the circle, Atwood's use of strongly feminine symbolism—water, mirrors, tunnels, labyrinths—intensifies our participation in the myth. Particularly in Lady Oracle, symbols are the means by which Joan hopes to gather together a wilfully disintegrated personality. Her failure is one of time, not intent; her moment has not (and may never) come. These two writers are the culmination of a movement that has its roots in all female work. There are parallels in the work of artists such as Ostenso, Wilson, and Munro, As women have tried in the past to use the Odyssean quest, so there are men writers who are incorporating the Demeter quest into their work; I hope to show the relevance of this in the development of the myth, Canadian literature has made extensive use of archetypes. In the growing strength of our women writers, we can see a whole new mythic dimension in this use of the oldest and most pervasive archetype. Socially and psychologically relevant, it is indicative of the growing subtlety of the female artistic consciousness.

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