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The abduction of Persephone by Hades from the green world of Demeter and the eating of the pomegranate seeds, which doomed Persephone to spend part of each year beneath the earth, provide Josephine Donovan with an appropriate analogue for the condition of women in the late nineteenth century. "It allegorized the transformation that occurred in the Western world from a matricentric pre-industrial culture—Demeter's realm—to a male-dominated capitalist-industrialist ethos, characterized by growing professionalism and bureaucracy: the realm of patriarchal captivity." Demeter represents the world of the mothers; Persephone represents the daughters who leave the sphere of the mothers. Eating the pomegranate seed emblematizes the betrayal of the mothers.
With this thematic framework in mind Donovan sets out to examine the three major American women writers of the first half of this century. She finds that the fundamental sub-text of Wharton's major work is the "hurrying of the daughters out of their mother's gardens into the patriarchal symbolic." But according to Wharton, "for the woman artist to succeed she must eat the pomegranate seed." In Cather's fiction, Donovan writes, the fall that is mythically recorded is the destruction of the woman's community that had been sealed by the mother-daughter bond. Her characters feel nostalgia for a lost Eden, a female world of love and ritual that is missing when they leave their mothers' bowers. "Cather's fiction is centrally focused upon the daughter in exile." The works of Glasgow transcribe a fall from the world of the mothers' gardens "to a Darwinistic social jungle that is governed by the laws of heterosexist commerce based upon the exchange of women." Her new-woman daughters in rebelling against their mothers' ethos find themselves in patriarchal captivity. [End Page 235]
This book begins as an absorbing study but becomes overly repetitious as each author is looked at with the same set of criteria. In addition, to fit the fiction of Wharton, Cather, and Glasgow into the thesis requires some doing. One gets a sense of tunnel vision in which everything is seen from a single angle. It is as if these great writers had only one note to sound. Also, the myth has to be applied very elastically to accommodate some of the fiction: almost any story in which a young person, male or female, leaves home for a career seems to fit the myth. Lily Bart is a Persephone without a Demeter. In Ethan Frome we have to read the story as if Ethan were really a daughter in relationship to Zeena, who has to be considered his mother.
In the chapter on Cather nearly half is devoted to her early stories, which she considered "bad apples" that should have been destroyed, in order to find fiction that fits the mythic pattern. The novel Cather thought her best, Death Comes for the Archbishop, is ignored, along with Shadows on the Rock, My Mortal Enemy, and Sapphira and the Slave Girl. In the novels discussed, male characters are considered as daughters (Claude Wheeler in One of Ours and Tom Outland in The Professor's House); in My Ántonia Jim Burden is the daughter who returns to his mother Ántonia.
For perhaps half of the fiction studied, however, the Demeter-Persephone myth works reasonably well. For example, it fits nicely into Wharton's "The Bunner Sisters," and it illuminates Cather's O Pioneers! Perhaps the best fit of all is in Glasgow's Barren Ground. There Dorinda Oakley is a genuine modern Persephone who leaves the barren land, descends into the nether world (New York City), and returns at the end to the green world of Demeter.