Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Drawing from James Hillman's psychological reading of myth, this study traces the emergence of the ancient myth of Psyche in Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, Caroline Gordon's The Women on the Porch, William Faulkner's Light in August, and Toni Morrison's Beloved. From the perspective of modern divisions, the novelists look forward to the wholeness of Psyche's reunion with Eros and the assumption of the mortal woman, yet their immediate focus is the transformative journey through the underworld. James elaborates the mythical impact of money; like the coins Psyche pays Charon, who detaches her from a sense of her own perfection as he ferries her into the underworld, Isabel Archer's fortune occasions the descent of the American innocent. James and particularly Gordon, who broadens the impact of the myth to include the modern intellectual, demonstrate that through the underworld journey, girlish goodness and portrait-like beauty deepen into the beautiful gestures of Isabel's return to Rome and Catherine Chapman's rescue of her husband. Reconfiguring Psyche's myth, Faulkner and Morrison elaborate resistance to passage to and from the underworld in terms of payments that deny the holistic logic of the psyche. Faulkner divides Psyche's journey between Lena Grove, whose evasion of the underworld seems a gift, and Joe Christmas, who attempts to purchase immunity from mortality and the inevitable descent. Though Gail Hightower believes his own suffering has paid for exemption from emergence, Lena's Psyche urge draws him out of the underworld. Morrison inverts Charon's crucial role through Stamp Paid; though he heroically ferries passengers from enslavement to freedom, he assures them that their suffering has bought freedom from the underworld. Yet this purchased evasion is belied by Sethe, who kills her daughter to protect her from the sullying passage, and Beloved, who erupts from the underworld to exact endless payment from Sethe. Thus emerges Psyche's challenge to distinguish between guiding love and compassion for underworldly figures who would ensnare her forever. As Sethe's emergence is finally secured by Eros-like Paul D, Morrison's work suggests the urgency of the underworldly descent and emergence for the American literary imagination.
Sifert, Kristen, "The Portrait of a Psyche: Women's Underworld Journeys in Four Modern American Novels." (1998). LSU Historical Dissertations and Theses. 6867.