#64 Narcissus





Properly speaking, “Narcissus” is the name of the genus comprising about fifty species of bulbs mostly known as daffodils. In general, when named as a specific flower, the reference is most often to Narcissus tazetta papyraceous, aka “paperwhites,” a variety of bulb native to the Mediterranean region bearing small bunches of fragrant white flowers.  Often grown as a houseplant, it is a popular flower for forcing in mid-winter, especially around Christmas.[1]


Apart from the plethora of associations with daffodils (see my essay on DAFFODILS), specific cultural references to narcissus cluster around the ancient Greek myth codified by Ovid in his Metamorphoses (Book 3, ll. 338-510), in which a beautiful young man pridefully refuses the love of the nymph, Echo, among many others, and is punished for his selfishness by the goddess Nemesis, who causes him to fall in love with his own reflection in a forest pool, so wholly enchanted that he eventually fades away and dies, his body being replaced by a flower “with a yellow center/ Surrounded by white petals” (ll. 509-10; tr. Humphries 73). This well-known story is probably why Kate Greenaway lists the meaning of narcissus as “egotism” in her nineteenth-century guide to the language of flowers.


Beginning in the later nineteenth-century “narcissism” also began to be defined in psychological terms as a personality disorder. According to a long, well-researched, and copiously referenced Wikipedia entry, in 1898, Havelock Ellis was the first to use the term, “in reference to excessive masturbation, whereby the person becomes his or her own sex object.”  In 1911, Otto Rank published the first full paper defining narcissism psychoanalytically, followed by Freud, who wrote “On Narcissism: An Introduction” in 1914, an essay which defines the concept of “primary narcissism,” a relatively healthful self-idealization characteristic of infancy which we struggle to recover.[2]


A digital search of Woolf’s work reveals only eight uses of the word “narcissus,” none of which appear in her fiction and all of which appear through the agency of someone besides Woolf. In a 1917 review of a collection of Greek writings, she quotes an epigram from Meleager containing a passing reference to the flowers as an example of the “incomparable” beauty of the Greek language:


Now the white violet blooms, and blooms the moist narcissus, and bloom the wandering mountain lilies; and now, dear to her lovers, spring flower among the flowers, Zenophile, the sweet rose of Persuasion, has burst into bloom. Meadows, why idly laugh in the brightness of your tresses? For my girl is better than garlands sweet to smell.” (E2 118)


Also derived from another writer are six mentions of the title of Joseph Conrad’s early 1897 novella The Nigger of the Narcissus, contained in essays written on Conrad in 1923 and 1924 (“Mr Conrad: A Conversation” [E3 376-80]; “Joseph Conrad” [E4 227-33].) Since Conrad wrote before Havelock Ellis, he is presumably referencing the Ovidian myth of self-love, and indeed the story revolves around the tension between the needs of the self and those of the community. 


The single most significant appearance of the narcissus in Woolf’s body of work appears in a diary account of a January 1939 visit to Sigmund Freud, then living in London, at the end of which Freud famously gave Woolf a narcissus as a gift. The time frame would suggest that the flower in question was a paperwhite, forced during the holiday season. Although Woolf says that she and Leonard sat “like patients on chairs” and that the “Difficult talk” about Freud’s books, fame, and whether the British would enter into war with Germany was like “An interview,” she nonetheless retained a sense of the elderly man’s “Immense potential,” like “an old fire now flickering” (D5 202), and there is no suggestion that she assumed that Freud’s gift was meant as any kind of reductive diagnosis.  Perry Meisel’s relatively recent discussion of “Woolf and Freud: The Kleinian Turn” opines that the flower was meant as a mirror, signifying Freud’s recognition that in exploring the realm of the subconscious in narrative form, he and Woolf “shared a common shop” (332).  Perhaps in offering Woolf a flower named after a sheet of white paper, he was encouraging her to write.[3]



[3] The definitive exposition of Woolf’s attitude towards Freudian ideas and analytical practices remains Elizabeth Abel’s classic Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanlysis, the last chapter of which explores Woolf’s immersion in reading Freud after she met him in 1939, through a careful comparison of Moses and Monothesism (the English translation of which was published by the Hogarth Press in early 1939) with Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts.



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About 98 Flowers

Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...