Sunday, March 13, 2011

The good, the bad and Leavis's Daniel Deronda

In The Great Tradition, F. R. Leavis offers a seemingly sexist, and perhaps an anti-Semitic reading of Daniel Deronda. Leavis seems to conflate Eliot’s Zionist inspirations with her femininity and emotion, and finds fault in these qualities because the “determining drive” is from within; her intellect lapses with the Zionist inspirations and are “flights not deriving their impulsion from any external pressure; “the nobility, generosity, and moral idealism are at the same time modes of self-indulgence” (82). He describes the character of Daniel Deronda as “a woman’s creation” (82). Leavis also offers perhaps an anti-Semitic reading of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. Many of us may have not read the whole novel yet, and if not, the “bad part” is yet to come. Leavis calls the good part Gwendolen Harleth; the bad part “is represented by Deronda himself, and by what may be called in general the Zionist inspiration” (80). I will intermix questions from Leavis and the novel below, but, as usual, these are just suggestions.

1. Despite Leavis’s assertion that his judgment of the bad part of the novel is based on Eliot’s “diffusely ponderous and abstract” style, can Leavis be read as favoring the Anglican character over the eponymous Jewish character, since he names the good part Gwendolen Harleth? (This question might have to wait for later.)

2. Very early into the good part of the novel, after pawning the necklace that was once her father’s, Gwendolen remarks, “these Jew dealers were so unscrupulous in taking advantage of Christians unfortunate at play!” (19). Daniel Deronda will purchase this necklace and anonymously send it to her. What are we to make of the novel’s opening focus on Gwendolen gambling?

3. The novel’s narrator states that Gwendolen, “it must be owned, was a deep young lady” (36). How might the lines of the poem that preface the novel relate to her character?

4. If Daniel Deronda is “a woman’s creation,” what is Herr Klesmer? For that matter, what is Gwendolen?...What do you make of Eliot’s depiction of women, and her general comments on them—for example, on p. 124.

5. Leavis asserts, “it is quite plain that the ‘duty’ that Deronda embraces—‘ “I considered it my duty—it is the impulse of my feeling—to identify myself . . . with my hereditary people”’—combines moral enthusiasm and the feeling of emotional intensity with essential relaxation in such a way that, for any ‘higher life’ promoted, we may fairly find an analogy in the exalting effects of alcohol. The element of self-indulgence is patent” (84). What about this second attribution of self-indulgence? Prima facie, what do you make of Leavis’s criticism of Deronda’s commitment to Judaism? Is he simply favoring a secular world over a religious (religion=opiate of the masses) or what else is behind this statement?

6. Is it really a problem of the novel that “There is no equivalent of Zionism for Gwendolyn, and even if there were—: the religion of heredity or race is not, as a generalizable solution of the problem, one that George Eliot herself, directly challenged, could have stood by” (84-5). What does this comment mean? Do we judge novels because of the solutions they offer?

7. Interestingly, Leavis finds that elements in Daniel Deronda “seem to come from Dickens rather than from life" (85). Oliver Twist was published in 1837-8, while Daniel Deronda was published in 1876. Could Eliot’s adoption of a Dickensian tone be part of her metacritical response to his hostile handling of the Jew? What about Dickensian elements in Deronda’s prevention of Mirah’s suicide?

8. How might Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy inform the reading of Daniel Deronda so far?


  1. Good questions, Emily.

    #2: I feel like the gambling/pawning episode is ironic, and used as more of a commentary on Gwendolen than Jewish people. To rephrase the quote you cited, she's essentially saying "Darn you for your practical, albeit opportunist, ways and bailing me out when I've done something foolish/viceful."

    #7: I think your linking Eliot's novel to Dickens is interesting. It may be worthwhile to think about Our Mutual Friend, in which the Thames is heavily featured. The novel actually opens with Lizzie and her father dredging in the Thames, and they discover a human body.

    #8: I appreciate the look back at Culture and Anarchy. Reflecting on Arnold's value of "sweetness and light" he has a mostly genuine interest in beauty and intelligence, and, consequently, culture. The role of culture is complicated in Daniel Deronda. At times, it is used satrically. Consider Gwendolen's exchange with Mrs. Arrowpoint over Tasso. After their various interactions, Mrs Arrowpoint decides, "this girl is double and satirical. I shall be on my guard against her" (51).


    What do you make of the novel's incorporation of music? Gwendolen is embarrassed by her lack of singing ability (49). When Gwendolen is speaking to Lydia Glasher about Grandcourt's despicable behavior, they watch the son of Glasher and Grandcourt "trying to blow a tiny trumpet which remained dumb. His hat hung backward on a string, and his brown curls caught the sun-rays. He was a cherub" (152). Deronda sings as he paddles down the Thames, and right before he saves Mirah.

    Just before Daniel and Mirah arrive at the Meyricks' home, the good-natured family is having some fun, and Mab says, "'I wish something wonderful would happen. I feel like the deluge. The waters of the great deep are broken up, and the windows of heaven are opened. I must sit down and play the scales'" (199). She goes to open the piano "while the others were laughing at this climax, when a cab stopped before the house, and there forthwith came a quick rap of the knocker" (199). Enter Daniel and Mirah. The placement of the Meyricks' conversation prior to Daniel's and Mirah's arrival seems deliberate. What is to be made of this, and the other instances where music is prominent?

  2. I was interested in the opening gambling episode, as well. Like Juliette, I found the scene ironic--and more a commentary on Gwendolyn's spoiled nature than anything else.

    I think Eliot's depiction of women in the novel is fascinating and worth discussing. I am only 200 pages into the novel, so maybe it's too early for this discussion, but so far women seem to come in two types--attractive ones or smart ones. (Of course, we might say that dear Gwennie is sly/cunning/etc, but mostly she is simply very striking. Miss Arrowpoint, on the other hand, is plain but quite accomplished.)

    On a related note, I think Eliot's depiction of marriage is interesting. Gwen wants very much to be desired as a bride, but has enough self-preservation to realize that being a wife will probably not end up being a lot of fun for her. (During those scenes I kept remembering poor Scarlett O'Hara having to go to bed with her first husband and realizing that the wedding was a one-day thing but now she actually had to be married to this nerd.)

    I don't know what I really want to say about the depiction of marriage in the novel yet, but I've been thinking about it.

  3. Eliot suggests a connection between gambling, as one form of speculation, and financial investment, in this case embodied by Grapnell & Co and Mrs. Davilow’s failed investment. If Eliot is developing a broader theme of speculation, as claimed by one of the footnotes, I’m not sure yet where that’s taking us. I do note appearances of the word speculate; both Gwendolen and her mother, for example, speculate on Gwendolen’s prospects in general and Grandcourt in particular (53, 93, 113).

    Leavis seemed to object to a certain lack of realism in parts of the novel. He refers to “the mass of fervid and wordy unreality” (79), for example, and emphasizes Derronda as a character imagined (82). I saw, then, in conjunction with his claim that Derronda is “a woman’s creation,” an intimation that a woman might draw a believable (or realistic) female character (such as Gwendolen) but had a harder task of making an acceptable male character. The matter of the “Zionist inspiration” also ties to his questions about realism, as if it were a tactic to make the novel appear truer to reality than it is.

  4. Juliette, I agree that the use of music is worth consideration. I’m not sure yet what to make of it. Add to your observations the character of Herr Klezmer, a musician and literally music. Music seems to be an ambivalent element for Gwendolen, sometimes on the verge of providing pleasure or opportunity, yet taxing and somewhat outside her reach. Music is more meaningful for other characters.

  5. Stephanie: Your observation about the women in this novel seems spot on. Gwendolen is the missing link, so to speak; she's described as "striking" rather than gorgeous and "clever" rather than intelligent.

    It's interesting how different Leavis' scholarship is than most of what we read today. Can you imagine a critic grouping characters or sections of books into 'good' and 'bad' in 2011? It feels so bold and assertive—occasionally at its own peril. For instance, and this gets to your second question, Emily, Leavis writes that "Eliot was too intelligent ... to offer ... the Victorian interest in race and heredity ... directly" (80). I think the moment you pointed to, Emily, should be read as Eliot signposting the novel's intent to investigate those Victorian issues head on—even if it's done ironically in that case. Eliot also describes characters in terms of nationhood, which we've read in connection to nineteenth century notions of race.

  6. To begin what is indubitably going to be a scattershot post, I wanted to touch briefly on Emily’s comments about the Leavis piece. I read his critique of the “bad half” of Daniel Deronda as an attack on style and craft rather than on any particular cause or character, although his tone could be due to his own discounting of those involved. He seems most offended by her giving herself over to something beyond the art, to the political, which brings the effusion and sentimentality. But it did seem contradictory to compare this unfavorably with Portrait as far as language and tone goes, considering James’s own propensity to wordiness, sentimentality and overbearing narrators. Also, I wonder what Gwendolen’s “Zionism” could be? Was there a cause of this sort she could give herself to? Is the absence of one a social critique by Eliot? Dorothea Burke sure tries to become active in the community but ends up dedicating herself to the support of Causabon’s pedantic scholarship.

    Running with the allusion to a failed and miserable marriage, I too was interested in Gwendolen’s early views of the institution. There does appear to be a connection between her view of its stifling nature and the absence of a plausible cause for her to follow, yet her views also seem simply immature, and of a piece with her great vanity that Eliot takes pains to point out. Gwendolen has “no objection to [being] adored” (57), yet even with this “imaginative delight in being adored” she “[objects], with a sort of physical repulsion, to being directly made love to” (70). This seems to be the impetus behind her desiring the fervent courtship—like adoration, “to be sued and hopelessly sighed for” is an “indispensable and agreeable guarantee of womanly power” (39). Yet, actually participating in a marriage is something altogether different. Interestingly, Rex also speaks of the impediments marriage presents to one’s desire and will. Seemingly, marriage allows no one to have their way—the act itself is the final consummation of individual will.

  7. Finally, I was intrigued by the array of gendered qualities given Gwendolyn—by both narrator and characters—that seem to balance and almost contradict each other. She is lively and spirited, rides a horse well, but is easily scared due to an “excitable nature.” She is independent but hates to be alone. She is intelligent, keen and satirical, but in a whimsical way. She practices archery, and could presumably hunt with this skill, yet much of her energy is spent ensuring she is the object of desire.

    I set up these contrasts to look at a recurring description that seems to be both masculine and feminine. There is much focus on “her long white throat, and the curves of her cheek and chin” (67-68). This description gives off vulnerability—an exposed white throat—while also rendering her attractiveness a matter of poise and composure. The more striking example occurs when she tells Rex that her “plan is to do what pleases [her]” (69), a rather “masculine” assertion, even in Gwendolen’s eyes. At this point the narrator interjects with a comment to “any young lady [inclined] to imitate Gwendolen, let her consider the set of her head and neck: if the angle there had been different, the chin protrusive and the cervical vertebrae a trifle more curved in their position…Gwendolen’s words would have had a jar in them” (69). Her assertive nature, and posture somehow also comes off inoffensively, because this same pose creates a feminine charm that does not grate the men (in this case, Rex) who encounter it. Perhaps this complex rendering of her character is one of the reasons Leavis is so fervent in his praise of this “good half.”