26 December 2011

Victorian Controversies, 1876: Zionism

Daniel Deronda
by George Eliot

George Eliot wrote one of my favorite-ever novels, Adam Bede, so it was with some anticipation that I opened up Daniel Deronda. The opening pages didn't disappoint; the first chapter, where we see Gwendolen Harleth at the gambling tables, is absolutely exquisite, an utterly captivating use of point-of-view as we come closer and closer to the odd and unsettling sight of a woman gambling, and meet our two main characters, Gwendolen and Daniel.

From there, their backstories unfold before us in parallel, and then their forwardstories. It's a common truism that despite who the novel is named after, the Gwendolen sections are more interesting. It's true that they are very good-- still no one can do interiority to the extent that George Eliot can, and the bit on the boat is utterly riveting especially-- but I loved the sections where Deronda began to associate with Mordecai and his associates. Everyone knows that Deronda is the "Jewish novel," but that's part of the problem, too. The point isn't the Zionist discussion themselves, but the real sense that Deronda is beginning to experience something bigger than himself, coming into contact with a larger world full of big, important ideas. Also, knowing that this is the Jewish novel preempts certain revelations from having their full effect.

The novel does get kinda weird, though. The narrative seems to condemn Gwendolen for being unable to dedicate her own life to something bigger than herself, whereas it praises Deronda for dedicating himself to Zionism. This is weird for two reasons. First, dedicating herself to a cause isn't really the solution to Gwendolen's marital woes. Second, Daniel lucks into a cause-- had he not had a secret Jewish ancestry, he would have been just as aimless as Gwendolen, if not moreso. It feels massively unfair for Daniel and the narrator to condemn Gwendolen for her inability to see the big picture, when she's never been permitted access to the art museum. (Okay, that metaphor is stretched too much.) The narrator comments:
That was the sort of crisis which was at this moment beginning in Gwendolen's small life: she was for the first time feeling the pressure of a vast mysterious movement, for the first time being dislodged from her supremacy in her own world, and getting a sense that her horizon was but a dipping onward of an existence with which her own was revolving.
Gwendolen must be made small (humiliated, even) to discover something bigger than herself... but Deronda didn't have to be. Why is that?

There are similar moments of incongruence throughout the novel, such as when Daniel condemns his own mother, seemingly unfairly to me, but not the narrator, or when a musician declares that musicians are so good at things that they could advise politicians, which strikes me as far-fetched but no one quibbles with him.

The thing I wonder about Eliot is if we take her at face value too much, just because she's a Victorian. We assume that the writer and the novel are aligned in perspective with the protagonist and the narrator. We wouldn't do this if she was a 20th-century writer; it would be almost expected that the narrator must not represent the author. So why do we do that here? As with the ending of Adam Bede, where Adam seems to think it's okay for his wife to give up her vocation, I don't think we should. I think we are supposed to disagree with Adam, with Daniel, with the musician, with the narrator even.

But that's hard to prove, especially since I suspect it might be rooted in the fact that I love Eliot's writing so much-- and so I want her to be like me, and I want her politics and philosophy to be like mine. Because surely she can't believe that it's right to humiliate Gwendolen that way. I don't.

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