Taking Another Look at “Daniel Deronda”

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I was puttering around in the studio not so long ago, steeping myself in the far left politics of Democracy Now as they were rebroadcasting an interview with Edward Said (1935-2003), when an unexpected literary reference caught my ear and caused me to pay closer attention to the radio.

What on earth could Edward Said, noted academic and proponent of Palestinian rights, have had against George Eliot, one of the greatest English novelists of the nineteenth century? . . . Really? He says her novel Daniel Deronda has contributed to the rise of Zionism, the displacement of the Palestinians, and the schism between the Western and Arab worlds?

I decided I had better take a look.

And so I finally broached this lengthy novel by the author of Middlemarch and Silas Marner, among other notable works. I loved Middlemarch, and I had intended to read more Eliot, but the next offering on the library shelf was daunting, and not only for its size. I was reminded of the reason for my earlier reluctance when I picked up the fat volume in the library again and, again, perused the back cover of Daniel Deronda. Right — the “Jewish” subplot. The book gets mixed reviews for that; and I was not eager to encounter a clunky or unsavory treatment of race that might lessen my esteem for a literary idol. But now, having heard Edwad Said actually diss this book by name, I was eager to see what all the fuss was about. Surely Eliot had to have gotten something right, artistically, for critics and readers to still feel so argumentative about this work.

She did. And now I am going to argue my own point, which is that Mary Ann Adams (1819-1880), a.k.a. George Eliot, was first and foremost writing about the universal plight of women.

The intertwined culture clashes — Christian/Jew, male/female, rich/poor — explored in Daniel Deronda are strikingly similar to those playing out today. In fact, there is a nearly exact parallel between Eliot’s “enlightened” Christian characters’ abhorrence for the Jewish custom of keeping women separate from men at temple, while virtually enslaving and prostituting their own women within a society that kept them destitute except by support of a male family member, and contemporary Western censure of Muslim women’s head-covering practice, while tolerating and abetting the demeaning objectification of women in media, pay inequities that keep women poor and dependent, rape culture, sex trafficking, and the same general diminishment of status based solely on gender that most every culture and every religion has propagated for thousands of years.

Case in point: The Republican presidential nominee recently suggested that a Gold Star Mother had not been permitted to speak in public because of her repressive religion, as evidenced by her head covering; yet he can find no fault with sexual harassment in the workplace, or anything inequitable about requiring professional women to wear skimpy cocktail dresses while their male counterparts are fully covered (see my “Shoulders” post). A woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do, right? And in Western society women are “free” to expose themselves and thereby “succeed.” Oh joy.

Literary analysis of Daniel Deronda, which was first published in 1876, makes note of Eliot’s fascination with Judaism, her special interest in its long historical roots, and her friendship with Jewish scholar Immanuel Oscar Menahem Deutsch. I suppose her ardently feminist philosophy is so well evidenced by her own biography that it goes without saying, but surely that had something to do with her need to probe the far reaches of history for the source of Jewish tenacity and morality. Must all societies be organized around male dominance and female subservience? Shall our fates be forever dictated by either a divine plan or stupid luck-of-the-draw, in which there are but two possibilities: having male benefactors who are decent and generous, or who are abusive and uncaring? And in either case, it’s a woman’s duty to submit? Says who?

In leading up to the subject of Jewish self-determination (which is not even hinted at until two-thirds into the novel), Eliot dwells at length on the unhappy choices facing her heroine, Gwendolen, a young woman with seemingly every asset except one — an inheritance. Gwendolen harbors a disdain for men and male wooing, which we come to understand, in between-the-lines Victorian fashion, is the result of disturbing experiences with her stepfather. But what is she to do? That man is out of their lives, but their assets have gone with him. Mother and sisters are dependent on relatives; and when the uncle’s investments crash, all hopes rest on a prospective husband for Gwendolen.

In the context of the full novel, we can see that Gwendolen has suddenly found herself in a similar position to the Jewish characters she will later meet — forced to suppress her higher aims in order to secure physical sustenance for herself and her family. While Gwendolen’s aims may seem vague and vain against the lofty religious yearnings of Jewish (male) scholars, the latter need only lower themselves to moneylending and trade in goods, whereas Gwendolen’s very person is on the line. Likewise, her counterpart in the “Jewish” subplot, Mirah, has been forced to work in the theater, where she barely escapes being hired out for sexual services. Again, the vulgar truth is dealt with through innuendo, but Eliot spares no irony in portraying how acting and singing were mainly jobs for foreigners, since being on stage was considered too crass for English women. Ladies, she wants us to understand, were expected to sell themselves genteelly in private.

I suppose it’s more comfortable for male academics to blame Eliot for promulgating Zionism without regard for the native inhabitants of Palestine, than to acknowledge that the real villains of this story are fathers, husbands and wealthy lechers. For all of the oafish, oblivious, conceited, domineering and downright dastardly male characters who inhabit this novel, Eliot offers a single decent, rational, modern man: Daniel Deronda. He is the star of the book because he treats women with respect. He also has some significant identity issues of his own.

Finally, four-fifths through the book, we come to the nut of Eliot’s argument, and mine. I think this short excerpt speaks for itself and I will not be giving away important plot details by quoting it here:

I gather that [your father] opposed your bent to be an artist. Though my own experience has been quite different, I enter into the painfulness of your struggle. I can imagine the hardship of an enforced renunciation.”

“No,” said the Princess, shaking her head, and folding her arms with an air of decision. “You are not a woman. You may try—but you can never imagine what it is to have a man’s force of genius in you, and yet to suffer the slavery of being a girl. To have a pattern cut out— ‘this is the Jewish woman; this is what you must be; this is what you are wanted for; a woman’s heart must be of such a size and no larger, else it must be pressed small, like Chinese feet; her happiness is to be made as cakes are, by a fixed receipt.’ That was what my father wanted. He wished I had been a son…

With that reference to the binding of Chinese women’s feet, Eliot tips the scales already heavy with the accumulated weight of Gwendolen’s torment — we are not talking about only Jewish women here, but all women.

Had there been more women in influential literary and academic positions between 1876 and, say, now — the legacy of Daniel Deronda might have come down to us differently. I found it to be an excellent read, and memorable exactly because it takes such an unusual turn. It bursts the confines of the popular novel structure of its time. Numerous critics have had their say about Daniel Deronda, but they have overlooked much of its significance and relevance. Eliot’s primary concern was not for a possible Jewish state in Palestine, but for the sorry lot of women everywhere.

Getting back to presidential politics, it will come as no surprise to you that I’m with her! What surprises me is how the media have tried to create an equivalence between Hillary’s “dislikability” rating and and Donald’s. Seriously? He is disliked because he’s another in a long line of bombastic misogynists, and she is disliked because she has been buried under their insults. Tellingly, Hillary’s “dislikability” has also been proclaimed by the far left, where the entrenched chauvinists of academia no doubt do dislike her, but instead of acting rabid they hide their bias behind a mask of nonchalance: “We’re so enlightened, we don’t even notice that she’s a woman, or that she speaks to women’s hopes and ambitions, or that women see her as an important change from the status quo — to us she’s just another insider politician — tsk tsk, yawn.” Now, of course, polls reveal that the more people actually hear from Hillary the more they like her, and the more they have to listen to Donald the less they like him. Maybe it’s not a toss-up between unfavorables, and never was. Maybe it’s not about race, religion or immigration. Sounds like plain old sexism to me, same as in 1876, same as usual. But not same as forever, thanks to determined women like George Eliot, Hillary Clinton and so many others, plus all of the real-life Daniel Derondas who really do respect us.

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