Wednesday, 18 March 2015

New thoughts on Gwendolen Harleth: What if she's not a spoilt child?

I'm still thinking about George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. Don't you find Gwendolen's dislike and disdain of men quite strange and unusual? She doesn't like men, doesn't want to get married, doesn't want to have children, doesn't believe in love, doesn't like men to express their feelings for her (and if she wants a proposal, it's only because that gives her power, a sense of triumph, and the pleasure of rejecting it). She has a negative view on men in general ("I believe all men are bad")*. More than that, Gwendolen seems incapable of romantic love. Her feeling for Grandcourt isn't love. She marries him mostly because of the sudden change in her economic situation, her shock, humiliation and disillusionment (after the conversation with Klesmer), her unwillingness to become a governess and fear of being rejected and humiliated again, and also her care for her mother. In addition, Grandcourt intrigues her, because he seems different from other men, with that bored, languid air, and while she likes to have power, he's not a weak, submissive man that one can control, which makes her feel curious and see him as a challenge. 
Her feeling for Deronda isn't love either. Her initial attraction to him is due to curiosity and wounded pride, because again, he also seems different from other men. After that is her admiration for and dependence on him, her loneliness and need for guidance, her weak will in important matters, as Deronda stands for all the goodness and selflessness she doesn't possess herself and doesn't see a lot of around her. Deronda is more like an idea than a person, so I believe to Gwendolen he's also as abstract as that. 
Which is to say, she's incapable of romantic love. 
Even if we attribute this to selfishness and egotism, we cannot explain her instability and outbursts. Several times she seems hysterical. Her reaction to Lydia's letter may be understandable, but her reaction to the picture of the dead face is inexplicable. People usually don't do that. That suggests some dark secret, some kind of trauma, some hidden wound. 
Another thing is the stepfather. What has he done that makes her dislike him so much, and think badly of marriage in general? Nobody says that he beats his wife, his actions are ambiguous, unspecified. Also, 1 detail is notable- once Gwendolen sleeps in the same room with her mother and is asked to go out and get something, but she doesn't want to. That is mentioned after the passage about the stepfather. I start to believe in the possibility that he has abused her. 
Too far-fetched? 
Perhaps. But many unexplained details just don't fit together, except when I consider the possibility of abuse and trauma. And if that is indeed the case, I cannot look at Gwendolen the same way any more. Her selfishness, her prioritisation of herself becomes understandable and easier to sympathise with- a victim who has had to face things alone starts relying on no one but herself and only cares about herself, survival and self-protection. If it's the case, she's a lot more tragic than she seems.

*: though she does say that she hates people, not just men, I still feel that her hatred of men is stronger, more pronounced. 

Update at 10.29 pm: 
I've just found a more detailed, in-depth analysis of Gwendolen's behaviour that also argues for the possibility of abuse:
Personally I'm a bit resistant to some bits in this essay. There must be some distortion- once we believe in a theory, everything seems to "make sense" as we bend it to fit our interpretation. Perhaps it's never in George Eliot's mind. But if we follow Roland Barthes and leave the author outside the picture and look at the work alone, I still think there's something serious in Gwendolen's past, more serious than her father's death and her stepfather's lack of kindness and the constant change of place. 

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