Friday, 14 August 2015

Henry James's "Daniel Deronda: A Conversation"

A critique of Daniel Deronda in the form of a short story, or rather, a play. 
There are 3 characters. 
Theodora adores George Eliot and says "A book like Daniel Deronda becomes part of one's life; one lives in it or alongside of it" and fervently defends Daniel Deronda
Pulcheria thinks George Eliot is no artist, appreciates Rosamond but doesn't believe in Dorothea, and harshly criticises Daniel Deronda, especially the Jewish plot and the characters in it "I don't see what you mean by saying you have been near those people, that is just what one is not. They produce no illusion. They are described and analyzed to death, but we don't see them or hear them or touch them. [...] They have no existence outside of the author's study". She complains "... what can be drearier than a novel in which the function of the hero- young, handsome, and brilliant- is to give didactic advice, in a proverbial form, to the young, beautiful, and brilliant heroine?". Even Gwendolen is problematic, she finds- "She was an odious young woman, and one can't care what becomes of her. When her marriage turned out ill she would have become still more hard and positive; to make her soft and appealing is very bad logic. The 2nd Gwendolen doesn't belong to the 1st". Pulcheria also says that Daniel Deronda doesn't have a current; it's not a river but a series of lakes. 
Constantius is in the middle, he admires George Eliot, especially her intellect, but also sees her deficiencies, and finds this book very much inferior to Middlemarch
I'm mostly on the side of Constantius and Pulcheria. 1 of the few things in which I disagree with Pulcheria is the depiction of Gwendolen. That's an excellent and well-drawn character. Indeed, it's a weakness that the narrator takes sides and doesn't give us Grandcourt's perspective, which makes him rather shadowy or at least hard to grasp as a character, but reading Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch helps see George Eliot's point about ethics- if there's a bit of conscience, there's a chance for improvement, and there can be improvement only if there's conscience, or to be more precise, the ability to find oneself wrong and feel bad about it. Gwendolen is very similar to Rosamond on the surface, but she isn't Rosamond, and her change is plausible. People are not static, sometimes tragedy brings about a great change in a person- Gwendolen learns through experience the way Dorothea does. That I've discussed before
However, in this story, Henry James does point out lots of problems I have with the novel. Or not only Daniel Deronda but also Middlemarch and Adam Bede, and I suppose other George Eliot novels I'll read in the future. George Eliot's mistake is that she's capable of creating wonderful characters, such as Edward Casaubon, Rosamond Vincy, Tertius Lydgate, Adam Bede, Mrs Poyser, Gwendolen Harleth... but likes to create characters that are ideal and perfect, characters that are embodiments of some ideas, characters that are there to support her didactic purpose. Look at Daniel Deronda, Mirah Lapidoth, Mordecai, Dinah Morris. Even Dorothea Brooke is frustrating in her saintliness, her childlike simplicity, her large heart. I don't demand fictional characters to always be realistic, like human beings- I don't stress on that as a criterion of literary merit, even if I like it. Many of my favourite characters are not realistic and might even be caricatures, like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park, Mr Fairlie in The Woman in White, Joe in Great Expectations, the characters of Dead Souls, etc. It's just that I like characters to have a vivid existence within the world of the book, and to exist in their own right instead of embodying some ideas or teaching the readers something. You may say that it's not possible to say the characters in Daniel Deronda don't have a vivid existence, because they belong to the Jewish plot, and the Jewish plot is Idealism, as opposed to the Realism of the Gwendolen plot, and the 2 strands of Daniel Deronda are written in different styles, but in Middlemarch and Adam Bede we also find such characters, who are more like ideas than characters. 
As Virginia Woolf puts it: 
"Those who fall foul of George Eliot do so, we incline to think, on account of her heroines; and with good reason; for there is no doubt that they bring out the worst of her, lead her into difficult places, make her self-conscious, didactic, and occasionally vulgar." 
I don't know about her other books, but in all the 3 novels I have read, George Eliot likes to create a heroine that is an image of innocence, purity, nobility, benevolence, universal sympathy, forgiveness, saintliness... To use Jane Austen's words, pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked. It is dull to have a 1-dimensional character when that's an important character (minor/ supporting characters can be 1-dimensional). It is more frustrating when that character is just pure and noble and so good in every way. It spoils the book. 
Another issue, which Henry James doesn't mention, is the intrusive narrator. She takes control over everything, she is always present, she describes, addresses readers, comments on things, takes sides, takes care to make us like the right people, she never goes away. Readers have to adapt. 
Reading George Eliot takes efforts, appreciating her works requires readers to get accustomed to, and accept, the ever-present and moralistic narrator and the perfect, saintly heroes and heroines. Once one can get past the feeling of annoyance and accept these things as part of her art, one can recognise her formidable intellect and deep sensibilities and wisdom as well as her greatness as a writer. 

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