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Saturday, 7 November 2015

Walter Allen on George Eliot and Tolstoy

In his book George Eliot, Walter Allen quotes W. J. Harvey as saying, whilst comparing Daniel Deronda to Anna Karenina, "One cannot imagine George Eliot encompassing either Levin's simple joy at being alive and in love or the complex intensities of Anna Karenina's passion". He goes on to write "In the same way, Middlemarch is not only much smaller, much more restricted, than War and Peace as a panorama of life in history, it also lacks entirely the simple, sensuous, almost animal joy in being alive that permeates Tolstoy's novel." 
Later he writes:
"... V. S. Pritchett has said, 'There is no real madness in George Eliot', meaning by madness the sense of the forces of the irrational, the daimonic, the incomprehensible in men's lives. This is to say that, for all her profound reverence, she is never a religious novelist; and the reality of sexual passion is also foreign to her. Her view of life was unswervingly and all the time a moral view, and nothing that existed outside the moral view, that could not be netted by it, existed for her. The loftiness of the moral view she held cannot prevent us from thinking that there is a great deal in life that cannot be adequately explained or illuminated by it. The world is not primarily, as it too often seems in her novels, a gymnasium for the exercise and development of the moral faculties. Her picture of life, then, is more limited than her most fervent admirers are always willing to admit." 


10 comments:

  1. Di,

    Harsh words. However, I don't think Eliot ever reached for madness or the daimonic as she had something else in mind, and, neither did Austen, or many other writers.

    To criticize authors for not doing something they never intended to do is unfair and shows a bias in the critic's thinking. Does Allen think this way or does he just bring them up to later disagree with them?

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  2. Identifying what artists don't or can't do can be as useful as understanding what they can. The one highlights the other. The critic is drawing a portrait using the negative space.

    Allen shows not his bias but his point of view. Not everyone can be a serene, bias-free, wet dishrag Appreciationist like me.

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    1. Amateur Reader (Tom),

      Aside from noting that a writer didn't do something, there isn't much more one can say that isn't mere speculation. Tolstoy didn't write about aliens on Mars.

      Therefore, according to Pritchett's reasoning, "(Tolstoy's) picture of life, then, is more limited than (his) most fervent admirers are always willing to
      admit."

      I'm far more interested in why some authors write about madness or the daimonic than why some authors don't. The first can lead to some interesting insights, the latter airy speculation.

      In any case, this is fiction we are talking about, whether there is or is not madness or the daimonic, it is still made up, created in the imagination of the author.

      To condemn a work because it lacks madness or the daimonic is a bias, just as to condemn a work because it depicts madness or the daimonic is a bias. Neither is superior, as far as I'm concerned.

      Your opinion, of course, may differ.

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  3. I see your point that "to criticize authors for not doing something they never intended to do is unfair", Fred, but:
    1/ George Eliot is often compared to Tolstoy, sometimes even called the British or English Tolstoy, and there are indeed similarities, so it is valid to point out the differences between the 2. There's no reason to criticise Tolstoy for not writing about aliens.
    2/ In both of your comments, you focus on this little part "the sense of the forces of the irrational, the daimonic, the incomprehensible in men's lives". I myself focus on these points:
    - "One cannot imagine George Eliot encompassing either Levin's simple joy at being alive and in love or the complex intensities of Anna Karenina's passion".
    - "it also lacks entirely the simple, sensuous, almost animal joy in being alive that permeates Tolstoy's novel".
    - "Her view of life was unswervingly and all the time a moral view, and nothing that existed outside the moral view, that could not be netted by it, existed for her.".
    - "The world is not primarily, as it too often seems in her novels, a gymnasium for the exercise and development of the moral faculties."
    And here I agree with him. George Eliot is more didactic, with a stronger sense of purpose, than Tolstoy; her stories are seen through the moral lens and her characters can be categorised by asking whether they act from self-interest or from love. Placed next to Tolstoy, of course most writers seem limited, but the question is why. The way I see it, Jane Austen's novels are limited mostly because of the small canvas, the narrow circle of characters, the limited range of experiences, but that's mostly it; whereas George Eliot's novels, next to Tolstoy's, are limited because she imposes on herself the task of enlarging readers' sympathies and therefore becomes too concerned with morality, sympathy and moral growth. George Eliot, at least in the novels I've read, doesn't write about being in love or about passion the way Jane Austen does, even; and if she writes about jealousy, it doesn't take up much space as Jane Austen depicts for a large part of Mansfield Park.
    3/ I don't think you should think of madness as madness as you seem to do. No, not the Dostoyevsky kind of madness, say. The way I understand it is that George Eliot, when writing about moral faculties and moral choices and moral growth, focuses on what is rational and deliberate, and thereby, fails to deal with the irrational and the incomprehensible in people's lives.

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  4. YEs, Eliot seems to want to present a certain 'moral' view — her own — of the world before public — that seems to be her 'purpose' in writing, her starting point, which she 'populates' later, with people and events ... unlike Tolstoy (in 'Anna') who has a story to tell ... a real-life event that he may have read about in newspapers, etc. and which fascinated him, to the extent where he couldn't but tell it to a wider audience by means of a novel.

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  5. I have known readers for whom the fact that Tolstoy did not write about aliens was a serious knock against him. These would be readers who only read books featuring aliens, or their elvish equivalents.

    If free imaginative invention is my greatest aesthetic value, neither Tolstoy nor Eliot will do much for me.

    Di, I don't remember if you have read Adam Bede. The best part of it is a story about the "irrational and the incomprehensible," so it exists in Eliot but the way she treats it supports your (and Allen's) argument. Eliot is in a sense writing about aliens.

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    1. No worries. We have got Android Karenina!
      Speaking of which, there are Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, now I want Middlemarch and Mermaids or Middlemarch and Minotaurs or Middlemarch and Manticores or something.

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  6. I do not concern myself with what writers do not write but try to focus instead only on what they do write.

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    1. Perhaps you don't remember this post of mine http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2015/02/other-possibilities-for-gwendolen-and.html ?
      Bad reading I call it. But I do think that thinking of "other possibilities", i.e. what George Eliot didn't write, shed some light on what she did write in Daniel Deronda.

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