Friday, February 05, 2010

Gwendolen Harleth

I had hoped to finish Daniel Deronda today, but it was not to be: 700 pages, not bad, but my plan was to read one Eliot novel a week, so I could appreciate the breadth and depth of her oeuvre with greater understanding and immediacy.

Why have I been so busy? Why do the best-laid schemes of mice and men...? I've been doing more work for work than necessary, if you know what I mean. I got sidetracked by something peripheral, and then I spent too much time researching it, and my personal reading life was disrupted. I'm sure you know how this can happen. It was fun!

Still, I can't say I'm sorry to be reading DD an extra few days. Every moment I have spent with Eliot's heroine, Gwendolen Harleth, has been a good one. I find Daniel a bit pompous this time around, but his story is also absorbing, insofar as his sensitive exploration of the Jewish faith and overcoming of prejudice and stereotypes reflect Eliot's own intellectual interests. In a way it's odd that she named the book Daniel Deronda instead of Gwendolen Harleth, but of course he links together all the characters. Yet it's Gwendolen's story that sticks with me. She is more vivid than the quieter Daniel, though he does keep that male emotional distance from women that most of us have experienced at some time.

Is Gwendolen a likable character? Although she does not care for people in general, and definitely does not like other women, she is high-spirited and proud, intelligent and emotional, powerful before marriage, a fascinating character with whom I empathize because she does not intend to be a typical submissive woman. She is an excellent horsewoman, and metaphorically intends to hold the reins in marriage. Alas, her marriage to the psychologically abusive Grandcourt breaks her. She is constantly sneered at, and worries about his previous mistress, whom she has wronged by marrying Grandcourt, but she can't leave the marriage because of pride and because her mother is dependent on the money. Gwendolen was the husband/master figure in her widowed mother's life, and she married Grandcourt as a last resort after her mother lost all their money. Marriage proves to be the biggest mistake of her life.

"Already she was undergoing some hardening effect from feeling that she was under eyes which which saw her past actions only in the light of her lowest motives. She lived back in the scenes of her courtship, with the new bitter consciousness of what had been in Grandcourt's mind--certain now, with her present experience of him, that he had had a peculiar triumph in conquering her dumb repugnance, and that ever since their marriage he had had a cold exultation in knowing her fancied secret. Her imagination exaggerated every tyrannical impulse he was capable of. "I will insist on being separated from him'--was her first darting determinations..."

But Gwendolen is totally self-absorbed: when she visits Mirah, the singer Daniel has rescued from suicide, she loses interest as soon as Mirah angrily denies the poisonous rumor, invented by Grandcourt, that Daniel is having an affair with her. Gwendolen, relieved, can't get out of there fast enough, leaving Mirah angry and upset. Not pretty behavior on her part, but she is desperate, and so defeated by the psychologically abusive Grandcourt that she idealizes Daniel, who has become a kind of somber angel/agent of truth and honor in her imagination, and she hopes to find salvation and a way to live through his advice. Daniel wants nothing to do with her, and is uneasy about this beautiful woman's dependence on him.

I think Gwendolen is very courageous, and understand her idealization. Sometimes we need a dream figure to believe there are people out there not behaving badly! Daniel teaches Gwendolen not only through what he says, but through her imagination of who he is.


Buried In Print said...

I noted a few quotes from Middlemarch about marriage as well.

"Marriage is so unlike everything else. There is something even awful in the nearness it brings."

"Impossible...husbands are an inferior class of men, who require keeping in order."

Frisbee said...

Eliot really understands marriage. She knows the good and the bad (though in DD we see mainly the bad).

Danielle said...

I loved the movie Daniel Deronda--am I cheating? I saw the movie before reading the book. So far I have only read Middlemarch which is a superb book, but I do want to read more of her work. I love the idea of reading lots of it and close together--not something I seem to be able to do very often these days.

Frisbee said...

I'm having trouble getting back into the 20th or 21st century. Soon I shall talk like Georg Eliot's characters;

I saw the BBC Daniel Deronda, too, and loved it. These minsieries can inspire one to read the book.

Ellen said...

Actually your comments bring home how Davies is not interested in the important marriage theme of the novel, but replaces that with lost identities (so Daniel is central). The Harcourt marriage becomes an instance of abuse of a sadist in the film so we are discouraged from generalizing.


Frisbee said...

Ellen, I'll have to watch the film. I did see it a few years ago and liked it very much. I was impressed by the actress, who adopted the gestures of the book: she kept tossing her head and twisting her neck, very much as Gwendolen does in the novel. There is lots of fascinating serpent imagery--and horse imagery.