Monday, January 19, 2015

Eliot mocks the philistines

No, I have changed my mind.  I will write that post about Eliot’s humor.

It is a funny book; Eliot is a funny writer.  The Jewish side of the book is close to humorless, another knock against it.  And the Gwendolen Harleth side loses its humor, too, understandably given the story, which means that the first third of the novel has a lot of humor and the rest very little.  Maybe this is the imbalance that leads to so much disappointment.

A joke:

Music was soon begun.  Miss Arrowpoint and Herr Klesmer played a four-handed piece on two pianos, which convinced the company in general that it was long…  (Ch. 5)

Or the one I mentioned a couple of days ago, where Gwendolen’s Aunt Gascoigne is describing the advantages of a possible marriage for her:

“Only think: there is the Grandcourt estate, the Mallinger estate, and the baronetcy, and the peerage,” – she was marking off the items on her fingers, and paused on the fourth while she added, “but they say there will be no land coming to him with the peerage.”  It seemed a pity there was nothing for the fifth finger.  (Ch. 28)

That last line is the one that I thought was worthy of and as mean as the heartless Evelyn Waugh; it might be thought uncharacteristic of Eliot by a reader not familiar with the “Mrs. Tulliver’s Terpahim” and “The Family Council” chapters of The Mill on the Floss.

The two preceding jokes have in common that they are both mocking the philistines in Gwendolen’s family.  It was only just over twenty years since Matthew Arnold had drafted the German (and Biblical) word “philistine” into English as a term for self-satisfied bourgeois anti-intellectualism.  Eliot set up her novel as a war between the Jews and the Philistines, with the former the defenders of thought and creators of beauty and the latter interested only in status and money.  Eliot is merciless about Aunt Gascoigne, for example,  even to her name – “[her husband] had once been Captain Gaskin, having taken orders and a diphthong but shortly before his engagement” (Ch. 3).

Vladimir Nabokov’s essay “Philistines and Philistinism” begins:

A full-grown person whose interests are of a material and commonplace nature, and whose mentality is formed of the stock ideas and conventional ideals of his or her group and time.  I have said “full-grown” person because the child or the adolescent who may look like a small philistine is only a small parrot mimicking the ways of confirmed vulgarians, and it is easier to be a parrot than to be a white heron.  (Lectures in Russian Literature, p. 309)

Daniel Deronda is about two not yet full grown people (Daniel Deronda and Gwendolen Harleth) moving towards heronness.  Neither have quite gotten there by the novel’s end, although Daniel is pretty close, and I have hope for Gwendolen.  One of Eliot’s daring moves – this is an aside – is to write a Bildungsroman where the character barely changes, but where every tiny movement counts for a lot.

So the two main characters are on a different path, and the Jewish characters are off in a different aesthetic world.  But the families of the protagonists, the confirmed vulgarians – Eliot gives it to them but good, and it is a pleasure to watch her do it.

All right, given how badly I read it, that is more than enough about Daniel Deronda.


  1. "that is more than enough about Daniel Deronda" - that was how I felt after I wrote my (one) post on it! It did drag at times. But yes, there were some funny parts.

  2. Have you read her _Romula_? I think that's the proper spelling. If so, how would you compare it to _Daniel Deronda_? I've got it buried somewhere in my TBR bookcase, and you've managed to get me interested in digging it out to see what all the fuss is about.

  3. Sorry, poor use of pronouns. I have _DD_ buried somewhere, and I have read _Romula_.

  4. No, neither Romola nor Felix Holt. So I am missing a big piece of the story. And I am likely to continue to miss it.

    Maybe if Rohan Maitzen stops by she can answer your question. She wrote a most helpful piece on Romola a couple of years ago.

  5. Thanks for the link to the "most helpful piece." I found it very interesting and helpful as well. I had read _Romola_ several years ago and her article really brought it back to me.

  6. I'm glad Fred read the essay: it remains my very best effort to say anything useful about Romola! I think both Romola and DD are profound, brilliant, deeply flawed novels. I have been browsing in both this week for a new project and keep being brought up short by how amazing they are ... in spots. Unlike Tom, though, I tend to stumble over the German bits and relish the Gwendolen parts! I was rereading some bits about Tito today and thinking all over again how amazing it is that Romola is so great and yet so very bad.

    1. I was awash with the historical data and had difficulty working out the salient points of the novel. I suspected Savonarola was there for more than just historical flavor, but I couldn't work out just what his role was. I completely missed the link between him and Romola with regards to the issue of obedience.

      The scene that stands out the most was the meeting between Savonarola and Romola when he persuades her to return to her husband. I was raised Catholic so I understood perfectly well the doctrinal basis for his argument, but I felt strongly that he was wrong to so advise her and she was wrong to take his advice. This struck me as being at least one of most significant scenes in the work, if not THE most significant scene.

      The reference to Henry James' comments was interesting because as Romola decided to return to her husband, I couldn't help but think of Isabel's identical decision for the same reason (if I remember correctly) in James' own _Portrait
      of a Lady_.

  7. I started Daniel Deronda a few years ago and put it down about halfway through. I hope that I will get over my inertia and finish it someday, though I've forgotten so much of the story that I'd better start from the beginning. I'll probably read The Mill on the Floss first -- I read it in high school and hated it, but I think I was just too young to appreciate it.

  8. Rohan - I hardly wrote about anything I said I would. This Philistine business is a logical place to move into Gwendolen's errors. Well, next time.

    Almost all of the vitality of the novel is in Gwendolen's section or in Deronda's childhood. Mordecai and Mirah and Klesmer move into a more intellectualized kind of novel that is more work and less fun. But I think what really sinks some readers is the refusal to accept a novel that changes styles, that works with more than one aesthetic.

    The one scene I thought was genuinely bad was the Philosophers' Club, and by bad I mean I was thinking that whatever is being done here, this is not the way to do it in a novel, not in this novel. Joyce Carol Oates put a quite similar scene in them (1969). Probably a coincidence.

    Karen - Mill on the Floss first is a great idea. It has some curious similarities to Daniel Deronda, most importantly a wonderfully alive heroine and some of Eliot's funniest scenes, as in DD this great set of supporting characters in the heroine's family. I would not have had the slightest idea what to do with Mill on the Floss in high school.