Friday, January 16, 2015

Want of sympathy condemns us to a corresponding stupidity - Daniel Deronda's narrator takes sides

In a comment to a Levi Stahl post on Daniel Deronda, Mark Marowitz advances the crackpot idea that the villainous husband Grandcourt is actually “the most misunderstood hero in the English novel…  a good man, a very good man!”  And that the lively, suffering Gwendolen Harleth is a murderer and  “one of the great villains in literature.”  I could argue with a couple of points – I disagree with the bit about the dogs – but the evidence is drawn from the text, even omitting some evidence that helps his case, like the strange business in Chapter 6 (Stahl and his co-blogger had already mentioned it) where Harleth is freaked out by a spooky picture, looking “like a statue into which a soul of Fear had entered,” whatever that looks like.

What evidence against his case does Marowitz omit?  How do I know that his interpretation is wrong?  Because the omniscient narrator tells me so, again and again.  I wish I had written down better bits about Grandcourt, but this gives the idea:

There is no escaping the fact that want of sympathy condemns us to corresponding stupidity.  Mephistopheles thrown upon real life, and obliged to manage his own plots, would inevitably make blunders.  (Ch. 48)

Want of sympathy is a great sin in Eliot’s fiction.  The narrator says almost the same thing a few chapters earlier:

Grandcourt could not indeed fully imagine how things affected Gwendolen: he had no imagination of anything in her but what affected the gratification of his own will; but on this point he had the sensibility which seems like divination.  What we see exclusively we are apt to see with some mistake of proportions; and Grandcourt was not likely to be infallible in his judgments concerning this wife who was governed by many shadowy powers, to him nonexistent.  (Ch. 44)

You are thinking: “I thought this was the realistic, non-German part of the novel.”  I know – divination, shadowy power – Mephistopheles!

Similarly, I can be sure that Gwendolen Harleth is not so bad, even when she appears to be even more cruel, snobbish and spoiled than I realized:

It was her temper that framed her sentences under this entirely new pressure of evils: she could have spoken more suitably on the vicissitudes in other people's lives, though it was never her aspiration to express herself virtuously so much as cleverly – a point to be remembered in extenuation of her words, which were usually worse than she was.  (Ch. 24)

How Harleth’s lack of sympathy is any better than her future husband’s is unknown, but it is, “usually.”  The narrator feels she has not made her case, that many readers will still find Harleth quite awful, so she intervenes again a few pages later, trying again:

That where these [money and status] threatened to forsake her, she should take life to be hardly worth the having, cannot make her so unlike the rest of us, men or women, that we should cast her out of our compassion; our moments of temptation to a mean opinion of things in general being usually dependent on some susceptibility about ourselves and some dullness to subjects which every one else would consider more important.

Why, she is just like me!  Like heck she is.  I lose sympathy for Gwendolen because in adversity she proves to have a bad character.  The narrator also lacks sympathy for people with bad character, as I would show if I wrote that post about Daniel Deronda as a satirical novel that I was thinking about.  The narrator can be scathing, as mean and even funny as Evelyn Waugh when she wants.  Look for the paragraph that ends “It seemed a pity there was nothing for the fifth finger” in Chapter 28 for an example.

It seems that the narrator is not just describing her heroine but justifying her, even pleading for her, and also against Grandcourt.  The narrator has taken sides.  Why should I trust her judgment?  Perhaps because she is omniscient, but then why is she unable to tell me what went on in the boat, in the action behind Chapter 55?  Somehow her omniscience fails her there.

I have spent a lifetime of reading fiction learning to distrust narrators.  Here I am identifying the heart of my struggle with Daniel Deronda.  Eliot gives me a surprising number of reasons to distrust this narrator.  Am I supposed to read the novel this way?  No, I suppose not.

Thanks, Mr. Marowitz, for pointing me to your comment, which I had missed at the time.


  1. "There is no escaping the fact that want of sympathy condemns us to corresponding stupidity. "

    Surely that's the ultimate fault for Eliot. The two go together: stupidity condemns us to corresponding want of sympathy too, so the two apparently separate faults feed off each other and are really one. Gwendolen could be better than she is- and eventually improves, perhaps, Grandcourt is incapable of changing. The problem is that we are told this, not shown it and don't actually believe it a lot of the time.
    Of course, again, this is the fault of the narrator/creator, so the question arises: does the creator know about the narrator's unreliability?


  2. So, you distrust narrators do you? I guess that makes you a kindred spirit in my curmudgeonly club of cynical readers. My experience, by the way, has taught me that distrust of narrators (or even a willingness to question and interrogate the identity and personality of a narrator -- especially when the dominating authorial presence seems so strong in 3rd person presentations so common in 19th century novels and stories) is one of the hardest "skills" to teach to undergraduate literature students; for example, far too often readers are not willing to consider separating authorial voice from narrative voice. Perhaps that kind of cynicism only comes with certain personalities among readers. On the other hand, I might be wrong. Ah, that happens so often.

  3. Roger, exactly. "Does the creator know" - good question. In Pnin, the creator knows. You are getting into the reason Modernist writers abandoned the omniscient narrator.

    RT, I think I prefer "skeptical" to "cynical." My training has been positive. It is not that my trust has been betrayed by narrators, but rather that I have seen so many writers do such ingenious things with their narrators. Carting these ideas back to earlier books can be distracting, but also rewarding. I don't understand how people can read Villette or Wuthering Heights, or for that matter Vanity Fair, without spending some time thinking about the narrator. But as you say, plenty of readers are insufficiently on guard, perfect marks for the literary pranksters.

  4. I can remember coming across this passage from George Orwell in my teens:
    "Nietzsche remarks somewhere that the pathos of Don Quixote may well be a modern discovery. Quite likely Cervantes didn’t mean Don Quixote to seem pathetic—perhaps he just meant him to be funny and intended it as a screaming joke when the poor old man has half his teeth knocked out by a sling-stone;"

    and even the excitement at realising that all possibilities were open. I'd had implications- an English grammar school education meant looking at Livy's inaccuracies and there is no reliable narrator in Shakespeare- but that was the first time it was spelled out.

  5. It is startling how every future development in fiction turns out to already be in Don Quixote - once you know how to see it.