Thursday, November 10, 2016
Eliot (George) and the Jews - post #2
Yesterday's post was on George Eliot's bravery and originality in writing seriously about Jewish people and Jewish themes in Daniel Deronda - one of the very few British novels ofthe 19th century to include Jewish characters in a significant and largely sympathetic manner. Kudos for that GE, but, on the other hand ...was George Eliot anti-Semitic despite, perhaps, the better angels of her nature? Sadly, it seems to me she did not transcend the mores and conventional ideas of her time - as even in her attempts to treat Jews and Jewish culture seriously she is mired in some the deepest and most troubling Jewish stereotypes. Her English Christian characters are blindingly original and complex, but her Jewish characters? Hateful as this may be, just take a look: as Deronda wanders into the Jewish quarters of Frankfort, he goes into a book shop where an unfriendly Jewish shopkeeper overcharges him for a book. In his wanderings later in the Jewish quarter of London we, through his eyes (and Eliot's trenchant narration) see a # of Jewish characters, and Eliot always describes them as crude and homely, big-nosed, dark, angular, just ugly. We meet another used-book seller who chintzes Deronda, then we meet a pawnbroker who bargains him down in price for a diamond, we meet the pawnbroker's little son who immediately starts bargaining with Deronda about a trade for a penknife - in short, Eliot can't get beyond the conventional, cruel, anti-Semitic charicature of Jews as money-hungry, sharp and perhaps corrupt business people, homely, and clannish, so, yes, even though there are exceptions to the trend (the lovely Jewess, Mirah) and even though she does pay a passing nod to some positive aspects of Jewish culture - devotion to faith and to family, notably - whether she meant to be or not, whether she knew it or not, Eliot was anti-Semitic. And yet, there's another dimension to Eliot and anti-Semitism, which will be the topic of a future post.