Friday, November 11, 2016
Eliot (George) and the Jews - Post #3
George Eliot and the Jews - yes, she's brave and a trailblazer, probably the first major British author to write seriously about Jewish characters and their place in English culture and society, but yes, as noted in yesterday's post, she is locked into the stereotypes of her era and even in her effort to portray Jewish characters thoughtfully she depends on the most hateful of cliches and racist images: hook-nosed, money-grubbing, shrewd businessmen, clannish, socially obnoxious. So what's the answer here? There's a 3rd element to Eliot and the Jews, which I'll call her well-meaning condescension. For all the Jewish characters portrayed so nastily in Daniel Deronda, we also have the beautiful, sensitive, mistreated, misused Mirah: the woman whom DD saves from drowning, obviously falls in love with, sets her up to live with the family of his college friend (the Meyricks), sets off in search of her long-lost mother (and brother). So, yes, she's a lovely and sympathetic character - and that's part of the problem. By introducing her - in the most melodramatic and over-the-top episode in this elsewhere shrewd and realistic novel - it's as if Eliot is saying: See, not all Jews are loathsome and untrustworthy. Here's one who's a real beauty - and look how all the English Christians she meets fall in love with her! This of course is a variant on "some of my best friends are black/Jewish/gay, etc." the exception meant to prove the rule, but that in a sense disproves it. The point is, in a way, Jews are acceptable - so long as they don't act (or look) Jewish. Mirah is not trying to "pass" - practically the first thing she tells DD upon being rescued is that she's a "jewess" and she asks: Do you despise me? The answer is: at this point in the novel, we're not sure. But there's more to say on this topic, in a future post.