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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, November 28, 2016

Good Eliot, Bad Eliot, and why FR Leavis gets this right but misses the point

George Eliot lived up to expectations and showed why she was a great writer in the sorrowful conclusion to Daniel Deronda - with DD at last married to Mirah, as they head to the East to carry the message of her late brother, Ezra/Mordecai - DD will be a prophet calling for a homeland for the Jewish people (about a century before his time). Note how this is the inversion of the famous conclusion to the great, near-contemporary American classic, Huck Finn, with the character heading out for the territories - but in this case heading East, and not to get away from civilization but to imbue himself with a new (and very old) culture. At the same time Eliot concludes the far more emotional, touching, and subtle element of the plot: Gwendolen's facing widowhood, her future, and her solitude. She was sure that she and DD would marry - based on her attraction to him, not his to her, and on her supreme self-confidence, but she learns at the end that, though she has sacrificed much in her life, entering a loveless marriage so as to provide for her mother, she is not entitled to happiness just by fiat; we have seen her mature, suffer, and come out the stronger - but not in a classic romantic way. It's as if Eliot glimpsed at that future for Gwendolen - Eliot could have taken the easy path and married her off, if not w/ DD then with her cousin Rex, who fades into the woodwork by the end of the novel, but Eliot took a bolder and more unconventional - and more credible course. Finishing Deronda, I read some of FR Leavis's writing on Eliot in his classic The Great Tradition: On the one hand, very pleased to say that my reading was entirely in accord with, if less extreme than, his sense of the novel, which he divides into Good Eliot (the Gwendolen section) and bad Eliot (DD sections) - even refers to it as two distinct novels, DD and Gwendolen Harleth. Like Leavis, I found some of the writing about the Jewish themes leaden, and much of the dialogue just awful -- DD's, Mirah's, and especially Ezra/Mordecai's. That said, I got very frustrated with Leavis, whose entire focus is on determining whether this or that novel, this or that author, is "great" - he's full of opinions, and very learned, with amazing # of novels at his fingertips. But really, isn't there more to criticism than ranking and rating books? He has very little to say about the substance of the novel, and nothing at all to say about the place of this novel in its culture and in its time - or his. Does anyone else find it peculiar, to say the least, that he could write an extensive essay about Daniel Deronda, in the early 1940s, with not a word about European Jews of his own time and place?

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