Monday, November 21, 2016
The artist's lament and George Eliot's take on feminism
At last Daniel Deronda learns who his parents are and learns in the process what most readers had long suspected - that he is Jewish by birth. He meets his mother, now the widow of some sort of Eastern European count and in her youth a famous singer (clear reprise here of the early career of Mirah, the young Jewish woman w/ whom DD is in love, who had spent her youth on tour as a child-prodigy singer, pushed by her evil father). DD's mother turns out to be cold as ice; she rebuffs every attempt he makes to care for her and to receive her love. She is an angry and bitter woman, and has no regrets about giving up DD when he was 2, only feeling that she did well for him by placing him with Sir Hugo, a English lord who raised DD as an English Xtian gentleman. She believes she saved DD fro the hateful fate of being born a Jew. So where does Eliot stand in all of this? She seems to be suggesting that blood will out - that DD, despite his being raised as a Christian, inevitably follows a path toward Judaism - falling in love w/ Mirah, adopting her brother as a mentor, and, perhaps - the novel seems to be heading this way - devoting his life to the cause of Zionism. So all of DD's mother's efforts to in a sense inoculate her son against Judaism have failed. Yet Eliot is not entirely contemptuous of DD's aristocratic mother. There is a telling passage in which the mother says she did the right thing because she wanted to be a great performing artist and raising a son would have made that impossible - women cannot have both motherhood and artistic success. How can we not hear Eliot's voice in that? How cannot we not accept the truth of that lament - at least in the late 19th century? She is cruel and cold-hearted no doubt, but she is also a protofeminist, facing a dilemma that no male artist would face, making a decision for which no male artist would be castigated. Not that all artists don't suffer, each in his or her own way - Hans Meyrick in this novel is an example - but the lament of DD's long-estranged mother rings with a particular plangency and truth.