George Eliot and the Landscape of Time: Narrative Form and Protestant Apocalyptic History

By Mary Wilson Carpenter | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5

The Apocalypse
of the Old Testament

A small incident that occurs early in the course of Daniel Deronda has large implications for the reader of the novel. Mr. Middleton, an "unexceptionable young clergyman with pale whiskers and square-cut collar," whose tastes run to theological reading, persuades himself that Gwendolen's avoidance of him must actually be a sign of her favor. Convinced that her cousinly familiarity with Rex excludes the possibility of any passionate interest in her cousin, Mr. Middleton interprets her apparent lack of passion for him as evidence for it. The narrator, quietly explaining why Mr. Middleton pursues this erroneous way of thinking, comments that "all meanings, we know, depend on the key of interpretation." 1

The narrator seems to anticipate a more sophisticated reader than Mr. Middleton—a reader who understands that a narrative, like the events it records, can be interpreted in a variety of ways, depending on the reader's "key." As in the literary history of Romola, however, critics have often faulted Daniel Deronda for its failure to fulfill traditional generic expectations: presuming George Eliot's assumed reader to be a Mr. Middleton, they critique the double plot for its lack of any easily perceived unity. Even if critical analysis can produce an abstract or "intellectual" unity in the narrative, that narrative must nevertheless fail in its effect on the reader, who will surely perceive it as an unsuccessful mimesis: a history fragmented into two unequal "halves," and polarized between didactic extremes of egoism and altruism. 2

In a revealing deconstructive reading, Cynthia Chase further identifies conflicts in the narrative, pointing to contradictions in its representation of history. Chase proposes that the narrative de

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