Daniel Deronda and the Limits of Sermonic Voice

By Coleman, Dawn | Studies in the Novel, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Daniel Deronda and the Limits of Sermonic Voice


Coleman, Dawn, Studies in the Novel


Of all the Victorian novelists guaranteed a place on syllabi today, George Eliot was surely the one who most consistently presented Christian preaching in a positive light. Despite her religious skepticism, she avoided clerical caricatures such as the Bethel Bible-thumper in Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop who yells, "Stay, Satan, stay!" at his departing auditor (319) or the smarmy Reverend Slope in Trollope's Barchester Towers, whose tactless sermon factionalizes a community. Less likely to invite readers to laugh at clerics than to admire their pulpit talents and sincerity, her work features a parade of well-intentioned, well-spoken preachers: saintly Mr. Tryan in Scenes of Clerical Life, "a powerful preacher, who was stirring the hearts of the people" (242); the eloquent and compassionate Methodist Dinah Morris in Adam Bede; the "wonderful preacher" Dr. Kenn in Mill on the Floss (339); the charismatic and increasingly self-deluded Savonarola in Romola; the learned and loquacious Dissenter Rufus Lyon in Felix Holt; and the affable Farebrother in Middlemarch, noted for his "ingenious and pithy" extemporaneous preaching (173; see Lovesey). Passing lightly over the many clerical shortcomings that other Victorian novelists happily exploited-hypocrisy, biblical literalism, ecclesiastical infighting, mean-spirited self-righteousness, and more-Eliot's fiction conveys the sense that Christian preaching continued to have value as a force for social cohesion and individual betterment.

Until Daniel Deronda, that is. With this novel, the nostalgia dissipated and the gloves came off, and Eliot at last seems thoroughly disenchanted with a practice central to the Christianity she had renounced intellectually decades before (See Bonaparte 32). Daniel Deronda distances itself from Christian preaching most pointedly in its representation of its most prominent clergyman, Mr. Gascoigne, a virtual first cousin to Trollope's scheming, worldly-wise Barsetshire clerics and an utter failure as Gwendolen's spiritual mentor. His sententious speech to his niece on her duty to accept Grandcourt is a travesty of spiritual leadership, as he allows Grandcourt's tank and wealth to blind him to his rumored indiscretions. His conversation with Gwendolen after Grandcourt's intentions are clear is both a narrative hinge-had it gone differently, she might never bave married the man-and a mockery of nineteenth-century preaching. Like a bad sermon, Gascoigne's speech carries "a thrill of authority, as of a word of command" that serves more to display the speaker's ego than to convey wisdom. Pompous and obtuse, the Rector of Pennicote takes it "for granted that there could be no wavering in the audience" (125), while his elevation of abstract principles over human relationships encourages Gwendolen to approach marriage as a social institution entered into with minimal reference to personal feeling. After she bas sealed her fate, neither Gascoigne's official preaching nor his private moral counsel can alleviate her misery. She is "so far as pastoral care and religious fellowship were concerned, in as complete a solitude as a man in a lighthouse" (562). All in all, Gascoigne is a damning critique of the Protestant ministry as at best irrelevant to Victorian spiritual life and at worst a source of moral corruption. (1)

Yet what is most striking about Daniel Deronda is not Eliot's rejection of the Christian preacher as an ideal, a move one might bave expected long before in her fiction, but her persistent interest in the power of the human voice to provide moral and religious leadership. From early to late, Eliot's fiction takes as one of its founding principles the idea that, as Walter Ong has put it, voice "relates in a special way to the sacral, to the ultimate concerns of existence" (74). This privileging of orality informs those characters such as Dinah Morris and Savonarola who preach outright to whole communities as well as moral mentors such as Dorothea who offer only individual counsel.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Daniel Deronda and the Limits of Sermonic Voice
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?