Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Resisting Gwendolen's "Subjection": 'Daniel Deronda's Proto-Feminism

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Resisting Gwendolen's "Subjection": 'Daniel Deronda's Proto-Feminism

Article excerpt

George Eliot's feminism, as readers and critics regularly observe, is not untrammelled. While her novels readily reveal, to the late twentieth-century reader, the painful consequences for women of a patriarchy that denies them any desire beyond that which is sanctioned, her women characters' ability to recognize this patriarchy and so transcend their victimization is always compromised by their dependency on male affection or male power. Hers are not, in other words, novels that unambiguously chart the possibility of female heroes. Her novels may teach us contemporary readers about how the patriarchy works to deprive women of the ability to act, its ability to subject women, but they don't seem to offer us women resisting their subjection, women becoming active, unsubjected subjects, agents of a new social order--the latter of which is the larger feminist agenda. Eliot's last novel in particular, Daniel Deronda, poses a special challenge to the attempt to find a potential female hero, an unsubjected subject. For this novel is visually dominated by the icon (both real and metaphoric within the plot) of the nearly drowned woman (a dubious improvement from Mill on the Floss) clinging to the benevolent patriarch: her male savior hero. Like Adam Bede and Felix Holt the Radical before it, this last of Eliot's novels takes its title from its rescuer male hero, that familiar Carlyean figure of nineteenth-century ideology and fiction. And, like the earlier novels as well, Daniel Deronda supplies the rescuer with his object: a misguided, rebellious, "improper" woman in need of his influence (and neutralizing power), a woman whose excessive desires not only lead to her own suffering, but also threaten the values of the wider community whose representative he seeks to be. The surface text indeed appears to celebrate benevolent patriarchs as it condemns Deronda's negative other, Grandcourt, one of Eliot's most powerful villains. Furthermore, the novel doubles the image of female dependence--two heroines seek refuge in the male savior; one, Gwendolen, does so in order to flee psychically from an oppressive husband and from her own guilt; the other, Mirah, does so in order to flee physically from an abusive father. The plot scenario, in other words, seems to pay homage to the "good man," Deronda, as its centerpiece, and to pity the poor women, whom the narrator frequently addresses as such. Within this recurring pattern in Eliot's fiction, Eliot this time around, it is true, gives Gwendolen, one from her gallery of beautiful, "spoiled" women in need of guidance, more scope, more dignity, more promise and more sympathy than she gives her predecessors, Hetty, Esther, Rosamond.(1) Yet even Gwendolen is made to suffer and to cling, as if for life, to Deronda. This set up may make visible the patriarchy, but it hardly promises the possibility, never mind the desirability, of Gwendolen effectively resisting it.

As part of the current critical attempt to widen our perception of Eliot's feminism,(2) to further "appropriate" her, in Penny Boumelha's terms, this essay attempts to make a case that Gwendolen, despite her apparent victimization within the plot, is nevertheless installed for the reader as that unsubjected, albeit inactive, subject. The essay's point of origin is a familiar perception about Gwendolen's characterization, one even many of the earliest readers of Daniel Deronda shared--and complained of(3): her insubstantiality. The essay explores this insubstantiality, seeing it not as a flaw as some readers have,(4) but rather as a powerful production of the proto-feminist subtext of the novel. The essay argues that Daniel Deronda can be read as a text that not merely makes visible the terrible power of the patriarchy through its decimation of Gwendolen, but, more importantly, as a novel that profoundly, if subtly, destabilizes this patriarchal hierarchy of the male savior/tutor and his female victim/student. It does this by violating one of the precepts of classical realism that supports, among other things, such hierarchical gender relations: the unified, knowable "essence" of character beneath the external signs. …

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