Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

The Function of Poetic Epigraphs in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

The Function of Poetic Epigraphs in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda

Article excerpt

Daniel Deronda was never what one might call a "popular" novel. When F. R. Leavis, in 1946-47, notoriously described it as consisting of two separate halves, he was merely summarizing the critical reception of the book since its publication. By comparing the "magnificent [...] achievement [of] the good half" to the "astonishing badness of the bad half" (94), Leavis voiced the common discontent with the book's lack of unity. He therefore suggested a new title for "the good part of Daniel Deronda," which he then kept using throughout his essay: "Gwendolen Harleth" (100). The considerable impact of Leavis's Great Tradition on the further reception of Daniel Deronda can be seen by the humble scholarly interest the novel attracted in the period immediately after the publication of Leavis's book.1

Leavis's criticism is at odds with Eliot's expressed belief in the novel's unity. In 1876 she complained to Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon about readers who "cut the books to scraps and talk of nothing but Gwendolen," and added: "I meant everything in the book to be related to everything else there" (The George Eliot Letters 6: 290). The sharp contrast between the notion of unity on the one hand (Eliot), and the feeling of a split between plot Unes on the other (Leavis) has been an issue of critical debate ever since, and an unresolved one, mostly due to the fact that literary critics never agreed on what "unity" in a fictional text is supposed to denote. Apologists of the novel's unity have argued for such diverse forms of "unity" as self-sufficiency (Leavis 138), "thematic unity" (Beaty 18), "structural unity" (Carroll 369), "unity of imaginative conception" (Daleski 28), and a unity of imagery (Hardy 14). In addition, the general dissatisfaction that readers have felt about Daniel Deronda's bipartite structure ever since its publication seems to be based on the Aristotelian notion of the unity of plot, in which the "various incidents must be so arranged that if any one of them is differently placed or taken away the effect of wholeness will be seriously disrupted" (Aristotle, Poetics 1451a). That concept reverberates in one of Eliot's later poetic essays, "Notes on Form in Art" (1868), in which she defines unity as that in which "no part can suffer increase or diminution without a participation of all other parts in the effect produced and a consequent modification of the organism as a whole" (Selected Critical Writing 358). The resemblance between Eliot's definition of formal unity and Aristotle's definition of plot unity points at her notion of the novel as a "wholeness [...] which may be broken up into other wholes" (Selected Critical Writing 358), i.e. formal unity and plot unity.

I argue that Eliot attempted to achieve an overall unity by, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, including quotations from other texts than her own in the form of epigraphs. These paratextual elements link the main text of the novel to numerous other texts outside it, thereby potentially threatening the sense of closure that a novel often is supposed to have. Eliot's specific use of epigraphs does, however, achieve a unifying effect by linking several aspects of the novel (different topics, characters, plot lines, images and so forth) together. To highlight this idea of internal unity achieved through the inclusion of external texts, I will confine the following analysis to the poetic epigraphs in the novel. Thereby I intend to demonstrate how Eliot uses texts from another genre (poetry) to unite different characters and topics of her prose work, the novel Daniel Deronda. I further argue that Eliot employs a dialectic method to create a sense of unity, by sublating the epigraph's internal /external, textual/paratextual, and poetic/prose dichotomies. A detailed survey of the epigraph's literary functions, its formal classification, and its quality to indicate literary history is added to the analysis of the organic function in Daniel Deronda in form of a comprehensive supplement. …

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