Saturday, January 13, 2018

Fraught Parent-Child Relationships in Daniel Deronda

Like other novels by George Eliot, Daniel Deronda is dense and rich. Eliot has an exquisite sensitivity to the inner life of her characters and the way they're struggling with or making sense of their place in their society and culture.

Three of the characters (Daniel, Gwendolen, and Mirah) struggle to find a place for themselves in the world. For different reasons, they're not at home in their own lives. Parent-child relationships are a key reason they feel lost or are experiencing a crisis.

Gwendolen isn't a likable character, but she's rendered sympathetic by Eliot, especially as the novel unfolds, and she begins to question who she is and how she can ever learn to be good. She's raised out in the country in a respectable family that's fallen on hard times. The most influential adults in her life are her mother and uncle. Her mother, who seems to have known only unhappiness in marriage, clings to Gwendolen, and often Gwendolen needs to be a mother to her. Her uncle is short-sighted in some ways and fails as an adequate father figure for her.


Gwendolen doesn't receive guidance on how to be an adult. She's raised as a big fish in a small pond, and even though she puffs herself up with superior feelings, from the start she shows signs of knowing how small she is and of sensing how much she doesn't know. She has profound fears that she doesn't want to examine and probably wouldn't be able to discuss with anyone either. She gets married to a cold, sadistic man, and even though she's been raised to believe that marriage is the 'end state' of her life - that once she's married, she's made it - for her it's only the start of a painful journey in which she confronts her flaws and tries to find meaning in her life.

As for Daniel, he's been raised by a kindly and attentive guardian, but he doesn't know who his parents are. He also suspects (incorrectly, as it turns out) that his guardian fathered him out-of-wedlock. At one point, Daniel does meet his mother, who is written in a complex way.
"Every woman is supposed to have the same set of motives, or else to be a monster. I am not a monster, but I have not felt exactly what other women feel - or say they feel, of fear of being thought unlike others."
She describes her own father as treating her like a potential brood mare for sons, when what she strove for (and wound up attaining) was a career in music. Her fraught relationship with her father, and the fact that she wasn't maternal (as women are all expected to be), influenced the choices she made about Daniel's upbringing, including keeping the knowledge of his identity from him.

When Daniel discovers who his parents are, it brings him a greater measure of peace and belonging in the world, even if he is introduced to a way of life he didn't know growing up. It helps that, by this point in the novel, he's already met some people who will help him step into his new identity (and that his guardian thus far has been a kind, steady person). He's well-supported.

Then there's Mirah, whose father took her from her mother and brother and tried to propel her to a career on stage, something that she had no interest in; it made her miserable. She would have wanted to remain at home. It's yet another example in the book of a parent failing to understand a child's needs and inclinations, and the heartbreak that results.

Of these three, Gwendolen is on the shakiest ground by the end. Daniel and Mirah have more solid convictions and find togetherness, purpose, and love, a firmer footing for their life; their interior worlds, and the community around them, give them stability. Gwendolyn lives in an ongoing struggle to make up for past poor choices, understand herself better, and be a good person. She isn't at peace, and she isn't well-supported by people who can help her. She clings to Daniel for guidance during parts of the novel, but she is still mostly alone and learning how to be alone. What she knows about herself has been torn down, without anything to build it up; in contrast, Daniel and Mirah have sources of fortification. One of the things I love about this novel is how Gwendolen's struggles are realistic. She doesn't find easy answers or transform quickly.

There are many reasons to read the novel (which includes an assortment of Jewish characters and a sensitive portrayal of their culture, their foreignness in a country they were born in, and their dream of a homeland). Among the themes that emerge is the need for guidance, purpose, and some degree of continuity in one's life - and the parent-child relationships portrayed in the novel are a potentially disruptive or undermining force.

I read this for the Classics Club Challenge.

2 comments:

Brian Joseph said...

This is a super review. I have only read Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss but I agree with you as to Eliot's characters. They are really portrayed in a special way. Eliot's themes were also intriguing and so well expressed in the books that I read. This novel sounds like no exception to that.

HKatz said...

Thanks, Brian - I read Middlemarch in college and would love to revisit it at some point. I'm reading Silas Marner now. And yes, I love her characters and the richness of the worlds in her novels.