Paris, Bernard J. Rereading George Eliot: Changing Responses to Her Experiments in Life.
In the "Preface" to his Rereading George Eliot: Changing Responses to Her Experiments in Life, Bernard J. Paris recalls that he "wrote a doctoral dissertation on George Eliot that [he] honed into [his] first book, Experiments in Life: George Eliot's Quest for Values (1965)." He rightly observes that the "book has had a considerable impact on George Eliot studies," that he continues "to receive appreciative comments, and [that] it remains a valuable work of its kind." Subsequently his critical perspectives have transformed and his later work "took issue with" his "earlier readings." His new book published nearly forty years after Experiments in Life "continues [his] rereading of George Eliot" (ix) and focuses especially on her two late novels Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. Placed in perspective, Experiments in Life represents a radical departure from other work of the 1950s and 1960s on George Eliot, which have not, for the most part, stood the test of time. Revelatory in its suggestions for future research, Experiments in Life, unlike these other studies, examines intellectual history drawing upon Eliot's non-fiction prose, letters, poetry, notebooks, and the work of her influences, including George Henry Lewes, Auguste Comte, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Herbert Spencer. Somewhat ironically, in the light of his own radical critical transformation, Paris's work was indebted to his dissertation director, J. Hillis Miller, who moved from his early writing, influenced by the phenomenological methodology of George Poulet, to deconstructionalist criticism, particularly to the ideas of Jacques Derrida. A similar transformation may be seen in Paris's work. In Rereading George Eliot, attention to the influences named above gives way to a lengthy consideration of the psychotherapeutic thinker Karen Homey whose presence is, in fact, omnipresent in the later work. Paris writes that he "came to understand [his] shifting attitudes toward George Eliot partly through [his] experience in psychotherapy" (x). References in Rereading George Eliot contain sixteen of Paris's own writings, many of which focus on psychological approaches and the work of Karen Homey and Abraham Maslow--another name missing from Experiments in Life. There is no room in Rereading George Eliot for George Eliot's earlier work. Scenes of Clerical Life and Romola do not gain an entry in the Index. Peripherally mentioned are Adam Bede twice, The Mill on the Floss four times, Silas Marner and Felix Holt once only. There is a passing reference to Eliot's 1856 Westminster Review essay on "Belles Lettres." Her Poetry, about which Paris wrote so interestingly in Experiments in Life, ceases to exist. Her letters are referred to only tangentially.
The text consists of eight chapters, each with four or more subdivisions or subsections. There is a five page "Preface" outlining the transformations undergone by Paris's work and thought. The first chapter, "No Longer the Same Interpreter," compares and contrasts the author's previous readings with his present ones and the profound influence upon him of his readings in Karen Horuey's Our Inner Conflicts (1945) and Neurosis and Human Growth (1950). Paris writes that George Eliot "shared with most nineteenth-century novelists the illusion that suffering and frustration can make you into a noble person ..." but she does not see that "the frustrations experienced by her protagonists have damaged them psychologically." Subsequently Pads perceives that "one of the most serious difficulties of George Eliot's philosophy is her emphasis on living for others as the means by which we give value to our lives." His reexamination of his readings in the characters and their behavior in Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda highlight George Eliot's "deficiencies" (5). As opposed to his previous thinking exemplified in Experiments of Life, Pads, "no longer feel[s] that George Eliot's ideas are embodied in and verified by her novels" (19). Missing in her values are, Paris writes, "the ability to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy needs and values" (11).
Paris's second, third and fourth chapters focus on three characters in Middlemarch. In Chapter 2 "'An Angel Beguiled': Dorothea Brooke," Paris is sympathetic to Calvin Bedient's arguments that Middlemarch differs from George Eliot's other novels "in its sympathy with individual aspirations" and "in its freedom from the sowing of counsel." Yet Paris differs from Bedient in thinking that what Bedient refers to as Middlemarch's disillusioned poignancy is evoked not by the thwarting of the characters' healthy self-expansion" but by "the frustration of insatiable hungers that are compensatory in nature" (25). This "frustration" is explored in subsequent sections of this chapter. In the final section Pads contrasts Dorothea with Lydgate who was "derailed by his personal weakness." Dorothea, on the other hand, "is an unusually loving, caring, empathetic person." However, "this does not make her the potentially heroic figure George Eliot claims her to be" (55). To simplify, Dorothea, Casaubon, Lydgate, and Will, all of whom are "searching for glory in their own way, ... slip below their intentions" (56).
Chapter 3 "The Two Selves of Tertius Lydgate," is marred by hypothetical speculation. Lydgate is a foil to Dorothea, Paris regarding him as having two selves, "lofty aspirations and the flaws that will thwart them" (63). A potentially interesting explication of the passages relating to Lydgate's relationship with Laure remains undeveloped. Lydgate's relationships with Laure and Rosamond are rather simplistically treated as part of "the damsel in distress" (66) syndrome, unrelated to Lydgate's struggle as an impoverished medical doctor lacking key connections, seeking his professional way in a hostile post-Napoleonic society. The remainder of this chaper is equally removed from a social, political and historical canvas. In this way Paris impoverishes George Eliot's rich, dense, fictional texture.
Chapter 4, "'A Dreadful Plain Girl': Mary Garth," allows Paris to explicate upon two rather critically neglected figures in readings of Middlemarch, Mary Garth and Fred Vincy, as well as upon the other Garths, Farebrother, and the frequently discussed "authorial manipulations" (108). Paris's major insight is his perception of Mary Garth's "streak of satirical bitterness," which does not disappear as the strands of the novel are resolved (110). Paris's perceptions of the Garths might well have profited from a rereading of David Daiches's insights in his neglected short study George Eliot: Middlemarch (1963). Replete with insight, Daiches's text argues observes that "the Garth family establishes the criteria to which most other actions [in the novel] are referred" (57).
Four chapters are devoted to Daniel Deronda, three of which focus on Gwendolen. Paris compares his current perspectives on Daniel Deronda to those in experiments in Life, now finding Gwendolen to be far more complex than he had thought previously. He discusses her problems: the death of her father, the fact that "she has been both indulged and frustrated" (123), the death of her stepfather, and social expectations concerning how she should behave. Parallels are usefully drawn with Ibsen's Hedda Gabler who similarly "feels oppressed by her lot and wishes she were a man" (125). For Pads "Gwendolen is motivated ... by a compulsive need to win admiration" (126). Late in chapter 5, her suitor, Grandcourt, is seen purely in terms of Gwendolen's perception of her relationship with him rather than as a brilliant exposition of a vicious domineering type of individual, socially well ensconced, very wealthy, and protected. There is no room in Paris's pages for discussion of Grandcourt's relationship with Lush and the reasons for Gwendolen's antipathy towards Grandcourt's "servant."
The rather perfunctory sixth chapter "'The Crushed Penitent': Gwendolen's Transformation" focuses upon what Paris sees as a transformation in Gwendolen. From being "presented predominantly as a spoiled child, Gwendolen becomes a conscience-stricken woman tormented by the feeling that she is wicked" (139). Paris's reading of "Gwendolen's reaction to the painting of the dead face and the fleeing figure" (148) is interesting. In common with Inez Sodre he reads it in terms of a death wish towards her recently deceased stepfather, Captain Davilow. Paris's is one of the few, if any, commentaries of the novel that I have encountered that gives more than a passing observation to the role of significance of Davilow. For this reason Paris's explanation is to be commended (see especially 147-48), although he insufficiently develops his discussion.
Using the psychological perspective drawn from the writings of Homey and Maslow, Pads concludes, "Deronda [is] not Gwendolen's Therapist" (169-173), and Gwendolen's "values shift from self-indulgence to self-abnegation. Under the stings of her conscience and the guidance of Daniel Deronda, she is on her way to becoming a morally superior person" (174). Regrettably, Paris does not spell out what he means by that.
Throughout his book Pads distinguishes between George Eliot's "mimetic portrait, which is accurate, and the rhetorical claims which are not" (177). He writes:
What is most remarkable to me about Daniel Deronda is that George Eliot provides such a brilliant picture of the failed relationship between Daniel and Gwendolen, while persuading most readers to see it as a great success. Both she and Deronda are in denial about what has occurred. The novel becomes far more fascinating if we pay attention to what has really happened, if we believe not what George Eliot says but what she shows. (208)
His three and a half page "Conclusion" contrasts his views in Experiments of Life with those in his Rereading George Eliot. He writes "I now see George Eliot's novels not as validating her beliefs but as calling them into question" (209). The "Conclusion" is rather spoilt by a somewhat unnecessary diversion into ideas of "mimetic characters," "mimetic gifts," and "mimetic truths" (211), which reoccur throughout the text without sufficient explication. In a similar manner, the conclusion is spoilt by the assertion that great novelists such as George Eliot "so often allow ... [their] characters to be themselves, to lead their own lives" (212).
In its favor, Pads's style is succinct. Apart from brief explication of the ideas of Karen Horney and Abraham Maslow, his book is free from the dense jungle of critical theory that weights down so many other recent works of literary criticism. Refreshingly there is even an absence of what seems to be the obligatory reference to the ideas of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Sadly, however, to repeat, Paris's Rereading George Eliot ignores the subtle interweaving of contemporary, historical, political, social, ethnic, and religious motifs, allusions and reverberations making George Eliot's last two completed fictions, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, such rich and great works. Paris's narrow psychological focus on a handful of characters within these novels diminishes rather than enriches their texture and achievement. Still, the present reviewer is grateful to Pads for stimulating him to revisit George Eliot texts, perceptions of them, and controversies surrounding them.
WILLIAM BAKER, Northern Illinois University
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
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