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The Other Side of Carnival: Romola and Bakhtin.

Mikhail Bakhtin popularized the idea of carnival as a signifier of joyful relativism--a "temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order" (Rabelais 10). Carnivalemphasizes ambivalence, or the unfinalizability of life. By focusing on the communal body in which birth and death are intimately intertwined, Bakhtin's carnival is able to evade the fears of life and to celebrate the "cheerful death" of an individual (Dialogic Imagination 198). This approach has a disturbing element since political structures are such that it is usually the least powerful who are subject to carnival danger and its "cheerful death." Gary Morson and Caryl Emerson argue that Bakhtin probably did not "seriously consider the philosophical--and much less the political--implication of carnival at its least 'reduced'" (470). I suggest that George Eliot frames her historical novel Romola (1863), set in fifteenth-century Florence, by carnival for reasons similar to those that motivate Bakhtin's interest in this parodic festival. Recent criticism of Eliot points to the indeterminacy in her work and her refusal to sanction a single unified interpretative model or truth.[1] In contrast to Bakhtin, however, Eliot recognizes the threat posed by carnival when it is not simply a textual metaphor. People are killed, maimed, and raped during festal fun and freedom. Bakhtin's discussion of carnival offers a point of approach to Eliot's novel, but his theory is in turn criticized by Eliot's less utopian view of carnival.


Both Eliot and Bakhtin had read Goethe's description of Roman Carnival in Italian Journey (1786-88). While Eliot does not make any specific comments on this section, sherecords reading the work aloud with George Lewes in her journal between 30 Nov. - 8 Dec. 1854 and also refers to this collection of Goethe's letters in her commonplace book (McCobb 167-68). Goethe's influence on Eliot should not be underestimated, since her knowledge of German culture was remarkable. By the mid 1840s she had already read many of Goethe's important works (McCobb 11-12). She also worked with Lewes as a "silent collaborator" (Haight 172-73) on his Life of Goethe (1855), revisions to which were made for a second edition, published in the year following Romola in 1864. It is reasonable to suppose that Eliot recalled Goethe's discussion of carnival when she began work on Romola while on her own Italian journeys in 1860, when the idea of Romola was conceived, and in 1861, when she returned to do research for the novel. Goethe was also very influential on Bakhtin, and amongst other things, Bakhtin greatly admired Goethe's recognition of the importance of popular forms.[2] In his book on Rabelais, Bakhtin draws attention to Goethe's discussion of Roman Carnival, particularly his description of carnival's participatory nature, its abolition of differences between social orders, its tumult and reveling, and its public location in the Corso. Goethe observes horse racing, the masks and fancy dress, and the election and crowning of the carnival Kings. Praising Goethe's understanding of carnival's ambivalence, Bakhtin cites in particular his discussion of "the ambivalent curse that is also a confirmation, sia ammazzato!" (Rabelais 251). During the fire festival, everyone merrily attempts to blow out each other's candles and wishes each other death, making fire a symbol of ambivalence.

While commending Goethe's recognition of carnival's "deep philosophical character" (Rabelais 252), Bakhtin criticizes the transformation of carnival in Goethe's Ash Wednesday Meditations into an "individual subjective experience" (Rabelais 252), opening the way for the Romantic treatment of the subject. Goethe concludes his discussion with his famous simile that "life taken as a whole, is like the Roman Carnival, unpredictable, unsatisfactory and problematic" (469). Both Bakhtin and Eliot recognize the popular nature of carnival and its contradictory and parodic orientation. But there is in Eliot's depiction of carnival a wariness similar to that which sounds in Goethe's simile. Realizing that the group party of carnival becomes problematic when its joyful relativity destroys the individual, Eliot insists on a meeting between the carnivalistic body of humanity and the individual human body.

Carnival, as Bakhtin describes it in his discussion of Rabelais, is a time of festivity in which the prevailing rules are suspended. It offers "a completely different, nonofficial, extraecclesiastical and extrapolitical aspect of the world, of man, and of human relations" (Rabelais 6). While it is attached to official church festivals, it is derived from pagan celebrations. Laughter enables the parody of sacred or political form and renders carnival a time of freedom from authoritative structures and beliefs. Contact with life decrowns what we desire to crown or limit through hierarchical stasis: "Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed" (Rabelais 10). Carnival laughter is festive, universal in scope, and ambivalent. It does not laugh from a position outside, but from within the body of humanity. All share in the world's becoming in carnival, which is a crucial difference between the modern satirist and carnival. While the satirist stands apart from or above the object of his mockery, the "people's ambivalent laughter, on the other hand, expresses the point of view of the whole world; he who is laughing also belongs to it" (Rabelais 12). For Bakhtin, carnival laughter is the people's way of triumphing over their terrors.

Bakhtin also discusses the transformation of carnival into literature, and the open-ended forms thereby created. From the mid-seventeenth century, carnivalized literature is no longer directly influenced by carnival itself, but by its own tradition (Problems 131). In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century carnivalized literature, Bakhtin argues, "laughter is as a rule considerably muffled--to the level of irony, humor, and other forms of reduced laughter" (Problems 165). While Romola does not share Rabelaisian humor, we shall see that it does engage in such reduced carnival laughter. This laughter does not simply occur in those scenes where Eliot has contrived to demonstrate the foolery of carnival humor, such as the mockery of the apothecary in the chapter entitled "A Florentine Joke." More fundamentally, the carnival laugh we hear in Romola is that laugh which questions the certainty of "truth." Bakhtin writes that carnival laughter

could grasp and comprehend a phenomenon in the process of change and transition, it could fix in a phenomenon both poles of its evolution in their uninterrupted and creative renewing changeability: in death birth is foreseen and in birth death, in victory defeat and in defeat victory, in crowning a decrowning. Carnival laughter does not permit a single one of these aspects of change to be absolutized or to congeal in one-sided seriousness. (Problems 164)

In Romola, Eliot submits congealed positions to the ravaging laughter of carnival. Religious, political, and financial authorities are elevated and debased.

But while carnival laughter is liberating, for Eliot it can also be frightening if the individual is forgotten and annihilated in the carnival rush to destroy reifications of the absolute. Eliot's laughter is not the joyful laugh celebrated by Bakhtin. She cannot cheerfully say with Bakhtin that "The death of the individual is only one moment in the triumphant life of the people and of mankind, a moment indispensable for their renewal and improvement" (Rabelais 341).[3] Although articulated and developed very differently than Bakhtin's celebration of the "life of the people" in a carnival that spurns responsibility, organistic theories--such as those developed by Auguste Comte, George Lewes, and Herbert Spencer--also emphasized the interdependence of people in social development. Such theories were an important part of the Victorian intellectual world, and when Eliot probes the place of the individual in the social body, she is questioning an aspect of organicism that is potentially troubling. Sally Shuttleworth argues that Eliot's encounter with organistic theories is critical to her work, but Shuttleworth also comments that throughout Eliot's novels there is an

ambivalence toward the ethics of self-surrender and social duty. Though the central moral issues explored in her novels are drawn from contemporary theories of organicism, narrative developments in each work in fact expose the contradictions the organic social metaphor conceals while appearing to offer a perfect reconciliation between ideas of individualism and social duty. (8)

In Romola, Eliot probes the question of social duty, but she also considers how individual rights and lives can be lost if the individual body is obliterated in the progressive carnival body of humanity.

Carnival, in Eliot's work, intersects with the life of the individual, thereby making its dangers apparent. It may be tempting to dismiss Eliot's criticism of carnival as simply a bourgeois response to the low, popular humor of carnival, but doing so minimizes Eliot's critique and evade the questions she raises. Focusing on the transgressive powers of carnival, Peter Stallybrass and Allon White argue that bourgeois society since the Renaissance was at once disgusted by, and desirous of, the "low-other" (20), which formed its inverse and repressed double. Arguing that this "repression includes the gradual, relentless attack on the 'grotesque body' of carnival by the emergent middle and professional classes from the Renaissance onwards" (176), Stallybrass and White claim that carnival returns in bourgeois hysteria. Eliot's response, however, is not a hysteric reaction to repression, but should be read as an important social comment. She is, indeed, both fascinated by carnival's transgressive powers and fearful of its violence towards less powerful members of society, but the latter should not be lightly dismissed.


Eliot's images are carefully chosen--the theme of carnival in Romola is not simply contextual. In The Spanish Gypsy (1868), Eliot uses the term carnival to signify doubleness and ambiguity. The Prior accuses Don Silva of engaging in
   Versemakers' talk! fit for a world of rhymes
   Where facts are feigned to tickle idle ears,
   Where good and evil play at tournament
   And end in amity--a world of lies--
   A carnival of words where every year
   Stale falsehoods serve fresh men. Your honour safe?
   What honour has a man with double bonds? (Spanish Gypsy 81;
   emphasis mine)

In Romola we do not simply see a carnival; we also hear a carnival of words and ideas. Given the historical theme of Savonarola and his famous bonfire of the vanities, carnival is a natural element in Eliot's novel, but she does not limit her use of carnival to the later part of her history. Instead, the novel opens in the marketplace, and festivals and carnivals permeate it. All is brought into the realm of carnival. The plot has traditionally been understood in terms of two contrasting worlds, whose symbols Felicia Bonaparte has identified as the triptych (Graeco-Roman/ Bacchic) and the cross (Christian). Although the former is more readily and usually identified with the Saturnalia of carnival, Eliot draws the cross into the same world when she speaks of Savonarola's "sacred parody" of carnival (499).[4] Savonarola's bonfire of the vanities does not leave the carnival in order to return to a secure origin, but rather remains in the carnivalistic realm of parody.

Eliot emphasizes both the "web of inconsistencies" (652) of human life and the importance of humanity as a collective body. The metaphor of the web, of course, becomes predominant in Middlemarch (1871), but it is enough to note here that the idea of a web, which strikes Romola at the end of the novel, suggests the connectedness of contradictions. Carnival is the feast of the people; carnival and the marketplace stand in marked contrast throughout the novel to the monologic authority of the serious governing class. Jan Gordon argues that gossip functions in Romola to subvert the privilege of authoritative written commentaries and to resist possession by diluting the source (155-89). The marketplace, full of unbounded sounds and sights, is opposed to the closed rooms of Romola's blind father. Bakhtin emphasizes the relation of the street and marketplace to carnival: the "marketplace was the center of all that is unofficial; it enjoyed a certain extraterritoriality in a world of official order and official ideology, it always remained 'with the people'" (Rabelais 153-54). By opening Romola with a scene in the streets, Eliot emphasizes the public nature of the novel: "To the ear of Dante, the same streets rang with the shout and clash of fierce battle between rival families; but in the fifteenth century, they were only noisy with the unhistorical quarrels and broad jests of wool-carders" (53). The young and handsome Tito is first discovered by Bratti the pedlar, a symbol of exchange in the marketplace who tries to trade information: Tito's identity for an introduction to "the prettiest damsel in the Mercato" (56). A bargain of, and about, words is struck and cancelled. This exchange of words, between men of widely differing classes, parodies the cries for exchange in the marketplace that, with its "loud roar of mingled dialects" (57), becomes the site in which the different life-positions of the novel's characters engage in an ongoing and unresolved exchange.

The market described by Eliot at the beginning of the novel is striking because it occurs during Lent, traditionally a time of fasting and abstention from meat. It is still the place of vocal exchange and the place of the people, but it is a market in which the voices of women are strongest:

The proud corporation, or "Art," of butchers was in abeyance, and it was the great harvest-time of the market-gardeners, the cheesemongers, the vendors of macaroni, corn, eggs, milk, and dried-fruits: a change which was apt to make the women's voices predominant in the chorus. (57)

Like the Lenten market Eliot describes, her novel is written in a limited space in which a woman's voice predominates, but also interacts with other voices: the "Art" of patriarchal writers is in abeyance. Blood is not a necessary component of verbal exchange. While Lent usually has connotations of privation, Eliot notably terms the Lenten market the great harvest-time, transforming bloodless exchange into a celebration. The Lenten market, which appears briefly, is one without the blood of meat, but the carnival Eliot is about to depict is, by contrast, very bloody.

The usual exchange of the market is further complicated on the day Bratti and Tito enter the market together; Bratti comments that "the Mercato is gone as mad as if the Holy Father had excommunicated us again" (59). In the midst of the extra confusion caused by the Magnifico's death, a notary, Ser Cionne, berates his lamenting fellow-citizens for their blindness, an image developed throughout the novel emphasizing the human dilemma of uncertain truth. He tells them that they elect magistrates who "play the chamberer and the philosopher by turns--listen to bawdy songs at the Carnival and cry "'Bellisimi!'--and listen to sacred lauds and cry again 'Bellisimi!'" (61). Reflecting the dual nature of the crowd, the novel brings the sacred and carnival into familiar contact so that they are mutually parodic--crowning and decrowning each other.

The disputation of the marketplace contrasts with the privacy of Romola's home. It is only when Romola enters the marketplace herself that her life takes on the confusion of lived experience, with its multiplicity of avenues and outcomes. Her house only has one rule--that of her father. He is the sole commentator on the books contained by the walls of his study. Bardo's driving ambition is to maintain authority and separation through a library bearing his name. As part of her daughterly duties, Romola assists her father by keeping the books on the shelves in exactly the same places they have occupied for years. When Bardo asks his persistent question regarding the correct placement of his books, in Romola's affirmative reply "a fine ear would have detected in her clear voice and distinct utterance, a faint suggestion of weariness struggling with habitual patience" (95). This faint double voicing, however, is quickly subsumed by a monologizing filial pity that bids her to submit lovingly to her father. The introduction of Tito, a voice from the world of the market, begins to break down her separation from the changing and discursive body of humanity. Recognizing that Tito "had with wonderful suddenness got within the barrier that lay between them and the alien world" (108), Romola is willing to be drawn by him into the world of carnival, the sphere of interacting voices, which is the space of the novel.


The feast of San Giovanni is the first of Florence's great holidays to appear in Eliot's narrative. Bakhtin comments that while carnival was eventually condensed into one festival, in earlier periods other feasts also had a similar popular air (Rabelais 220). Florence's feast of its patron saint is such a festival and is filled with so much gaiety, dancing and music "that this earth might have been mistaken for Paradise!" (133). But such a view, it becomes clear, is only a semblance, since outside of carnival time's hope and progress, hardship contradicts festal joy. Eliot insists on the intersection of this individualized time with carnival. As Tito walks through the Festa in carefree enjoyment, the narrator comments that the throng "was now streaming out in all directions in pursuit of a new object. Such intervals of a Festa are precisely the moments when the vaguely active animal spirits of a crowd are likely to be the most petulant and most ready to sacrifice a stray individual to the greater happiness of the greater number" (153-54). It is at such a point that Tito stumbles across Tessa, who is vulnerable both as a woman and as a peasant, being forcibly teased for the amusement of the crowd by a conjuror. Rescuing Tessa at this Festa, Tito asserts his authority as a well-dressed signor--an authority clearly open to exploitation, or so at least the conjuror interprets this act: "Messere has doubtless better confetti at hand. . . . [C]ome back to me when Messere can spare you" (155). Although the narrator stresses the group nature of carnival, Tito's authority is not weakened through carnival, but rather strengthened in its extra-official freedom.

At the next Feast, the Nativity of the Virgin, Tito joins with the crowd and enters the carnival spirit. For Tito, festival is a time away from the pressures of life: it "dulled that calculation of the future which had so new a dreariness for him" (192). Such a sensation reflects the holiday from the real world that Bakhtin celebrates in carnival. In the festal throng, the mixed noises and movement bring Tito into the carnival spirit of human joyful becoming where his personal anxieties are excluded. Tito encounters the same conjurer, who is this time engaging in ecclesiastical parody by offering marriages "dissolved by special bull beforehand at every man's own will and pleasure" (197). Tessa, whom Tito encounters at the Feast, in her childish ignorance is conned and believes herself to be married to Tito. Recognizing Tessa's vulnerability, the conjurer aids Tito in this humorous deception. Tito's intentions are ambivalent when he "marries" Tessa, but the impact of carnival extends beyond carnival time and Tessa unwittingly becomes Tito's mistress.

Significantly, Romola's and Tito's betrothal happens on the last day of carnival, but it is a somber and serious affair in contrast to Tito's "marriage" to Tessa. The betrothal, however, introduces carnival into Romola's life. At the beginning of the betrothal chapter, the narrator comments that carnival is a time of fun for the boys and the striplings: "there were practical jokes of all sorts, from throwing comfits to throwing stones--especially stones. . . . [T]he consequent maiming was various, and it was not always a single person who was killed" (253). This comment foreshadows the deaths of Tito and Savonarola, with other members of his order, in the violent and, at this time, masculine world of politics. It also comprehends the injury inflicted on Tessa through carnival and suggests that Romola's marriage, inaugurated during carnival, will not be without its own violence.

Tito's betrothal present to Romola depicts her coronation. Looking at the triptych, she says, "I am Ariadne, and you [as Bacchus] are crowning me!" (260). The participation of Bacchus, a Saturnalian figure, directs us to read Romola's marriage as a carnival crowning. Discussing the tradition of the election of a carnival King, Bakhtin writes that such "Crowning already contains the idea of immanent decrowning: it is ambivalent from the very start" (Problems 124). Romola has, in fact, been decrowned before she has ever been crowned--Tessa and Romola become decrowning doubles. Bakhtin describes Panurge's fear of being cuckolded in terms of crowning/decrowning (Rabelais 242-44). While Panurge fears that all women will cuckold their husbands, Eliot's work answers such prevalent misogyny by revealing its other side in Tito's lack of fidelity. Throughout the novel, it becomes progressively unclear which marriage is "real." The legal, childless, and eventually loveless church marriage is juxtaposed with an illegitimate, fertile, and amorous marriage; each parodies and debases the other.[5] On the very day of Romola's betrothal, Tessa follows Tito and insists on her own marriage. Eventually, Romola decrowns herself ("Ariadne Discrowns Herself") when she realizes some of Tito's treachery. Her crowning is drawn into the carnival world by its carnival-time date, even though it attempts to escape from this parodic realm: the route the somber betrothal procession must take "lay aloof from the loudest riot of the Carnival, if only they could return before any dances or shows began in the great piazza of Santa Croce" (262). But the small party does not manage to remain separate, for it meets a masqued procession featuring Winged Time, his scythe and hourglass. This "dismal fooling" and "ghastly mummery" appears as a parody of a gay carnival and again warns of the more menacing side of carnival that is impossible for the betrothal to escape.

Carnival returns in part three in a much more frightening form, its gaiety, jokes, and laughter gone. Savonarola's sacred parody of carnival threatens the merriment of the city. Yet this double parody has its own laughter and heightened ambivalence. Bakhtin notes that in carnival "various images (for example, carnival pairs of various sorts) parodied one another variously and from various points of view; it was like an entire system of crooked mirrors, elongating, diminishing, distorting in various directions and to various degrees" (Problems 127). Savonarola's parodic carnival reflects itself back incessantly. Its "regenerated merriment" (499) takes the form of collecting vanities (jewelry, pornographic books, wigs, etc.) for the great bonfire, and the narrator comments, "The beardless inquisitors, organized into little regiments, doubtless took to their work very willingly. To coerce people by shame, or other spiritual pelting, into the giving up of things it will probably vex them to part with is a form of piety to which the boyish mind is most readily converted" (499). The old carnival enters into the new, however, and Savonarola has to tell the boys that there is too much shouting of Viva GesU: "'This constant uttering of sacred words brings them into contempt'" (500). Savonarola's parody is parodied as the old carnival spirit asserts itself. Kristin Brady notes that the "masculine pleasure-principle" dominates the Christian incarnation of carnival as much as the pagan one (125).

The crowning/decrowning motif takes parallel journeys in Tito's and Savonarola's lives. As a Bacchus figure, Tito attains a great height of manipulative and self-serving power in the secular world, and Savonarola attains a monarchial, extra-official role in the church. Tito is elevated by the crowd when he brings good news, "Carried above the shoulders of the people, on a bench apparently snatched up in the street" (328), and Savonarola is elevated above the congregation when he preaches. Their "crownings" both take place within the context of the invasion of Florence by King Charles, who, upon entering the city, looks "like a hastily modelled grotesque" (302). King Charles, "an equivocal guest" (274), is greeted with carnival-like ambivalence; behind the joyful banners, hidden in the walls, arms are refurbished, and stones are collected. But while King Charles leaves Florence safely, Tito and Savonarola are revealed to be caught in carnival and undergo the ritual decrowning and sparagmos.

Bonaparte identifies the "Masque of the Furies, called Riot" that descends upon Tito as a Bacchic rite (174). His doubleness catches up with him, and the crowd is inspired by the Captain of the Compagnacci to attack him and tear his clothes in the Bacchic ritual of sparagmos. Tito's escape from this mob does not possess a single meaning, for it is also his non-escape since the river brings him to death at the hands of Baldassarre, his adoptive father. The doubleness in Tito's life halts at this point. While Tito is afraid of little, Baldassarre's knife frightens him and he wears protective armor for many years: "The soul that bowed to no right, bowed to the great lord of mortals, Pain" (406). Although Tito never acknowledges any other truth, the one truth that finally arrests him is his own pain and death. For the people, however, Tito's death makes little difference and is, if anything, a joyous occasion.

A similar carnivalesque dismantling occurs to Savonarola. His serious claims to divine authority for his words are put to the test through the "comedy of the trial by fire" (604). Fire, as in Goethe, becomes associated with ambivalence. The first fire associated with Savonarola in Romola is the bonfire of the vanities --"the crowning act of the new festivities" (498)-- but as we shall see, this fire is associated with Savonarola's decrowning. The next year on the last day of carnival, in a fervent appeal from the pulpit preceding another bonfire of the vanities, Savonarola attempts to secure his position in the wake of his excommunication by calling on God to confirm his authority. He cries, "'if my word cometh not from Thee, strike me in this moment with Thy thunder, and let the fires of Thy wrath enclose me'" (594). When sunshine bathes his face, as if in divine response, the carnival crowd recognizes Savonarola as their King, shouting, "'Behold the answer'" (595). But Savonarola's words contain his decrowning. As soon as he leaves the square, his authority crumbles, succumbing to "a confusion of voices in which certain strong discords and varying scales of laughter made it evident that, in the previous silence and universal kneeling, hostility and scorn had only submitted unwillingly to a momentary spell" (595). Out of Savonarola's own words comes the idea of the trial by fire.

Savonarola becomes the ultimate figure of ambivalence. Once he can no longer avoid this trial, the words of his prayer are "drowned by argumentative voices within him that shaped their reasons more and more for an outward audience" (613). On the day of the trial, "the doubleness" (621) in his career is evident as he acts a part in which he cannot believe. While the crowd watches with a carnival-like anticipation of the spectacle, Savonarola debates theological points in an effort to forestall the flames, and the eucharistic signs of transcendent truth become playthings in the realm of life-saving. Eliot contradicts her main source, Pasquale Villari's Life and Times of Savonarola, in presenting Savonarola as a figure of ambivalence.[6] Villari represents Savonarola as unwavering in his faith regarding the miracle he expects from God; delay and prevarication emanate only from the challenging Minorite friars, who remain inside and communicate by messenger with Savonarola and his champion, Fra Domenico, who anxiously await the trial next to the frighteningly long pyre.

The doubleness associated with Savonarola is brought out through his torture, when he repeatedly confesses and retracts. While torture explains this inconsistency, Romola finds a deeper ambivalence or "doubleness" (665) in Savonarola's confessional statements. He is revealed "as a man who sought his own glory indeed, but sought it by labouring for the very highest end--the moral welfare of men" (664). Romola recognizes a "blending of ambition with belief in the supremacy of goodness" (664). Bakhtin comments that "The carnivalization of passion is evidenced first and foremost in its ambivalence: love is combined with hatred, avarice with selflessness, ambition with self-abasement, and so forth" (Problems 159). Savonarola shares some characteristics with what Bakhtin identifies as the hero of a Mennipea, a carnivalized genre. He goes beyond the ordinary person, entering a world of extremes in which "Dreams, daydreams, insanity destroy the epic and tragic wholeness of a person and his fate: the possibilities of another person and another life are revealed in him, he loses his finalized quality and ceases to mean only one thing; he ceases to coincide with himself" (Problems 116-17). Savonarola's visions, Eliot argues following Villari, enter into conflict with his humanitarian efforts. Through such moral-psychological experimentation, Eliot explores, but finally denies, the possibility of an absolute finalized meaning in the person of Savonarola, whose life is about ultimate questions, but who is unable to provide a definitive answer. His stress on morality eventually becomes hopelessly confused with the immoral, for his apparently bloodless carnival is not bloodless. The carnivalization of his young troops' "Viva GesU" is problematized in the narrator's reference to his boyish helpers as "young inquisitors" (499). This confusion is also reflected in his own politically expedient refusal to intercede for the life of Bernardo del Nero. Deciding it is better that a few men should die for the good of the whole, Savonarola ignores the right of appeal, which is such an important part of his platform, in order to further "the cause of God" (578).[7] The "concretely sensuous plane of images and events" (Problems 134) corrupts the singular word. Savonarola's theory is brought down to the real and visible death of Bernardo, and eventually to his own death.

Eliot draws a parallel between Tito, whose philosophy of self is checked only by his fear of pain, and Savonarola, whose belief in God is likewise limited by his own physicality, since his faith cannot cope with the prospect of his own human body entering fire (613). Theories are questioned when they encounter life. David Carroll comments that "In general, one may say that the dilemmas, defeats and deaths in Romola occur when the intense Renaissance mythic visions, Christian or pagan, become entangled in the gritty realities of Florentine life" ("George Eliot Martyrologist" 111). Emphasizing the importance of the body and its physicality to carnival's challenge of authority, Bakhtin comments that Rabelais "wants to return both a language and a meaning to the body, return it to the idealized quality it had in ancient times, and simultaneously return a reality, a materiality, to language and to meaning" (Dialogic Imagination 171). The body functions by bringing the world back to a physical level, moving it away from the theoretical: "No dogma, no authoritarianism, no narrow-minded seriousness can coexist with Rabelaisian images" (Rabelais 3). Bakhtin's understanding of the body in carnival time, however, refers exclusively to the body as the community. He argues that Rabelais writes not of "the individual body, trapped in an irreversible life sequence . . . rather it is the impersonal body, the body of the human race as a whole, being born, living, dying the most varied deaths, being born again, an impersonal body that is manifested in its structure, and in all the processes of its life" (Dialogic Imagination 173).

Like Bakhtin, Eliot emphasizes the material aspect of human death, but individual deaths are not simply subsumed in the triumphant life of humanity. Instead, the individual body, because of its irreversible life sequence, stands as a question to all theoretical positions. Tito's and Savonarola's individual life positions are brought into conflict and carnivalized through their dialogue with the carnival crowd, but they are also tested against their own physicality. Bakhtin's work on carnival has rightly been accused of ignoring the individual, and of downplaying the violence of carnival. In contrast, Eliot not only emphasizes the individual degradation of Tito and Savonarola, powerful men who have been crowned and decrowned, but she also foregrounds Tessa's fears, which flourish amidst carnival humor. In the context of the world of change and upheaval that characterized fifteenth-century Florence, Eliot does not forget the powerless who are suffering from starvation and the plague. The nameless poor are present as the object of Romola's ministrations and are focused in Benedetto, the emblematic Jewish orphan baby whose parents are expelled from the city and subsequently die of the plague. Benedetto does not appear in carnival time because he has been excluded from the carnival through the exile of his parents. The danger to the Jews in the city streets is made clear in the first pages of the novel when Bratto tells Tito that it is fortunate he is not of yellow cloth (56). Carnival's "group" excludes and victimizes some individuals, and Benedetto makes known his personal suffering through his cry (642).


Savonarola's death takes on the ritualized decrowning of carnival when he is stripped of his clothes, hung on a parodic cross-like gibbet, and burned. Romola is profoundly disturbed by Savonarola's "twofold retraction" (668) under torture: "'I said it [the retraction of his confession] that I might seem good; tear me no more, I will tell you the truth'" (668). She anticipates a "last decisive word" (669) at his death and looks forward to such an utterance "when he is lifted above the people" (669). This phrasing recalls Jesus's well known paradoxical pun: "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said signifying what death he should die" (John 12: 32, 33). Both glory and a humiliating death are indicated in this lifting: Jesus is lifted on a cross in death and simultaneously lifted up to glory. Bakhtin refers to the mock crowning/decrowning and scourging of the King of the Jews (Rabelais 198), but Eliot points to that carnival ambivalence in the cross itself that exceeds humorous play and the limited space of carnival. Savonarola's crowning/decrowning is simultaneous and does not offer that decisive univocal word for which Romola longs. She does not hear Savonarola speak any last words; instead, "The moment was past. Her face was covered again, and she only knew that Savonarola's voice had passed into eternal silence" (671). The only certainty recognized by the narrator is the finality of death for the individual.

In an essentially political contest, Savonarola's body has been defeated by the authorities. As Michel Foucault notes, in his study of the spectacle of the scaffold, the body of the victim of a public execution becomes the visible representation of the authority's sovereignty--the "anchoring point for a manifestation of power" (55). Torture was, Foucault writes, "so strongly embedded in legal practice . . . because it revealed truth and showed the operation of power" (55). Savonarola's divine authority is subject to the all-enveloping power of the inquisition, and his body becomes, as that on which authority imprints itself through torture and death, also that mark that through its very existence challenges the univocal word. As Foucault also notes, the execution itself also sometimes becomes a place in which authority can be mocked because "under the protection of imminent death, the criminal could say everything . . ." (60). It is this opportunity that Romola expects Savonarola to avail himself of, but, significantly, Eliot does not give Savonarola a final word. Once again, Eliot veers from the historical accounts, including Villari, and she does not allow Savonarola to regain that authority he has claimed from heaven.

Villari tells us that the bishop, in degrading Savonarola, said, "Separo te ab Ecclesia militante atque triumphante" ["I cut you off from the Church militant and triumphant"]. Savonarola was not silent, but replied, "Militante, non triumphante; hoc enim tuum non est" ["From the Church militant, but not the Church triumphant; that you cannot do"] (756; my trans.). Emphatically, Villari comments, "And these words were uttered in a tone that pierced to the souls of the bystanders, so that all who heard remembered them for ever" (756). Eliot does not simply forget Villari's report of Savonarola's remarkable final words; the narrator, in fact, alludes to them, but without giving voice to Savonarola's certainty of the transcendent: "He had been degraded, and cut off from the Church Militant" (670).[8] Eliot's Savonarola does not acclaim the church triumphant. The novel refuses Savonarola the finalization that only heaven can give, and his life and words remain in the human realm of the incomplete: no single word can erase the dialogism inherent in his life. History has emphasized the finalizing word of Savonarola, but Romola hears its lack. Throughout the novel, the ambivalence of Savonarola's life is reflected as a multitude of perspectives come into contact and dialogue with each other. This structure is similar to that which Bakhtin finds in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (1865-66), in which, he argues, "All one-sided seriousness (of life and thought), all one-sided pathos is handed over to the heroes, but the author, who causes them all to collide in the 'great dialogue' of the novel, leaves that dialogue open and puts no finalizing period at the end" (Problems 165).

Final punctuation is also missing from Romola. Tito, Savonarola, and Bardo each represent philosophically different life-positions brought into dialogue with each other. Each of these various self-aggrandizing positions--a devotion to God (Savonarola), a devotion to ancient texts and memory (Bardo), and a devotion to pleasure and power (Tito)--is analogous to hierarchical structures within nineteenth-century Britain: religious authority, the authority of learning and tradition, and that of economic and political power. Romola brings yet another voice into this exchange, although she is initially silenced by these men: Bardo denies her intelligence, Tito overrules her as her husband, and Savonarola bids her to submit to Tito and himself. By the end of the novel, the voices of Tito, Savonarola, Bardo, and even Bernardo are all silenced by their deaths, but the dialogue continues and their positions are heard through Romola's interpretive voice. Rather than remaining passive, Romola recognizes the competition and contradiction among these voices and enters the dialogue. Exposing this contradiction, Romola realizes that even though the "law was sacred. . . rebellion might be sacred too" (552). Discussing the usefulness of Bakhtin's concept of dialogism for feminist theory, Dale Bauer argues that "women readers in the text assert their otherness not by surrendering, but by forcing their language into the context/contest of the dominant language" (10). Romola, like those women discussed by Bauer, moves from a silent and sometimes resentful acquiescence in her father's house to a place of interaction with the dominant languages.

Romola speaks most clearly through the epic-like segment at the end of the novel. It may be tempting to understand the pious "Madonna Romola," a self-sacrificial female in a positivistic framework, as Eliot's finalizing word.[9] The legend can be read as idealizing Romola, as Eliot herself admits in a letter responding to Sara Hennell's comment that "Romola is pure idealism" (Letters 103 n. 8). Eliot writes, "You are right in saying that Romola is ideal--I feel it acutely in the reproof my own soul is constantly getting from the image it has made. My own books scourge me. . . . The various strands of thought I had to work out forced me into a more ideal treatment of Romola than I had foreseen at the outset" (Letters 23 Aug. 1863; 103-04). There is an immense difference, however, between the Romola of epic and the Romola of Florence. Romola's name becomes legendary in the unnamed village where she acts, but she does not stay fixed in this unchanging spot; rather than remaining as a finalized legend, Romola returns with a voice and position to the life and dialogue of Florence with its "web of inconsistencies" (652). The idealized treatment of Romola in the epic segment is important because it contrasts with Romola's incarnation in Florence. The possibility of sustaining an idealized position in life, the world of the novel, becomes an ever more pressing issue in Eliot's later novels.

Romola, as a nouveau epic figure, is situated at the apex of dialogue. Her legend questions Rome, both pagan and Christian. Commenting that Romola is "the daughter of a classical scholar, married to a pagan god, instructed by a prophet and mythologized as the Madonna Antigone," Carroll suggests that this position makes Romola the "perfect interpreter of the direction European history is going to take" (George Eliot 197). This position at the apex of dialogue, however, is also used by Romola to contribute uniquely to the direction of history. We find in her a provocative thinker, for Romola rebels "without external law to appeal to" (552) within the realm of changing life. While Romola parodies other positions, she parodies them from her unique position as an outsider. Just as Eliot is frequently seen by recent critics as a passive author, merely voicing the opinions of men,[10] so also Romola is viewed in this way and the newness of her ideas is not recognized--even by herself. We hear the other characters' words in Romola's words because she struggles and interacts with them. By concentrating her attention solely on Lillo in the Epilogue, Romola is in danger of closing off her ideas and limiting them by placing them under the monologizing governance of her father and Savonarola. But Romola's action, in purposely befriending her husband's mistress, is the result of a remarkably new way of thinking. The relation that Romola has created with Tessa and her aunt suggests that bloodless Lenten Market in which women's voices prevail. Repudiating Tito's wealth, Romola establishes a friendship with Tessa that bypasses the usual patriarchal hierarchy of relationships.[11]

Romola and Lillo, in conducting the conversation that occupies the epilogue, sit in a threshold space ("the space of the novel" [Bakhtin, Problems 170]) "at the wide door way that opened on to the loggia" that looked "all along the Borgo Pinti, and over the city gate towards Fiesole, and the solemn heights beyond it" (673, 672). This space is contrary to the closed room in which we first encounter Romola. Lillo, with his youthful freedom, further opens up the monologism that Romola's altar dedicated to Savonarola attempts to impose. He recognizes the ambivalence symbolized by Piero, who brings flowers for Romola to lay on an altar dedicated to Savonarola and yet who also abuses Romola for thinking so highly of the Frate. This observation forces Romola to admit the contradictions within her harmonized and idealistic reverence for the dead Savonarola: "'There are many good people who did not love Fra Girolamo. Perhaps I should never have learned to love him if he had not helped me when I was in great need'" (676). Romola's last words in the novel indicate that her position is not simply that of the Frate; his word has touched her, but it does not govern her. Through the disillusionment that occurs in her disagreement with the Frate over Bernardo, Romola learns to dialogue with the Frate's position, to take some of it and make it her own.

Yet, while Romola and Lillo sit in this outward-looking place, it is only Lillo's, not Ninna's, potential activity that is acknowledged. Even though she forms a new relation with Tessa, Romola is in danger of becoming a simple keeper of tradition: it is because her father is a scholar that Lillo can become one (674). Kristin Brady, who argues that a gender plot subverts the main plot, sees this ending, in which the values of the next generation do not accord with what Romola has learned, as significant: "Though Romola appears to be in a position of moral authority, she remains the conduit of language rather than a user of it" (133). The gender plot remains "muted by a silent patriarchal voice" (135). Deirdre David sees this ending as an example of Eliot's employment of "strategies of containment [used] to evade or to deny an intolerable conflict between woman's mind and male authority" (194). Romola is now compliant with Savonarola, and her intellect has been bent into benevolent teaching of her husband's son, thereby reconciling antagonistic ideologies. Similarly, Shona Elizabeth Simpson points to the significance of the new "matriarchy" at the end of the book, yet she is uncomfortable with the contradictory message of "silent acceptance of duty and work; children, and the perpetuation of a system in which boys learn while girls do not" (64). But despite this picture of compliance recognized by these feminist critics, in Romola's concentration on Lillo we hear echoed Tessa's early complaint that Tito was not as interested in Ninna as he was in Lillo (505, 550). Although the fool of the novel, Tessa calls into question the monologizing patriarchal tradition. Bakhtin argues that the fool is brought into the novel because "by his very uncomprehending presence he makes strange the world of social conventionality" (Dialogic Imagination 404). Although having rebelled, Romola still stands in the shadow of social convention.


The finale of Romola can be said to be open-ended, for all "good" people do not share the same understanding, but this does not mean that we are left without direction. The intersection of the individual body with carnival places some limits on indeterminacy. Michael Bernstein argues that in Bakhtin's work, "what emerges is the image of a carnivalization of values during which it is no longer a question of breaking down ossified hierarchies and stale judgements but rather of being denied any vantage point from which a value can be affirmed" (100). While such a playfulness is not harmful within the text, Bernstein points to the problems when carnival becomes involved in real violence. This argument parallels recent concerns and criticism regarding the political inefficacy of deconstruction.[12] Extra-carnivalistic power is sometimes only reinforced through the ambivalence of carnival. Eliot, however, by insisting on recognizing the individual in conjunction with a carnival that comprehends the common human physical condition, provides a point from which to observe values and judgements. The limiting needs of the individual do not provide a theoretical edifice, but they do suggest sites of interpretation. Death or suffering imposed on any human body questions hierarchies of power. The tiny Benedetto's cries challenge the religious and political systems that evicted the Jews from the city. While no single philosophic, religious, or political system is elevated over all others as a totalizing theoretical model for life in Romola, Eliot reminds us that death is a final word for the individual, if not for the community.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

----. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

----. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

Barrett, Dorothea. Vocation and Desire: George Eliot's Heroines. London: Routledge, 1989.

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Caroline Levine and Mark Turner. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998. 105-22.

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Eliot. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987.

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----. Romola. 1863. London: Penguin Books, 1980.

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[1] J. Hillis Miller has frequently advanced this view. In Ariadne's Thread, for example, he comments that for Eliot "all interpretation of signs is likely to be false interpretation, the projection of presuppositions rather than objective reading" (72). Discussing Casaubon's and Lydgate's "will to truth" and Featherstone's and Bulstrode's "will to power" in Middlemarch, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar contend that through "these men, Eliot calls into question the possibility of such a stable origin, end, or identity, not only for these men and their projects, but also, by extension, for her own text as well" (510). David Carroll similarly argues that "an essential feature of any comprehensive world-view in George Eliot's fiction is the inevitability of its self-deconstruction" (George Eliot 313). Likewise, Mary Carpenter contends that Eliot deconstructs her own constructed fictions since, having rejected her early evangelical roots, she "learned early that history does not exist, only historians" (5).

[2] Bakhtin refers to Goethe throughout his work. For instance, he discusses Goethe's Wilhelm Meister as a Bildungsroman in The Dialogic Imagination (392-93).

[3] While this paper does not seek to understand why Bakhtin embraced carnival's obliteration of the individual, an important counter perspective to the idea of carnival as a manifestation of unconcern for the individual body is suggested by Mikhail Ryklin, who contends that it is the pain of real bodies that prompts their disappearance in Bakhtin's work ("Bodies of Terror: Theses Toward a Logic of Violence." New Literary History 24 [1993]: 51-7). Ryklin argues that Bakhtin chose to align himself with the vitality of the folk body in response to the very real terror to the individual body resulting from Stalin's purges. Focusing on the folk provided a way, through distancing and infinite jubilation, to evade the reality of the individual tortured and terrorized body. This strategy was for survival, but it also enabled a rationalization of the terror.

[4] All parenthetical references to Eliot are to Romola unless otherwise noted.

[5] Nancy Paxton comments on Eliot's double-edged criticism: In comparing Tessa's fertile union with Tito and Romola's childless marriage, Eliot critiques Comte's--and Spencer's--notion of a natural gender-defined division of labor in society, for she shows that the family cannot be seen as a " moral institution" exempt from the legal, social, and economic forces that otherwise shape human culture....Tessa's role as Tito's "second wife" exposes the underside of Florentine life, and by representing it, Eliot reveals the feminist sympathies that would later find expression when she and other middle-class women sided with the prostitutes during the campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act. (127)

[6] Although Eliot read Pasquale Villari's La Storia di Girolamo Savonarola 2 vols. (Firenze, 1859-61), all my references are to Linda Villari's 1888 English translation. Gennaro A. Santangelo explores Villari's importance for Eliot ("Villari's Life and Times of Savonarola: A Source for George Eliot's Romola." Anglia 90 [1972]: 118-31), but while he stresses the similarities, Eliot's divergences from this source are noteworthy.

[7] It is worth noting here that Eliot again strays from Villari and adopts a more popular criticism of Savonarola that Villari disputes. In an attempt to keep Savonarola's actions pure, Villari argues that the right of appeal that became law is to a Greater Council, not to the limited court composed of legal experts for which Savonarola advocated (280). The appeal Savonarola supported was to a group of impartial judges rather than to a large and easily manipulated crowd. Villari argues that Savonarola had no power to influence the later decision regarding the appeal (573).

[8] Richard Holt Hutton in discussing Romola similarly notes,
   George Eliot rejected apparently the authenticity of the last great words
   attributed to Savonarola as he is dying on the scaffold, which Mr. Maurice
   accepts "The voice of the Papal emissary," says the historian of
   philosophy, "was heard proclaiming that Savonarola was cut off from the
   Church militant and triumphant. Another voice was heard saying, 'No not
   from the Church triumphant, they cannot shut me out of that.'" (207)

With the exception of Carroll, who notes that Eliot's obliteration of Savonarola's triumphalism was "too much" for some contemporary critics, such as Hutton, who felt that Eliot was "tampering with the record for her own prejudiced purposes" (114), recent critics have not taken into account the extent to which Eliot veers from her sources in reading an ambivalence back into Savonarola's death. Since her disagreement with "history" is not generally recognized, neither is the controversial nature of her depiction of Savonarola.

[9] See J. B. Bullen's "George Eliot's Romola as a Positivist Allegory" (Review of English Studies 104 [1975]: 425-435).

[10] Dorothea Barrett corroborates this observation: "Bullen's analysis suffers from a common misconception of George Eliot's scholarship, which tends to see George Eliot as a passive mirror in which we can see reflected the ideologies of the men by whom she may have been influenced, in this case Comte" (75). Or see Miller, who terms Ludwig Feuerbach, Eliot's "master-source"! (Ethics of Reading 75).

[11] In George Eliot's Originals and Contemporaries: Essays in Victorian Literary History and Biography (Ed. Hugh Witemeyer. Ann Arbor: The U of Michigan P, 1992) Haight discusses the adoption by Cara and Charles Bray, Eliot's close friends, of Charles's mistress's daughter (78-87). While Haight suggests analogies with Eppie in Silas Marner, the comparison and contrast with Romola's adoption of Tessa's children is also noteworthy. Romola adopts her husband's illegitimate children, but she does so without coercion from her now dead husband.

[12] For example, Michael Ryan comments that
   problems can arise when the method is confronted with actual political
   issues, like feminism. Indeed, by "bracketing" or "putting aside" political
   consequences, deconstruction can run the risk of becoming an aestheticism
   of contradiction. And this can lead to the excusing of questionable
   political positions on the grounds that the texts in which they occur are
   undecidable or indeterminate. (71)

HILDA HOLLIS is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Queen's University at Kingston. Some of her work on Eliot has been published in Nineteenth Century Prose and ELH. She has also published in journals such as Victorian Poetry, ESC, Blake Quarterly, and Milton Studies. Support from SSHRC is gratefully acknowledged.
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Title Annotation:Mikhail Bakhtin
Publication:Papers on Language & Literature
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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