Friday, May 09, 2014

Judging Deronda

{Back at Daniel Deronda, responding today to Maggie Bandur's post from Wednesday. Despite all the other distractions, readng and non-reading alike, we've finally both made it well past the 500-page mark!}

I was pleased to see Maggie raise the question of why Deronda is so uncomfortable with the idea that the Cohens--whose company he clearly enjoys--might be Mirah's relatives. All the possible reasons she adduces seem likely to play at least some part, but the crucial one is eventually identified by Deronda himself the night that Mordecai invites him to the Philosophers' club:
Deronda thought, "I shall never know anything decisive about these people until I ask Cohen point-blank whether he lost a sister named Mirah when she was six years old." The decisive moment did not yet seem easy for him to face. Still his first sense of repulsion at the commonness of these people was beginning to be tempered with kindlier feeling. However unrefined their airs and speech might be, he was forced to admit some moral refinement in their treatment of the consumptive workman [Mordecai].
It's their "commonness," which in this case seems to be a combination of their actual class and their lack of any refinement that might lift them out of it.

What's hardest to process, looking back from our era, is the sense of class as essentially catching, transmittable. If we're honest, we'll all admit that we've been unpleasantly surprised at some point by the uncouth relatives or connections of a friend or loved one, but we root that critique not in their class, but in their behavior--and even then we question our reaction, remembering the role of opportunity and unearned advantage in making us who we are. We may judge, but we do so uncomfortably. Still less do we allow that judgment to affect our sense of the friend we already know. Economic class in America may be far more heritable than we would like to tell ourselves, but we are nonetheless beyond the point of thinking it marks a person and his descendants for life. Yet that seems to be exactly the source of Deronda's fear.

I was also pleased to see Mark Marowitz, in the comments, not only come out as a Grandcourt partisan (!), but suggest that perhaps Deronda actually isn't a nice person. It's a thought that had been nagging at me, too: Is Deronda perhaps just a privileged prig? We have seen him take two generous actions: reclaiming Gwendolen's jewels and saving Mirah from drowning. Both acts involved beautiful women, and the former--the only one that required thought more than instinct--was in aid of a woman of his own class, and required only money. Other than that, what have we seen of Deronda? A friendliness with the Meyricks that seems wholly good. A friendship with Grandcourt that seems to be much more about watching a mirror of the bad self he might become than it is about enjoying Grandcourt's company. And we have his friendship with the Cohens, in which he evinces kindness, but his motives are at least partially instrumental.

Then there's his spiritual questing, in which he is beginning to remind me of Pierre in War and Peace, a character who spends most of the novel so wrapped up in himself that he barely even notices the Napoleonic war. Can someone this preoccupied with himself be nice? Sure, he's incredibly solicitous of Mordecai, but that seems rooted substantially in a desire to see himself as serving a larger purpose.

No, I think the only powerful article for the defense comes in the context of Gwendolen. When Deronda realizes the depth of her despair at her ill-chosen marriage, he forces a conversation, and the urgency of his advice rings true, and utterly selfless:
"[T]here are many thoughts and habits that may help us to bear inevitable sorrow. Multitudes have to bear it." . . .

"Then tell me what better I can do," said Gwendolen, insistently.

"Many things. Look on other lives besides your own. See what their troubles are, and how they are borne. Try to care about something in this vast world besides the gratification of small selfish desires. Try to care for what is best in thought and action--something that is good apart from the accidents of your own lot."
In that scene, Deronda is fierce and focused; we are able to see both his magnetism and the power he could bring to a friendship if he so chose. Will we see that Deronda again?

No comments:

Post a Comment