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The Mysteries of Affect in Daniel Deronda, by Rebecca Thorndike-Breeze, Massachussetts Institute of Technology

Victorians Institute Journal Digital Annex

Let thy chief terror be of thine own soul:
There, ‘mid the throng of hurrying desires
That trample on the dead to seize their spoil,
Lurks vengeance, footless, irresistible
As exhalations laden with slow death,
And o’er the fairest troop of captured joys
Breathes pallid pestilence.

--Daniel Deronda, epigraph
I begin with the ominous epigraph to George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda because it so thoroughly encapsulates the novel’s uncanny thematics of dispossession, vengeance, and dread. First, spoiled heroine Gwendolen Harleth learns to fear her own soul after she selfishly weds Grandcourt, though she had sworn to Grandcourt’s long-time mistress that she would not. Breaking her word, Gwendolen dispossesses Grandcourt’s illegitimate son, which in turn brings down the mistress’s vengeance in the uncanny form of the Grandcourt family diamonds and a cursed letter that declares “I am the grave in which your chance of happiness is buried” (359; bk. 4, ch. 31). This sensational scene contains one of the most vivid images in the novel: Gwendolen sitting alone in her mirror-paneled boudoir, for once taking no notice of her reflection as it surrounds her, “so many women petrified white” (357; bk. 4, ch. 31). The panels of petrified faces here recall “the picture of an upturned dead face, from which an obscure figure seemed to be fleeing with outstretched arms” that is hidden behind “a hinged panel of the wainscot” in the drawing room of Offendene, Gwendolen’s old home (27; bk. 1, ch. 3). In her maidenhood, Gwedolen always shuddered with mysterious dread at the sight of this horror hidden in the walls.
The curse of the mistress haunts her soul doubly because she connects her dispossession of Grandcourt’s son to Grandcourt’s rumored dispossession of Daniel Deronda, our eponymous protagonist. Though his parentage remains a mystery throughout most of the novel, everyone suspects that he is the illegitimate son of his guardian, Sir Hugo Mallinger. Deronda fears the unknown qualities of his soul, and senses within him a “guest who seem[s] to come with an enigmatic veiled face” (167; bk. 2, ch. 16). When the young Jewish woman he saves from drowning begs him to help her reunite with her long lost mother and brother, his dread deepens. Afraid of who this mother and brother may have become throughout years of separation, Deronda cannot help but connect this new mystery to his own. Deronda’s search for them eventually leads him to his own mother; in Genoa, he reunites with her, a world-famous Jewish opera singer who sent young Deronda away to be raised as a gentleman, free from the taint of his heritage.
And, in a final twist, Deronda’s Genoan trip coincides with that of Gwendolen and Grandcourt. Thus Deronda is there to console Gwendolen as she recovers from the horror of witnessing her husband’s drowning – an apparent fulfillment of her vengeful wish. She tells Deronda, “evil wishes were too strong….I saw my wish outside of me” (695-6; bk. 7, ch. 54). Indeed, Grandcourt’s dead face seems to fulfill the cryptic prophesy of the dead face and fleeing figure embedded in the wall. “Let they chief terror be of thine own soul…” Mystery compounds mystery in this intimidating work of fiction, as figures of dispossession, vengeance, and dread multiply to populate two fully developed plots. These plots join at the novel’s center through the complex mesh of Gwendolen’s and Daniel’s relationship; their respective plots are each woven through with several other relationships, each unique yet also defined by the thematics of dispossession, vengeance, and dread.
Though these elements would be at home in a sensation novel, they also enhance the novel’s realism. These uncanny elements enable Eliot to represent relations between external life and internal affect through a tense interplay of mode, metonym, and metaphor. George Levine has argued that through this kind of interplay realist authors responded “to the changing nature of reality as the culture understood it, and evok[ed] with each question another question to be questioned, each threatening to destroy that question beyond words” (Realistic Imagination 22). As such critics as Ann Cvetkovich, Sarah Gates, and Royce Mahawatte have argued, Eliot draws upon tropes of sensation and gothic novels in Daniel Deronda to represent that which lies beyond words – the uncanny drama of inner reality. In the early twentieth century, Freud would harness literary gothic tropes to theorize the everyday experience of the uncanny, or das Unheimliche. To experience das Unheimliche is to experience the unhomely, or the sense that an alien interloper has invaded our intimate sphere. Later, psychoanalysis would redefine this as the abject.@ Feelings of the abject dread run through nearly every narrative strand of Daniel Deronda, and the mysterious face hidden behind the secret door at Offendene gives this uncanny sense its most vivid form. Taking the pervasive dread in Daniel Deronda as its starting place, this paper explores Eliot’s conception of the mysterious powers of affect. I briefly trace this forward to her influence on Freud and backward to her work on Spinoza in order to situate Eliot’s realism within the same tradition as affect theory.
I do not wish to apply affect theory to George Eliot and Daniel Deronda, but rather I want to demonstrate how George Eliot’s realism pursues very similar questions and goals. Eliot’s virtuoso innovations in psychological realism have become a matter of critical consensus, and a vast body of scholarship examines her multi-dimensional representations of affective internal states. Such scholars as Harry Shaw and Neil Hertz explore the tensions Eliot represents between the individual consciousness and “the grand motions of Nature or History” (Hertz 12). Shaw argues that Eliot’s representations of inchoate inner states enrich our conception of how people “find their place in history,” whereas Hertz argues that these representations emphasize the agonized incommensurability of consciousness with experience (Hertz n10, 154). This “ambivalently figured pulsation” (13), which Hertz identifies in Eliot’s representations of consciousness, presents a persistent source of tension within Eliot’s body of work.
Fredric Jameson has recently extended this agonized incommensurability to realism in general, arguing that the mode is constituted by the struggle between realism’s opposing poles of story and affect. To approximate an image of this dialectical relation, he suggests “the strands of DNA winding tightly about each other” (Antinomes 10). Long ago, Freud conceived of the relation between non-conscious affect and conscious thought in similar terms, though he didn’t have access to that particular image. Freud was influenced by the psychological nuance of Eliot’s work; he referenced Adam Bede in The Interpretation of Dreams, read and admired both Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, and often gave Eliot’s novels to friends as gifts.@ In their day, both Eliot and G.H. Lewes used the metaphor of the web to articulate the affect-heavy interaction of the conscious and unconscious mind (Shuttleworth 291). And earlier still, Spinoza described affect as a dual “impingement” “of affection upon …the body, and at the same time the idea of the affection” (Ethics qtd. in Massumi 92).@ From both realist and affective perspectives, a delicate mesh-work connects ineffable, internal life with tell-able, external experience.
In all of her work, Eliot sought to “embody” “imagination, feeling, and intellect” in harmonious simultaneity in her novels because, following Spinoza and Feuerbach, she believed that such a balance could lead to “the achievement of moral knowledge” (Gatens 80).@ Moira Gatens argues that Eliot was particularly influenced by these philosophers’ mutual belief that “our mode of being is constitutively relational: we learn who and what we are, or can become, through interacting with our fellow human beings” (81). As Spinoza explains in the Ethics, “the origin of love, benevolence, and other sociable emotions” are made possible through the contagion of affect (Gatens 79). But Eliot was also keenly aware of the dark side of affect’s contagion, and as numerous scholars have shown, Daniel Deronda provides a case study in affect’s capacity for generating both love and abjection.@
Chapter 36 of the novel confronts the intensity of both the positive and negative powers of affect, and it is also a key turning point both in the relationship between Gwendolen and Deronda and in the narrative focus of the novel. This chapter formally weaves the “English” and the “Jewish” plots together while also illustrating the affective complexity of Gwendolen’s relationships with both Grandcourt and Deronda. Shortly after their marriage, Gwendolen and Grandcourt spend part of the Christmas holidays at the gothic Mallinger estate, and Gwendolen is afforded some prime opportunities to speak to Deronda. In each conversation, Gwendolen’s sense of propriety breaks down more and more. By the New Year’s Eve dance, she is ready to strip away all artifice, and plans how she might intimate her feelings to Deronda: “When Gwendolen was dressing, she longed in remembrance of Leubronn, to put on the old turquoise necklace for her sole ornament…. Determined to wear the memorial necklace somehow, she wound it thrice round her wrist and made a bracelet of it…” (440; bk. 5, ch. 36). This turquoise necklace is the same one that Gwendolen pawned just after learning her family was financially ruined. After almost no time at all, the necklace was mysteriously returned to her; Gwendolen suspected Deronda, who she had only seen at this early point. Once they officially meet, shortly before her wedding, she confirms her suspicion. Here at the New Year’s Eve dance, Gwendolen twines the necklace around her wrist and hides it under her glove, which is itself hidden within her white burnouse. Gwendolen attempts to conceal a private message that only Deronda can read, but she is ultimately too obvious. As soon as she removes her glove, Grandcourt sees the necklace, and before Deronda and everyone at the party, he exclaims, “What is that hideous thing you have got on your wrist?” (443; bk. 5, ch. 36).
Gwendolen reaches out to Deronda by invoking their first meeting; she and Deronda meet each other in beneficent feeling, but only for the interval of one intimate conversation. After the dance, as Grandcourt admonishes her for this display, the horror of her wedding night seizes Gwendolen’s memory: “Why could she not rebel, and defy him? She longed to do it. But she might as well have tried to defy the texture of her nerves and the palpitation of her heart. Her husband had a ghostly army at his back, that could close round her wherever she might turn” (447-8; bk.5, ch. 36). Her relationship with Grandcourt is thoroughly woven through with uncanny feelings of shame and terror, which impinge upon her mind and body. It is as though he has seized her from the inside. She cowers before him as she senses an army of ghosts behind the slightest changes in expression and tone of voice. She cannot resist, indeed feels as though she cannot move to help herself “in her splendid attire, like a white image of helplessness” (448; bk. 5, ch. 36). Thus, the scene recreates the image of Gwendolen’s wedding-night horror among the many reflections in her boudoir of “so many women petrified white” (357; bk. 4, ch. 31). Her compounding, uncanny dread and shame enable Grandcourt to rule her through minute intimations. Affect, imagination, and cognition are working very much against Spinozan benevolence here.
Throughout this chapter, Eliot works through the difficulty inherent in actually doing what Feuerbach and Spinoza want us to do. In their final conversation before the novel shifts fully into its “Jewish Plot,” Gwendolen begs Daniel to tell her how she can possibly try to live better. Though their confessor-dependent relationship eventually exhausts Deronda’s interest, throughout this chapter they are both still quite taken with each other. It is this last conversation that seems to dampen Deronda’s enthusiasm. Gwendolen says to Deronda, “You say I am ignorant. But what is the good of trying to know more, unless life were worth more?” And Deronda replies,
“some real knowledge would give you an interest in the world beyond the small drama of personal desires. It is the curse of your life—forgive me—of so many lives, that all passion is spent in that narrow round, for want of ideas and sympathies to make a larger home for it. Is there any single occupation of mind that you care about with passionate delight or even independent interest?” Deronda paused…Gwendolen, look[ed] startled and thrilled as by an electric shock…. (451; bk. 5, ch. 36)
Deronda’s rather simple question shocks and petrifies Gwendolen once again. For her, such simple changes in habit and perspective seem almost impossible.
Deronda’s speech tells Feuerbach and Spinoza’s moral story, but Eliot’s representations of affect cast doubt upon it. The magnitude of Deronda’s suggestion hangs in the air, “as if some third presence had arrested them”; like a ghost, Deronda’s “winged words … hover” over them (452; bk. 5, ch. 36). Deronda’s challenge, embodied by this winged presence, and Gwendolen’s difficulty accepting it both combine to extinguish the vibrant quality of their relationship. Their communion of feeling on the night of the dance is broken. Though Gwendolen tries to gain wider perspective, things get far worse before they get better. Deronda tries to help her, but in the end he combines affect, imagination, and cognition toward moral action in his new life with Mirah, Mordecai, and the Jewish people – leaving Gwendolen behind.
Daniel Deronda pushes away from Eliot’s career-long belief in the power of knowledge and sympathy to foster moral feeling and action, but as it does so it also emphasizes the mysterious power of affect that lies within each one of us. Rosemarie Bodenheimer suggests that the dark side of sympathy is Gwendolen’s main lesson for Deronda: “This is what happens when you put yourself in a position of moral superiority and wisdom and someone takes you up on it” (259). But in spite of this disillusionment, Eliot still emphasizes the ubiquity of affect’s mystery in numerous scenes throughout the novel. Though she is far less certain of affect’s capacity for benevolence than she seems to be in her earlier work, Daniel Deronda makes plain Eliot’s continued belief in “that roar which lies on the other side of silence” as the locus of drama and chaos in ordinary life (Middlemarch 182; bk. 2, ch. 20). Though we may harness that power for moral action, we must not underestimate the mysterious power of affect. As Eliot warns us in the beginning, “Let thy chief terror be of thine own soul…”
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