Daniel Deronda By Eliot Essay, Research Paper
Leonora Alcharisi?s Individualism in George Eliot?s Daniel Deronda
Although Daniel?s mother is only in two chapters of George Eliot?s Daniel Deronda, she stands out as one of the novel?s most memorable, and shocking, characters. Leonora Alcharisi completely obliterates any preconceptions that Daniel, and the reader, had about what his mother might be like. The crux of why she is so shocking is that her character is bereft of any motherly qualities. Leonora?s renouncing of the role that society values most in women, that of mother, is emblematic of her rejection of every design that society projected on her. Leonora?s struggle with the society that doesn?t value her because she is a Jewess is embodied in her relationship with her father, Charisi. Her nature is one that needs freedom. This causes her to chafe under the constraints of her strict Jewish upbringing. Although she is only concerned with personal liberation and is thus not a true feminist, Leonora articulates many ideals that are very feminist in nature. By examining her successes and failures, the reader gains insight into the novel, and society as a whole.
Eliot describes Leonora?s beauty as having ?a strangeness in it as if she were not quite a human mother? (Eliot 536). In one sentence Eliot establishes that Leonora does not appear motherly and for that reason seems a bit inhuman as well. Throughout Daniel?s meeting with his mother Eliot uses descriptions such as ?without maternal delight? and ?with the manner of a queen rather than of a mother? to describe Leonora?s actions (Eliot 538, 565). Leonora?s every move seems to reflect her want of maternal instinct or emotion. Her words do not betray her appearance as Leonora tells Daniel that she neither wants his affection nor is able to give him hers. Daniel is ?repelled by the frank coldness which had replaced all his preconceptions of a mother?s tender joy in the sight of him? (Eliot 542). This repulsion is shared by the reader who, like the novel?s hero, is forced to reconcile Leonora with the ?most cherished emotions and principles? society holds in regards to female motherly inclination (Eliot 542).
Mrs. Meyrick inadvertently defines exactly what is at the heart of society?s expectations of motherhood when she tells Mirah ?oh, my dear, women are made to like pain and trouble for the sake of their children? (Eliot 556). Society expects women to sacrifice any dreams of their own for the greater good of others, be it their children, fathers, husbands, or communities. Leonora chose a different path. She
cast all precedent out of her mind. Precedent had no excuse for her, and she could only seek justification in the intensest words she could find for her experience. (Eliot 537)
Leonora dedicated her life to the pursuit of her own happiness, with no regard for anyone else. Since her personal happiness is paramount to all other things, ?her experience? is the only ?justification? she needs to needs to validate her giving up of Daniel. She couldn?t be ?hampered with other lives? (Eliot 536).
Leonora rejects society’s roles because of her father. Placing all value on herself is Leonora?s way of rebelling against a culture that, embodied in her father, places no value on women except as mothers. Of her father she says
He never comprehended me, or if he did, he only thought of fettering me into obedience. I was to be what he called ?the Jewish woman? under pain of his curse. I was to feel everything I did not feel, and believe everything I did not believe. (Eliot 540)
Caring more about ?the grandson to come? than he did about his daughter, Charisi fails to recognize the strength within his daughter (Eliot 544). Thus he doesn?t worry about the consequences of his daughters love of singing ?because he felt he could hinder them if he liked? (Eliot 542).
Charisi?s strength makes him ?a man to be admired in a play-grand, with an iron will? But such men turn their wives and daughters into slaves? (Eliot 541). Leonora?s will is too strong to be cowed into submission by her father or the Jewish culture. Daniel recognizes something in his mother?s nature that his grandfather never did. Despite the frustration he feels at his mother?s lack of tenderness, Daniel is aware of a personal
admiration of a forceable nature whose errors lay along high pathways, which he would have felt if, instead of being his mother, she had been a stranger who had appealed to his sympathy. (Eliot 542)
Leonora inherits her strong will from her father, the man who never placed enough importance in her to recognize it. Her ?strong will? is what causes her to chafe at the constraints society places on women and which she suffered doubly as a Jew. She rages that ?every woman is supposed to have the same set of motives, or else be a monster? (Eliot 539). When Daniel attempts to empathize with her she tells him
You may try-but you can never imagine what it is to have a man?s force of genius in you, and yet to suffer the shame of being a girl. To have a pattern cut out-?this is the Jewish woman; this is what you must be; this is what you are wanted for; a woman?s heart must be of such a size and no larger, else it must be pressed small, like Chinese feet; her happiness is to be made as cakes are, by fixed receipt.? (Eliot 541)
Drawing upon her character and beauty she asks Daniel ?had I not a rightful claim to be something more than a mere daughter and mother?? (Eliot 570). Her ?heart? was too big to be ?pressed small? so she could fit the mold of the ?Jewish woman.? Thus the only way she could survive was to disavow her heritage.
Upon her father?s death, Leonora uses his path for her, a marriage to her cousin, as a means of escaping from the culture that imprisoned her. Reasons for marrying are examined in many different situations throughout the novel. In choosing a husband she knew she ?could rule? in hopes of achieving ?freedom?, Leonora?s reason for marriage exactly parallels that of Gwendolyn. But where Gwendolyn fails in choosing the strong-willed Grandcourt, Leonora succeeds. She becomes a renowned actress and singer, leaving her past life behind. Although she ?could rule? her husband, she could not control everything, and a child was born to her. But resolving to ?have no more ties? when her husband died she ?parted willingly? with Daniel (Eliot 543). A child would not tie her down. She also refused to serve the purpose her father had for her by bestowing his Jewish heritage upon her son. The chest she was to give Daniel was filled with ?things that were thrust on my mind that I might feel them like a wall around my life-my life that was growing like a tree? (Eliot 546). Leonora feels no shame at having ?rid herself of the Jewish fetters and gibberish? that made her a pariah both inside and outside her community (Eliot 544). In giving up Daniel, Leonora made the ultimate break from any role society would have for her, and for a time her experience vindicated her decision.
The different names that Leonora adopts throughout her life take on a great deal of significance in the examination of her struggle to break from society. Born with the name ?Charisi?, that of her father, it represents the repressive culture in which she grew up. Upon becoming a singer she changes it to ?Alcharisi? (Eliot 546). It is as ?Leonora Alcharisi? that she most identifies herself. Her time as a singer was when she most fully achieved the freedom she always desired. Speaking of her past life, she tells Daniel ?I was no princess then? (Eliot 536). For Leonora ?princess? has a bad connotation. Becoming Princess Halm-Eberstein represents a failure for Leonora. Although she meant ?to be free? and to ?never marry again?, the things on which she based her life?s happiness proved to be fleeting when her voice lost it?s former splendor (Eliot 547). She ?could not endure the prospect of failure? and gave up on the life she loved (Eliot 548). When her voice returned she ?repented but? could not go back? (Eliot 548). The word ?repented? illustrates that in giving up her life as a singer, Alcharisi went against her whole belief system. Although she could never recapture the tangible manifestation of this system, her singing career, she still clung to it?s tenets.
Alcharisi laments her fear of failure as being the cause of her current unhappiness. Although this may have some truth to it, there are many indicators that suggest that, given the life she had chosen, failure was inescapable. She tells Daniel
I am not a loving woman. That is the truth. It is a talent to love-I lacked it. Others have loved me-and I have acted their love. I know very well what love makes of men and women-it is subjection. It takes another for a larger self, enclosing this one? I was never willing to subject to any man. Men have been subject to me. (Eliot 571)
It may be said that Leonora?s choosing to deny herself the ability to love another is a function of her not fitting the same mold as other women. But Daniel?s acuteness allows to grasp ?a sad sense of his mother?s privation? (Eliot 571). Her unwillingness to ?subject? herself to anything, even love, both liberates and binds her. She is both exalted and ?deadened? by her lack of connection to anyone (Eliot 539). Although she is a strong character who will not accept pity, her inability to love makes her pitiable.
Daniel meets his mother at a time when she is a ?shattered woman? whose ?sense of life is little more than a sense of what was? (Eliot 569). Although her life as a singer is over she is still the same. She stands by her choice to deny her heritage so she may have a chance to be free. But in the end she is unable to escape the destiny her father mapped out for her. Her sickness weakens her and she fears death. Having ?wronged the dead? (her father), she says, ?I have little time to do what I left undone? (Eliot 539). Tortured by the dark shadows of her past, Leonora explains her struggle with her father by saying
Because I had wants outside his purpose, I was to be put in a frame and tortured. If that is the right law for the world, I will not say that I love it. If my acts were wrong-if it is God who is exacting from me that I should deliver up what I withheld-who is punishing me because I deceived my father and did not warn him that I should contradict his trust-well, I have told everything. I have done what I could? I have after all been the instrument my father wanted. (Eliot 568)
In the end Leonora remains firm in her assertion that she had a right to choose the life that she did for herself. But she also resigns herself to a force outside of her own in her acknowledging that perhaps ?God? is punishing? her for attempting to thwart her father?s purpose. In delivering Daniel?s heritage to him Leonora hopes to quiet her demons as she approaches death.
Leonora invokes supernatural shadows and ?apparitions in the darkness? as reasons for her bending to her father?s wishes (Eliot 540). Daniel tells her that ?the effects prepared by generations are likely to triumph over a contrivance which would bend them all to the satisfaction of self” (Eliot 568). In relation to his mother?s will, Daniel sees what her father entrusted to her as an ?expression of something stronger, with deeper, farther-spreading roots knit into the foundations of sacredness for all men? (Eliot 568). Daniel speaks the truth, though he does not comprehend all of what he reveals. The Jewish culture is an ancient one. When Daniel invokes its deep ?roots knit into the foundation? of man as the reason for his mothers failure in defying his grandfather he does so as a way of vindicating its power. But what he also, unknowingly, expresses is that Leonora was made to struggle all her life against a role that society made impossible for her to escape. The customs that put limitations on ?the size of a woman?s heart? and have a ?fixed receipt? for her happiness, are institutionalized (Eliot 541).
Leonora Alcharisi is not a feminist. She is not interested in a movement. Where Mordecai explicitly proclaims his Zionism without care for his ?personal lot?, Leonora cares only for her own freedom (Eliot 455). She is an individual. Leonora articulates the principle on which she based her life by saying, ?I had a right? I was not, like a brute, obliged to go with my own herd? (Eliot 544). Even though Leonora herself is not a feminist, her individualism puts her in conflict with roles that constrain all women in a culture similar to her own. This enables George Eliot to address ideas that are feminist in nature through the life and words of Leonora. Intrinsic to her rejection of all of societies norms is Leonora?s renunciation of love, especially that of maternal love. The question then arises that, in her attempt to be free, has she become less human by denying a natural impulse? Although she rebels against society, she is still a product of it, trapped by her own rebellion. Her perversion of institutes such as marriage and trust in order to escape her heritage, though successful at first, pave the way for her downfall. Eliot?s final determination on Leonora may be that although she suffered for attempting to deny things that were beyond her power, with a heart like hers, what choice did she have but to fight society. The reader may construe Leonora?s eventual failure to be a foreshadowing of the one that awaits Gwendolyn. Yet Eliot finds hope in Gwendolyn?s newfound ability to love others and keeps alive the possibility that she may one day become ?one of the best of women? (Eliot 694).