I am master of you.
He observed with pleasure that Miss Brooke showed an ardent submissive affection which promised to fulfill his most agreeable previsions of marriage.
She had been brought to accept him in spite of everything—brought to kneel down like a horse under training for the arena, though she might have an objection to it all the while.
Daniel Deronda (365)
Literary critics from Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar to Barbara Hardy to Allison Booth have observed that George Eliot’s novels raise doubts about the desirability of matrimony; as discontented wives, Romola, Dorothea, and Gwendolen resist their husbands’ objectification of them. This, however, does not tell the whole story. In Romola, Middlemarch, and Daniel Deronda, Eliot strategically ironizes each marriage by deliberately constructing a widowhood that surpasses the marriage in, at least, the promise of happiness and productivity. The renewed sense of agency of their widowed protagonists unsettles Victorian expectations. In the essay that follows, I will argue that George Eliot foregrounds widowhood instead of marriage in her three major novels, deploying a feminist irony that disrupts both cultural and literary idealizations and raises questions about assumptions regarding the configuration of irony in women’s fiction.
Eliot repeatedly writes from a feminist position as she exposes the desirability of marriage and the dread of widowhood. Set in Renaissance Florence, Romola features the intelligent daughter of the blind scholar, Bardo, who meets Tito, a stranger who ingratiates himself into her family. As he dupes the ignorant country girl, Tessa, into believing that they are married, he actually marries Romola. Their marriage is a nightmare. Death, however, intervenes. After Tito’s father murders him, Romola nurses a village through pestilence, seeks out Tessa and her children, and supports them—financially and psychologically—for the rest of her life. Like Romola, Dorothea Brooke is devoted to learning, and frustrated with the limited scope of an unmarried woman’s life. Just as Tito feigns good character, Casaubon exaggerates his scholarship. Upon marrying him, Dorothea despairs of happiness. But, as widow, Dorothea abandons her aversion for traditional domesticity and, to all appearances, finds happiness in her remarriage. Finally, the spirited Gwendolen Harleth vows not to marry and then recants in order to save her family from poverty. The marriage is a battleground between Gwendolen’s will and Grandcourt’s attempts to break it. Grandcourt’s drowning, however, catalyzes Gwendolen to assume responsibility for her actions, as she changes not so much her way of life as her frame of mind.
The demise of each husband releases the surviving spouse from his authoritarianism and, in varying kind and degree, from his abuse. Destabilizing matrimony, which is pivotal in her three most powerful works, places Eliot at odds with Victorian cultural assumptions. Joseph Allen Boone, however, has uncovered a “counter-tradition,” in both structure and theme, to the Victorian marriage ending. Boone places the writer’s gender in the background, as he discusses such diverse authors as James, Eliot, Melville, Woolf, and London, whereas I will treat gender difference as crucial to the endings of these novels. The strategy that George Eliot uses to obviate the criterion of marriage-as-ending is irony.(1) When Rachel Blau DuPlessis questions Dorothea’s marriage to Will at the end of Middlemarch, calling it “contradictory” and a “discrepancy,” she does not mention the ironies involved. Marianna Torgovnick’s work more aptly describes the Finale of Middlemarch, as well as the endings of Romola and Daniel Deronda: “The test [of the strength of an ending] is the honesty and appropriateness of the ending’s relationship to beginning and middle, not the degree of finality or resolution achieved . . .” (6). Torgovnick’s insights apply to Eliot’s characterization of widowhood by refocusing criteria on interpretive context rather than absolute closure.
In women’s writing, irony has often been regarded as rhetorical glibness. For instance, Simone de Beauvoir states, in The Second Sex, that “we do not find in them [Austen, the Brontes, Eliot], for example, the ease of a Stendhal, nor his calm sincerity” (789). Boone himself refers to Pride and Prejudice in terms of “hilarious irony” and “the ironies of external circumstance” (92), discussing Austen’s irony in terms of conversational misunderstandings between the male and female protagonists. It is Toril Moi who formalizes the discussion of women writers’ use of irony when she observes that Patricia Meyer Spacks, in The Female Imagination, identifies Mary Ellmann’s “voice” as a writer with “wit” and “evasiveness” (23-24). Reflecting on that characterization, Moi wonders if Spacks disregards “the concept of irony [in Ellmann’s writing] perhaps because this has never been considered a specifically feminine mode” (36).
More recent female critics continued the practice of not connecting women writers and irony. In her classic study, English Romantic Irony, Anne Mellor includes not one female writer among the male “giants” of Romantic literature on whom she focuses—Byron, Keats, Carlyle, and Coleridge. Mellor’s later work, Romanticism & Gender, mentions irony only occasionally, more often using the terms “sarcasm” (25) and “wit” (52) to describe works of female writers that are critical of the social order. Her most telling assessment occurs at the end of the summary of Julia, whose plot involves the death of a philandering husband and the improved life of the new widow: “[Helen Maria] Williams clearly implies that heterosexual passion may not contribute to domestic love; she firmly excludes it from her happy family” (48). Mellor sees no irony in such a move; she seems to attribute Williams’ conclusion to the familiar notion that married Victorian women found sexual passion unnecessary. And Elizabeth Fay, in her Feminist Introduction to Romanticism, associates Wordsworthian “sincerity” and Byronic “irony” with male authors while she ascribes “sympathy” to female writers (6). Using language similar to Mellor’s, Fay describes feminine rhetoric as “verbal play,” “gentle ridicule,” and “based on optimism,” rather than “pointed,” the term she uses for the ironic discourse of male writers (3). She identifies irony as a “mainstream” form, stating that women writers preferred the “literary form of the social critique” (4).
Whether women writers are ironic or not is no longer a significant question; we know they are. The critical question embedded in the older one is why women writers have not been considered to be ironic and what that in itself reveals about irony used as a feminist strategy by George Eliot. What I call “feminist irony” rests on different assumptions from those that underlie irony in Jane Austen, for example. Scholars have already addressed that question. These three novels by Eliot, however, articulate a culturally constructed irony, as opposed to the textually located irony that Douglas Muecke has defined as verbal, situational, or dramatic (14).(2) Muecke’s thirty-year-old work, which has become the classic text on irony, lists forty-four “great writers” whose works are ironic, and not a woman among them (2-3). Five years later, in A Rhetoric of Irony, Wayne Booth mentions Austen, Eliot, and Emily Dickinson only in passing. And Frank Stringfellow’s more recent psychoanalytic work on irony seems uncomfortable with the idea of irony in women’s writing, evaluating Austen’s irony as “obvious” and “at the simplest level” (8). Rather than dismiss these foundational studies, I would like to qualify them. The traditional works and categories only begin to plumb the depths of a feminist irony—“feminist” because it deconstructs the gendered behavior of both characters in and readers of texts, because it decenters masculinity in the texts and in the culture from which the texts emerge, and because it complicates female characters’ lives at the level of their material existence.(3)
My reading of irony in Eliot’s most significant novels relies mainly on the work of feminist epistemologists. Kate Millett has said that men and women live in “two cultures” and that their life experiences are “utterly different” (42). While one does not want to overstate that case, philosopher Lorraine Code’s contribution is germane: “The sex of the knower is epistemologically significant to questions about credibility, power, ethics, aesthetics, judgments, and political response” (7). Thomas Nagel, moreover, reminds us that to disregard the element of sex is to risk positing “a view from nowhere” that would serve neither sex well. From that philosophical starting point, it is a small step to the claim that women use language and respond to it differently from men, that they represent as ironic different things from men, and that marriage and widowhood thus carry a semiotic burden in women’s writing different from that in men’s.