Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 30 (1999) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
George Eliot's admiration for Goethe is well known but how exactly it impinges on her own fiction is less clear and hence Gerlinde Roder-Bolton's useful attempt to analyse her creative use of him. As the sub-title of this study is perhaps intended to suggest, however, it either combines, or slips between, two different arguments. It looks closely at three parallel texts: The Mill on the Floss and Elective Affinities; Daniel Deronda and Faust; Daniel Deronda and Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. In the first case, evidence is adduced, along with an interpretative argument, to suggest that Goethe's novel significantly aided the composition of George Eliot's. In the latter two cases, the point of the parallel is rather to suggest similarities and differences with an implicit hint, rather than an argument, in favour of creative influence. This gives the thesis as a whole a running unclarity of purpose despite the interest of its individual elements.
In this regard the opening discussion of The Mill on the Floss and Elective Affinities is the most tellingly focused. It is particularly useful since readers have always, since the early reviewers, found the last part of the story less satisfactory; almost to the extent if it’s being a different book. Dr. Roder-Bolton's comparison bears simply on this last section of the narrative in which Maggie finds herself involuntarily breaking up her cousin's relationship with Stephen Guest. The interrelated questions of passional determinism and renunciation, which are explicitly thematized in Goethe's work, suggest a thematic and structural focus for Eliot by which the modem reader might appreciate something beyond the unconvincing emotional object generally found in Stephen. While this argument does not turn an unsatisfactory dramatization into a successful one, it helps to explain why we have the one we have. In the discussion of the other books, the precise claims, and benefits, of the parallel constantly shift. An allusion to Grandcourt (132) as Mephistopheles becomes more illuminating, less casual, as part of a more general perception of Gwendolen Harleth's having made a conscious pact against her better knowledge and conscience. But the comparison suggested in the next chapter between Gwendolen's turning to marriage as an escape and Wilhelm Meister's turning to theatre seems too general to be ascribed to influence or creative reworking.