English, Department of

 

Authors

Rebecca Mackay

Date of this Version

2000

Document Type

Article

Citation

The George Eliot Review 31 (2000) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/

Comments

The George Eliot Review 2019

Abstract

'Brother Jacob' raises issues of perennial concern to George Eliot as an author who was also a woman. In particular, this fabular tale about a hapless confectioner and his imbecilic brother exposes the pitfalls in women's relationship(s) to cultural authority, 'the strange bright fruits of knowledge' (Woolf 160). As a fable whose hero is distinguished by fraudulence and guile, 'Brother Jacob' reflects its author 's attitude towards plagiarists and other impostors with pretensions to authorship. Even as Marian Evans disguised herself as George Eliot, the 'silly lady novelist' of her day is disguised in the story's protagonist, David Faux.

As his name predicts, Faux exemplifies the 'busy idleness' and 'foolish vanity' Eliot attributed to many of her female contemporaries who succumbed to 'the fatal seduction of novel-writing' (Selected Critical Writings 320). This yoking of the dangerous - even fatal- seduction of fiction with ignorance and moral weakness forms the thematic basis of 'Brother Jacob'. Modelled upon popular adventure stores describing miraculous feats of strength, sexual conquest, and foreign plunder, Faux's storytelling manifests his vanity and small-mindedness, harmful enough in themselves but especially so for gullible (female) listeners unaware of the extent to which such stories underwrite their subordination. 'Brother Jacob' thus discloses the manner in which authority replicates itself through texts that exploit the moral and intellectual weaknesses of their audience.

This subtext is constructed by George Eliot's characteristic use of allusions. Like the gentleman in coat-tails who offers his readers scenes of clerical life, 'Brother Jacob's' narrator is a well-educated bachelor figure who delights in displaying the 'fruits' of a traditional English gentleman's education. Alongside the erudite invocations of Aristotle and untranslated passages from Virgil, Eliot deploys allusions from the standard array of English texts regularly appropriated by Victorian popular culture. These moments of intertextuality disrupt and defer dominant meanings to provide crucial insight about Eliot's relationship to cultural discourses. The fable's formulaic and didactic functions enable Eliot to confront the most basic values supporting patriarchal power - to 'play' with long-established and ingrained ideas about right and wrong, good and bad, men and women. Yet with few exceptions, critical assessments of 'Brother Jacob' find its fabular qualities provokingly limited, a fact that bears testament to the needs for greater theoretical diversity in approaching this work.' This essay will examine the ways in which 'Brother Jacob's' credulous and craving women are marginalized and manipulated by fiction. Just behind the veneer of fable, the illusory world of simple solutions, and the mask of wit and humour lies a realistic subtext of dissatisfaction and discontent, the longing for change, and the threat of violence and rebellion.

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