Segments in this Video

Introduction: Character and Education of Gwendolen Harleth (04:11)


In this lecture, Professor Ruth Wisse will address the novel's heroine, a beautiful, talented young woman suffering from anxiety. Hear George Eliot's impressions of a young woman gambling in a Hamburg casino in 1872, upon which she based Gwendolen's character.

"The Spoiled Child" (05:08)

Eliot wants readers to view Gwendolen through a psychoanalyst's lens. Wisse discusses the guilt Gwendolyn's mother felt for having remarried beneath her for sexual needs and depriving Gwendolen of being an only child. Gwendolen does not develop a sense of other's needs.

An Inappropriate Education (03:54)

Gwendolen is spoiled in the sense of having no responsibility. Finishing school does not prepare her to be professionally competitive and she resists becoming a governess. Wisse compares her situation to that of liberal arts graduates.

Offendene (05:10)

Wisse reads a passage discussing the importance of childhood roots. Gwendolen does not have a family homestead, accounting for her inability to form close attachment. Erosion of familial and national rootedness was becoming a British problem.

Spiritual Void (03:29)

Gwendolen organizes Christmas entertainment to perform pagan plays, yet fears death. Character elements include absent fathering, overindulgent mothering, an inappropriate education, lack of native attachment, and want of religious guidance. The novel implies the erosion of religion and family stability.

Aversion to Becoming a Governess (03:37)

Wisse reads a passage in which Gwendolen blames her problems on others, cannot see value in work, and has no real world skills. She is also determined to be happy and live a remarkable life.

New Woman (04:46)

Gwendolen wants the freedom to control her own life; her family wants her to marry "up" to regain their social status. Wisse discusses her frigidity towards men. Marriage for love occurs in the subplot of Catherine Arrowpoint and Herr Klesmer.

Gwendolen's Conscience (03:48)

Lydia Glasher forces the heroine to make a difficult moral decision. She aspires to be a good person, adopting Daniel as a counselor. Wisse argues that she is neither society's victim, nor a feminist heroine; reasons for her misery are complex.

Victorian Feminism (04:46)

As a "new woman," Gwendolen must learn to take greater moral responsibility. Wisse draws parallels to Eliot's own independent life and discusses her opposition to suffrage. She believes Eliot appeals to reader empathy, rather than sending a social message.

Complications of Progress (03:47)

Wisse discusses how Jane Austen's heroines obtain romantic love through traditional marriages. British society had changed by Eliot's time; she cautioned against complacence. Gwendolen's marriage of convenience to Grandcourt became a power struggle.

Motherhood and Nationhood (04:39)

Wisse sees the liberation struggles of women and Jewish people as interdependent. Eliot’s novel highlighted the complexities of progress for Britain as a whole. Gwendolen's character poses questions of female education and society's role in her destiny.

Credits: The Character and Education of Gwendolen Harleth (00:06)

Credits: The Character and Education of Gwendolen Harleth

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The Character and Education of Gwendolen Harleth

Part of the Series : Ruth Wisse Teaches Daniel Deronda
DVD (Chaptered) Price: $169.95
DVD + 3-Year Streaming Price: $254.93
3-Year Streaming Price: $169.95



In the second of an eight part lecture series on “Daniel Deronda,” Professor Ruth Wisse examines George Eliot’s modern heroine Gwendolen Harleth. An expert on Yiddish and Jewish literature and winner of the National Humanities Medal, Wisse analyzes how Gwendolen’s upbringing contributes to her character flaws. We learn about her inappropriate education, absent father, overindulgent mother, and lack of a home base or religious guidance. Her attraction to Daniel stems from a desire for moral guidance, and she struggles with her conscience when deciding to marry Grandcourt. However, rather using Gwendolen as a precautionary tale, Eliot elicits reader sympathy and links her plight to the complex challenges facing 19th century British society.

Length: 48 minutes

Item#: BVL133163

ISBN: 978-1-64023-758-2

Copyright date: ©2017

Closed Captioned

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