Wednesday 24 February 2010

The light abandonment of ties, whether inherited or voluntary

Okay, confession time: I am a little flabbergasted by Eliot's conclusion to Romola. What follows made sense when I was writing it and editing it but ceased to do so the second I stopped. Yet, I don't know what else to say. So, for those of you who've read Romola - tell me what I'm missing and where I've gone astray. Please!

Spoilers, of course

At the conclusion of Volume two, Romola not only finds herself going back to Florence but returning with a clear purpose as well. This purpose is to help her Florentine brethren in a time of great need and to fulfill her chosen obligation to her unworthy husband. At the beginning of the third volume, we learn that while her marriage is no happier (less so, in fact), Romola has found satisfaction in the help she can provide to those  less fortunate around her.

Romola takes so well to the “place” the Frate describes and sends her back to that when we’re “shown” Romola’s home on the Via di’ Bardi, it is described as filled with families for whom she has taken responsibility; as well, she is frequently described as succoring her fellow Florentines out on the street. She has, it seems, immersed herself in the life of service to others so central to the Frate’s ideas for political and religious reform.

In so doing, Romola finds a powerfully maternal role to play, although it is a sort of maternity quite different from the one denied to her in such painful terms in the novel’s second volume. She becomes the “visible Madonna” whose presence and deeds provide as much comfort as her invisible counterpart, a statue of the Virgin paraded through the streets only in times of great need or suffering.

And yet, Romola eventually finds herself unable, again, to remain with Tito as his involvement in the city’s woes become inescapably personal with the arrest and execution of her godfather, Bernardo del Nero. By this point, she knows of Tito’s cruelty towards his adopted father and suspects his part in other underhanded political machinations; she finds herself tied to a man in whom there remains not one detectable shred of either decency or loyalty to anything but his own base and selfish desires:
Romola went home and sat alone through the sultry hours of that day with the heavy certainty that her lot was unchanged. She was thrown back again on the conflict between the demands of an outward law, which she recognized as a widely ramifying obligation, and the demands of inner moral facts which were becoming more and more peremptory. She had drunk in deeply the spirit of that teaching by which Savonarola had urged her to return to her place. She felt that the sanctity attached to all close relations, and, therefore, pre-eminently to the closest, was but the expression in outward law of that result towards which all human goodness and nobleness must spontaneously tend; that the light abandonment of ties, whether inherited or voluntary, because they had ceased to be pleasant, was the uprooting of social and personal virtue. What else had Tito's crime towards Baldassarre been but that abandonment working itself out to the most hideous extreme of falsity and ingratitude? 
And the inspiring consciousness breathed into her by Savonarola's influence that her lot was vitally united with the general lot had exalted even the minor details of obligation into religion. She was marching with a great army; she was feeling the stress of a common life. If victims were needed, and it was uncertain on whom the lot might fall, she would stand ready to answer to her name. She had stood long; she had striven hard to fulfil the bond, but she had seen all the conditions which made the fulfilment possible gradually forsaking her. The one effect of her marriage-tie seemed to be the stifling predominance over her of a nature that she despised. All her efforts at union had only made its impossibility more palpable, and the relation had become for her simply a degrading servitude. The law was sacred. Yes, but rebellion might be sacred too. It flashed upon her mind that the problem before her was essentially the same as that which had lain before Savonarola, — the problem where the sacredness of obedience ended, and where the sacredness of rebellion began. To her, as to him, there had come one of those moments in life when the soul must dare to act on its own warrant, not only without external law to appeal to, but in the face of a law which is not unarmed with Divine lightnings, — lightnings that may yet fall if the warrant has been false. (pp. 552-53)
So Romola flees a second time, with neither any guilt about the suffering Florentines she leaves behind, nor with anyone this time popping up out of nowhere to stop her. And in a very strange, almost Absurdist, moment, Romola purchases a boat and allows herself to simply drift away in the hopes that the boat will sink and she’ll die.

I find this narrative choice almost laughable – had Eliot wanted to portray Romola as engaging on some sort of spiritual agony of wandering, something a little more desert-like would have imbued her choice with more obvious spiritual meaning. Yet, absurd as this floating boat choice is, it is appropriate insofar as Romola is in many ways reproducing Tito’s fleeing of his own familial and social responsibilities. And she, like he does at the beginning of the novel, washes up in a mysterious place where she may create for herself a clean slate – which, like Tito, she does.

Of course, it is not really the same at all – her leaving Tito is something that is, I think, more than comprehensible; he has turned into a monster. Further, her escape and severing of emotional ties do not lead to a life increasingly defined by the character defects, crimes, and omissions that lead to Tito’s near death at the hands of an angry mob. On the contrary, faced with a town literally dying of the plague, Romola rolls up her sleeves and gets to work like a stern but loving angel and forces the town’s healthy inhabitants to help those who are sick. She revives her role as ministering Madonna but also accomplishes what the Frate fails to do in Florence – she unites these people in their suffering.

It seems, in other words, that her rebellion against Tito and the ties that bound her to Florence is, indeed, sacred. It seems as though Romola has not only integrated the lessons the Frate teaches her, but also that she transcends them by abandoning any sense of duty propped up only by fragile philosophies and religious superstitions.

And yet, when she has effectively saved this town from death and has rested herself sufficiently to begin to reflect, she immediately begins to regret all she has done there:
Her work in this green valley was done, and the emotions that were disengaged from the people immediately around her rushed back into the old deep channels of use and affection. That rare possibility of self-contemplation which comes in any complete severance from our wonted life made her judge herself as she had never done before: the compunction which is inseparable from a sympathetic nature keenly alive to the possible experience of others, began to stir in her with growing force. She questioned the justness of her own conclusions, of her own deeds: she had been rash, arrogant, always dissatisfied that others were not good enough, while she herself had not been true to what her soul had once recognised as the best. She began to condemn her flight: after all, it had been cowardly self-care; the grounds on which Savonarola had once taken her back were truer, deeper than the grounds she had had for her second flight. How could she feel the needs of others and not feel, above all, the needs of the nearest?

But then came reaction against such self-reproach. (pp. 650-51)
But this recoil from self doubt comes not of the incredible good she has performed in the plague-destroyed town:
The memory of her life with Tito, of the conditions which made their real union impossible, while their external union imposed a set of false duties on her which were essentially the concealment and sanctioning of what her mind revolted from, told her that flight had been her only resource. (p. 651)
Romola is possessed of a fierce moral intelligence which never allows her, really, to stop questioning herself; yet, she also cannot get beyond her own motives to consider the results of her actions. She is curiously forgetful of all the needy people she leaves behind when she floats away from Florence, and she is just as shockingly unreflective of the ties she has both formed and created with and for the inhabitants of the plague-ridden town at which she washes up.

She is, of course, brought back to the friends and family she left behind in Florence and this is neither surprising nor problematic, really. What is problematic is how theoretical her performance of her role as a Madonna of the people is revealed to be. She performs this role to perfection, both in Florence and outside it, but it remains a role; she continually fails to simply live, to recall Piero di Cosimo’s words early in the novel, but must always be spinning rhetoric, if not lies, to explain her own motivations to herself. That the role doesn’t sit as comfortably upon her shoulders as the nun’s habit she wears in her self-imposed exile is made clear by her inability to remain still until she has made Tito’s other family – Tessa and the children – her own. This is the closest she comes to being a small-m mother and it’s where and how she’s happiest.

Yet, her happiness upon returning to Florence and creating this unique family unit for herself is tempered somewhat by the Frate’s fall and execution. What seems to distinguish Romola from him in the end turns out to be false. For it has always been known that while Savonarola is both sincere and a skilled performer, Romola briefly appears to actually and completely embody his tenets of selfless care for others’ well-being. But Eliot doesn’t allow us to maintain this notion of Romola’s spiritual superiority for long, as we see.

As her role begins to chafe enough to send her back to Florence, the Frate’s role and its difference from his religious experience and connection to God are exposed through intercepted letters, confessions exacted under torture, and in his refusal to display his faith in the trial by fire. He is shown to be separable from how he wants people to understand him – and more importantly, from how he has hitherto understood himself. Romola, with much less pain and many fewer consequences, is shown in the end to be similarly divided.

And I suppose I’m not surprised, when I think about the novel’s conclusion in these terms, that Romola is allowed no bright transcendence of her humanity. This novel is really, at the most basic level, about the pain and bewilderment that arise from maintaining, for reasons both noble and base, one’s persona as distinct (usually superior) from one’s real self. Tito and Baldassare are eaten alive from the inside by the effort they expend in this effort and fittingly die in a hateful embrace; Romola continually flits back and forth, slave to philosophical musings about the meaning of her intentions which prevent her from seeing the importance of her conduct; and the Frate is unable to transcend his own humanity to maintain his role as conduit of the divine in a city desperate for a leader who appeals, for a change, to what’s best in them instead of what’s worst.

There are only three characters in this novel who are exactly what they seem to be: Tessa, the innocent (that could well be a capital I) who remains her sweet and trusting self, unsullied by the man who so casually sullies her; Piero di Cosimo who remains irascible, honest, and acutely perceptive throughout; and Bernardo del Nero, whose dislike of Tito as well as honest and above-board commitment to the Medicis all remain constant and un-dissembled until the bloody, ignominious end.

As usual with Eliot (in my experience), the morally steady characters are the quietest and least discussed in the narrative; they function almost archetypally, standing in contrast to the whirling and wailing and wondering of the characters who, for whatever reasons, cannot simply be.

It is this sort of comfort that Romola’s life with Tessa, the children, and Brigada seems to offer. It is not transcendence or glory that is celebrated, but the “still small voice” of the domestic in whatever form it may take (I think again of Silas Marner here). Yet, those images of infanticide at the beginning and middle of the book are difficult to forget, even, nay especially, in contrast to the apparent domestic calm of the new di Bardi household. And the screaming of Benedetto as Romola turns towards Florence, the baby she saves when she first arrives in the plague-ridden town and with whom she seems to spend all her time until the very last moment, echoes in the space her new maternity inhabits. In George Eliot’s Renaissance Florence, beneath political and familial calm and prosperity there remains instincts and desires and memories that very well may have, eventually, to be strangled in the dark.


Anonymous said...

dear C, do you take extensive notes when you read? underline? highlight? scribble marginalia as you go? i envy your abilty to summarize and analyze material with the appearance of great ease. he who is jealous, K

Bookphilia said...

You're sweet, Mr. K.

All I do, these days, is write page numbers on the back of my bookmark. I go back later and reread the pages that caught my eye to see what was striking me. Often, some kind of pattern emerges that I wasn't at all or entirely aware of while I was reading. That is all.

Heidenkind said...

Well, I have to say, I was expecting her to kill herself. So that concluded surprisingly well, considering!

Unknown said...

I read 'Romola' a long time ago now, so I can't remember the exact details (I'll take your word(s) for it). I found Romola herself a bit bland at times though.

Now Tito though: if ever a man deserved to almost get away with it and end up strangled it was him...

Rohan Maitzen said...

I think these are really insightful comments about this strange ending. Don't you think that one effect of it is, precisely, to drive us towards interpretation, particularly at a metafictional level? After all the complex historicism of the rest of the novel, in this final part Romola herself may drift, but we are unexpectedly propelled, out of history into myth or allegory. There's just no justifying the whole 'floating away in a boat to find a vocation in a plague-stricken village while all the really important action happens back on Florence without me' section without admitting that what's at stake has nothing to do with realism--or, to put it another way, it is realism itself that seems to be at stake. The parallels to Maggie's attempts to run off and make a new life for herself in Mill on the Floss are very strong, but Mill is largely governed by constraints on what is possible for someone like Maggie in Maggie's position--so her drifting away leads her to catastrophe, because there is (literally and generically) nowhere else for her to go. Romola, on the other hand, is turned back once, to "her place" but then granted a second chance, a kind of reprieve, if you like, from all the things that hold her (and most of GE's female protagonists) back from realizing whatever it is that they really want. To accomplish this for Romola, though, GE seems to be saying, is to enter the realm of fantasy, or, again, of myth.

But...the myth I think we want for Romola is that of the fulfilled woman accomplishing something for herself, the kind of thing Romola imagined when she ran away the first time to become a scholar like Cassandre Fedele. GE has placed her so carefully in a time and place where this is not a fantasy but an exceptional but plausible option. So, why is her second escape to something so different and, we might think, really just a further idealized version of her domestic "place"?

I think the answer lies somewhere in the moral code you invoke in your title for this post. You can't found a heroic myth on selfish gratification. If you do, you are (close to) Savonarola--brilliant, inspiring, and dangerous, even potentially tyrannical, because you will end up unable to mark where your heroic pursuit of the good ends and your selfish pursuit of power begins. The only sure thing in life is "ties, whether inherited or voluntary": the obligations you accrue because of your relationships with other people and the expectations they have of you as a result. Those are the grounds on which Romola eventually challenges Savonarola, with what I think is a kind of thrilling declaration that if the kingdom of God is as he believes, she will "stand outside it with the people [she] love[s]".

When she arrives at the village, what she finds is not something far different from what she knew before but a kind of microcosm of the moral world she already inhabited, then: people whose need for her help creates ties, and whose love and gratitude in turn becomes a foundation for moral life. Why does she have to leave? Because (maybe?) this episode is an excursion, a thought experiment, that actually takes her out of the novel for a while (I know, it doesn't, but it feels like it does, I think). Maybe it's a lesson for us, about thinking you can just drift away and find something else in your life--maybe even a chastening commentary on our own wish that she had become the next Cassandre Fedele and let the plague-stricken people of Florence die in the streets while she parsed Latin hexameters (or whatever). She has to go back. You don't get to opt out of life, or out of morality.


Rohan Maitzen said...

(Part II)

I think that the drifting away, which is so clearly a rewriting of the drifting away scenes with Stephen and Maggie in Mill, is a literalizing of that desire that you could stop making decisions about your life and thus somehow exempt yourself from morality, which turns, in her novels, so much on that labour of choice. It's exhausting, to be always deciding what to do; it's exhausting especially if (as you so nicely say) you have a fierce moral intelligence that won't let you ignore alternative points of view. It's exhausting, too, to ignore your own selfish desires, including for some rest, and justice, and love, and a better husband who isn't a conniving adulterous political animal. Whew: who wouldn't want to lie down in a boat and just float away? It's an unexpectedly nihilistic moment--but again, I have the feeling it is directed at us and our wish-fulilment desires as readers. Romola has to go back because that's reality.

Some critics have seen the very last bit as Romola now taking control of the narrative and using it to shape a new generation of men who will help create new contexts, ones in which perhaps women like her will have better options. Others (me included, basically, in the chapter on Romola in my book) have been unable to let go of its conservatism: here she is again, in her (heavily gendered) "place." Where's the authorial lightning that strikes at the end of Mill to leave us furious and dissatisfied at the intractability of reality, the lack of a future for Maggie? Where, even, is the poignancy of the Finale to Middlemarch that, again, leaves you wondering (with Dorothea's friends) why she couldn't do something else with her life? Maybe the ultimate dissatisfaction of Romola is that, unlike these other novels, it seems to idealize the limitations that keep its heroine in her place. It's a consolatory fiction--but so too is the fiction of the Madonna that Romola temporarily embodies. Never mind having a life for yourself: you can be an icon!

Bookphilia said...

Rohan: Aha! That makes brilliant sense to me. Thank you for taking the time with these comments! I am reminded that it's better for me to be outside the academy - I'm not half bad at observing but not great at going the whole interpretive way with what I see.