Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What Gwendolen Harleth Can Teach Us About Sarah Palin

This coming weekend is the annual North Coast Student Research Conference and Graduate Fair at Humboldt State. For the most part this means presentations about scientific data, such as estimates of salmon populations or the dispersal dynamics of bullfrogs.  But each year there are a handful of us from the Humanities presenting our work.  This year I'll be presenting from the paper I wrote last Fall for English 546, a literature class focusing on Victorians and Benevolence.  We read Jane Austen' Sense & Sensibility, Gaskell's North and South, Trollope's The Warden, Eliot's Daniel Deronda, and Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens.  And we watched The Muppet Christmas Carol.

In reading Daniel Deronda, I saw some similarities between one of the main characters and someone I'd been hearing about nonstop during the then-ongoing presidential campaign. Honest, I tried to write a normal literature paper. But Sarah Palin kept creeping in. (As an interesting side note, one other student in that lit. class decided to examine modern-day politics in light of the Victorian literature we were reading.  Jimmy will also be presenting at the conference, on "Obama’s Argument: Neighborliness and Benevolence as Elements of Public Policy.")

Here then is my abstract, direct from the conference program:

What Gwendolen Harleth and Ideas of Morality Can Teach Us About Sarah Palin


“Was she beautiful or not beautiful? and what was the secret of form or expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance? Was the good or the evil genius dominant in those beams?”

  —George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

So begins George Eliot’s last completed novel, Daniel Deronda.  With its publication in 1876, Victorian England was introduced to the woman in question, Gwendolen Harleth. She is presented as a “beautiful, spirited, but spoilt” woman (Oxford 80) who goes from financial ruin to become the marriage partner of a rich aristocrat, attending parties and constantly in the eye of society.  Of course, that is until her husband drowns in a boating incident for which she blames herself. During the presidential election in 2008, the United States was introduced to the character of Sarah Palin, Alaska Governor and Republican nominee for Vice President.  She—or perhaps the media’s representation of her—mirrors the character of the beautiful and spirited Gwendolen.  With her beauty-queen good looks, her spirited political rallies, and her “marriage” to a wealthy senator, the formerly small-town mayor was suddenly cast in the public spotlight and constantly a source of discussion.  That is, until her partner’s campaign “sinks,” for which she receives much of the blame.

This presentation examines the position of Sarah Palin today, in light of Eliot’s Gwendolen Harleth.  The purposes of this examination are two-fold.  First, to consider the similarities and differences between the position of a woman in Victorian times—in our case, almost-governess Harleth—and the position of a similar woman of today’s world—here Governor Palin.  While the place of women in our modern nation is certainly different from Victorian-era London, a comparison between the two is be justified by an examination of the commonalities between the two women in four different areas: beauty, education, non-traditional interests, and relationships.

The second purpose is to determine if and how the ideas of morality and benevolence represented in Daniel Deronda compare with those in today’s world.  Within each of the four areas noted above, the moral component of their respective actions is examined. What can we learn about ourselves and the morality of our society, by viewing our actions in relation to those represented in Victorian literature?  What can Gwendolen’s ideas of morality teach us about Sarah Palin’s own moral responses?

As will be demonstrated, it is my thesis that Sarah Palin is a modern-day Gwendolen Harleth, and that the comparison grounds the moral actions of Sarah Palin in a historical precedent.