Eliot’s Phaedra

What binds the authors [of the Great Books] together in an intellectual community is the great conversation in which they are engaged. In the works that come later in the sequence of years, we find authors listening to what their predecessors have had to say about this idea or that, this topic or that. They not only harken to the thought of their predecessors, they also respond to it by commenting on it in a variety of ways.
– Mortimer Adler

In Chapter 43 of Middlemarch, George Eliot does not mention the play Phèdre by Jean Baptiste Racine, but the marks of the play are clearly there. A quick review of Phèdre and its source material is in order. For the sake of simplicity, I will stick to the conventional English versions of the characters’ names.

The play is a retelling of the Greek myth of Hippolytus and Phaedra. In Euripides’ version of the story, Hippolytus, the son of King Theseus, is a devotee of the goddess Artemis. His devotion takes the form of a vow of chastity because Artemis is the virginal goddess of the hunt. Aphrodite, as the goddess of love, takes his repudiation of erotic love as a personal slight. To revenge herself upon Hippolytus, Aphrodite causes his stepmother Queen Phaedra to fall in love with him. An accusation of rape, a suicide by hanging, and an attack by a horned sea monster ensue. Hippolytus and Phaedra die and the audience learns a valuable lesson about… sea monsters?

Racine’s version, as the title indicates, shifts the focus of the play from Hippolytus to Phaedra. As in the earlier iteration, she is unfortunately in love with her stepson. Hippolytus, however, is in love with another woman. Phaedra confesses her taboo love only to be rebuffed. An accusation of attempted rape, a suicide by poison, and an attack by a horned sea monster ensue. Hippolytus and Phaedra die and the audience learns a valuable lesson about… sea monsters again?

So, what has all this to do with Chapter 43 of Middlemarch? Well, Racine is mentioned by name only once in the 700-page novel, and it happens to be in that chapter. The narrator notes in passing that the character Rosamond had “read little French literature later than Racine.” In that same paragraph, though, Rosamond muses about how a married woman may still seduce single men. She even thinks about doing so “with a husband as crown-prince by your side.” Had she read her Racine more carefully, she might have known that a queen seducing men other than her husband is likely to end badly for all parties.

What’s more, earlier in the chapter the characters of Ladislaw and Dorothea unexpectedly meet. Their formal relationship is that of cousins-in-law, but it is far more complicated than that. Dorothea’s husband Casaubon is a father figure to Ladislaw; Ladislaw is much younger than his cousin, and has relied on him financially his entire life. And despite their family relationship, Ladislaw is clearly in love with Dorothea. In fact, the narrator describes their chance meeting as “Diana . . . descend[ing] too unexpectedly on her worshipper.” Diana, of course, is the Roman goddess generally identified with the Greek Artemis. So Dorothea is to Ladislaw as Phaedra is to Hippolytus, in that she is the wife of his father (figure) and that love between them is therefore taboo. But she is also to him as Artemis is to Hippolytus, the idealized object of his devotion. By the way, Dorothea’s name means “gift of God.” I am not sure that helps.

I will not spoil how the relationship between Dorothea and Ladislaw plays out, mostly because I do not remember. But I will make two brief observations. First, I will never tire of finding examples of great thinkers and writers interacting with and building on each other’s works. Second, Ladislaw better watch out for sea monsters.

Beer of the week: New Belgium Trippel – This Belgian-style trippel is clear and golden. The aroma is yeasty and sweet, with lots of banana esters. The flavor starts with spice notes and finishes fairly dry, inviting another sip. As usual, New Belgium has made a very good beer.

Reading of the week: Phèdre by Jean Baptiste Racine – If Dorothea is Phaedra and Ladislaw is Hippolytus, that would make Casaubon Theseus. But the comparison does not seem apt. Casaubon is a dried up, old, bookish nerd, who never knew any romantic passion. Theseus, according to this excerpt, was an exceptionally active king, who cleared the highways of robbers and monsters, slew the mighty minotaur, and was too amorous with too many women.

Question for the week: I suspect that the lessons of Hippolytus and Phèdre (and Middlemarch, for that matter) are not actually sea monster related. But what are the lessons, then?



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