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  • The Scandal of the Jew:Reflexive Transgressiveness in Du Maurier's Trilby
  • Ruth Bienstock Anolik

When he first appeared in George Du Maurier's enormously popular fin de siècle novel Trilby (1894), Svengali, the demonic villain, did not seize the readers' popular and critical imagination to the extent that he obsessed the characters and the narrator of the novel. Initially, readers of the novel, "the first modern best seller in American publishing" (Showalter ix), focused on the eponymous heroine, Trilby.1 Her antagonist Svengali was only grudgingly acknowledged by a contemporary reader as a necessary evil in the novel: without him "there would be no novel of Trilby . . . nevertheless, he is the sole blot upon it" (Gilder and Gilder 27). Yet with the passage of time, it was Svengali, the sinister hypnotist who exerts control over Trilby, who would linger in the popular imagination. Indeed, Svengali is now so much more famous than the novel itself, so detached from the text that engendered him that his origins are not commonly remembered.2 [End Page 99]

A darkly foreign and menacing figure, dominating a young performer through the power of his gaze, the villain of Du Maurier's work endures as a useful symbol for the dangerous force that lies behind artistic creation. However, one essential trait of Du Maurier's Svengali, his Jewishness, has been lost in his translation from text to popular icon.3 It has not, however, been lost on the critics. The shift of critical attention to Svengali—reflecting a culturally determined shift in interest from the glories of vapid young womanhood to the complexities of villainy—has led to useful discussions of the social, political, historical, and scientific contexts of Du Maurier's portrayal of a Jewish hypnotist who appears as a cynosure of social and cultural anxieties.

This paper develops the premise of one such study, my earlier essay "The Infamous Svengali" and of the collection in which it appears, The Gothic Other: Racial and Social Constructions in the Literary Imagination. The argument of the collection is that the Gothic tends to configure racial and cultural others as horrifyingly inhuman and supernatural; my essay identifies this tendency in Du Maurier's representation of Svengali. Here, I also propose to show that Du Maurier's representation of the Jew draws on the transgressiveness that typifies the Gothic mode and reflects the cultural perceptions of the Jew as a transgressive figure. The character of Svengali is not only a product of politics and history; he is also a literary construction—not only a portrait of a Jewish hypnotist and musician but a transgressive exponent of supernatural evil, inexplicable in most terms of the enlightened Victorian era but understandable as a part of a literary tradition.

Svengali's distinctly Jewish identity situates him within the political anxieties that peaked with the Dreyfus Affair in 1894, the year that [End Page 100] Trilby was published. His powers of hypnotism link him to the phenomenon of mesmerism that expressed anxieties about selfhood and the powers of science, as well as fear of the Jew's psychological powers. His musical talents situate him within the debate on Jewish influence in the arts.

Indeed, Svengali's ethnicity is his primary identifying feature; throughout the novel, we are reminded that the villain is an "Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew" (234) whose "real name is Adler" (165). When Svengali first intrudes upon the text, Du Maurier immediately establishes this identity: he is "a tall bony individual of any age between thirty and forty-five, of Jewish aspect, well-featured but sinister," [with] "thick, heavy, languid, lusterless black hair . . . bold brilliant black eyes, with long heavy lids, a thin, sallow face, and a beard of burnt-up black, which grew almost from under his eyelids; and over it his moustache, a shade lighter, fell in two long spiral twists" (11). Moreover, Du Maurier furnishes Svengali with the physical attribute most stereotypically associated with the Jew, a "long shapely Hebrew nose" (230). Sander Gilman suggests that the European tendency to imagine the Jew sporting a clearly distinguishable nose encodes anxieties about and an anxious interest in "the hidden sign of his sexual difference, his circumcised penis...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-9247
Print ISSN
1565-3668
Pages
pp. 99-127
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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