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  • Aiming to Hit: Archery, Agency, and Doing as One Likes in Daniel Deronda
  • Andrew Forrester (bio)

Despite what her use of godlike narrators suggests about her views on determinism and free will, for George Eliot, the two concepts are not mutually exclusive. In fact, as Wilfred Stone has argued, the tension between them narrows her focus on individual characters’ actions: “How can she [Eliot] believe in the strict sequence of cause-and-effect and still believe in free will?” Stone asks; “Because, among other reasons, man himself is . . . one of the causes of what he becomes” (35). Inevitably, questions about free will, determinism, and causation lead to questions about the efficacy of action itself. To borrow a question from Daniel Deronda, Eliot’s hero most concerned with predetermined destiny, “What is the use of it all?” (Daniel Deronda 354). In his eponymous novel, questions of agency are central. “The nature and potential of action,” says Stefanie Markovits, “become the dominant subject” (89).

Critics have turned to the novel’s scenes of literal and metaphorical gambling to make sense of Eliot’s nuanced philosophy on agency. The novel begins with Gwendolen at the gambling table, participating in what Stone calls “the world of play, where her life is a rudderless game of chance” (42–43, emphasis in original). Recalling Roger Caillois’s study on games, however, Stone notes that people play games of two kinds: “agôn (competitive games) and alea (games of chance)” (43). To focus on the motif of gambling is to emphasize alea, the form of play that necessarily evacuates practitioners of any significant sense of agency. That is not to say that choosing to gamble is not itself an act of agency. It is, after all, a choice. Jesse Rosenthal argues this point when he writes about Daniel Deronda (1876) and the law of large numbers, claiming that the novel’s characters, though acting independently, each play a small role in a larger narrative: “One spin of the roulette wheel is utterly independent of the next, and yet both, together with a suitably large number of subsequent spins, will tend toward a unified outcome” (778). Awareness of this larger role forever eludes Gwendolen: she is “refused even the consolation of her place in a larger universe, where things balance out properly” (803). In a world where, in Rosenthal’s words, “we are all of us gamblers” (797), agency is illusory and its pursuit causes continued purposelessness. [End Page 215]

To allow space for this form of game-playing only, then, would suggest that Eliot is interested strictly in agency that works like a discrete cog in a larger, unseen machine. But a glance at the latest Oxford World’s Classics edition of the novel (2014) suggests otherwise. Its cover features W.P. Frith’s The Fair Toxophilites: English Archers (1872), depicting a female archer analogous to Gwendolen Harleth.1 The Oxford University Press thus succeeds where critics have hitherto failed and recognizes the importance of the novel’s other essential, microcosmic scenes of play: its early archery meetings. Perhaps Deronda’s absence from these scenes has obscured their significance, yet they are scenes to which Eliot and her characters often return when characterizing Gwendolen and her metamorphosis. Just as Deronda’s uncle Sir Hugo remembers “the fair gambler, the Leubronn Diana” he noticed in Germany, the phrase “brilliant, self-confident Gwendolen Harleth of the Archery Meeting” crops up later in the text to mark her drastic transformation (272, 603). While critics have capitalized on the former descriptor— “the fair gambler”—and on the attendant concepts of risk, play, and display, they have not applied sufficient analytical pressure to the second half of Sir Hugo’s moniker and the trope of archery it references.2 I argue that Eliot, in her emphasis on the aims and limits of personal agency, uses archery to balance the novel’s gambling motif and its inherent notions of determinism. As a physical sport, archery is treated as a feminized preoccupation that lets women like Gwendolen differentiate themselves within socially prescribed boundaries, displaying themselves favourably and performing individuated versions of femininity that indicate their marriageability and the (limited) potential for social power...


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pp. 215-231
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