Ovid, in Book I of his epic poem the Metamorphoses, tells the story of the wood nymph Daphne whose transformation into a tree is sad and tragic. Daphne loathes the idea of marriage and desperately clings to her life as a maiden nymph and a devotee of the goddess Diana (L. 478-80—all translations of the Latin are my own).: “Many suitors asked for her hand in marriage, but Daphne, turning away from these pursuers in disgust, not only impatient with men but also lacking any knowledge of men, roams the remote woods, not giving a shit about marriage, love or weddings.”
One of the saddest parts of this narrative, for me, is when Daphne begs her father not to marry her off to one of these suiotrs (L. 486-489): “Let me stay a virgin forever, dearest father. This same wish was granted to Diana by her own father Zeus.” But Ovid states that Daphne is too pretty to stay single: “Her father tries to humor her, but her own good looks prevented what she wanted, her very beauty made her wish an impossible one.” Just as this observation is being made about Daphne’s future, the god Apollo arrives on the scene who is burning with a deep passion to overtake Daphne with his amatory advances.
Apollo, who is normally a god associated with reason and good sense, loses his mind over Daphne after being struck by Cupid’s arrow. The passages that lead up to Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne are full of piercing, penetrating, arrows. Cupid, after being teased by Apollo, pulls two arrows from his quiver and takes aim: “The arrow which causes someone to fall in love is golden and gleams with a sharp point, but the arrow which causes someone to reject love is dull and has lead under its shaft.” Needless to say, Apollo is pierced with the golden arrow and Daphne is hit with the dull one. An intense chase through the woods immediately ensues; Ovid uses images of the hunt as metaphors to describe the terror of Daphne’s pursuit. In order to point out delicately the sinister tone of this passage I always ask my students, “What is Apollo’s goal here? What will he do to Daphne if he captures her?”
As I read more of Gwendolen’s story in Daniel Deronda, I am convinced that George Eliot had Ovid’s Daphne in mind as she was writing her story of a beautiful, naïve young woman who clings to her maidenhood. Gwendolen says on several occasions that she finds men disgusting and she hates when they make love to her. Eliot says of her protagonist, “Her observation of matrimony had inclined her to think it rather a dreary state, in which a woman could not do what she liked, had more children than were desirable, was consequently dull, and became irrevocably immersed in humdrum.” Like Daphne, Gwendolen views marriage as a permanent restraint on her freedom and she is impatient with men and inexperienced with them: “…She objected, with a sort of physical repulsion, to being directly made love to. With all her imaginative delight in being adored, there was a certain fierceness of maidenhood in her.” What was that lead arrow that causes her to reject men and love? We can only speculate (a trauma early in life or a preference for those of the same sex? Matters for a whole different essay.)
Gwendolen’s uncle, Mr. Gascoigne, the local rector, serves as a surrogate father to her and has more than one talk with her about the importance of marriage and making a good match. He is convinced that her beauty and charm will attract a good suitor. And when a local aristocrat and heir to titles and a fortune, a Mr. Grandcourt, shows interest in his niece Mr. Gascoigne makes it clear that the only path for her in life is to submit to a “good marriage”: “‘My dear Gwendolen,’ he said, rising also and speaking with benignant gravity, ‘I trust you will find in marriage a new fountain of duty and affection. Marriage is the only true and satisfactory sphere of a woman, and if your marriage with Mr. Grandcourt should be happily decided upon, you will have probably an increasing power, both of rank and wealth, which may be used for the benefit of others. These considerations are something higher than romance.'” Similar to Daphne’s predicament, Mr. Gascoigne makes it clear to his nieces that marriage is the only option for a woman, especially one who is beautiful; taking vows has nothing to do with what a woman wants or doesn’t want, it is simply a matter of obligation.
The pivotal scenes during which Grandcourt, normally a reasonable and unemotional man, pursues Gwendolen occur at two different archery competitions. Eliot weaves images of golden arrows, piercing, conquests, the hunter and the hunted throughout these scenes. I found the description of Gwendolen, as she is about to set off to the archery competition, rather melancholy and foreboding as the comparison with Daphne floated through my mind: “Gwendolen looked lovely and vigorous as a tall, newly-opened lily the next morning; there was a reaction of young energy in her, and yesterday’s self-distrust seemed no more than the transient shiver on the surface of a full stream. The roving archery match in Cardell Chase was a delightful prospect for the sport’s sake: she felt herself beforehand moving about like a wood-nymph under the beeches (in appreciative company), and the imagined scene lent a charm to further advances on the part of Grandcourt…”
As Grandcourt decides that Gwendolen will be his wife, and his possession, his pursuit of her becomes more intense and he remarks to a friend that his new wife will be “brought to kneel down like a horse under training…though she might have an objection to it.” This image of forcing self upon Gwendolen eerily recalls Apollo’s reason for pursuing Daphne.
In the end, Daphne calls, once again, on her father for help but the result is the destruction of her form and beauty and a transformation from the carefree, happy maiden that she once was. It is clear from the foreshadowing in Eliot’s tale that Gwendolen’s fate will be something similar to Daphne’s. Reading Daniel Deronda though the perspective of Ovid’s myth also makes Gwendolen’s pretending to be St. Cecilia that much more fitting and foreboding; as I mentioned in an earlier post , this martyr also rejected marriage and wished to stay a maiden but in the end was destroyed despite her wishes.