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Alroy, Edited by Sheila A. Spector

Criticism

Robert O’Kell. “The Autobiographical Nature of Disraeli’s Early Fiction.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 31 (1976): 260-66.
  1. . . . It is clear now that Disraeli found in the issue of Catholic Emancipation not just a topical setting to exploit, but a disguise for his own ambiguous feelings about his Jewish heritage. He had, in fact, abandoned the manuscript of The Wondrous Tale of Alroy (1833) in order to write The Young Duke in 1829, and this is strong circumstantial evidence that his Jewish heritage was at least at that time a preoccupation directly linked in his thinking to the Catholic question. It is, however, a comparison between Alroy (which Disraeli completed after his defeat in the second Wycombe election, marked by overt anti-Semitism) and Contarini Fleming that confirms the importance of religious allegiance to the problem of personal identity in the life and in the fiction. Both novels, for example, reflect an initial isolation of the hero, a sense of expectancy with which his maturity is anticipated, and a sense of guilt which his actions create. But in Alroy it is not very helpful to attempt to make the distinction between explicit and implicit themes that illuminates Contarini Fleming, for it is clear throughout that the central theme is the ambiguity and conflict in the hero’s character. In that regard Alroy is the product of a greater degree of conscious awareness of himself on the part of the author. While in its fantasy structure the novel confirms the pattern of early conflict and tension in the author’s personality, it also proves that Disraeli was undertaking a reassessment of his behavior which led him to renewed attempts, in his fiction and in his political life, to establish his sincerity.1

  2. In the person of the emotionally autobiographical David Alroy, Disraeli creates a hero who is an ideal, noble, and divinely chosen savior of his people and who essentially represents a personal defiance of reality parallel to the public postures his creator had recently adopted on the hustings. But, just as there is a deep insecurity underneath the bravado of Disraeli’s early political campaigns, there is a fear of failure within the imaginative projection of the ideal. Even before he is fully possessed of the supernatural power of the messiah to free the Jewish people, Alroy is twice tempted to abandon that pure identity. The first entirely materialistic suggestion, that he be disguised and pass as Lord Honain’s son and so acquire great social success and power in the Moslem world, he rejects to pursue the “eternal glory” of his religious quest. But when, at the emotional climax of the novel, disguised as a deaf-mute eunuch he meets the daughter of the Caliph, the Princess Schirene, whose mother was a Christian, Alroy’s feverish and agitated response reveals the complexity of his character. Suddenly, seizing the rosary given to him by the Princess and pressing it to his lips, he soliloquizes:
         The Spirit of my dreams, she comes at last; the form for which I have sighed and wept; the form which rose upon my radiant vision when I shut my eyes against the jarring shadows of this gloomy world.
         Schirene! Schirene! here in this solitude I pour to thee the passion long stored up: the passion of my life, no common life, a life full of deep feeling and creative thought. 0 beautiful! 0 more than beautiful! for thou to me art as a dream unbroken: why art thou not mine? why lose a moment in our glorious lives, and balk our destiny of half its bliss?
         Fool, fool, hast thou forgotten? The rapture of a prisoner in his cell, whose wild fancy for a moment belies his fetters! The daughter of the Caliph and a Jew!
         Give me my fathers’ sceptre.
         A plague on talismans! Oh! I need no inspiration but her memory, no magic but her name. By heavens! I will enter this glorious city a conqueror, or die.
         Why, what is Life? for meditation mingles ever with my passion: why, what is Life? Throw accidents to the dogs, and tear off the painted mask of false society! Here am I a hero; with a mind that can devise all things, and a heart of superhuman daring, with youth, with vigour, with a glorious lineage, with a form that has made full many a lovely maiden of our tribe droop her fair head . . . and I am, nothing.
         Out on Society! ’twas not made for me. I’ll form my own, and be the deity I sometimes feel. (Pt5Ch6)
    This passage is the true climax of the novel not simply because it reflects most intensely the violent ambivalence in the hero’s mind about himself and his situation, although it certainly does that. The opening confession of a long felt need for erotic fulfillment quickly gives way to an expression of social alienation and failure which is then immediately followed by a declaration of his talent and uniqueness. But this too is an unstable mood quickly dissipated by the remembrance of the racial stigma under which he lives with a sense of degrading captivity. The frustration engendered by this thought creates the impulse toward action: “Give me my father’s sceptre.” But the romantic confidence is subverted by the fear of failure implicit in the alternative of dying rather than conquering, and the initial defiance turns to despair at being “nothing.” This conviction reflects the social impotence of the Jew so aptly expressed in the metaphor of the captive and the disguise of the eunuch. Thus the disparity between the knowledge of innate superiority and the lack of recognition breeds the final defiance of sublime egotism.

  3. All of this pattern suggests that the fascinating correlation with events in Disraeli’s social and political career is justified and that Alroy is indeed part of the secret history of his feelings.2 The most important point in the analysis of this particular passage, however, concerns Alroy’s and, by implication, Disraeli’s motivations. Significantly, the soliloquy occurs after Alroy has found in the beauty of Schirene and the magnificence of the Caliph’s palace concrete temptations more persuasive than Honain’s abstractions. The tale at this point embodies both literally and metaphorically the impotence of the hero. Admittedly in the former case it is a matter of disguise, but that fact in itself has thematic significance. Disguise of the hero enters the novel in three places. In the first, on the journey to Bagdad, it is a matter of denying the fact that he is a Jew, which ironically is a fact that would seem to endanger his life, but actually saves him in two separate encounters. The second incident is the visit to Schirene, the significance of which has already been shown. The third action in disguise is also a visit to the Princess, after Alroy has conquered the “glorious city,” in which she discovers that Honain’s slave is in fact a noble and powerful prince. The act of disguise is thus associated with the racial stigma and the impotence of Alroy’s position at the moment of temptation, and the fantasy structure works toward the revelation of his ideal, truly heroic identity, as formulated in the penultimate paragraph of this passage. The defiant resolutions thus show that this “true” identity is for him no longer that of the altruistic mystical messiah and that his deepest wish fulfillment would be a worldly recognition of his personal power.

  4. The remainder of Alroy is a dramatization of the conflict within the hero’s character as to which identity is the stronger: the Prince of the Captivity on a messianic mission to free his people, or the worldly prince of “superhuman daring” in search of an empire and its tribute and willing, if necessary, to adopt the Romantic hubris of making himself a deity. The symbiotic relationship between these identities is, however, the most interesting aspect of that dramatization. When Alroy at the height of his messianic power has completely conquered the Moslem world Lord Honain comes to deliver formally the city of Bagdad into his hands:
    we must bow to your decree with the humility that recognises superior force. Yet we are not without hope. We cannot forget that it is our good fortune not to be addressing a barbarous chieftain, unable to sympathise with the claims of civilisation, the creations of art, and the finer impulses of humanity. We acknowledge your irresistible power, but we dare to hope everything from a prince whose genius all acknowledge and admire, who has spared some portion of his youth from the cares of government and the pursuits of arms to the ennobling claims of learning, whose morality has been moulded by a pure and sublime faith, and who draws his lineage from a sacred and celebrated race, the unrivalled antiquity of which even the Prophet acknowledges. (Pt7Ch19)
    This is obviously an exhilarating fantasy for Disraeli as he lived through the frustrations of political defeat in the summer of 1832, for it clearly represents a transformation of the hero’s most humiliating captivity into a seemingly limitless victory. Interestingly, it blends the purity of the religious role with a worldly recognition. But significantly, although Honain (representing the city’s inhabitants) has been forced to recognize Alroy’s position by an overwhelming demonstration of the latter’s superiority, his words of submission stress the qualities of innate genius which bring forth the admiration for the King’s nobility, manifested in learning, morality, and the appreciation of the arts of civilization. The sensitive reader can see, however, that the fantasy is not the complete victory it might seem. The concluding references to Alroy’s “pure and sublime faith” and “sacred and celebrated race” only serve to show how completely those attributes have come to subserve the glorification of the hero’s genius. That Disraeli clearly perceives his hero’s sin of pride is, of course, borne out by the remaining plot.

  5. The marriage of the King and the daughter of the Caliph represents the dramatic climax of the novel. Although his fall from grace has already been prefigured astrologically, Alroy is now at the height of his fortunes, and, as the lovers retire to consummate the marriage, the author intrudes to point the moral: “Now what a glorious man was David Alroy, lord of the mightiest empire in the world, and wedded to the most beautiful princess, surrounded by a prosperous and obedient people, guarded by invincible armies, one on whom Earth showered all its fortune, and Heaven all its favour; and all by the power of his own genius!” (231). The abandonment of any pretense at performing Hebrew rituals, the rumor of Alroy’s attendance at a mosque, his alliance with his former enemies, and, finally, his assumption of the title, “Caliph,” and his public display of effete decadence eventually provoke the faithful into a conspiracy against the life of “this haughty stripling” (237); Alroy’s empire is quickly consumed by rebellion and he becomes the captive of his rival. In narrating these events Disraeli’s chief concern is the portrayal of the hero’s consciousness of what he has done. Indeed, the conflict between Alroy’s two symbiotic selves and their respective commitments to his sister, Miriam, and to the Princess Schirene (and all they represent: altruism, innocence, religious and sexual purity versus expediency, hypocrisy, religious betrayal, and self-glorification) is the subject of his thoughts as, alternately despairing and defiant, he awaits his fate in his dungeon cell. Significantly, it is the question of Alroy’s Jewish faith and race that leads to his ultimate act of defiance. For when Honain reveals the conditions for Alroy’s release, that he should plead guilty to the charge of having had “intercourse with the infernal powers,” that he should confess to having “won the Caliph’s daughter by an irresistible spell” which at last is broken, and that he should deny his “Divine mission” in order “to settle the public mind,” the captive raises no objections. But when Honain adds the final condition of “form,” that he will be expected to “publicly affect to renounce our faith, and bow before their Prophet,” Alroy leaps into indignation: “Get thee behind me, tempter! Never, never, never! . . . I’ll not yield a jot. Were my doom one everlasting torture, I’d spurn thy terms! Is this thy high contempt of our poor kind, to outrage my God! to prove myself the vilest of the vile, and baser than the basest?” (303). The explicit irony, that he has already done this in the service of his own exalted egotism, only serves to prove the complete dichotomy of Alroy’s sense of his own identity. In the strength of his reemergent purity he can immediately again assert his own glory and resolve to die a hero for Schirene’s sake (304). But this momentary attempt to join the glorification of his God and the glorification of himself into one destiny cannot succeed; he falls into a trance and is saved from his final temptation by the ghost of the faithful priest, Jabaster. In the denouement Alroy finds consolation in the presence of his pure and holy sister and defies his conqueror’s threats of torture even as the sword flashes down to behead him.

  6. In some sense the ending of his life is a triumph for Alroy. He dies forgiven by his God for his sin of pride, comforted by his sister, and secure in the belief that he is ultimately true to his real and primary identity. At the same time, however, it is obviously a Pyrrhic victory in that his divine mission to free his people has come to nought, and in that he dies after having completely fallen from the heights of glory. It is not necessary to doubt the hero’s sincerity of his return to innocence to recognize that it is an escape from the consequences of a personal failure. But it is important to recognize the final act of defiance as an attempt to turn defeat into victory without ever having consciously to admit that defeat. Consequently that defiance, even though supported with a sense of righteous purity, leaves the central conflict between Alroy’s two senses of his own identity unresolved.

  7. Looking at Alroy as an embodiment of a fantasy structure created by Disraeli, it is reasonable to conclude that the author felt within himself the need both to deny and to affirm his Jewishness, and by implication, the innocence and purity that characterize his hero. The many striking parallels between the author and his hero—between Disraeli’s desire to liberate the Conservative Party and Alroy’s desire to liberate his people, between Disraeli’s recognition that hypocrisy is a necessary ingredient of worldly success and Alroy’s betrayal of his faith, between Disraeli’s confidential attachment to his sister, Sarah, and Alroy’s reliance upon Miriam’s recognition of his purest self, and finally between Disraeli’s defiant response to political defeat and Alroy’s defiant mockery of his conqueror—all suggest that Disraeli did indeed feel in his own early career similar tensions to those he attributes to his hero and that his struggle for “purity” in the context of personal distinction remained an unresolved issue in 1832. Clearly, though, Disraeli’s fictions do not simply serve as an escape through fantasy from the unpleasant social and political realities of his early career. Alroy, for example, is a medium for exploring imaginatively the ambivalence Disraeli felt about both of his senses of himself and an imaginative assessment of the costs of choosing either of those identities. But, nevertheless, it is a less than satisfactory fantasy because in its attempt to accommodate the conflicting goals of purity and success within the characterization of a less than perfect hero, it cannot permit a complete wish fulfillment and remain honest. The unsatisfactory conclusion of the fantasy did, however, provide Disraeli with the impetus to return in subsequent novels to the subject of his ambivalence about his racial heritage in the disguised form of his heroes’ concern with Catholicism.3

Notes

1 The extent to which charges of inconsistency, insincerity, hypocrisy, and expediency affected Disraeli can be gauged by reading his political pamphlets, "What Is He?" (1833) and The Crisis Examined (1834), as well as his satires, "Ixion in Heaven" and "The Infernal Marriage."

2 "In Vivian Grey I have portrayed my active and real ambition. In Alroy, my ideal ambition. The P.R. [Contarini Fleming] is a developt. of my poetic character. This trilogy is the secret history of my feelings. I shall write no more about myself." Mutilated Diary, Disraeli Papers, Box 11/A/III/C/21-22.

3 I have also argued that this ambivalence is manifested in Disraeli's shifting attitude toward Catholicism amid the political events of the 1830's. "The Psychological Romance" ["The Psychological Romance: Disraeli's Early Fiction and Political Apprenticeship," Dissertation Abstracts International 35, (1975): p. 7264A] provides a detailed account of Disraeli's violent anti-Catholic prejudice at the time of the Municipal Corporations Reform Bill (1835) and assesses this prejudice in the context of Disraeli's involvement with the Ultra-Tory faction of the Conservative party and his campaign in the Taunton by-election.

Published @ RC

January 2005

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