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Comparing Works of Thomas Mann and George Eliot.

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In this essay, I shall explore the ways in which music can influence the way a literary text is constructed. Looking at the works of Thomas Mann and George Eliot, and considering their influences, I shall discuss to what extent they have drawn on music to structure and enhance their writing, and examine how effective this has been. Throughout literary history, writers have drawn on the methods adopted by composers when structuring their works. This seems to have been much more prevalent since Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” pioneered a whole new method of composing and writing, utilising leitmotifs and carefully chosen text to emphasise key moments and develop characters in the story.

 (“...Wagner affected the subsequent production of both musical and literary artworks to a profound extent”)

Samuels, R. P.84

 Stories became much more character driven, and were very much attempting to mirror true life, in fact, to represent true life, and to express the deeper emotions and motivations of the characters - Wagner believed that dramatic action should arise primarily from the portrayal of character – and music was carefully written to respect the “natural rise and fall of expressive speech” (Samuels, R. p 93). The relationship of music and words became very important, and writers began to realise that they could use the same methods in their work and both write about music and also include music within their writings to emphasise character and comment on what happens to those characters throughout the narrative. Wagner very much believed that music and words should be linked, that the melody and the text should be married together and interlinked so that the meaning of the drama is fully expressed. Music could be used independently to express meaning beyond the text itself, but could also be used in conjunction with text to evoke thoughts, memories and emotions, and writers subsequently discovered that they could use the same methods in their work.

Thomas Mann was one of these writers. His book, “Tristan”, written in 1902 was a novella of around 12,000 words which took its’ title from Wagner’s opera “Tristan und Isolde.” There are many similarities in the narratives of each work, but also some marked differences. However, a particularly noticeable aspect of Mann’s work is that not only does the text speak of music and use it within its’ context to further the story, the development of the characters and the relationship between them  - it also actually speaks of specific sections of music from Tristan und Isolde being played on the piano by the protagonist Gabriele. Mann’s story also tells of a love triangle, as does Wagner’s, although the characters themselves differ in appearance and behaviour, and both stories are constructed in three parts. In Wagner’s opera these parts are the three acts, in Mann’s novella there are three sections of narration. Therefore it would certainly seem that immediately the opera has influenced the structure of the novella. There are also parallels as regards events in the novella which echo rather than emulate what happens on the opera – such as the other patients being away, as were the hunting party in the opera, and the scene being set in darkness, as was the opera.

Mann also emulated Wagner’s use of leitmotif within his novella, wherein he used the repetition of literary phrases as opposed to musical phrases. As Wagner’s leitmotifs served to warn us as listeners of impending tragedy or events, so the repeated mention of the tiny pale blue vein on Gabriele’s forehead served as a reminder that she is unwell, and also as a constant warning of her eventual death. Even when she is happy, when she laughs or speaks cheerfully, the vein is always noticeable, always apparent, never suppressed or disguised. This is a contrast to the emotions and feelings of Isolde in Wagner’s opera, whose attraction to Tristan was indeed suppressed and disguised, until the potion made it become apparent (a motif again warned of this impending event). The music on Mann’s novella works almost like the potion, attracting Spinell to Gabriele and binding them together in a way that would otherwise have been unthinkable. Some have remarked that perhaps it cannot be said that Mann was emulating Wagner in the use of leitmotif – indeed Samuels suggests in “The Wagner Project” in course book three that this can in fact be considered to be a literary device used by many writers, known as a use of symbolism. This is a reasonable assertion, but Mann himself stated:

“People have pointed out the influence of Wagner’s music on my work.....Certainly I do not disclaim this influence. In particular, I followed Wagner in the use of the leitmotiv, which I carried over into the work of language.”

(Mann, 1996 (1952), p. 725)

It could still be argued that the use of this tool in literary writing does not necessarily need to be labelled as leitmotif, but music and literature were very closely linked in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, particularly around this time, when, as I have already stated, Wagner had demonstrated a huge influence on literary and music writers alike. It was common practice to use literature and music to express “abstract concepts such as utopian aspiration, psychological truth and transcendent reality” (Samuels R. P. 142). So, in literature, words become much more meaningful and promote a deeper understanding, and therefore it was almost inevitable, taking into account his beliefs, that Wagner should find a way to achieve the same effect with music. Interesting then, that Wagner used literary practice to influence his work, as others used Wagner’s practice to influence their literary structure and method. This would seem to demonstrate that there is indeed a discernible link between literary and musical practice.

To further confirm this view, another writer who was, by her own admission, greatly influenced by Wagner, was George Eliot (pseudonym of Marian Evans). She had an unusually extensive knowledge of Wagner’s music, and even though she herself was not entirely sure that she liked the actual music itself, she was very sympathetic to Wagner’s ideals and intrigued by his theories. Having had the good fortune to meet Liszt while writing an article about him and Wagner, Eliot found that the experience helped to clarify some of Wagner’s theories for her, and she wrote of her admiration of Wagner’s success in achieving “a gradual unfolding and elaboration of that fundamental contrast of emotions, that collision of forces, which is the germ of the tragedy” (Eliot, 1963, p.104). Unlike Mann, Eliot does not use any degree of leitmotif in her writing, but she does associate characters with musical works which they perform within the story of Mr Gilfil’s Love Story, depicting the emotional state of their personality. That dramatic action should be derived from character was extremely important to Eliot  - whether this was as a result of her exposure to Wagner’s work or the reason for her being attracted to Wagner as a composer initially is unclear, but there is no doubt that they had similar intentions and priorities when it came to writing. Eliot stated that “my stories always grow out of my psychological conception of the dramatis personae.” (1978, [1954-6], vol. 2 p. 299). Did Eliot’s admiration for Wagner influence and shape the structure of her writing? Wagner’s insistence of dramatic action being character driven is certainly apparent in the structure of her writing, and in the above quote. However, Eliot’s own ideals also matched those of Wagner’s, and I am therefore unable to conclude whether he was primarily an influence on her writing, or an enhancement and extension of her own priorities and thoughts on literary writing. Having said this, despite her comment that social novels such as hers should avoid having characters that she termed as being “unreal opera peasants” (Eliot, 1963, p. 270), Eliot certainly admired the scope presented by the genre of opera – she admired Wagner’s ideas and theories, which at times went against the traditional forms of opera, and she also enjoyed many operatic performances throughout her life and admired opera’s potential for the development of drama. It would seem that opera and the theory of opera were a great influence on her literary work, and Wagner certainly seems to have formed a great part of this.

Eliot’s later novel, Daniel Deronda, is considered to be her most “musical” novel. According to da Sousa Correa, “musical allusion and analogy contribute to its formal and thematic construction.” (2003).Gillian Beer also commented that “Even more than in Eliot’s previous books, parallel narratives are fleetingly condensed through allusion to opera. myth legend, politics” (Beer, 1986, p.214) It does seem that Eliot’s writing became more and more concerned with social comment and psychological realism, indeed going back briefly to Mr Gilfil’s love story I find it interesting that a female writer should be writing under a male pseudonym and yet commenting on feminist issues such as the assertion of power of the protagonist Caterina through her musicianship. Caterina exploits music to express her anger as Eliot herself exploits music in the same way to achieve dramatic effect. Eliot states that the behaviour of Caterina is essential to the plot and the development of her character. She tries to use reality throughout her writing instead of acquiescing to fantasy as has happened in writing previously. Thos therefore t me makes her writing more of a social comment using music in contrast to an opera possibly being written more for entertainment purposes. Eliot’s writing contained frank realism and bold themes, which were a little unusual for her era – is it possible that she used music to soften the impact of these bold issues and to make her writing more accessible? It could be, and yet music can, as already discussed, enhance and intensify issues and emotions explored.

Returning to Daniel Deronda, despite having read Schopenhauer’s “The World as Will and Representation”, as did Wagner (is this why Eliot read it?) Eliot’s main concern was to develop the character with a depth beyond the self, whereas Schopenhauer concentrated on pure knowledge. They also had differing views on music – Schopenhauer found it distant and abstract when conveying emotions, whereas Eliot uses music as a direct portrayal and enhancement of emotions, and to solicit empathy. Deronda’s loss of self is depicted in an unfinished strain of music from the river and coincides with the recognition of Mirah. I find this an intriguing similarity to the loss of self of Tristan and Isolde, and could again have been derived from Eliot’s admiration of Wagner.

In conclusion, I would say that music has played a considerable part in influencing the structure and style of the works of the writers discussed above. Each of them has taken different influences from Wagner and incorporated them into their work to make it more effective and to give it more depth. There have been differing opinions on whether this method of writing is effective, but whether this is the case or not it cannot be denied that music has had a great influence on literary writing and probably vice versa. What is also apparent is that Wagner, Eliot and Mann are all artists of note, and confirms the fact that those who develop and employ their own ideas and styles whilst blending them with complementary ideas from others seem to produce works of considerable note. I shall end by considering a short passage written by Delia da Sousa Correa, in course book three, who suggested that the way in which Eliot uses musical allusion in what is some of her most ground breaking writing creates an “interesting paradox” – that Eliot’s writing is “at its most distinctively ‘literary’ where it is most ‘musical’ “ (p.177). This would suggest to me that the use of music within literary writing, whether it is writing “about” music or the music being “about” the writing, does a great deal to enhance the literary quality of the writing and allows the writer to be experimental and deal with issues which would at other times possibly be considered too bold or unsettling to contemplate.


Beer, G. (1986) George Eliot, Brighton, Harvester.

Da Sousa Correa, D. (2003) George Eliot, Music and Victorian Culture, Basingstoke, Palgrave.

Eliot, G. (1963) Essays of George Eliot, ed. T.Pinney, London, Routledge.

Eliot, G. (1978 [1954-6]) The George Eliot Letters, ed. G.S Haight, 9 vols, New Haven and London, Yale University Press.

Langer, S.K. (1942) Philosophy In A New Key: A Study in The Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

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