“Daniel Deronda” by George Eliot

What a fascinating book. Daniel Deronda is the story of a young Jewish man who is adopted and raised as an Englishman with no knowledge of his parentage, but is nevertheless drawn to things Jewish and eventually discovers, to his deep joy, that he is also a Jew. He befriends a dying Zionist philosopher, Mordecai, who is looking for someone to carry on with his work after he is gone, which is exactly the sort of meaningful work that Deronda had been longing for. The idea of spiritual transmission not only of identity and virtue but also of mission and vision is central to this work, and, according to my limited knowledge, it seems a very Jewish idea. When Deronda marries Mordecai’s sister, Mirah, he completes his role as both receiver and progenitor, a link in a chain that is to continue until the end of time.

Mordecai’s Zionism is complex and is presented in such a subtle, personified way that not once did I feel that it was Eliot who was arguing. Mordecai’s vision was for a Jewish state that would be not just a homeland and haven for persecuted Jews, something all other peoples enjoy, but also a gift to the world. The good and the great of the Jewish nation would be brought together to lift up not only their low and ignorant brethren, but also their neighbours and the world.

“…Each nation has its own work, and is a member of the world, enriched by the work of each. But it is true, as Jehuda-ha-Levi first said, that Israel is the heart of mankind, if we mean by heart the core of affection which binds a race and its families in dutiful love, and the reverence for the human body which lifts the needs of our animal life into religion, and the tenderness which is merciful to the poor and weak and to the dumb creature that wears the yoke for us.”

Mordecai also felt that since the Jews had spread so far and taken on so many other national identities, that together they would be a model for harmony in diversity, and thus a force for world peace. Of course it is sad to read these hopeful thoughts knowing what has happened since the creation of Israel. Eliot did not anticipate the vehemence of those who opposed (and continue to oppose) the establishment of modern Israel. I don’t think such opposition would have daunted Mordecai, but I think it would have saddened him to have the bountiful gifts of Israel so violently rejected by its immediate neighbours.

I obviously can’t talk about the book without mentioning Gwendolyn, and her ill-fated marriage to Henleigh Grandcourt. I think Eliot did a disservice to Gwendolyn and Grandcourt by placing all the weaknesses in them, and all the virtues in Daniel and Mirah. This is perhaps where the book strays into allegory, but the writing is so rich that it is hardly noticeable. It does seem, though, that the purpose of Gwendolyn is just to show how much the world needs Jewish moral guidance. Gwendolyn senses Deronda’s inborn widsdom the moment she sees him, and though she fears his judgement at first, she later seeks him out desperately when her life has become a horror. He is able to help her bear her persecutions and become less selfish. Her last words to him are: “It is betterβ€”it shall be better with me because I have known you.” I suspect that this is how Eliot hoped the world would respond to the state of Israel. It may yet be, but not any time soon.

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9 comments on ““Daniel Deronda” by George Eliot

  1. Dorothy W. says:

    I love this book partly because of how it deals with subject matter — Zionism and Jewishness — that doesn't appear in many 19C novels. It feels like Eliot is doing something quite different from what she'd done before.

  2. Sylvia says:

    Yes, and on top of everything it was her only book set in her own time and place. I wonder what else she might have written about had she lived longer.

  3. Lizzy says:

    I saw this on a PBS special one night and had no clue it was a book. I must read it now.

  4. Fiske says:

    Bookworm:
    One of my New Year's resolutions is not to buy a single book during January (must do SOMETHING to check the burgeoning TBR pile). πŸ™‚ But, on the last weekend of 2007 I purchased a few books to compensate for the hiatus and one of those was Daniel Deronda because I had read your review of the book. Thanks for the recommendation!
    Fiske

  5. Sylvia says:

    I'm sure you'll enjoy it, Fiske. It's a remarkable book. Good luck with those resolutions!

  6. Eva says:

    I finished this one up half an hour before 2007 ended, and I have mixed feelings about it. It definitely felt more allegorical than other Eliot that I've read, but to me the two main characters that didn't feel real at all were Mirah and Mordecai. I was excited when I first realised how important Judaism was going to be in the novel (I went into it not knowing anything), because as Dorothy said that's so rare. But I can't say that I ever really identified with, or felt particular concern over, the fate of Mirah or Mordecai. In fact, I identified more with the Jewish family Mordecai's living with when Daniel finds him! Considering Eliot's considerable skills in creating characters, this felt like a let down.

  7. Sylvia says:

    True, Mirah and Mordecai were weaker characters than Daniel and Gwendolyn. Of course if she had fleshed them out the book would be twice as long! Not that we would mind… πŸ˜‰

  8. Miss Bond says:

    Through Gwendolyn Eliot allows the modern day reader to follow the life comprimises that many women with very little money had to make in the mid 19th century in relation to marriage choices. The passages that describe Gwendolyn's crippiing marriage to Grandcourt are so strong with the powerful imagery of hunting/riding and imprisonment. Eliot's writing forces me to imagine Gwendolyn in a cell in which she is dressed in the finery that he marriage has allowed and yet is strangled by the jewels that lay around her neck.

  9. Sylvia says:

    Nicely put, Miss Bond. The gambling imagery is also apt–she made what she thought was a sure bet and lost.

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