Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot



Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Daniel Deronda
George Eliot

A critical paper by
Carol Tyler Fox


         Daniel Deronda  is the last novel George Eliot wrote, and sums up the values, ideals, and beliefs that informed her work.  It was first published in eight monthly installments from February to September 1876, and soon thereafter in one-volume and  two-volume versions and a  three-volume “Cabinet” edition.  Eliot’s last diary entry, made on December 31, 1877, suggested that further novels were unlikely “because it is reasonable to argue that I must have already done my best.” (Dachslager xiv).
The novel was successful in its time, and has attracted much critical attention over its history.  Eliot’s own status in the critical pantheon has varied over the decades.  At the time of her death in 1880, it was widely considered that England had just lost its greatest living novelist. (Dickens had died in 1870.)  Critical interest in Eliot’s work waxed and waned over the course of the twentieth century, but is currently high.  Professor Earl Dachslager’s 2005 introduction to a new edition of Daniel Deronda declares that Eliot “is a writer whose canonical status in English literature stands high and certain”(xiii).
The breadth and complexity of the novel’s structure make a comprehensive treatment of its critical issues a daunting task, so I have selected five topics for focus in my comments.  These along with speculation on a sequel for the novel are the sources for our discussion questions.  The topics, in order of treatment, will be:
1) the character of Gwendolen;
2) the character of Daniel;
3) the character of Grandcourt;
4) the overall structure of the novel; and
5) the Woman Question in the novel.

I  Gwendolen Harleth
Professor  Dachslager asserts that “[b]y unanimous decision, Gwendolen is Eliot’s greatest female creation and quite possibly the best female character in Victorian fiction” (xxxiv).  The reader can feel both irritation and sympathy for her at various points, and most interpretations take Gwendolen’s psychomachia—the struggle between the good and evil within her soul—to be a major concern of the novel.
Eliot’s choice of title for Book I of the novel, “The Spoiled Child,” alerts readers that the central character is indeed at an early stage of her development—and perhaps that we should expect the structure of a bildungsroman, in which we will watch the growth of the spoiled child into an adult prepared to face and participate in the world.  Yet other indications focus more on the moral battle.  Eliot’s epigraph for the whole novel first sets up this expectation:
Let thy chief terror be of thine own soul:
There, ’mid the throng of hurrying desires
That trample on the dead to seize their spoil,
Lurks vengeance, footless, irresistible
As exhalations laden with slow death,
And o’er the fairest troop of captured joys
Breathes pallid pestilence.

         Dachslager’s annotation to this epigraph suggests it may refer to Gwendolen, or Lydia Glasher, or Mordecai—but the many subsequent references to Gwendolen’s dread and terror of her own evil tendencies tie it most closely to her.
In the opening scene, in the casino at Leubronn, the reader’s first view of Gwendolen is through Daniel’s eyes as he ponders “what was the secret form or expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance?  Was the good or the evil genius dominant in those beams?  Probably the evil; else why was the effect that of unrest rather than of undisturbed charm?”  Later in the same scene, other observers note that Gwendolen “has got herself up as a sort of serpent now, all green and silver, and winds her neck about a little more than usual” (8), and that she has “a sort of Lamia beauty” (8) [Lamia being a serpent sorceress who takes the shape of a beautiful woman].  That observer opines that “a man might risk hanging for her—I mean, a fool might.”  The reader, then, noting Daniel’s interest in her and hers in him, might at first fear for Daniel’s soul.
However, Gwendolen’s development takes a different direction.  When she is called home by her mother’s letter about their bankruptcy due to a bank failure (shades of contemporary financial crises…), we are introduced to the Spoiled Child who has on the one hand always tyrannized over her mother, but has on the other hand been deprived of a stable childhood with “blessed persistence in which affection can take root” (17).  We get few details of Mrs. Davilow’s two marriages other than that neither left her with means beyond her own inheritance from her father—which has now been lost through the bank manager’s speculation. Gwendolen’s beauty and her mother’s improvidence have brought Gwendolen to the age of twenty with no experience in seeing the world in any way other than revolving around her.  Although she has an intuitive revulsion against doing wrong (such as against marrying Grandcourt once she knows about his unfair treatment of Mrs. Glasher and her children), Gwendolen also is unable to feel affection for anyone but her mother and unable to accept the prospect of taking the subordinate position of a governess even in the comfortable home of a bishop.  She apparently talks herself into believing that by marrying Grandcourt she will gain power to influence him to treat his mistress and illegitimate children more generously.  The reader thus sees that Gwendolen has conflicting impulses and demands on her loyalty: she must help support her mother, yet at the same time she should keep her promise to Mrs. Glasher.  And in any case, she wants the freedom and power which she has been raised to believe are her due.  Her upbringing has fostered her natural selfishness; is this an evil element or merely a normal frailty? In either case, Gwendolen at this stage lacks the wisdom to foresee the result of her actions—she fails to realize that as Mrs. Grandcourt she will have power neither to help Mrs. Glasher nor even to lead her own life according to her wishes.
By the time Gwendolen holds back from throwing a rope to the drowning Grandcourt and then confesses this behavior to Daniel, her year in an intolerable marriage and the trauma of Grandcourt’s wished-for-yet-dreadful death have brought her to a new stage of life.  Responses to Eliot’s resolution of Gwendolen’s story range widely.  Some readers are disappointed that Gwendolen does not end up with Daniel.  Some assert that the departures of Grandcourt and Deronda leave Gwendolen now finally ready to develop her own selfhood.  One notes that the very structure of the nineteenth-century English novel “has been breached” by this conclusion which leaves the heroine alone and without clear prospects (Dachslager, xxxiv).  Gwendolen’s own last comment in a letter to Daniel expresses doubt whether she will rise above her terror of the dead face of Grandcourt (foreshadowed in the painted panel at Offendene) to become, as Daniel has predicted, “one of the best of women, who make others glad that they were born” (709).  Henry James’s character Constantius (in James’s December 1876 “Daniel Deronda:  A Conversation”) declares that the story of Gwendolen is “the very stuff that human life is made of. … the discovery by each of us that we are at the best but a rather ridiculous fifth wheel to the coach, after we have sat cracking our whip and believing that we are at least the coachman…”(quoted in Creeger,  175).

Daniel Deronda
The character of Daniel Deronda has also drawn mixed responses.  Everyone in the novel seems to love him.  Some readers do too, though others find him unbelievably selfless and messianic—too good to be true, lacking the human failings that would allow readers to warm up to him.
Daniel has had an enviable childhood, at least up until his realization at the crucial age of thirteen that he has been deprived of knowing his origin.  His home (from the age of two to thirteen) has been stable and loving; he has been educated well; and Sir Hugo encourages him to explore his own interests.  Daniel dutifully prepares for Cambridge, and when there dutifully pursues the study of mathematics. When after two years he fails to win a competitive scholarship (because he neglected his own studies to help his needy friend, Hans Meyrick), he decides to leave Cambridge and do an independent-study European tour.  Upon his return to live with Sir Hugo, he agrees to read law.  But mainly, we see him pursuing further intuitively altruistic activities—redeeming Gwendolen’s turquoise necklace from the pawn shop; rescuing Mirah from her attempted suicide and placing her with the Meyricks; and undertaking the search for Mirah’s lost relatives.  Everyone loves Daniel, and everyone seems to sense his goodness.  Gwendolen is drawn to him as a moral touchstone even before she has become a self-described murderess; in Leubronn, she is interested by his watching her, though mortified by his returning her necklace.  On several subsequent occasions she seeks to consult him about her life—to help her resist her evil impulses and find her way through moral quandaries. When she learns that he will marry Mirah and depart for the East, she declares herself “forsaken.”  And yet she closes her wedding-day letter to him by averring that “it shall be better with me because I have known you.”  Daniel himself suggests an ongoing spiritual link between Gwendolen and himself, though conceding it is likely they may not meet again after he leaves for the East.  Mirah easily assumes (especially after she becomes engaged to Daniel) that Daniel’s relationship to Gwendolen is just further evidence of his role as a savior to many including herself. 
Daniel’s relationship to Mordecai adds to his almost-supernatural aura, especially in the scene where Mordecai waits on the bridge for Daniel’s anticipated arrival up the river.  Deronda has characteristics of the  archetypal mythic hero—mysterious birth, journeying to find his identity, embodying admirable characteristics of his people—and both the English gentry (as represented by Sir Hugo) and the displaced Jews (as represented by Mordecai) wish to claim him.  Yet at the same time Daniel is through most of the novel a somewhat unformed character, searching for his mission in life and for his own identity.  David Carroll’s analysis of the novel (in George Eliot and the Conflict of Interpretations, chapter 8) builds on Daniel’s “unborn” quality in arguing that the story plays out  a conflict between Deronda (as spiritual potential) and Grandcourt (as aristocratic decadence) for the soul of Gwendolen (as England).  On this reading, the future remains (as Gwendolen says in her letter) an open question. 
It is another interesting question whether Daniel, as he becomes more of an all-purpose moral idealist than the English gentleman his mother and Sir Hugo tried to make him, also becomes a less fully-rounded and believable character.  Henry James’s discussants disagree about Daniel, one finding him “priggish” and dreary, another calling him “an ideal character…triumphantly married to reality” whose presentation is a “deeply analyzed portrait of a great nature.”(Creeger, 168-690).


Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt
Clearly the villain of the piece, Grandcourt represents all that is worst about the English aristocracy.  He is expected to inherit Sir Hugo’s property because the will of Sir Hugo’s father restricted inheritance to the male line, although Grandcourt’s dying without a legitimate male heir seems to undo the entailment—but he  has lived a self-centered and apparently useless life in anticipation of that inheritance.  Grandcourt is presented as lifeless, bored, and cruel to those who rely on him.  His principle virtue seems to be his perfect manners—Gwendolen is fascinated by his impeccably-bred way of presenting himself, and even has “a momentary phantasmal love for this man who chose his words so well” in the scene of his proposal ( 265).  Readers  may also infer that he must have been charming in the past, to make Mrs. Glasher leave her husband and child for him.  His interest in Gwendolen is piqued by her spirited attempts to resist him, so that he sees her as a creature to be owned and tamed, like one of his dogs or horses. Eliot shows him being cruel to a dog which apparently longs for his attention, as if to emphasize his tendency to take sadistic pleasure in his power over others. Eliot also says of Grandcourt that if he had been “sent to govern a difficult colony, he might have won reputation” because he “would have understood that it was safer to exterminate than to cajole” any who resisted him, and “would not have flinched” from such action (523). This feature of Grandcourt’s nature is illustrated by his treatment of Gwendolen from the time of their marriage to his death, and may be intended by Eliot as a general criticism of the decadent imperialist aristocracy of late nineteenth-century England.  Colonialism as a negative force is another issue present in the background of the novel, as is Eliot’s underlying concern with potential for evil in human nature. (Oxford 83) If Grandcourt is affirmatively evil (as his treatment of his animals and other people may suggest), then Gwendolyn’s struggle between him and Deronda takes on a nearly allegorical quality.
As noted above, David Carroll’s reading of the novel focuses on the struggle between Grandcourt and Deronda for the soul of Gwendolen, with the departure of both at the end leaving her to find her own identity.  The significance of the past and future influence of Grandcourt over the formation of that identity (like so many other elements of the novel) offers food for thought.

Unity of the novel
There has been much discussion of the relation between the “Gentile” and the “Jewish” portions of the novel.  Even as the novel was in the process of publication, Eliot expressed concern that the strong success of early segments might not be matched by the later ones in which the Jewish concerns became more prominent—and though sales did not decline, critical response cooled as Mordecai took center stage .(Eliot’s April 12 1876 journal entry read, “The Jewish element seems to me likely to satisfy nobody.” Dachslager xxv)  Yet Eliot got very positive feedback from Jewish readers, including a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Budapest whose response she appreciated and whose editing suggestions she accepted (Dachslager xxv).
Different critics have suggested that either one “part” or the other should be allowed to dominate. Turn-of-the-century Jewish critics and early Hebrew translations omitted or minimized the Gentile sections (Oxford Reader’s Companion, 81).  Henry James’s 1876 discussants preferred the Gentile portions, and F. R. Leavis in his 1948 The Great Tradition notoriously pronounced that the Jewish part should be cut away and Gwendolen Harleth published as a separate work—though  Leavis later acknowledged that the two parts are inseparable  (Oxford 81).
As to the overall structure of the novel, Eliot expressed impatience with readers who wanted to “cut the book into scraps and talk of nothing in it but Gwendolen .”  In a letter she insisted that she “meant everything in the book to be related to everything else there.”  Clearly she created “a web of interconnected motifs, images, parallels, and intertextual allusions to hold the elements of the novel together” (Oxford 81).

         Differences between the sections have often been noted, however.  It has been suggested that the “Jewish portions” of the novel, while well-studied and earnestly executed, lack the genuine familiarity of Eliot’s writings about the English culture in which she grew up (even though she was not immersed in the aristocratic culture).  Daniel [see above] is criticized as being too idealistic.  Mirah’s story has been called a “fairy tale” recreated.  Mordecai’s mysticism seems to some exaggerated and non-realistic.  Lapidoth is to some extent a stereotypical Jewish slum character, and has been likened to Dickens’s Fagin.  Alternatively, David Carroll suggests that in the “Gentile half” of the novel “everything was subordinated to the idea of the type—as embodied supremely in Grandcourt—as the social stereotype expressive of convention, genealogy, and power” whereas in the “Jewish half” contrastingly “the idea of the type is deployed in a creative, flexible, and spiritual form, based on biblical typology” (Carroll 291, emphasis added).

         And indeed, Eliot’s interest in integrating Jewish characters into the book is not limited to the Book V-VIII segments to which she doubted her audience’s response.  Klesmer represents to some extent the isolation of the Jewish character in the novel, but he at the same time represents the artist who stands proudly apart from the materialistic focus of the aristocratic culture.  His conversations with Gwendolen about her prospects for a musical career, as well as with Catherine and her parents about the marriage between him and Catherine, show his devotion to art and his pride in his own status and self-sufficiency.  The Cohen family (with whom Daniel finds Mordecai) present a pleasantly middle-class and lively family group.  Mordecai’s philosophy club at the Hand and Banner only occasionally have a “Jewish night”; more often they discuss general philosophical issues and several of them tend toward assimilationist views. Joseph Kalonymos, Daniel’s father’s friend whom he meets with after his stop in Genoa, offers another facet of Jewish culture—dedicated to its preservation and advancement.  And Daniel’s mother offers a dissenting voice on the virtues of the culture, from the point of view of a woman who felt stifled by its expectations.  It is therefore not surprising to find in an 1876 letter from Eliot to Harriet Beecher Stowe the explanation that “I felt urged to treat Jews with such sympathy and understanding as my nature and knowledge could attain to” because “I felt that the usual attitude of [English-educated] Christians toward Jews is—I hardly know whether to say more impious or more stupid when viewed in the light of their professed principles” (Dachslager xxx).

         Clearly, then, Eliot’s intent in what she suspected would be her last major novel was to integrate sympathetically-treated Jewish characters into a fully unified work exploring cultural and philosophical issues.  The novel employs then-unusual narrative techniques (such as the flashbacks and general re-ordering of chronology, intrusive narrator, and absence of epilogue) to deal with examinations of human nature, the power of class distinctions, the oppression of under-privileged groups (women, artists, other poor people, Jews), and the importance of family ties to help individuals weather the storms created by these issues.  The threads of its abstract concerns run through both the “Gentile” and the “Jewish” sections of the novel.  Whether they do so strongly enough to unify the novel is perhaps mainly an issue of individual reader response.


The Woman Question
Although Eliot declined requests to write tracts about women’s rights, the constraints on women’s position in society are everywhere present in her work.
From the beginning, Gwendolen’s position as a commodity in the marriage market, and her responsibility to care for her family by exploiting that position, gives the reader perhaps more sympathy than might otherwise be forthcoming for such a Spoiled Child as Gwendolen is in Book I.  Even after she has accepted Grandcourt, the “responsibility of the wife” in such a rich marriage is pointed out to her by her Aunt Gascoigne (Chapter 28).
Another view of the issue comes to Gwendolen through Mrs. Glasher’s initial appearance by the Whispering Stones, as arranged by Lush.  After introducing herself and her demands Mrs. Glasher declares, “Since [eloping with Grandcourt] my life has been broken up and embittered.  It is not fair that he should be happy and I miserable, and my boy thrust out of sight for another.”  Eliot records Gwendolen’s reaction: “it was as if some ghastly vision had come to her in a dream and said, ‘I am a woman’s life’”(Chapter 14, p. 133).
In contrast, Catherine Arrowpoint has the opportunity to argue quite cogently with her parents about her “responsibility” to marry appropriately to keep the family property (earned in trade by her grandfather) in “the right hands”(Chapter 22).  Women are not entirely without possibility of independence—Catherine wins her point, and Mrs. Davilow and Mrs. Gascoigne were  left income by their father, though it would have been controlled by their husbands during marriage.  The gender inequality of inheritances is also emphasized by the entailment of Sir Hugo’s estate away from his daughters.
And of course most dramatically, Daniel’s mother tells her story of her struggles against  her father’s insistence that she follow the role set for her by tradition.  Daniel tries to find a connection with her by saying that he can imagine the hardship she has been through, but she is firm:  “No.  You are not a woman.  You may try—but you can never imagine what it is to have a man’s force of genius in you, and yet to suffer the slavery of being a girl” (Chapter 50, p. 554).  Alcharisi used her power over her husband to escape her father’s rule, and later used her charm over Sir Hugo to escape the burden of her child and gain the freedom to pursue her career.  Whether Daniel forgives her for this is a question never resolved—though she of course denies that she can love him even in their late-found relationship.  But if not for her “slavery of being a girl,” she would not have been forced to marry Daniel’s father and the problem would not have arisen.
Eliot’s presenting further views of this issue indirectly through the concern of Gwendolyn’s half-sisters,  Anna Gascoigne, and any other single young women in the novel, about their future prospects, makes the generality of the Woman Question at the time clear.  From a different angle, Eliot’s own life was seriously constrained by a marriage law which prevented George Lewes from divorcing his estranged wife because he had “condoned” her adultery (by allowing his name to be listed on the birth certificate of a child he knew to be extramarital).  And of course her novels were written under a masculine pseudonym because fiction by a woman would have much less chance of being taken seriously.
The Woman Question in nineteenth-century England was not a simple problem, which is probably why when asked to write tracts, Eliot declined in favor of writing novels.


The issues above do not come near exhausting the complexity of Daniel Deronda.  Repeated readings of the novel itself and the extensive critical response it has stimulated yield ongoing insights and interest.  The nineteenth-century pace of reading, at one installment per month, was almost surely more conducive to appreciating its depths.


Sources cited
Eliot, George.  Daniel Deronda. With an Introduction and Notes by Earl Dachslager.  Barnes and Noble Classics.  New York, 2005.
Carroll, David.  George Eliot and the Conflict of Interpretations. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Creeger, George R., ed.  George Eliot: A Collection of Critical Essays. (Twentieth Century Views.)  Prentice-Hall, Inc.  Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1970.

Rignall, John, ed. Oxford Reader’s Companion to George Eliot. Oxford University Press.  Oxford, 2000.
Questions for Discussion

1. Is Gwendolyn’s psychomachia (good/evil struggle) convincing?  Has she achieved a less self-centered condition by the end of the novel?  If so, does that end the struggle?

2.  Is Daniel a well-rounded character?  Or is he limited to attractively fulfilling the several archetypes (English gentleman; savior/confessor; disciple; mythic hero) that fall within his role?

3.  Should Gwendolen be haunted by the death of Grandcourt?  Is Deronda’s response to her confession morally defensible?

4.  Does the novel provide a unified reading experience, or do we remain too conscious of the bridges between sections?

5.  Is Eliot’s treatment of the Woman Question effective as social criticism?  Or is gender discrimination too entangled with other issues to make an impression in this story?  Is Gwendolen’s plight like that of Alcharisi?

6. Will Gwendolen marry Rex?  Will Hans marry Anna?  What will Daniel and Mirah do in Palestine?  Will Daniel become a colonialist?



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Daniel Deronda by George Eliot


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Daniel Deronda by George Eliot