Thursday, January 13, 2011

381. Daniel Deronda - George Elliot

History: This book was first published in 1876. It was the last novel she completed and the only one set in the contemporary Victorian society of her day. Its mixture of social satire and moral searching, along with a sympathetic rendering of Jewish proto-Zionist and Kaballistic ideas has made it a controversial final statement of one of the greatest of Victorian novelists.
Eliot used the story of Moses as part of her inspiration for Deronda. As Moses was a Jew brought up as an Egyptian who ultimately led his people to the Promised Land, so Deronda is a Jew brought up as an Englishman who ends the novel with a plan to do the same. Deronda's name presumably indicates that his ancestors lived in the Spanish city of Ronda, prior to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.
As a psychological study of an immature egoist struggling to achieve greater understanding of herself and others through suffering, Gwendolen is for many Eliot's crowning achievement as a novelist and the real core of the book. F R Leavis famously felt that the novel would have benefited from the complete removal of the Jewish section and the renaming of it as Gwendolen Harleth. It is true that though the novel is named after Deronda, a greater proportion is devoted to Gwendolen than to Deronda himself.
In its day the Jewish section of the novel was met with bafflement by the non-Jewish reading public, which made up the majority of Eliot's readership. Looking at depictions of Jews in other novels such as Dickens' Oliver Twist and Trollope's The Way We Live Now, it is easy to understand why. In spite of having had a Jewish-born Prime Minister for many years (Benjamin Disraeli was baptised when he was thirteen years old), Britain's view of the Jews at the time comprised derision, revulsion and prejudice, opinions expressed by several of the British characters in one scene. The fact that Eliot makes a point of comparing the world of the Jews favourably with the society of the British could only have served to heighten the hostile reaction to this element of the book. Some readers felt that the Jewish sections of the book were its weakest, and there were even efforts to rewrite the novel by excising those portions, leaving only the sections pertaining to Gwendolen and deleting references to Daniel's Jewish roots.
Conversely, some Hebrew translations made by East European Zionists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries concentrated on the Jewish-Zionist parts and excised or greatly abbreviated the other portions.
Needless to say, in the Jewish community of Eliot's time, Daniel Deronda was greeted with enormous warmth. It was the first time the community felt it had been represented fairly by a major British novelist.
Plot: The novel begins in mid-story in late August 1865 with the meeting of Daniel Deronda and Gwendolen Harleth in Leubronn, Germany. Daniel Deronda is a young man who has a tendency to help others at a cost to himself. At the start of the novel, he has failed to win a scholarship at Cambridge because of his focus on helping a friend, has been travelling abroad, and has just started studying law. He often wonders about his birth and whether or not he is a gentleman. As he moves more and more among the world-within-a-world of the Jews of the novel he begins to identify with their cause in direct proportion to the unfolding revelations of his ancestry.
Gwendolen Harleth is the beautiful, spoiled daughter of a widowed mother. Much courted by men, she is flirtatious but ultimately self-involved.
Daniel finds himself attracted to Gwendolen, whom he sees lose all her winnings in a game of roulette. The next day, Gwendolen receives a letter from her mother telling her that the family is financially ruined and asking her to go home. In despair at losing all her money, Gwendolen decides to pawn a necklace and debates gambling again in order to make her fortune. In a fateful moment, however, her necklace is returned to her by a porter, and she realises that Daniel saw her pawn the necklace and redeemed it for her. From this point, the plot breaks off into two separate flashbacks, one which gives us the history of Gwendolen Harleth and one of Daniel Deronda.
In October 1864, soon after the death of Gwendolen's stepfather, Gwendolen and her family move to a new neighbourhood. It is here that she meets Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt, a taciturn and calculating man, who proposes marriage shortly after their first meeting. At first open to his advances, she eventually flees (to the German town in which she meets Deronda) upon discovering that he has several children with his mistress, Lydia Glasher. This portion of the novel sets Gwendolen up as a haughty, selfish, yet affectionate daughter, admired for her beauty but suspected by many in society because of her satirical observations and somewhat manipulative behaviour. She is also prone to fits of terror that shake her otherwise calm and controlling exterior.
Deronda has been raised by a wealthy gentleman, Sir Hugo Mallinger. Deronda's relationship to Sir Hugo is ambiguous and it is widely believed, even by Deronda, that he is Sir Hugo's illegitimate son, though no one is certain. Deronda is an intelligent, light-hearted and compassionate young man who cannot quite decide what to do with his life, and this is a sore point between him and Sir Hugo, who wants him to go into politics. One day in late July 1864, as he is boating on the Thames, Deronda rescues a young Jewish woman, Mirah Lapidoth, from attempting to drown herself. He takes her to the home of friends of his, and it is discovered that Mirah is a singer. She has come to London to search for her mother and brother after running away from her father, who kidnapped her when she was a child and forced her into an acting troupe. She ran away from him finally because she feared he was planning to sell her into an immoral relationship with a friend of his. Moved by her tale, Deronda undertakes to help her look for her mother (who turns out to have died years earlier) and brother and through this, he is introduced to London's Jewish community. Mirah and Daniel grow closer and Daniel, anxious about his growing affection for her, leaves for a short time to join Sir Hugo in Leubronn, where he and Gwendolen first meet.
From here, the story picks up in "real time," and Gwendolen returns from Germany in early September 1865 because her family has lost its fortune in an economic downturn. Gwendolen, having an antipathy to marriage, the only respectable way in which a woman could achieve financial security, attempts to avoid working as a governess by pursuing a career in singing or on the stage, but a prominent musician tells her she does not have the talent. In order to save herself and her family from relative poverty, she marries the wealthy Grandcourt, whom she believes she can manipulate to maintain her freedom to do what she likes, despite having promised Mrs. Glasher she would not marry him and fearing that it is a mistake.
Deronda continues his search for Mirah's family, meets a consumptive visionary named Mordecai. Mordecai passionately proclaims his wish that the Jewish people retain their national identity and one day be restored to their Promised Land. Because he is dying, he wants Daniel to become his intellectual heir and continue to pursue his dream and be an advocate for the Jewish people. In spite of being strongly drawn to Mordecai, Deronda hesitates to commit himself to a cause that seems to have no connection to his own identity. Deronda's desire to embrace Mordecai's vision becomes stronger when they discover Mordecai is the brother Mirah has known by the name Ezra and has been seeking. Still, Deronda is not a Jew and cannot reconcile this fact with his affection and respect for Mordecai/Ezra, which would be necessary for him to pursue a life of Jewish advocacy.
Gwendolen, meanwhile, has been emotionally crushed by her cold, self-centered, and manipulative husband. She is consumed with guilt for the disinheriting of Lydia Glasher's children by marrying their father. On Gwendolen's wedding day, Mrs. Glasher cursed her and told her she would suffer for her treachery, which only exacerbates Gwendolen's feelings of dread and terror. During this time, Gwendolen and Deronda meet regularly, and Gwendolen pours out her troubles to him whenever they meet. During a trip to Italy, Grandcourt is knocked from his boat into the water and drowns. Gwendolen, who was present, is consumed with guilt because she had long wished he would die, although after some hesitation she jumped into the Mediterranean in a futile attempt to save him. Deronda, also in Italy to meet his Jewish mother (whose identity Sir Hugo has finally revealed), comforts Gwendolen and advises her. In love with Deronda, Gwendolen hopes for a future with him, but he urges her onto a path of righteousness in which she will help others in order to alleviate her suffering.
Deronda meets his mother and learns that he is the legitimate son of a famous opera singer with whom Sir Hugo was once in love. She tells him that she was the daughter of a physician and strictly pious Jew who forced her to marry her cousin whom she did not love, despite her resentment of the rigid piety of her childhood. Daniel was the only child of that union, and on her husband's death, she asked the devoted Sir Hugo to raise her son as an English gentleman, never to know that he is Jewish. Upon learning of his true origins, Deronda finally feels comfortable with his love for Mirah, and on his return to England in October 1866, he tells Mirah of his love for her. Daniel commits himself to be Ezra/Mordecai's disciple, and shortly after Deronda's marriage, Ezra/Mordecai dies with Daniel and Mirah at his side. Before Daniel marries Mirah, he goes to Gwendolen to tell her about his origins, his decision to go to "the East" (per Ezra/Mordecai's wish), and his betrothal to Mirah. Gwendolen is devastated by the news, but it becomes a turning point in her life, inspiring her to finally say, "I shall live." She sends him a letter on his wedding day, telling him not to think of her with sadness but to know that she will be a better person for having known him. The newly-weds then set off for "the East" to investigate what they can do to restore the Jewish nation.
Review: Daniel Deronda is composed of two interwoven stories and presents two worlds which are never completely reconciled. Indeed, the separation of the two and the eventual parting of one from the other is one of the novel's major themes. There is the fashionable, familiar, upper-class English world of Gwendolen Harleth and the less familiar society-within-a-society inhabited by the Jews, most importantly Mordecai (or Ezra) Cohen and his sister, Mirah. Living between these two worlds is Daniel, who gradually identifies more and more with the Jewish side as he comes to understand the mystery of his birth and develops his relationships with Mordecai and Mirah. In the novel, the Jewish characters' spirituality, moral coherence and sense of community are contrasted favourably with the materialist, philistine, and largely corrupt society of England. The inference seems to be that the Jews' moral values are lacking in the wider British society that surrounds them.
Daniel is ideological, helpful, and wise. In order to give substance to his character, Eliot had to give him a worthy purpose. However, Eliot had become interested in Jewish culture through her acquaintance with Jewish mystic, lecturer and proto-Zionist Immanuel Oscar Menahem Deutsch. Part of the inspiration for the novel was her desire to correct English ignorance and prejudice against Jews. Mordecai's story, so easily forgotten beside the glitter and passions of Gwendolen's, nonetheless finishes the novel. Partly based on Deutsch, Mordecai's political and spiritual ideas are among the core messages of the book, just as Felix Holt's politics are the core intellectual element of his novel. In a key scene in Daniel Deronda, Deronda follows Mordecai to a tavern where the latter meets with other penniless philosophers to exchange ideas. There follows a lengthy speech in which Mordecai outlines his vision of a homeland for the Jews where, he hopes, they will be able to take their place among the nations of the world for the general good.
Why was Eliot so interested in Jewish life? She was brought up an Anglican, but from an early age became interested in the history of religions, and in her twenties fell in with a group of freethinkers in political and religious matters. The differentiation or mingling together of human races was also a subject of interest to her in the wake of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.
In the 1860s Eliot met Emanuel Deutsch, a Jewish scholar and early Zionist. Deronda's character of Mordecai - the Jewish scholar and mystic - seems to have been partly based on him. Eliot wrote to Harriet Beecher Stowe after the publication of Deronda that "towards the Hebrews we western people who have been reared in Christianity have a peculiar debt and, whether we acknowledge it or not, a peculiar thoroughness of fellowship in religious and moral sentiment". She remained interested in Judaism throughout her life, publishing an essay against antisemitism three years later.
What does Daniel Deronda show us about the place of Jews in Britain in the late 19th century? First, that they were unpopular, suffering from easy, casual prejudice, even during the premiership of the Jewish-born Benjamin Disraeli. Eliot is keen to show us what she considers the typical view of Jews - from the upper classes (who superciliously refer to Mirah as a "little Jewess"), to the middle classes (Mrs Meyrick instantly presumes Mirah might have "evil thoughts"), to the working classes (the man in the pub who asks, "[If] they're clever enough to beat half the world - why haven't they done it?")
But Eliot is not above prejudice towards a certain sort of Jew herself. She assumes the reader will not take to the Cohen family, headed by a shiny-faced pawnbroker, and even apologises in the last chapter for allowing them to attend a key wedding. Meanwhile, her portrayal of the innocent Mirah swings the other way, so saintly it has shades of the noble savage. She is so childlike that when she finally finds romance it feels almost unsavoury.
Yet in her portrayal of Mordecai, the visionary intellectual who entrances Daniel, Eliot creates a complex character with both sympathetic and unsympathetic sides and reveals a sometimes overwhelmingly detailed fascination with the minutiae of Judaism, its religious practices, culture and literature. The fact that Daniel becomes Mordecai's disciple and agrees to carry on his work to seek a homeland for the Jews after his death - an idea presumably as baffling to Eliot's readers as it is to most of the book's gentile characters - also shows a real commitment to the subject by the author.
For those today who find Zionism difficult to understand, Eliot's depiction of its origins is evocative and powerful. Mordecai both describes and embodies the wandering Jew, forever an alien in a foreign land, never at home, "a people who kept and enlarged their spiritual store at the very time when they were hunted with a hatred so fierce as the forest fires that chase the wild beast from his covert".
But neither Eliot nor Mordecai acknowledge that Palestine was already populated; as such Mordecai's optimistic vision of a future Israel as "a new Judea, poised between East and West - a covenant of reconciliation - a halting-place of enmities, a neutral ground for the East" cannot help but read as grimly ironic today.
Opening Line: “Men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning.”
Closing Line: “But it was some hours before he had ceased to breathe, with Mirah's and Deronda's arms around him.”
Quotes: “Gossip is a sort of smoke that comes from the dirty tobacco-pipes of of those who diffuse it: it proves nothing but the bad taste of the smoker.”
"There's no disappointment in memory, and one's exaggerations are always on the good side."
Rating: Excellent

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