“Daniel Deronda”–George Eliot’s dream of justice

George Eliot being George Eliot, the notable “bluestocking” amongst Victorian and earlier female novelists, one of her most famous heroes, Daniel Deronda, occupies what one might find the closest place next her heart by turning out a scholar himself.  But more than that, and more essentially close to her own preferences and feelings, he turns out to be a momentally just man, a man who fulfills Eliot’s program of fair play in managing to be fair to everyone, and only finally and modestly to himself (in the very long eponymous novel, Daniel Deronda).

One thing that is characteristic of all Eliot novels, as least as far as this reviewer has seen, is that she can use what in another less thoughtful writer would be stereotypical situations in a new, different, and provocative way (like a drowning, a seduction, the revelation of a hero’s or heroine’s ancestral descent, a parent’s dereliction of duty, an attempted suicide, on and on ad infinitum).  She takes these staples of the earlier Romantic period and turns them not only into serious and provocative material for the picturing of the character’s internal workings, but also into meditative and theoretical and intellectual examinations of what the actual situations mean themselves as events.  It is this interrogation of persons and actions from which her novels derive their deep seriousness of purpose for which she is famed.  And it’s not only Romantic novelists with whom she can be contrasted in this regard:  even so serious another Victorian novelist as Dickens makes more melodramatic “hay” of his fields of enquiry than she does from the same sorts of plot elements.  Just for example, drawn from any Dickens novel you want to name in which parents are less than honest or just plain conniving, Dickens wrings out the last final drop of suspense and sentiment from the action by making the dishonest parent figures appear again and again at intervals and submitting the young hero or heroine to their machinations until the reader “feels” the sadomasochistic squeeze of events.  By contrast (and for example in Daniel Deronda) when the young Jewish heroine Mirah Lapidoth’s wastrel father comes back into the picture, it is not after a huge build-up, though he is mentioned early on; rather, he comes in near the end as a minor blocking figure and simultaneous deus ex machina of sorts (by stealing the wealthier character Deronda’s diamond ring, he precipitates the declaration of love Deronda makes to Mirah).  Once he is gone, he is gone, and he does not appear again to further complicate matters, which is to say that Eliot relies less on unlikely coincidences than Dickens does.

The bifurcation of the plot into two plots following the fortune of two different heroines (whose stories are joined through Deronda himself) makes up the structure of the book.  One is the story of young, beautiful, haughty and vain Gwendolen Harleth, who marries (without love) Henleigh Grandcourt, an even haughtier slightly older man, not only to save her family from poverty but also to ensure herself of a powerful and wealthy future.  She for a while has what she wants in material terms, but has enough conscience to be tortured by the knowledge (which came to her before her marriage) that she has married a man who had a wife in all but name and four dependents through her before meeting Gwendolen.  In addition, he is a sadistic and controlling person who mentally abuses her until he drowns in a boating accident.  To Gwendolen, Deronda is a sort of conscience and guide, upon whose counsel she comes to rely more and more in her own travails with her personal destiny.

The second line of plot concerns Mirah Lapidoth, whom Daniel has rescued from an attempted suicide, and with whom he falls in love very gradually.  As he goes about trying to find her mother and brother for her, from whom she was separated many years before by her degenerate gambler of a father who abducted her and used her to make his living, and from whom she escaped to London, Daniel simultaneously meets up with other Jews who all seem certain that he is one of themselves, which he turns out to be.  He takes up a serious study of Hebrew and Jewish customs before he knows who his own parents were, under the tutelage of a man named Mordecai who turns out later to be Mirah’s long ago separated brother.  This coincidence, however, seems natural, because he has in fact been searching for her family in places where it would be natural to expect them.  Less natural (but touched with the hand of miracle rather than melodrama) is the unexpected meeting in a synagogue in Frankfort with the best friend of his grandfather, who immediately asks him about his parentage.  At this earlier point in the novel, Daniel denies Jewish descent, not being aware of who his mother and father were, and only having come into the synagogue out of a sort of curiosity about the people whom he had met in London.

The full development of the “man of justice” theme is achieved by the end of the novel:  Daniel has helped to make Gwendolen less selfish and more inclined to seek the good of others and accept her own lot.  He has freed Mirah from the clutch of her past and made her his wife.  He has made Mordecai his brother-in-law and placed him in a better economic condition, though Mordecai is slowly dying of consumption.  He has righted wrongs he came across and learned to accept parts of his own heritage and surroundings which at first left him cold (such as his real, distant, unaffectionate mother, and the effervescent Cohens, friends of Mordecai’s).  Finally, in justice to himself, without undue soul-searching he marries Mirah and heads for the East, there to embark upon a study of his own people and their customs and conditions.  But even this apparent self-involvement is to bear the fruit of justice for some others; namely, he intends in the fullness of time to benefit the Jewish people by improving their status in the world.

There are women writers who seem to “fall in love” with their male protagonists, in fact who create them as if they were writing a recipe for a love affair they would like to have themselves.  Dorothy Sayers in her creation of Lord Peter Wimsey has been accused of so doing, for one.  If George Eliot is in any way culpable of this in Daniel Deronda then it would be better to say that she has “fallen in deep and enamored intellectual discussion with” her hero, making him the fulfilled pattern of what she most admired in scholars and learned men who also have a societal role to occupy in the larger world.  And just as Deronda emerges from his dream of doing something larger for a group of people somewhere in the world into a reality which is simultaneously the closest and best personal fulfillment he could hope for, so the reader emerges from the dream of the two heroines with the hero at one point poised equidistant between them into a vision of justice and peace which helps some mightily, and helps everyone at least to bear what burden they must.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to ““Daniel Deronda”–George Eliot’s dream of justice

  1. Read the post, now I have to read the book, then I can do a comment that could be really good.

    • You read so many things that I hesitate to “assign” more, but this really was an exceptional book, I think especially in the way it avoided stereotypical plots, or made unusual plots out of stereotypical elements. Worth a read, definitely. Thanks for reading.

      • Pile them on, it is better than the alternative of reality TV and predictable comedies. I like exceptional books and nice bookmarks to compliment them.

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