Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot

So I was studying 19th-century literature last winter, and my parents were reading Daniel Deronda for their book group (a rather unusual choice: it’s a Jewish book group, and their usual material is contemporary literature with Judaic themes). So I decided to read along (which also gave me an excuse attend the group, a thrill in its own right, as this group has been around in some configuration since I was a wee sproglet not mature enough to take part). I was nowhere near done when the book group met to discuss, but I’ve finished it since.

It is a very strange book. I’m not quite familiar enough with George Eliot’s oeuvre to actually put it in its place, but I can see why it’s not regarded as one of her best. It is very well-crafted on the level of sentences and chapters and characters but has some severe structural problems. The most striking problem is that it is not at all clear who the primary character is. We get about 20% of the way through the book before meeting the title character, and almost all of that pagecount is spent on an unlikeable girl named Gwendolyn Harleth (incidentally, it’s a very long book. 20% of it is a pretty sizable wodge-o’-text). Ms. Harleth (later Mrs. Grandcourt) remains a pretty major character, no a plot strand which is pretty much entirely divorced from the activities of Mr. Deronda himself. The plots merge to some extent late in the story, but in a purely one-sided direction: Gwendolyn depends tremendously on Daniel, and her dependence on Daniel tremendously drives her story, but Daniel’s own plotline is one to which Gwendolyn is completely irrelevant.

So why was a Jewish book group reading a novel about the lives and loves of a bunch of Brits written by a 19th-century Christian? Well, Daniel’s plot is actually aggressively Judaism-influenced and even proto-Zionist. See, he takes in an impoverished Jewess (it’s a 19th-century novel, so they use that word), and decides to help her find her family, which sends him neck-deep into the Jewish communities of London, where he feels surprisingly comfortable. Meanwhile, there’s some confusion about Daniel’s own identity, since he’s the ward—emphatically not recognized as a son—of a gentleman (who happens to be Mr. Grandcourt’s uncle, part of the tenuous connection to Gwendolyn). So midway through the novel, Daniel is basically wearing a neon sign on his head saying “I am the bastard son of my guardian and some Jewish lady”.

To Eliot’s credit, he’s not actually Sir Hugo Malliser’s son. He is, however, totally Jewish and spends a lot of the book figuring out what this means to him. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn gets happily widowed and her plotline kind of peters out as Daniel goes off to be all Zionist in Palestine.

I make it sound worse than it is. It’s actually a very good, well-observed book, with mostly good characters, excellent prose, and some interesting plotting. The actual pacing’s a bit off, and the text seems to move in fits and starts, but it still seems to mostly work. It’s just unfortunate that everything having to do with Gwendolyn seems like so much irrelevance. That includes the character (and rather sudden dispatch) of her husband. Mr. Grandcourt is a fairly thoroughgoing villain, who seems to ooze jealous malice. It’s never entirely clear why he’s such a nasty piece of work: he doesn’t actually seem to much care about or for Gwendolyn, but makes her life miserable for the sheer giddy hell of it. I mean, yes, we’re all glad when he dies, but can we get some reason for why he lived the way he did?

Daniel Deronda is an intriguing work, not least as a viewpoint from a fascinating 19th-century Christian woman who developed an extraordinary and atypical interest in Judaism and Hebrew (George Eliot was remarkable in many ways, among them her scholarly pursuits into Judaism and her proto-Zionist leanings). But I’m not sure it’s actually her best work or even in her top class: it’s structurally a real mess.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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