Circumcision and the Deronda

What's a footnote?
So this is a thing and it cracked me up. I was peacefully googling for some information about Judaism in Daniel Deronda because I vaguely envisioned a comparison to Ulysses. (Why would I do that? Because my life contains too little pain and I must add to it.) And then I stumbled across this rather fascinating book chapter and nothing was the same again. 

Someone, somewhere, at some point in 1975, noticed something weird about Daniel Deronda's life story. Supposedly, his mother had given him away when he was two years old, because she didn't want him to be raised in the Jewish tradition. But if he was two, that meant he had already been circumcised. Circumcision was not widespread in Britain outside of Jewish circles. So the question arises: did Daniel never look down? Not to minimize people's ignorance of their own bodies and especially their genitals (if in doubt, read (almost) any romance novel and try to reconstruct female anatomy from it), but surely at some point he would have noticed. If not on his own, when reading up on Jewish traditions or when people started insisting that he might be of Jewish descent. 

So what gives? Literary criticism being the serious enterprise that it is, this did not devolve into a series of jokes about Deronda's dick. (Which is why I'm not an English major. I'll basically always go for the joke.) Instead it turned to a discussion about the problem of realism in the Victorian period. Did George Eliot realize this could be a potential problem for her plot? Given the care she put into researching this book, it is very likely that she did. And if so, did she try to give subtle hints of this? Like when she talks about Deronda sympathizing with Byron because of Byron's deformed foot, is she inviting us to make use of well-known urban legends about men with big feet and see Daniel as being ashamed of his own unusual penis? Why does she never talk of Deronda's nose? Henry James mentions Deronda's nose. Does he use it as an euphemism for penis or not? (Yes, someone wrote an academic article about this. Maybe there is hope for literary criticism after all.)

But suppose that feet are feet and noses are noses for a second. That would mean that George Eliot did not talk about Deronda's penis because she either did not realize it was a problem, or she thought no one would care. (And, to be fair, it did take 99 years before anyone did care.) The latter would imply that realism is a convention and one can ignore certain details even when they point to phallic-shaped plot holes.

I obviously think finding subtle hints in the novel is going too far and that one of the other options (Eliot didn't know or didn't care) is far more likely. It also never crossed my mind when reading to think of the state of Deronda's genitals, so I guess it's not just Victorians who are oblivious to such things. In any case, you should check out this chapter that talks at length about the whole debate. It's interesting.


  1. Modern classic with the same problem: "Whose Body?" by Dorothy L. Sayers. Police can't figure this out either.

    1. Oh, that's very interesting, Donna, I had no idea. Thanks for sharing that tidbit :)