Review: Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

I've been an awful slacker lately. But no more. There's only one month left of A Victorian Celebration, so I've started on Collins and Darwin. But before I get to them, I need to get Daniel Deronda out of the way first, so this week is dedicated to it. I read this book twice and reread large parts of it in order to write this review. All things considered, I've spent a lot of time in the company of this narrator and these characters. But the more I reread, the more conflicted my feelings about this novel are.

Daniel Deronda presents two loosely interwoven stories. On one hand, we get the individual plight of Gwendolen Harleth. Gwendolen is a female character that I have the distinct impression of having met before, though I can't figure out where. She's young and beautiful, very sure of herself and of her place as the unofficial center of the universe. She's arrogant, high spirited and unsentimental. And she's punished for it. In order to escape poverty, she makes an unethical decision and marries a man who she knows ought to have married another. Her remorse and her efforts to find a moral way of living are connected with Daniel Deronda. He and Gwendolen meet accidentally at the beginning of the novel and he disapproves of her activities at the time (gambling). As a result of this first meeting and of his moral censure, Gwendolen casts him as her outer conscience. She relies on his advice to learn how to be good.

And she couldn't have chosen a better mentor, because Daniel Deronda? He's a man without faults. He is good, smart, handsome and modest on top of it. Not just Gwendolen, but everyone relies on him. He walks around saving kittens and Disney heroines from drowning. And though Eliot very nicely says that "Those who trust us educate us," you don't get to see much of that in Daniel's case, because good behavior seems to come naturally to him. But there is one thing amiss in the life of young Deronda: he doesn't know who his parents are. His getting involved with the Jewish community through Mirah, the young Disney heroine woman he saved, and Mordecai, a visionary Zionist, make up the universal, intellectually-elevated side of the novel (as opposed to Gwendolen's story, I guess). Daniel gradually warms up to the idea that he might be of Jewish descent. Which, as it turns out, he is.

There is enough in this novel to keep you returning to it, to make you want to examine it further. But there are also some weak points that interfered with my ability to fully enjoy it, especially at the second reading. So I will just quickly list what I liked and what I didn't like below.

The Good

The morally-flawed characters seem to be this novel's greatest achievement. Gwendolen is quite captivating, especially in the first part of the novel. She is an example of how to create a  multifaceted character starting from just a couple of defining features. Another example is her husband, who is an interesting study in cruelty. You get to understand how their minds work, but you still wait for their actions with interest. They are not boringly predictable (which, sadly, some of the positive characters, including Deronda himself, are).

My second-favorite thing about this novel is the way its themes and motifs work together like in a symphony. I don't think its construction overall is sound (see below), but I really appreciated the attempt. The problem of parentage, of having absent or bad parents, emerges for Daniel, for Gwendolen, for Mirah, and even for the Meyrick family. The problem of inheritance, both material and spiritual, is present for Sir Hugo, for Grandcourt and his son outside of marriage, for Mordecai, for Daniel in relation with his lost family. Art and the difference between geniuses and amateurs concern Klesmer, the music master, and his employers; Hans, Daniel's friend, who's a painter; Mirah and her father, who used to work in the theater; Daniel's mother, who was a singer; Daniel and Gwendolen, who are both amateurs, but understand the purpose of art very differently. Even the character of Sir Hugo, the well-meaning but down-to-earth gentleman who raised Daniel, is mirrored in Gwendolen's world by Mr. Gascoigne.

The Bad

Can you spell "saccharine"? Because you are going to get a fair amount of that when it comes to the positive characters. Mirah is a character who lives to embody virtue and cross her feet and hands daintily (I lost count of how many times she does that over the course of the book). The Meyrick family is cute in a very Little Women style, but then I was alternatively bored and annoyed by Little Women, so I didn't really appreciate its charm. And presiding over this cast of goody-goodies, Daniel Deronda, the good man par excellence.

But beside the fact that half of the characters were just too good to be true, my problem was that they seemed to dominate the book. After a very strong start on Gwendolen's story, the shift to Daniel's perspective was welcome, but the space his story received seemed disproportionate. In the middle of the book, Gwendolen is simply absent. The way their stories entwine again was a little artificial (especially since it relies in the end on a huge coincidence). Another problem was that plotlines are started and then completely dropped, like in the case of Klesmer's romance with Miss Arrowpoint. It was a cute romance, predicated on their shared intellectual interests, and Miss Arrowpoint was a refreshingly determined female character. But their story simply disappears from the novel's map, until someone reports on it indirectly in the second half, like an afterthought.

The Really, Really Preachy 

Jewish identity and Zionism. I wish I didn't have this problem with the novel, because I really appreciate what Eliot tried to do here. I think she succeeded in revealing the way prejudice against a minority works. Even the good characters (Deronda, the Meyricks) are not unbiased towards Jewish people. They embrace Mirah, but at the same time they wish she'd give up her faith. The saintly Daniel looks unkindly at a Jewish family and judges their every gesture in a way he wouldn't with a Christian family. (He reforms his ways. See: saintly.) This is all wonderfully done, and I love Eliot for it. It is relevant even today. At the same time, I don't identify with all the talk about identity, national or otherwise, and didn't feel that Daniel's conversations with Mordecai came to life the way Gwendolen's problems did.

Bottom Line

I know I spent 2/3 of the review complaining about various details, but I'm going to give this book 4 out of 5 stars. Because I admire what Eliot set out to do, love the parts of that project she did accomplish, and think there are enough good things in this book to keep one engrossed for a long time. Which is why I'm going to return to it in a series of footnotes.

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