In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Daniel Deronda, Terence Cave sums up contemporary responses from English readers and critics. My paraphrase: It would be great if it weren’t for all that stuff about Jews. Cave notes, however, that even as English critics praised the Gwendolen Harleth sections and dismissed the Jewish characters and themes, Jewish publications were doing the opposite. It’s easy, therefore, to write off the English establishment’s response as anti-Semitism, or, at a minimum, discomfort with the different social strata and lives represented by Eliot’s Jewish characters.
The problem is that they’re right. They’re not right about the Jewish characters and themes themselves being a problem, of course--that’s where the social discomfort in the response is hard to deny--but their criticisms point to the way that the failure of those aspects of the novel to be integrated with the novel’s other concerns ultimately dooms Daniel Deronda. Think back to where the book begins: We watch a striking young woman throwing caution, and propriety, to the winds at the gaming table. We meet the young man, of mysterious past, who is watching her--and who quickly, anonymously, intervenes to help her clear a debt. We know their stories will be intertwined, and that these next many hundred pages will reveal some sort of approach, combat, and resolution of their independent wills and fates.
That Eliot doesn’t deliver what we expect is not a flaw. Her decision to instead show a mismatch, a truly unrequited love, is impressive, and it makes for some moving scenes, as Gwendolen realizes that Deronda is not the safe harbor she’d been counting on. And her desire to bring in larger themes, and paint a portrait of a mostly neglected, often despised people is also admirable. Cave defends her decisions in the introduction,
The evidence might, it is true, seem to confirm the view that the novel falls into two separate parts, each appealing to different tastes and different cultural norms; but that would be to accept the least demanding reading (on both sides), whereas patently the point of the novel is to make unusual demands on the reader.He is right that Eliot is trying to do something new, and it’s our job as readers to attempt to meet her on her ground. The problem, however, isn’t with her plan, but with her execution: She wants us to see Deronda driven by a quest for identity and purpose, a quest that can’t be fulfilled through a typical social life and novel-ending marriage. Yet Deronda’s questing always feels light, of limited depth and complexity. I compared him once before to Tolstoy’s Pierre, and I think the comparison remains instructive: Pierre is flighty and irresponsible, but we never question the fact that he’s driven by his inchoate desire to belong to something larger. By contrast, Deronda’s similar desire never ripens for the reader.
That failure can be laid squarely at the feet of Eliot’s two most important Jewish characters, Mirah and Ezra. Her secondary Jewish characters are wonderfully drawn: we believe in, and appreciate, all the Cohens from the minute they appear on stage. But Mirah and Ezra suffer greatly from a flaw that in literature is all but insurmountable, even after we discount for contemporary distrust of sentimentalism: perfection. I wrote before about Mirah’s gauziness, the insipidity that makes her as formless and uninteresting as a love interest in Dickens, but Ezra is just as bad. What do we know of him? He’s ill, he’s obsessed with Jewish history and philosophy, and he’s unfailingly kind and polite. But when we attend his discussion group with Deronda, we hear nothing from him that captivates, see nothing of the fervor or eloquence that could make us understand Deronda’s fascination. Like Mirah, he exists only as a perfection, an instrument for opening Deronda’s mind, and thus we have a hard time caring about just what Deronda’s mind is being opened to.
The same problem plagues the revelation of Deronda’s Jewish heritage. His mother--who at least is memorable in her self-absorption and caustic speech--turns out to be someone we’ve never encountered before, and the big secret of Deronda’s Jewish ancestry is exactly the one we’ve assumed we’d learn. The revelation fazes us barely more than it fazes Deronda (though perhaps we benefit unfairly from the passage of time in that case; it’s conceivable that seeing the very picture of an English gentleman revealed as a Jew could have provided a salutary shock to Eliot’s readers in her day)--it merely opens the door for him to definitively break with Gwendolen’s fantasies.
Gwendolen Harleth is a character worth reading 900 pages for, even if the novel disappoints. And nothing by Eliot could ever be devoid of interest, given her piercing intelligence and facility with epigrammatic observations. But oh, how I wish that Daniel Deronda were the novel it appears to be in its opening, full of fire and dash, mixing self-dealing subterfuges by Lush and clever machinations by Gwendolen, honorable doubt from Deronda and long-held secrets from Sir Hugo. What I wish for, I realize, is a much more traditional novel--and perhaps not a George Eliot novel at all. But sometimes it’s worth remembering the value of form, and this book brought it to mind: to watch such a compelling set-up dissolve into so much inchoate blandness can’t help but frustrate.