George Eliot published her last novel, Daniel Deronda, in 1876, shortly after the highly successful Middlemarch (1871-1872). The novel chronicles the growth in consciousness of a self-conscious and self-seeking young man, Daniel Deronda, whose moral perception broadens as he becomes aware of his own identity and his mission as a Jew. His growth is encouraged by Mordecai, who is the incarnation of what unifies the Jews and who reflects Eliot’s sympathetic understanding.
Deronda’s growth in consciousness and sympathetic understanding are mirrored in and facilitated by Gwendolen Harleth’s parallel growth from utter selfishness to a broader and deeper sense of herself and her fellows. Deronda’s growing ability to communicate with her and to experience mutual understanding prepares him for the deeper affinity that he comes to feel for Mordecai and his dreams of Jewish nationalism.
As of the very first reviews, many critics saw the novel as being divided into two parts: the Deronda or Jewish part, which includes Mirah and Mordecai, and the Gwendolen or English part, which includes Grandcourt. Almost everyone found fault with the character and mission of Deronda and described him as being effeminate, wooden, lifeless, helpless, pedantic, clumsy, unsatisfying, analytical, vague, and tentative; he was described as lacking vitality and as being too theorizing, melodramatic, and dull. At the same time the English part was highly praised, and Gwendolen was judged to be one of the most successful heroines Eliot had created. Critics found Gwendolen to be charming, interesting, and psychologically realistic. Indeed, among George Eliot’s women, Gwendolen is the most rebellious against patriarchal traditions, and her struggle to overcome her egoism and learn submission is totally believable.
Even the style and philosophy of the two parts of the novel have been compared for their differences. The Deronda part is idealistic and deals in allegorical and epic terms with the history and the heritage of the Jewish people; the Gwendolen part is realistic in every sense.
Deronda’s Jewish heritage is effectively used to symbolize the principles of solidarity that underline Eliot’s moral message. Many readers have responded positively and with appreciation to Eliot’s extensive...
(The entire section is 954 words.)