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Daniel Deronda Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Daniel Deronda reaches beyond Eliot’s other work in both form and ideas. The plot develops in two separate lines, one concerning the English upper classes and the other portraying a Jewish family living in the humbler part of East London. These lines converge in the title character, who has matured as the ward (and believes he is the illegitimate son) of Sir Hugo Mallinger, but discovers that he has a distinguished Jewish mother and grandfather. His discovery resolves dilemmas of identity and vocation, favorite themes of Eliot.

Deronda’s alertness, compassion, and moral seriousness lead him to rescue two quite different maidens. One is Mirah, a despairing Jewess who tries to drown herself because she cannot find the mother and brother from whom she has become separated. As he aids her search, Deronda meets Mordecai, a visionary Jew who sees in Daniel one who will complete his dream of perpetuating the Jewish cultural past in a coherent national future. The theme of inherited vision thus counterpoints the theme of inherited wealth.

The other maiden Deronda rescues is Gwendolen Harleth, a talented but ego-driven dilettante of limited experience and education. Deronda restores to her a necklace she has pawned to replace gambling losses; more significant, he awakens her conscience by disapproving of her reckless behavior. Later, after she has married Henleigh Grandcourt for money and power and is racked by guilt for having knowingly taken him from the woman who has borne his illegitimate children, she becomes dependent on the sympathetic, insightful Daniel to be her moral guide.

Eliot counterpoints the purposeless, property-absorbed, and morally vacuous daily trivia of the wealthy English, suggested in the name Mallinger, with the significant vocations of Mordecai and another Jew, Klesmer, a Continental musician of excellent artistry. When Gwendolen suffers financial reverses and hopes to escape the humiliating oppression of a governess’s life by successful acting and singing, Klesmer points out that in her world she has “not been called upon to be anything but a charming young lady, whom it is an impoliteness to find fault with.” Lacking self-criticism or self-discipline, she is unprepared, he tells her, for “a life of arduous, unceasing work,” suitable only to “natures framed to love perfection and to labour for it” and dreams only of “donning [an artist’s] life as a livery,” whereas its “honour comes from the inward vocation and the hard-won achievement.” Klesmer’s words dimly veil Eliot’s judgment of the unproductive leisure class.

Again in this novel Eliot portrays marriage as bondage, but the unaware egoism of Rosamond and self-serving rationalizing of Casaubon, however deadly their effects, seem almost everyday evils compared with Grandcourt’s calculated will to mastery. Accustomed to deference and regard as her due, Gwendolen has been favorably impressed by Grandcourt’s polite but uninspired behavior and has found his lack of ardor pleasingly untroublesome. She marries him for money and power, driven by her own will to mastery and lacking the moral imagination to envision her life subjected to his unloving will. The torturous chemistry between them contrasts with the sympathetic meeting of souls in the marriages of Daniel and Mirah and of Klesmer and Catherine Arrowpoint. Eliot’s repeated satire against marriage as an arrangement for the suitable inheritance of property is nowhere so stinging as in the Reverend Mr. Gascoigne’s advice to Gwendolen that it is her “duty” to elevate her family by marrying rank, and in Mr. and Mrs. Arrowpoint’s insistence to Catherine that her “duty” as an heiress lies in marrying the proper manager of their estate. The author’s treatment of marital intimacy observes customary Victorian restraint but reveals evils of imposed brutality unusual in contemporary fiction . Her sensibility is represented in Klesmer’s plea to Catherine: “don’t give...

(The entire section is 1,759 words.)