Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 954

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.

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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 knowledge of Jewish culture, the depth of her Talmudic studies, and her sympathetic treatment of the plight of the Jews in Britain (the character Deronda was thought to be patterned after Benjamin Disraeli and Deronda’s mother after Disraeli’s mother).

The unifying element for both plots is found in the use of imagery and other artistic devices that incorporate both plots into the major theme and demonstrate the growth in sympathetic understanding that Deronda and Gwendolen exhibit. Both characters are in the crisis of alienation and acquisition of self until they gradually learn to recognize their own identities and intended purposes; in the course of that, each learns submission. Their heritage is revealed in relation to their mothers and in their growing sexual awareness. Patterns of imagery involving vision, light, eyesight, and reflecting pools and glasses define and chronicle their growing self-perception and insight into the hearts of others.

As the characters experience the inner conflict between sympathy and selfishness, references to and experiences with theater and music help enlarge their sympathies. River imagery is used in many ways. At first the characters are merely drifting with a lack of purpose, but as they mature, they begin to row energetically. Bridges of understanding develop in meetings that take place on actual bridges. Other significant patterns of images that delineate the growth of sympathy involve specific reactions to gems and precious stones and the interpretation of writing, texts, and language. Dreams chronicle crises in spiritual growth, and sensuous relationships provide opportunities to analyze morality within complex social networks.

Deronda grows as he becomes Gwendolen’s moral leader and helps her to outgrow her narrow egoism; being directed by his nobler nature and seeing him assume his cosmic role shocks her into an awareness of self. She learns to accept her own limitations, to fulfill her obligations to her mother and others, to outgrow her dependence on Deronda, and to stand alone. She is released from the bondage of her marriage to the sinister Grandcourt. Deronda’s involvement with Gwendolen serves as a catalyst to bring him to admit that Mirah is the woman he loves and to usher him into his public role. Both Deronda and Gwendolen learn that to lose one’s life is to find it.

As a young man, Deronda believed he was the illegitimate child of Sir Hugo Mallinger, who has raised him as his son. By the time Deronda goes to Genoa to learn the truth about his birth, he has been prepared in every possible way to receive the knowledge that his mother, Madame Alcharisi, imparts to him. Even though she has neglected her duty to her race and to her family, her son is mature enough to be glad that he is a Jew. He is ready to learn more of her personal and national heritage from the manuscripts and family records in the trunk that her grandfather had preserved for him, and he allows Mordecai to interpret the documents to him and instruct him in the meaning of her inheritance.

Eliot’s last novel is a powerful and in some ways inspired work, as fascinating for its defects as for its successes, since both reflect not only the author’s established strengths as a novelist but also her inventiveness and willingness to explore new areas and strive for greater depth and breadth in her fiction. Daniel Deronda shares with its predecessors a penetrating insight into human relationships, a sensitive portrayal of individual moral and emotional growth, an astute and critical analysis of Victorian values, and a unifying moral vision of life.

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