George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, & Zionism: Some Observations

by Ibn Warraq (December 2009)

Part One: A.

eorge Eliot’s Daniel Deronda was first published in 1876, and proved to be her last novel. The novel begins in August 1865, and is thus set in, and a searching analysis of, the Victorian society of her day. Daniel Deronda is at once a love story, and a novel of ideas – two interwoven strands running through it. One strand concerns the life and moral development of the heroine, Gwendolen Harleth, a selfish but sparkling woman of great charm at home in the fashionable, upper-class world of Victorian England, and the other looks with empathy at the world of Jews and their aspirations, mainly in England but also in the wider European context. Bridging the two worlds is the good, wise, compassionate Daniel Deronda, brought up as an English gentleman, who discovers that his mother was Jewish, and by the end of the novel takes up the cause of restoring the Jewish nation in Palestine.

Henry James, who was not only a distinguished novelist but a considerable literary critic, set the tone of all subsequent criticisms of the novel in his celebrated  “Daniel Deronda: A Conversation” written in the year of Daniel Deronda’s publication, 1876,

“Constantius….Little by little I began to feel that I caredless for certain notes than for others. I say it under my breath-I began to feel an occasional temptation to skip. Roughly speaking, all the Jewish burden of the story tended to weary me.


Theodora….As for the Jewish element in Deronda, I think it is a very fine idea; it’s a noble subject. Wilkie Collins and Miss Braddon would not have thought of it, but that does not condemn it. It shows a large conception of what one may do in a novel.


Pulcheria….You cannot persuade me that Deronda is not a very ponderous and ill-made story. It has nothing that one might call a subject. A silly young girl and a solemn, sapient young man who doesn’t fall in love with her! That is the donnée of eight monthly volumes.”


F. R. Leavis in The Great Tradition voiced his desire to see the “bad half” represented “by Deronda himself, and what may be called in general the Zionist inspiration” unshackled from the novel altogether and the good half preserved independently under the title Gwendolen Harleth. Barbara Tuchman calls the novel “peculiarly schizoid,” and unrealistic since it never contends with the real problems besetting any Jews contemplating resettling in Palestine, “Like all the productions of non-Jewish enthusiasts for the Return, Deronda never hesitates a moment over the problems that so harassed actual Jews – assimilation, anti-semitism, Judaism as religion or as nationality, living dog or dead lion. The problem of reviving the desire for nationality never occurs to them, any more than the economics of the business – the actual physical process of getting to Palestine, of acquiring land, of making a living. They skip over all that to plunge at one stride into Palestine, where a revived Israel will emerge full grown like Athena.”

F. R. Leavis, the Deronda half is closely interwoven with the moral development of Gwendolen Harleth, and is essential for the contrast of Daniel’s high moral seriousness, and his eventual discovery of a purposeful life, to, for example, the utter brutality, the callousness, and the lack of any ethical urgency of the life of Gwendolen’s husband, Grandcourt, and all those in the latter’s orbit. Thus it is nonsensical to hope to arrive at a new, self-contained novel simply by cutting out the “Deronda half” in such a unnatural manner.

Tuchman, Eliot argues the case for assimilation, broaches the subject of anti-semitism, and laments the position of women in Judaism, and so much more, in the fine chapter where Daniel meets his mother for the first time as an adult:


“Then you have become unlike your grandfather in that,” said the mother, “though you are a young copy of him in your face. He never comprehended me, or if he did, he only thought of fettering me into obedience. I was to be what he called ‘the Jewish woman’ under pain of his curse. I was to feel everything I did not feel, and believe everything I did not believe. I was to feel awe for the bit of parchment in the mezuza over the door; to dread lest a bit of butter should touch a bit of meat; to think it beautiful that men should bind the tephillin on them, and women not,—to adore the wisdom of such laws, however silly they might seem to me. I was to love the long prayers in the ugly synagogue, and the howling, and the gabbling, and the dreadful fasts, and the tiresome feasts, and my father’s endless discoursing about Our People, which was a thunder without meaning in my ears. I was to care for ever about what Israel had been; and I did not care at all. I cared for the wide world, and all that I could represent in it. I hated living under the shadow of my father’s strictness. Teaching, teaching for everlasting—’ this you must be,’ ‘that you must not be’—pressed on me like a frame that got tighter and tighter as I grew. I wanted to live a large life, with freedom to do what every one else did, and be carried along in a great current, not obliged to care. Ah!”—here her tone changed to one of a more bitter incisiveness—”you are glad to have been born a Jew: You say so. That is because you have not been brought up as a Jew. That separateness seems sweet to you because I saved you from it.”. . . ….

“I beseech you to tell me what moved you—when you were young, I mean—to take the course you did,” said Deronda, trying by this reference to the past to escape from what to him was the heartrending piteousness of this mingled suffering and defiance. “I gather that my grandfather opposed your bent to be an artist Though my own experience has been quite different, I enter into the painfulness of your struggle. I can imagine the hardship of an enforced renunciation.”

“No,” said the Princess, shaking her head, and folding her arms with an air of decision. “You are not a woman. You may try—but you can never imagine what it is to have a man’s force of genius in you, and yet to suffer the slavery of being a girl. To have a pattern cut out—’this is the Jewish woman; this is what you must be; this is what you are wanted for; a woman’s heart must be of such a size and no larger, else it must be pressed small, like Chinese feet; her happiness is to be made as cakes are, by a fixed receipt.’ That was what my father wanted. He wished I had been a son; he cared for me as a makeshift link. His heart was set on his Judaism. He hated that Jewish women should be thought of by the Christian world as a sort of ware to make public singers and actresses of. As if we were not the more enviable for that! That is a chance of escaping from bondage.”

“Was my grandfather a learned man?” said Deronda, eager to know particulars that he feared his mother might not think of.

She answered impatiently, putting up her hand, “Oh yes,—and a clever physician—and good: I don’t deny that he was good. A man to be admired in a play—grand, with an iron will. Like the old Foscari before he pardons. But such men turn their wives and daughters into slaves. They would rule the world if they could; but not ruling the world, they throw all the weight of their will on the necks and souls of women. But nature sometimes thwarts them. My father had no other child than his daughter, and she was like himself.”


George Eliot herself said that she had written Daniel Deronda “to ennoble Judaism,” and to requite a moral debt owed to the Jews, as she explains to Harriet Beecher Stowe in the following letter:

“As to the Jewish element in ‘Deronda,’ I expected from first to last, in writing it, that it would create much stronger resistance, and even repulsion, than it has actually met with. But precisely because I felt that the usual attitude of Christians towards Jews is — I hardly know whether to say more impious or more stupid, when viewed in the light of their professed principles, I therefore felt urged to treat Jews with such sympathy and understanding as my nature and knowledge could attain to. Moreover, not only towards the Jews, but towards all Oriental peoples with whom we English come in contact, a spirit of arrogance and contemptuous dictatorialness is observable which has become a national disgrace to us. There is nothing I should care more to do, if it were possible, than to rouse the imagination of men and women to a vision of human claims in those races of their fellow-men who most differ from them in customs and beliefs. But towards the Hebrews we western people, who have been reared in Christianity, have a peculiar debt, and, whether we acknowledge it or not, a peculiar thoroughness of fellowship in religious and moral sentiment. Can anything be more disgusting than to hear people called “educated” making small jokes about eating ham, and showing themselves empty of any real knowledge as to the relation of their social and religious life to the history of the people they think themselves witty in insulting? They hardly know that Christ was a Jew. And I find men, educated, supposing that Christ spoke Greek. To my feeling, this deadness to the history which has prepared half our world for us, this inability to find interest in any form of life that is not clad in the same coat-tails and flounces as our own, lies very close to the worst kind of irreligion. The best that can be said of it is that it is a sign of the intellectual narrowness — in plain English, the stupidity — which is still the average mark of our culture.

“Yes, I expected more aversion than I have found. But I was happily independent in material things, and felt no temptation to accommodate my writing to any standard except that of trying to do my best in what seemed to me most needful to be done; and I sum up with the writer of the Book of Maccabees, — “If I have done well, and as befits the subject, it is what I desired; and if I have done ill, it is what I could attain unto.”


Throughout the novel, George Eliot makes clear that her empathy for the Jews was but a part of a greater enterprise of widening our sympathies in general. “Art’s greatest benefit to men,” wrote George Eliot, “is to widen their sympathies.”[2]

Daniel Deronda embodies all her ideals, the man who exemplifies the widest sympathies for others and other ways of being. Eliot tells us in Chapter 16, “There had sprung up in him a meditative yearning after wide knowledge…. Daniel had the stamp of rarity in a subdued fervour of sympathy, an activity of imagination on behalf of others, which did not show itself effusively, but was continually seen in acts of considerateness that stuck his companions as moral eccentricity.” Deronda also displayed a “boyish love of universal history, which made him want to be at home in foreign countries, and follow in imagination the travelling students of the middle ages”. A little later, Daniel confesses, “I want to be an Englishman, but I want to understand other points of view. And I want to get rid of a merely English attitude in studies.”

Daniel always sided with the “objects of prejudice, and in general with those who got the worst of it….”. In Chapter 36, Daniel with unusual severity tells Gwendolen to acquire more knowledge so that “life would be worth more to you: some real knowledge would give you an interest in the world beyond the small drama of personal desires. It is the curse of your life – forgive me – of so many lives, that all passion is spent in that narrow round, for want of ideas and sympathies to make a larger home for it. Is there any single occupation of mind that you care about with passionate delight or even independent interest?”

In Chapter 40, Daniel is said to have a nature that “was too large, too ready to conceive regions beyond his own experience….” After his encounter with his mother, Daniel felt an older man, “He had gone through a tragic experience which must forever solemnise his life, and deepen the significance of the acts by which he bound himself to others” (Ch.53). Towards the end of the book [Ch.69], we get a glimpse of Gwendolen’s moral awakening, “she was for the first time feeling the pressure of a vast mysterious movement, for the first time being dislodged from her supremacy in her own world, and getting a sense that her horizon was but a dipping onward of an existence with which her own was revolving.”

Also towards the end of the novel, Mordecai, the Jewish visionary and brother of Mirah, whom Daniel eventually marries, gives us a mystical vision of the unity of mankind,

“Seest thou, Mirah, he said once, after a long silence, “the Shemah, wherein we briefly confess the divine Unity, is the chief devotional exercise of the Hebrew; and this made our religion the fundamental religion for the whole world; for the divine Unity embraced as its consequence the ultimate unity of mankind. See, then—the nation which has been scoffed at for its separateness, has given a binding theory to the human race. Now, in complete unity a part possesses the whole as the whole possesses every part: and in this way human life is tending toward the image of the Supreme Unity: for as our life becomes more spiritual by capacity of thought, and joy therein, possession tends to become more universal, being independent of gross material contact; so that in a brief day the soul of a man may know in fuller volume the good which has been and is, nay, is to come, than all he could possess in a whole life where he had to follow the creeping paths of the senses. In this moment, my sister, I hold the joy of another’s future within me: a future which these eyes will not see, and which my spirit may not then recognise as mine. I recognise it now, and love it so, that I can lay down this poor life upon its altar and say: ‘Burn, burn indiscernibly into that which shall be, which is my love and not me.’ Dost thou understand, Mirah?”





Christopher Hitchens defended George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda from Edward
Said and two others, concluding his contribution to the series Art of Criticism with the following remark: “This counterpoint—between the rising incense and the dying cadence, the triumphant and the modest, the prophetic and the quotidian—

is nowhere more boldly confronted than in the chapters of Daniel Deronda, which have already easily outlived the distinctly earthbound, confining objections made to them.” [3]

Said complains of “the total absence of any thought about the actual inhabitants of the East, Palestine in particular.”[4] Hitchens points out that Said is looking “through a retrospective optic.”[5] Said accuses Eliot of being callous: “The few references to the East in Daniel Deronda are always to England’s Indian colonies, for whose people—as people having wishes, values, aspirations—Eliot expresses the complete indifference of absolute silence.”[6] To this argument from silence, Hitchens had already replied earlier in the lecture by quoting a letter that George Eliot had written to Harriet Beecher Stowe:

“As to the Jewish element in “Deronda,” I expected from the first to last in writing it, that it would create much stronger resistance and even repulsion than it has actually met with. But precisely because I felt that the usual attitude of Christians towards Jews is—I hardly know whether to say more impious or more stupid—in the light of their professed principles, I therefore felt urged to treat Jews with such sympathy and understanding as my nature and knowledge could attain to. Moreover, not only towards all oriental peoples with whom we English come in contact, a spirit of arrogance and contemptuous dictatorialness is observable which has become a national disgrace to us. There is nothing I should care more to do,if it were possible, than to rouse the imagination of men and women to a vision of human claims in those races of their fellow men who must differ from them in customs and beliefs.”

Hitchens denies that Eliot “could not care less about the colonial subjects of
the British Crown,” by quoting her:


“We do not call ourselves a dispersed and a punished people; we are a colonising people and it is we who have punished others.”[8]


“Are we to adopt the exclusiveness for which we have punished the Chinese?”[9]


“He [Mixtus] continues his early habit of regarding the spread of Christianity as a great result of our commercial intercourse with black, brown and yellow populations; but this is an idea not spoken of in the sort of fashionable society that Scintilla collects around her husband’s table; and Mixtus now philosophically reflects that the cause must come before the effect, and that the thing to be striven for is the commercial intercourse—not excluding a little war if that also should prove needful as a pioneer of Christianity.”[10]


“[T]he Irish, also a servile race, who have rejected Protestantism though it has been repeatedly urged on them by fire and sword and penal laws, and whose place in the moral scale may be judged by our advertisements, where the clause “No Irish need apply” parallels the sentence which for many polite persons sums up the question of Judaism—“I never did like the Jews.”[11]


This, as Hitchens notes, “scarcely supports a finding of indifference towards the colonized.”[12]

Though Eliot in her generosity sees the establishment of a new nation in the
East as “a halting-place of enmities,” a reconciliation of the East with the West, Said refuses to acknowledge that Jews are Easterners or Orientals at all. That would spoil his vision of the establishment of Israel as a Western conspiracy, his Manichaean view of the world as a battle between the East and the West. Said is silent about Jews of Arab lands, even though there were Jewish communities at the time of the Romans in Egypt, North Africa, Morocco, the eastern Mediterranean, and Persia, long before the Arab conquests of the seventh century. For George Eliot, the purpose of the novel was to extend our moral sympathies; Edward Said remained unwilling to extend his sympathies to Eastern Jews.


[1] George Eliot’s Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals Vol.III Boston, 1895, p.241-242.

[2] George Eliot, “The Natural History of German Life,” Westminster Review, July 1856, p. 54.

[3] Christopher Hitchens, For the Sake of Argument (London: Verso, 1994), p. 337.

[4] Edward Said, The Question of Palestine (New York: Vintage, 1980), p. 65.

[5] Christopher Hitchens, For the Sake of Argument, p. 337.

[6] Edward Said, The Question of Palestine, p. 65.

[7] Christopher Hitchens, For the Sake of Argument, p. 335. Emphasis is Hitchens’s.

[8] George Eliot, “The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!” in Impressions of Theophrastus

Such in Theophrastus Such, Jubal, and Other Poems and The Spanish Gypsy (Chicago:

Donohue, Henneberry, 1900), p. 76.

[9] Ibid., p. 148.

[10] George Eliot, “A Half-Breed” in Impressions of Theophrastus Such in

Theophrastus Such, Jubal, and Other Poems and The Spanish Gypsy (Chicago: Donohue,

Henneberry, 1900), p. 76

[11] George Eliot, “The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!” p. 144.

[12] Christopher Hitchens, For the Sake of Argument, p. 338.

Part II continues here.

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