Holding Out For A Hero

I confess that Daniel Deronda by George Eliot has taken some reading. It was a frustrating book in that it had too much good stuff to abandon, but too many passages of dense unreadability for consistent entertainment. It was a relief to know that even Eliot champions like F. R. Leavis found it good in parts but not in others. As with so many big, chunky classics, the interest happens at the end of the reading, when you can look back over the whole and see the patterns emerge. Daniel Deronda is brilliant for that, being a book of intriguing elements that keep falling into different permutations: missing parents, boating incidents, women who sing, dangerous gambles, hidden sexual misdemeanours, poor interpretations and all sorts of issues around spiritual poverty and spiritual excess. It also avoids the sort of orthodox marriage plot that Jeffrey Eugenides recently located right in Eliot’s camp. Instead, it plays around with all sorts of curiously asymmetrical relationships. I wonder whether it’s one of those novels that are better to discuss than actually to read.

There are essentially two sides to the story, hinged together by the figure of Daniel Deronda. On the one side there is the story of spoiled darling, Gwendolen Harleth, a stately beauty with an adventurous, reckless side, who loves to be admired but has no desire for the yoke of marriage. Gwendolen begins the novel as the character you love to hate; she is brutal and wilful, caring only for her own small pleasures and dedicated to the maintenance of her self-esteem. The story opens with a little set piece that ends up having profound significance in the story. Holidaying with family friends abroad, Gwendolen is doing rather well at the gambling tables, until she notices Daniel Deronda watching her. His stern gaze seems to have the effect of changing her luck, and she loses (in fine style) all her winnings. When Daniel notices the following day that she has pawned a turquoise necklace, he buys it back for her – anonymously. In fact, Gwendolen is in the midst of a crisis. She has come to Europe after plans for a grand marriage have fallen through. She had become a figure of interest to Henleigh Grandcourt, a wealthy relative of Daniel Deronda’s, whose pallid languor, clever wit and perverse desires represent the unhealthy corruptness of British aristocracy. But when Gwendolen discovers a dreadful secret in his past, she flees abroad to avoid any possible marriage offer. She is soon summoned back home by the dreadful news that her mother has lost her fortune, and of course the marriage she detested in prospect now becomes a way of securing her family’s wellbeing. In a pitiful state of unhappiness, Gwendolen turns more and more to Deronda as a sort of moral compass for her, a therapist avant la lettre, whose guidance she desperately seeks.

Daniel is busy with his own affairs, however. He has grown up the cherished ward of his Uncle Hugo Mallinger (who will be obliged to leave his estates to Grandcourt in the absence of his own son) and does not know who his parents are. In good English fashion, no one has ever spoken to him about his roots, thinking that this would be best. But in fact Daniel hides a deep wound of insecurity and shame about his origins. He grows up a perfectly moral character, however, in the best Eliot tradition. He is the champion of the underdog, the man who loves and longs to support the damaged and marginalized people of the world. Unsurprisingly, then, when he rescues a beautiful young Jewish girl from drowning, and learns that she has been searching fruitlessly for her mother and brother, he takes the problem on for her and becomes her benefactor. The quest for Mirah’s relatives leads Deronda into the Jewish quarters of London. There he meets a prophet-like figure, the consumptive Mordecai, who has himself been searching for a perfect soul to continue his life’s work, which is a sort of impossible fantasy of nationhood for the Jewish people, and believes that Daniel is the man for the job.

Deronda, Gwendolen and Grandcourt in the BBC adaptation

George Eliot is a writer of strong moral sentiment who had a deeply idealistic streak. At one level, the two halves of this novel correspond to these two tendencies: Gwendolen (a metaphor in her way for the spirit of the empire) must be broken and reformed in better moral shape, whilst the Jews whom Daniel meets provide the sort of idealised working class figures, intellectual men engaged in preserving conservative traditions, that she wanted to portray with social realist honesty. The intriguing thing is that the two halves don’t mesh, remaining stubbornly unrelated to one another throughout the novel. But there are all sorts of mismatches of this type, of which Daniel and Gwendolen are by far and away the most interesting example.

Gwendolen is a woman with too much manliness, brought up by a weak and indulgent mother as the real master of the household, whereas Daniel is a man with too much femininity, his own moral scruples forming a sort of extreme sensitivity that holds him in unproductive limbo. Both have to face up to the insufficiencies of their privileged quality. Gwendolen lacks the necessary male strength and aggression to stand up to Grandcourt and suffers instead a sort of hysterical collapse. And Daniel, whose sympathy Eliot describes time and again, is not truly sympathetic enough to help her. Forced into the role of her counsellor, he suffers tremendous unease and offers only the blandest of advice. He much prefers ‘helping’ the sweet, untaxing, self-sufficient Mirah. Ultimately, Gwendolen must shoulder the role of hero in this novel, because she undergoes huge psychological change and meets her problems bravely. Daniel, the would-be sympathetic hero, becomes what he always suspected he was, and disappears at the end of the novel into a fantasyland beyond the author’s, or reader’s imagining. Readers who would like a feminist angle in this text are destined to be disappointed. The characters Eliot rescues are those intent on doing good in the wider world, and Gwendolen’s sphere of interest is too personal. And readers who enjoy the romantic prospect don’t fare any better. The novel seems made for the union of Gwendolen and Daniel, but that is not the conclusion Eliot offers. In fact, the complete absence of healthy sexual attraction between people in the novel, the sort of red energy that spawns hope and forward movement and dynamic action, seems exemplary of its assymetrical oddities.

There is much to enjoy in this novel, including psychological insights of delightful acuity. But there is an awful lot to plough through, too. I wish I could say that the Jewish side of the narrative was fascinating, but it is dreadfully dull, not to mention awkwardly poised between satisfying the stereotypes Eliot’s readers would mostly have subscribed to, and rehabilitating the Jewish character by idealistic means. The mere appearance of Mordecai made me want to skip chapters, because his prophet-in-the-wilderness speech is almost unreadable. But hey, you can see Eliot trying her nineteenth century best. Perhaps what’s so interesting about this flawed novel is the distant drumroll of the twentieth century approaching, as the grand narrative with its satisfying closure breaks down here, and neither at the level of individual destinies nor of social realities do we find neat resolutions or the promise of a hopeful future. As I said, that’s really interesting to think about, but a little frustrating to read.

14 thoughts on “Holding Out For A Hero

  1. Oh, Litlove, I am so glad you posted this! : ) I have to say that I agree with you because I think this is not as enjoyable a novel as Middlemarch. Your are so right that Eliot has many passages that you want to skip as a reader! Plus I enjoy Middlemarch more because of the historical aspects like the Reform Bill, which are weaved throughout the novel and which I found quite interesting, having been a history major in college.

    I will tell you my reactions more in my next email. (I have been so busy and have not had time to comment on your last few posts, but I am always, always reading you!) I hope you enjoyed my long description of New York though I fully realize I come across as difficult with my friends! Can’t wait to hear from you when you have time.

    • Ali – it is hard going in places, isn’t it? I really enjoyed the parts about Gwendolen, but found a lot of the rest rather over-detailed and slow. I confess I, too, enjoyed Middlemarch a great deal more. Although I do admire the quality of Eliot’s writing, particularly when it comes to psychological insight. Some of her sentences are fabulous. I will tell you more about what I think when I reply to your email, which I loved! And the stories about New York made me laugh, actually, as it all sounded perfectly reasonable and human to me (and very much the sort of thing I would do!). I’ll write you a full reply early in the week, so watch out for it!

  2. ‘The novel seems made for the union of Gwendolen and Daniel’ GAH! Thank godness this didn’t happen! I can’t tell you how much I disliked Deronda in the Gwendolen sphere of this book. As you say he’s a terrible counsellor and only realises towards the end that by aligning himself with such hard morals, then passing them onto Gwen, he may have done real damage. By that tiem of course he’s preoccupied with Mariah and Gwen will just have to fend for herself.

    I totally agree this novel is hard going. It took me two months to finish, because I would put the book down at a Mordicai bit, or a Deronda bit and couldn’t summon up the enthusaism to pick it up again. There are some lovely insights buried in the book (the quip about how everyone around Deronda seems to imagine that he can never have been in the grip of the same kind of passions they experience is probably my favourite), but it’s hard to really love a novel when the main character is such a dry stick. Gwen forever!

    • I can absolutely see why you would be fed up of Deronda by the end of the book. He is so wishy-washy and lily-livered. I must say I felt annoyed by this ‘Daniel is a man in perfect sympathy with others’ line, when he was so clearly quite narked and upset by anything that didn’t actually appeal to him – he gets fed up so quickly with his so-called best friend, Hans, is a real snob about the Cohens and of course, spends his whole time wanting to run a mile from poor Gwendolen who really, really could use a bit of support. Team Gwendolen all the way here – such a dreadful ending for her, all hysterical but knowing she’s still the strongest person around.

  3. I loved readying, studying and discussing Middlemarch in graduate school but haven’t tackled much other Eliot. This post did make me chuckle just for a moment because my dad’s book club (he is a former high school English teacher) really wanted to read an Eliot book and he said “just not Daniel Deronda! Life is too short.”

    • Courtney – lol! I think your dad is onto something there….. Eliot is tough. I loved Middlemarch, but where to go after that? I wasn’t sure I was all that keen on Adam Bede or The Mill on the Floss as I fear the pastoral will be all idealised. But what else is there? Maybe your dad has a good suggestion!?

  4. Too bad this is such hard going since it is such a very long book! But forewarned is forearmed and should I ever undertake it I will know exactly what to expect! Just one curious question, does Daniel ever discover his parentage?

    • There are really good bits, so it’s just a shame that there’s quite a lot you have to plow through! In answer to your question, yes, Daniel does indeed find out about his parentage, but it’s not at all what he expects. That was quite a good bit.

  5. As I have a hard time with long novels this is not a book I’m likely to read.
    It’s interesting and I know exactly what you mean when you say that some books are better to discuss than to read. I find flawed books are often like this.
    All of her books are longish and is she not also famous for what you call “dense unreadability”? I’ve got The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch, I’ll read one of those…Some day.

    • I do have to agree. When I reached page 500, it felt like I’d been reading forever and I still had 200 pages – a short novel – still to go. Not encouraging. But I’m glad I got through it in the end. Middlemarch I read years and years ago but really loved. I had no trouble with that one at all. But I know very little about Eliot and indeed that whole 19th century period in English literature is my black hole. I was reading French and German novels at the time when I might otherwise have tackled this era.

  6. You made it through–and it is a hefty novel (maybe in more ways than one it seems). I watched the movie several years ago, though I’m not sure I could manage the book. It sounds like it has lots of good ideas, but you have to wade through other bits as well (I’ve come across a few of those so I know how hardgoing it can be at times). They seem like two such different stories, it’s too bad they don’t come quite together as well as they could in the end. I’d love to reread Middlemarch someday, though.

  7. I also read and loved Middlemarch a few years ago and have never been able to find another one of hers to go to next. I own most of her books and keep telling myself, Daniel Deronda or Mill on the Floss, one of these days… but they are both so big! And look rather difficult and sad! I started Daniel Deronda once and enjoyed the gambling opening scene, but never went further than that. Maybe we can just keep rereading Middlemarch and leave it at that. Maybe I’ll just watch the miniseries versions of the rest. (Although I had to watch a version of Silas Marner in junior high and it seemed so boring that I had no intention of ever reading George Eliot for a very long time!)

  8. I recently read Silas Marner which I pretty much totally enjoyed-I am now reading Adam Bede and sometimes I have almost felt like abandoning then I will come on a passage so amazing I am motivated to continue on

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