Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 16 (1985)
In writing Daniel Deronda George Eliot hoped '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' . Typically, her aspiration was suffused with doubt. She wished the novel to be seen as an integrated work of art but worried about its aesthetic reception; and she feared that the' Jewish element' would elicit an unenthusiastic response. On both counts her apprehensiveness has been proven prophetic. Daniel Deronda remains one of the most controversial of the great English novels, its extraordinary fusion of realist and mystical, 'Jewish' and 'non-Jewish' elements, a puzzle to each new generation of readers.
Some of the best-known assessments of the novel have been painfully divided. Henry James's classic "Daniel: A Conversation" echoes George Eliot's anxiety on both counts. It pronounces the Jewish part "cold" and the narrative structure fragmented and uneven. Moreover, its very format - a fictional dialogue between readers - implicitly levels at George Eliot's novel the most radical of criticisms: James uses his own fictional medium to expose what he takes to be the communicative limitations of George Eliot's method. Pulcheria' s contribution to the conversation reveals that, however heroic, Daniel Deronda has not assuaged her prejudices. In this instance at least, a sympathetic vision of 'human claims' has not possessed the reader.