English, Department of



David Malcolm

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 29 (1998) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2018 (29)


'I am sure you are right to leave everything grand and vague', George Eliot's publisher wrote bemusedly to her about Daniel Deronda's Zionism (Letters VI: 272). In his 'Conversation' on Daniel Deronda, Henry James too, like many contemporary and later readers, expresses his doubt and unease about the novel's Zionist subject matter.

Traditional interpretations of the Zionist subject matter in Daniel Deronda are not wholly satisfactory. It is often dismissed as vague and lacking in concreteness (Fisher 227; Bamber 421; Hochman 113-33; LiddellI82), or explained purely in biographical terms, which, while fascinating, do not reveal much about the function of the Jewish-Zionist material within the text itself (Haight 470-1; see also: Baker, al-Raheb, Levitt, Howe, Putzell-Korab).

One of the most powerful interpretations of the Zionist material in Daniel Deronda is that offered by Elinor Shaffer in her 'Kubla Khan' and 'The Fall of Jerusalem'. She suggests that Deronda's Zionism must be understood in religious-philosophical terms. In Daniel Deronda, she argues, Eliot is recreating in modem, secular, and Feuerbachian terms the story of Christ (Shaffer 269). The novel is both a 'life of Jesus' and a critical, modem examination of that life (Shaffer 291). Shaffer's interpretation is very powerful, but there are misleading emphases in it. Contrary to her arguments, the secular aspects of Deronda's activities (national liberation, attaining a new breadth of social sympathy, and undermining an individualist ethic) are at least as important as the spiritual ones.

Several critics see the function of the Zionist subject matter in Daniel Deronda to lie in a kind of unspecified radicalism which gestures vaguely beyond the contemporary British status quo. For example, Gillian Beer notes that 'Daniel Deronda is a novel haunted by the future,' and writes of the male protagonist that 'He, like Gwendolen, is left on an uncertain edge of possibility' at the novel's close (Darwin's Plots 181; George Eliot 227). (See also Shuttleworth [184].) Barbara Hardy expresses a complex judgement of Deronda's Zionism, which sums up some of the critical comments noted above, but which also, in its suggestion that the text 'implies a radical positive', points to a possible significance of Zionism within the novel which this essay will explore in more detail (167).