English, Department of



Richard Winter

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 36 (2005) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019 (36)



Like most of George Eliot's fiction, Daniel Deronda can be read as a story about the possibility of redemption. Gwendolen Harleth' s vanity and ambition make her vulnerable to Grandcourt' s desire for dominance, and their marriage is a disaster. Belatedly, Gwendolen comes to recognise that a marriage to Daniel Deronda instead of Grandcourt might have rescued her from her egotism and led to her moral and emotional salvation. But for Deronda finding a wife is part of exploring a wider social and spiritual significance for his existence - i.e. his Jewish cultural origin and the Zionist religious, historical, and political obligations he feels this entails. This stance towards his own life gives him a level of self-understanding that enables him to seek Mirah (who shares his general life aims) as his wife while responding to Gwendolen's advances with supportive compassion. On the day of Deronda's wedding to Mirah, he receives the following letter from Gwendolen:

Do not think of me sorrowfully on your wedding day. I have remembered your words - that I may live to be one of the best of women, who make others glad that they were born. I do not yet see how that can be, but you know better than I. If ever it comes true, it will be because you helped me ... You must not grieve any more for me. It is better - it shall be better with me because I have known you.

This is from the last pages of George Eliot's published fiction. But whereas the study of Gwendolen's downfall has been generally recognised as a masterpiece, the portrayal of Deronda as a redemptive hero has been greeted by many, if not most critics with scepticism. Leavis, writing in 1946, called it 'unrealistic', excessively 'emotional', and a failure of 'creativity' and 'intelligence'." More analytically, in the 1990s, the problem of Deronda's supposed implausibility has been related to the general failure of realism as a genre3 and to the failure of the ethic of universal sympathy: And in 1997 Rosemary Ashton is still 'puzzled': 'Why does an agnostic ... set out without irony a religious ideal? Moreover, is the history of Judaism any less fraught with superstition, narrowness, exclusiveness than that of Christianity?'

This dichotomous response - admiration for George Eliot's 'realist' observation of human weakness and disdain for her 'idealistic' fables of redemption - is not, of course, limited to Daniel Deronda. Henry James complained that all George Eliot's novels are 'moralized fables' and are 'only indirectly the products of observation' and Leavis agrees with James that the moralized fable 'gives us the unsatisfactory half' of George Eliot.' Consequently, for Leavis, not only is Daniel Deronda 'a prig' but Adam Bede's love for Dinah is 'merely charming', Rufus Lyon is 'a bore', and the characterization of Maggie Tulliver is 'immature'.8 And in 1982 Barbara Hardy writes of 'the discontent which modem readers have felt with the complacency or simplicity of the idealistic strain' in all her novels.