Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 45 (2014)
Written between January 1873 and June 1876, Daniel Deronda was George Eliot's final and most ambitious novel. The Jewish-born, later excommunicated Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose Ethics Eliot translated in 1856, would perhaps seem the more obvious choice of philosophical context for our analysis of Deronda, owing to his religious affinity with the eponymous protagonist. However, Ludwig Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity, translated by Eliot in 1854, provides a more thorough basis for drawing out the ethical complexities of her final novel. Feuerbach's philosophy, the influence of which is integral to all her novels, hinges upon 'the moral [ ...] qualitative, critical distinction between the I and the thou', or the self and the other (Essence of Christianity, p. 158): This is especially pertinent to Deronda because the novel magnifies such a relationship on a national, political scale, as shown by the distinction made between Jews and non-Jews. Eliot is most explicitly indebted to Feuerbach's influence in this novel because of her emphasis on 'fellow-feeling'. In seeking to counter anti-Semitism by encouraging her readers to embrace Jewish people as her 'fellow-men', Eliot enforces a double imperative. First, she demands further tolerance and greater sympathetic understanding of Jews, whose influence on culture and intellectual life extends far beyond England or Continental Europe. Second, she renders this experience of increased sympathy paradigmatic to furthering our sympathetic interaction with all people suffering oppression as a result of their identity. How explicitly Eliot makes this last point has unsurprisingly been a source of contention, as Eliot's novels show her radicalism to be frequently anticlimactic.
Numerous critics regard Deronda as a novel which tests the limits of sympathy. While they frequently draw on cosmopolitanism or nationalism to frame Eliot's ethics of sympathy, this seldom involves discussion, or even mention of Feuerbachian philosophy. Lisabeth During explores the ethical implications of Deronda, in which 'the action of sympathy fills up all the empty spaces where a private subjectivity might come to exist' , and how, 'for Eliot, becoming Jewish legitimizes Deronda's otherwise puzzling selflessness'.4 Leona Toker claims that Deronda emphasizes 'the danger of excessive sympathy to its donor [ ... ] at least as strongly as its positive effects on its recipient'.5 More recently, Thomas Albrecht's focus on 'cosmopolitan ethics' suggests 'Eliot demonstrates in Daniel Deronda that a wholly impartial ethics ultimately works simply to subsume differences within a universal homogeneity'.6 The fact that Eliot's ethics were greatly shaped by her reading and translation of Feuerbach's Essence goes unmentioned by Albrecht, During and Toker. Jonathan Loesberg does write on Feuerbach's Essence in relation to Deronda, but his argument fails to create a convincing dialogue between the texts."