Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Feminism and Zionism at work in Daniel Deronda
There are (at least) two "isms" at work in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, with varying degrees of effectiveness. The two: feminism, and Zionism (or we could reverse them and call the two chauvinism, and anti-Semitism). In my view the feminism/chauvinism theme is much more strongly presented in this novel. The most compelling and most credible character is Gwendolen, as we follow her on the sad course of her life, from smart and beautiful girl who attracts the attention of the most eligible bachelor in the area and then has her life blown up when she learns of his secret past - 3 children by another woman whom he never married - then she draws the attention of the handsome but untitled Deronda, which should be a serious match, but her family loses all its money and she marries the odious Grandcourt so that his wealth can support her mother and half-siblings. (The theme of the attractive and intelligent young woman married to a dislikeable, often older man runs throughout Eliot's work - we see it in Middlemarch, anyway). We truly feel for Gwendolen, for the loss of her independence, her subjugation, her broken spirit; similarly, when we meet DD's mother late in the novel and learn of her frustrated career as a singer, we understand that Eliot is showing us the difficult life for an intellectual or artistic woman in her era - but the Gwendolen narrative line is far better developed, and we empathize because we understand her and believe in her as a character. The Zionism theme, on the other hand, feels forced into the novel: do we ever really believe in the prophetic Mordecai, in the saintly but elusive Mirah, of her melodramatic rescue from the brink of drowning, most of all in Deronda and his peculiar obsession w/ the Jewish people of his time - when her truly seems not so interested in the Jewish cause as in Mirah. Credit to Eliot for writing such a fine novel about outsiders and outcasts - not at all typical of the work of her time - but this novel would have been stronger if it had a unified rather than a bifurcated theme.