To return to The Deronda Review homepage, click here.

Esther Cameron


     The question has often been asked why George Eliot’s last novel deals, of all things, with a Jew discovering his Judaism. Scholars have traced the Jewish connections which the novelist made in the last decades of her life, and have docu-mented her reading of sources on Judaism. I won’t attempt to duplicate or evaluate these efforts here; my aim is simply to point out a few clues which Middlemarch gives us to the impulse that produced Daniel Deronda, the question to which Daniel’s turn toward Judaism was the answer.
     Middlemarch begins with a reference to St. Theresa, whose “epic life” provides the standard against which the life of the heroine, Dorothea, is to be measured. From the beginning we are told that Dorothea’s life will not measure up. She is to be one of those many “Theresas” who “have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action,” because they were “helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul. Their ardor alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood[.]” “Ardor” and “ardent” are key words in the novel. The overwhelming majority of their occurrences are in connection with Dorothea, but they are also applied several times to Lydgate, the other focus of the novel, and to Will Ladislaw, Dorothea’s eventual mate.
     Both Dorothea and Lydgate dream of bettering the world, she through some social scheme that never takes shape, he through advances in medicine. Both get sidetracked by their marital choices: Dorothea first marries an elderly pedant and then a rather dilettantish young man, while Lydgate falls for a soulless and ruth-less beauty. Dorothea certainly fares better than Lydgate; young Will, under her inspiration, becomes an “ardent public man,” while Lydgate fails to make the slightest dent in Rosamond’s worldliness and ends by giving up his aspirations for her. But the last paragraph states the outcome for Dorothea as follows:

         "Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

      This sounds partly consolatory, but there are notes in the book’s conclusion that undercut the consolation, raising the question whether individuals like Dorothea and Lydgate really do, in the end, make much difference in the world. The environment in which they operate is summed up in the name of the novel and the community: “Middlemarch” signals “mediocrity.” It is an environment in which the energy brought by Dorothea and Lydgate simply dissipates.
      There is, of course, something to be said for mediocrity. The town has at least a minimal moral code, such that when Bulstrode disposes of a blackmailer by an action that borders on murder, he places himself beyond the pale. On the other hand, Middlemarch takes no interest in Lydgate’s efforts to improve the practice of medicine (and thereby save lives), nor does it retain an impression of Dorothea’s generous nature. On the first page of the novel, Eliot defines the reason for Dorothea’s failure to achieve greatness as “meanness of opportunity.” “Mean,” here used in the sense of “paltry,” can also mean “middle”; the mean can be golden but can also be, again, mediocre. And in the conclusion, real meanness is manifest in the town’s reaction to Mary’s little book of stories, which town gossip ascribes to her husband: “In this way it was made clear that Middlemarch had never been deceived, and that there was no need to praise anybody for writing a book, since it was always done by somebody else.”
        The town of Middlemarch comprises a wide variety of characters. Besides Dorothea and Lydgate, we follow the stories of the Vincys, the Garths, the Bulstrodes. We see them wrestle with moral choices and sometimes (as in the case of Fred Vincy) end by making the right ones. Each of several characters is portrayed as a world in himself or herself, and their mental conflicts are evoked with a stereoscopic vividness. There is a tremendous energy in the novel―and yet it ends by leaving the impression of a closed system that is running down. Throughout most of the book Dorothea’s uncle, Mr. Brooke, “represents” (i.e. in Parliament) the town of Middlemarch. And perhaps his expedient inconsequen-tiality does indeed represent the character of Middlemarch society as a whole. He is a figure like the Stebelkov of The Adolescent, or Charles Bovary in his outward appearance (see the discussion in The Web of What Is Written); his incoherency stands for a state of social decay. In the end:

"Mr. Brooke lived to a good old age, and his estate was inherited by Dorothea’s son, who might have represented Middlemarch, but declined, thinking that his opinions had less chance of being stifled if he remained out of doors."

In other words, Dorothea’s own son does not inherit her “ardor” and concern for public causes, but becomes―a typical country squire? a disillusioned semi-recluse? Will, as noted, had become an “ardent public man”―but look how that information is sandwiched:

"Will became an ardent public man, working well in those times when reforms were begun with a young hopefulness of immediate good which has been much checked in our days, and getting at last returned to Parliament by a constituency who paid his expenses."

We are not told how Will ends up feeling when that “hopefulness of immediate good” is “checked.” But this “check,” I believe, is the platform for Daniel Deronda. Those who feel that Daniel, Mirah and Mordecai are not such finely-realized realistic characters as Bulstrode and Rosamond, or Gwendolen and Grandcourt, have not picked up the stifled cry of “Let me out of here!” which reverberates throughout Middlemarch. The verses which Eliot ascribes to the pen of Mordecai speak for this feeling:

“Away from me the garment of forgetfulness.
Withering the heart;
The oil and wine from presses of the Goyim,
Poisoned with scorn.
Solitude is on the sides of Mount Nebo,
In its heart a tomb:
There the buried ark and golden cherubim
Make hidden light:
There the solemn gaze unchanged,
The wings are spread unbroken:
Shut beneath in silent awful speech
The Law lies graven.
Solitude and darkness are my covering,
And my heart a tomb;
Smite and shatter it, O Gabriel!
Shatter it as the clay of the founder
Around the golden image.”

Evidently, Eliot was tired of “realistic” characters with their fundamental pettiness; and it seems to me that the “failure” of the characters Mirah, Mordecai and Daniel is partly the failure of the beholder to grasp and identify with the drive for transcendence which they represent.
      In Judaism Eliot found the source of the fire she had been seeking; and she understood that this energy is inseparable from the form of the eternal Law, the source of that “coherent social faith and order” for lack of which, in Middlemarch, the strivings of individuals come to little in the end. She bracketed her central figures with a number of more “realistic” creations; she knew that the Jewish people too has its mediocrities (the Cohens), even its reprobates (old Lapidoth); she portrayed sympathetically the creative woman (Princess Halm Eberstein) who finds no place for herself in the tradition and rejects it vehemently, the musician (Klesmer) who has transferred his allegiance to Art and the cosmopolitan vision; but she believed in the ardent and eternal core, and in the personalities which manifest it.
      And she hoped, too, that a Jewish people restored to their homeland and their dignity could exert an influence that would check the slide of the West. Gwendolen is not just an individual character; in her fashionable trashiness, she represents a trend. In the first chapter:

“For my part, I think her odious,” said a dowager. “It is wonderful what unpleasant girls get into vogue.”

In the end Gwendolen is able to say to Daniel, “It shall be better with me because I have known you.”
       If it needs further proof that the Jews were for Eliot not just any oppressed group, as some have posited, we have a poem written three years after Daniel Deronda was published―“The Death of Moses.” This poem, one of her strongest, is based on a midrash (which recently also inspired Jack Lovejoy’s also excellent “Moses and the Angel of Death”; both may be found on the Internet). The poem concludes:

"Invisible Will wrought clear in sculptured sound,
The thought-begotten daughter of the voice,
Thrilled on their listening sense: “He has no tomb.
He dwells not with you dead, but lives as Law.”

With this unambivalent affirmation of the living Law, which had been made to serve as a foil for nearly two millennia, Eliot assumes a stance that is not only “philosemitic” but pro-Judaic. If there is ever a determination on the part of Western society to arrest its nihilistic slide, such determination will necessarily imply a similar stance.