Daniel Deronda has been described as George Eliot's most controversial work, an admitted masterpiece, but also as "flawed." Both Christians and Jews have wanted to excise sections from the novel, or in the case of the film version, to magnify love interests over other content. Eliot's exploration of Zionist and Kabbala belief within a framework of her contemporary 1876 British society is brilliant in its depiction of both Christian and Jewish concept of the other. The novel, through mention of Kabbala ideas, posits the possibility of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
The novel left me feeling uneasy. My reaction is an echo:
“Lewes said his wife was writing with tears in her eyes, and I do not wonder at it. That portion of the proof which I received today certainly made me weep. There is a simplicity and a power about it that has not been reached in my time.” —John Blackwood
“Polly read me last chapter but one of Deronda, and with hot eyes and a sense of having been beaten all over I walked out with her in Park.” —George Lewes upon George Eliot finishing her manuscript.
It does have that effect.
The truths Eliot reveals sadden, for several reasons:
First, there is the hindsight of what is to come 50 years later with the invocation of genocide by krystallnacht and the rise of the Third Reich. Secondly, current discussion of the fact that Palestine was already occupied by natives is not taken into full account in Eliot’s exploration.
Unanticipated history lends an aura of uncomfortable, complicated palimpsest for the reader.
Imbedded in Eliot’s historical /religious contemplation of Christians and Jews in the late 19th century is the portrayal of a society that reveals a milieu where cultures are required to meet and would rather not. The “other” creates a sense of unease. Christians and Jews know little about each other, do not want to put forth the effort in knowing. Categorization denies the “other” as individual -- not someone to be merely tolerated -- and a refusal of the right to exist as valuable stand alone. Eliot’s inclusion of Hebrew heritage informs Christians about Jewish heritage and its rich history and does address attitudes in regard to the difference between tolerance and respect. It is a novel very much apropos of our current state today where immigration irritates.
In terms of the structure of the novel and the criticism leveled at this brilliant work on this account, I have found one fascinating thread which appears throughout the novel that acts as a strand binding the whole. Eliot was writing about the search for authenticity. This anxiety permeates the novel as a whole. She uses the trope of performativity in references to plays and actors as well as in regard to characters and how they construct their identity through the profession of the actor. London has always paid attention to its theatre and we know that Eliot attended plays. Theatre weighs in with many other references to the arts which serves as a baromometer relative to the lives of the individuals in the novel.
The artificiality of society is introduced early in the novel by Eliot’s narrator who lets us know that Grandcourt’s mansion was designed by the famous set and costume designer Inigo Jones. This sets the theatrical atmosphere of high society London. In the novel “acting” is at times artificial or real depending on the circumstances and audience.
The three main females-- Gwendolen, Mirah, and Daniel’s mother, The Princess Halm-Eberstein , and the omniscient narrator of Daniel Deronda frequently use the acting profession as a mirror in which to determine identity issues. Gwendolen, who has aspirations to become an actress, is very well aware of the role she plays in real life off the stage, as if all life was actually lived on the stage and an audience always present. Mirah, a professional actress bent to the will of her actor father, descries the occupation as falsehood as she experiences. The Princess wanted nothing more than a life on the stage, to be a great actress, and gives up her son for adoption to pursue this art form. Eliot’s narrator does not overtly condemn the Princess’s choices but reveals their effect through Daniel’s feelings. I wonder if Eliot was describing aspects of herself in the depiction of the woman who chooses the creation of art over the traditional female role.
There is a juxtaposition of the artificial acting of Gwendolen and Mirah with the true art spoken of and created by both Klesmer , the Princess, and the emotive realness expressed in Mirah’s singing after she enters the Meyrick home. Her innocent voice expresses authenticity and and Mirah, herself, speaks of the potential for the profession of acting to reveal truth.
An interesting scene is the one where Gwendolen and friends act in a private theatrical, including Gwendolen in the tableaux of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. Gwendolen hopes to impress Klesmer with her talent. Inadvertently, when she receives a scare during her performance by catching a glimpse of the the portrait behind the wall, the look on her face is real. Klesmer thinks this is part of the scene being played and is highly complimentary of her “magnificent bit of plastik!” At that moment Gwendolen learns the difference between feigned acting and the true art of the actor.
The art of acting and the theatre trope is explored by Eliot throughout the novel and adds complex layers to her exploration of her own society, the only novel, her last novel, to explore and her own contemporary world.