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Daniel Deronda (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – April 15, 2009
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The forward story in "Daniel Deronda" is that of Gwendolen Harleth, a coquettish, conceited, superficial girl -- in company she often affects a sophistication that is never quite convincing -- who could be called the heroine even though she lacks most heroic attributes. She is from an upper class family, but when misfortune strikes and she is faced with poverty, she consents to marry a man named Mallinger Grandcourt, heir to a large estate, rather than reduce herself to taking a job as a governess, and despite having received a warning from a mysterious lady about Grandcourt's having fathered illegitimate children.
The secondary story is that of Daniel Deronda, the title character, a young man who first sees Gwendolen in a casino in Leubronn at the beginning of the novel. Daniel, who happens to be the ward of Mallinger Grandcourt's uncle, Sir Hugo Mallinger, is inquisitive about his obscure parentage and unsure of his place in the world. One portentous day, he rescues a girl from drowning herself -- this is Mirah Lapidoth, a Jewish girl who has run away from her father in Prague and come to London to look for her long-lost mother and brother. Daniel decides to help her by playing detective, which eventually leads him to befriend a family of Jewish shopkeepers named Cohen, whom he supposes to be related to Mirah, and a deeply religious man named Mordecai.
Eliot intertwines this Judaic element with that of Gwendolen's unhappy marriage, as Daniel maintains a steady companionship with her while he spends time immersing himself in Jewish culture, learning about a past he never knew he had. The event by which Gwendolen's situation resolves itself is foreshadowed by a particularly eerie symbol: In her family's house, there is a painting she dreads, apparently conceived by a morbid ancestor, depicting a figure running away in fright from an upturned dead face. As a plot device it may seem unrealistically gothic, but Eliot's treatment of her material is too somber and mature ever to succumb to the absurd.
This novel, while not as consistently great as "Middlemarch," confirms my opinion that Eliot is the most accomplished, intelligent, and original of the Victorian novelists, boldly ahead of her time. She is undeniably one of the greatest psychological portraitists in literature; better than most other authors, she understands the way people think and why they do what they do, which is probably why her sense of tragedy feels authentic rather than merely sentimental. Whether "Daniel Deronda" is read to get a unique insight on Jewish life in London in the nineteenth century or just to bask in the opulence of Eliot's prose, the effort will be richly rewarded.
Strictly speaking, Daniel Deronda isn't quite the same level of immaculate fiction as Middlemarch. So I think George Eliot fans will be somewhat disappointed. But on the positive side, the book is much more accessible (ie, easier to read). And the subject matter makes it required reading for everyone interested in modern Judaism/Zionism. It's fascinating to compare how Jews were perceived during the mid-1800s relative to today (..in western Europe).
Finally, the Penguin Classic edition of Daniel Deronda has both great Notes and Introductory sections (which, oddly, is supposed to be read AFTER reading the book).
Daniel Deronda is the ward (and rumored illegitimate son) of a nobleman, who is unsure of his past (particularly of his mother) catching a glimpse of pretty, reckless, arrogant Gwendolyn Harleth at a casino. Gwendolyn (who boasts that she gets everything she wants) is interested in Daniel, but when her family loses all their money, she marries a rich suitor, a relative of Daniel's -- knowing that his mistress and illegitimate children will be disinherited. But she soon finds that her new husband is a sadistic brute, and sees Daniel as her only help.
Meanwhile, Daniel rescues the despairing Mirah Lapidoth from a suicide attempt in the river, and he helps the young Jewish singer find a home and friends to care for her. As he helps her find her family, he becomes passionately attached to the Jewish population and their plight, embodied by a dying young visionary and a kindly shopkeeping family. Then he receives an important message -- one that will illuminate his roots, and give him a course for the future.
When Eliot published her final novel, it caused a massive stir -- not many novelists tackled the plight of the Jewish population, or how it compared to the gilded upper classes. In a way, "Daniel Deronda" is both a love triangle and an allegory -- Daniel must choose between the pretty, shallow English life (Gwendolyn) or a rich Jewish heritage (Mirah) with a background of tragedy.
The biggest problem with Eliot's writing is that it becomes a little too lush and dense at times, and the narrative moves a bit slowly (in the Victorian manner). But that flaw doesn't rob her writing of its power or beauty -- she describes every feeling, gesture and emotion in detail, as well as the sumptuous balls, exquisitely gilded mansions, and every shadowy tree or rich expanse of land ("a grassy court enclosed on three sides by a gothic cloister").
Yet the greatest power is in the stories that twine like ivy over the main plot -- a young Jewish girl's search for her family, a sadistic man's search for a wild lovely girl he can break, and especially of the composer Herr Klesmer and his sweet, atypical love story with Miss Arrowpoint. And the last quarter of the book is wrapped in Daniel's search for his own family, culminating in a quietly tense encounter with someone from his long-ago past.
Daniel almost seems like a character too good to be true -- unselfish, kind, universally kindly and very intelligent, though possessed of a vaguely searching quality. Gwendolyn is his complete opposite: she has been raised to be selfish, disdainful and immature, but as the book goes on she learns that selfishness doesn't pay -- marriage to the despicable Grandcourt changes her from a selfish little girl into a scarred but stronger woman.
The third leg of the triangle is Mirah, who is not given the loving attention that Gwendolyn is, but who is still a compelling figure -- her father tried to sell her, and now she wanders through England searching for her family. And the book is littered with many other striking characters: the sadistic Grandcourt and his creepy servant Lush, the crotchety but kindly Klesmer, the spirited artist Hans, the kindly Sir Hugo and the doomed, strong-willed Mordecai.
"Daniel Deronda" is a beautiful portrait of a young man's search for his past, and a young woman's struggle with the fruits of her own selfishness. What's more, George Eliot's last novel is a loving, powerful portrait of the Jewish people, in a time when they were caricatured at best.