Bachelor of Arts
Daniel Deronda, George Eliot
Forever circled in pen, marked off from the surrounding text, this passage remains months later, my point of entry into Daniel Deronda (1876), George Eliot's final novel; a work ambitious in scope and resistant to definition, both celebrated and dismissed for its portrayal of Jews. Following his return from the Continent, his Jewish ancestry having been fully disclosed, Deronda describes this "inherited yearning" to Mordecai in terms that seem to suggest a heritable principle of racial or spiritual identity:
"Suppose the stolen offspring of some mountain tribe brought up on a city of the plain, or one with an inherited genius for painting, and born blind - the ancestral life would lie within them as a dim longing for unknown objects and sensations, and the spell-bound habit of their inherited frames would be like a cunningly wrought musical instrument, never played on, but quivering throughout in uneasy mysterious moanings of its intricate structure that, under the right touch gives music. Something like that, I think, has been my experience."
Beginning here, at this particular notion of inheritance, I struggled with "the pastness of the past." I sought to understand Daniel's inherited Jewish consciousness as the product of the novel's highly-intellectual late-Victorian artist and her dynamically-evolving society, two sources difficult to resurrect from our current position, bound in time and space. Understanding eventually came through the writings of Eliot's common-law husband, George Henry Lewes, and with this understanding, the recognition of an allegorical dimension of the work that I had not initially perceived. I came to see first, that the image of Mordecai dying within the Cohen house calls to be read as the Jewish soul or consciousness dissolving away in the healthy, yet ignorant assimilated Jew. Second, that the friendship Mrs. Meyrick and her children offer Mirah symbolizes the political equality England extends to the Jews after centuries of prejudice. Emphasizing the threat Jews face through assimilation, these allegories assert a sense of urgency regarding the Jewish condition in England that has not yet been acknowledged even by the critics sensitive to Eliot's Zionism. Not only a reflection of Mordecai's vision of a physical return to Israel, this Jewish Nationalism is a reaction to/rejection of the ideal "tolerant" civil space, a central tenet of the Jewish and European Enlightenment.
This essay is divided into six sections. In section two, following this introduction, I acknowledge the influence of Lewes's theories of evolutionary inheritance in Eliot's writing. A number of critics have cited the importance of science in Daniel Deronda, and furnish me with a solid base of reference? Among these, I rely heavily on Stewart Hudson's dissertation "George Henry Lewes' Evolutionism in the Fiction of George Eliot," a careful study of Lewes' maturing evolutionary philosophy and its corresponding role in Eliot's novels, plotting its development through each of their works. The third section provides a historical framework for considering Eliot's presentation of the Anglo Jewish community.
Mason, Joshua, "Inheriting a Jewish Consciousness: Reading with a Sense of Urgency in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda" (2002). Honors Papers. 503.