Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Daniel Deronda's Cabin

Reading George Eliot's Daniel Deronda as an Israeli Jew must be a unique experience. It certainly was for me: I was on a train, watching the Jewish national home fly past me when I first cracked open this novel, written by a 19th century cleric's daughter, and encountered a frank and searching portrait of English anti-semitism, sympathetic depictions of Jews, and an acknowledgment of the fledgling Zionist movement and the rightness of its cause.

And then the man sitting next to me exclaimed in horror. Such a long book! And in English! Was I sure I didn't want to read something shorter or easier? Which, in itself, was a pretty powerful metaphor for how Jews are seen and how Israelis can sometimes be. I didn't point this out to my seatmate; I just kept reading, with less and less enthusiasm as the initial thrill wore off.

Because the fact is that Daniel Deronda doesn't work. As a novel, it is an amalgamation of near-perfect parts into a deeply flawed whole.

The book's title character is the adopted son of Sir Hugo Malinger, an English lord who is generally believed to be Deronda's illegitimate father. A principled and exemplary young man, whom Sir Hugo hope to see become a leader and a force for good in English society, Daniel is aimless until he meets and saves the life of a young Jewish woman named Mira Lapidoth, who has come to England to search for her mother and brother. In the course of trying to find Mira's family, Daniel meets Mordecai, a dying Jewish philosopher and fervent proto-Zionist who becomes Daniel's mentor. In the kind of coincidence only found in 19th century novels, Mordecai turns out to be Mira's brother, and Daniel discovers that his parents were Jews--his mother, a self-involved diva, gave him to Sir Hugo in order to, as she puts it, spare him the burden of being a Jew. Daniel, however, embraces his heritage. He marries Mira and adopts the cause of a Jewish national home. After Mordecai's death, the two leave for Palestine, where Daniel plans to help lead the struggle for a national home.

Complicated enough? Not hardly, as I've only described half of the novel's plot. A second storyline revolves around Gwendolen Harleth, a young woman whom Daniel first notices gambling away a fortune in a fashionable European casino. The eldest daughter of an impoverished widow, Gwendolen is expected to support her family--since she's a beauty, through marriage to a rich man. Although she has other, less comfortable, options, the spoiled, selfish Gwendolen has no plans to spend her life as a governess. She accepts the proposal of Henleigh Grandcourt, despite the fact that she doesn't love him, and despite the knowledge that by doing so she is disinheriting his bastard son. Through her guilt on both these counts, Grandcourt manipulates and torments Gwendolen until her married life becomes a hell. Gwendolen latches onto Deronda as an emblem of goodness and purity, using him as a confessor and an emotional crutch, and giving rise to the rumor that they are having an affair. When Grandcourt dies in a boating accident, it is expected that Daniel and Gwendolen will marry, but he has no romantic feelings for her. When he tells her of his intention to marry Mira, an older and wiser Gwendolen realizes that she must be strong on her own, and learn to be a better person without Daniel's help. At the novel's end, Gwendolen is living in quiet seclusion with her family, at peace.

Even before its completion (the novel was originally published in installments), critics were complaining that Daniel Deronda read like two books artificially sewn together. Over Eliot's objections that "[she] meant everything in the book to be related to everything else there", they insisted on separating the two stories. English critics loved Gwendolen, but were either chilly or openly hostile towards Daniel. Jewish readers, on the other hand, embraced Eliot for her sympathetic portrayal of Jewish characters, Mordecai in particular, but when the book was first translated into Hebrew all the Gwendolen material was excised. As late as 1976, the Jewish critic Shmuel Werses wrote that "If someone were to excise from this story all the chapters which tell of these Gentiles who have almost nothing to do with the main theme and basic idea, and to leave only those chapters [concerning the life of Jews] the story would lack almost nothing."

I was perfectly willing, when I finished Daniel Deronda almost four years ago, to accept that it failed as a novel because it was made up of two stories crammed into one book. That these two stories separated Daniel and Gwendolen, however, never quite sat right with me. It was a chance viewing of the BBC adaptation (with a luminous Romola Garai as Gwendolen and Battlestar Galactica's Jamie Bamber in a small role) that finally made me realize how Daniel Deronda should be divided, and where Eliot's failure lay.

Unlike the novel, which ends with Mordecai's death, the miniseries ends after Daniel and Mira's wedding. The camera swirls around the newlyweds as they strike a hero pose at the bow of a ship headed for Palestine, confident in their bright and glorious future. If, like myself, you've studied a little about the history of Jewish settlement in Palestine during the 19th century, you know that what awaits Daniel and Mira is anything but glorious. Most agricultural settlements in Palestine failed within a few years of their establishment, as their inhabitants, inexperienced farmers unprepared for the hardships of the Mediterranean, starved to death, died of malaria, or fell prey to local bandits. Even the largest and most successful settlements were largely supported by Jewish philanthropists such as Baron Rothschild (to this day, "on the Baron's account" is an Israeli idiom which implies outside funding).

As for becoming a Jewish leader, there's something disturbing about Eliot's notion that the person best suited to lead the Jewish struggle is someone who was raised away from Jewish culture. Mordecai aside, the Jews Daniel meets are, at their best, unsophisticated, low-class merchants: mundane minds with whom Daniel is only too pleased to have nothing to do. Daniel is remarkable, Eliot tells us, because he embodies the qualities of the perfect English gentleman, and these qualities are what suits him to lead the Jewish people. In other words, for all her sympathy for their plight, Eliot's best solution for the Jews was that they should become more English. This is a facile approach, only a few pegs above the racism she detested, and it is therefore no wonder that the parts of the novel that concern themselves with Eliot's unsophisticated politics are the ones that fall flat on their face.

In spite of this failure, Daniel Deronda is an excellent novel. When it stops being a political screed, when it stops being about the Jewish Question, Daniel Deronda is a remarkable exploration of strength and weakness, selfishness and selflessness. The spoiled Gwendolen, raised by a doting and soft-hearted mother, mistakes selfishness for strength of character. When confronted with Grandcourt, a genuinely strong person who cares for no one but himself, she crumbles. In order to survive, she latches onto Daniel, who is too selfless to turn someone away when they ask for his help, even if he doesn't care about them. For his troubles, Daniel finds himself tied to Gwendolen, smeared with the implication of an illicit affair, and nearly swallowed by her selfish need. Daniel's mother, we are told, used Sir Hugo's affection for her to palm off an inconvenient child. Mordecai delayed his journey to Palestine to support his mother in her grief after Mira was kidnapped, and his illness and early death are a direct result of that decision.

The novel's characters seem divided between the selfless and the selfish--those who love and answer others' needs and those who are loved and have their needs answered. Power, and contentment, come from being selfish, and yet at the end, selflessness wins out. The most moral characters in the book, Daniel and Mira, find an answer to their needs in each other, and Gwendolen, in her farewell to Daniel, sincerely wishes them well. It's a subtle and compelling morality play, which recognizes the cruel realities of life even as it tells us that we should aspire to be more than mere brutes who seek only gratification of their desires. And it's so far above Eliot's mawkish fable about the Jewish prince in disguise that it is indeed hard to believe that both stories can coexist in the same novel.

To put it bluntly, no one ever read Uncle Tom's Cabin because Harriet Beecher Stowe was a literary giant. The question becomes, how do we want to view Daniel Deronda, and Eliot with it? If the book is nothing more than a political screed then we can read it as a historical curiosity, a step in the right direction by a woman whose good intentions were greater than her political savvy. If, on the other hand, we want to read it as a work of art by someone who was a literary giant, then we can only conclude that Eliot made a fundamental mistake when she wrote for any other reason than the craft itself. There are successful political novels that open the readers' eyes to injustice and still manage to be good art, but they are rare, and George Eliot never wrote one. Daniel Deronda would have been a better novel if the Jewish segments had been left on the cutting room floor, leaving us with a story about people struggling to be better than they are, and the triumph of decency over brutishness.

Which brings us to an eternal question: which of the two--the political screed that brings to light the great evil of anti-semitism or the great novel--is more worthy? Which makes the world a better place? Which would have been a better use of Eliot's time? Maybe it's selfish or short-sighted of me, but as an Israeli Jew whose life has never been touched by anti-semitism or religious prejudice, I prefer the great novel.


HH said...

What good is the greatest work of Art if there are no Jews to see it?

Being a Jew myself I'm rather leaning twoards the idea that life comes before Art. Or rather, that Art and all else come from life, but can't really explain everything about it. So the first, and most importent thing, is life. (Not just to Jews of course but to all people.)

A wonderfull English hypocrite you might enjoy is Bruce Chatwin. I'm reading his biography right now.

Take care:

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid your conclusion is truly short- sighted, and even worse, quite selfish, as you attempt to divorce yourself from Jewish history. As flawed as it may be, the message still resonates.

Foxessa said...

George Eliot's father was not a cleric, but a 'self-made man, who rose and prospered as a land agent, who managed of the Arbury Hall Estate for the Newdigate family in Warwickshire. Her knowledge of her father's work is all through Middlemarch, for instance.

Unknown said...

Life is sometimes stranger than fiction. When I read the book I found Mordechai's character hard to believe. It turns out that it was modeled after a consumptive Oxford Jewish professor who taught Eliot (an accomplished philosophical and religious scholar) about Judaism. But this story strengthens your argument about Eliot's condescension. She took a well respected Jewish professor and turned him into a poor book seller living as a tenant east side of London!
On the other hand, the point is made: the mother began by turning her back on her religion, then her family, then her son.
On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that ambitious Jews converted - D'Israeli and Marx's fathers come to mind.

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