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Daniel Deronda

George Eliot's Zionist Novel - 1876

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Daniel Deronda - George Eliot's Zionist Novel - 1876

Daniel Deronda was George Eliot's (Mary Ann Evans') last novel. It dealt with the nascent Zionist movement, and reflected the strong sympathies of a large sector of British society for restoration of the Jews.

Deronda is thought to be the bastard son of an English nobleman who has brought him up, but discovers that he is in fact Jewish.  He courts the beautiful and headstrong Gwendolen Harleth. Gwendolen, however, marries wealthy but depraved Henleigh Grandcourt. After her marriage she realizes her mistake, and turns to Deronda for support.

However, Deronda meanwhile met Mirah, a poor singer.  Henleigh Grandcourt drowns during a trip abroad, and Gwendolen wants to marry Deronda. Deronda marries Mirah instead, and they depart for Palestine. 

George Eliot was not a Christian Zionist, and had more or less renounced her faith, noting, "Much of what I believe to have been the moral teaching of Jesus himself, I consider the system of doctrines built upon the facts of his life...to be most dishonorable to God and most pernicious in its influence on individual and social happiness." Her support for Zionism and the Jewish cause was based on acquaintance with Jewish culture and Jewish philosophy, and her relationship with George Henry Lewes, another friend of the Jews.

Eliot's attitude to Zionism is significant, because it shows that British support for Zionism and restoration of the Jews was not the province of a few religious fanatics, but rather a widespread idea in nineteenth century Britain.

At the home of Lewes's Jewish friend, Frederick Lehmann, Eliot met  met Emanuel Deutsch, an immigrant from Eastern Europe,  who taught her a bit about Hebrew, the Talmud and Judaism,  including the perpetual yearning for a return to Zion. Deutsch was employed at the British Museum. He was a first-rank Hebraist, orientalist and classicist. He had visited Jerusalem, and was overwhelmed with emotion at the sight of Jews praying at the Western Wall; he yearned for a restoration of Israel. George Eliot numbered Deutsch among her most devoted friends. He was a frequent visitor at the Lewes home, and for a time, he made weekly dinner visits where he tutored her in Hebrew and unburdened himself of the general Jewish experience. Many critics insist that Deutsch was in fact the real-life model for Daniel Deronda.

Daniel Deronda has been criticized because it seems to lack cohesion. Though Eliot insisted that "[she] meant everything in the book to be related to everything else there", critics wanted to separate the two stories. English critics usually admired Gwendolen, but were unenthused about Deronda. Jewish readers, on the other hand, lauded Eliot for her sympathy to Jews and Zionism,  but when Daniel Deronda was first translated into Hebrew, all the Gwendolen material was removed. 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 [about the life of Jews] the story would lack almost nothing."

A second criticism is that Eliot portrays Deronda as suited to lead the Jews because he is, unlike most of the unsophisticated and mundane Jewish characters in the novel, an English gentleman who is more or less ignorant of Judaism and just happens to be Jewish. This sort of snobbism embodies race and class prejudice that are always obnoxious, and ironic in Deronda. After all, Deronda's Adam Bede, a rough hewn male angel, was the model of a natural-born leader sprung from the sturdy peasantry of England.

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