22 January 2015
"Daniel Deronda" was the last novel George Eliot wrote, and it's an appropriate finale to her career -- a lushly-written, heartfelt story about a young man searching for his past (and clues to his future), as well as a vibrant strong-willed young lady who discovers that life doesn't always go your way. Even better, Eliot deftly avoided the cliches and caricatures of the Jewish people, portraying them with love and respect.
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.