Monday, June 5, 2017

Favorite Books (6): Daniel Deronda

Reading for Enjoyment

Here I briefly discuss one of my favorite books; this is part of a continuing series.

“Deronda’s heart was pierced. He turned his eyes on her poor beseeching face, and said, “I believe that you may become worthier than you have ever yet been—worthy to lead a life that may be a blessing. No evil dooms us hopelessly except the evil we love, and desire to continue in, and make no effort to escape from.  You have made efforts—and you will go on making them.”

― Daniel Deronda to Gwendolen Harleth 
in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (Book VII; “The Mother and the Son”)

Daniel Deronda: First published by W. Blackwood and Sons in 1876, this Penguin Classics edition was published in 1995; it has a fine introduction by Terence Cave, who writes that Eliot’s final novel, her most ambitious, reveals the prejudices of British society by bringing these into the light of day: “By shuttling between the different settings of the plot, the title-character weaves together the principal threads in what Eliot called the ‘web’ of her story. The notion that the Jewish strands can somehow be cut out is untenable as soon as one perceives that Deronda is deeply attracted both to Mirah and to Gwendolen. Or that. just as Gwendolen needs the shock of Deronda’s Jewish identity in order finally to break out of her social and psychic prison, so too their painful conversations, his encounter with her moral predicament. are necessary to his spiritual odyssey” (xxxi).
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Daniel Deronda (1876), by George Eliot [1818–1880] is the final and seventh novel of the British writer, known outside writing circles as Mary Anne Evans; she employed the male pen name to be taken seriously as a writer, which says much about the times in which she lived, or at least how she viewed them. Having read all of Eliot’s novels, I don’t doubt her knowledge of, or her insights into, the human condition, most notably about the redeeming qualities of love and goodness. That she is an exceptional writer is not in doubt by critic and public alike.

A writer of the Victorian era, she is viewed by many one of the finest novelists of the 19th century. I agree. Eliot is exceptionally good at speaking to the reader, both directly and indirectly. Once you get used to her voice, you quite enjoy it, finding it not only charming but necessary. This provides not only information, but also knowledge and wisdom, contributing to the writing’s moral clarity and force. You will find her humane certainty in these matters a breath of fresh air in our cynical and nihilistic age, where the air is heavy with grayness and despair.

Although her previous novel, Middlemarch (1871–2), is considered a far superior novel by most critics today, I view “Daniel Deronda” as at least equal to the task, if not more so in some respects, in matching Eliot’s artistic and moral vision. The story resonates strongly with me in that it is not only an old-fashioned love story, it is not only about reconciliation and redemption, but it is about justice and finding one’s true and right path, despite the difficulties this presents. The esoteric parts, such as the book’s delving into Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, are intelligent and always important in that they delve into the recurring problem of evil and what options humans have in the face of it.

Yet, one should be careful in viewing evil as only a rational item on a discussion list. Paramount are human relationships, such as is found between Gwendolen Harleth and Daniel Deronda, a Moses-like figure who helps bring about a change of heart in her. This stands out because it took a combination of self-recognition and courage to do so. She plays a prominent part in the story as does Mirah Lapidoth, who becomes Daniel's wife and comapnion; Ezra Mordecai Cohen, her visionary bother; and Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt, Gwendolen’s cruel husband, whose death leads to Gwendolen’s self-awareness.

What also stands out is that the novel is sympathetic to the Jewish people, without being overly sympathetic, and to the cause of their national and cultural aspirations, which today fall under the heading of Zionism, at a time when both were rare in Britain. Not surprising, this novel was published when Benjamin Disraeli [1804–1881] was prime minister of Britain (1874–1880). Although Disraeli was born into a middle-class Jewish family, he was baptized at age 12 into the Anglican Church. He was also a novelist, publishing among others Tancred in 1847, which Eliot read.

Disraeli’s baptism into the Christian faith increased opportunities for him, since non-Christians, by virtue of having to take an oath of allegiance to Christianity, were effectively excluded from Parliament, that is, until 1858. His father could not have anticipated this progressive change at the time that he made such an important decision on how to raise his children. Hindsight is a power that few have.

Even so, some like Eliot are highly sensitive to the times and the social norms that ruled the lives of persons. This makes her novel unique in many ways, in that she advocates for a minority people not her own. This also makes Eliot a prescient and courageous writer. But, then again, she showed courage by openly living with a married man, George Henry Lewes, for more than 20 years (Eliot also used the name of Mrs. Lewes socially). Although affairs and extra-marital relations were common in Victorian England, displaying a lack of discretion was uncommon. Therefore, their relationship was met with moral disapproval.

This might explain the sympathetic reading that Eliot gives the Jewish people in this novel; they too were met with suspicion and disapproval, so what better way to counter this than by writing a novel that shows Daniel Deronda, raised as a member of the British upper class who discovers that he’s Jewish, as the hero and the novel’s moral force. This too speaks about the great debt of gratitude that Christians owe Jews, one that was hardly acknowledged then. Yet, while this is sometimes shown today, it is done in a pretentious and insincere way. One wonders if this is better.

This novel must have caused a stir in England at the time, and it still causes a stir today in some circles. As would any novel that uses literary characters to try to make right a historical wrong. Some historical wrongs have never been properly and seriously acknowledged and in today’s political climate will not receive the fair and proper treatment they deserve. Ignorance and ignoring or twisting the facts seem to work in short measure, as does silencing the moral voices of good. But the problems do not go away.

Old prejudices don’t die an easy death, if at all; sometimes they get resurrected a century later in a new body, a new grotesque form. This novel spends a lot of time revealing how societal prejudices easily turn into lazy habits, but also how a few courageous people can change their “love of evil ways”—such is the basis of a moral life. Some, perhaps more than a few, will appreciate this sentiment, yet, when morality can be cast aside in the name of expediency, we can see what happens. A morality missing love and kindness is hardly good, hardly worth pursuing.

But then again the chief problem today is not so much a lack of morality but a lack of deep and abiding interest in the subject, including on the problem of evil. When social media becomes the source and arbiter of morality, our society is in serious trouble. Opportunistic morality is no morality at all, but a cheap veneer that demeans human beings and human relations; it also makes light of human victims. This is already evident today; reading this exceptional novel in its entirety will bring some clarity on this subject and to the beginnings of a change of heart.