George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
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Zionism, Belonging, and George Eliot’s ‘Daniel Deronda’

George Eliot was not Jewish, but her 1876 novel Daniel Deronda took on the “Jewish question” and brought forth the concept of Zionism with knowledge and grace.

Daniel Deronda
George Eliot
Barnes & Noble Classics Series
January 2005

In light of the ongoing international response to the conflict in Israel, it seems appropriate to take some time to consider the history of Zionism to understand better how we, as Judith Butler put it, “report and explain–and interpret in advance–what is happening in this region.” To do this, I look to a 19th-century proto-Zionist text written by one of the great British authors: George Eliot’s 1876 novel, Daniel Deronda

I make this choice for a variety of reasons. George Eliot was not Jewish, but Daniel Deronda was researched and published before the rise of Zionism as a philosophy and movement through her rigorous study with famous Jewish scholar Emanuel Deutsch and careful immersion in the cultural and religious issues Jews faced at that time. She not only took on the “Jewish question” in the novel, she brought it to the forefront of minds throughout England and the world, tackling it gracefully and thoroughly.

In 1920, Great Britain took ownership of Mandatory Palestine, the territory that Zionists looked to for their settlement. The United Nations, Great Britain included, voted to partition Israel in 1948. International and British sympathies made Israel possible, and Eliot helped foster those sympathies in the British populace. 

Eliot’s novel also affected Jews across Europe, popularizing Zionist philosophy and inspiring those who would go on to revive Hebrew and found Jewish settlements in modern-day Israel (see scholar Phillip Earl Steele’s article for a non-exhaustive list). Intimately aware of how literature interacted with and impacted the world, Eliot wrote many social novels set in Victorian England that engaged with the political and cultural moments of her time. The “Jewish question” was her last and among her most poignant examinations of the individual, the impact of culture and society, and ultimately, the institution of belonging.

Daniel Deronda follows two characters, the titular Daniel Deronda and English aristocrat Gwendolen Harleth, from a chance meeting in Germany to their eventual parting to live separate lives. Daniel grew up in England as the ward of an aristocrat whom he assumed to be his illegitimate father. At the beginning of the narrative, he struggles with his place in the world as a man raised to be a gentleman without the assurance of that status in his future. Gwendolen, on the other hand, was raised “roving from one foreign watering place or Parisian apartment to another” with the certainty of her social status, which is now precarious as her mother’s fortune has been lost in a financial market crash, turning the family into paupers. 

The philosophical narrator at once pities Gwendolen and praises Daniel’s childhood: “A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land… At five years old, mortals are not prepared to be citizens of the world.” Gwendolen’s unsettled childhood has prepared her for an adulthood of moral ineptitude and a need for education in participating in society; Daniel’s has prepared him to understand the world and provide guidance. 

Deronda’s strong foundation is an advantage, but he still has much to learn over the course of George Eliot’s novel. Early on, he rescues an Ophelia-like figure from drowning herself in the Thames, a girl named Mirah. “English-born. But… a Jewess”, Mirah is the beginning of his cultural education. Meeting her sets him on a journey to find her lost family. Mirah’s brother, Mordecai, swiftly and comprehensively educates Daniel in his version of Jewish philosophy. 

At Daniel Deronda‘s beginning, Daniel shares several cultural perceptions of Jews common to 19th-century Britain, noting the stereotyped “hooked noses” and accusations of “usery”. But unlike Dickens’ Fagin, the famously Jewish villain of Oliver Twist, Eliot “[revolutionizes] the role of the Jew“, subverting stereotypes through the Cohen family, who welcome Deronda to their Sabbath meal, and criticizing English perspectives through the generally well-meaning but offensive Meyrick’s reactions to Mirah. Though he begins with a relatively open-minded stance, it is Mordecai’s character that Eliot uses to shift Deronda’s perspective of his Jewish neighbors to something more positive. 

Mordecai speaks freely to Daniel, answering his questions and sharing his perspectives on religion and culture. In a well-studied scene in Daniel Deronda, Daniel accompanies his mentor to a philosophy club at a local tavern. They discuss concepts of nationality and progress, and Mordecai deftly turns the conversation to “the Jewish question”. Speaking directly to Daniel, he argues that “the soul of Judaism is not dead. Revive the organic centre: let the unity of Israel which has made the growth and form of its religion be an outward reality. Looking towards a land and a polity, our dispersed people in all the ends of the earth may share the dignity of a national life which has a voice among the peoples of the East and the West–which will plant the wisdom and skill of our race so that it may be, as of old, a medium of transmission and understanding.”

Like Eliot and Deutsch, Mordecai is a proto-Zionist, arguing for a home country for the Jewish people (unlike Herzl, Mordecai seems only to consider Israel as an option for location). He doesn’t “hold with the restoration to Judæa by miracle”,  but argues that by giving Jews the same international rights as other countries’ citizens’ they will dedicate their particular expertise to ensuring “the world will gain as Israel gains”.

George Eliot scholar K.M. Newton sees Mordecai as arguing “that Jews need nationhood so that they can be free from such self-contempt and regain contact and connection with Jewish history, thought and tradition… it is consciousness rather than race that is fundamental.” This is clearly part of his argument, and Eliot’s: nationality is fundamental to our cultural identities, and the education we receive from where and how we are raised is key to our belonging and fitting into society. 

Winston Churchill declared himself a Zionist, particularly after the 1917 Balfour Declaration that promised British support for a Jewish state in Palestine, because he believed that it would “from every point of view, be beneficial, and would be especially in harmony with the truest interests of the British Empire.” This echoes Mordecai’s vision that Israel would be “a neutral ground for the East as Belgium is for the West”, positioning a Jewish state as an instrument in the East rather than a peer, one that he likens to the colonization of North America only paragraphs later. Churchill’s Jews benefit the British Empire by settling in the Middle East, just as Mordecai’s are vessels for bringing Western civilization to an uncolonized territory. This is implicit imperialism that we cannot dismiss. 

Mordecai’s Jewish friends are not as sold on his philosophy as he is. Gideon believes that now that Jews “have political equality”, there is “no reason now why we shouldn’t melt gradually into the populations we live among”. Pash, a poor watchmaker, would move to Mordecai’s Judæa “[i]f somebody will introduce a brisk trade in watches among the ‘Jerusalem wares'”, but is less interested in the philosophy than the economic prospect. It is Daniel, in his introduction to Jewish culture, who is primed to take up Mordecai’s mantle. 

Daniel is called to Genoa towards the end of Daniel Deronda to meet his mother, whom he learns is Princess Lenora Halm-Eberstein, formerly a performer known as the Alcharisi, who viewed her cultural upbringing as “bondage” that she worked to “relieve [Daniel] from”. That bondage is that she, and thus Daniel, is Jewish, which Mordecai and Mirah have insisted to be true even when Daniel did not believe it. This knowledge allows him to properly take up Mordecai’s philosophy, marrying his sister and resolving to leave for the East to found a Jewish colony in Palestine, even as Mordecai dies in England. 

Jewish readers have argued that Daniel Deronda would be better without Gwendolen’s storyline, while non-Jewish ones (prominently, critic F.R. Leavis) have felt the same about excising Deronda’s half. While readers have often mirrored Daniel’s being forced to choose between the worlds Gwendolen and Mirah represent, Eliot meant “for everything in the book to be connected to everything else.” However related the rest of the story might be, almost all of the “Jewish elements” are confined to Deronda’s narrative journey. 

One of the only Jewish characters in Gwendolen’s half of Daniel Deronda is Herr Klesmer, a musician in the employ of the wealthy Arrowpoints, whom Eliot describes as “a felicitous combination of the German, the Sclave, and the Semite”. Klesmer is a great musician, full of “cosmopolitan ideas” who “looks forward to a fusion of races”, and sees himself as a member of a global culture of art and music rather than a singular nation or race. 

Klesmer and Catherine Arrowpoint, the heiress of her family’s wealth, fall in love and want to marry, which her parents take issue with. Their issue is twofold: Klesmer is of a lower class to them, and “[h]e has a deuced foreign look” about him. The Arrowpoints inform Catherine and her suitor that if the two marry, they “shall disinherit her. [He] will not marry her fortune” and “not [to] count on our relenting”. 

This mixing of class and race is abhorrent to them, but when Catherine insists on going ahead with the marriage, her parents realise they have no one else to bestow the property upon. They never act on their threat to disinherit their daughter, and eventually, Catherine and Herr Klesmer are accepted as a couple in Gwendolen’s society with minimal unrest. This might partly be because Klesmer sees himself first as an artist but is, at the very least despite his “deuced foreign look”. Klesmer never claims his religious heritage, but neither does he surrender it. There appears to be an option between rigid separation and complete integration. 

Yiddish Literature scholar Ruth Wisse argues that Eliot’s concern in Daniel Deronda is “less for the Jews than England”: “Can the tolerant English tolerate those who refuse their enveloping embrace?” The English characters repeatedly ask some version of why won’t the Jews just assimilate? and refuse to consider the ways that their culture might be important to the Jews. Herr Klesmer proves that the English can, however, accept it. 

Daniel and Mirah plan to leave England for Palestine, but at the close of Daniel Deronda, they have yet to board the boat, and “Eliot doesn’t bother to imagine what Deronda will do when he gets to Palestine”, writes The Atlantic‘s Judith Shulevitz. Both Daniel and Gwendolen’s educations are complete. Now that they are set to part, Gwendolen comes to understand English society and finds a way to belong on her own merit. Daniel finds his own belonging in Judaism and Zionist philosophy, which he never quite felt in English society. 

As readers, we leave the world of the novel on the cusp of change, one that we can only imagine coming to fruition. Even today, with a living, breathing Judæa of the likes Mordecai could only dream, the world lives perpetually in a state of change. We must understand the history at work to make that change for the better. Like Gwendolen, we must “be better… for having known [Daniel Deronda]”.

The dream of an internationally recognized home state for Jews once felt unachievable. It took much work and great horrors to accomplish, and the international community played a significant role. The struggle for peace and respect for Palestinians may now feel as unachievable as early Zionism; speaking about it is certainly complex, and discussions of anti-Semitism and colonialism have not simplified matters. 

We must grapple with the history and reality of a world that contains both Palestinians and Israelis. College campuses have erupted with protests calling for peace in the area and belonging for Palestinians in their homes. Deronda reminds us not to write these efforts off as futile: “If we look back to the history of efforts which have made great changes, it is astonishing how many of them seemed hopeless to those who looked on in the beginning.”

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “The Compass of Mourning“. London Review of Books, vol. 45, no. 20. 19 October 2023.

Cabral, Sam. “What do student protesters at US universities want?BBC. 29 April 2024.

Churchill, Winston. “Zionism versus Bolshevism: A Struggle for the Soul of the Jewish People.” Illustrated Sunday Herald. 8 February 1920. Wikisource.

Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. 1878. Barnes & Noble Classics. 2005. 

Glancy, Josh. “George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda: How one novel reshaped the image of British Jews.K. 9 December 2021. 

Lebrecht, Norman. “How George Eliot Became a Social Outcast at the Height of Her Fame“. Literary Hub. 22 November 2019.

Newton, K. M. “The Post-Colonial Critique of Eliot: Is Edward Said Right about Daniel Deronda?George Eliot Scholars. 2010.

Owen, Paul. “Daniel Deronda: A Victorian novel that’s still controversial“. The Guardian. 10 February 2009. 

Said, Edward W. The Question of Palestine. Vintage Books. 1981.

Shulevitz, Judith. “The Nineteenth Century Novel That Reaffirmed My Zionism“. The Atlantic. 30 January 2024. 

Steele, Philip Earle. “British Christian Zionism (Part 1): George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda“. Fathom. June 2019. 

Wisse, Ruth R. “Himmelfarb, George Eliot, and the Jews“. Jewish Review of Books. Winter 2013.