Musings on Daniel Deronda – Lessons to be learned from selfish Gwendolyn!

From the moment my small, dimly illuminated mind first came into contact with Middlemarch as a student, I made it my goal, nay a goal is something one has to work towards implying effort, exertion, struggle – I knew from that point George Eliot was an author that needed further exploration; I’d found a great mind whose novels and ideas I was hungry to devour. I awaited those longed for days in which reading was not to be compulsory and unyieldingly excessive but self-co-ordinated, opted for and even leisurely. That time has come and I have never enjoyed the sport of literature consumption in all of my life. Here are my thoughts on Daniel Deronda.

Knowing full well the focal point of the novel  addressed the Jewish question in Nineteenth Century England, I did fear alienation from a topic I perceived, to myself, to be rather obscure. Yes I know I’m a history student – you can’t know everything! However I found this novel thoroughly engaging, not merely because of the eloquent narrative style that is idiosyncratic to Eliot (and which, if ever in spite of any seemingly obscure or dull topic, could still be compulsively readable) but largely because of the lesson I derived from it.

The tale begins in medias res… Gwendolyn Harleth is poised at the roulette table, proceeding to gamble away a small fortune. She feels the scrutinizing gaze of the disapproving Daniel Deronda whom is to have grave implications on Gwendolyn’s future sanity. The narrative swiftly removes us from the encapsulated scene as Gwendolyn is called home by her mother and alerted to the fact that the family have lost all their fortunes and are now poor. The novel continues as a narrative retrace, colouring in the profiles of both Gwendolyn and Deronda until we reach chapter 21 which reconnects us back to the present situation. In this beginning part of the novel, Eliot relays a concise examination of the character’s motivations and understanding of their place in the world. Gwendolyn is beautiful but she is strong-willed, impetuous and painstakingly conscious of others’ perceptions of her. Her ability to supress any emotion and appear aloof, indifferent and unaffected is astonishing, an illustration of her life-long devotion total self-consciousness. She is shamelessly self-centred and lacking in compassion; when she is called home and alerted of her family’s lost fortune “There was no inward exclamation of “Poor Mamma!” Her mamma had never seemed to get much enjoyment out of life, and if Gwendolyn had at this moment been disposed to bestow pity she would have bestowed it on herself”.

Deronda, on the other hand is an emotionally intelligent, compassionate young English gentleman who is sensitive to the poetry and romance in everyday life and has tendencies to be drawn towards the underdogs in life, with “an activity of imagination on behalf of others”, which could even be compared to martyrdom . Raised by the affectionate, yet subject-evading Sir Hugo Mallinger, Deronda is fortified from the knowledge of his own parentage, he struggles to define himself and feels grieved at the secret surrounding his birth, feeling his first admission of unknown paternity as “the presence of a new guest who seemed to come with an enigmatic veiled face, and to carry dimly conjectured, dreaded revelations” from the young age of thirteen. Unable to place himself in life, he drifts through University with an obvious intelligence but the lack of means of applying himself to any one thing to achieve excellence. With a palpably conscious tone of foreboding, Eliot describes Deronda’s longing for “the influence that would justify partiality, and make him what he longed to be yet was unable to make himself – an organic part of social life, instead of roaming in it like yearning disembodied spirit, stirred with a vague social passion but without fixed local habitation to render fellowship real.” Enter Mordecai.

In a chance encounter discerning the desperation of a desolate Jewish lady whom we learn to be Mirah, drowning herself on the Thames, Daniel rescues the young lady and takes her to be cared for at the kind mother and daughters’ home of his good friend Hans Meyrick. Meanwhile, in the search for the Jewess’s long lost mother and brother whom she had been separated from many years ago by her evil father, Daniel submits himself to the Jewish parts of London in his search for her relatives. In doing so, he inadvertently begins to embark upon a journey of immersion in a culture and set of ideas he initially thought of bearing no relevance to his own lot. In acquainting himself with the poor, yet learned Mordecai who was impassioned with thinking and ideas for the establishment of a native homeland for his long-persecuted Jewish people, Daniel slowly becomes Mordecai’s protégé.

As Daniel becomes increasingly involved in Mordecai, Gwendolyn is simultaneously becoming progressively miserable in her marriage to the infamously oppressing Mr. Grandcourt and perceives Deronda’s once discerning and judgemental gaze as a beacon of hope; a guiding light to correcting the errors she is, by degrees, realising she has made.

As a proponent of rational thought emanating from the enlightenment, Eliot uses Gwendolyn almost as a model of “how-not-to-be”. Influenced heavily by the philosophical theories of Baruch Spinoza, and many others, Eliot sympathises with his view of humanity; that a person’s view of the world, no matter how mature and cultivated will ultimately be limited by the confines of one’s perception. Spinoza’s theory proposes that nothing exists outside of nature and it is the human condition to see any consequences relating to ourselves or otherwise, as in duality of either good or bad, particularly in their bearing on our own lot. He advocates that the only way to achieve true happiness is to accept that we are all part of nature and we have no control over changing consequences regardless of whether they are advantageous or disadvantageous to us. This is harmonious with the thoughts of Seneca:

We do not have an absolute power to adapt things outside us to our use. Nevertheless, we shall bear calmly those things that happen to us contrary to what the principle of our advantage demands, if we are conscious that we have done our duty, that the power we have could not have extended itself to the point where we could have avoided those things, and that we are a part of the whole of nature, whose order we follow.

During Christmas spent at the Abbey, we begin to see the first signs of Gwendolyn’s repentance at marrying Grandcourt despite knowing she was being injurious to Mrs. Glasher and her son who, were it not for Gwendolyn, would be the sole inheritor of Grandcourt’s estates. Here we see the introduction of a strand of narrative which addresses the point of “one’s gain being another’s loss”.


Consistently, throughout the novel, Eliot returns to illuminating the small-ness of Gwendolyn’s concerns which, when placed in stark contrast to the founding of a native home for an entire race of people, seem smaller than ever: “Could there be a slenderer, more insignificant thread in human history than this consciousness of a girl, busy with her small inferences of the way in which she could make her life pleasant?” (this passage goes on to invoke the hardships of the American Civil War and the sacrifices made on both sides of the Atlantic).

As a reader, we are fully exposed to the way in which Gwendolyn’s entire happiness is based on things outside of her control: “So fast do young creatures like her absorb misery through invisible suckers of their own fancies”.

Her conversation with Deronda illustrates an opposing combination of Gwendolyn’s selfishness mixed with her realisation at her own wrongdoing ; “Confess you hate people when they stand in your way – when their gain is your loss”.

“We are often standing in each other’s way when we can’t help it. I think it is stupid to hate people on that ground.”

“But if they injure you and they could have helped it?”

“Why then I prefer my place to theirs.”

“There I believe you are right.”

It is not until the end of the novel that Gwendolyn finally comes to the full realisation of the error of her thinking. Enduring the suffering throughout her marriage and (sorry – spoiler alert!) the death of her husband, she relies on Deronda to give her guidance and advice on how to be virtuous and good, repenting of her selfish ways. It is not until Deronda’s final visit to her that he even gets a word in edgeways and manages to reveal the journey he must embark on as a result of the revelation of his parentage and his mission to continue Mordecai’s duties to his people. Her narrow perception of her relationship with Deronda had been so limited that she had completely omitted any feelings and motivations that were independent of herself. When he announces his marriage to Mirah and his mission to the East in restoring the land of the Jewish people, Gwendolyn’s world is finally revealed to herself as painstakingly insignificant.

“She was for the first time feeling the pressure of a vast mysterious movement, for the first time being dislodged from the supremacy in her own world, and getting a sense that her horizon was but a dipping onward of an existence with which her own was revolving.”

Once more, we are reminded of the inexorable fact that our gain will inevitably be another’s loss. This is recapitulated in the narrator’s exclamation: “She was a victim of his happiness.”

“Anxiety is good for nothing if we can’t turn it into a defence. But there’s no defence against all the things that might be.”

Gwendolyn’s situation, on first inspection may seem tragic; she has lost her husband and her only true friend. I, however, interpret this as a hard lesson learned for which her life will be all the better  in the future. Her return to the place where everything began serves simply as a reminder that she is in the same position she was in at the beginning, only a whole lot wiser. And we can find solace in Deronda’s words “Life would be worth more to you: some real knowledge would give you an interest in the world beyond the small drama of personal desires.” We can read this as an echoing sentiment of Eliot herself; that we must live with a thirst for knowledge and a passion for life. I admire Eliot because despite her living in a society where women, and particularly their ideas were not taken seriously- she never stopped her pursuit for knowledge.

There are so many more things I could talk about in Daniel Deronda, Eliot’s amazing ability to portray the very realistic fact that humans are ever evolving, ever changing and have the potential to think many different things at any one given time (“Was she beautiful or not beautiful?”). These thoughts can lead to various different actions which will have completely different outcomes and therefore life is a game of probabilities; we can only try to play it to the best of our abilities.



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