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Daniel Deronda | Context



Each volume of the novel is introduced by the same epigraph, which was repeated each time George Eliot published a part of her novel in serial format.

The unattributed epigraph, probably written by the author, warns the reader to be fearful of vengeance lurking in the soul. As a "throng of hurrying desires ... trample o'er the dead to seize their spoil," vengeance lurks, like "exhalations laden with slow death" ready to breathe its pestilence over "the fairest troop of captured joys." This epigraph hits upon an idea universally found in George Eliot's work, which is the goodness and advisability of renunciation, or rejecting something. While renunciation is not an explicit theme in this novel, characters who are overly attached to persons or things or driven hard by their desires end up in crisis or tragedy. The soul, which has a different mission than the mind or body, might punish a person for being too needy or greedy.

The author warns against unchecked desires and too much wanting. For example, Gwendolen's desire for prosperity, power, and an easy life leads her to violate her own morality by marrying the scoundrel Grandcourt. The price she pays is a sense of remorse that will probably last a lifetime. Daniel Deronda, on the other hand, wishes to know his origins, and he wishes to court Mirah and marry her. But he holds off out of fear of hurting others who will be affected if he pursues his desires too vigorously. As a result he eventually wins Mirah and learns about his origins.

History of Europe's Jews

In ancient times, after the death of biblical Israelite King Solomon (c. 10th century BCE), the land of the Jews was divided into the kingdoms of Judah (also called Judea) and Israel. The kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians (people of a kingdom in northern Mesopotamia; part of modern Iraq and Turkey) in 722 BCE, but the kingdom of Judah remained until the Babylonians (people of the capital of southern Mesopotamia; part of modern Iraq) conquered it, enslaved its people, and sent them to Babylon. The Jewish diaspora (dispersion) thus began with the Babylonian Exile (586 BCE). The Jews were allowed to return to their homeland in 538 BCE, but some remained behind. In 70 CE when the Roman Empire destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem (Jewish holy temple), Jews were again exiled from Palestine (the name the Romans gave to Judah, Galilee, and Samaria).

Between those two periods, Jews had settled in other parts of the world. The city of Alexandria in Egypt had a large Jewish community in the 1st century CE. Many Jews had settled outside of Palestine, in parts of the Roman Empire before the destruction of the Second Temple. The new exiles from Palestine fled to regions around the Mediterranean Sea, including southeastern Spain, southern France, and southern Italy. Later the Jews traveled further north in Europe and to northern Africa. By 300 CE about three million Jews had become part of the Roman Empire. The Christian emperor Constantine made Christianity a legally-protected religion in the Roman Empire in 313 CE, ushering in a long era of persecution of Jews in Europe. However, Jews who lived in southern Europe from the 8th until the 12th centuries were tolerated during the era of Muslim conquest. Jewish scholars, scientists, statesmen, and philosophers became part of Arabic civilization while retaining their ethnic and religious identity.

In other parts of Western Europe, Jews were somewhat segregated from the general population but were relatively free. Charlemagne (c. 742–814), who became the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, invited Jews to live within his realm, as did king of England William the Conqueror (c. 1028–87) in England in 1066. Because Christians were forbidden to lend money at interest, Jews were valued as moneylenders, merchants, and bankers. Toward the end of the Middle Ages as Christians began to take over more of the economic functions previously reserved for Jews, they grew less tolerant of their Jewish brethren. The Crusades (1095–1291) became opportunities for zealous Christians on their way to reclaim the Holy Land to massacre Jews. As a result, many Jews fled east to Poland and Lithuania.

In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council of the Catholic Church decreed the first institutionalized segregation of Jews, who now had to wear badges and special clothing to distinguish them from the general population. They were eventually confined to special neighborhoods called "ghettos," subjected to curfews, and restricted in their educational and employment opportunities. Jews were falsely accused in some places of murdering Christian children, a libel that endured up until the 20th century. The persecution of the Jews is referred to both generally and specifically in the novel. For example, Joseph Kalonymos references his ancestors as being slaughtered for refusing baptism. He also references Jewish expulsion and wandering, speaking well of Karl the Great—or Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor of the 9th century who brought the Jews to Germany.

Although Martin Luther (1483–1546), the leader of the Protestant Reformation, called for the killing of Jews who would not convert, on the whole the Protestants of the 17th century welcomed Jews who had been kicked out of Catholic countries since they were good for the economy. Holland allowed Jews to practice their religion freely, and England also welcomed Jews, who had been kicked out of the country in the 13th century. From the 14th to the 17th centuries, Jewish financiers held important positions in Germany and present-day Austria. In the 18th century Jews were freed from the ghettos and allowed to integrate more fully into the Christian mainstream. Nonetheless, anti-Semitism remained.

In 1656 English statesman Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) allowed rich Jewish merchants from Holland to settle in England. In the 17th century Spanish and Portuguese Jews settled in London and built its first synagogue. Although Christian extremists and some business people who saw the Jews as competition called for Jewish expulsion, the Jewish population had brought too much wealth to England. The Jewish population slowly gained citizenship rights throughout the 19th century. In 1890, Jews were permitted to hold any public office except the crown. Some converted to Christianity, and in 1855 London elected a Jewish Lord Mayor. The prominent Disraeli family produced a prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who served twice (in 1868 and from 1874–80). Although a Christian convert, Disraeli did not hide his Jewish origins.

Despite the gains made by Jews in Eliot's time, they were still objects of ridicule, stereotyping, and prejudice, as demonstrated in the novel. Examples include the characterization of Mirah as "the little Jewess" and offhand anti-Semitic remarks that characters occasionally make. Critics are divided on whether the novelist herself was entirely successful in escaping her own prejudices. Neither she nor Daniel Deronda thinks the Cohen family is quite up to snuff, and the narrator seems to apologize for the fact they are invited to his wedding. Ezra Cohen is implicitly characterized as greedy because he is a pawnbroker. Eliot also references the "yellow" complexion of the sickly Mordecai and old Joseph Kalonymos, which seems like a stereotypical depiction of Jewish physical features. Nonetheless, Eliot deserves praise for educating her contemporaries about Jewish history and religion and reminding them of the Christian persecution of Jews. She also debunks many stereotypes widely held by her English audience.

19th-Century Zionism

Most Jews in the 19th century lived in Europe, although there existed Jewish communities in other places in the world. By the time Eliot wrote Daniel Deronda, European Jews had been somewhat integrated into mainstream society and were citizens in most countries. The exception to this emancipation were the Jews in Russia, who were forced to live in the "Pale of Settlement," 25 provinces that included Ukraine, Lithuania, Belorussia, Crimea, and part of Poland. Thus, western European Jews for the most part saw themselves as citizens of the European nation-states despite lingering prejudice against them.

Some Jews, however, began to think about having their own land again, especially in the context of the rise of nationalist movements (elevating of one nation and its interests above others). Eliot's sympathies with the proto-Zionists reflected the feelings of some English Christians. She first became familiar with Jews when she met George Henry Lewes's friend, Frederick Lehmann, and then scholar Emanuel Deutsch, an immigrant from Eastern Europe. Deutsch taught Eliot some Hebrew and shared his yearning for the restoration of a Jewish state.

A European concept of a revived Jewish state goes back as far as 1621, when a British parliamentarian wrote a book encouraging Jews to assert their claim to the "Holy Land." The idea gained traction in the Enlightenment era (18th century) and in the era of nationalism and British imperialism (19th century). In 1799 French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte promised to restore Palestine to the Jews, and although he could not keep this promise, his idea found traction in Great Britain. Prominent Englishmen got behind the idea and even began settlement and exploration societies whose aim was the restoration of the Jews to Palestine.

British politician Lord Shaftesbury (1801–85) was the most prominent advocate of the creation of a Jewish state. He claimed "the inherent vitality of the Hebrew race reasserts itself with amazing persistence." In the novel, Eliot presents a highly sympathetic portrait of Zionist Jews, including Mordecai, Daniel Charisi (Daniel Deronda's grandfather), and Joseph Kalonymos. Eventually, Deronda himself seems converted to the Zionist view, although critic Alan T. Levenson notes the narrator is vague about where Deronda and Mordecai are heading at the end of the novel. The term Palestine is never specifically mentioned, and Levenson says Deronda and Mordecai might actually be headed to Eastern Europe to the Pale of Settlement.

Exile, Persecution, and Marginality

Eliot makes a point of locating her story in the recent time period to emphasize how the currents of history affect intellectual ideas and the movement of peoples. This is important because she places her Jewish characters in a historical context of exile, persecution, and marginality. After hundreds of years of forced wandering, the proto-Zionists in Daniel Deronda wish to establish themselves in a homeland. Eliot occasionally reminds readers of the momentous history occurring as a backdrop to the smaller world of concern of her characters: the American Civil War (1861–65), the black uprising at Morant Bay in Jamaica in 1865, and the nationalist aspirations of Otto von Bismarck (1815–98), the prime minister of Prussia (beginning in 1862) and later founder and first chancellor of the German Empire. She mentions the Caribs and the districts of Niger and the South Seas, where the British imperialists are "pacifying" the natives. According to critic Oliver Lovesey, Eliot associates the British "romantic fantasy of completeness located in national/racial homogeneity" with such characters as Grandcourt, Sir Hugo Mallinger, and Mr. Gascoigne, and the brutality of British imperialism with Grandcourt, who treats his women like slaves.

English Inheritance Law

Owning land in old England went hand in hand with membership in the aristocratic class (also called the gentry). Land created a steady income through farming, fishing, the raising of livestock, renting property, and in some cases mining. It also freed the gentry from the necessity of physical labor to earn a living. Rather, they could pursue a career in the arts, education, or politics. Owning land was also necessary to maintain privileged social status, which was passed to the next generation through the eldest male heir. However, if the family did not produce a male heir, under entail (the will establishing the rights of the firstborn), the property would pass to the nearest male relative. Further, the daughters (if unmarried) and wife of the aristocrat would need to find another place to live when the head of the family died. Sir Hugo's father had the opportunity to separate Diplow from the rest of his property so that his son's wife would have a place to retire in the event of Sir Hugo's death without a male heir. However, he chose to keep all the property together. Once Sir Hugo's nephew Grandcourt dies, the reader is meant to assume there are no additional male relatives lurking in the background, and Sir Hugo's property reverts back to himself. He is thus at liberty to dispose of it as he wishes.

Marriage and Offspring

Husbands were expected to take care of their wives after marriage. Before the passing of the 1882 Married Women's Property Act, a woman's wealth passed to her husband when she married. Thus, women had to remain dependent on fathers, husbands, and male relatives who held the wealth. Once married it was practically impossible to get a divorce. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 gave men the right to divorce their wives if they could prove adultery. Married women could divorce their husbands if they could prove physical abuse and adultery. Children were considered a man's property, and he could prevent a mother from seeing her children if he successfully divorced her for adultery. Given how difficult it was to obtain a divorce and Gwendolen's oppression under Grandcourt, it is understandable why she fantasizes about killing him.

Illegitimacy among the upper classes was not as uncommon as Mrs. Davilow claims, and these children were often provided for by their fathers in one way or another. Illegitimate children could not inherit, however, which is why Sir Hugo does not have to worry about his own property passing to Mrs. Glasher's son. Grandcourt leaving his estates to his illegitimate son in the event he does not produce a legitimate heir is not so surprising, especially because he wants to grind Gwendolen under the heel of his boot. But what is most shabby and disgraceful, as Sir Hugo points out, is his leaving so little to Gwendolen—essentially demoting her back to her original class.

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