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Daniel Deronda | Themes

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Ethnic and Religious Identity

The value of ethnic and religious identity is a key theme in the novel. Eliot wrote Daniel Deronda after experiencing a deep friendship with a Jewish scholar and facing down her own prejudice against Jews, which was pervasive in English society. In a letter written in 1848, Eliot declared, "Everything specifically Jewish is of low grade," but in an 1876 letter to American writer and educator Harriet Beecher Stowe, she wrote of her wish to expose "other races" to her "fellow men ... who differ from them in customs and beliefs." She said, "Toward the Hebrews we western people who have been reared in Christianity, have a peculiar debt." Thus, the chief Jewish characters in the novel are noble and intelligent people who wish to maintain their ethnic and religious identity in a Christian society.

In the 19th century intelligent and cosmopolitan Christians had begun taking up the cause of reestablishing a Jewish state in the Middle East. This view was in opposition to the more pervasive notion that Judaism became superfluous with the advent of Christianity and that Jews would eventually blend into the cultures in which they lived. Such views were held by the majority of Christians who had ceased believing in the worst Jewish stereotypes and who did not necessarily cling to overt anti-Semitic prejudices. Some secular Jews also held this position. When Mordecai takes Deronda to the Hand and Banner for a meeting of Jewish workingmen at the club, The Philosophers, one of the members argues for the gradual assimilation of the Jews, which Mordecai argues strongly against. Mordecai forcefully argues that the Jews need their own nation. Nonetheless, he is somewhat vague about where this nation should be.

As critic Alan Levenson points out, Eliot was aware of the "Pale of Settlement" established for Jews by the Russian czars. These areas included provinces in Lithuania, Belorussia, the Ukraine, and Crimea. Many Jews also lived in Poland. Deronda is also vague about his final destination at the end of the novel. He tells Gwendolen, "I am going to the East to become better acquainted with the condition of my race in various countries there." He says he is "possessed with ... [the idea] of restoring a political existence to my people, making them a nation again." This is exactly Mordecai's idea, although neither of them specifically mentions Palestine (which roughly corresponded in the 19th century to the modern state of Israel) as the ultimate site for a Jewish nation. Levenson notes that Eliot's vagueness in referring to the "East" might reflect her "multifaceted view of Jewish authenticity." Certainly, she espouses the unambiguous view in the novel that Jews should maintain their own identity in Christian countries and does advocate for a Jewish state as a political entity. Further, the characters who are "apostates" in the novel—people who turn their backs on Judaism—are portrayed in a negative light. For example, Lapidoth is nearly a villain in his compulsive gambling and poor treatment of his family, while Leonora, Deronda's mother, is a proud and selfish woman who abandons her son along with her Judaism.

Related to the theme of maintaining one's ethnic identity is the idea of "separateness with communication," which is Eliot's term for multiculturalism. Deronda's grandfather, Daniel Charisi, traveled widely and insisted that "the strength and wealth of mankind depended on the balance of separateness and communication." Charisi was strongly opposed to the Jews "losing themselves among the Gentiles," comparing it to grain losing its variety. Charisi saw value in the multiplicity of ethnicities and views in the world. He noted the Jews had learned from "other races," and Daniel tells Joseph Kalonymos that he too can maintain Charisi's precept of separateness with communication.

Abuse of Sexual Power

Daniel Deronda is a study in the abuse of sexual power. Gwendolen agrees to marry Grandcourt under duress since she and her family have no money, but she feels sure she can rule him, which is the deciding factor for her. In all her relations with men prior to her relationship with Deronda, Gwendolen wishes to be in the driver's seat and to control the men who admire her. Similarly, Grandcourt marries her only because he wishes to "break" her as he would a horse or another animal so he can continually enjoy the fact she must answer to him and do his bidding. Similarly, he exercises unlimited power over Lydia Glasher since she depends on him for her very life and her children's well-being. She has no legal right to demand anything of him since they are not married. Deronda's mother, Leonora, also abuses her power as a young, beautiful singer. Sir Hugo is madly in love with her, but rather than marry him she asks him to take her child off her hands, which he agrees to do out of love. In this way she frees herself as well as her son from Judaism, although she has no right to deprive him of his rightful heritage. In contrast to these abuses of power are the actions of Deronda. He is in the position to abuse his power with both Mirah and Gwendolen, but he remains a benevolent benefactor, never violating the trust of either woman. He saves Mirah from drowning and shrinks from putting any type of pressure on her to be his lover or wife in return for all he has done for her. Similarly, he knows all of Gwendolen's secrets and yet doesn't use this knowledge to gain sexual favors from her or to take advantage of her in any way. He wishes only to be of service.

Work and Existential Meaning

All of Eliot's novels in one way or another seem to touch on the need to have meaningful work to lead a meaningful life. In this novel, two of the main characters are a study in contrast with regard to existential meaning. Grandcourt's life has no meaning, and he spends all of his time trying to escape from boredom. Nothing interests him, and he hardly seems to think about anything. He is often compared to a cold-blooded reptile because a reptile has no emotion and hardly even moves. Deronda, on the other hand, drops out of college to widen his intellectual horizons and struggles with his decision of a career path. He reads law for the sake of doing something, and although Sir Hugo wants him to go into politics, Deronda sees it as a profession in which it is easy to lose one's honor and do what is "expedient" and call it public service. Also holding Deronda back in choosing a career is his ignorance about his parentage. In his mind his pedigree must be considered before making a career choice, but he doesn't know where he came from. When Deronda meets Mordecai, he is invited to take up his cause for the Jews, which remains entirely theoretical until Deronda learns he is a Jew. Thus his love for Mirah and Mordecai are united in his passionate desire to do something good for humanity, and he agrees to become a leader of his people.

A secondary theme related to work and existential meaning can be seen in the number of people in the novel who pursue art as a vocation, from which they derive a great deal of meaning. First, there is Deronda's mother, Leonora, who gives up everything for her art, including her religion and her child. Nothing brings her more joy or pleasure than exercising her talent, but she gives up her profession too early because she thinks she has lost her voice. Another artist who lives for his music is Herr Julius Klesmer. Music is his muse and his first mistress. He falls in love with Catherine Arrowpoint at least partially because she has musical talent he can nurture. Mirah is another musical artist who finds meaning through her work, although her talent is exploited by her father until she is rescued by Deronda. She is delighted when Klesmer pronounces her a fellow musician. Other artists include Hans Meyrick and his sister Kate. Kate makes a living as an illustrator, and Hans gives up his classical studies to pursue a career as a portraitist. Even Mrs. Arrowpoint is an artist—a novelist whose self-esteem is largely based on her perception that she has literary talent.

Prison of Egotism

The unhappy people in the novel are caught in the prison of their own egotism. They place themselves ahead of everyone else and think only of their own selfish pleasure, and yet they are unhappy. Gwendolen claims she wants nothing but her own way and to do what pleases her, and yet even before she becomes enslaved by Grandcourt she is unhappy. Her fear of being controlled by others prevents her from meaningfully connecting with anyone but her mother. Grandcourt is a portrait of a sociopath who has no feeling for anyone and seems unable to feel. The only thing that relieves his perpetual boredom is forcing others into submission. Gwendolen's suffering forces her to change, and after she trusts Deronda enough to connect with him she begins to move out of her own small circle of concern. By the end of the novel, the reader feels she has the capacity to learn how to be happy. Juxtaposed against the egoists are Deronda, who thinks mainly of what he can do for others; Mirah, whose life is dedicated to finding her mother and brother; and Mordecai, whose life has been dedicated to a visionary quest to improve the lot of the Jewish people and unite them as a nation.

Marriage and Female Oppression

The oppression of women both in and out of marriage is a theme that runs through the novel. Women are at the height of their power when they are young, beautiful, and sought after. But once a woman chooses a man to marry, she is completely at his mercy. She cannot leave the marriage without disgracing herself, and in fact she cannot legally leave the marriage unless she can prove both physical abuse and infidelity. If Gwendolen runs away from Grandcourt, she will also be penniless. A woman in the 19th century was completely subject to her husband and was, in essence, his property. If she had a fortune, it belonged to him. Her daughters could not inherit property, and neither could she. Thus, heiresses like Miss Arrowpoint are the victim of fortune hunters and parents eager to use their rich daughters as a way to move up the social ladder. Miss Arrowpoint is lucky enough to meet a man who loves her for who she is and is willing to take her without her fortune, although the Arrowpoint parents do relent after threatening to disinherit her. Gwendolen is lucky her husband died. Lydia Glasher has no protection from society as a woman living outside the bonds of marriage with a lover, and she must rely on Grandcourt's generosity, such as it is.

The character that speaks directly to female oppression and the oppressive bonds of marriage is Leonora, Daniel Charisi's daughter and Deronda's mother. While the reader may feel she is heartless to have abandoned her son and her religion, she wishes to be free to live her life as an artist. Her father forces her to marry and would have had her live as a submissive Jewish wife. Fortunately, she is able to marry a man whom she can rule. A child is an inconvenience, and becoming a mother is not something she would have chosen. Thus, after her husband dies Leonora gives her son Daniel to Sir Hugo to raise, hoping he will have a freer life than she did—living as an English Christian. Leonora chooses marriage and becomes Princess Halm-Eberstein, but only after she believes she has lost her ability to sing.

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