‘Daniel Deronda’: A Novel for Our Time

Near the beginning of her newly released lectures on George Eliot’s “crowning” novel, Daniel Deronda, Harvard professor emerita Ruth Wisse observes that Eliot’s initial presentation of beauty contains a dose of skepticism not ordinarily found in love stories. It is unclear whether the beauty of Gwendolen Harleth, the heroine, draws the observer, Daniel Deronda, toward good or evil. Wisse compares this skeptical approach to beauty to the uncritical approach in the tale Tristan and Isolde, where two lovers fall head-over-heels for one another, never questioning whether the beauty they encounter in each other is good or evil. Wisse remarks to her students that reading Tristan and Isolde “can change your life—perhaps not in the right direction.”