'Daniel Deronda': A Novel for Our Time

How to read George Eliot's daunting masterpiece? With a great teacher

'Gwendolen Harleth at the Roulette Table,' illustration to 'Daniel Deronda' (1910)
April 9, 2017

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 skepticism that is unusual in love stories. It is unclear whether the beauty of the heroine Gwendolen Harleth 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."

Sound advice. Wisse is full of such wisdom, and she draws out the wisdom of George Eliot in a way that makes the book come alive. Indeed, Wisse insists that Deronda is a book uniquely suited to our time because it presents characters struggling with the same forces we struggle with today: the breakdown of inherited custom and morality, the fruits and challenges of love and its relation to family life, and the place of the nation in the world.

It is important to have an expert guide for this novel, which, however familiar to our times, is also intricate and extraordinarily subtle. It is over 800 pages (in my Penguin edition, at least) and requires careful attention. It would be impossible for a mere mortal to get through without someone to talk to about it. Wisse's lectures combine a tone of disciplined studiousness with conversational banter. Not only does Wisse deliver the lectures, she also frames them beforehand in small interview segments. This technique is helpful to alert the viewer to the questions she raises without spoiling their wonder.

While Wisse prepares viewers for her lectures, Eliot throws readers into the deep end. Daniel Deronda opens with a splendid picture of the protagonist. Gwendolen Harleth desires above all else to distinguish herself, to raise herself above the common herd. Yet we quickly learn that Gwendolen, whose beauty and bearing elevate her above her lady peers, lacks the foresight and self-control to guide herself. For all her youthful confidence, she is visited in her private moments by a terror of isolation; for a person who wishes to elevate herself above those around her, a fear of isolation is a big problem.

To compound this problem, Gwendolen's circumstances allow her to determine her own destiny and path through life—she is a "new woman," in Wisse's phrase, free of the customs that bound previous generations. And yet, her private moments of terror remind the reader that there is an awful emptiness in the lack of custom and social support built into inherited tradition. Sensitive readers will discern a significant challenge in this freedom, and sense that Gwendolen's predicament is not unlike the predicament many young people face in our own times. Inherited custom is a burden, but it is also a directing force.

Daniel, by contrast, yearns for communion with those around him. Early on, Daniel sacrifices his own studies in order to help a wounded friend obtain a scholarship to college. His ambition, unlike Gwendolen's, is marked by a desire to emulate the heroes of past ages. He does not wish to be an autonomous individual, determining his fate all by himself.

But since Daniel's youngest days, he has been haunted by the knowledge that he does not know who his father is. While he is aware of rumors that he is the illegitimate son of his guardian, Sir Hugo Mallinger—a classic Englishman of the Enlightenment liberal Whig stamp—Daniel is very much alone in the world.

Gwendolen and Daniel are like exiles in a foreign land, cut off from inherited custom and the guidance that comes with it. They are not in a position to discover their cultural and familial inheritance, a discovery that is a feature—perhaps an essential feature—of life. The rootlessness they experience as a result is disorienting. This "dislocation," as Wisse puts it, is a feature of our times, too. Contemporary readers can learn much from following these characters as they discover their inheritance and, in so doing, their roots.

Just as Gwendolen and Daniel must determine the course of their lives, so, on the political stage, peoples must determine for themselves the course they will take. Eliot uses the book to address a fundamental political question of her time and ours: What is the value of the nation and national self-determination?

In 1876, the year Daniel Deronda was published, Eliot could have chosen plenty of European states to represent the value of a nation: Germany (where the first scene of the novel takes place) had united under an emperor in 1871, followed soon after by Italy. But she chose the Jewish people to raise the question of nationhood. Exiled from their home for thousands of years, the Jewish people exemplified the healthy longing of a people to discover their identity by determining their own political life.

Eliot's genius lies in how she is able to weave the threads of psychological, political, and spiritual drama together; Wisse's genius helps the reader keep his eye on all of them. Over more than eight hours, Wisse offers insight gained over decades of teaching. The videos (available at are well-produced, making it easy for the viewer to follow along. When Wisse discusses a passage from the text, the passage appears on the screen, either on its own against a black background or at the bottom of the screen so the viewer can watch Wisse speak. Another nice touch are the nineteenth-century paintings used as visual aids for the themes Wisse discusses during the lectures.

Reading George Eliot's Daniel Deronda is an excellent way to confront the psychological and political questions of our time. In these lectures, Ruth Wisse helps us understand a sobering but comforting truth: Men and women wiser than us struggled with the same questions long before we came along.

Published under: Book reviews