The BEST: “Daniel Deronda”

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The BEST: Daniel Deronda
Author: George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)
by Yitzchak Blau 

Summary: Eliot’s classic novel, set in Victorian England, focuses on social commentary and moral development. Its two central protagonists, Daniel Deronda and Gwendolen Harleth, both face difficult decisions touching on issues of identity, economics, family, ethics, and character. Deronda meets a Jew named Mordecai who dreams of Jews returning to their homeland in Palestine, which becomes a solution for the English anti-Semitism that the book portrays. 

Why this is The BEST: Although this work appeals to Jews as a proto-Zionist work, preceding Herzl and Pinsker, and a nineteenth-century English woman’s support for a Jewish state is certainly remarkable, that is not the best reason to read the novel. For this reader, Eliot’s beautiful expression and psychological insight overshadow the plot itself. Five choice examples:

For Macbeth’s rhetoric about the impossibility of being many opposite things in the same moment, referred to the clumsy necessities of action and not to the subtler possibilities of feeling. We cannot speak a loyal word and be meanly silent, we cannot kill and not kill in the same moment; but a moment is room wide enough for the loyal and mean desire, for the out-lash of a murderous thought and the sharp backward stroke of repentance.

A human life should be rooted in some spirit of a native land…. At five years old, mortals are not prepared to be citizens of the world, to be stimulated by abstract nouns, to soar above preference into impartiality, and that prejudice in favor of milk with which we blindly begin is the type of way body and soul must get nourished at least for a time. The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one’s own homestead.

He might have taken a high place if his motives had been of a more pressing sort, and if he had not, instead of regarding studies as instruments of success, hampered himself with the notion that they were to feed motive and opinion – a notion which set him criticizing methods and arguing against his freight and harness when he should have been using all his might to pull.

They [poetry and romance] exist very easily in the same room with the microscope and even in railway carriages; what banishes them is the vacuum in gentlemen and lady passengers.

Even strictly-measuring science could hardly have got to without that forecasting ardor which feels the agitations of discovery beforehand and has a faith in its preconception that surmounts many failures of experiment.

This is the eleventh installment in TraditionOnline’s “The BEST” column, exploring exemplars of the best culture has to offer thinking religious people – click here for the series introduction and links to all entries in the series.

[Published on October 10, 2019]

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