Book Reviews - Review 237
Category: Fiction | Published: 1876 | Review Added: 05-03-2011
This was George Eliot's notoriously flawed final novel. It tells two stories: the one of Gwendolen Harleth, a spoilt, beautiful girl who marries a charismatic and attractive, but emotionally sadistic man, Henleigh Grandcourt; the other of Daniel Deronda, a noble young man brought up as a "nephew" by the affable but conventional Sir Hugo Mallinger, who develops an interest in Jewish culture before discovering its relevance to his true lineage.
The story of Gwendolen is very powerful, as her complacent self-confidence is eroded by the irresistable domination of her by Grandcourt, a man incapable of love but deriving an equivalent pleasure from bullying her. Miserable and despairing, Gwendolen meets Deronda and develops an devotion to him derived partly from her own need, and partly from Deronda's natural sympathy and precocious moral wisdom.
However, despite his sympathy for her plight, Deronda does not reciprocate Gwendolen's devotion, being drawn away towards a pair of Jewish friends he makes, the one, Mirah, a young girl whom he rescues from suicide by drowning, the other the intense, passionate consumptive Mordecai, who suggests to Deronda, as though by some kinds of sixth sense, that Deronda is himself Jewish.
The "Jewish" story is rich in ideas, but it fails woefully to live up to its potential. The problem is with the characterisation - or rather, the lack of it. Mirah is "sweet" and "good", but nothing more: there is no darkness, no power, no flavour to her. Mordecai is a pompous, humourless, condescending bore, which wouldn't matter if Eliot didn't clearly want us to admire him as a magnetic visionary. Most importantly, Deronda is not the character Eliot wants us to believe in: she would have him a deep, self-doubting altruist, but there is no true tension to his personality: he supposedly feels deeply for others' suffering, and yet knows nothing of deep suffering himself, notwithstanding Eliot's efforts, totally unsuccessful, to persuade us that his uncertainty about his upbringing has deepened his soul. Deronda comes across as humourless, bland, and - again, clearly not Eliot's intention - decidedly patronising in his restrained and stern solicitude towards Gwendolen.
For the first half of the book, Gwendolen's story predominates. Even here, the reading is not always easy: even by Victorian standards, Eliot can be verbose, slipping into unwieldy, runaway sentences that cram in too much information, too many subordinate clauses, too many abstract nouns. And though Eliot's aphorisms and psychological observations are, in themselves, piercing and profound, they can come to dominate the prose to the extent that the narrative comes close to stalling.
Yet all told, Gwendolen's story is a fascinating one, involving realistic, flawed characters and examining their motives and behaviour with brilliant psychological precision. Unfortunately, the second half of the book is dominated by Deronda's tale. So boring and sentimental is most of this story that I skipped about 50 pages of the book for fear I'd otherwise never finish it. It seems to have been Eliot's intention to balance the harsh realism and relativism of the Gwendolen story with a vision of a world of unambiguous spiritual truths and personal imperatives; but one senses that, much as she wants to, Eliot does not really believe in this world. "Art is the lie that shows the truth," said Picasso - and the problem with Deronda's story is that it doesn't, on any deep level, show the truth. It doesn't say anything about real life, real people or real emotions - it is just sentimental fantasy. Of course, there are such things as effective literary fantasies - take those of Kafka, Bulgakov or García Márquez - but the latter convey deep emotional truths. Deronda's story is, for the most part, hollow. Only in his interactions with Gwendolen does he acquire any real meaning as a character.
Another prominent failing of the "Jewish" story is its reliance on absurd coincidences that could only have been effective in a work of humour or satire. Here, once more, Eliot's artistic judgment strangely fails her.
The novel improves again towards the end; in particular, the climax of Gwendolen's story is quite gripping; and her final interview with Deronda is deeply moving. It is a novel well worth persisting with - but be prepared to wish at times you'd never started it.