Proto-Zionist Themes in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Daniel Deronda (1876), the last novel completed by British author George Eliot (pen name of Mary Ann Evans, 1819 – 1880), is widely regarded as a proto-Zionist work, and one of the first works of literature sympathetic to Jews in 19th-century Britain. 

Like many of George Eliot’s novels, Daniel Deronda is considered a masterpiece. The examination of the novel’s Jewish themes presented here is from George Eliot by Mathilde Blind. Eliot wasn’t Jewish, but as this essayist points out:

“When she undertook to write about the Jews, George Eliot was deeply versed in Hebrew literature, ancient and modern. She had taught herself Hebrew when translating the Leben Jesu, and this knowledge stood her in good stead.”

The novel has two intertwining plot lines. One concerns Daniel Deronda, who, as an adult, discovers his Jewish origins, and the other concerns the beautiful, willful, and complex Gwendolen Harleth. Link through for a complete plot summary.

Through its characters, the expression of desire for a Jewish homeland made it both remarkable and controversial. Even Eliot’s partner, the editor and literary critic George Henry Lewes, opined that: “The Jewish element seems to me likely to satisfy nobody.”

The following is adapted for length and clarity from Chapter 14 of George Eliot by Mathilde Blind (public domain):


Daniel Deronda — George Eliot’s Proto-Zionist Novel

Daniel Deronda, which appeared five years after Middlemarch, occupies a place apart among George Eliot’s novels. In the spirit which animates it, it has perhaps the closest affinity with the Spanish Gypsy.

Speaking of this work to a young friend of Jewish extraction (in whose career George Eliot felt keen interest), she expressed surprise at the amazement which her choice of a subject had created. She remarked:

“I wrote about the Jews because I consider them a fine old race who have done great things for humanity. I feel the same admiration for them as I do for the Florentines. Only lately I have heard to my great satisfaction that an influential member of the Jewish community is going to start an emigration to Palestine.”

Mordecai’s ardent desire for a new Jewish state

These observations are valuable as affording a key to the leading motive of Daniel Deronda. The character Mordecai’s ardent desire to found a new national state in Palestine is not simply the author’s dramatic realization of the feeling of an enthusiast, but expresses her own very definite sentiments on the subject.

The Jewish apostle is, in fact, more or less the mouthpiece of George Eliot’s own opinions on Judaism. For so great a master in the art of creating character, this type of the loftiest kind of man is curiously unreal.

Mordecai delivers himself of the most eloquent and exalted views and sentiments, yet his own personality remains so vague and nebulous that it has no power of kindling the imagination. Mordecai is meant for a Jewish Mazzini. Within his consciousness he harbours the future of a people.

He feels himself destined to become the saviour of his race; yet he does not convince us of his greatness. He convinces us no more than he does the mixed company at the “Hand and Banner,”which listens with pitying incredulity to his passionate harangues.

Nevertheless the first and final test of the religious teacher or of the social reformer is the magnetic force with which his own intense beliefs become binding on the consciences of others, if only of a few.

It is true Mordecai secures one disciple—the man destined to translate his thought into action, Daniel Deronda, as shadowy, as puppet-like, as lifeless as Ezra Mordecai Cohen himself.

These two men, of whom the one is the spiritual leader and the other the hero destined to realise his aspirations, are probably the two most unsuccessful of George Eliot’s vast gallery of characters. They are the representatives of an idea, but the idea has never been made flesh. A succinct expression of it may be gathered from the following passage:

“Which among the chief of the Gentile nations has not an ignorant multitude? They scorn our people’s ignorant observance; but the most accursed ignorance is that which has no observance—sunk to the cunning greed of the fox, to which all law is no more than a trap or the cry of the worrying hound.

There is a degradation deep down below the memory that has withered into superstition. For the multitude of the ignorant on three continents who observe our rites and make the confession of the Divine Unity the Lord of Judaism is not dead. Revive the organic centre: let the unity of Israel which has made the growth and form of its religion be an outward reality.

Looking towards a land and a polity, our dispersed people in all the ends of the earth may share the dignity of a national life which has a voice among the peoples of the East and the West; which will plant the wisdom and skill of our race, so that it may be, as of old, a medium of transmission and understanding.

Let that come to pass, and the living warmth will spread to the weak extremities of Israel, and superstition will vanish, not in the lawlessness of the renegade, but in the illumination of great facts which widen feeling, and make all knowledge alive as the young offspring of beloved memories.”

This notion that the Jews should return to Palestine in a body, and once more constitute themselves into a distinct nation, is curiously repugnant to modern feelings.

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Daniel Deronda (BBC)

Daniel Deronda: A splendid 2002 BBC miniseries 
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Mirah Lapidoth

As repugnant as that other doctrine, which is also implied in the book, that Jewish separateness should be still further insured by strictly adhering to their own race in marriage—at least Mirah, the most faultless of George Eliot’s heroines, whose character expresses the noblest side of Judaism, “is a Jewess who will not accept any one but a Jew.”

Mirah Lapidoth and the Princess Halm-Eberstein, Deronda’s mother, are drawn with the obvious purpose of contrasting two types of Jewish women.

Whereas the latter, strictly brought up in the belief and most minute observances of her Hebrew father, breaks away from the “bondage of having been born a Jew,” from which she wishes to relieve her son by parting from him in infancy, Mirah, brought up in disregard, “even in dislike of her Jewish origin,” clings with inviolable tenacity to the memory of that origin and to the fellowship of her people.

The author leaves one in little doubt as towards which side her own sympathies incline to. She is not so much the artist here, impartially portraying different kinds of characters, as the special pleader proclaiming that one set of motives are righteous, just, and praiseworthy, as well as that the others are mischievous and reprehensible …

Sympathies for a Jewish homeland

Considering that George Eliot was convinced of this modern tendency towards fusion, it is all the more singular that she should, in Daniel Deronda, have laid such stress on the reconstruction, after the lapse of centuries, of a Jewish state; singular, when one considers that many of the most eminent Jews, far from aspiring towards such an event, hardly seem to have contemplated it as a desirable or possible prospect.

The sympathies of Spinoza, the Mendelssohns, Heinrich Heine, and many others, are not distinctively Jewish but humanitarian. And the grandest, as well as truest thing that has been uttered about them is that saying of Heine’s: “The country of the Jews is the ideal, is God.”

Indeed, to have a true conception of Jewish nature and character, of its brilliant lights and deep shadows, of its pathos, depth, sublimity, degradation, and wit; of its infinite resource and boundless capacity for suffering—one must go to Heine and not to Daniel Deronda.

In Jehuda-ben-Halevy, Heine expresses the love and longing of a Jewish heart for Jerusalem in accents of such piercing intensity that compared with it, Mordecai’s fervid desire fades into mere abstract rhetoric.

Nature and experience were the principal sources of George Eliot’s inspiration. And though she knew a great deal about the Jews, her experience had not become sufficiently incorporated with her consciousness.

Otherwise, instead of portraying such tame models of perfection as Daniel Deronda and Mirah, she would have so mixed her colours as to give us that subtle involvement of motive and tendency—as of cross-currents in the sea—which we find in the characters of nature’s making and in her own finest creations, such as Maggie Tulliver (The Mill on the Floss), Silas Marner, Dorothea Casaubon (Middlemarch), and others.

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Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

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Gwendolen Harleth

In turning to the English portion of the story there is at once greater play of spontaneity in the people depicted. Grandcourt, Gascoigne, Rex, Mrs. Davilow, Sir Hugh Mallinger, and especially Gwendolen, show all the old cunning in the psychological rendering of human nature.

Curiously enough, this novel consists of two perfectly distinct narratives; the only point of junction being Daniel Deronda himself, who, as a Jew by birth and an English gentleman by education, stands related to both sets of circumstances.

The influence he exerts on the spiritual development of Gwendolen seems indeed the true motif of the story. Otherwise there is no intrinsic connection between the group of people clustering round Mordecai, and that of which Gwendolen is the centre.

Unless it be that the author wished to show the greater intensity of aim and higher moral worth of the Jews as contrasted with these purposeless, worldly, unideal Christians of the nineteenth century.

Compared with the immaculate Mirah, Gwendolen Harleth is a very naughty, spoiled, imperfect specimen of maidenhood. But she has life in her; and one speculates as to what she will say and do next, as if she were a person among one’s acquaintances.

On that account most readers of Daniel Deronda find their interest engrossed by the fate of Gwendolen, and the conjugal relations between her and Grandcourt.

This is so much the case, that one suspects her to have been the first idea of the story. She is at any rate its most attractive feature. In Gwendolen, George Eliot once remarked, she had wished to draw a girl of the period. Fascinating, accomplished, of siren-like beauty, she has every outward grace combined with a singular inward vacuity.

The deeper aspects of life are undreamed of in her philosophy. Her religion consists in a vague awe of the unknown and invisible, and her ambition in the acquisition of rank, wealth, and personal distinction.

Gwendolen is selfish, vain, frivolous, worldly, domineering, yet not without sudden impulses of generosity, and jets of affection. Something there is in her of Undine before she had a soul—something of a gay, vivacious, unfeeling sprite, who recks nothing of human love or of human misery, but looks down with utter indifference on the poor humdrum mortals around her, whom she inspires at once with fear and fondness: something, also, of:

“… The princess in exile, who in time of famine was to have her breakfast-roll made of the finest bolted flour from the seven thin ears of wheat, and in a general decampment was to have her silver fork kept out of the baggage.”

How this bewitching creature, whose “iridescence of character” makes her a psychological problem, is gradually brought to accept Henleigh Grandcourt, in spite of the promise she has given to Lydia Glasher (his discarded victim), and her own fleeting presentiments, is described with an analytical subtlety unsurpassed in George Eliot’s works.

So, indeed, is the whole episode of the married life of Grandcourt. This territorial magnate, who possesses every worldly advantage that Gwendolen desired, is worthy, as a study of character, to be placed beside that of Casaubon himself.

Gwendolen’s girlish type of egoism, which loves to be the centre of admiration, here meets with that far other deadlier form of an “exorbitant egoism,” conspicuous for its intense obstinacy and tenacity of rule, “in proportion as the varied susceptibilities of younger years are stripped away.”

This cold, negative nature lies with a kind of withering blight on the susceptible Gwendolen. Roused from the complacent dreams of girlhood by the realities of her married life, shrinking in helpless repulsion from the husband whom she meant to manage, and who holds her as in a vice, the unhappy woman has nothing to cling to in this terrible inward collapse of her happiness, but the man, who, from the first moment when his eye arrests hers at the gaming table at Leubronn, becomes, as it were, a conscience visibly incarnate to her …

The relation of Daniel to Gwendolen

The relation of Danial Deronda to Gwendolen is of a Christlike nature. He is her only moral hold in the fearful temptations that assail her now and again under the intolerable irritations of her married life, temptations which grow more urgent when Grandcourt leads his wife captive, after his fashion, in a yacht on the Mediterranean”

“… The intensest form of hatred is that rooted in fear, which compels to silence, and drives vehemence into a constructive vindictiveness, an imaginary annihilation of the detested object, something like the hidden rites of vengeance, with which the persecuted have made a dark vent for their rage, and soothed their suffering into dumbness.

Such hidden rites went on in the secrecy of Gwendolen’s mind, but not with soothing effect—rather with the effect of a struggling terror. Side by side with dread of her husband had grown the self-dread which urged her to flee from the pursuing images wrought by her pent-up impulse.”

The evil wish at last finds fulfillment, the murderous thought is outwardly realised. And though death is not eventually the result of the criminal desire, it yet seems to the unhappy wife as if it had a determining power in bringing about the catastrophe.

But it is precisely this remorse which is the redeeming quality of her nature, and awakens a new life within her …


In Daniel Deronda there is an entire absence of that rich, genial humour which seemed spontaneously to bubble up and overflow her earlier works. Whether George Eliot’s conception of the Jews as a peculiarly serious race had any share in bringing about that result, it is difficult to say …

Certainly Mordecai, Daniel, and Mirah, are preternaturally solemn: even the Cohen family are not presented with any of those comic touches one would have looked for in this great humorist: only in the boy Jacob are there gleams of drollery …

A certain subdued vein of humour is not entirely absent from the portraiture of the Meyrick family, a delightful group, who “had their little oddities, streaks of eccentricity from the mother’s blood as well as the father’s, their minds being like mediæval houses with unexpected recesses and openings from this into that, flights of steps, and sudden outlooks.”

But on the whole, instead of the old humour, we find in Daniel Deronda a polished irony and epigrammatic sarcasm …

When she undertook to write about the Jews, George Eliot was deeply versed in Hebrew literature, ancient and modern. She had taught herself Hebrew when translating the Leben Jesu, and this knowledge stood her in good stead.

She was also familiar with the splendid utterances of Jehuda-ben-Halevy; with the visionary speculations of the Cabbalists, and with the brilliant Jewish writers of the Hispano-Arabic epoch. She had read portions of the Talmud, and remarked one day in conversation that Spinoza had really got something from the Cabbala.

On her friend humbly suggesting that by ordinary accounts it appeared to be awful nonsense, she said “that it nevertheless contained fine ideas, like Plato and the Old Testament, which, however, people took in the lump, being accustomed to them.”


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