Zion's Mimetic Angel: George Eliot's Daniel Deronda

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Although George Eliot wrote Daniel Deronda with a great enthusiasm for Zionism and sympathy for the Jewish people, its hero Daniel rings hollow in the opinion of most critics. He is especially weak insofar as he is a Jew and a Zionist. Magically morally insightful like George Eliot's "angelic" heroines, he strikes most critics as priggish instead of inspiring. He was raised as a privileged Gentile, unaware of his Jewish heritage. Eliot substitutes his bloodlines for the morally sensitizing experiences of oppression that give her heroines mimetic realism. Eliot makes Daniel a Jew in the interests of her nontheisticethics, which require local or patriotic affections to avoid chilly, deracinated abstract morality. Daniel abandons English culture to take on a Judaism that is hardly cultural, much less religious; Eliot creates a "sympathetic," purely racial Jew, stripped of Jewish culture, and neither religious nor cognizant of the political realities of Zionism.

George Eliot meant to take a stand against "narrowness and bigotry" with Daniel Deronda. Its favorable attitude towards Jews and Zionism gave the book notoriety and influence all over Europe; its hero Daniel discovers he is a Jew halfway through the novel, and his conversion to Jewish nationalism was meant to help foster the establishment of a "Belgium of the East," where many cultures could meet peacefully(1) and mix harmoniously in accord with to Eliot's utopian post-Christian relativism. Eliot gained applause from educated Jews all over Europe for her positive portraits of Jewish life, but the book is among George Eliot's least successful novels artistically, routinely faulted for "stiffness, didacticism and idealization"(2) which leave the eponymous hero "dwindling into a self-righteous prig."(3) Eliot seeks to make Daniel a superior being with almost magical transformative power in the moral sphere. She normally reserves this role for a type of female protagonist I have come to call the Mimetic Angel, building upon the literary insights of René Girard. It is because Eliot equates Jewish ancestry with the social position of women, and gives him no other principle on which to build his moral discernment, that Daniel fails as a fully rounded character.

The novel has two strands of plot. The first strand concerns vain, selfish Gwendolyn Harleth, pointedly described as being like "a very common sort of men."(4) Drawn into the wiles of an evil, tyrannical man by her competitiveness against other girls, she is forced to marry him by a financial disaster, despite knowing of the illegitimate children he is thereby disinheriting. After this moral fall, she reappears occasionally to have crises of conscience in the presence of her slight acquaintance Daniel, before whom she feels a sense of moral inferiority. Gwendolyn makes a sort of Platonic ascent from rebellion against Daniel's moral superiority, which her beauty cannot defeat, through submission to Daniel personally as a sort of lay pastor, into something approaching religious reverence for his virtue.

Eliot's plan to inspire sympathy with Jews depends on the less critically successful sections of the novel focusing on Daniel, raised as an English gentleman without knowledge of his origins, and made sensitive to others' pain by his own fear that he may be a bastard. Eliot gives a feminine cast to Daniel's early moral development: "He had not lived with other boys, and his mind showed the same blending of child's ignorance with surprising knowledge which is oftener seen in bright girls" (p. 141). Gwendolyn's fascination with Daniel rarely intrudes into his life. As he aimlessly considers his career after college, Daniel happens along a riverbank in time to save beautiful, Jewish Mirah from suicide. He joins her search for her long-lost brother, Mordecai, a mystic whose visions of a coming spiritual heir draw him to Daniel when Daniel finds him.

Daniel soon discovers that he is a legitimate son of a Jewish marriage, but his widowed mother rejected both Judaism and him, arranging his English upbringing. …