The Other Woman in 'Daniel Deronda.'

By Lovesey, Oliver | Studies in the Novel, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

The Other Woman in 'Daniel Deronda.'

Lovesey, Oliver, Studies in the Novel

Although a number of George Eliot's novels are concerned with national destiny and various types of otherness, Daniel Deronda is Eliot's only novel of contemporary Victorian life and the most critical of the rhetoric of Englishness, the national myth uniting religious and cultural prejudice, law, and class prerogative. The novel's representation of Deronda gradually reveals disguised foreignness and suggests the possibility that neither "leech or lancet" may "furnish us with the precise product": "pure English blood" (p. 581).(1) Deronda is the outsider within, the other shown to be the same/ difference. He resembles Mr. Torrington's unmanageable West Indian "half-breeds" (p. 376), located as he is on the boundary between nations and races. Similarly positioned between the discourses of empire, race, and gender in Eliot's last novel, and at the juncture of its generic blend of classic realist text, fabulist myth, and metafiction lies the figure of the female Jewish artist. Mirah Lapidoth, who encodes racial otherness in the novel, provides Deronda access to his essential difference. Mirah generates the novel's typology of otherness.

Daniel Deronda's representation of the female Jewish artist as other encapsulates its critique of Englishness and designates the Jewish woman as signifier of freedom, integrity, and agency; however, this designation is accomplished through the construction of a racial dialectic that reproduces the ideological constraints it attempts to critique. Like Matthew Arnold, in Robert Young's reading of Culture and Anarchy, Eliot seems to wish to exercise the cultural critic's "double function of subversion and totalization."(2) She wishes to position herself between culture and system, or to stand outside the bounds of culture and national ideology and critique cultural myopia. Though attempting to speak from outside the interstices of hegemonic cultural ideologies, Eliot's construction of Mirah is embedded in Victorian discourses of race and empire. Daniel Deronda's overdetermined representation of the Jewish woman ultimately fetishizes alterity and reproduces a colonial view of the oriental exotic. My discussion of Daniel Deronda will first examine the gendered nature of otherness in the novel and then its racial nature, in the context of a brief consideration of the position of Eliot's text amid competing Victorian discourses of the Jew and the colonial other. This consideration of gender, race, and empire will be followed by an examination of Mirah's story as a typology of Judaism, which will analyze her attempted suicide, her singing career, and her return to London, in terms of Jewish assimilation, Jewish national inheritance, and the quest for Zion.


There are a number of aspects of gendered otherness in Daniel Deronda which contextualize the novel's representation of Mirah Lapidoth, and the novel provides a detailed critique of Victorian sexual politics.(3) For example, while Mirah is English by birth, she is regarded by Deronda's friends as a foreigner partly because she is a Jew, and as a result she suffers the ostracism of the foreign woman on English soil. This rejection places Mirah in a particularly ambiguous position because she has come to London to return to her maternal home. Conversely, Eliot's own social ostracism disappeared when she travelled on the continent--a delightful pursuit she and Lewes used as a reward and followed on return to England with penances of hard toil. Abroad, Marian Evans lived as the eminent English author, George Eliot; at home, she accepted the role of fallen woman who, despite her self-fashioning, as Elizabeth Gaskell underlined, was not "Mrs. Lewes."(4) Like Mirah, Eliot was forced to live as an outsider at home, but her awkward and perhaps fortuitous social isolation as G. H. Lewes's "other woman" probably influenced her attitudes towards "otherness," and both she and Lewes were often mistakenly thought to be Jewish. The foreign in Eliot's fiction is a thrilling but potentially dangerous sign of freedom and comfort, to be done without, resembling opium used to relieve mental anguish and religion accepted for private consolation. …

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