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Daniel Deronda, Conservative Jewish Hero

In an essential new online course, Ruth Wisse gives George Eliot’s hero a timely and insightful reading

Liel Leibovitz
March 17, 2017
Image via The Jenson Society/Wikipedia
A 1910 edition of Daniel Deronda with a cover illustration depicting Gwendolen Harleth at the roulette table, signed 'FLS.'Image via The Jenson Society/Wikipedia
Image via The Jenson Society/Wikipedia
A 1910 edition of Daniel Deronda with a cover illustration depicting Gwendolen Harleth at the roulette table, signed 'FLS.'Image via The Jenson Society/Wikipedia

You can hardly blame the young woman for whiling away her time in a casino at 4 in the afternoon. Society’s in flux. The economy is teetering. The country is being flooded by thousands of new immigrants adhering to some strange religion and sparking a debate over the nature of nationalism and the boundaries of tolerance. The old signposts—tradition, faith, family—have been removed, and none were erected in their place to guide the young to virtue. Everywhere the woman turns she sees a thicket of gossip, unease, and naked urges. Is it any wonder, then, that she is willing to gamble it all at the roulette wheel?

The woman is Gwendolen Harleth, the heroine of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. The year is 1865, though the same scene, stirred by the same tensions, might have easily unfurled last week. Gwendolen’s anxieties are our own, and the tremors she feels resonate still; we quiver to questions of identity and the changes in our nation in Trump’s New York just as they did in Victoria’s London. Without reducing the eternal masterwork to a mere metaphor, we can say that no book better captures the vicissitudes of our particular moment in time than Daniel Deronda. And without risking overstatement, one can ask for no better guide to the novel and its pleasures than Ruth Wisse.

In a series of eight lectures, available online at for a modest price, the Harvard professor illuminates the threads that tie together Eliot’s complex work, in which Zionism was foreseen two decades before its actual arrival and the place of religious minorities in society debated with insight rarely matched before or since. Produced by the Tikvah Fund, the lectures, each around 40 minutes in length, are as gripping as anything currently on Netflix, and ought to be binged upon as ravenously as one would, say, on a season of House of Cards. Even though the lectures consist mainly of Wisse standing at a podium and speaking, her attention both to the book’s grand themes and its minute details make this, perhaps, the finest adaptation of the novel on film to date.

Consider, for example, Wisse’s reading of the novel’s kinetic beginning. Seeing Gwendolen placing her bets, Deronda, a soulful young man, is moved to contemplate her essence. “Was she beautiful or not beautiful?” he wonders. “And what was the secret of form or expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance? Was the good or the evil genius dominant in those beams? Probably the evil; else why was the effect that of unrest rather than of undisturbed charm? Why was the wish to look again felt as coercion and not as a longing in which the whole being consents?”

The passage contains multitudes, and Wisse is there to avail us of its bounties. Deronda, she explains in her very first lecture, is not, like the aesthetes of his age, blinded by beauty. Instead, he starts off the novel by throwing down the gauntlet. His fight is with the notion of romantic love itself, the age-old idea—think Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde—that infatuation burns brightest when it is fueled by defiance of family, faith, and tradition. Deronda is after rectitude, not rapture, and he comes to believe that love cannot blossom unless it is rooted in common ground: Jew must marry Jew, and like must cleave to like. That’s why his path must lead him away from Gwendolen and toward the righteous Mirah Lapidoth, who shares both his faith and his worldview. “Mirah’s religion” Eliot writes, “was of one fibre with her affections, and had never presented itself to her as a set of propositions.” Like Deronda, she’s a romantic conservative, or a conservative romantic—her passions and her sense of peoplehood are inseparably intertwined.

Which, as Wisse explains, was a problematic proposition in England in the late 19th century. Some enlightened souls, and there are quite a few of them in the novel, have difficulty understanding why, if England is so keen on embracing its Jews as equals, the Jews should insist on maintaining their differences. Why not marry their Christian neighbors and friends? Why insist on blood and kin and tribe?

The question—and herein lies Eliot’s genius—can be asked of women as easily as it can of the Jews. Although several of her critics had trouble wedding Gwendolen’s story to that of Deronda’s religious awakening—the dogmatic F.R. Leavis believed that an abridged version of the novel, containing none of that Jewish dross, ought to be published independently—Eliot realized that Jews and women faced the same essential dilemma: Will they try and unshackle themselves from their essential nature in a way that is bound to doom them to misery? Or can they achieve a more meaningful emancipation, enjoying equal rights while being permitted to remain true to who they are and wish to continue to be? Gwendolen chooses the former path, Deronda the latter, and their respective fates are a useful lesson in the dangers of deracination.

It’s a lesson, thankfully, that’s likely to shake many modern Jewish readers, who see no other source of light save for the universalist splendor of tikkun olam and who view nationalism, tribalism, and other forms of primordial attachment as a gateway to barbarism and brutality. But a shaking is much needed: With anti-Jewish malice roaring from left and right, we’ve no other prescription but to reject the simpering spinelessness that seeks meaning in other peoples’ values and instead embrace our own. We must now realize, as Eliot and her hero both did, that happiness and survival both depend on loving that which reinforces the best in us, be it the spouse that shares our destiny or the community of which, for better or worse, we will forever be a part. It’s not a lesson that the cosmopolitans in our midst would readily applaud, but cosmopolitanism, as Eliot bitingly reminds us in the very first page of her novel, is not much more than a rowdy casino, and the only freedom it offers is the thrill of throwing away all that’s truly valuable for an illusory shot at momentary ecstasy. Now more than ever, it’s a thrill we must learn to resist, and in Daniel Deronda, Ruth Wisse gives us what we most desperately need: an upright Jew, a moral man, and a real conservative hero.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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