“It hurts me now to think of your grief. You must not grieve any more for me. It is better – it shall be better with me because I have known you.”
To say I was excited by the prospect of reading another book by George Eliot seems an understatement. Middlemarch and Silas Marner are books I could talk about until I’m blue in the face, or in this case, I’m handed another book from said author and I make plans for when to read it.
Daniel Deronda at 1 book a week for just under 8 weeks is quite manageable. Reading and discussuing with book friends themes and symbols, the familiar rhythm of Eliot’s prose and the inner musings of central characters—yes this is how you read Eliot and at the end, you’re left with a lot to think about.
Although the book bears the name of a young man named Daniel Deronda, we encounter him briefly in the early part of the book. Deronda notices the beautiful and defiant young woman, Gwendolen Harleth, in a gambling hall and observes her stature, her manner and unfortunately, the loss of her wagers at the roulette wheel.
“Was she beautiful or not beautiful? and what was the secret form of expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance? Was the good or the evil genius dominant in those beams? ”
Gwendolen is repulsed by Deronda’s seeming judgment of women gambling but seems curious about him as a person. Its not until much later in the book when Deronda and Gwendolen become acquainted and the story comes back to the ‘present’. Thank goodness for buddy reads because that part was sort of lost on me.
The first several sections of the book revolve around Gwendolen and her family’s changed financial circumstances and the charity of her relatives. Gwendolen is spoiled, self-centered, and seemingly without conscience when it comes to having her way. Gwendolen doesn’t entertain the notion of marriage, apparently after witnessing the unsuccessful second marriage of her mother and the dire straits they have found themselves in. Gwendolen will marry only if it suits her which she believes invovles determining if the man she chooses is malleable, bending to her will and desires so she can enjoy life and not be bored.
Heinleigh Grandcourt has expressed interest in marrying Gwendolen and seems a good match, one her uncle encourages her to give serious thought to before it’s too late. When Gwendolen becomes aware of Grandcourt’s past and resolves she will not marry him, she leaves town after a discussion with Grandcourt’s mistress.
Faced with the eventuality of earning a living by working as a governess, Gwendolen seems to reluctantly accept and despise. It’s noteworthy that Gwendolen’s main concern is to secure a stable future for her family. True to her character, she plans to make a living on her own terms. Her solution is to seek advice from a respected friend about becoming an actress, but when frankly told she doesn’t have the discipline or the skill Gwendolen falls into misery and despair. A letter from Grandcourt arrives and Gwendolen’s response to that letter changes everything.
Eliot introduces and develops Deronda’s storyline and we learn that his personality and character are quite opposite of Gwendolen’s. Deronda has been raised under the guardianship of Sir Hugo, while Deronda speculates privately about his relationship with Hugo. Knowing nothing about his family, Deronda remains kind and generous, willing to help others, even if that means sacrifice on his part. Deronda is at heart, someone you feel drawn to and only hope he finds love and happiness before the book ends.
By Book 3, Deronda has helped a young Jewess from ending her life, helping her find comfort and security in the care of his friend’s Hans mother and sisters, Mrs. Meyrick. Deronda selflessly expends himself to help this young Jewess named Mirah. We find out more about her circumstances and what lead her to a devastating decision that Deronda saved her from.
It is until halfway through the book (Book 4) that Deronda and Gwendolen meet again and although opposites seem drawn to each other. Gwendolen feels that Deronda can help her be a good person especially after she resorts to what’s she feels has been the worst form of treachery but with good reason, to help her family esape poverty. To Gwendolen, Deronda represents a moral soundness that she lacks but wants to correct, with his help. She doesn’t believe she can right this wrong but with Deronda’s kind advice
“I mean that things are so in spite of us; we can’t always help out that our gain is another’s loss.”
What should you do if you were like me — feeling that you were wrong and miserable, and dreading everything to come?
There is much more to this story and it’s taken me some time to try and summarize what I think makes the way Eliot crafted this novel unique. By the time Deronda is introduced as a regular fixture in the narrative, we’ve come to understand several aspects of his personality. Kind and generous, sympathetic but without the desire of notariety or praise. He inherently looks to help others without the expectation of anything in return. With Deronda’s search for his own background and identify, Eliot shows us that a person who seems to have everything can still be on a quest to know themselves.
Gwendolen’s desire to right her course although she seems with no way out under the abusive tyranny of her husband, is clearly more evident as the narratives converge. She is constantly encouraged through her interchanges of conversation with Deronda to not doubt her ability to be good, although she lives with a jealous, manipulative and evil husband.
“Excellence encourages one about life generally; it shows the spiritual wealth of the world.”
As I conclude this review, I realize the characters are complex in the way all human beings are. What appears on the surface may not truly reflect all we are on the inside. As one invest time and effort in reading a book of this size, do we patiently do the same and endeavor to know others more fully? Or do we quickly dismiss a book, and a person by what appears to our eyes?