Taking the Daniel Deronda Challenge

By Robin Jacobson. 

A few weeks ago, I impulsively signed up for an eight-part online course on Daniel Deronda, a 19th Century English novel by George Eliot. Why?  I had never read the book, despite its fame as the Zionist novel that predated Zionism. But I remembered the movie fondly (English accents! Rolling green hills! Manor houses! Victorian costumes!). And certainly, the rave reviews for the Deronda course and its teacher, retired Harvard literature professor Ruth Wisse, were attention-grabbing. Journalists described the series as a “must-see,” “a high-spirited intellectual tour de force,” and “as gripping as anything currently on Netflix . . . [which] ought to be binged upon . . . ravenously.” Unable to resist, I borrowed the book, enrolled in the course, and started staying up late to savor Wisse’s insights. Below is my mini-blog on the experience – highly recommended!

Eliot, the Philosopher-Novelist

Ruth Wisse reminds me of my favorite college professors, eloquent and inspiring about the power and importance of literature. To Wisse, literature is like Torah: “turn it and turn it and everything is in it.” In George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Wisse finds debates over feminism, family responsibility, identity, and globalism that all remain relevant today.

To Wisse, Daniel Deronda is “one of the most inspiring Jewish books ever written” even though George Eliot was not Jewish. The book made a case for Zionism two decades before the first Zionist Congress. Published in 1876, Deronda promoted a sovereign country for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. Eliot was one of Israel’s “first visionaries,” wrote Abba Eban, the celebrated Israeli diplomat, in a tribute to the author. Streets in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa are named for George Eliot.

George Eliot (1819-1880) was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans. As Wisse recounts, Eliot was a most unlikely champion of Jews and Zionism. A lapsed Christian and self-taught philosopher (her formal education ended at age 16), she turned to novel writing as a way to communicate philosophical ideas more engagingly than in essays. The public adored her novels. Even Queen Victoria was a fan. Daniel Deronda, Eliot’s final novel, reflected her intense interest in Judaism and thorough study of Jewish texts.

Eliot, the Zionist

Daniel Deronda tells the intersecting stories of Gwendolen Harleth, a spirited but selfish young Englishwoman, and Daniel Deronda, a kind but aimless young Englishman, the ward of an English nobleman. Both characters grow in self-awareness and find purpose over the course of the novel. Daniel is searching for information about his birth parents; by chance he is drawn into London’s Jewish world and the cause of Jewish nationalism, eventually discovering that he is himself Jewish. Wisse contends that Eliot interwove the two plot lines to demonstrate the interrelated fate of the English and the Jews.

Eliot believed, says Wisse, that England’s future as a civilized nation depended on its treatment of the Jews. Worried by rising anti-Jewish prejudice in Europe, Eliot wanted England to reject xenophobia and recognize that the Jews could retain their separateness without posing a threat to English society. Moreover, Eliot thought that Jews should aspire to regain their ancestral homeland – and that the English should help them. Just as the English drew strength from their roots in their island nation, even if they lived in other countries, so too, she believed, the Jews deserved roots in a national center.