Daniel Deronda

‘All meanings depend on the key of interpretation’1, so claims Mordecai in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. Difficulty arises when one question who the holder of the key is; the writer who embodies meaning and ideology into their work, or the reader assimilating the text. The writer is inextricably bound by their personal and social understanding, culture and nationhood, equally is the reader. Every reading is interpreted differently and individually, thus causing confusion of meaning.

The writer uses words that fulfil his own ideas and depict to him the images to be conveyed. A writer can construct a text in any number of ways, choosing from the common stock of words those which seem to express the message best. But the reader receiving this text is not confined to any one interpretation. Although restricted by language rules, readings are not strictly dictated by the script itself or therefore by the author. Reading… is a bewildering, labyrinthine, common and yet personal process of reconstruction. 2

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The concept of nationhood develops from beliefs in human diversity and similarity. That by being born of certain parentage, of certain nation and infinite other variations one automatically becomes definable by these characteristics. Gillian Beer suggests that Darwin’s theories of selection explain the continuance of defined nationality, as he set out to ‘consider… whether man… is descended from some pre-existing form; secondly, the manner of his development; and thirdly, the value of the differences between the so-called races of man’.

3 Eliot was interested in Darwin’s work in relation to descent, development and race, as socio-economic sexual selection of the 19th century British society that she herself encountered, and rejected. Eliot viewed nationhood as a pathway to the future; preservation of genetics alongside personal immortality through the survival and development for the race, the culture, and for mind. 4 In Daniel Deronda Eliot explores the concepts of preserving a nationhood and identity whilst immersed in another, the Jewish in England.

Daniel himself at the early stages of the novel believes Judaism to be ‘a sort of eccentric fossilised form'(p. 184), as would presumably Eliot’s contemporary readers, then the religion is explored and found to be living and changing, growing stronger through its preservation. Eliot immersed herself in Jewish culture, history, life, literature and thought in order to present accurately the Jewish nation, not to glorify or mystify it, although sometimes the reader feels envy for the spirituality of Judaism, its communal ethos, its ethical universalism, its sense of divine presence and historical process.

5 Resolution is achieved as Daniel gains access to this world, as his birthright is revealed. Through Daniel Eliot finds ‘a genuine moral and religious community that thrives on inner diversity and debate, that has a distinctive mission to humanity’. 6 Critically analysing the text becomes embroiled in the status of the reader – the Jewish having a much different perspective, Eliot contemporary vaguely anti-Semitic society, the current reader in a post-holocaust climate. ‘The author who wishes to preserve and impose a meaning must also be the reader.

‘7 Daniel is introduced to ‘the Philosophers’, where Jewish men debate the constant issue of belonging to a definitive culture; whether to maintain the distinctive ethnic and religious identity, or to assimilate into the dominant cultures. This debate is still as prevalent today, and addresses modes of textual analysis. Texts can be separated from the racial origins of their authors, and even from their readers, and so by the acceptance of this separate culture as part of their own understanding, breadth is added to the existing society.

Eliot did not wish to encourage integration or even muting of the cultures; through her novel she desired to ‘rouse the imagination of men and women to a vision of human claims in those races of their fellow-men who most differ from them in customs and beliefs’. 8 Eliot shows us the importance of the maintenance of the Jewish lines through the character of Mirah, who insists on the necessity of maintaining her Jewish heritage: ‘I will always be a Jewess…

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