Published in 1876, Daniel Deronda was George Eliot's final novel. George Eliot was actually named Marian and/or Mary Ann Evans (who doesn't like options in spelling one's own first name?), but she took on a man's name when it came to her literary career because she believed that female authors were usually not taken seriously as writers – they tended to be pigeonholed as romance writers. While she's best known perhaps for novels like Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner, Daniel Deronda was one of Eliot's most controversial works and continues to attract a fair mix of praise, criticism, and debate even today.
The novel was actually first published in monthly installments, so unlike you, her audience at the time didn't have this scary-looking novel of over 800 pages to tote around. Instead, the story was divided into manageable chunks of about 100 pages or so. The first book of Daniel Deronda was published in February of 1876, and the last one came out in September of that year. One cool thing about this book was that Eliot had to be really committed to the road she set her characters on, because the first parts of Daniel Deronda were published in book form before she actually wrote the last ones!
So why was this novel so controversial, and why is it so memorable? For one thing, it is one of the first novels published in the English language that takes on Jewish characters and portrays them in a sympathetic light. We're not going to say that you won't see some stereotypes in the novel, because you will. That said, it was pretty much unheard of at the time for a novel to focus so much time and energy on Jewish characters and to portray them as normal, loving, good people. If you've ever read other Victorian novels, like those by Charles Dickens, for example, you've probably seen Jewish characters portrayed in pretty unflattering ways. Daniel Deronda might show some stereotypes here and there, but the novel pushes those stereotypes onto individual characters instead of creating "types" of people.
Another reason why people debate so much about this book is that it can sometimes feel like you're reading two different novels. There's the romance plot that revolves around Gwendolen, her aspirations, and her marriage, and then there's the identity plot (the "Jewish plot") that revolves around Daniel's quest to figure out who he is and where he comes from. Many readers have commented that it feels like these stories don't belong together. In fact, one author even wrote a fan fiction sequel to Daniel Deronda that "fixed" all of the problems he saw with the original novel. Some critics have argued that the novel would have been better without the "Jewish plot" and that the novel should be cut down to the chapters revolving around Gwendolen and be renamed as Gwendolen Harleth. Other critics find the Jewish plot to be the meat and potatoes of the novel and think that the Gwendolen chapters should be scrapped. Debates like these are part of what makes studying big, chunky novels like this one so interesting. See what you think, and let us know.
We know. Daniel Deronda is a big book. The characters like to sit around a piano at parties and sing selections from their favorite operas. When they're upset, they exclaim "oh, Mamma!" or "dear me!" and turn pale. They do archery and dance the quadrille (whatever the heck that is). When they have free time, the ladies sew pretty little things and the men smoke cigars and go for walks. They use words like "haughty." They think you can get deadly tuberculosis from standing out in the cold for too long. But, we swear, you can totally relate to this story, maybe more than any other you have ever read. "Yeah, right, Shmoop," you say. OK, this is going to be way easier than you think.
We'll go ahead and assume that you're at that point in your life where you are really starting to develop your own interests. You've also probably been pretty aware since, oh, middle school that dealing with other people is not always easy. Everyone wants to know what you're up to. You have a profile on Facebook or Myspace that sums up who you are in neat little categories: favorite music? Check. Quirky/sassy/artsy/attractive picture? Check. List of who your "real" friends are? Check. Well, that's you in a nutshell, isn't it? That's who you are!
"NO!" you scream. "That's not who I am! That's just the tip of the iceberg!" Then you stop and think. Who am I? What do I believe in? What are my interests? Who are the people I truly care about? Well, friends, you aren't the only person who is trying to figure that out. You are probably figuring out that personal identity is a tricky little monster. You're not the same person with your friends as you are with your parents. You aren't the same person with your parents as you are with your teachers. You aren't the same person with your teachers as you are with your soccer team or music class or volunteering club. You also don't want to commit to just one thing – maybe you're a baseball star who secretly wants to be a drama geek. Maybe you're a math nerd who wants to play rock 'n' roll. Maybe other people don't think you're particularly good at the one thing that you want to do more than anything. Well, guess what. All of the things we just mentioned roll up into the one big, messy, complicated package that makes up your identity. It's a tricky thing to figure out.
Guess who does the same thing? Rhymes with Spaniel Red Honda. OK, OK. It's Daniel Deronda. From the time he's thirteen, Daniel starts wondering about who he is and what his place in the world might be. He starts to develop an interest in other cultures and ideas, but he doesn't know how to reconcile that interest with his proper British upbringing. Oh, and lest we forget, he has no idea who his parents are. He suspects that his guardian, Sir Hugo, is actually his dad, but he doesn't know how to ask. Daniel spends the entire duration of the book trying to figure out who he is and why he does what he does. He feels like he should be doing something greater than himself, but he doesn't know what that big thing is. He's lived a life of privilege, but he worries about the "little people" in society, too. He struggles, often unhappily, to figure out his true self. Guess what. So do we all.