Study Guide

Daniel Deronda Identity

By George Eliot

Identity

A large corner of the handkerchief seemed to have been recklessly torn off to get rid of a mark; but she at once believed in the first image of 'the stranger' that presented itself to her mind. It was Deronda; he must have seen her go into the shop; he must have gone in immediately after, and repurchased the necklace. (2.6)

Isn't it kind of interesting how in this instance, Daniel tries to keep his identity a secret even though Gwendolen knows that he was the one who returned her necklace? Daniel always seems to maintain a secret identity (it's even secret to him – he doesn't know who his family is) even though everyone seems to think they know what his story is.

Having read Shakespeare as well as a great deal of history, he could have talked with the wisdom of a bookish child about men who were born out of wedlock and were held unfortunate in consequence, being under disadvantages which required them to be a sort of heroes if they were to work themselves up to an equal standing with their legally born brothers. But he had never brought such knowledge into any association with his own lot, which had been too easy for him ever to think about it—until this moment when there had darted into his mind with the magic of quick comparison, the possibility that there was the secret of his own birth, and that the man whom he called uncle was really his father. (16.10)

Here we get one of Daniel's key "a-ha!" moments. He's just starting to contemplate his background, which has always been a secret to him. Interestingly, he starts to think about who he is in comparison with the great works of literature that he has read.

[Daniel's] own face in the glass had during many years been associated for him with thoughts of some one whom he must be like—one about whose character and lot he continually wondered, and never dared to ask. (17.3.)

One of the ways that people understand their identity is through the ways in which they resemble the people they call their relatives. When Daniel looks at himself in the mirror, though, he doesn't think he resembles anyone else that he knows, leaving him to wonder whom in the world he does resemble, if anyone.

He saw close to him the white-bearded face of that neighbour, who said to him in German, "Excuse me, young gentleman—allow me—what is your parentage—your mother's family—her maiden name?"

Deronda had a strongly resistant feeling: he was inclined to shake off hastily the touch on his arm; but he managed to slip it away and said coldly, "I am an Englishman." (32.29-30)

It really stinks for Daniel to be asked about his family background when he doesn't even know what that background is. What is interesting about this moment is that the stranger who approaches him seems to ask Daniel about his background because Daniel seems to resemble someone he knows – otherwise, why would he ask? It's almost as though the man knows the answer before he asks the question, which is more than Daniel knows about himself.

But immediately the strange Jew rose from his sitting posture, and Deronda felt a thin hand pressing his arm tightly, while a hoarse, excited voice, not much above a loud whisper, said—

"You are perhaps of our race?"

Deronda coloured deeply, not liking the grasp, and then answered with a slight shake of the head. "No." The grasp was relaxed, the hand withdrawn, the eagerness of the face collapsed into uninterested melancholy, as if some possessing spirit which had leaped into the eyes and gestures had sunk back again to the inmost recesses of the frame; and moving further off as he held out the little book, the stranger said in a tone of distant civility, "I believe Mr. Ram will be satisfied with half-a-crown, sir." (33.21-23)

Again, Daniel finds himself in the awkward situation of having to explain who he is without actually really knowing. The man in the shop finds it totally possible that Daniel could be Jewish. The topic of identity always strikes a sore spot with Daniel, though. He's disappointed that Daniel denies being Jewish – though, we have to keep in mind, Daniel has no idea what his background actually is.

[Daniel] thought he had found a key now by which to interpret [Gwendolen] more clearly: what magnifying of her misery might not a young creature get into who had wedded her fresh hopes to old secrets! He thought he saw clearly enough now why Sir Hugo had never dropped any hint of this affair to him; and immediately the image of this Mrs. Glasher became painfully associated with his own hidden birth. (36.24)

Daniel's uncertain family background starts to color the way he understands other people. Lydia Glasher's illegitimate children remind him of himself and one of the possible explanations of his own backstory.

"Then it is not my real name?" said Deronda, with a dislike even to this trifling part of the disguise which had been thrown round him.

"Oh, real as another," said his mother, indifferently. "The Jews have always been changing their names. My father's family had kept the name of Charisi: my husband was a Charisi. When I came out as a singer, we made it Alcharisi. But there had been a branch of the family my father had lost sight of who called themselves Deronda, and when I wanted a name for you, and Sir Hugo said, 'Let it be a foreign name,' I thought of Deronda." (51.63-64)

What's cool about this moment is the way it suggests that names – one of the main ways through which people assert their identity – don't matter. A family name can last for generations, tying everyone who has it to the same family line. Just as easily, though, someone can change his or her name and distance themselves from their ancestry.

"[Daniel Charisi] travelled to many countries, and spent much of his substance in seeing and knowing. What he used to insist on was that the strength and wealth of mankind depended on the balance of separateness and communication, and he was bitterly against our people losing themselves among the Gentiles; 'It's no better,' said he, 'than the many sorts of grain going back from their variety into sameness.'" (60.19)

Daniel's grandfather, Daniel Charisi, believed that society is best when different kinds of people understand and appreciate each other, but maintain their separate identities. The metaphor of grain going from variety to sameness suggests that having many distinct varieties is better than everyone assuming the same group identity. What does this mean? It means that Daniel Charisi thought it was preferable for Jewish people to maintain a separate Jewish race and not to assimilate entirely into Christian society.

"That is true," [Daniel] said, emphatically. "I have a joy which will remain to us even in the worst trouble. I did not tell you the reason of my journey abroad, Mordecai, because—never mind—I went to learn my parentage. And you were right. I am a Jew." (63.9)

Finally, Daniel has a way of explaining who he is that is brief and to the point. But is this his entire identity, or just what he considers to be the most important part of it?

"You laughed at the mystery of my journey to Italy, Hans," [Daniel] began. "It was for an object that touched my happiness at the very roots. I had never known anything about my parents, and I really went to Genoa to meet my mother. My father has been long dead—died when I was an infant. My mother was the daughter of an eminent Jew; my father was her cousin. Many things had caused me to think of this origin as almost a probability before I set out. I was so far prepared for the result that I was glad of it—glad to find myself a Jew." (67.18)

Here, Daniel has a concise narrative of his background to give others. After worrying for years about who he is and where he comes from, Daniel has a story – and it's one that he's OK with.