George Eliot Also Grappled With Feminism and Zionism

By | Mar 30, 2017
Arts & Culture, Latest

By Sarah Rindner

Proud Zionists and feminists have understandably been incensed by recent remarks about the incompatibility of the two principles. What about believing in the Jewish right to live in its national homeland is at odds with caring about the rights of women? And yet, the tension here has deeper roots than present debates. Indeed, the discourse of universal human rights that is characteristic of the feminist movement has never led to an embrace of a vigorous nationalism as an inevitable matter. Further, Zionism in particular is in many respects an outgrowth of Judaism, which is not an egalitarian religion, at least not as traditionally practiced. There may also be a question of allegiances: Could membership in a universal sisterhood potentially conflict with a more particularistic nationalist association?

Nearly 150 years ago, these two impulses found themselves curiously juxtaposed in the Victorian novel Daniel Deronda. Daniel Deronda is the final novel of the famed writer George Eliot (née Mary Anne Evans). Generally speaking, Eliot was acutely sensitive to the way in which her society constricted and limited opportunities for her female heroines. Even within Eliot’s oeuvre, Daniel Deronda stands out for its strong women who rebel against their circumstances in ways that both succeed and fail. Not every woman in Daniel Deronda achieves a perfect feminist outcome—in fact, none of them do. Yet Eliot opens up a familiar line of argument about gender and injustice that is still being debated today.

Just as Daniel Deronda probes the limits and possibilities for women in Victorian England, it addresses a different set of concerns regarding Jewish self-determination in Palestine. The eponymous hero of the novel gradually falls in love with Judaism and learns of his own Jewish roots. Deronda decides that universal humanism, with its general concern for equality and justice, cannot compare to a specific national identity that is firmly rooted in its own traditions. Part of his infatuation with Judaism tracks Eliot’s own passion for the religion, which she learned about from the real-life Talmud scholar Emanuel Deutsch. For Eliot, Zionism is a natural outgrowth of the Jewish religious tradition, which she understands as finding its fullest expression only in the context of national sovereignty in the land of Israel. Later conceptions of political Zionism had a complex relationship to this religious underpinning. For Eliot, however, Judaism and Jewish nationalism are one and the same.

What, then, is the connection between Daniel Deronda’s feminist and Zionist strands? The answer is not always clear. The protagonist Gwendolen Harleth can be considered a proto-feminist heroine. Her struggle for personal autonomy within Victorian constraints recalls Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary and points forward to the anguished heroines of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Early on in the novel, Gwendolen meets Lydia Glasher, who has been abused by a wealthy and cruel man who ultimately becomes Gwendolen’s husband. Gwendolen’s reaction almost anticipates the 20th century feminist movements: “Gwendolen…felt a sort of terror: it was as if some ghastly vision had come to her in a dream and said, ‘I am a women’s life.’”

Gwendolen and Deronda are attracted to one another, but Deronda ends up obsessed with the Jewess Mirah Lapidoth. Stolen away from a traditional Jewish home as a child and forced into the theater, Mirah reviles her cosmopolitan and itinerant upbringing as much as Gwendolen looks down upon her own socially conventional one. Mirah longs to be reunited with her family and her faith—her unwavering dedication on both of these fronts forms something of the moral lodestone of the novel. Deronda is drawn to Mirah, which leads him to Judaism and ultimately toward a dramatically different life in the Jewish homeland.

From a feminist perspective, Mirah is a disappointment. There is something about Mirah that stirs the caretaking impulses and “chivalrous sentiments” of those around her. Whereas Gwendolen is tormented by her lack of independence, Mirah seeks and embraces interdependence with others. Traditional Jewish distinctions between men and women also fail to bother Mirah. When asked how she can tolerate the gender divisions within the synagogue, apparently an issue that was relevant as far back as Victorian England, Mirah shrugs it off:

“Excuse me, Mirah, but does it seem quite right to you that the women should sit behind rails in a gallery apart?”

“Yes, I never thought of anything else,” said Mirah, with mild surprise.


For Mirah, Judaism cannot be questioned as “set of propositions”—rather, it is “of one fibre with her affections.” Judaism is as connected with Mirah’s heart as her family is, and to question one would be to deny the other. Ultimately, Mirah’s heartfelt loyalty speaks to Deronda more than Gwendolen’s sophisticated modern ennui. In navigating between these two women, Eliot, the great proto-feminist novelist, suggests that Mirah has some crucial insight that Gwendolen lacks.

This novel’s distinct preference for Mirah’s traditional aspirations is even more surprising in light of Eliot’s biography. Raised an Anglican, she renounced her faith and declared herself an atheist at a young age. She travelled in progressive English circles and never married or had children—instead she carried on a long-term adulterous relationship with George H. Lewes. She was, in short, quite far from the paragon of idealism and virtue that she fashioned in the character Mirah.

The novel further addresses this tension through the presciently modern character Princess Leonora Halm-Eberstein. We learn that she is, surprisingly, Deronda’s own Jewish mother who abandoned him as a child. The princess seeks to reject her limitations as wife, mother and Orthodox Jew in order to fulfill her ambition to “live a large life” as a famous singer. In language that could have been lifted The Feminine Mystique, she tells Deronda “I have not felt exactly what other women feel—or say they feel, for fear of being thought unlike others.”

For the princess, justification for leaving her family and her faith comes down to a question of rights: “I had a right to be free. I had a right to seek my freedom from a bondage that I hated.” Her rejection of motherhood is interrelated with her rejection of Judaism, and she warns her son that he too may not fully appreciate the difficult challenges that come with Jewish identity:

Ah…you are glad to have been born a Jew. You say so. That is because you have not been brought up as a Jew. That separateness seems sweet to you because I saved you from it.


The novel’s portrayal of the princess also echoes Eliot’s own dramatic rupture with her family, as well as her choice to pursue her creative ambitions over the more traditional routes of women of her time.

Much scholarly attention has been paid to sorting through the strands of Eliot’s life—her unconventional life choices, her mixed relationship with progressivism, her philo-Semitism and the striking manner in which she anticipates the formal Zionist movement decades before it surfaced in history. Gertrude Himmelfarb’s famous book, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, explores the biographical and historical details that made Daniel Deronda’s perspective feasible. Transcending these details, a new online course taught by Harvard professor and master teacher Ruth Wisse offers a sophisticated literary analysis of how the various components of Deronda work together. Wisse explores how, at the deepest levels, the novel demonstrates that questions about the status of women and the Jews may inform one another. Baffled critics have pointed at Daniel Deronda as an unfortunate exception to Eliot’s “otherwise” excellent oeuvre. Yet Wisse makes a convincing case that Eliot knows exactly what she is doing throughout Daniel Deronda.

Wisse is also able to make sense of the morally ambiguous appeal of the princess. Wisse argues that she should rightfully be the feminist hero of the novel as the woman with the greatest power, keenest observations and most obvious similarities with Eliot herself. Yet, in the end, Wisse demonstrates how the princess’s freedom from restraint does not bring her the satisfaction, or even the actual freedom, that she seeks. An illness forces her to cease her singing career and she is forced to marry a wealthy Russian nobleman out of the fear that she won’t be able to support herself.

Mirah, on the other hand, with her traditional Jewish attachments, is likely the least interesting of all the compelling women we encounter in Deronda. Yet her willingness to surrender to something larger than herself is ultimately what sends her down the most radical path of all. She accompanies Deronda, hand in hand, to Palestine (Eliot imagines this possibility two decades before Herzl would write The Jewish State), where we are invited to imagine they will have a relationship characterized by great mutual respect.

The message of Daniel Deronda is, in part, that embracing our particularity—our responsibilities to family and faith—is likely to yield more freedom, and more happiness, than jumping straight into the “great current” of global cosmopolitanism. Women can only gain the equal partnership with men that Eliot sought in a context that is about more than equality itself. While the particularistic values of Zionism and universalistic discourse of feminism may seem inconsistent at times, Eliot suggests that the sort of ideals fundamental to the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty may actually serve as a better guide for the women’s rights movement than the secular humanism with which it is more commonly associated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.