George Eliot

Zionism comes from an unexpected source.

Print this page Print this page

Daniel Deronda

"Let there be another great migration, another choosing of Israel to be a nationality whose members may still stretch to the ends of the earth," declares Mordechai Cohen, the fiery Jewish nationalist in Daniel Deronda, which was published a good 21 years before the First Zionist Congress. 
George Eliot's Daniel Deronda
If not for its proto-Zionist elements, Daniel Deronda would not be all that different from a lot of Victorian-era novels. It contains the intermingled stories of Gwendolen Harleth, a spoiled young Christian woman who, in a moment of financial panic, marries a wealthy brute--and that of Daniel Deronda, the kindly, orphaned protagonist who becomes entangled in London's Jewish scene and eventually discovers that he, himself, is a Jew.

Both Gwendolen and Daniel travel in the same privileged circles--their stories intersect throughout the book, from the very first scene in which Daniel sees Gwendolen at a roulette table in Leubronn, Germany--and they feel a similar interest in the other. But they diverge on radically different paths.

The Gwendolen scenes would have been fairly familiar to readers of that era. Unhappy marriages (like that of Emma and Charles Bovary in Madame Bovary) and flawed heroines (like Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair) were common in European literature of the time. But it's the plunge into the world of the Jews that was so unsettling to Victorian readers--and overwhelms the rest of the story.

Any student of British literature knows that prior to Daniel Deronda, such a sympathetic Jewish character was inconceivable. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales were steeped in the ugliest of anti-Semitic blood libels. Shakespeare's Shylock might have been a pitiable villain with inner-depths--but, as Harold Bloom put it, "The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work."

However, Daniel Deronda was a newer, more progressive entry into the British canon, and it represented one of the first unambiguously positive takes on Jews. Daniel's character is charitable and modest, thoughtful and smart. He first becomes entangled with Mordechai Cohen and his Jewish milieu after saving a beautiful young Jewish woman from committing suicide. In fact, it is the Christian characters in Daniel Deronda--like Gwendolen, and her unfortunate husband, H.R. Grandcourt--who are flawed.

Many of Daniel Deronda's critics at the time it was published were put off by its representation of Jewishness. "There was an almost schizophrenic tone in many of the reviews: the believable characters (English) versus the unbelievable (Jewish)," writes Himmelfarb.

But for most Jews who read Daniel Deronda, the book was a revelation. Not only were Jews painted sympathetically, but the ideas of Mordechai were genuinely intriguing. For many, it kick started a drive for Jewish nationalism. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, Emma Lazarus, and others claim to have discovered their inner-Zionism by reading Daniel Deronda. Sigmund Freud said that no gentile author had better captured the Jewish mind.

At the end of the novel, Daniel leaves his genteel English life in order to settle in Israel. "I am going to the East," Daniel announces to Gwendolen. "The idea that I am possessed with is that of restoring a political existence to my people, making them a nation again...I am resolved to devote my life to it. At the least, I may awaken a movement in other minds, such as has been awakened in my own."

It would be difficult to find a bolder affirmation of Zionism than that.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Max Gross

Max Gross is a reporter for the New York Post and is the author of From Schlub to Stud: How to Embrace Your Inner Mensch and Conquer the Big City. He lives in Queens and his musings can be read at