Daniel Deronda: A Study in Characterisation and Psychology

Rosanna Wood

Concerned with George Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda, this essay examines the nature of character, drawing upon definitions and attitudes to that term. It looks at how certain of Eliot's characters are formed, considering them in their varying levels of success as representations of people, and how they have been received by critics over time.



We mortals have a strange spiritual chemistry going on within us, so that a lazy stagnation, or even a cottony milkiness may be preparing one knows not what biting or explosive material. The navvy waking from sleep and without malice heaving a stone to crush the life out of his still sleeping comrade, is understood to lack the trained motive which makes a character fairly calculable in his actions...(Eliot 1974: 364) (Daniel Deronda)

Eliot presents us with the unpredictability of human nature; each of us at the mercy of individual biology, that ‘strange spiritual chemistry’, is, although ‘fairly calculable’, simultaneously capable of working against the ordered patterns of character formation we have previously etched. The image is significant, for if we examine the etymology of ‘character’, we are taken back to the Greek for ‘sharpening’, ‘furrowing’, or ‘engraving’: the techniques used for imprinting lettering, signs and symbols (Williams 1988: 234). Williams (ibid) explains that the shift in meaning onto people came through metaphor, initially with particular reference to the face. He demonstrates through examples from Elizabethan drama:

‘by charàcters graven in thy brows’

(Marlowe 2002:12 - Tamburlaine)

‘a minde that suites with this thy faire and outward character’

(Shakespeare 1998 - Twelfth Night).

By the eighteenth century the word had taken on the meaning of ‘personality’, itself stemming from the Old French ‘persone’: the masks used by players, or acted ‘characters’ on stage; while around the same time ‘character’ began to be used to describe those found in fiction (Williams 1988).

The recurrence of the metaphor, from both mask and graphic sign, and with overlap between dramatic or fictional presentation and the possession of a private as well as evident nature, is very striking

(Williams 1988: 234).

Eliot’s impulsive navvy, then, is bound up in this metaphorical history; as a hypothetical fictional being he signifies the complexities of both representation of the imagined character, and of the inner workings of actual personal character. Further to this, his brutal act is ‘out of character’; motiveless and spontaneous, his behaviour could not have been foreseen, even by those that knew him.

Eliot asks us what it is to know a person and feel able to judge their potential actions. In this question is a real person that we have not yet met, and alongside them is a fictional character. George Eliot, the great ‘moral psychologist’ (Bloom 2009: xi), endeavouring to merge these figures so closely that from our perspective we can hardly tell the difference between them, searches continually for new ways to represent in fiction the ‘character’ behind each ‘character’.

Returning to the passage, the word ‘trained’ implies that one’s personal character is not merely a consequence of their chemical ingredients, but is something which can be developed through instruction, and shaped into a steady, recognisable form. It is this which would allow others the opportunity to make such judgements as to predict whether a certain man would, or would not, murder his comrade. It is in fact the word which Aristotle, writing his Ethics in the fourth century BC, is translated as using on the subject. He argues that to develop the morally virtuous character: ‘...it is necessary to be in some manner trained immediately from childhood’ (1853: 37).

The virtues, then, are produced in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature, but, [our] being naturally adapted to receive them, and this natural capacity is perfected by habit (Aristotle 1853: 33-34).

Aristotle’s proposal that character traits can be cultivated through ‘habituation’ (Nadelhoffer 2010: 164) is part of a process of philosophical thought which has been built upon to form the ‘trait concept’ of personality theory today (Matthews, Deary & Whiteman 2005). The concept affirms the idea of an essential core personality which is not altered by a person’s varying moods; it also crucially asserts that character traits are directly linked with behaviour, so that a person described as having a certain trait, is likely to behave in the manner associated with it (ibid).

One of the major tasks for a scientific psychology of traits is to distinguish internal properties of the person from overt behaviours, and to investigate the causal relationships between them. ... it is essential to seek to identify the underlying physiological, psychological and social bases of traits, which are the true causal influences on behaviour (Matthews, Deary & Whiteman 2005: 4).

To wake from sleep and without malice or motive crush one’s sleeping friend to death with a stone, is an action which fits straightforwardly into the category of ‘overt behaviour’. While used to introduce the ‘chancy personage’ (Eliot 1974: 364) which even a gentleman, such as one ‘Henleigh Grandcourt’, could turn out to be, the spontaneous violence in the behaviour of the navvy and its demonstration of a mind not functioning in the way in which it may appear to be doing, is a fine example of Eliot drawing contemporary psychology into her character study. The navvy is created in response to a murder committed in Paris in 1825, in which a child was impulsively beheaded by the young woman looking after her (During 1988: 86). This case gained notoriety beyond its psychiatrists and lawyers; it exposed the ‘discovery’ of a condition of mental illness described as ‘monomania’, which was to have reverberations ‘across nineteenth century society and culture’ (ibid). During claims of Daniel Deronda that it ‘demonstrates the wider cultural consequences of monomania more thoroughly than any text I know’ (1988: 95-97).

Nineteenth century psychology was, although recognisable to it, quite a different discipline to that of the twenty-first century. Writers of diverse intellectual backgrounds had access to, and were able to publically engage in, contemporary psychological debate via a range of mediums, including: ‘specialist psychological texts, reviews, essays in the great periodicals, novels, poems, philosophical tracts, and political polemics’ (Rylance 2000: 3). Therefore, the ‘open discourse’ which permeated the various subject boundaries allowed for a dialogue to open between the brightest minds of interconnected academic fields, coming as they did from their differing perspectives: a somewhat less empirical approach to psychology than the one we have today, yet one which produced an ideal environment for progressive thought (ibid).

The Victorian novel, in its scrutiny of the relationships between society and the self (Shires 2004: 61), is, as Rylance (ibid) proposes, in its ‘voracious’ (David 2004: 5) scale and form, reminiscent of the dynamic cultural conditions in which it was written; while, like the new developments in psychology, it was itself a great contributor to this climate of innovation.

This essay is concerned with George Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda, published in 1876 in serial form. We shall be examining how certain of the characters are formed, considering them in their varying levels of success as representations of people, and how they have been received by critics over time. To do this we shall need to form some understanding of the workings of characterisation within the novel, while we shall also draw in key elements of Victorian psychology in an effort to understand certain contemporary ideas of the brain and its relationship with human behaviour. It is interesting then, to read Eliot’s work at times through our modern perspective also, so that we may see the depth of her psychological insight from several angles.


Was she beautiful or not beautiful? and what was the secret of form or expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance? Was the good or the evil genius dominant in those beams? Probably the evil; else why was the effect that of unrest rather than of undisturbed charm? Why was the wish to look again felt as coercion and not as a longing in which the whole being consents? (Eliot 1974: 35)

The force with which these questions seize our curiosity and pull us into the novel creates the unconscious impression that it is the extraordinary magnetism of the young woman which draws us in, via the intensity of her effect upon the narrator. For the observation is revealing of the young woman, but equally of the observer, whose scrutiny of her betrays the mind of one determined to separate meaning from attraction. The mind is purposeful in its enquiry, yet pushed further and further forward in its search for understanding, it concludes nothing but the conflicting awareness of resistance within desire: the desire to know more of this woman, to study her further and to discover how to translate from the smallest movement in her features, the thoughts behind them. Daniel attributes the reluctance to a reaction to something outside of himself and within the scene he is watching; and indeed we later discover that there is disapproval in his judgement of the young woman’s actions (in gambling); yet there is also a sense of self-repression which explains this ‘inward debate’ (Eliot 1974: 38) and only partial consent of desire perhaps more comfortably than disapproval. During reads the passage through modern psychology, seeing it ‘not as the record of a detached scrutiny but as indicating a flight from sexual response into calm analysis. An unsuccessful flight...’ (1988: 98).

To examine this concept from a nineteenth-century viewpoint, we must recognise the fundamental importance of ‘faculty psychology’, a theory which was:

the orthodoxy, the ‘common sense’, the ‘default position’, the ‘doxa’ (as Roland Barthes called it) of the age.... the background that shapes and establishes the foreground when other theories are under consideration’

(Rylance 2000: 27).

Faculty psychology, the basis on which the pseudo-science of phrenology would be formed (Singh 1991: 69), splits the brain into mental ‘faculties’, or, as George Combe describes them, ‘instincts’ (1998: 36), which are again split into two: the lower and the higher. The lower faculties structure into the physically lower areas of the brain, and relate to our animal, or bodily instincts, such as ‘sensation, feeling, appetite, [and] desire’ (Rylance 2000: 27); while the ‘higher’, increasingly spiritual areas, including the ‘intellectual faculties’ of ‘reason, faith, love... exercise of the will, and so on’ (ibid), inhabit the areas closer to the front and centre of the skull (Rafter 2008: 47). The uppermost of these, the ‘moral faculties’ (such as benevolence, veneration, hope and consciousness) are found at the very top of the skull (ibid): the apex of the hierarchy being the ‘unlocated soul’ (Rylance 2000: 27).

He who has given a proper direction to the intellectual force, and thus obtained an early command over the bodily organ by habituating it to processes of calm reasoning, remains sane amid all the vagaries of sense; while he who has been the slave, rather than the master of his animal nature, listens to its dictates without question even when distorted by disease, -and is mad (Barlow 1998: 244). (On Man’s Power over Himself to Prevent or Control Insanity - 1843)

Among the attributes of a perfect mind, has been enumerated the power of perfectly regulating the expression of the thoughts and affections (Connoly 1998: 241). (An Inquiry Concerning the Indications of Insanity, with Suggestions for the Better Protection and Care of the Insane -1830)

To return to Daniel and his study of the young woman, it seems that the contemporary reader would have implicitly approved of any modification of sexual desire, particularly in relation to Daniel’s character and status as an English gentleman and the hero of the novel. In fact, the ingrained cultural conditioning which encouraged self-repression and separation of the mind from the body, leads one to think that even Daniel would only be implicitly controlling his desire for this striking female, who has nevertheless ‘arrested’ (Eliot 1974: 37) his attention. This employment of the unconscious and socially-constructed device of using the higher faculty, ‘reason’, to dissipate ‘amativeness’, or sexual desire, (the lowest faculty on Combe’s map of the phrenological organs (Combe 1998: 32 - Appendix 1)), and having as During suggests, only limited success, would therefore explain Daniel’s ‘unrest’.

To say that Deronda was romantic would be to misrepresent him: but, under his somewhat self-repressed exterior there was a fervour which made him find poetry and romance among the events of every-day life. (Eliot 1974: 245).

This sentence confirms a struggle between Daniel’s inner ardour of nature, and the outward impression of reserve which he conveys to those around him; he is constantly in the act of repressing his character to suit his position in life. Eliot does not want to ‘misrepresent’ Daniel, yet she reveals to the reader far more than he would offer of himself in person. This profession of Eliot’s dedication to producing a realist representation of this young man creates the illusion of psychological depth, especially when we consider, from a nineteenth-century perspective, that he is to discover that he is not an English gentleman after all. This role which he rather uncomfortably fits himself into, is, for one who is (unknowingly) of Mediterranean Jewish descent, a learned behaviour perhaps more in opposition to his inherent nature than if he were a ‘true Englishman’:

... all British minds were distinguishable from the Mediterranean... The old national stereotypes which Englishmen enjoyed making of their continental neighbours were... absorbed into phrenology (De Giustino 1975: 69).

Franz Joseph Gall’s determination to correlate ‘the development of cranial contours with the characteristic behaviours associated with a species or individual’ (Van Wyhe 2004: 15), led to his becoming the founder of ‘phrenology’ (Postlethwaite 2001: 104). He claimed that his research proved that ‘moral and intellectual dispositions are innate’ (1998: 28) and that ‘their manifestation depends on organization’ (ibid). In this way, one’s character is predominantly determined by the inborn faculties of the brain:

Study the different developments of our cerebral parts, and you willno longer be deceived as to the prime motives which determine your

tastes, and your actions; you will judge exactly of your merit and your demerit... you will explain the double man within you, and the reason why your propensities and your intellect, or your propensities and your reason, are so often opposed to each other... (Gall 1998: 26). (On the Functions of the Brain -1835)

A man named George Combe, inspired by Gall’s ideas, took them further in writing the 1828 publication The Constitution of Man. This ‘best-selling Bible of phrenology’ (Postlethwaite 2001: 105), was to become ‘extraordinarily popular’ (Bourne Taylor & Shuttleworth 1998: 29), and to have ‘profound effects on Victorian culture’ (Van Wyhe 2004: 1). George Eliot ‘became acquainted’ with Combe some years before she became a novelist (Postlethwaite 2001: 104); and her interest in phrenology for its psychology, as well as its ‘natural history’ approach, was to have a profound impact on her own endeavours in understanding human nature (ibid).

Phrenology was the first psychology to focus on individual differences, drawing on the natural scientific skills of observation and classification (Postlethwaite 2001: 105).

Throughout her writing career, Eliot was to push her art forward in pursuit of a new ‘psychological realism’ (Je̦drzejewski 2007: 121) in response to, and as we shall see, also by way of contribution to, contemporary developments in the study of the human mind. She wrote this letter to her publisher while writing her third work of fiction, The Mill on the Floss:

If the ethics of art do not admit the truthful presentation of a character essentially noble, but liable to great error – error that is anguish to its nobleness –then, it seems to me, the ethics of art are too narrow, and must be widened to correspond with a widening psychology (Eliot 2004: 385).

This leads us to question what the ‘truthful’ presentation in art of a ‘character’ might mean. Eliot’s characters are fictional, only existing within the worlds of their novels through her creation; yet her statement implies that it is possible to present a character to the reader in a way which is in some way, not ‘truthful’.

If, in a realist novel, the ‘truth’ is our world, or in this case the Victorian world which Eliot attempts to reproduce, although the characters are entirely imaginary, it is important that we recognise them as people: that they are ‘truthful’ to the reality of life. To do this, the ‘personalities’, of fictional characters must appear to be truthful products of the faculties which were thought to combine in forming their minds, so that instead of reading these figures as characters in a book, we feel we ourselves taken into their realities, forming attachments to them as ‘people’ that we come to ‘know’. However, it is the trick of psychological realism which makes us feel attachment, for these ‘people’ really are only words on a page.

‘Characters do not exist, are only a collection of instructions, signs, or themes’ (Davis 1987: 108).

This idea is one that we instantly have a reaction against, and yet cannot easily deny. As readers presented with the necessary ‘instructions, signs, or themes’, it is our role to transform these components (as we appear to do quite naturally), into recognisable versions of people. Davis (1987) argues that our aptitude for recognising these linguistic signs and translating them into beings which, on some level, exist is something which we have adopted since the arrival of the novel into mainstream culture, and that ‘before the novel, an extended description of personality and psychology simply did not exist’ (1987: 103).

Our task, then, is to examine how a novelist could sufficiently reproduce the psychological complexities of a human being to make a fictional character ‘truthful’. If ‘Even the most complex character in a novel is fantastically simplified when compared with the most boring personality’ (Davis 1987: 113), then the reader does not need fictional characters to replicate real people in their multifaceted entireties, but only to appear to do so by representing selected elements of them. In fact, Davis argues that the simplification of a human personality with its myriad of sometimes conflicting traits, is essential in the production of any convincing fictional character, perhaps despite an appearance of psychological depth; for we are too contradictory, too full of anomalies to be represented in a character which would not appear as ‘simply a random collection of attributes’ (Davis 1987: 112). The personality (and physical) traits of a character must therefore be both limited and consistent; so that any developments are ones which the character has had the potential for from their earliest beginnings (Davis 1987). In this way we see how premeditated the traits of fictional characters inevitably are; for a character in a realist novel does not simply exist, as we do, without meaning, but has been created with very specific requirements in mind for their role in a narrative, and their relations with other characters. Therefore, every physical and psychological trait is, to some extent, calculated for an intended purpose (Davis 1987). These major divisions between those who are designed and those who are not, make characters, limited as they are by their powerlessness to replicate the intricacies of the human mind, all the more intriguing when they appear as wonderfully realised, autonomous, and versatile beings, that we can grow extremely attached to.

The effect that one strives after is... a much more complex character and a higher strain of ideas. But such an effect is just the most difficult thing in art – to give new elements – i.e. elements not already used up – in forms as vivid as those of long familiar types (Eliot 1955: 233).

The young woman at the gaming table, caught in the gaze of Daniel Deronda, presents to us the early brush strokes of a ‘portrait... seen as one of the highest achievements of psychological realism’ (Shuttleworth 1984: 176).

The Nereid in sea-green robes and silver ornaments, with a pale sea-green feather fastened in silver falling backward over her green hat and light-brown hair, was Gwendolen Harleth (Eliot 1974: 40).

From our early introduction to this ‘problematic sylph’ (Eliot 1974: 38) whose character so many pages of a book entitled ‘Daniel Deronda’ devote to portraying, we are allowed into her ‘consciousness’. We see her from many angles in the first chapter alone: through Daniel’s perspective, that of our omniscient narrator, subtly merging through into Gwendolen’s own thoughts in free indirect style; we hear Gwendolen speak, as well as the characters Mackworth and Mr Vandernoodt speaking about her. In this way we begin to form her image through the outline of physical traits: the ‘light-brown hair’, ‘long narrow eyes’, the ‘warm paleness’ of her complexion, the ‘delicate nose with its gradual little upwards curve’, ‘And then her mouth –there never was a prettier mouth, the lips curl back so finely...’(Eliot 1974: 40-41). Through these come allusions toward her nature. The paleness of her lips is the sole ‘sign of emotion’ at the feeling that Daniel is ‘examining her as a specimen of the lower order’: the absence of a blush becomes an ‘inward self-defiance’ (Eliot 1974: 38). The mouth is ‘self-complacent’, ‘as if it knew its own beauty’. Internally she envisions being ‘worship[ped] as a goddess’(Eliot 1974: 40-41).

As the object of scrutiny, Gwendolen is available to a quasi-psychological lexicon; as a feeling, self-aware character in a world the implied reader shares, she is available to identification (During 1988: 99).

During writes that the characters within Eliot’s novel become psychological cases for one another, analysing one other’s behaviour constantly (1988: 98). We see them observing each other with intense examination, looking for clues to interpret the mystery of one another’s actions in a society where so much is left unsaid: ‘expertise is proliferating outside the bounds of institutions, inside a humanism that hopes to exceed them’ (ibid). It certainly appears that Gwendolen becomes a ‘case’ for Daniel; he studies her with a deep interest (as does the ‘implied reader’ with him), which she misinterprets as condescension. Later however, she will submit to his studying her; depend upon the closeness of his attention when she cannot communicate with him otherwise. Later she will think ‘I wish he could know everything about me without my telling him’ (Eliot 1974: 485); and indeed, he almost does. For now:

She controlled her muscles, and showed no tremor of mouth or hands. Each time her stake was swept off she doubled it (Eliot 1974: 38).

Gwendolen’s resolve of emotional repression under the awareness of what appears to be Deronda’s ‘evil eye’, drives a ‘dominant impulse’ (ibid) to play on at the roulette-table, heedless of her losses. Her display of daring and forced composure, and their ultimate root in vanity, are essential in laying the foundations for Gwendolen’s character; for her story requires her to be tragically led by the first of these traits into a life of abject dependency upon the second.

Woman, with her exalted spiritualism, is more forcibly under the control of matter; her sensations are more vivid and acute, her sympathies more irresistible. She is less under the influence of the brain than the uterine system, the plexi of abdominal nerves, and irritation of the spinal cord; in her, a hysteric predisposition is incessantly predominating from the dawn of puberty (Millengen 1998: 169). (The Passions, or Mind and Matter -1848)

Although undoubtedly ‘feminine’, Gwendolen subverts the limitations of her gender in several ways. We have already seen self-restraint where emotion might be more of a ‘female’ inclination. After receiving the letter which informs her that her family have lost their fortune, Gwendolen’s immediate reactions are ‘deliberate’: she sits ‘perfectly still, shedding no tears. Her impulse was to survey and resist the situation rather than to wail over it’ (Eliot 1974: 45). Neither does she feel a feminine abundance of compassion for her mother and sisters (ibid). Her emotional response is one of anger, and after a cool analysis of the state of affairs she attempts to gain some control by pawning a necklace inherited from the father she has never known (Eliot 1974): a surprisingly unsentimental response. In youthful complacency, Gwendolen imagines that she is ready for life, is hungry for exhilaration, disbelieving that severe misfortune could touch her in any real way. ‘She had gone to the roulette-table not because of passion, but in search of it’ (Eliot 1974: 45); she is driven by the ‘lower’ propensities:

...Gwendolen felt no check on the animal stimulus that came from the stir and tongue of the hounds, the pawing of the horses, the varying voices of men... that utmost excitement... in feeling something like a combination of dog and horse, with the superadded thrill of social vanities and consciousness of centaur-power which belong to human kind (Eliot 1974: 102).

If the ‘equestrian image patterns’ surrounding Gwendolen are representations of sexual desire (McCarron 1980: 78), then it is not here connected with any longing for marriage or male affection, for she ‘hates’ romantic professions (Eliot 1974: 114), and equates marriage with constraint on personal freedom (Eliot 1974: 101); her latent desire is therefore bound up with notions of personal, physical and sexual autonomy. Gwendolen’s social confidence, physical daring, desire to hunt (regardless of prohibition), indifference to others, and craving for personal independence (Eliot 108-110), are not behaviours suited to the virtuous moral ‘ideal’ of a young female (Anon 1998: 171), and are better fitted for the portrayal of a young male.

This ‘Spoiled Child’ (Book 1) has lived a relatively unrestrained life for a young lady, devoid of consistent authoritative male or female guidance. Her character displays perhaps all of the frighteningly subjective indicators of what a contemporary psychologist describes as ‘female moral insanity’; caused by the naturally precarious physical state of the female reproductive system (Anon 1998: 174). Gwendolen, ‘the pet and pride of the household, waited on by mother, sisters, governesses and maids as... a princess in exile’ (Eliot 1974: 53) appears to have cultivated these tendencies through her indulgent up-bringing:

... the propensities, excited into such fearful and almost supernatural

activity, by the ovarian irritation, burst forth beyond all control, and

the pet of the family is seen to be... irreligious, selfish, slanderous, false,

malicious, devoid of affection... bold, -may be erotic, self-willed, and

quarrelsome... (Anon 1998: 174).

(Woman in her psychological relations – 1851)

Despite her often unpleasant behaviour (from the ‘disagreeable silent remembrance of her having strangled her sister’s canary-bird in a final fit of exasperation at its shrill singing which had again and again jarringly interrupted her own’ (Eliot 1974: 53), to her laughter at Rex’s fall (Eliot 1974: 109)), Gwendolen curiously manages to capture the reader’s sympathy. The consistency of her negative traits and their collective familiarity allow for her to be vividly realised in a way which justifiably holds our attention, yet less so our compassion.

We might attribute this in part to Gwendolen’s physical traits: beauty implying ‘correspondence between the psychological, the moral and the physical’ (Davis 1987: 123). Perhaps, aside from the gentle yet firm guidance of Eliot’s biased narrator, we are subconsciously lenient towards Gwendolen: captivated in the way that those around her are, or as we ourselves are in life by the beautiful and unexplainably charismatic. We believe from our experience of novels that this character will not betray our trust in her potential for goodness. Gwendolen’s character also possesses a small collection of simple and effective inner qualities which work in her favour, such as her naivety, her genuine affection for her mother (if mostly conveyed through compunction) (Eliot 1974: 53), and her strange, deep-seated superstitious terror, expressed in ‘fits of spiritual dread’ (Eliot 1974: 94). Her limited opportunities as a woman in education and in life also take part responsibility for her narrow perspective, and she herself comments that ‘Girls’ lives are so stupid’ (Eliot 1974: 101). Pieced together, her traits leave a discerning young woman exceptionally vulnerable in the foolish dream of domination over a man such as Henleigh Grandcourt.

The combination of inexperience and dominant spirit as yet unbridled appear a pleasant acquisition for Grandcourt, and all the more so for Gwendolen’s ‘proud grace of manner’ (Eliot 1974: 48); pride, agreeably for him, being valued by her as motivation for the exertion of severe self-control. Once gained physical ownership of, Gwendolen will be psychologically subjugated to the utmost satisfaction of her husband.

...who can at once describe a human being? Even when he is presented to us we only begin that knowledge of his appearance which must be completed by innumerable impressions under differing circumstances. We recognise the alphabet; we are not sure of the language (Eliot 1974: 145-146).

From his introduction at the opening of Book Two, Grandcourt is presented to us with a vaguely sinister obscurity of nature. During his first conversation with Gwendolen the almost dramatically formatted dialogue is oddly intercepted with pauses, occurring before each utterance Grandcourt makes: this and his affected ‘drawl’ forcing the other speaker to wait, and pay particular attention to his words. His pauses here are filled for the reader by Gwendolen’s internal speculations, revealing her impressions of this unknown man, coloured as they are by her various filters of preconception. Grandcourt generates imaginings of prospective freedom, privilege and adventure in Gwendolen; however, in reality ‘...his cold and distinguished manners’ (Eliot 1974: 148) express little other than his characteristic languid restlessness. These early delineations of character are strengthened by their repetition throughout the course of the novel, and with restrictions to our psychological insight, become shaped by a subtly-distributed vocabulary of terror, creating an alarming power of presence, not lessened by its lack of depth.   

The logic of events in Daniel Deronda leaves Gwendolen with little choice about marriage (Flint 2001: 175).

The brilliant position she had longed for, the imagined freedom shwould create for herself in marriage, the deliverance from the dull

insignificance of her girlhood –all were immediately before her; and yet they all came to her like food with the taint of sacrilege upon it, which she must snatch with terror (Eliot 1974: 356).

Gwendolen and Grandcourt may have appeared to be equal in their separate desires to gain a position of ruling power within the marriage, yet the differences make all the difference; Gwendolen’s wilful nature seeks only self-pleasure, whereas Grandcourt’s only derivation of pleasure is through merciless oppression: he is the terrifying psychological study of a sadist (1980: 71). ‘The core of sadism... is the passion to have absolute and unrestricted control over a living being’ (Fromm 1976: 322), and, according to McCarron, this passion is ‘generated by the need to compensate for a deep-rooted psychical impotence’ (McCarron 1980: 73). His need to control others then, reflects ‘the anxieties of male power’ (Flint 2001: 175), rather than a self-security in it. ‘Mastery’ is Grandcourt’s chief satisfaction, and suited to the brutal white-handed governing of a difficult colony (Eliot 1974: 655), he exerts easily-won power over his animal subjects, adding his wife to his collection as prize showpiece:

She had been brought to accept him in spite of everything – brought to kneel down like a horse under training for the arena, though she might have an objection to it all the while (Eliot 1974: 365).

Perhaps the most frightening feature in Grandcourt is not his behaviour then, but its effect upon on his new wife. Gwendolen, at twenty-two years old, quite suddenly becomes a shadow of her former exuberance, while her consciousness begins to regularly slip out of the text and into the obscurity of marriage, as her ‘self-hood’ begins to wane (Flint 2001: 175-176). Within the astonishingly short space of seven weeks, Gwendolen is ‘held... by bit and bridle’ (Eliot 1974: 744): her animal spirit broken. McCarron interprets the ‘sardonic imagery’ in Grandcourt’s mind of Gwendolen as a horse upon its knees, as presenting ‘a clear and illuminating sexual overtone: she has been broken and now must be mounted’ (1980: 78).

Grandcourt has realized Gwendolen's sexual fears, and, simply demanding his marital rights, enjoys her unspoken revulsion and his own vastly enhanced mastery (McCarron 1980: 79).

While there was breath in this man he would have the mastery over her. His words had the power of thumbscrews and the cold touch of the rack.

(Eliot 1974: 745).

This process of spiritual corrosion is further exacerbated by Gwendolen’s self-induced torture, as she endeavours to pay an everlasting penance for having consciously deprived Lydia Glasher and her children of legitimacy. All that is left for Gwendolen is to play out her role using the self-control her pride produces so well. Under the double yoke of Grandcourt and a heavy, secret stain upon her conscience, Gwendolen blindly places all her faith, all her hope, upon a man whose own great influence over her is ‘remedy’(Eliot 1974: 737) to the poisoning effects of her husband. Daniel Deronda becomes a moral saviour to Gwendolen:

He seemed to her a terrible-browed angel from whom she could not think of concealing any deed... it belonged to the nature of their relation that she should be truthful, for his power over her had begun in the raising of a self-discontent which could be satisfied only by genuine change (Eliot 1974: 737).

Education of character draws a recurring thread of thought through Eliot’s work (Lerner 1965); an ‘emotional life... constricted by egotism’ is ‘converted’, through the superior influence of another being, to ‘transcend the bounds of self’ (Lerner 1965: 355). ‘Anagnorisis’, or ‘recognition’, in character development, is in very basic terms the movement ‘from not-knowing to knowing’ (Whaley 1997: 87); originating in Aristotle’s Poetics, the idea has become an essential process in characterisation for many kinds of modern narrative (Davis 1987): for ‘...complex characters are defined as characters who must develop’ (Davis 1987: 118).  

Eliot, however, is preoccupied with the influence that the mind of one virtuous being can have upon another: seen here in Middlemarch, the novel preceding Daniel Deronda, Dorothea is the inspiration for the expansion of moral consciousness in Dr Lydgate:

The presence of a noble nature generous in its wishes, ardent in its charity, changes the lights for us: we begin to see things against their larger, quieter masses, and to believe that we too can be seen and judged in the wholeness of our character (Eliot 1994: 627).

As Deronda will provide this role for Gwendolen through the mutual and tacit connection of consciousness which neither are able to deny, nor yet take full pleasure in, he too searches for a psychological and spiritual broadening; finding his own, unexpected guide, if not through fate then at least through the coincidence of common need. This man has waited to find the right being to whom he will pass on his ‘long-wandering soul’ (Eliot 1974: 600), as written in the Jewish ‘doctrine of the Cabbala’ (Eliot 1974: 599). Unknowingly, Deronda accurately fulfils his prophecy:

...he must be a Jew, intellectually cultured, morally fervid – in all this a nature ready to be plenished from Mordecai’s; but his face and frame must be beautiful and strong, he must have been used to all the refinements of social life, his voice must flow with a full and easy current, his circumstances be free from sordid need...

(Eliot 1974: 529).

Let us attempt to understand Daniel and where his need for this spiritual brother might begin, by returning to an earlier point in the novel. Presented to us in his boyhood, lying among the fallen rose petals, on the grass of his uncle’s garden, is a deeply affectionate, intelligent and beautiful child of thirteen (Eliot 1974: 202). At this tender age of angelic boyhood, when ‘...there was hardly a delicacy of feeling this lad was not capable of’ (Eliot 1974: 207), Daniel is painfully impressed by a sudden self-questioning surrounding his origins. Finding ‘relief at length in big, slow tears, which [fall] without restraint’ (Eliot 1974: 206), Daniel reveals to us a sensitivity of nature which blurs gender boundaries perhaps equally as radically as the elements of Gwendolen’s character which we have already seen. Feminised physically and emotionally by the makeup of his traits, his natural sympathies are enhanced through an aching absence of identity, carried with him as his own filter for understanding others.

The deep blush, which had come when he first started up, gradually subsided... He had not lived with other boys, and his mind showed the same blending of child’s ignorance with surprising knowledge which is oftener seen in bright girls (Eliot 1974: 205).

Eliot is undoing the gender constructs which hold up Victorian society; expressive sympathy and sensitivity are no more intrinsically ‘female’ than personal and sexual autonomy are ‘male’. By allowing her characters to be limited by traits which do not sit neatly within the gendered guidelines of their repressive culture, we are exposed to the pain caused to individuals through the imposition of such unnatural constraints on a society.

He allowed himself in his solitude to sob, with perhaps more than a woman’s acuteness of compassion... (Eliot 1974: 747).

Perhaps the feminisation of a male character who is not only the hero of a novel but also an idealised vision of a political leader, is part of the fault which, for F.R Leavis, renders any analysis of Daniel simply unnecessary. Splitting the novel into two ’halves’ (Leavis 1962: 80), Leavis separates the weak from the strong, the bad from the good, Jewish from English, indeed: Daniel Deronda from Gwendolen Harleth (Leavis 1962). He discards Daniel entirely for his ‘weak’ representation of ‘the Zionist inspiration’ (Leavis 1962: 80), blaming Eliot for over-indulging her ‘fervidly emotional’ (Leavis 1962: 82) self in his creation. This ‘self indulgence’ (ibid) is, for Leavis, justifiably born out of empathy for the Jewish race, yet nevertheless deprives Daniel of the ‘concrete presence’ (Leavis 1962: 83) required for successful characterisation.

The kind of satisfaction she finds in imagining her hero, Deronda (if he can be said to be imagined), doesn’t need analysis. He, decidedly, is a woman’s creation (Leavis 1962: 82).

The same notion is found in Henry James’ 1876 A Conversation:

A man writing of him, however, would have certainly made him more peccable. As George Eliot lets herself go, in that quarter, she becomes delightfully, almost touchingly, feminine (James 1962: 259).

This excess of emotion is clearly a consequence of Eliot’s gender, and although it is expressed in a footnote from Leavis that her ‘extremely vigorous and distinguished mind’ is, ‘in no respect disabled by being a woman’s’ (Leavis 1962: 82), it is heavily implied that if Eliot were not a woman, then her protagonist would not run the risk of being unrealistically feminised, as well as generally romanticised, by her idealism. Writing seventy years after James, Leavis does not appreciate that rather than feminising Deronda, Eliot is reconciling the binary opposites; forming representations which are more human than artificial, gendered stereotypes.

Leavis’ highly influential book of 1948, The Great Tradition, proposes the ‘extrication’ of the self-contained ‘novel’ Gwendolen Harleth (Leavis 1962: 122), which he proclaims to be ‘among the great things in fiction’ (Leavis 1962: 80). The idea of two disconnected halves is recurrent in criticism of the novel, occurring largely through an apparent division in the characterisation of the English characters from the Jewish. However, Daniel Deronda is also arguably a deeply compelling and wholly successful example of the multi-plot novel. Its characters, although varying in depth and opacity, are effectively realised beings; their lives drawn into one story by the increasingly interconnected nature of two separate narratives, which join, inextricably, in Daniel.  

Indeed, to conceive of Jews and English entirely in dualistic terms misses the point that what [Eliot] is exploring in the novel is not polarity but common sources: the common culture, story and genetic inheritance of which the Jews and the English are two particularly strongly interconnected expressions... (Beer 2000: 182).

From Henry James, through Leavis and up to Hardy we have the admiration of Gwendolen and criticism of the Jewish characters: ‘...the hero’s deadness in this novel is shown up by the heroine’s vitality’ (Hardy 1974: 20). These critics are extraordinarily persuasive in their assertions against Daniel, Mirah, and Mordecai, and there may be some truth in the vivid brilliancy of Gwendolen having the potentiality to outshine what is placed beside her (James 1962); yet, if we return to the text, these characters are not ‘cold’ or ‘dead’, at all, and do not automatically, or ‘very understandab[ly]’ (Hardy 1974: 21) create these sensations for the reader. For Ezra, read Mordecai:

Ezra sat down again and said nothing – exhausted by the shock of his own irrepressible utterance, the outburst of feelings which for years he had borne in solitude and silence. His thin hands trembled on the arms of the chair; he would hardly have found voice to answer a question... Meanwhile Mirah’s quick expectant ear detected a sound which her heart recognised: she could not stay out of the room any longer... her immediate alarm was for Ezra, and it was to his side that she went, taking his trembling hand in hers, which he pressed and found support in; but he did not speak...(Eliot 1974: 848).

Eliot is simultaneously accused of over-sentimentality in Daniel as she is of deadness, yet neither is true. Of course, there is no one truth: only that the matter is subjective. Readers may, then, respond to the linguistic signs pointing to Daniel, Mirah and Mordecai much more positively than much criticism allows room for. To present an alternative perspective to critical tradition then, Daniel becomes one whose story stirs the reader in the poignancy of its interconnections with other lives, because of who his character is; and as his interests and affections become caught up in those of Mirah and Mordecai, so too are our own.

It is not, I think, that we object to noble characters (though we do tire a little of all the very wise and sound sayings that Daniel produces from what is after all a somewhat limited experience) but rather that we object to an absence of personality (Hardy 1974: 19).

Daniel is criticised unfairly here: flattened by Hardy’s description and not Eliot’s. We are not shown the limitations of his experience; much of the smaller detail of his life is not revealed to the reader, and his time abroad is left entirely to our imaginings. Perhaps this is Hardy’s real criticism; for it is hardly less possible for a profoundly receptive and serious young man to exist in reality than for the calculating and cruel Grandcourt, and yet the ‘monolithic’ Grandcourt is allowed a ‘horrifyingly real presence’ (1974: 19). Hardy feels it is not the sentiment of Daniel’s goodness which is at fault, but rather Eliot’s poor realisation of it through her lack of varying perspectives on his character. However, if it is tiresome to hear a character’s wise words, perhaps it is the sense of him being the attempted realisation of a ‘faultless human being’ (James 1962: 253), which isobjectionable. If this is the case, (and Hardy does complain that Daniel’s faults are only ‘very noble’ (1974: 20)), then this too seems an unfair allegation.

He lives at the extreme of altruism, and his centre of self exists chiefly as a mirror for other lives’ (Hardy 1974: 23-24).

As the optimistic impression of a future leader, Daniel is indeed a noble character, yet the above statement strips him of identity unjustifiably. Moving from ‘seraphic’ (Eliot 1974: 226) youth to ‘rescuing angel’ (ibid: 880), he saves Hans’ education, Mirah from suicide, and Gwendolen from moral darkness; yet he is also a man. Beyond wise judgement and extreme insight exists an inner struggle which exposes humanity rather than divinity: a person striving towards moral perfection, with his own natural prejudices to expel. His anxieties surrounding Mirah are at once altruistic and also somewhat possessive in their defensiveness. Before Hans ever meets the ‘rare creature’ (Eliot 1974: 429), Daniel has played out scenes in his mind in which he gives a ‘very energetic warning’ (ibid: 428) to his friend in an act of protection over Mirah. He knows Hans well enough to suspect him of immediately falling in love with the ‘pretty Jewess’ (Eliot 1974: 619), yet not well enough to predict Hans’ own capacity for self-sacrifice with respect to those dear to him.

Deronda’s thinking went on in rapid images of what might be... a dingy street... a dim doorway... a hawk-eyed woman, rough-headed, and unwashed, cheapening a hungry girl’s last bit of finery; or in some quarter all the more hideous for being smarter, he found himself under the breath of a young Jew talkative and familiar... (Eliot 1974: 247).

Daniel’s reluctance to find Mirah’s family is laced with a ‘repugnance to the possible truth’ (ibid: 429), which betrays a sense of snobbery further revealed in the confession: ‘he particularly desired that Ezra Cohen should not keep a shop’ (ibid: 432). His prejudice is further exposed in the disdain which causes his heart to sink when meeting the unrefined Mrs Cohen, who is disappointingly, ‘not so coarse and ugly as to exclude the idea of her being Mirah’s mother’ (ibid: 438). Daniel wrestles with his conscience at every difficult action which faces him. His love for Sir Hugo is tested by their opposing views, the depth of his pain in meeting his mother comes before any understanding of her actions in her renouncement of Judaism for them both, and the happiness which he finds in Mirah and their plan to go to the East is not something he would relinquish: not for the injury it shall cause Hans, nor the utter desolation it shall leave Gwendolen. He has a centre of self which is directed by its own desires before being regulated by the exacting discipline of his morality.

We are given much psychological insight into Daniel’s character, both through his thoughts and through episodes of the psychological narrative of his life, revealing the root causes of his behaviour and feelings. After Sir Hugo tells him that his parents died when he was a small child, we are taken into Daniel’s earliest and only memory of this time:

Daniel... straining to discern something in that early twilight, had a dim sense of having been kissed very much, and surrounded by thin, cloudy, scented drapery, till his fingers caught in something hard, which hurt him, and he began to cry (Eliot 1974: 203).

The memory begins with happy, warm associations, before being sharply disrupted by pain. Rotenburg (2000) describes this as ‘early maternal rejection’, which is not remembered or meaningful until its repetition later in his narrative. The memory is dreamlike, and is defined in psychoanalytical terms as a ‘screen memory’ (ibid); a type of memory which uses symbolism to represent key experiences, often from childhood, in a compressed form, to ‘screen’ the traumatic event which is being repressed (ibid):

Screen memories signify not merely a single event but an early object-relational experience that becomes a way of subjectively organizing personal experiences throughout life (Rotenburg 2000).

For the post-Freudian reader, it appears perfectly natural to be provided with the details of an early memory by way of introducing the origin of a problem or specific element of a personality. Sigmund Freud, in studying and observing his patients, would, by gathering scattered information through their dreams, memories, feelings and associations, construct logical patterns, using the coherency of these patterns to offer convincing connections between previously unrelated thoughts or happenings in the patients’ lives (Spencer 1982); it is Freud’s impact upon how we understand the psychological consequences of events in our lives which has ‘made us aware of the persuasive power of a coherent narrative’ (Spencer 1982: 21). However, while Eliot was using this method of correlation between early childhood memory and character development within her fictional characters, Freud was only in his early twenties, and had not yet begun founding the theories which would lead him to psychoanalysis.

Freud was, however, very much taken with Eliot’s work (Rotenburg 2000) and once established in his career, ‘accepted a close kinship between psychoanalysis and literature’ (Polkinghorne 1988: 119); drawing from literature for ‘both stimulation and confirmation’ (ibid). In this way we see Eliot not only absorbing contemporary scientific ideas into her work, but also constructing narratives through her own observations, studies and formations of character, which would go on to potentially contribute to future theories of the mind.   

To move on in Daniel’s narrative, let us meet Mirah Lapidoth on the edge of the Thames one fine July evening, ‘... hands... hanging down clasped before her, and her eyes... fixed on the river with a look of immovable, statue-like despair’ (Eliot 1974: 227). Daniel, once again, is affected by a ‘strong arrest of attention’ (ibid); yet the gaze is different from that between he and Gwendolen at the opening of the book. Charged not with sexual tension, but ‘timidity’ on her side, and ‘an outleap of interest and compassion’ (ibid 228) on his.

He had no right to linger and watch her: poorly dressed, melancholy women are common sights; it was only the delicate beauty, the picturesque lines and colour of the image that were exceptional, and these conditions made it the more markedly impossible that he should obtrude his interest upon her (Eliot 1974: 228).

Mirah is very much revealed to us through Daniel’s eyes, prone as they are to be distracted by her ‘delicate, childlike beauty’ (ibid); while his defining trait is his powerlessness against the pull of one in need. When he inevitably returns to meet the young woman, stopping her from putting the heavy wet cloak around herself as a ‘drowning shroud’ (ibid 230), they renew their former gaze, and we hear the ‘low sweet voice’ with its suggestion of foreignness, which ‘yet was not foreign’ (ibid), that will become a leitmotif for her.

The agitating impression this forsaken girl was making on him stirred a fibre that lay close to his deepest interests in the fates of women – ‘perhaps my mother was like this one.’ The old thought had come now with a new impetus of mingled feeling (Eliot 1974: 231).

This moment occurs at the end of Book Two; a considerable time after the opening scene at the roulette-table, most of which the reader has spent investing in Gwendolen’s thoughts and movements. This is not the chronological ordering of events. Daniel rescues Mirah before the incident with Gwendolen at Leubronn, as does Gwendolen meet Grandcourt; but the reader arrives en media res (Hardy 1974) at the electric moment of unspoken and intense connection between Daniel and Gwendolen, before then being taken back to the beginning of each of their prospective narratives –Gwendolen first, and then Daniel. This extraordinarily clever positioning of events assures the reader against any belief that the introduction of a new beautiful female character could pose an ultimate threat to Daniel’s relationship with Gwendolen, despite the fact that as yet she and Daniel have shared no spoken dialogue.

Disadvantaged by perspective then, Mirah is further held back from the reader by our not being given the psychological insight we have grown accustomed to with Gwendolen and, to a lesser extent, with Daniel. Our main access into her character is through her account of her life, which is inserted into the text in a long monologue, via her strangely simple language, which we must accustom ourselves to. We are given the pleasant impression that Mirah, despite her training and experience, is no actress: lacking completely in the artifice which an English lady would be so well practised in (Eliot 1974: 253). Her black curls, exotic beauty, sweet and faithful nature, knowledge of literature and drama, her religious devotion, willingness to work, and reverence for Daniel, although all making her an exceptionally ‘suitable’ wife for him, strangely exclude her from being an obvious one. Taken from her mother and older brother as a child, and longing to be reunited with them, she easily connects, in the mind of the reader, to the mystery of Daniel’s origins, and is oddly too close (for us) to his own childhood image, to be other than a sister to him. In reality this would not be the case, but:

Since characters do not exist anywhere outside of the linguistic sign, they must have, in order to ‘be,’ fairly definite limits or borders to distinguish them from other characters (Davis 1987:  113).

 In life, two people with a small number of similar features are not necessarily associated as being related to one another; but in a novel, with their features being chosen in their design, (and being much of what defines them), we look for meaning in similarities, and automatically use any that we find to make connections in trying to resolve the mysteries of identity and missing family members presented before us. In fact, their physical similarities depict a dark beauty which is a mark of their shared Jewish race, which we do not discover Daniel is a member of until late in the novel. The deliberate deception further pushes the reader away from imagining Daniel and Mirah as lovers; for we are, of course, inherently opposed to endorsing incest. This is a difficult obstacle for the reader to negotiate even when knowing that they are not brother and sister, for we have been naturally inclined to favour instead the contrasting pale and sexualised beauty of Gwendolen, for Daniel:

He longed to go to her and speak... Yet he hesitated some moments, observing the graceful lines of her back, but not moving... If you have any reason for not indulging a wish to speak to a fair woman, it is a bad plan to look long at her back: the wish to see what it screens becomes the stronger (Eliot 1974: 463).

Likened to ‘a fawn or other gentle animal’ (Eliot 1974: 228), Mirah has a small face and small features (ibid); she is slim-figured, with ‘tiny’, ‘delicate hands’, and speaks ‘dreamily’; ‘her sweet undertones’, giving ‘the melody to Deronda’s ear’ (ibid 230), (reminiscent of the angelic singing of Daniel’s boyhood). She is, by nature, wonderfully sweet and virtuous in comparison to Gwendolen, and has lived a troubled and tragic life scarred by circumstances she has had little control over. The innocence suggested by her childlike manner and endearing characteristics is deceptive; for it comes through having been so worn by the events she has survived, the loss she has felt, the prejudice she is subject to, and the knowledge that her consciousness is of small importance in the world, that she is grateful for being given any room at all.

My name is Mirah Lapidoth. I am come a long way, all the way from Prague by myself. I made my escape. I ran away from dreadful things. I came to find my mother and brother in London. I had been taken from my mother when I was little, but I thought I could find her again... (Eliot 1974: 242).

Hardy writes that in order to achieve the ideological aims of the Jewish, more abstract sections of Daniel Deronda ‘character is simplified in order that values should be clearly stated, but the simplification only works in some of her characters...’ (1974: 10). Although Mirah may appear to be simple in the constancy of her reverence, gratefulness and virtue, and is easy to disregard in this way: ‘All we know about Mirah is that she has delicate rings of hair, sits with her feet crossed, and talks like an article in a new magazine‘ (James 1962: 257), there is also a sense of struggle in her personality, as if she, like Daniel, is very aware of what she should feel and is, beneath her quiet manners, guided by a strong moral self, which is candid and matter-of-fact when engaged with, yet otherwise quite private.

The scene in which her previously hidden depth of nature is revealed to us occurs when the Meyrick’s are discussing the beautiful couple that ‘Mrs Grandcourt’ and Deronda would make. Mirah is asked her opinion of Gwendolen, and, her own jealousy provoked, replies ‘with quick intensity’, making a sharp comparison with the jealous ‘Princess of Eboli’ in Don Carlos (Eliot 1974: 720).

The comparison escaped Mirah’slips under the urgency of a pang unlike anything she had ever felt before... Mrs Meyrick’s suggestion of Gwendolen’s figure by the side of Deronda’s had the stinging effect of a voice outside her... For a long time afterwards she felt as if she had had a jarring shock through her frame (Eliot 1974: 720).

Mirah speaks here less out of a true contempt for Gwendolen, who she does not know well, than out of a love for Deronda in which she would not want him to be taken from her by all that Gwendolen, in her artificial English superiority, represents. She herself has not unravelled these feelings in conscious thought, and we are allowed to watch her try, and to see her limited expression of the inner struggle in a conversation she has with Mordecai; she praises him for being a better person than she is, and her only conveyance of her ‘inward care [is] this distant allusion’ (Eliot 1974: 722). Later, however, the wound is sorely aggravated by Hans’ jokes about Daniel marrying Gwendolen, and Mirah has an angry outburst under the pretence of protecting Daniel’s honour.

She had burst into indignant speech as creatures in intense pain bite and make their teeth meet even through their own flesh, by way of making their agony bearable (Eliot 1974: 795).

To flatten her into the basic loveliness of her features or routine gestures, is again to strip Mirah of the emotional depth which she does have, hidden in part through simplification, but also by her natural reserve. Like Daniel, the apparent flaw in her character may lie within her virtue, for perhaps satisfaction comes from the potential to develop, to have the ‘moment of recognition’ that one who is already so self-disciplined may not be able to provide for the reader. She cannot go through what Eliot called a ‘tragic transformation’:

a process of profound inner change brought about by suffering, i.e., trauma, through massive inner conflict, through insight and through action or active work, on behalf of somebody else, or in the service of a great cause (Wurmser 2004). 

It is the tragedy which Gwendolen’s transformation requires which makes the reader feel such sympathy towards her, while there is no such painful journey for us to accompany Mirah on, for she is nearly morally perfect when we meet her, and has already been through her traumas without us.

However, this does not take away from Mirah the strong feeling we see above; no person is ever safe from inner struggle in some form. The violence of feeling that she expresses appears uncharacteristically forceful due to her habitual reserve, revealing to Hans openly that she is in love with Deronda, and causing a division in sympathies for the reader which is only a suggestion of what Deronda himself may feel in being loved by, and indeed being in love with, two very different women.

Because character is so much a simplification of personality, it only takes one switch of the parameters to make a character seem to have changed profoundly (Davis: 1987: 119).

For Mirah, a forceful few words give a new depth to her personality. For Gwendolen, the profound change which we know is re-shaping her character in the final pages of the novel is expressed in her candour of manner, her new readiness to understand her faults, and her very willingness to let in the ‘pressure of a vast mysterious moment’ (Eliot 1974: 876), which before would have terrified her. At the end of the novel it terrifies her no less, but she bravely faces it with the strength of character we have always known her to have, and which she now chooses to use, to see ‘that her horizon was but a dipping onward of an existence with which her own was revolving’ (Eliot 1974: 876).

To understand this transformation in Gwendolen we must learn of her trauma, and learn that Daniel too is undergoing an intense widening of his own emotional horizons. He has learned of his Jewish origins, and met his painfully unemotional mother. The depth of suffering at the reiteration of the rejection that she began his life with, is then further weighed down for Deronda by the emotional burden Gwendolen places upon him almost immediately afterwards. She is characteristically unaware of his anguish, absorbed by the torment she herself has suffered. For the height of the torturous marital regime, exercised under Grandcourt’s will as he leisurely drove Gwendolen towards the realisation of her murderous thoughts, has been met serendipitously by his falling out of a boat and drowning: crippled with cramp. It is a strangely convenient end for this robust man of thirty-five, who would have otherwise had his grip on Gwendolen’s every movement for many long years. Yet Gwendolen in her desperation has not murdered him; her will, imprinted with Deronda’s words of guidance, has enabled her to fight an internal battle of guilt and terror only to keep going, moving in line with her husband’s wishes. In an extraordinary ‘confession’ to Deronda, she attempts to express her broken state of mind:

– I had cruel wishes – I fancied impossible ways of – I did not want to die myself; I was afraid of our being drowned together. If it should have been any use I would have prayed – I should have prayed that something might befall him. I should have prayed that he might sink out of my sight and leave me alone. I knew no way of killing him there, but I did, I did kill him in my thoughts (Eliot 1974: 760).

Here Gwendolen is on the verge of madness. She is too spirited a nature and too unused to oppression to not crack under the will of Grandcourt. ‘Her faculties destructure’ (During 1988: 99); she desires to kill him, lives with the conscious desire for his death, wishing it upon him in any way; the thought takes on a focus for her, offering her freedom without the horror of committing the terrible crime for herself.

I don’t know how it was – he was turning the sail – there was a gust – he was struck- I know nothing – I only know that I saw my wish outside of me (Eliot 1974: 761).

The convenience of Grandcourt having a fatal accident while Gwendolen is concentrating her desire into this one hope is remarkable. She does not immediately throw him the rope after he calls for it, pausing: ‘and my heart said “Die!” – and he sank; and I felt “It is done – I am wicked – I am lost” (Eliot 1974: 761).

Until she speaks to Deronda she considers herself a ‘guilty woman’ (Eliot 1974: 753), responsible for her husband’s death in some way. Psychoanalysis calls the idea of imagining that one has the power to cause an event to happen through the power of their mind, the ‘omnipotence of thought’: a symptom of ‘obsessional neurosis’ related to narcissism; a theory developed by Freud in the early twentieth century (Mijolla-Mellor 2011). Gwendolen has obviously been through a great trauma which is so much a realisation of her thoughts that we can understand her momentary connection of the two events in her hysteria. It is Eliot who is the true omnipotent here: directing all events through the realisation of her thoughts and indeed, having an influence on the external world for generations to come.

Novels, like psychotics, incorporate the belief that thoughts do have this independent and powerful form and that simply having bad thoughts – or a bad ideology – can make families disintegrate, spouses and children die, and so on. And all this chaos could come to an end by a change of thought and heart (Davis 1987: 121).

Gwendolen’s disjointed thoughts reveal a very interesting expression of the way they are working, connecting to one another like links in a ‘chain’ or the successive carriages of a ‘train’: these words are ‘semi-technical terms from associationist theory’ and ‘indicate the serial determinations by which ideas are mentally linked’, in nineteenth century psychology (Rylance 2000: 11). Gwendolen is speaking to Daniel without filtering or refining her words in any way, expressing herself in the way her thoughts appear, partly through her state of mind and partly through her confidence in Daniel. In this way we see her mid-transformation from bad ideology to good: shedding the artifice that she will no longer live by.

Earlier in the novel, Daniel begins a passage: ‘‘I fancy there are some natures one could see growing or degenerating every day, if one watched them’’ (Eliot 1974: 455). Further down the chain, comes this:

...such impressibility tells both ways: it may drive one to desperation as soon as to anything better. And whatever fascinations Grandcourt may have for capricious tastes – good heavens! who can believe that he would call out the tender affections in daily companionship? One might be tempted to horse - whip him for the sake of getting some show of passion into his face and speech. I’m afraid she married him out of ambition – to escape poverty. But why did she run out of his way at first? (Eliot 1974: 456)

Bringing Daniel into first person and presenting his thoughts to us not through free indirect style but as speech is a very rare angle of perception for us. It doesn’t feel entirely natural, and we can’t quite hear Daniel’s voice exclaiming the ‘good heavens!’ within his own head, but the logical connections of his thoughts as they arrive is one way in which we see Eliot ‘anticipat[ing]... the directions of modernism’ (Levine 2001: 18); for this literary technique is very reminiscent of that of ‘stream of consciousness’, usually associated with the modernists. The phrase is often said to have been coined by William James, as a metaphor ‘well designed to capture the analytically fugitive quality of mental events’ (Rylance 2000: 10): ‘It is nothing jointed; it flows’, he famously writes in 1890 (James 2007: 239). However, the term originates ‘some decades earlier’ (Rylance 2000: 11):

As G.H. Lewes coined the term, his partner George Eliot was at work on The Mill on the Floss in another roomof the house they shared at Holly Lodge, Wimbledon. Just as the lines between modern and Victorian cannot be so easily drawn, the histories of psychology and literature can sometimes be as close as a hallway apart (Rylance: 12-13).

Appendix A

George Combe’s Map of the Phrenological Organs (Combe 1998: 30):

Names of the Phrenological Organs: Dissertation by Rosanna Wood University of Brighton


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Rosanna Wood


brightONLINE student literary journal

06 Oct 2011