It is difficult to discuss Eliot’s eponymous hero in Daniel Deronda without giving away key aspects of her plot. But I will share one of the most extraordinary passages in the novel that captures the strength, dignity and grace of Eliot’s hero:
Look at his hands: they are not small and dimpled, with tapering fingers that seem to have only a deprecating touch: they are long, flexible, firmly-grasping hands, such as Titian has painted in a picture, where he wanted to show the combination of refinement with force. And there is something of a uniform pale-brown skin, the perpendicular brow, the calmly penetrating eyes. Not seraphic any longer: thoroughly terrestrial and manly; but still of a kind to raise belief in a human dignity which can afford to acknowledge poor relations.
Time and again Deronda’s strong, graceful hands are extended to help those in need. When he is rowing his boat along the Thames one evening, he finds a woman named Mirah in great distress and he does not hesitate to soothe her and to save her life: “She stepped forward close to the boat’s side, and Deronda put out his hand, hoping now that she would let him help her in. She had already put her tiny hand into his which closed round it, when some new thought struck her, and drawing back she said– ‘I have nowhere to go—nobody belonging to me in all this land.'” Needless to say, Deronda does all he can to ensure not only Mirah’s safety but her happiness.
But Deronda does not discriminate when helping those in need. He is capable of the most selfless kind of empathy and sympathy and extends kindness and compassion to those whom others might judge as undeserving. Gwendolen, in her new marriage to Grandcourt, feels herself stuck in a miserable existence. References to Dante abound in Eliot’s text and sometimes Gwendolen is depicted in a type of purgatory and at other times her life is described as pure hell. It is just at the point of feeling like she will be pulled into the abyss of pain and sorrow that Deronda offers his steady hand:
Her hands which had been so tightly clenched some minutes before, were now helplessly relaxed and trembling on the arm of her chair. Her quivering lips remained parted as she ceased speaking. Deronda could not answer; he was obliged to look away. He took one of her hands, and clasped it as if they were going to walk together like two children: it was the only way in which he could answer, ‘I will not forsake you.’ And all the while he felt as if he were putting his name to a blanck paper which might be filled up terribly. Their attitude, his averted face with its expression of a suffering which he was solemnly resolved to undergo, might have told half the truth of the situation to a beholder who had suddenly entered.
That grasp was an entirely new experience to Gwendolen: she had never before had from any man a sign of tenderness which her own being had needed, and she interpreted its powerful effect on her into a promise of inexhaustible patience and constancy.
I end my summer vacation of reading “loose, baggy monsters” on a very high note with this remarkable book. Middlemarch is still my favorite Eliot novel, but Daniel Deronda is a close second. Tomorrow begins my twentieth year of teaching secondary school and I am as nervous, anxious, and excited as ever to face a new group of students. I shall continue my reading of epic books into the autumn as Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Dante’s Divine Comedy have both caught my attention. It seems fitting that today, for the first time in months, the humidity has broken and the air has a lightness and coolness to it that is refreshing and hopeful.