Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Divided over Daniel

Which plot is your favorite?
Once I first realized the brilliance of George Eliot's pen in late 2007, I decided this was one of those authors I'd have to read through and through. I started this project with the absolute understanding that it could take decades, but I'm taking it easy. The first three came in quick succession; it's been a while, though, since the last. That last was the wonderful Daniel Deronda.

Yeah, the one that most people think isn't so hot. Allow me to elaborate.

Daniel Deronda is not my favorite of the three Eliot novels I've completed thus far. It cannot compare to the concise excellence of Silas Marner. Not that it isn't very good as well, just that it's absolutely impossible to compare the two works (and I enjoyed Silas Marner a smidgen more...). There's something special about this fat novel, though. It is, to be quite frank, the exact opposite of Silas Marner. Where the latter is a small, compact book and perfectly sculpted, Daniel Deronda is overflowing, even bloated. More specifically, it's redundantly large in the eyes of many readers.

Daniel Deronda is one of those books with two entirely different plots going on within its pages: the Gwendolen sections and the Jewish sections. In the eyes of most readers, it's the Gwendolen story that holds the book. Commenter LilyDale over at the Guardian wrote almost 2 years ago the following (often echoed) statement:
"The problem is not that the Jewish sections are Jewish, it's that they're bad -- boring, didactic, unsubtle -- while Gwendolen's sections are some of Eliot's best work."
The thing is, I don't really agree. Yes, Gwen's part of the book is the more dramatic one if looked at a certain way. It's got a lot more action, a lot more story and a lot more... well, drama. But it's Daniel's search for understanding in Judaism that makes Daniel Deronda an interesting book. It really is a bit of a slow read, but I must disagree: the Jewish sections are far from boring in the strictest sense of the word. Unsubtle, perhaps, but there is something fascinating in the blatantness Eliot gives that story.

I am well aware of the fact that part of my fascination with this book is my interest in Eliot's interest in Zionism and Judaism. It's easy to forget that the book was published in the 1870s, not that long before the Dreyfus affair and in the midst of Jewish integration in the general European world. Is the writing clunkier than Eliot's mastery in Silas Marner? Quite. Does it matter? Well... to many it does. As that old Guardian article points out, the book is a divisive one. Many readers express dismissal of the entire Jewish story, preferring Gwendolen's story by a wide margin.

There's so much to this book. Positive, negative... I can think of many parts that made me cringe, scenes that had me at the edge of my seat, and moments that made me wonder why it had taken me so long to get to George Eliot. It seems a shame that most readers would rather Daniel Deronda be something it is not - half the book and heavily edited. At the end of the day, it's a good book (or two books, depending on how you look at it...). Enough said.

For now...

1 comment:

  1. I have this one on my self. Its size is intimidating. I watched the BBC version and enjoyed it.

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