Tag: Zionism

The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot

The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot

The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot

The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, by Gertrude Himmelfarb (biography)

“It is one of the curiosities of history that the most remarkable novel about Jews and Judaism, predicting the establishment of the Jewish state, should have been written in 1876 by a non-Jew—a Victorian woman and a formidable intellectual, who is generally regarded as one of the greatest of English novelists. And it is still more curious that Daniel Deronda, George Eliot’s last novel, should have been dismissed, by many of her admirers at the time and by some critics since, as something of an anomaly, an inexplicable and unfortunate turn in her life and work. . . .

“Why did this Victorian novelist, born a Christian and an early convert to agnosticism, write a book so respectful of Judaism and so prescient about Zionism? And why at a time when there were no pogroms or persecutions to provoke her? What was the general conception of the “Jewish question,” and how did Eliot reinterpret that “question,” for her time as well as ours?”


I learned about this book last year after I re-read Daniel Deronda and was preparing to write a blog post about it, available here. George Eliot’s prescience about Zionism fascinates me, and I was eager to learn more about her path to writing a novel that is as unusual as it is powerful. Himmelfarb does a superb job giving historical context to George Eliot’s work and showing how “her vision of Judaism and a Jewish state was all the more remarkable precisely because it was disinterested, because, unlike Deronda . . . , she was not Jewish and had no personal stake in it. It was still more remarkable because she came to it from a large philosophical perspective and from an intimate knowledge of the most sophisticated critics of Judaism. She knew everything her opponents (and some of her friends) might say in refutation of her views, having once shared some of them. Her conversion, not to Judaism but to a respect for religion in general and Judaism in particular, was all the more notable because it involved a repudiation of some of the most powerful ideologies of her time: the belligerent irreligion and anti-Judaism of the Young Hegelians, the attenuated, syncretistic religion of the Positivists, and the secular humanism of enlightened, ‘advanced’ liberals.” (The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, Epilogue)

The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot helped me appreciate Daniel Deronda even more than I already did, and I thought it was a work of genius before I read Himmelfarb’s book. I believe that Eliot’s vision transcends the Jewish drive to unite and establish a national homeland in Palestine because it explores the spiritual bonds of family and heritage in a way that has universal application. Deronda’s story certainly resonates with me, a Mormon woman who, by Himmelfarb’s definition, is as “disinterested” in Judaism as George Eliot was. Himmelfarb explores the reasons George Eliot wrote Daniel Deronda from a historical and biographical perspective. I would like to make an observation on how George Eliot was able to write a book with with such an expansive vision of Zion from a spiritual perspective. Continue reading

Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot (British classic)

“Crushed by a loveless marriage to the cruel and arrogant Grandcourt, Gwendolen Harleth seeks salvation in the deeply spiritual and altruistic Daniel Deronda. But Deronda, profoundly affected by the discovery of his Jewish ancestry, is ultimately too committed to his own cultural awakening to save Gwendolen from despair.”


Daniel Deronda is one of several books on my list that was written to give readers a vision of Zion as a national homeland for the Jews in Palestine. (For others, see the Evangelical historical novels by Bodie and Brock Thoene.) One of the things unique about this particular novel is that George Eliot published it to promote Zionism before the term Zionism even existed. Here is an example of what I mean from the character Mordecai, who becomes Daniel’s mentor:

What is needed is the leaven—what is needed is the seed of fire. The heritage of Israel is beating in the pulses of millions; it lives in their veins as a power without understanding, like the morning exultation of herds; it is the inborn half of memory, moving as in a dream among writings on the walls, which it sees dimly but cannot divide into speech. Let the torch of visible community be lit! Let the reason of Israel disclose itself in a great outward deed, and 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, even as the sons of England and Germany, whom enterprise carries afar, but who still have a national hearth and a tribunal of national opinion. (Part 6, Chapter 42)

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