The Jew­ish Odyssey of George Eliot

Gertrude Him­mel­farb
  • Review
By – January 9, 2012

In an attempt to prompt stu­dents to think crit­i­cal­ly about fic­tion, teach­ers of lit­er­a­ture often ask them: What does the author want us to know?” Gen­er­al­ly, stu­dents respond with a host of inter­pre­ta­tions gen­er­al­ly focused on theme. In The Jew­ish Odyssey of George Eliot, Gertrude Him­mel­farb also asks this ques­tion, but takes it one step fur­ther. She inves­ti­gates the why” of what the author wants us to know. Like any expe­ri­enced lit­er­a­ture teacher, and as is her bent, she relies upon his­tor­i­cal evi­dence to val­i­date her study. What results in this piece of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism is Himmelfarb’s exam­i­na­tion of both what George Eliot wants us to know about Daniel Deron­da, and why Eliot, a vocal agnos­tic, would choose to dis­cuss The Jew­ish Ques­tion” and argue for a Jew­ish state long before thoughts of Zion­ism became a reality. 

It would be easy to sur­mise that Eliot’s inten­tion was to expose the evils of anti- Semi­tism, and those famil­iar with Himmelfarb’s razor-sharp atten­tion to detail would find it just as easy to make a sim­i­lar assump­tion. In both cas­es, read­ers would be wrong. Instead, it is imme­di­ate­ly evi­dent that what Him­mel­farb wants us to know is 1) why Eliot wrote Daniel Deron­da; 2) why she wrote it dur­ing this time peri­od; and 3) why Eliot inter­pret­ed the sit­u­a­tion as she did. Him­mel­farb exam­ines these three ques­tions in five bal­anced, com­pre­hen­sive, metic­u­lous­ly con­struct­ed chap­ters and com­pletes her analy­sis by claiming: 

Eliot did not dis­cov­er her true faith in Judaism; nor did she under­take a pil­grim­age to Pales­tine; nor did she orga­nize a move­ment for the restora­tion of the Jews…but her vision of Judaism and a Jew­ish state was all the more remark­able pre­cise­ly because it was so dis­in­ter­est­ed… because she was not Jew­ish and had no per­son­al stake in it. 

Like Daniel Deron­da, which Him­mel­farb argues is an endur­ing pres­ence in the Great Tra­di­tion’ of the nov­el — and an endur­ing con­tri­bu­tion as well to the age-old Jew­ish ques­tion,” Him­mel­farb has etched a posi­tion for her­self in the same way: this crit­i­cal text and the author her­self are an endur­ing presence.

Malv­ina D. Engel­berg, an inde­pen­dent schol­ar, has taught com­po­si­tion and lit­er­a­ture at the uni­ver­si­ty lev­el for the past fif­teen years. She is a Ph.D. can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Miami.

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