A Serial Reading of Daniel Deronda

A Newberry Library Seminar.
Tuesdays 2:00-4:00pm: September 12 to November 7.
Early Registration Starts August 8.

Daniel Deronda, George Eliot’s final novel, is ambitious, challenging, and astonishingly multi-dimensional. Eliot’s tale weaves together a provocative examination of marriage and personal aspiration with a meditation on Jewishness in Victorian Britain. This seminar invites participants to immerse themselves in the world of the novel by reading it in consecutive parts, as originally published. Sessions will focus on elements of art, music, religion, philosophy, and history as they arise in the novel. Nine sessions. 

Materials

  • Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics Edition, with notes by Earl L. Dachslager, 2005. ISBN: 978-1-59308-290-1. See also the “note on the text” below.
    Other materials will be made available online and brought to the seminar sessions.
  • For the first session, please read only Chapter One (pages 3-10). Because of spoilers, do not read the book’s introduction, and do not read the “character list” at the beginning of the book.

A note on the text: Because we are reading and discussing this novel as a group, I strongly recommend reading the assigned edition. In that edition, spoilers will be found in two sections—the introduction and the character list—avoid that material until you have finished reading the novel. On the other hand, the text also includes the following helpful material which is spoiler-free and can be read any time: the biographical sketch of George Eliot, the chronological list called “The World of George Eliot and Daniel Deronda,” the novel’s footnotes and endnotes, and the “comments and questions” section at the end of the book (729-32).

Seminar Description

George Eliot’s final novel is a fascinating meditation on the symbiotic relationship between everyday lives and historical narratives. This was George Eliot’s only novel set in the era of its composition, and it challenged contemporary readers to understand their values, traditions, and even desires in the context of historical circumstances too often marginalized as beyond the concern of day-to-day lives.

The novel’s plot revolves around the fates of the young and beautiful Gwendolen Harleth and the young and sympathetic Daniel Deronda, and it is complicated by Victorian notions of national identity, Jewishness, and evolution. The resulting network of events, references, and thematic investigation makes this novel particularly suited to serial reading. Critic Terence Cave has said that Eliot’s point in this novel was “to make unusual demands on the reader,” and I believe a serial reading is the most rewarding way to meet these demands.

Daniel Deronda was first published from February through September of 1876, in monthly installments of approximately 110 pages each. Victorian readers enjoyed and absorbed the novel one portion at a time, discussing the story’s gradual unfolding with friends and family and anticipating the turns each new installment would take. Eliot’s original installments will naturally form the framework of our seminar readings. At each of the weekly sessions (beginning with the second), we will focus our discussion on the features, plot developments, and specific themes of the installment (or “book”) at hand. We will also consider many of the paintings, musical pieces, and historical figures as they arise in the novel, as well as specific aspects of the 2002 BBC television adaptation.

In this way, seminar participants are able to build an ongoing dialogue with a tremendous amount of material regarding Eliot’s novel and Victorian culture. Serial reading invites more consideration and commentary on specific issues, recurring images, and opinions that evolve over the course of reading. Moreover, since all good novels actually teach readers how to read them, installments allow readers to benefit from this process right away, and make use of the teaching when it counts—over the course of reading the novel. As the installments progress, readers naturally pick up on more details, and discussion becomes distributed among a broader variety of topics and interests.

Each seminar session will also include discussion of where we think the story is going—and why. This invites readers to consider not only where the plot is going but how the novelist enlists plot and character to make statements and ask questions about human nature. A particular character’s fate, for example, not only reflects what would happen to a “real person,” but also begins to be seen in light of the novel’s developing themes. In concluding each session, I will offer suggestions (while avoiding spoilers) for upcoming plot points and issues that readers should keep an eye on.

Recommended Resources

Biographies of George Eliot:
Ashton, Rosemary. George Eliot: A Life. New York: Penguin, 1996.
Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans: George Eliot, Her Letters and Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994.
Haight, Gordon S. George Eliot: A Biography. New York: Oxford UP, 1968
Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot. New York: Encounter, 2012.

Online Resources:
The British Library: https://www.bl.uk/people/george-eliot
The George Eliot Fellowship: http://www.georgeeliot.org
The Victorian Web: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/eliot/index.html

Schedule

Week 1: Chapter One (to be read ahead of time)
Please do not read the book’s introduction, and do not read the “character list” at the beginning of the book.
Theme: Eliot’s style in Daniel Deronda.

Week 2
Book One
Theme: Victorian Conventions

Week 3
Book Two
Theme: Novels and Romances

Week 4
Book Three
Theme: Some discussion of George Eliot’s own life

Week 5
Book Four
Theme: Jewishness and the Victorian Era

Week 6
Book Five
Theme: Music and Structure

Week 7
Book Six
Theme: Philosophy and Zionism

Week 8
Book Seven
Theme: Inheritance and Evolution

Week 9
Book Eight
Theme: Concluding Critical Assessments

Image Credit: Still image from the BBC production of Daniel Deronda, directed by Tom Hooper, 2002.