Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot, 1876

Let thy chief terror be of thine own soul:
There, ‘mid the throng of hurrying desires
That trample on the dead to seize their spoil,
Lurks vengeance, footless, irresistible
As exhalations laden with slow death,
And o’er the fairest troop of captured joys
Breathes pallid pestilence.

Reading George Eliot is never a comfortable occupation. An honor and a joy, yes. A tremendous privilege to witness the outworking of a fellow creature’s genius–absolutely. But however awed I might be at Eliot’s probing profundities into the intricacies of human nature, there’s no reading her with impunity. No matter how spoiled and selfish and egotistical a character might be–no matter how exasperated I might feel at the predicaments their choices land them in–the very moment of passing judgment is at once a moment of recognition. A pang of self-discovery.

A terrifying glimpse into what possibilities for good and evil lie couched in every human soul.

She painstakingly uncovers one motive after another; she plays no favorites with her characters, the men and women of her creation. Goodness is held under as exacting a scrutiny as vice. But if there is one thing Eliot’s idealism cannot bear it’s selfishness. The sense that the universe is uniquely crafted to suit our own individual needs. Spoken in bare words, I recoil at such a notion. But illustrated in a prose so living it hurts, I tremble and wince beneath the awful weight of it.

To live for self or to live for others? This is the question that all of Eliot’s fiction seems to beg. And beyond that, even, is posed the ideal of living for the Highest: the ‘Invisible Power’ that governs all things and is the lodestar of all human purpose. Though Eliot’s admission of ‘the Highest’ falls short of what, as a Christian, I know to be encompassed in the Person of God in Christ, there is much–perhaps more–to be gleaned from her expression of what submission to the Highest really means. Both for us as well as for other people.

It shall be better with me because I have known you.

George Eliot, 1819-1880

This statement is, in many ways, the very essence of George Eliot’s masterpiece, Daniel Deronda. Set within a fascinating web of social intrigue, unknown identity and rising Zionism, at its heart it is a story of how one soul may influence another for good, and how both may be drawn in submission to the Highest. Gwendolen Harleth is a spoiled beauty bent on having her own way at any cost. But a fated meeting with the young gentleman Daniel Deronda, a triviality of glance and action, has the chance of altering her destiny. Through a frustrating maze of circumstances that follow, a disastrous marriage on Gwendolen’s part and a dawning awakening of spiritual roots on Deronda’s, we see their lives intersect with an ever-increasing tension. When the strings of Gwendolen’s soul are tightened to an intolerable degree, will Deronda be able to save her from her worst enemy–herself?

I was literally consumed with this book. Gwendolen was so real to me, her suffering so affecting, that she haunted me like an actual presence. I chafed at the exposure of her selfishness; I deplored some of her choices. But I grieved for her almost as I would do for another human being. She wanted to be better–and I wanted it for her. And this is the effect of Eliot’s mastery: her characters live because they are neither all good nor all bad. They are often struggling pilgrims just like ourselves. And I think that it’s partly for our own sake that we want them to succeed.

Deronda is not perfect either, though he is a hero in every sense of the word. He is a man of high ideals and exquisite sympathies. But every now and then an irksome strain of prejudice trickles out. And while he maintains an almost symbolic role of deliverer in other lives than just Gwendolen’s, he often feels put upon, and balks–understandably–under the weight of other peoples’ souls. He’s a fascinating character. But I am left with the surprisingly uplifting idea that he’s not all that he could be. Not yet.

The towering strength of George Eliot’s fiction is that she leaves us with an undying idea of what might be in the lives of her characters long after the cover has closed on this portion of their journey. Will they succeed? Will they blossom and flourish in the ideals they have espoused? I think that even the headings of the various sections of the novel give great insight: the final one is titled Fruit and Seed.

Will the fruit set? Will the seed bear? It remains to be seen. But I can say without equivocation that yet another seed has been planted in my mind by George Eliot’s mighty pen.

It is better with me because I have known her. I hail her genius with a heart that quakes before it.