Born to unknown parentage, Daniel Deronda has been raised by respected gentleman Sir Hugo Mallinger since infancy. Now a grown man, Dan's a well-educated, well-traveled and well-groomed proper Victorian gentleman. Yet not all's quite right; intuition tells him he needs to re-examine his life from a root perspective, to pursue a more philosophical mode of existence. And so, after a series of circumstances in which he rescues a young woman, a Jewess, from the river, Deronda begins a twisting, soul-searching journey, one leading him down an unforeseen path of enlightenment and self-revelation.
Meanwhile not far away, Gwendolen Harleth is a beautiful, adventurous young girl from a middle class family. Well-versed and privy to the fact that she's a desirous prospect among men, Gwendolen has the role of the minxish coquette down pat and though discrete to the proper degree, sees no reason she shouldn't enjoy her life to the fullest. But when her father dies, leaving her mother widowed with limited assets, the family is forced to move in with relatives, a situation obliging Gwendolen to "marry up", thus providing financial leverage for herself and her family. Wealthy neighborhood bachelor Henleigh Grancourt seems a timely match for Gwendolen. The nephew of Sir Hugo Mallinger and heir to a vast fortune, he's well-regarded and can provide the type of life Gwendolen feels she deserves. But things change quickly as, after the wedding, Gwendolen finds Grancourt to be a cruel, emotionally abusive man who's already fathered several children with a previous mistress, a woman he'd previously promised to marry. Now trapped in a fate she never could have anticipated, Gwendolen foresees a bleak, foreboding future as her life becomes one of relentless, daily misery.
Eliot's final completed novel, published just before her death in 1880, was also her only book set in contemporary Victorian society; her others usually dated back a generation or two previous. As well as rendering themes associated with ethical soul searching, the perils of marriage and conflicting intellectual paradigms, the story is notable as an early reference to Jewish mysticism, namely its associations with Kabbalah and proto-Zionism. Deronda's introspective quest for personal truth contrasts well to Gwendolen's egotistical, self-seeking nature and the pair's ironical relationship and correlating problems elicit a clever nuance. This complementary dichotomy of characters was a signature literary device Eliot had used previously in Middlemarch and Adam Bede and an arrangement which Tolstoy and others would similarly incorporate into their own work. (FIC ELIOT)