Daniel Deronda: Mordecai

“Your doubts lie as light as dust on my belief.”
(Daniel Deronda, chapter 40)

The big events of book five are Daniel Deronda seeing Gwendolen after she is married and his meeting with Mordecai. Though Gwendolen is as much a major character as Daniel, it is appropriate that the book is named after the latter, as he is the central character, connecting the various storylines.

I was reminded of Will Ladislaw by some of the little details George Eliot gives about Daniel Deronda in this book. Daniel playing in the snow with the Mallinger girls during the Christmas holidays evokes the picture of Will Ladislaw putting on puppet shows for a troop of children in Middlemarch. Actions such as this and his love of boating are a good balance to all Daniel’s contemplativeness.

Daniel’s pity for and interest in Gwendolen only strengthen after her marriage. He is sorry for her, suspecting remorse and disillusionment to be the source of her unhappiness, and that she has little to combat them with: “[I]t seems to me that she has a dreary lack of the ideas that might help her” (ch. 35). Gwendolen feels this herself and turns to Daniel for help.


After every humiliation, Gwendolen tried to regain her hold on “her old supports”: proud concealment, new excitements to keep her from thinking, trust that she could do some deed of reparation to quiet her self-blame and prevent punishment, becoming hardened so she will no longer feel her misery. To Daniel, however, she softens and from him she seeks a better way.

Daniel advises Gwendolen to cultivate affection and seek knowledge. He tells her that “affection is the broadest basis of good in life” (ch. 35). He says to “Try to care about something in this vast world besides the gratification of small selfish desires. Try to care for what is best in thought and action — something that is good apart from the accidents of your own lot” (ch. 36) — even if it is only for the sake of private joy. He concludes, “The refuge you are needing from personal trouble is the higher, the religious life, which holds an enthusiasm for something more than our own appetites and vanities. … the higher life must be a region in which the affections are clad with knowledge” (ch. 36).


Daniel is educating Gwendolen, but the book also suggests that she will teach him something, as well. Despite the closeness of their ages, Gwendolen looks up to Daniel as if he were a priest and, “Those who trust us educate us. And perhaps in that ideal consecration of Gwendolen’s, some education was being prepared for Deronda” (ch. 35).

I wonder what Grandcourt and Gwendolen’s marriage would have been like if she had not known about Mrs. Glasher. His reason for marrying her was mainly the desire to completely master a proud, spirited woman “who would have liked to master him” (ch. 28). However willful Gwendolen was, though, she had underlying fears, causing her to be easily cowed. Her choice to break her promise to Lydia Glasher brought those fears to the front. Lydia wrote to her, “‘Will [Grandcourt] think you have any right to complain when he has made you miserable? You took him with your eyes open. The willing wrong you have done me will be your curse.’ … With the reading of that letter had begun her husband’s empire of fear” (ch. 35). Gwendolen’s guilt was her husband’s major hold over her — that and her pride, wishing for concealment. In a very real sense, Lydia was the grave in which Gwendolen’s happiness was buried. I do wonder how Grandcourt would have subdued Gwendolen if it had not been for her foreknowledge of Lydia.

In the last book, it was stated that, “Persons attracted [Deronda] … in proportion to the possibility of his defending them, rescuing them, telling upon their lives with some sort of redeeming influence” (ch. 28). It is in this way that he befriends Hans, rescues Mirah, interests himself in Gwendolen, and, now, is intrigued by the sickly, intense Mordecai.

Mordecai is certainly not shy about making claims on strangers. Mordecai is dying without being able to fulfill his lofty ambitions. He has longed for someone to take over his vision. His picture of the ideal man became more and more distinct and, when he meets Daniel, he thinks it is realized. The third time he sees Daniel, he tells him, “I have been waiting for you these five years” (ch. 40). He calls him, “my new life — my new self — who will live when this breath is all breathed out.” He tells Daniel that he has written much, but that it is all in Hebrew and he is too weak now to translate it. Daniel offers to help him publish his work. “That is not enough,” Mordecai tells him. “You must be not only a hand to me, but a soul — believing my belief — being moved by my reasons — hoping my hope — seeing the vision I point to — beholding a glory where I behold it! … You have come in time, … you will take the sacred inheritance of the Jew.”


When Daniel reminds him that he is not Jewish, Mordecai is not shaken. He is certain that it will be revealed that Daniel is Jewish. Daniel doesn’t want to give Mordecai what it is obvious would be a severe blow, but, on the other hand, doesn’t want to feed hopes that would only make the blow more severe later. He gently tries to make Mordecai understand that he may be under an illusion, but Mordecai’s confidence in him is not shaken, “So it might be with my trust, if you would make it an illusion. But you will not.” (ch. 40). In all this, Mordecai never even tells Daniel just what his “vision” is, or what he wants from him.

Of course, the fact that Daniel does not conclude that Mordecai is raving needs explanation: “His nature was too large, too ready to conceive regions beyond his own experience, to rest at once in the easy explanation, “madness,” whenever a consciousness showed some fullness and conviction where his own was blank. It accorded with his habitual disposition that he should meet rather than resist any claim on him in the shape of another’s need” (ch. 40). So Daniel agrees to meet again with Mordecai and hopes to be as much help and comfort as possible, despite being careful not to bind himself to what he may not be able to fulfill.

Mordecai comes into Daniel’s life at a time when Daniel is feeling exasperated by the general assumption that, because he thinks so much of others, he wants nothing for himself. This is especially frustrating to him when he discovers that his friend Hans is in love with Mirah, and doesn’t in the least consider Daniel a rival. “It is one thing to be resolute in placing one’s self out of the question, and another to endure that others should perform that exclusion for us” (ch. 37). And, then, he has no one to confide in. “He had always been leaned on instead of being invited to lean. Sometimes he had longed for the sort of friend to whom he might possibly unfold his experience … he had found it impossible to reciprocate confidences with one who looked up to him. But he had no expectation of meeting the friend he imagined”. I think the visionary Mordecai may, in time, at least partly fulfill this desire of Daniel’s.


This is part of the Eliot Project which “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter and I are doing. Read “Sophie’s” notes on the fifth book of Daniel Deronda here: “Mordecai”.

Screencap from the 2002 adaptation of Daniel Deronda with Hugh Dancy as Daniel Deronda, Romola Garai as Gwendolen Harleth, and Daniel Evans as Mordecai.

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