by George Eliot
Each culture and time period offers its own challenges. As children, we grow to understand what freedoms are allowed us and what constraints exist—and between them we must forge a life. Within these bounds, some find joy, many others rail at their fate, and still more simply muddle through, making peace with things as they are.
The two main characters in Eliot’s masterpiece—Daniel and Gwendolyn—are bound up in the Victorian class system, with its unwavering approach to caste and the choices therein. The beauty of this tale is the combination of eloquent prose defining the cultural landscape and thoughtful souls who looked past its rigorous demands for something more meaningful.
Certainly, the singular vocation to marriage meant that a woman’s entire future depended on her nuptial prospects, but the twist brought into this particular story was the addition of various Jewish characters who would, by creed, be a constant irritant, the good citizens who would never fit in. The irony of the Jews—bound to be outsiders by their rejection of the Messiah, being castigated by Christians, who gave no thought to their Messiah beyond the hollow conventions once tied to faith—was not lost on the author, whose own life scandalized many with her own distain for such customs. Thus the driving question on every level becomes: “for what reason?”
What sets this book apart from the standard Victorian novel are the critical discussions it forces concerning human dignity, the folly of tying honor to titles and rank, the relationship of convention to authentic charity, how to find joy amidst unrelenting suffering, and the oppressive view towards marriage which may have given impetus to the feminist movement. George Eliot is both a splendid writer in every detail, but also a social commentator whose work rings true well over a century later. A highly recommended classic.