Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 December 2011
As in Adam Bede, Eliot identifies the protagonists of Daniel Deronda with different temporal modalities. This chapter argues that the famously unhealed plot division in Deronda reflects Eliot’s response to the pressures that modern time places on human will. Time is polarized as much as the plot, but neither pole upholds a place for individual agency, traditionally conceived. At one end (Daniel’s time), the will surrenders to the direction of ancestral life, and at the other end (Gwendolen’s time), it disintegrates under the pressure of speed.
The temporal rhythms of Daniel’s and Gwendolen’s lives have little in common. Change in Daniel’s life is slow, sometimes achingly so, and carefully planned. Eliot is drawn to the unhurried pace of Daniel’s life and his habit of taking the long view, and she dignifies his temporal habits by developing them further in her vision of Judaism. Judaism elevates into a spiritual philosophy temporal tendencies that in Daniel are merely intuitive. It provides an ancient representational possibility for durational time; its embodiment is also its spokesperson, Mordecai, a character who locates the wellsprings of agency in transhistorical Jewish memory. The attractions of Mordecai’s anti-punctualist temporality are clarified by Gwendolen, another visionary, who lives in the moment and makes precipitous decisions there. In contrast to Daniel, Gwendolen’s life is indelibly marked by a series of sudden tragedies. Time thus shapes action in Daniel Deronda at two extremes, at the level of the ages, where action moves at an almost imperceptible rate of growth, and at the level of the moment, where emergency forces action into intervals so short, they preclude deliberation.