Rachel Kravetz, “The Radiant Tableaux of Daniel Deronda” (pp. 68–93)
This essay argues that the ekphrastic images in Daniel Deronda (1876) mark a shift in George Eliot’s thought away from a historical to a prophetic national mode. Taking as a point of departure the critical commonplace that Eliot’s novel has two largely separate spheres, a degenerate English world and a visionary Jewish realm, I show that each has a painterly model. The grounds of stately English homes represent a false Arcadia in passages that allude to the genre of landscape known as “ideal.” While the glowing river landscapes that frame Jewish characters conjure the extrasensory, they have a material correlative in the paintings of J.M.W. Turner. In my reading, these vivid scenes comprise a response to the vexed status of the nation that issues from philosophical empiricism. The nation is too large a body to be perceived directly or depicted fully in fiction. Eliot’s sunset landscapes form a locus for propositions about how the mind may reach beyond experience. With images of arched bridges, she transmutes an empiricist metaphor for the mental process of prediction through inference into a symbol for prophecy. The gold skies light up the distance, directing the reader to conceive a national ideal Eliot cannot locate or provide: ultimately, both empiricism and idealism prove insufficient to her fictional project, nonetheless brilliant, of national reanimation.