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‘Exotic Eroticism’: Gwendolen Harleth and Daniel Deronda

Julia Kuehn


The essay looks once more at the relationship between the two protagonists of George Eliot's final novel. It argues that rather than through issues of class, as scholars have conventionally argued, Gwendolen Harleth's interest in Daniel Deronda must be understood through the ethnic otherness he represents. He is, as the first chapter construes it so unmistakably, ‘different' from the men this young Englishwoman normally socialises with, and the enquiry into Deronda's origins and heritage is pursued alongside questions of his perceived ‘un-Englishness’. The essay introduces the paradigm of ‘the exotic erotic’—adapted from Judith Butler's Bodies that Matter—to explore Gwendolen Harleth's simultaneous racialising and sexualising of Daniel Deronda. A brief overview of recent postcolonial reassessments of the concept of ‘exoticism’, and of Butler's reinterpretation into the context of gender studies, precedes the close reading of the literary text.

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  • 1 The other most obvious male exotic character in George Eliot's work is, of course, Will Ladislaw in (...)
  • 2 Said, ‘Zionism’ 123: ‘Eliot cannot sustain her admiration of Zionism except by seeing it as a metho (...)
  • 3 See also Said, Culture and Imperialism 63: ‘For Disraeli's Tancred and Eliot's Daniel Deronda, the (...)
  • 4 Hardy establishes Deronda as ‘fairly complex in psychological presentation'; he is complicated, mov (...)
  • 5 For essays that rather unquestioningly repeat Said's argument see particularly those by Robbins and (...)

1Edward Said, in his essay ‘Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims’, called Daniel Deronda ‘an exotic young man’ (Said, ‘Zionism’ 120).1 Said’s analysis of George Eliot’s final novel is open to criticism in many ways, due to its one-sided condemnation of Eliot as another nineteenth-century representative of the ‘club of empire’, which includes, according to Said, the likes of J. S. Mill, Arnold, Carlyle, Newman, Macaulay, Ruskin, Disraeli, Dickens, Kipling, Conrad, Haggard, and Stevenson.2 Said reduces Daniel Deronda to an illustration of Eliot’s alleged imperialist mind frame, which understands Zionism (‘a Jewish movement for colonial settlement in the Orient’) as a project that is ‘epistemologically, hence historically and politically’ akin to British colonialism as it relegates the colonized other to silence, and renders them dispensable (Said, ‘Zionism’ 127 and 140):3 ‘[T]here is an unmistakable coincidence between the experiences of Arab Palestinians at the hands of Zionism and the experiences of those black, yellow, and brown people who were described as inferior and subhuman by nineteenth-century imperialists’. (Said, ‘Zionism’ 127) Said’s monolithic vision of the novel’s participation in a morally condemnable imperialism distorts our understanding of what Nancy Henry calls the ‘text’s mimetic and moral subtleties’ (Henry 113). An analysis of the intricacies of the novel and the protagonist’s complex character—so strongly advocated by Barbara Hardy in an account as groundbreaking in Daniel Deronda scholarship as Said’s4—must complement Said’s argument and the ‘unquestioned, self-perpetuating critical tradition’ that followed, as it is specifically this tradition that my own analysis responds to (Henry 113).5 Even so, Said’s quotation is a useful opening statement for this essay as it names the critical approach that I want to pursue: Daniel Deronda, writes A. S. Byatt, ‘resembles no other English fiction very much, and its ambitions are not simply English’ (Byatt xi). Barbara Hardy puts it more clearly in the term that I seek to explore, which is also the term used by Said: the world of Daniel Deronda is ‘exotic’ (Hardy 9).

1 In Search of the Exotic

2From the eighteenth to much of the twentieth century, exoticism has been (unduly) linked and equated with Orientalism—the one-directional gaze of a dominant culture—and the Western imperial project. A poem like Kipling’s ‘Mandalay’, for example, combines, in an Orientalist gesture, the description of a faraway place with a concurrent derision of the alien culture: the English soldier who muses over his sojourn abroad and his relationship with a Burmese woman, Supi-yaw-lat, recalls a stereotyped exotic setting with ‘palm-trees’, ‘rice-fields’, ‘elephants’ (hathis), native banjo music, and ‘spicy garlic smells’, in which both his desire for the foreign land and the indigenous girl, but also a simultaneous disparagement of Burmese culture as ‘primitive’ and its religion as ‘superstition’ become manifest.

3However, if Orientalism is principally geographically determined and reflects a ‘one-way system of power relations’, exoticism has more ‘versatile potential’, as Isabel Santaolalla suggests (Santaoalla 10–11). Orientalism might be one manifestation of exoticism, but it does not offer the whole story. It could not, for example, account for the celebration of a foreign other and the loss of self in the process of ‘going native’. To understand exoticism and set it against Orientalism, we need to go back to the term’s etymological roots.

  • 6 Mason, in Infelicities, might be going too far when he says that exoticism is ‘the opposite of Said (...)

4Exoticism develops from the classical Latin ‘exoticus’, derived in turn from the Greek ‘exotikos’ (έξώτιϰόϛ), both of which are neutral, objective terms expressing the, as Charles Forsdick stresses, ‘relative, shifting’ notion of ‘foreigner’ (Forsdick, Segalen 30, emphasis added). In the same line, but employing more clearly the rhetoric of poststructuralism, Kateryna Longley suggests that the exotic is ‘elusive and ungraspable, more slippery and less stably positioned than the ‘oriental’ and more capable of sliding away or striking back’, and she concludes: ‘The exotic is the sting in the tail of orientalism because it is the alluring and potentially entrapping aspect of otherness.’ (Longley 28) Exoticism’s disruptive character and its multidirectional, polyvalent ability provides, Forsdick confirms, more ‘versatile means of understanding intercultural contact and the mutual implications of the interaction of cultures’ (Forsdick, Travel 35). Exoticism has a wider theoretical potential than Said’s paradigm as it can move beyond the stabilities of a narrow geographical situatedness and a propagandist, unilateral colonial gaze.6

  • 7 Shapiro says that one might even argue that the exotic is in any case and always part of the ordina (...)
  • 8 See also Bongie and Mason who call exoticism a ‘discursive practice’ rather than an essentialist fe (...)

5Postcolonial criticism has in recent years tried to rehabilitate the term ‘exoticism’—which Ron Shapiro has labelled ‘the Black Plague’ of Western literary theory and of postcolonial theory due to its unfortunate links with Orientalism (Shapiro 41–49).7 Building on Victor Segalen’s earliest theoretical contemplations in his Essai sur l’exotisme (1908), postcolonial scholars have particularly stressed the relativist notion of exoticism. To the French doctor, traveller, and writer, exoticism was ultimately ‘nothing other than the notion of difference, the perception of Diversity, the knowledge that something is other than one’s self; and Exoticism’s power is nothing other than the ability to conceive otherwise’ (Segalen 19). Segalen considered exoticism not an essence that could be found ‘in’ certain people, distinctive objects, or specific places but, instead, he thought that it was a matter of perception, relation, and representation. As anthropologist Clifford Geertz would later write in The Interpretation of Cultures, we can only speak of ‘the (to us) exotic’ (Geertz quoted in Foster 22).8

  • 9 Moura, in fact, speaks of the ‘triple determination’ of exoticism, which adds to ‘psychologie/psych (...)
  • 10 See Lacan, ‘The Subject’ 203-15. Desire (including the sexual drive) is ‘established in the field o (...)

6In the space of this essay on the exotic in Daniel Deronda, I cannot go into the details of these recent redefinitions of what was once a derided term, which is slowly being resurrected by postcolonial scholars and found again useful to describe the contact with alterity. Suffice it to say for my purposes that issues of ‘difference’ and ‘relation’ are central parameters within the epistemology and psychology of the exotic, and the other side of the coin includes questions of ‘representation’, or of ‘aesthetics’. As Peter Mason claims, ‘the exotic is a representational effect’, rather than an essential quality intrinsic to an object, a person, or a place (Mason 2). And as such, exoticism, one might even argue, contains the two central principles of postcolonial theory: Roger Célestin and Charles Forsdick see the exotic as moving between issues of ‘relation’ and ‘representation’; Jean-Marc Moura speaks of the ‘psychology’ of exoticism and its ‘forms’; Stephen Foster sees a ‘moral’ and an ‘aesthetic’ side to it—the former term translating the epistemological self-other encounter into the field of ethics (Célestin 8; Forsdick, Segalen 34; Moura 10–15; Foster 21–30).9 What all these critics have in common is their renewed emphasis on the unstable, shifting nature of the exotic, which depends on the shifting relation of a self to an unknown other. If we look closer into the psychology of exoticism—vide Moura and also Dorothy Figueira (Figueira 9)—we see desire for the unfamiliar, the strange, the other as a marker for the exotic encounter and the exotic representation. Lacanian psychoanalysis would say that desire is always defined by lack, which is, in the case of the exotic, what the West lacks.10

  • 11 See particularly Butler's chapter on Nella Larsen's Passing.

7It is here that I want to stop the short discussion of exoticism and introduce a final critic whose work taps into issues of desire, (ethnic) difference, relation and representation: The relationship between Daniel Deronda and Gwendolen Harleth can, I argue, be best explored through what Judith Butler, in Bodies that Matter, calls an ‘erotic exoticism’ or an ‘exotic eroticism’, which is that sphere of experience in which ‘race’, ‘sexuality’ and ‘sexual difference’ converge and cannot be explained save through and with the help of the other paradigms (Butler 168).11 In her study, Butler argues against the notion in gender studies that all forms of difference, including racial difference, are derived from sexual difference, and she instead shows how (literary manifestations of) an exotic eroticism cannot be thought except through the complex interaction of ethnic and sexual difference (Butler 167–68). Although I am aware of the dangers of subjecting fictional characters to a psychological interpretation, the desire between particularly Gwendolen and Deronda cannot be explained save through the paradigm of the exotic erotic, since it illuminates what remains unsaid in the fictional text.

2 Exoticising Daniel Deronda

  • 12 There are further references to the mutual gaze: ‘the inward debate she raised in Deronda [was she (...)

8The first chapter of Daniel Deronda introduces the themes and modalities central to the novel: desire and an exotic representation. The novel begins, famously, with an epigraph about the impossibility of a beginning—’Men can do nothing without the make-belief of a beginning’—, and the story consequently opens in medias res, with a tableau depicting a gambling room, with the female protagonist, Gwendolen Harleth, in the centre and the male protagonist, Daniel Deronda, at the margins in the position of an onlooker (DD 3). The first sentence, the question posed by the narrator and by Deronda, ‘Was she beautiful or not beautiful?’ (DD 3), establishes desire as the driving force within the narrative, to the point where narrator, hero, and reader helplessly succumb to its power: ‘Why was the wish to look [at her] again felt as coercion and not as longing in which the whole being consents?’ (DD 3) In the same way that Gwendolen commands the narrator’s, reader’s and co-players’ attention, Deronda’s eyes are ‘arrested’ by Gwendolen’s figure (DD 5), and when she is equally compelled to return his gaze (‘she was unpleasantly conscious that [her eyes] were arrested’, DD 5), a mutual interest is determined.12

9Her desire, as the chapter construes it, rests on what will emerge as Deronda’s exoticism, or the exoticising of Deronda. Even before otherness is related to his character, exoticism is invoked as a theme, and difference and relation as modalities. Amidst the group of adult gamblers stands a child, ‘a melancholy little boy, with his knees and calves simply in their natural clothing of epidermis, but for the rest of his person in a fancy dress’ (DD 4). His age and extraordinary attire make him stand out in this room of wealthy adult gamblers, and when he is the only character whose gaze is not fixed on the gambling table or the players (to one of whom he belongs), he is established as the epitome of difference: ‘He alone had his face turned towards the doorway, and fixing on it the blank gaze of a bedizened child stationed as a masquerading advertisement on the platform of an itinerant show’ (DD 4). Like a Picasso harlequin, the discrepancy between the boy’s fancy looks and his inner sadness alerts the reader to the truth that the exterior does not necessarily reflect the interior; appearance is a masquerade. And this is, of course, the story of Deronda and Harleth.

  • 13 For two studies on alterity in Daniel Deronda see Hollander and Armstrong. My analysis differs from (...)

10The othering of Deronda swiftly follows.13 He is marginalized in the scene and the action, as he does not take part in the gambling but, as Gwendolen supposes, looks disapprovingly at the frivolous entertainment and the reckless heroine who, after a streak of luck, wages all her winnings only to lose everything. Daniel is described as ‘young, handsome, distinguished in appearance’ (DD 7), which makes his otherness even more fascinating to Gwendolen. When she enquires about ‘this stranger, under whose measuring gaze she was still wincing’, ‘the dark-haired young man on the right with the dreadful expression’, who ‘is not like young men in general’ (DD 8–9), she does not learn more than his unusual sounding name. And she quickly racialises his distinctiveness: ‘What a delightful name! Is he an Englishman?’ (DD 9) Deronda is an unfamiliar entity for this young woman, in terms of appearance and character, and as such fascinating. However, Gwendolen’s wish to find out ‘what this Mr Deronda would say. What does he say?’ (DD 9), is at first frustrated when the desired introduction to Deronda that very evening fails. Gwendolen is forced to go home the next day due to her mother’s financial strains, and her only contact with Deronda is when she receives the necklace he redeemed after she was forced to pawn it to afford her passage home. The note that accompanies the jewels is signed ‘[a] stranger’, and the corner bearing Deronda’s initials is carefully torn off which renders the man even more of a mystery (DD 14).

11Deronda is conspicuously absent in the opening paragraphs of the novel to the point that the earliest readers, who first encountered the novel in serial instalments, were made all the more aware of it. Reviewers noted in surprise that ‘the hero is scarcely seen’ and asked provocatively, ‘Why call the book Daniel Deronda? That [gambling incident] is all we hear about him for the present: if we want to know anything more, we are reduced to guessing at the meaning of the odd-looking name.’ (The Sunday Times, 20 February 1876, and The Guardian, 2 February 1876, quoted in Tucker 74) Everything about Deronda’s introduction points to difference.

  • 14 See also Lewis 192ff, particularly 217-18, on the hybrid question. Lewis argues here that the Jews (...)

12The episodes recounting the tribulations and joys of Daniel’s youth, interpolated later into the novel, further stress Daniel’s sense of his distinctiveness throughout his young life: he realises early that his ‘dark curls’ (DD 146) and the ‘rich colouring of his head and throat’ (DD 143) are nowhere mirrored in Sir Hugo Mallinger’s gallery of (Anglo-Saxon) ancestors, and he is shocked and scared for his future when Sir Hugo, in a throwaway remark, suggests a singing career for the young Daniel rather than one that would become a typical English gentleman (DD 144). His resistance to the notion of ‘being dressed up to sing before all those fine people who would not care about him except as a wonderful toy’ (DD 144), expressed in this context, recalls the image of the exotic little boy from the first chapter. Daniel senses that he is a somewhat exotic member of the English aristocracy, and he objects to this notion. Daniel’s liminal position—he is ‘not quite/not white’, as Homi Bhabha would say in the context of colonial and postcolonial hybrids—leads to his search for an identity (Bhabha 92).14 Cynthia Chase has called the narrative logic of Daniel Deronda perverted, as it is based on ‘the present causes of past effects’ (Chase and DD 549), when Daniel first discovers his interest in Judaism, rescues Mirah, and becomes Mordecai’s brother and saviour which then and in consequence leads to the confirmation of his Jewish parentage during the meeting with his mother. However, this side of the plot with Daniel’s search for an identity and a beginning, which finds a climax and conclusion in his meeting with his mother Leonora Charisi, now the Princess Halm-Eberstein (DD 535–48, 565–71), shall not concern us here. What is central to my argument is the exotic eroticism manifest in this novel, which is particularly evident in Gwendolen’s racialised longing for the man. It reflects, arguably, Daniel’s liminal position in English society on the one hand, his simultaneous Englishness and Jewishness, but it also manifests the whole spectrum of the exotic from a stereotyping Orientalist will-to-possess to an appreciation and celebration of the other’s difference.

3 Sexing and Racialising Deronda

  • 15 See particularly Chapter Five of Carroll's study Dark Smiles, entitled ‘Arabian Nights: “Make-Belie (...)

13The same social ostracisation and exoticisation Deronda encountered in his childhood and student years (where he hides his otherness as Byron hid his deformed foot, DD 151) are also visible in Daniel’s adult relations with Gwendolen. Alicia Carroll offers, in Dark Smiles, a fascinating analysis of the exoticising literary references in Daniel Deronda; particularly to Othello and the Arabian Nights.15 However, although she frequently uses the word ‘exotic’ and sees Gwendolen’s feelings for Daniel as based on the desire for a racial other, she fails to theorise exoticism as a narrative and representational construct, particularly in the manifestation that I have called an erotic exoticism. My following analysis and theorization thus expands on Carroll’s analysis where she cuts it short.

  • 16 Both Daniel and Gwendolen share this view (DD 138 and DD 278).

14From their first failed meeting at Leubronn’s gambling table, Gwendolen has been intrigued by Deronda’s otherness. A girl with an appetite for the extraordinary and the exotic, her desire to be a traveller like Lady Hester Stanhope in the (Middle) East (DD 57), or tiger hunt in the East (DD 113), is projected onto Deronda, whose face is ‘not as unmistakably English as Sir Hugo’s’ (DD 379) and who supposedly has ‘foreign blood in his veins’ (DD 281). She is fully aware that his supposed illegitimacy and lack of financial means make him an impossible match for her,16 but she is attracted to him, because of his racial difference. When Gwendolen reencounters Deronda at Diplow she builds on the memories of their first meeting and the handkerchief episode—elaborated below—and compares him to her fully English fiancé Grandcourt. The result is a racialised, eroticised, exoticised Deronda.

  • 17 I need not go into the much debated question about Othello's most likely ethnicity; see Sanders’s i (...)

15The reference to Othello occurs during Deronda’s first meeting with Mirah in Chapter XVII, but refers back to the Gwendolen plot. While rowing on the Thames, Daniel sings—in a melodic baritone voice that will later, in Gwendolen’s mind, be opposed to Grandcourt’s ‘toneless drawl’ (DD 279)—the Gondolier’s song from Rossini’s Otello while he passes the young Jewess who wants to end her life. Full of misery, Otello in this song laments after the murder of Desdemona that ‘nessun maggior dolore/Che ricordarsi del tempo felice/Nella miseria’ (DD 158): ‘a sorrow’s crown of sorrow is remembering happier things’, in Tennyson’s rendering from ‘Locksley Hall’ (DD 157). Otello, the Moor, is the penultimate literary outsider because of his racial otherness. In Shakespeare’s Othello, he remains, despite his soldierly qualities and noble origin, the ‘old black ram’ in the eyes of the others, with a ‘black’ face and ‘thick-lips’ (I, i, 67; III, iii, 387–388; I, i, 67).17 White signifies the angel, black the devil, as Emilia exclaims after Desdemona’s murder: ‘O, the more angel she,/And you the blacker devil!’ (V, ii, 132–33) Othello’s dark complexion and sexual appetite (he is called the ‘lascivious Moor’) are related to his jealousy and descent into hell (I, I, 125). For Desdemona, Othello’s otherness is intriguing (because initially fearful), forbidden (her father tries to prevent the union), and preferable to the sameness otherwise offered to her (Roderigo). In her desire for the other converges Othello’s ethnic and sexual difference. Gwendolen, too, desires that which she cannot and must not have. Her interest in Deronda must be, because of Daniel’s unclear financial situation, against her family’s wishes, and it is like her gambling, which initiated her desire in the first place, dangerous. The uncertainty of Daniel’s parentage—is he of foreign blood?—hints at the possibility of miscegenation which is so clearly described in Othello. In Othello, the protagonist’s desire is stirred when he meets Desdemona; a calm soldier with hitherto few passions now turns into a man of sexual appetites (I, iii, 257; IV, I,256). Similarly, Desdemona who first feared Othello’s complexion (I, iii, 97) now kisses the handkerchief he gave to her as much as she desires to kiss the man (III, iii, 297). The handkerchief becomes a surrogate for the absent Othello, signifying her desire for and sexual fulfilment with the man (see Carroll, 115).

16The Gwendolen plot is linked to that of Othello not just through the gondolier’s song signifying the painful status of the pariah, but also through the prop of the handkerchief. In the same way that Othello gives his mother’s strawberry handkerchief to Desdemona as a symbol of their bond and mutual desire, Deronda wraps the redeemed necklace into his handkerchief, which Gwendolen then keeps as a prized possession with her jewels (DD 233). As Gwendolen says, Deronda has taken ‘an unpardonable liberty’ (DD 14) by helping her, and has established a secret bond between them; a dangerous bond that will later incur Grandcourt’s anger and violence towards Gwendolen.

  • 18 See Carroll who portrays Deronda as Othello, full of sexual prowess and with a latent desire to pos (...)

17However, it seems significant to me that Deronda tears off the corner of the handkerchief that bears his initials, so that the prop is somewhat castrated in its symbolism. Daniel repeatedly says that he is not sexually interested in Gwendolen—or in any other woman for that matter—but his repetition compulsion might, in a Freudian analysis, point to the very opposite and to desire.18 Immediately after meeting Gwendolen, Deronda says to his uncle that he would rather run away from Gwendolen than to her (DD 138), and he firmly declares—after a deliberate moment of thinking—that there is ‘no fire’ in his interest in Gwendolen (DD 389). How far can we trust Daniel? Later, however, his interest in Gwendolen (if ever sexual) is certainly less erotic when he adopts the role of confessor and counsellor, trying to help Gwendolen in her moral struggle. Then, his interest exclusively lies in the woman’s human dilemma, and in her guilt in marrying Grandcourt when she knew of his children with Lydia Glasher. If Deronda was ever sexually interested in Gwendolen, we can be certain, though, that it was not because of her exotic otherness: Daniel himself might be unconsciously torn between his Englishness and Jewishness, but he never exoticises Gwendolen in the racial terms that Butler would deem necessary for an exoticising eroticism or erotic exoticism. If anything, he desires her as a woman, but he quickly checks his interest in Gwendolen by tearing off the corner of his handkerchief, thus prohibiting his (phallic) desire. However, his signing of the accompanying note as ‘a stranger’ paradoxically only increases Gwendolen’s exotic erotic yearning for the man as an unknown attractive entity. And as in Othello, the handkerchief for her becomes a fetish object standing in for the absent man.

  • 19 See Graham Handley's explanatory note in the quoted DD edition (708). See also Watson's article.

18Deronda is racially othered by Gwendolen and her social circle, and this vision of his difference seems confirmed by himself when a conversation at Diplow turns to the historical Jamaica uprising of 1865 where Governor Eyre ruthlessly put down a bloody rebellion at Morant Bay (the novel is, of course, set shortly after this historical event). ‘Grandcourt held that the Jamaican Negro was a beastly sort of baptist Caliban; Deronda said he had always felt a little with Caliban, who naturally had his own point of view and could sing a good song’ (DD 279). There may be the historical reference to the baptist agitator George William Gordon, the son of a white attorney and a slave woman,19 who was brutally murdered by Eyre, but Daniel’s familiarity with Shakespeare’s works (DD 141) would certainly also include knowledge of Caliban’s drunken ‘Farewell, Master, farewell’ song in The Tempest (II, ii, 1264), and the play’s more general description of Prospero’s oppression of the native islander Caliban. Whichever argument one follows, Daniel here explicitly takes sides (‘naturally’) with those oppressed and murdered by white colonizers, with those that are the other. It is here that his liminal position between Englishness and Jewishness comes to its fullest expression, suggesting that the relationality of self and other is, indeed, in constant flux.

19When the conversation continues with the issue of mixed-race children, Daniel’s own sense of being exoticised and a (cultural) hybrid leads to his second attack on the white colonizer:

Mrs Torrington was sure she should never sleep in her bed if she lived among blacks; her husband corrected her by saying that the blacks would be manageable enough if it were not for the half-breeds; and Deronda remarked that the whites had to thank themselves for the half-breeds. (DD 279)

Deronda’s sympathy for the hybrid and his criticism of the white coloniser’s desire for the colonized black are particularly remarkable in the context of Gwendolen’s eroticising exoticism of himself.

  • 20 This is Bongie's term from Exotic Memories (16ff).

20Daniel is ethnically different, and with different views on British colonialism, as compared to the men Gwendolen normally meets, like Rex Gascoigne or her husband-to-be—a point that must significantly complicate Said’s thesis of Eliot’s complicity in the imperial project. Gwendolen finds Deronda’s sympathetic views of the other, his foreignness, and exoticism in every way superior to Grandcourt and his whiteness. At this point, there occurs the explicit move from an Orientalist desire for a racial other to a desired other that is considered superior to Englishness and whiteness—a move only the wider spectrum of the exotic paradigm can explain and account for, as suggested earlier. If in Orientalism the self remains dominant in relation to the other, in Gwendolen’s ‘exoticising exoticism’ the other (‘darkness’) becomes more attractive than the self (‘whiteness’).20 One might even want to say that Gwendolen, at this point, ‘goes native’ when it is suggested that ‘Daniel resembles Grandcourt only in being a man’. (Barrett 173) Grandcourt’s appearance is decidedly ‘not impeached with foreignness’ (DD 379), as Gwendolen notes during their first introduction. Daniel’s ‘powerful frame’, ‘the firm gravity of his face’, ‘long, flexible, firmly-grasping hands’ suggest ‘refinement with force’ (DD 157–158). He is, if of a sensitive nature, entirely manly, hence desirable from the point of sexual difference. Of short stature, Grandcourt’s head on the other hand shows ‘an extensive baldness surrounded with the mere fringe of reddish blond hair’ (DD 91), and although his features, ‘undisguised by beard [NB Daniel has a beard] [were] decidedly handsome’ (DD 91), he leaves the impression on the observer of an unanimated creature. His bearing is ‘flaccid’, his complexion ‘faded’ (both DD 91) and ‘mealy’ (DD 379), his grey eyes indifferent. Gwendolen’s only reaction to his appearance—’He is not ridiculous’ (DD 92)—stands in marked contrast to her enthusiastic reception of and keen interest in the exotic Deronda.

21Grandcourt is the man she must marry to stay financially afloat and secure a place in society, Deronda is the one she desires.

‘I wonder what he thinks of me really? He must have felt interested in me, else he would not have sent me my necklace. . . .Why did he come to Diplow?’ These questions ran in her mind as the voice of an uneasy longing to be judged by Deronda with unmixed admiration—a longing which had had its seed in her first resentment at his critical glance. (DD 279)

  • 21 See Freud, ‘Debasement’ 257-59. Freud here says that any desire for an object (sexual, emotional or (...)

22As the narrative moves along and Gwendolen’s entrapment in an unhappy, loveless and passionless marriage with the cruel Grandcourt (whose imperialist attitudes also enter his relationship with his subsequently oppressed wife) becomes more and more desperate, the longing for Daniel turns into an obsession with his character, which is, arguably, less eroticised than before. Grandcourt becomes the fiend (a ‘monster’, as Gwendolen calls him, DD 503) and Deronda the saint. The woman convinces herself that Daniel is not only a desirable man (in sexual and racial terms), but also the person who can, through his goodness and idealism, save her soul, which she jeopardized through her marriage with Grandcourt. His final revelation that he is indeed Jewish, about to marry Mirah and on his way to Palestine, visibly shocks her and destroys all hope of any kind of union between her and Deronda, be it exotic-erotic or spiritual. In a moment of self-analysis and clarity, however, she realises not only the one-sided nature of her affections, but also that they were primarily motivated by her selfish desire to have somebody to fill a lack she feels and be (exotic) lover, friend, and moral guide (DD 689). Desire, in Gwendolen’s story, returns to the selfish drive Freud and Lacan saw at the heart of all desire: the narcissistic yearning not only for a primordial completeness, but primarily for self-preservation.21 Her final, grandiose statement that she is a better person for having known Deronda, expressed both in their final conversation and in her well-wishing letter to the newly-weds, reveals a friendly affection for Deronda. However, it should also be noted that this dramatic self-revelation clearly upstages Mirah’s modest happiness in having been chosen by Deronda. Gwendolen is on the way to renounce her unfulfilled desire for the exotic Deronda, but she does so in her own selfish and dramatic ways.


23This essay has looked at Gwendolen’s exotic desire for Deronda, but obviously, this is not the end of the story: Daniel marries Mirah at the end of the novel, and not Gwendolen. So how does exoticism work in a relationship that is, arguably, based on sameness rather than difference? Mirah is, like Daniel, Jewish, if not with his privileged English upbringing that causes his liminality; they share the search for a mother, the loss of a father, a love of music but a resistance to being exhibited (DD 143, 184ff, 477), a fondness of Shakespeare, a melancholic outlook on life, the sense of being homeless and not belonging, actual and emotional exile. If it is not an exotic desire or an interest in otherness or liminality which attracts Mirah to Daniel, what is it?

  • 22 The reference to the dream is picked up again later when Mirah speaks ‘dreamily’ (DD 161 and 163). (...)

24Chapter XVII narrates Deronda and Mirah’s first encounter, building on the trope of sameness. In a dream-like atmosphere, Daniel rows on the Thames, ‘unconscious’ of singing Otello’s gondolier’s song, whilst coming upon the unfortunate young woman who is also ‘only half-conscious of her surroundings’ (DD 158 and 159).22 The unhappiness about feeling disconnected from this world and from society unites them in Otello’s song, but Deronda also suggests a link between him and Mirah when he relates her to his mother: ‘The agitating impression this forsaken girl was making on him stirred a fibre that lay close to his deepest interest in the fates of women—“perhaps my mother was like this one”’ (DD 162). And Daniel is right: Mirah is a singer like Leonora, both are Jewish, with very dominant fathers. Mirah is familiar to Daniel, and thus promises to complete him, as the mother is what he primarily lacks and is looking for: ‘The light was not such that he could distinctly discern the expression of her features or her glance, but they were distinctly before him nevertheless—features and a glance which seemed to have given a fuller meaning for him to the human face.’ (DD 163)

25This leaves only to discuss Mirah in this triangle relationship, and the motivation for her desire. Mirah, arguably, considers Daniel an ideal character from romance who will save her from an evil father, help her find a lost brother, give her love and security. She adores him and idealises him, transporting him from the real world into that of the ideal. She renders Daniel what Leslie Stephen so disparagingly called ‘an angel at a London dinner party’; half man, half angel (Stephen 188). And as such, the strong sexual impulse that we saw in Gwendolen’s desire for the man is largely absent in Mirah’s interest in Deronda, and their subsequent union. The author’s final words stress Daniel’s love for Mirah as ‘strongly imbued with that blessed protectiveness’ (DD 693), and explain Mirah’s love for Daniel as primarily a response to his goodness. The journey to the East the couple embarks on is not an erotic honeymoon, but the quest of two companions towards the finding and founding of a new nation.

26Exoticism, in short, is a Foucauldian episteme, that is, ‘a relatively fixed cultural problematic, which becomes operational as an internalized gestalt and structures discursive activities pertaining to cultural difference’ (Foster 21). In Daniel Deronda, exoticism serves as a useful category to explore the relations between sameness and otherness, self and other, Englishness and Jewishness, as it can account for a shifting, unstable relationality that is primarily based on representation, not essence.

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1 The other most obvious male exotic character in George Eliot's work is, of course, Will Ladislaw in Middlemarch, whose Polish heritage makes him stand out in the country village. ‘He is said to be of foreign extraction.’ Eliot, Middlemarch 358. Unfortunately, I cannot go into the similarities and differences between Will and Daniel in this essay.

2 Said, ‘Zionism’ 123: ‘Eliot cannot sustain her admiration of Zionism except by seeing it as a method for transforming the East into the West.’ The list of what Carroll has termed ‘the club of empire’ stems from Said's Orientalism (19), and Culture and Imperialism (63). Said's ‘club of empire’ is, of course, in many ways a problematic structure. See, on this issue, Carroll 20.

3 See also Said, Culture and Imperialism 63: ‘For Disraeli's Tancred and Eliot's Daniel Deronda, the East is partly a habitat for native peoples (or immigrant European populations), but also partly incorporated under the sway of empire.’

4 Hardy establishes Deronda as ‘fairly complex in psychological presentation'; he is complicated, moving, changing, aware of the problems of being a model and a “hero”’. Hardy, ‘Introduction’ 18.

5 For essays that rather unquestioningly repeat Said's argument see particularly those by Robbins and Meyer. ‘To discuss the context of Daniel Deronda without considering Zionism as a continuing if also particular extension of European colonialism is not to be seriously historical but to be arrogantly antiquarian.’ (Robbins, ‘Forum’ 542) Robbins's comment here continues a debate ignited by the earlier article ‘Death and Vocation’, in which he states that Zionism ‘has continued to exclude and marginalize the Palestinians’ (Robbins, ‘Death’ 44); a political comment that evoked responses from a number of academics. Robbins's is in the same assertive Saidian tradition as, for example, Spivak's foundational reading of Jane Eyre in which she claims: ‘It should not be possible to read nineteenth-century British literature without remembering that imperialism, understood as England's social mission, was a crucial part of the cultural representation of England to the English. The role of literature in the production of cultural representation should not be ignored. These two obvious ‘facts’ continue to be disregarded in the reading of nineteenth-century British literature. This itself attests to the continuing success of the imperialist project, displaced and dispersed into more modern forms.’ (Spivak 262) See also Meyer's article ‘“Safely to Their Own Borders’”. To be fair, Meyer contemplates at various points in her discussion the conflicting nature of some of Eliot's comments and representations, but her conclusion that Daniel Deronda, in the end, confirms British nationalism and imperialism, goes back to a Saidian paradigm. Her interpretation of the epigraph to Chapter XXIII as ‘proof’ of Eliot's imperialism—Mirah and Daniel later take up the ruthless and violent fight to win back the promised land—is, at best, questionable. See, for this point, Henry 114.

6 Mason, in Infelicities, might be going too far when he says that exoticism is ‘the opposite of Said's “Orientalism”’ (3), but he, too, sees that the exotic has more theoretical and representational potential than Orientalism, which ‘fetishizes authoritative knowledge and geographic specificity, often with a view to actual domination’ (3). Exoticism, he argues, is more indifferent to ethnographic and geographic precision and tends to serve imaginative rather than political ends.

7 Shapiro says that one might even argue that the exotic is in any case and always part of the ordinary mental process of the construction of alterity, and hence nothing extraordinary (42).

8 See also Bongie and Mason who call exoticism a ‘discursive practice’ rather than an essentialist feature (Bongie 5; Mason 163). Mason, more clearly than any other critic discussed here, employs the language of deconstruction when he claims that, rather than through difference, the exotic signifies according to the principles of Derridean différance, that is through differing and the deferral of meaning in a play of endlessly shifting signifiers that can never come to a full understanding of otherness.

9 Moura, in fact, speaks of the ‘triple determination’ of exoticism, which adds to ‘psychologie/psychology’ and ‘formes/forms’, ‘histoire/history’.

10 See Lacan, ‘The Subject’ 203-15. Desire (including the sexual drive) is ‘established in the field of the subject by way that is that of lack’ (204).

11 See particularly Butler's chapter on Nella Larsen's Passing.

12 There are further references to the mutual gaze: ‘the inward debate she raised in Deronda [was she a beauty or not, was her gambling evil or not] gave to his eyes a growing expression of scrutiny’ (DD 5); ‘...the certainty she had (without looking) of that man still watching her was something like a pressure which begins to be torturing’ (DD 6); ‘[she] turned resolutely with her face towards Deronda and looked at him’ (DD 6-7).

13 For two studies on alterity in Daniel Deronda see Hollander and Armstrong. My analysis differs from both of these as I do not focus on issues of ethics but the exoticised (ethical) other.

14 See also Lewis 192ff, particularly 217-18, on the hybrid question. Lewis argues here that the Jews become like Europeans, ‘offering in their democratic (republican) state a repeat or mimicking of England that bridges the gap between the Oriental/colonized and the English’ (217).

15 See particularly Chapter Five of Carroll's study Dark Smiles, entitled ‘Arabian Nights: “Make-Belief,” Exoticism, and Desire in Daniel Deronda’ (107-36).

16 Both Daniel and Gwendolen share this view (DD 138 and DD 278).

17 I need not go into the much debated question about Othello's most likely ethnicity; see Sanders’s introduction to the quoted edition for a discussion of ‘Othello's Race’ (10-14). Whether of African or Arab descent, Othello is contrasted to the ‘whiteness’ of the other characters.

18 See Carroll who portrays Deronda as Othello, full of sexual prowess and with a latent desire to possess Gwendolen (110-21). See also Hardy who rightly says that Daniel Deronda is a story about a man in love with two women, ‘though the necessary phrase, “in love”, begs too many questions to be an adequate description of Daniel Deronda's relations with Mirah Cohen and Gwendolen Harleth’ (7).

19 See Graham Handley's explanatory note in the quoted DD edition (708). See also Watson's article.

20 This is Bongie's term from Exotic Memories (16ff).

21 See Freud, ‘Debasement’ 257-59. Freud here says that any desire for an object (sexual, emotional or material) is a derivation from the original desire for self-preservation and survival, caused by the baby's hunger and the urge to satisfy this need. Lacan would call this primordial, unnameable object of desire, representing the objet a, the lost object of the Real, ‘The Signification of the Phallus’.

22 The reference to the dream is picked up again later when Mirah speaks ‘dreamily’ (DD 161 and 163). See Carroll 129.

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Julia Kuehn, « ‘Exotic Eroticism’: Gwendolen Harleth and Daniel Deronda »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 69 | 2009, mis en ligne le 03 juillet 2019, consulté le 19 septembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Julia Kuehn

The University of Hong Kong.
KUEHN Julia is Assistant Professor in English at the University of Hong Kong. Her research interests lie in 19th and early 20th-century literature and culture, with particular focus on popular and travel writing. Her work has appeared in Women's Writing, Studies in Travel Writing, and The Journal of Popular Culture. Julia is currently working on a history of exotic representations in canonical and popular women's writing published between 1880 and 1920.

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