Convenient cosmopolitanism : Daniel Deronda, nationalism, and the critics

Aleksandar STEVIĆ*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


The specter of cosmopolitanism haunts Daniel Deronda. In a curious reversal of critical fortune, the novel condemned by many of its initial reviewers for dabbling into obscure mystical doctrines and for pontificating far too explicitly about the significance of narrow loyalties and local attachments has recently come to embody a scrupulous investigation of cosmopolitan ethics. The sources of this radical shift in the understanding of Daniel Deronda's politics are theoretical as much as they are interpretative. For some time now, humanistic scholarship has been simultaneously attracted to cosmopolitanism and embarrassed by it: while we continue to be drawn to cosmopolitanism as an ideological project invested in overcoming tribal loyalties and in celebrating the encounter with the other, we are also resistant to its universalizing logic which we often see as complicit with the hegemonic tendencies variously present in the intellectual legacy of the European Enlightenment and in contemporary global capitalism. Faced with this tension, several influential scholars - most notably Amanda Anderson and Kwame Anthony Appiah - have turned to Daniel Deronda as an example of a cosmopolitanism free of pernicious hegemonic connotations, a cosmopolitanism understood as a commitment to open exchange between nations and races, rather than as the erasure of all cultural difference. In doing so they have, however, simultaneously overextended the concept of cosmopolitanism, rendering it very nearly meaningless, and misjudged the politics of Eliot's novel, overlooking its deep commitment to the logic of ethnic nationalism. In this essay I wish to use what I take to be the dual failure - interpretative and theoretical - of recent readings of Daniel Deronda in order to reexamine both the politics of Eliot's late writings and the ways in which we use the concept of cosmopolitanism in our critical practice. I will argue, first, that the cosmopolitan Deronda, constructed in a series of influential interpretations over the past two decades, is a specter, an apparition. This phantom, as we shall see, was constructed due to an unusual alignment between the desire to dissociate the great Victorian moralist that was George Eliot from the charge of slipping into narrow nationalist worldview and the desire to recuperate a non-hegemonic vision of cosmopolitanism. Second, I will argue that the novel's much discussed marginalization of Gwendolen Harleth in favor of Daniel Deronda's nationalist mission does not constitute simply a rejection of an egotistical heroine in the name of higher duties, but rather a decisive moment in Eliot's late career and in the history of Victorian fiction: by unequivocally favoring the hero's nationalist commitments over the heroine's private struggles, George Eliot has also rejected the private sphere which has traditionally preoccupied nineteenth-century fiction, in favor of the fantasies of collective destiny. Before analyzing the full implications of this shift, however, I will outline in more detail the interpretative history in which this essay intervenes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)593-614
Number of pages22
JournalVictorian Literature and Culture
Issue number3
Early online date25 Aug 2017
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2017
Externally publishedYes


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