Date of Award

8-2012

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts

Major

English

Major Professor

Nancy Henry

Committee Members

Allen Dunn, Dawn Coleman

Abstract

Many scholars have discussed Judaism and the ethics of George Eliot in Daniel Deronda, but few have explored the impact of Buddhism upon the novel. This thesis is the first study to demonstrate the influence of Buddhism upon George Eliot's fiction. By tracing Eliot's interest in the emerging field of comparative religion, I argue that Buddhism offered Eliot a unique religion that was compatible with her secular humanism. Although Buddhism appears explicitly in Deronda in only a few instances, I contend that Eliot uses the tradition of Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalism as the predominant theology in Deronda because it contains many affinities with Buddhism, most notably the doctrine of the transmigration of souls. Mordecai interprets the transmigration of souls as a teleological justification for Jewish nationalism, but I assert that for Eliot, the transmigration of souls challenges national boundaries and instead promotes a universal compassion that extends to all cultures. I argue that Eliot employs many voices of Jewish dissent in Deronda to illustrate the difficulty of reconciling cultural heritage with universal compassion strictly in terms of Judaism, and then I draw upon a metaphor in which Eliot compares Deronda to the Buddha to suggest that Deronda and his mission to re-establish Israel are antithetical to Eliot's vision of universal compassion.

Chapter one reviews Deronda scholarship about Judaism, including work by Edward Said, Amanda Anderson, and Nancy Henry. This chapter reads these scholars in terms of particular Eliot letters, notes, and moments in Deronda and Impressions of Theophrastus Such and asserts that Jewish nationalism in Deronda precludes universal compassion. Chapter two chronicles Eliot's adoption of secular humanism and then argues that Buddhism offers both the cultural solidarity that Eliot prizes in Judaism as well as the universal compassion inherent in Eliot's secular humanism. The conclusion of this thesis asserts that the renunciation of the ego in Buddhism attracts Eliot, and it proposes that contextualizing Deronda in terms of Eliot's conceptions of Buddhism helps resolve some of the tension between Judaism and compassion in the novel.

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