Daniel Deronda and Uncle Tom’s Cabin

As I read the British novelist George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda, I was surprised to find, in the introduction, that there were letters addressed to Harriet Beecher Stowe. With a little research, I learned that they had an eleven-year correspondence, starting from 1869 until 1880—the yearEliot died. They never met but only wrote.

Within these letters, both writers discussed their opposite views on spiritualism, their thoughts on literature, their beliefs, their adventures, their hardships, and their loss.

As a guide here at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, I am always looking to enhance what I can share with visitors.  I am interested in the possibility that the protest novel Daniel Deronda was influenced by Stowe’s protest novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Daniel Deronda was published in 1876—twenty-four years after Uncle Tom’s Cabin—-and due to Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s British success, Eliot would have definitely known about this influential novel. In 1856, Eliot herself offered a praising commentary to help promote Stowe’s second novel Dred, “Inspired by a rare genius–rare in both intensity and in range of power.”

Even though there seems to be no evidence that Daniel Deronda, which protests anti-semitism, was influenced by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which protests slavery, there is still a possibility that is worth investigating.

Daniel Deronda (the simplified version) is about a wealthy and selfless Englishman Daniel Deronda, who through his relationships with various characters begins to search for his unknown and possibly Jewish mother. We also follow a non-Jewish beautiful, charismatic, self-centered Englishwoman named Gwendolen Harleth. Gwendolen’s family falls into poverty, and in order to stop this fall, she marries a rich and abusive man who breaks Gwendolen’s sense of self. When she comes to meet Daniel Deronda, Gwendolen wants Daniel to become her way

to salvation, but while Daniel tries to help Gwendolen find morality, he discovers that his mother is Jewish. With the support of the Jewish characters he meets during his self-discovery, Daniel accepts his Jewishness, gets married to Mirah the Jewess and sets sail for Palestine. Gwendolen ends her story by learning how to have an independent journey towards a more moral existence.

These correlations between these works brings up a certain suspicion that I am not the first to consider. In the article “Himmelfarb, George Eliot, and the Jews” for the Jewish Review of Books, professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard University Ruth R. Wisse wrote, “…Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel of which Eliot was supremely aware as she corresponded with its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe. The two novels were alike in exposing the treatment of resident minorities, but with their challenges reversed: Black Americans awaited emancipation whereas already emancipated British Jews ran the opposite risk of assimilation.” Wisse addresses that Eliot would have been highly aware of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and that Eliot wrote a novel with a similar purpose to Stowe. 

Some of my reasoning for why I think these two novels are quite similar in plot structure in addition to both being protest novels is because:

1) Both main characters, the enslaved Tom and the Jewish Daniel are both the moral compasses of their novels—-which encourages an audience to sympathize with characters who might otherwise be seen as other. These two characters represent goodness. Tom helps in the salvation of his enslaver Augustine St. Clare and Daniel helps in the salvation of the non-Jewish main character Gwendolen. By both characters not being complex and are caged as being their novel’s moral center, they both elicit the very same messiah-like archetype. Their purpose is to be representative figures to save the representative audience figures which then creates the protests novel’s main purpose of empathy.

2) In both novels, their narrative’s end on the efforts to join in settler-colonialist movements. What I mean by settler-colonialism, is better defined by Cornell Law School, “Settler colonialism finds its foundations on a system of power perpetuated by settlers that represses indigenous people’s rights and cultures by erasing it and replacing it by their own.”  The other main character of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the self-liberating Eliza. Eliza, her son Harry and her husband George run to Canada to liberate themselves from slavery. When they are free, they decide to join in the settler-colonialism of the colony Liberia. Deronda and his wife Mirah, in the wake of their marriage, decide to leave England and join in the Zionist settler-colonialist movement of Palestine. Both main characters, Deronda and Eliza, go back to their homelands that Stowe and Eliot believe their characters should go back to.

There may never be enough evidence that Eliot’s novel was inspired by Stowe’s, but these puzzle pieces are nonetheless something to hold onto when considering Daniel Deronda and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.


Jewish Review of Books: “Himmelfarb, George Eliot, and the Jews” By Ruth R. Wisse (Winter 2013)

Cornell Law School: settler colonialism (Last Updated May 2022)

Nachum Levitan is a Visitor Center Coordinator, an undergraduate English student at the University of Connecticut, and is trying his best.