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Updated Up To 18/01/2017
Volume 10, Issue 1 (January 2012) : 29-47
Victorian Fiction and the “What If?” Theory
Heritage and Inheritance in Daniel Deronda
Marion Helfer Wajngot
Rubric A: Narrative as a Way of Thinking
Rubric B: Nineteenth-Century Fiction



The laws and the literature of a society both express and influence the attitudes and norms of its members. The law, however, has a conservative function, while literature can work to change opinions and, in the longer run, legal systems. This essay argues that legal discourse possesses an inherent narrative potential, giving rise to fictional stories that serve to investigate and expose the effects of particular laws. Like many other novels, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda seems to construct its plot on the basis of the reiterated question “But what if…?” exploring social and moral implications of inheritance law, in particular the principle of primogeniture. The two major strands of Eliot’s double plot, with Gwendolen Harleth and Daniel Deronda as the protagonists, together with the subplots involving a series of minor characters, embody four areas concerned with this theme: gambling; the duties that come with heritage; illegitimacy; and the conditions of women associated with a system based on privileging a male heir. By pressing the aesthetic effect of thematic recurrence as well as an element of readerly unease into the service of the ethical, this novel makes a powerful statement on the subject of inheritance. It may have contributed to social and political change, and counteracted the preserving effect of the law.

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