Study Guide

George Eliot

George Eliot Essay - Eliot, George (Feminism in Literature)

Eliot, George (Feminism in Literature)

Introduction

Eliot is a respected novelist of the late nineteenth century, and her work has been praised for its penetrating psychological analysis and profound insight into human character. Generally played against the backdrop of English rural life, Eliot's novels explore moral and philosophical issues with a realistic approach to character and plot development. Middlemarch (1871) is frequently studied by feminist critics for its careful consideration of a woman's place in a male-dominated world, although critics disagree over whether this novel, and Eliot's other works, display proto-feminist ideas or reinforce patriarchal systems.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Eliot was born November 22, 1819 to a strict Methodist family whose views she accepted until her friendship with the skeptical philosophers Charles Bray and Charles Hennell brought her to challenge the rigid religious principles of her upbringing. This questioning of values also inspired her first published work, a translation of Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus; 1846) by the German religious philosopher D. F. Strauss. The incident caused a rift with her father, but Eliot later reconciled with him and lived with him until his death in 1849.

After her father's death, Eliot moved to London and became acquainted with John Chapman, who hired her as an assistant editor on the Westminster Review and introduced her to his literary circle. This group included the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who introduced Eliot to writer and intellectual George Henry Lewes. Although Lewes was married (he was legally prohibited from divorcing his estranged wife), the two openly lived together until Lewes's death in 1878, defying the strict moral code of the Victorian era. Lewes's influence on Eliot's writing was great: it was he who first encouraged her to write fiction, and he acted as an intermediary between the pseudonymous "George Eliot" and her first publisher, Black-wood's Magazine. Eliot's literary success eventually brought the couple social acceptance, but just over a year after Lewes's death she married John Walter Cross, a banker twenty years her junior, and again met with public outrage. Seven months after her marriage the novelist suddenly died and was buried in Highgate Cemetery, North London.

MAJOR WORKS

Although she was a prolific writer in many genres, Eliot is chiefly known for her sequence of novels that begin by drawing heavily from her rural English background and grow gradually wider in scope. Scenes of Clerical Life (1858) includes three sketches with a provincial setting and is noted for its well-drawn characters and keen rendering of Midland dialect. Adam Bede (1859) presents realistic images of daily life in a quiet rural community undercut with unfulfilled love and selfishness resulting in tragedy and hard-won self-awareness. The Mill on the Floss (1860) tells the story of Maggie Tulliver's inability to conform to the rigidly traditional society in which she lives, and Silas Marner (1861) deals with an alienated miser whose life is transformed by his adoption of an abandoned child.

Eliot broadened her thematic goals with the historical novel Romola (1863) as well as Felix Holt (1866), which is often characterized as a political novel but features a conventional courtship narrative more typically associated with domestic fiction. Middlemarch, widely considered Eliot's finest achievement, presents a comprehensive picture of English provincial life while developing moral and philosophical issues such as the relationship of the individual to society. Eliot's last novel, Daniel Deronda (1876), examines a broad spectrum of nineteenth-century European society and is regarded as her most ambitious yet perhaps her least successful work.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Eliot's critical acclaim came early, with the publication of Adam Bede. During her lifetime, the writer's work generally met with popular and critical success, although novels such as Felix Holt and Daniel Deronda have consistently been considered less accomplished than Adam Bede and Middlemarch. Eliot's reputation endured a significant decline, however, from her death through the early twentieth century, when her novels were often dismissed as heavy, didactic, and overly scholarly. However, Virginia Woolf was influential in reviving interest in Eliot's works as early as 1925, addressing Eliot's unique treatment of the nature of femininity, and F. R. Leavis's essays in the 1940s effectively reaffirmed the significance of Eliot's achievement.

The onset of the feminist movement sparked another reevaluation of Eliot's work, although critics have remained sharply divided about the novelist's treatment of women's issues. As Zelda Austen notes in her 1976 essay, feminists have often claimed that Eliot tends to engage in an anti-feminist reinforcement of the systems under which her heroines often suffer. For example, some feminist scholars of Felix Holt have criticized Holt's character, claiming his objections to Esther's refinement and aesthetic sensibilities make him no more desirable a suitor than Transome, who believes that women are meant to be decorative rather than functional. Other critics, however, claim Eliot as a proto-feminist figure whose complex thinking about the place of a woman in an oppressive society was instrumental in setting the stage for the women's literary liberation that would eventually follow.

Principal Works

The Life of Jesus [translator; as Marian Evans] (essay) 1846

The Essence of Christianity [translator; as Marian Evans] (essay) 1854

* Scenes of Clerical Life (novel) 1858

Adam Bede (novel) 1859

The Mill on the Floss (novel) 1860

Silas Marner, the Weaver of Raveloe (novel) 1861

Romola (novel) 1863

Felix Holt, the Radical (novel) 1866

The Spanish Gypsy: A Poem (poetry) 1868

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (novel) 1871-72

The Legend of Jubal, and Other Poems (poetry) 1874

Daniel Deronda (novel) 1876

Impressions of Theophrastus Such (essays) 1879

The George Eliot Letters 9 vols. (letters) 1954-78

* All of Eliot's novels were originally published serially in magazines.

(The entire section is 93 words.)

Primary Sources

SOURCE: "The Mill on the Floss." Saturday Review 9, no. 233 (14 April 1860): 470-71.

In the following review, the anonymous critic's qualified praise of The Mill on the Floss offers a provocative example of the contemporary response to a female novelist.

To speak the simple truth, without affectation of politeness, [Adam Bede] was thought to be too good for a woman's story. It turns out that a woman was not only able to write it, but that she did not write it by any lucky accident. The Mill on the Floss may not, perhaps, be so popular as Adam Bede, but it shows no falling off nor any exhaustion of power. We may think ourselves very fortunate to have a third female novelist not inferior to Miss Austen and Miss Bronté; and it so happens that there is much in the works of this new writer that reminds us of these two well-known novelists without anything like copying. George Eliot has a minuteness of painting and a certain archness of style that are quite after the manner of Miss Austen, while the wide scope of her remarks, and her delight in depicting strong and wayward feelings, show that she belongs to the generation of Currer Bell, and not to that of the quiet authoress of Emma. Where all excel, it is of no use to draw up a sort of literary class-list, and pronounce an opinion as to the comparative merits of these three writers; but no one can now doubt that the lady who, with the usual pretty affectation of her sex, likes to look on paper as much like a man as possible, and so calls herself George Eliot, has established her place in the first rank of our female novelists.

She has done us all one great kindness, for she has opened up a field that is perfectly new. She has, for the first time in fiction, invented or disclosed the family life of the English farmer, and the class to which he belongs.… There is nothing in which George Eliot succeeds more conspicuously than in [the] very nice art of making her characters like real people, and yet shading them off into the large group which she is describing. Some notion of what it requires to make a good novelist may be obtained by reflecting on all that is implied in the delineation of three farmer's daughters and their husbands with separate and probable characters, and in allotting them suitable conversation, and following the turns and shifts of their minds within the narrow limits of the matters that may be supposed to interest them. It is this profusion of delineative power that marks the Mill on the Floss, and the delineations are given both by minute touches of description and by dialogues. To write dialogue is much harder than merely to describe, and...

(The entire section is 1147 words.)

General Commentary

Virginia Woolf (Essay Date 1925)

SOURCE: Woolf, Virginia. "George Eliot." In Collected Essays, Vol. 1, pp. 196-204. London, England: Hogarth, 1966.

In the following essay, originally published in her 1925 The Common Reader, Woolf highlights the complexity of Eliot's thinking about womanhood and "feminine aspirations."

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(The entire section is 46 words.)

Sherri Catherine Smith (Essay Date June 1996)

SOURCE: Smith, Sherri Catherine. "George Eliot, Straight Drag and the Masculine Investments of Feminism." Women's Writing 3, no. 2 (June 1996): 97-111.

In the following essay, Smith discusses Eliot's "nuanced understanding of the binary that underwrites gender hierarchy" and reveals the function of misogyny in her feminist tendencies.

I

"There was clearly no suspicion that I was a woman"1, George Eliot marvelled in 1858, no tell-tale sign that the mysterious and applauded author of "The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton" was in fact Marian Evans,...

(The entire section is 7114 words.)