George Eliot is known primarily for her novels: Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1862-1863), Felix Holt, the Radical (1866), Middlemarch (1871-1872), and Daniel Deronda (1876), as well as for her poetry and essays.
George Eliot’s most significant achievement is her very place in the literary canon. Despite her male pseudonym, she became a respected female writer in her own day, admired by her peers. Her novels are part of the flowering of serious writing done by women in the nineteenth century. She achieved this respect in spite of her unconventional lifestyle, having broken with her church, taken up decidedly liberal causes such as reform and women’s rights, and lived openly with a married man. Such behavior was the downfall of other Victorian women, but Eliot was able to succeed and to be treated with the respect an author of her talents deserved. Eliot’s works are serious, contemplative, and thoughtful, and they brought the novel to a new height, combining such philosophical seriousness with artistic handling of her subjects. Eliot and her peers were in large part responsible for the so-called rise of the novel in the mid-nineteenth century.
Three of George Eliot’s early stories, “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton,” “Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story,” and “Janet’s Repentance,” originally published in Blackwood’s Magazine, were collected as Scenes of Clerical Life in 1858. She wrote two other stories, “The Lifted Veil,” also published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1859, and “Brother Jacob,” published in the Cornhill Magazine in 1864. The Impressions of Theophrastus Such, a miscellany of sketches and essays, was published in 1879. Eliot’s poetry does not achieve the high quality of her prose; the most notable examples are The Spanish Gypsy (1868), a verse drama, and The Legend of Jubal, and Other Poems (1874). Eliot wrote more than seventy periodical essays and reviews; a comprehensive collection of these is found in Essays of George Eliot (1963), edited by Thomas Pinney. Eliot also translated David Friedrich Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu as The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1846) and Ludwig Feuerbach’s Das Wesen des Christentums as The Essence of Christianity (1854). Her translation of Baruch Spinoza’s Ethica (1677; Ethics, 1870) has never been published.
George Eliot’s pivotal position in the history of the novel is attested to by some of the most distinguished English novelists. Reviewing Middlemarch in 1873, Henry James concluded, “It sets a limit, we think, to the development of the old-fashioned English novel.” Middlemarch does, indeed, take what James calls the panoramic novel—“vast, swarming, deep-colored, crowded with episodes, with vivid images, with lurking master-strokes, with brilliant passages of expression,” seeking to “reproduce the total sum of life in an English village”—to an unsurpassed level of achievement. Eliot was also an innovator. In the words of D. H. Lawrence, “It all started with George Eliot; it was she who put the action on the inside,” thus giving impetus to the rise of the psychological novel, where the most significant actions derive from the motives of the characters rather than from external events. Eliot’s work is, then, both the culmination of the panoramic Victorian novel as practiced by Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray and the beginning of the modern psychological novel as practiced by James, Lawrence, and many others.
More than anyone else, Eliot was responsible for making the novel, a genre that had traditionally been read primarily for entertainment, into a vehicle for the serious expression of ideas. Few novelists can equal Eliot’s depth of intellect or breadth of learning. Deeply involved in the religious and philosophical ferment of her time, Eliot was probably the first major English novelist who did not subscribe, at least nominally, to the tenets of Christian theology. Nevertheless, her strong moral commitment, derived from her Evangelical Christian heritage, led her to conceive of the novel as an instrument for preaching a gospel of duty and self-renunciation.
Moral commitment alone, however, does not make a great novelist. In addition, Eliot’s extraordinary psychological insight enabled her to create characters who rival in depth and complexity any in English or American fiction. Few novelists can equal her talents for chronicling tangled motives, intricate self-deceptions, and anguished struggles toward noble acts. She creates a fictional world that combines, in a way unsurpassed in English fiction, a broad panorama of society and psychological insight into each character.
What characteristics of Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch are also traits of George Eliot?
Investigate the subject of education for girls as displayed in Eliot’s novels.
Why has Middlemarch been a favorite novel of many writers but has seldom been a favorite of other readers?
What defects render Eliot’s churchmen ineffectual?
Does Eliot ever create a female character whose role is something other than a frequently frustrated companion of a man?
Is Eliot’s rigorous moral imagination a barrier to modern readers?
Had Eliot been born in the middle of the twentieth century, what occupation might you have expected her to pursue?
Ashton, Rosemary. George Eliot: A Life. New York: Penguin Press, 1997. An introduction to Eliot’s life and work by an admirer of her fiction; interlaces discussions of Eliot’s life with analysis of her fiction and the context of her work within Victorian society and social thought. Argues that her fiction most often focuses on characters out of step with their culture.
Brady, Kristin. George Eliot. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Includes chapters on Eliot as icon, on her life as a woman writer, and on her major novels and poetry. Bibliography and index.
Bull, Malcolm. “Mastery and Slavery in The Lifted Veil.” Essays in Criticism 48 (July, 1998): 244-261. Discusses sources of Eliot’s novella in Victorian fascination with magnetism or mesmerism; discusses the relationship between Eliot’s view of mesmerism and Hegel’s view; considers how in both the master/slave concept can be liberating.
Dodd, Valerie A. George Eliot: An Intellectual Life. New York; St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Part 1 gives the intellectual background of Victorian England, discussing writers such as John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle. Part 2 discusses George Eliot’s work in relation to that intellectual background. Includes a useful bibliography.
Dowling, Andrew. “‘The Other Side of Silence’: Matrimonial Conflict and the Divorce Court in George Eliot’s Fiction.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 50 (December, 1995): 322-336. Argues that there is a correlation between the legal and social changes brought about by the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 and the Divorce Court it created, and the emphasis on silence as a sign of matrimonial conflict in Eliot’s fiction; suggests that Eliot’s use of silence reflects a new social awareness of psychological cruelty in marriage.
Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds. George Eliot. Boston: Twayne,...
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