Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 973
Written amid the hopes and fears of political upheaval before the second major Reform Bill passed in 1867, George Eliot’s novel representing conditions accompanying the Reform Bill of 1832 suggests that authentic reform must come by much more than parliamentary legislation. Real reform requires, the novel implies, the slow cultivation of informed minds, class-bridging sympathies, courage, and clear-sighted rejection of personal and class-based delusions. Faithful to her artistic creed of realism—the true-to-life portrayal of human beings, including believably slow development of individuals and the relationships among them—Eliot represents evils that unquestionably urge reform, but she implies that some of these evils derive from human frailties. It is therefore a moral radicalism that would serve the nation best, one that would convert self-serving egotism to altruistic efforts and materialistic obsession to spontaneously creative living.
In a backward-looking introduction, Eliot directs her readers to view social change as a slow process. She returns, after the exotic settings of Romola (1862-1863) to the Midland England of her childhood and to the slower-paced life of 1831. Then, as in 1866, the elderly and established feared the rapidity of technological progress and resulting social changes, while progressives attacked blatant social evils. Eliot refers to the social evils of the 1830’s as “departed,” but the reference is ironic because many of the evils remained in 1866. She argues implicitly for continued reform. She reassures conservative readers of the 1860’s that the nation had survived reforming changes and would survive more reform. She also addresses the disappointments of progressives who had hoped too much from the earlier bill. Legislation alone could not instantaneously replace feudalism with democratic capitalism, as if the nation could be “shot, like a bullet” from Winchester to Newcastle, an image that recalls England’s long development from its ninth century political center, Winchester, still sleepily agrarian after ten centuries, to the new industrial railway center, Newcastle. Innovation was both inevitable and desirable, however, and Eliot’s jabs at those who feared it in 1831 suggest that the author was attempting to quell similar fears in 1866.
Eliot’s frequent irony and realistic characterization—her people are neither always heroic nor completely villainous—have obscured for some readers her sympathizing with the reform movement. She saw, however, that expanding the electorate to include hundreds of thousands among the uneducated might lead only to replacing the abuses of a self-interested propertied class with other abuses caused by the short-sighted gullibility and impassioned disorder of the lower classes that she represents in the novel. It is Esther Lyon’s personal revolution, beginning with her fantasizing about luxurious vanities, continuing with her awakening to the emptiness of her silken-cushioned despair at Transome Court, and ending with her assertion of freedom to continue growing, that embodies Eliot’s vision of authentic reform. Felix Holt, too, grows with new awareness of his limits after he fails to control the riotous mob—and fails to control himself—and inadvertently causes a death. Felix and Esther prepare to invest their energies in educating others toward the responsibilities of an extended franchise. Ample evidence for this need appears in the rioting miners, in Mrs. Holt’s application of divine will to her personal economic plight, and in such corrupt practices as vote-buying, identity-exchanging, and embezzling. All suggest the need for moral, not merely political, reform among all classes.
Eliot was also reforming the fantasy-based fiction popular at the time. She reverses the stereotypical plot of a foundling later identified as gentry and rewarded with wealth and privilege. Instead, Esther, like Eppie Marner, returns to the simpler life of her adoptive father, rejecting the entrapment of Transome Court and affirming the values of useful work and personal freedom. She insists on the freedom to define herself and not be forced into roles governed by outworn feudal property laws or into a subservient relationship with a controlling husband who sees a woman as a means of acquiring and managing property. Eliot also reverses character stereotypes in fiction and political discourse. Mrs. Transome, the privileged, enviable lady, is bereft of power, influence, love, and respect. Her tragedy, cast in the imagery of Dante’s underworld of retribution, is the outcome of her having chosen everything Esther rejects. Mrs. Transome’s marriage for station and property, touted in popular fiction and practiced in the social world, is revealed as a hellish prison. Mrs. Transome is an object lesson to young woman readers as well as to Esther. Harold Transome—good-looking, competent manager of property and people, “radical” in politics but paternalistic, manipulative, and imperious—is the outward stereotype of a desirable husband. His former wife, however, was a Greek slave that he had bought. Her situation is the parallel of the sexual slavery of English wives. His unthinking, blatant egotism leaves no breathing room for his mother or for Esther. His ego collapses when he discovers his illegitimate birth, suggesting that social status without character is an insubstantial prop.
Eliot’s portrayal of Mrs. Transome’s powerless despair is a negative example on behalf of the nineteenth century feminist argument that women should be empowered politically and economically. That Mrs. Transome’s malaise derives largely from dashed hopes based on her role as a mother is Eliot’s pointed reply to a world that prescribed motherhood as the panacea for all female discontents. More broadly, the intricate plot, based on laws of inheritance, is Eliot’s argument that generations-old property arrangements prevent national revitalization, just as ties to property preclude vital, spontaneous interpersonal bonds such as those between Esther and Felix. The open, generous nature of Rufus Lyon, who renounces a successful career to save Esther’s mother and who can part unselfishly with his much-loved daughter when a better life appears for her, is Eliot’s moral ideal, expressed also in Felix’s wish to “make life less bitter for a few.”