George Eliot Short Fiction Analysis
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1483
Overshadowed by her full-length novels, George Eliot’s short fiction is a writer’s apprenticeship, as is that of Jane Austen. Whereas Austen’s short pieces merely prefigure the themes and methods of her mature work, “Amos Barton,” “Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story,” and “Janet’s Repentance”—the three long stories that comprise Scenes of Clerical Life—show that from the start of her career George Eliot had identified the literary landscape that would prove so fertile under her cultivation. In this first book she records the commonplace struggles of commonplace people and the incremental blessings bestowed on society by provincial folk who “lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unremembered tombs.” Her concern with the crosscurrents that complicate the flow of even the most seemingly simple lives gives evidence that, though George Eliot had rejected orthodox Christianity, she retained her ardor for the “religion of humanity.”
For example, in “Amos Barton,” George Eliot demonstrates that humble folk can attain that wisdom through suffering which in Greek tragedy is the reward only of kings and heroes. The plight of the title character, a dull, bald curate “more apt to fall into a blunder than into a sin,” is too ordinary to be tragic: He has a large family, a small income, and a weak mind. The problems Barton inflicts on his congregation at Shepperton are likewise far from monstrous. An ineffective pastor, he busies himself with doctrines of salvation rather than helping his flock through the here and now. Dazzled by the patronizing attentions of the Countess Czerlaski, a cardboard aristocrat whom the villagers very sensibly mistrust, he fails to notice that his wife, Milly, a domestic angel whom Shepperton adores as much as it dislikes the countess, is literally working herself to death before his eyes. Thus, Barton alienates even his lukewarm partisans. Having lost Milly, however, he learns the one great lesson of a minister, and in George Eliot’s view, of any responsible human being: that to respect and cherish one’s fellow mortals is the divinest task one can perform. The parish in its turn responds sympathetically to the bereaved man as it never had to the mediocre pastor: “Amos failed to touch the spring of goodness by his sermons, but he touched it effectually by his sorrows.” Still, Shepperton, as George Eliot realistically portrays it, is part of a world where fortune does not necessarily reward moral progress. Amos finds communion only to lose it. Deprived of his curacy by the holder of the living, who wants to bestow it elsewhere, Amos must leave the village he has just come to value for a new life in a large manufacturing town unsanctified by past experience.
“Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story”
“Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story” reminds the reader that suffering can stunt a noble nature as effectively as it can elevate a mean one. As the story opens, its protagonist, Amos Barton’s predecessor at Shepperton, is an eccentric old man, generous with sarcasms and sugarplums, long on practical kindness but short on professional piety; but after a brief introduction, George Eliot’s narrator takes the reader back to the end of the eighteenth century, away from prosaic Shepperton to the gothic grandeur of Cheverel Manor, and shows that Mr. Gilfil’s emotions, like his body, have not forever been gnarled and crusty. A stalwart young country clergyman favored by his guardian Sir Christopher Cheverel, the young Maynard Gilfil loves Caterina Sarti, an Italian orphan whom the Cheverels have reared as half pet, half protégée. Uprooted from her native soil and caught between classes, Caterina is at the mercy of her passions and sentiments. Unfortunately, they lead her to adore a man far less worthy than Gilfil, Sir Christopher’s heir Captain Anthony Wybrow, a sickly fop who, like Arthur Donnithorne in Adam Bede, makes idle love to stave off boredom. Frenzied by Wybrow’s engagement to a lady of his own rank, Caterina goes forth to murder him only to find that a seizure has stopped his weak heart and saved her dagger some trouble.
The death she thought to cause only drives Caterina deeper into distraction. The constant lover Gilfil, however, is at hand to wean her slowly from the illusion of grand romance on which she has fed at Cheverel Manor to a more nourishing emotional diet, the domestic affection he can offer her at Shepperton parsonage. The delicate girl lives long enough to come to value Gilfil’s love, “to find life sweet for his sake,” and to reward him with a few months of happy marriage. Broken by her passion, however, she dies carrying Gilfil’s child; whether she is killed by the insubstantial love or the actual one, the reader is left to decide. The effects on Maynard Gilfil, however, are unambiguous: His noblest qualities, lavished on Caterina, die with her, leaving a solid but misshapen trunk for what should have been “a grand tree spreading into liberal shade.” In just this way, moralizes George Eliot,Many an irritating fault, many an unlovely oddity, has come of a hard sorrow, which has crushed and maimed the nature just when it was expanding into plenteous beauty; and the trivial erring life, which we visit with our harsh blame, may be but as the unsteady motion of a man whose best limb is withered.
The same mixed moral judgment pervades “Janet’s Repentance,” the third of the Scenes of Clerical Life. The novella’s situation is a sentimental cliché: The heroine vacillates between alternatives represented by a bad man (her husband, the lawyer Dempster) and a good one (the Evangelical minister Tynan) until the death of the good man wins her for the right. “Janet’s Repentance,” however, is a Victorian conversion with a difference. The story’s heroine overindulges a decidedly ungenteel penchant for alcohol; its saintly paragon is a former sinner, and its villain is a good man soured; Milby village, where the action takes place, is pictured with the same carefully proportioned satire and generosity that later in George Eliot’s career depict the town of Middlemarch:And so it was with the human life there, which at first seemed a dismal mixture of griping worldliness, vanity, ostrich feathers, and the fumes of brandy; looking closer, you found some purity, gentleness, and unselfishness, as you may have observed a scented geranium giving forth its wholesome odours admidst blasphemy and gin in a noisy pot house.
“The Lifted Veil”
If the Scenes of Clerical Life enabled George Eliot to find her authorial voice, her two short stories “The Lifted Veil” and “Brother Jacob” permit her to use inflections that have no place in her novels. “The Lifted Veil,” George Eliot’s only gothic tale, is an introverted, brooding narrative that she called a jeu de mélancolie. Her persona, Latimer, “cursed with an exceptional physical constitution, as I am cursed with an exceptional mental character,” is as morbidly sensitive and unengaging as one of Edgar Allan Poe’s aesthetic invalids. A clairvoyant, Latimer catches glimpses of his own future and, resembling the customary George Eliot narrator in perceptivity but not in sympathy, overhears the muddled, hypocritical thoughts that lie beneath the speeches of his fellow men. These gifts of insight turn Latimer in on himself rather than out toward the world. Furthermore, his mind never bears fruit to justify his self-obsession: Latimer has an artist’s temperament without the corresponding talent. Married to a blonde siren who comes to despise him as completely as he has foreseen she will do, Latimer languidly waits for his death, aware that even this final experience will not relieve his boredom, for he already knows its particulars.
George Eliot is as unequivocally satiric in “Brother Jacob” as she is utterly melancholic in “The Lifted Veil.” Throughout the tale she sustains the chilly irony that commences with the first sentence: “Among the many fatalities attending the bloom of young desire, that of blindly taking to the confectionary line has not, perhaps, been sufficiently considered.” The aspiring young baker at the center of this petit bourgeois allegory, David Faux, who thinks himself deserving of great things, ineptly steals his mother’s paltry savings and sets forth to make his fortune in the New World. He returns with little more than a case of malaria, sets himself up as Mr. Edward Freely, confectioner, in the dismal Midlands town of Grimworth, begins to prosper, and finally stands revealed as a liar and impostor through his own greed and nemesis in the ungainly person of his brother, the idiot Jacob. Perhaps the story’s chief merit is the literary catharsis it provided its author; for, having vented her spleen on Faux and his dreary fellows, George Eliot could view Silas Marner, her next protagonist and another superficially unlovable creature, with her characteristic magnanimity.