George Eliot

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George Eliot Long Fiction Analysis

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Discussions of George Eliot’s fiction often begin by quoting chapter 17 of Adam Bede, in which she makes one of the most persuasive statements of the creed of the realistic novelist to be found in nineteenth century literature. Indicating that she is seeking that “rare, precious quality of truthfulness that I delight in [in] many Dutch paintings,” she goes on to state the need for “men ready to give the loving pains of a life to the faithful representing of commonplace things—men who see beauty in these commonplace things, and delight in showing how kindly the light of heaven falls on them.” Through the truthful and sympathetic rendering of a fictional world no better than the actual one “in which we get up in the morning to do our daily work,” novelists should win the reader’s sympathy for “the real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice, who can be cheered and helped onward by your fellow-feeling, your forbearance, your outspoken, brave justice.” These statements suggest that Eliot conceived of fiction as a moral force, not because it is didactic in any narrow sense but because it inculcates in the reader an attitude of sympathy for his or her fellow people, which in turn leads to everyday acts of justice and compassion that lighten the burden of the human lot.

Fiction, then, performs one of the functions that is commonly associated with the church as a Christian community by reminding readers of Christ’s second commandment, that they love their neighbors as themselves. Indeed, although Eliot’s belief in Christian theology waned when she was in her twenties, her devotion to the major elements of Christian morality as she understood them remained steadfast throughout her life and provided the moral framework for her fiction. Her practice as a novelist eventually goes beyond her statement in Adam Bede in both complexity and subtlety, but this statement remains as the foundation of her creed as a novelist.

As her career developed, Eliot’s characters became complex moral paradigms that could serve her readers as both examples and warnings. The highest moral achievement of her characters is renunciation of their own claims to happiness in order to minister to the needs of others, sometimes less deserving, whose lives impinge on theirs. The act of renunciation involves acknowledgment of the claims of community and often provides a sense of continuity with the character’s past or traditions. Conversely, the characters whom Eliot condemns most severely are those who evade their responsibilities by a process of self-delusion or self-indulgence, avoiding hard choices and hoping that chance will deliver them from the consequences of selfish actions. Characters are often moved toward renunciation by others who act as “messengers”—almost secularized angels—to guide them; their acts of renunciation and sense of community are often associated with the sacraments of baptism or communion. The process of egotistical self-indulgence, on the other hand, is often associated with a sexual relationship that is clearly inappropriate, although not necessarily illicit. Later in her career, Eliot treated the difficulty of finding an arena for purposeful life in the England of her time, but she never abandoned her intense commitment to individual moral responsibility.

Adam Bede

Eliot’s first full-length novel, Adam Bede , is built on two pairs of contrasting characters, one male and one female. Adam, a carpenter of consummate skill, is a model of rectitude and self-discipline whose only flaw is his intolerance of any weakness in others. Contrasting with Adam is Arthur Donnithorne, a well-intentioned young landowner whose moral weakness causes the principal catastrophe of...

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the novel. There is a similar contrast between the two major female characters: Dinah Morris, a self-effacing Methodist preacher whose primary concern is doing what she can for others, and Hetty Sorrel, a young farm girl whose kittenish appeal conceals a hard core of egotism. The fact that both Adam and Arthur love Hetty intensifies the contrast between them. Adam, captivated by her charms, admires her as a paragon of femininity without ever perceiving her indifference to him. Arthur, without really intending to, takes advantage of Hetty’s self-deluding dreams of being a wealthy landowner’s wife to indulge in an affair with her. Frightened when she discovers that she is pregnant, Hetty runs away from home in a vain attempt to find Arthur, who has gone to rejoin his regiment. After her baby is born, she abandons it in a forest, where it dies of exposure. When she is arraigned for child murder, she appears hard and indifferent until Dinah moves her to repentance. Although Arthur succeeds in obtaining a pardon that saves Hetty from hanging, the young woman disappears from the story and, like the overwhelming majority of fallen women in Victorian fiction, dies. The somewhat improbable marriage of Adam and Dinah provides the happy ending that the contemporary audience expected.

The melodramatic aspects of Adam Bede tend to obscure, especially in summary, Eliot’s primary concerns in the novel. Most conspicuously, the relationship between Arthur and Hetty is not simply a trite story of a sexual encounter between a wealthy young man and a simple farm girl; the sexual aspect of their relationship is less important than their self-delusion, self-indulgence, and egotism. Both characters embody moral issues that Eliot returned to again and again in her career: Arthur is attractive, likable, and well-intentioned, but he lacks both strength of purpose and self-knowledge. Intending to break off his relationship with Hetty, he finds himself contriving meetings with her; dreaming of being a model landowner, he comes near to destroying the happiness of his best tenants. Hetty’s flaw is even more damaging: Although she appears to be a creature of simple charm with the “beauty of young frisking things, round-limbed, gambolling, circumventing you by a false air of innocence,” her egotism makes her indifferent to almost everything except her own beauty and her self-deluding dreams.

Similarly, Dinah’s success in leading Hetty to repentance is a prototype of much more complex processes that occur in later novels, when characters who have greater potential for moral growth than Hetty are enabled to develop that potential. Dinah’s willingness to take on responsibility for sympathetically ministering to the needs of people around her—a moral virtue Eliot lauds above all others—has to be learned by Adam, whose own stalwart rectitude causes him to scorn weakness in others. His success in learning sympathy is symbolized by his acceptance of a meal of bread and wine in an “upper room” the morning of Hetty’s trial—one of several instances in Eliot’s fiction where objects associated with a Christian sacrament are used to suggest the establishment of a sense of community.

Although it is a major achievement for a first novel, Adam Bede pales in comparison to Eliot’s later fiction. Eliot’s depiction of the self-deception and egotism of Arthur and Hetty looks ahead to the fuller development of this theme in later novels, but neither the characters nor their situation provides the opportunity for the depth of psychological insight Eliot shows later. Similarly, Arthur’s last-minute rescue of Hetty from the very foot of the gallows is reminiscent of the clichés of nineteenth century melodrama and seems almost pointless in the light of Hetty’s immediate disappearance from the story and her early death. The marriage of Adam and Dinah caters too obviously to the Victorian taste for this kind of conventional “happy ending” and seems inconsistent with the earlier description of Dinah. Adam himself is too idealized a character to be convincing.

Many minor characters, however, demonstrate Eliot’s impressive gift for characterization. Mr. Irwine is the first of several Eliot clergymen who are virtuous but hardly spiritual; Mrs. Poyser’s pungent sayings indicate Eliot’s humor; and Adam’s mother Lisbeth combines maternal love with grating querulousness and self-pity.

The Mill on the Floss

More than any of Eliot’s other novels, The Mill on the Floss, her second novel, focuses on a single character—Maggie Tulliver. Considered one of Eliot’s most complex creations, Maggie embodies both the tendency toward self-indulgence that Eliot condemns elsewhere and the earnest desire for moral achievement by renunciation of one’s own happiness that is the hallmark of the characters of whom Eliot appears to approve most highly.

These conflicting tendencies in Maggie, although evident in the long childhood section of the novel, assume their full significance when Maggie begins a series of secret meetings with Philip Wakem, the crippled son of a lawyer whom Maggie’s father regards as a mortal enemy. In some respects, these meetings are innocent enough: Philip and Maggie are both lonely, as Philip is set apart by his physical handicap and Maggie is isolated by her family’s financial distresses, and their conversations provide them with companionship they find nowhere else. More significant, however, is that Maggie’s meetings with Philip are wrong because they require her to deceive her family and because they would, if discovered, add to her father’s already overflowing cup of grief and bitterness. Although the standard of conduct that Maggie is being asked to meet seems almost pointlessly rigid, Eliot makes it clear that Maggie errs by not meeting it. When Maggie’s narrowly righteous brother Tom discovers the meetings and harshly puts a stop to them, even Maggie feels that the “sense of a deliverance from concealment was welcome at any cost.”

Maggie’s failure to meet the standards of conduct required of her has much more serious consequences when she allows herself to go away with Stephen Guest, a young man who is virtually engaged to her cousin Lucy. Although Maggie rejects Stephen’s offer of marriage, their apparent elopement causes a scandal that prostrates Lucy and bitterly divides Maggie’s family. Tom is especially adamant in condemning her.

Maggie is a character who is sometimes almost painful to read about, for she has too little self-discipline to avoid slipping into actions that she knows to be wrong and too sensitive a conscience not to feel acutely the consequences of her errors. The ideal of conduct that she longs for and ultimately achieves when she decides to reject Stephen’s second proposal of marriage is expressed by passages marked in an old volume of Saint Thomas à Kempis that is in a package of books given to Maggie in the depths of the Tullivers’ poverty. Reading the words “Forsake thyself, resign thyself, and thou shall enjoy much inward peace,” Maggie seems to see “a sudden vision” and feels this “direct communication of the human soul’s belief and experienceas an unquestioned message.”

Maggie is spared further conflict by the melodramatic conclusion of the novel. A flood gives her the opportunity to demonstrate her love for Tom by rescuing him from the mill. Maggie and Tom are briefly reconciled; then a floating mass of machinery bears down on their boat, drowning them both. Their epitaph—“In death they were not divided”—suggests a harmony that Maggie hungered for but seldom achieved in life.

The collision that results in the drowning of Maggie and Tom is, in fact, a kind of deus ex machina employed to achieve a resolution for Maggie that would be hard to envision otherwise. More intelligent and gifted than any of the other women in the novel, Maggie would hardly have found the fulfillment in marriage that appears to be the only resource for the women of the village, especially since marriage to Philip would have brought her into irreconcilable conflict with Tom and marriage to Stephen could have been achieved only at the cost of Lucy’s happiness. Finally, since Maggie’s sensitive compassion has conflicted with Tom’s narrow dogmatism throughout the novel, it seems unlikely that their reconciliation could have been permanent. Even the renunciation she learns about in Thomas à Kempis seems to offer more a model of resignation than a pattern for a fruitful and fulfilling life. In the melodramatic ending, therefore, the issues raised by the novel finally remain unresolved.

As in Adam Bede, Eliot’s brilliant creation of minor characters is one of the finest achievements of The Mill on the Floss. Especially noteworthy are the Dodson sisters, Maggie’s aunts, who embody the common qualities of a proud and clannish family and yet have traits that clearly distinguish them according to their ages, degrees of prosperity, and individual temperaments.

Silas Marner

Eliot’s third and most perfectly constructed novel, Silas Marner, embodies her complex moral vision with the precision of a diagram. Like Adam Bede, the novel is built on morally contrasting characters, but Silas Marner and Godfrey Cass reveal with much greater clarity than any of the characters in the earlier novel Eliot’s concern with the moral patterns of renunciation and self-indulgence.

In a sort of prologue to the main action of the novel, Silas, a linen weaver who is a member of a pious religious sect in a large industrial city, is accused of stealing church funds by a close friend who actually stole the money. When a trial by lots sponsored by the sect declares Silas guilty, he loses faith in God and humanity and flees to a distant country village, where he isolates himself from the community and finds solace in constant weaving, like a “spinning insect.”

Through years of weaving, Silas accumulates a hoard of gold coins that become the only object of his affections. When his gold is stolen by Godfrey Cass’s irresponsible brother Dunstan, Silas is utterly devastated, until Godfrey’s daughter by a secret marriage toddles into his house after her mother dies of exposure and an overdose of laudanum. The presence of this child, whom Silas takes in and rears as his own, restores the contact with his fellow men and women that Silas had lost; Eliot compares the girl to the “white-winged angels” that “in old daystook men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction.”

Almost every act that Silas performs in relation to the loss of his gold and the rearing of the child takes on near-symbolic significance. His spontaneous turning to the men assembled at the village tavern when his gold is stolen and to the New Year’s assemblage at the Cass house when he finds the child suggest an instinctive searching for community. His heeding of the parish clerk’s admonition not to accuse the innocent after his gold is stolen and his choice of his younger sister’s “Bible name” of Hepzibah (shortened to Eppie) for the child suggest the reestablishment of ties to his past. In particular, his acceptance of lard cakes with “I.H.S.” (a Christogram derived from the first three letters of the Greek name for Jesus) pricked on them from his kindly neighbor Dolly Winthrop provides a secularized communion that suggests that ties between human beings and God may be replaced in importance by ties between individuals, as Eppie has replaced the white-winged angels of older days. It may also be significant that Silas spends Christmas in lonely isolation, while Eppie comes to his house on New Year’s Eve.

Similarly, Godfrey embodies the consequences of a self-indulgent avoidance of one’s responsibilities. Prevented by his secret marriage to the dissolute mother of Eppie from marrying Nancy Lammeter, he weakly trusts to chance, “the god of all men who follow their own devices instead of obeying a law they believe in,” to relieve him somehow of the consequences of his actions. Godfrey has none of the malice of his younger brother Dunstan; nevertheless, his anxiety is so great that his “one terror” when Silas comes to his house with Eppie is that his wife might not be dead. He sees that the child is his but fails to acknowledge her, salving his conscience by giving Silas a half-guinea when he finds that Silas has determined to keep her.

The chance that has relieved Godfrey of the consequences of his secret marriage eventually brings retribution. His marriage to Nancy is childless, and when Dunstan’s body is discovered with Silas’s long-lost gold, Godfrey finally tells Nancy that Eppie is his child. Their plan of relieving their childlessness by adopting Eppie comes to nothing when Eppie tells them that she can only think of Silas as her father. With poetic justice that even Godfrey recognizes, the man who admits that he “wanted to pass for childless once” will now “pass for childless against my wish.”


Middlemarch is unquestionably Eliot’s finest achievement as a novelist. Whereas Silas Marner presents the moral patterns of renunciation and self-indulgence with unparalleled clarity, Middlemarch explores them with profound subtlety and psychological insight. The vast scope of Middlemarch—the novel is more than twice the length of Adam Bede or The Mill on the Floss—gives Eliot room for a panoramic view of provincial life, and her focus on the upper middle class and gentry gives her an opportunity to deal with characters whose experience is wider and whose motives are more sophisticated and complex than those of many of the characters in the early novels. In this “study of provincial life,” as the novel’s subtitle describes it, Eliot explores the familiar moral territory of renunciation and self-indulgence by developing four more or less distinct plot lines. The most important of these concern Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate, but Fred Vincy and Nicholas Bulstrode also claim a substantial amount of Eliot’s attention.

This vast novel is unified not only by Eliot’s moral concerns and by various cross-connections among the plot lines but also by a pervasive theme of reform. The implied contrast between the climate for “far-resonant” action that existed when a “coherent social faith” allowed Saint Theresa to find “her epos in the reform of a religious order” and the time of the novel, which ends “just after the Lords had thrown out the Reform Bill [of 1832],” suggests the difficulty of achieving meaningful action in the fragmented world of contemporary England. More than any previous novel, Middlemarch explores the moral achievements and failures of individuals against the background of an entire society, a society that does not provide many opportunities for people to put their best talents to use.

These issues are perhaps most fully embodied in Dorothea Brooke, a young heiress with “a nature altogether ardent, theoretic and intellectually consequent” who is “struggling in the bands of a narrow teaching, hemmed in by a social life which seemed nothing but a labyrinth of petty courses, a walled-in maze of small paths that led no whither.” Seeking a way to give her life consequence and purpose, she marries Edward Casaubon, a desiccated pseudoscholar, whom she naïvely thinks of as a John Locke or a John Milton, a “winged messenger” who can guide her along the “grandest path.” She soon discovers that Casaubon is not a great man; rather, he is pathetic egotist who is morbidly sensitive to real or imagined criticism of his work, pettishly jealous of Dorothea’s friendship with his nephew Will Ladislaw, and incapable of offering her any real affection. She also learns that his projected work, grandly titled “Key to All Mythologies,” is nothing but a monumental collection of trivia already rendered obsolete by superior German scholarship. Nevertheless, Dorothea prepares to promise her husband, who is suffering from a “fatty degeneration of the heart,” that she will continue his work after his death, a sacrifice from which she is saved by his timely demise.

Like Dorothea, Tertius Lydgate finds his ambitions for significant achievement frustrated by social pressures, but unlike Dorothea he adds to his difficulties by a tendency toward heedless self-indulgence. His well-intentioned plans for medical reform are jeopardized by his lack of sensitivity to the feelings of both patients and other practitioners and by his regrettable involvement with Nicholas Bulstrode, an unpopular but powerful leader in community affairs. More important, he shackles himself by marriage to Rosamond Vincy, the beautiful and self-centered daughter of the mayor of Middlemarch. This marriage, which Lydgate slips into more or less intentionally, blights his hopes of success. He gets heavily into debt as both he and Rosamond carelessly incur expenses on the unconsidered assumption that they ought to live well. Rosamond, utterly unwilling to make any sacrifices, simply blames him for their problems.

These two plot lines come together when Dorothea, deeply moved by Lydgate’s marital and financial problems and eager to clear him from blame in a scandal involving Bulstrode, offers to call on Rosamond. She finds Rosamond in what appears to be a compromising tête-à-tête with Will, whom she had come to love since Casaubon’s death. Deeply distressed by what she assumes about Will’s conduct, she nevertheless forces herself to “clutch [her] own pain” and think only of the “three lives whose contact with hers laid an obligation on her.” Feeling “the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance,” she compels herself to make a second visit. She has some success in reconciling Rosamond to Lydgate and finds that Will’s conduct was indeed blameless.

Although Dorothea’s renunciation of herself has the unexpected result of opening the way for her marriage to Will, she never achieves her potential as a latter-day Saint Theresa, “for the medium in which [her] ardent deeds took shape is forever gone.” Her “full nature” spends itself “in channels which had no great name on earth” but that nonetheless bring benefits to her fellow men and women. Lydgate, who allowed himself to slip into marriage with the paralyzingly egotistical Rosamond, achieves financial success as a society doctor but “always regarded himself as a failure; he had not done what he once meant to do.”

The other two plot lines, although less important than those centering on Dorothea and Lydgate, afford Eliot opportunity to round out her study of provincial life. Fred Vincy, who is Rosamond’s brother, overcomes his tendency to fritter away his money in casual pleasures when he realizes the distresses that his failure to pay a debt will cause the Garth family, who represented security for him, and recognizes that Mary Garth will not marry him unless he undertakes a worthwhile career. The plot line centering on Nicholas Bulstrode, although the least extensive of the four, contains some of Eliot’s most perceptive explorations of self-delusion. Bulstrode, who had gathered a fortune dealing in stolen goods before coming to Middlemarch, aspires to leadership in the community as a banker and as an Evangelical Christian. Although he assiduously conceals his former life, he is no simple hypocrite; rather, he is an ambitious man who aims at “being an eminent Christian,” capable of deluding himself even in his prayers. His lifetime habit of confusing his own desires with God’s will comes to a climax when he allows his housekeeper to administer brandy to an alcoholic former associate who has been blackmailing him—a treatment that, although common at the time, has been forbidden by Lydgate. Only after the man dies does Bulstrode discover that the former associate has already revealed Bulstrode’s long-guarded secrets in his drunken ramblings.

Although the principal themes of Middlemarch are developed primarily in the four major plot lines, the novel’s extraordinary richness of minor characters is surely one of its outstanding features. Mr. Brooke, Dorothea’s uncle, is one of Eliot’s supreme comic creations, a man “of acquiescent temper, miscellaneous opinions, and uncertain vote.” Caleb Garth, “one of those rare men who are rigid with themselves and indulgent to others,” is a model of sturdy rectitude. The description of Mrs. Bulstrode’s loyal support of her guilty husband and her acceptance of “a new life in which she embraced humiliation” is one of Eliot’s finest passages. The list could be continued almost at will, amply justifying the claim of the novel’s subtitle to be a “study of provincial life.”

The subtitle is also appropriate in that it calls attention to Eliot’s recognition, more fully expressed in this novel than in any of her earlier ones, of the ways in which the circumstances of society limit her characters’ options. Dorothea achieves the ideal of self-renunciation that characters in the earlier novels strive for, but the conditions of her life prevent her from achieving her potential; Lydgate fails not only because of his ill-advised marriage but also because the community views his eagerness to advance medical practice with suspicion and prejudice. Conditions of society, as well as moral flaws, frustrate the ambitions of even the worthiest characters.

Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda, Eliot’s final novel, emphasizes the search for purpose more than the ideal of renunciation. Eliot continues her examination of egotism and self-indulgence, but these themes are muted with pathos in the portrayal of Gwendolen Harleth. In subject matter, Eliot also takes another step or two up the social ladder, dealing in this novel with the wealthy upper middle class and aristocracy.

Theprotagonist, Daniel Deronda, is such a paragon at the beginning of the novel that he has little need of the lessons in renunciation that Eliot’s other protagonists must learn. Handsome, well-educated, and generously supported by Sir Hugo Mallinger, Deronda is concerned only with finding something purposeful to do with his life. His only burden is the assumption that he is Sir Hugo’s illegitimate son. His discovery of a cause to which he can dedicate himself proceeds by easy stages. His rescue of Mirah, a Jewish singer who is preparing to drown herself, prompts his interest in Judaism. He succeeds in reuniting Mirah with her terminally ill brother, Mordecai, a visionary Jewish mystic. When Mordecai sees Deronda from a bridge, which he describes as “a meeting place for spiritual messengers,” he assumes that Deronda has been sent to bring him “my new life—my new self—who will live when this breath is all breathed out.” Finally, Deronda discovers that he is actually the son of a distinguished Jewish singer who had asked Sir Hugo to bring him up as an Englishman. The discovery that he is Jewish enables him to marry Mirah, take up the torch from the dying Mordecai, and dedicate himself to the “restoration of a political existence to my people, giving them a national center, such as the English have.” (In assigning this cause to Deronda, Eliot anticipated the Zionist movement by some twenty years and, indeed, gave powerful stimulus to the movement for the development of a Jewish national state.)

In Gwendolen Harleth, Eliot examines again the anatomy of egotism. Concerned only with her own comforts, Gwendolen rules imperiously over the household of her twice-widowed mother, Mrs. Davilow. Gwendolen’s manifest dislike of men and her habit of sleeping in her mother’s bedroom suggest sexual frigidity. Nevertheless, she is on the verge of marrying Henleigh Grandcourt, Sir Hugo’s nephew and heir, when she discovers that Grandcourt has had four children by a mistress who deserted her own husband and whom Grandcourt still supports. An invitation to visit Germany with some family friends allows Gwendolen to evade a decision, but when her family loses its fortune, she decides on marriage rather than having her mother live in painfully reduced circumstances while she is forced to take the ignominious position of governess.

Gwendolen’s motives in marriage are intriguingly mixed. To be sure, she is essentially egotistical and assumes that she will be able to control her husband. The family’s dismal prospects after their catastrophic financial losses inevitably influence her. She is especially concerned for her mother, the one person for whom she feels genuine affection. Nevertheless, she also suffers an agony of guilt in her sense that her marriage has deprived Grandcourt’s illegitimate children of any claim to his wealth.

Once they are married, the ruling hand is entirely Grandcourt’s. Gwendolen bears his elegantly polite sadism with proud reserve, but is inwardly tormented by dread that her fear and hatred of her husband may drive her to some desperate act. When he drowns, perhaps because she fails to throw him a rope, she is overwhelmed with guilt. Desolated by the marriage of Deronda, whom she has turned to as a moral guide and mentor, she takes solace in Deronda’s admonition that she “may live to be one of the best of women,” although, as she adds in a final letter to Deronda, “I do not yet see how that can be.”

Although Gwendolen’s willingness to accept suffering scourges her egotism and brings her to a prospect of redemption that Rosamond Vincy glimpses only briefly, Daniel Deronda is in most ways Eliot’s bleakest novel. An air of futility hangs like a pall over most of the characters; without a tradition of commitment to some place or purpose, they lack a future also. Mrs. Davilow moves from one rented house to another, and the estates passed down to Sir Hugo from the time of William the Conqueror will finally be inherited by Grandcourt’s illegitimate son. Jewish characters such as Mirah’s father and Deronda’s mother wander over Europe, rejecting even an obligation to their own children. Only the dedication to art of Herr Kelsmer, a German musician, and the acceptance of Mordecai’s dream of a national Jewish homeland by Deronda provide a sense of purpose or direction, and these vocations are ones from which most of the characters are inevitably excluded. Except in unusual cases, it appears that even the desire to renounce oneself may not be efficacious. The very circumstances of modern life work against moral achievement.


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