George Eliot

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George Eliot World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3803

In a series of 1856 essays for the Westminster Review, George Eliot (the name she sent to Blackwood in 1857) formulates the theories of literary art that would shape the fiction she began writing in September of that year. Revealing the influence of Honoré de Balzac and French criticism, she explains “realism,” a relatively new aesthetic concept to her English audience. The context is her praise for John Ruskin’s Modern Painters (1843-1860); it teaches “the truth of infinite value,” or “realism—the doctrine that all truth and beauty” lie in art that represents “definite, substantial reality,” not “vague forms, bred by imagination on the mists of feeling.” She was to write instead of the “truth of feeling, as the only universal bond of union” between people. Although her contemporaries and later readers have been awed by her manifest intellectual depth and breadth, she considered what was “essentially human” far more important than cerebral analysis: “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.”

Because Eliot believed that strife among people derived from lack of understanding of “what is apart from themselves,” she defined the “sacred” task of the artist as awakening in self-enclosed people a knowledgeable, sympathetic understanding of “the perennial joys and struggles, the toil, the tragedy, and the humour” in the lives of others, particularly the laborers and artisans being misrepresented by writers who had not lived among them. For Eliot, all people of whatever social class were “struggling erring human creatures.” Her purpose was not to argue the causes that made nineteenth century intellectual life controversial but to inform and cultivate her readers’ moral imaginations away from self-centeredness and toward sympathy for others.

In an essay panning the falseness of those who would promote evangelical spirituality yet retain a fascination with the wealthy aristocracy, Eliot declared that the “real drama of Evangelicalism” lay “among the middle and lower classes,” among those such as the farmers she had known on the Arbury Estate and the congregation she had met when attending chapel with Maria Lewis. She returned to the rural scenes and experiences of her youth for her first three books.

The three stories that constitute Scenes of Clerical Life—“The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Baron,” “Mr. Gilfil’s Love-Story,” and “Janet’s Repentance”—were published serially in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1857, then as a two-volume book in 1858. Stories of clerics, or churchmen, were popular at the time, but many were poor examples of literary art because the authors idealized their characters into unreal, romantic heroes and made them spokespersons for partisan views in the doctrinal controversies of the mid-nineteenth century. Eliot’s stories are about three quite different country parsons, fictional elaborations of actual people she had known. Her purpose is not to expound doctrine, however, but to show the relative effectiveness of each parson, according to his capacity for interpersonal sympathy. A subtler purpose, unrecognized by many readers in an age that accepted the subjection of women as natural and right, is to win sympathy for the sufferings of women, which have been caused by an insensitive and judgmental community, a too-rigid social caste system, the lack of economic opportunity, or a negligent—even brutal—husband.

Wanting to portray sympathetic characters with psychological realism despite her publisher’s wish for heroes and heroines that were models of morally acceptable behavior, Eliot turned to the expanded form of the novel for her next book, Adam Bede, which became a best seller before the year was over. She continued her success with The Mill on the Floss, the last of her early works based in the rural Midlands and the most autobiographical. The Tulliver children, judgmental Tom and hoyden Maggie, are fictional variations of Isaac and Mary Ann Evans; the Dodson family’s allegiance to custom-bound respectability reflects attitudes of the Pearsons, Eliot’s mother’s family. Maggie is Eliot’s first major heroine, of several, who grows from an unconscious egoism to an awareness of another. She is also a tragic heroine developed by the classical formula: “a character essentially noble but liable to great error—error that is anguish to its own nobleness.”

Romola (1862-1863), which Eliot interrupted to write Silas Marner, is among the least read of Eliot’s books, but it was well received by the leading minds among her contemporaries, Henry James proclaiming it the “finest thing she wrote.” Set in fifteenth century Florence, it develops the heroine from dependency and subjection to moral and spiritual autonomy and shows the author’s increasing skill with mythic narrative techniques.

Felix Holt, the Radical (1866) repeats Eliot’s theme of past influencing present but presents the heroine, Esther Lyon, with a choice between entrapment in the tyranny of the past and the moral freedom of continuing to choose her commitments, a theme with added variations in Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda (1876). Her “political novel” is Eliot’s first fully developed treatment of relatively contemporary England, but her imagery of entrapment is drawn from Dante’s description of hell. Set at the time of the first Reform Bill (1832), the novel’s political part concerns issues current with the Reform Bill of 1867. Eliot favors a slow, organic cultural development, similar to Matthew Arnold’s ideas, over political solutions attempted by legislation. The importance of sexual awareness, honesty, energy, and their intelligent commitment—always a theme in Eliot’s work—receives more detailed treatment than in the first five books. Consequences of ill-considered sexual choices are seen not primarily as social disapprobation but as the fugitive self-enclosure of Mrs. Transome, another tragic heroine as classically defined.

In the novel’s more complex treatment of its milieu, the organic inclusion of the past in the present, and Esther’s choice between creative or destructive acceptance of that past, Felix Holt, the Radical reveals the confidence of an established writer and anticipates the fuller treatment of similar ideas in Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda.

Adam Bede

First published: 1859

Type of work: Novel

As self-deception brings tragic consequences for Arthur, a young squire, and Hetty, a dairy maid, Adam, through suffering, learns tolerance for weakness.

In Adam Bede, Eliot again represents the humor and wit of the lower classes through their rural dialect and idiom, a skill that had captivated readers of “Amos Barton” and helped to establish her as a writer of humor, pathos, and social realism. Where the earlier work had divided such wit between a few characters and the narrator, however, Adam Bede concentrates it in Mrs. Poyser, master of the colorful maxim, and leaves the narrator more distant than in the earlier story. Eliot interrupts the narrative, nevertheless, to instruct the reader in the aesthetic rules of realism. The well-known chapter 17 is often quoted as Eliot’s artistic creed, favoring truthfulness over idealism, exhorting the reader to find beauty in “old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands” as well as in “a face paled by the celestial light,” and urging the reader to “tolerate, pity, and love” his “more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent” fellow mortals.

For the germ of her story, Eliot recalled an episode recounted during her youth by her Methodist Aunt Samuel, who had visited in prison a young woman condemned to execution for the murder of her child, and who had wrought from her a penitential confession after the failure of others to do so. The novel goes far beyond the historical event, however, rendering it as art by the detailed fictional creation of Hetty Sorrel as childishly and unconsciously self-engrossed, hardly capable of any moral awareness that her acts could bring significant consequences, hardly able to distinguish fantasy from reality.

In a design of paired opposites found also in her other fiction, Eliot sharpens the delineation of Hetty’s character by contrasting her with the selfless Dinah Morris, the young Methodist open-air preacher. Similarly, Eliot contrasts the title character, a village carpenter, to Arthur Donnithorne, heir to the estate and future landlord of the Hayslope community. They are compared primarily by their respective ways of expressing their love for Hetty, who is expected to marry Adam but whose aspirations to luxury and fashionable adornments make her susceptible to Arthur’s admiring eye, as her fantasies enable him to seduce her, although he knows quite well that a young man of his class cannot marry a working girl.

Hetty’s recognition of her limitations and errors is so slim that she can hardly be called a tragic character. Adam is the primary sufferer, since his love for Hetty has been genuine, if blind. Narrow and inflexible in his rectitude, he learns through his suffering to be more tolerant of weakness and, with his new “power of loving,” to give and receive sympathy in the shared condition of fallibility. His moral growth is slow, in keeping with Eliot’s psychological realism, but he softens in his judgment of others and awakens to the realization that Dinah, though not at all kittenish like Hetty, has her form of appeal too. In turn, Dinah reconsiders her resolution to follow an ascetic life, rechannels her ministering love in interpersonal directions, and comes to return Adam’s love for her.

The misogynistic Bartle Massey claims his place in the community as he brings food and wine to the suffering Adam in an “upper room,” one of the story’s Christian images. Mr. Irwine, in his failure to sense Arthur’s need for confession, is one of Eliot’s recurrent churchmen who appear benevolent but prove ineffective.

Arthur, whose expected responsible leadership has represented hope to the community, can only leave Hayslope in shame. His departure signals the end of that older world, as the narrator regrets the loss of “Fine Old Leisure,” but the novel ends optimistically, centered on Adam, Dinah, and their children.

Silas Marner

First published: 1861

Type of work: Novel

In a village of fairy-tale remoteness, a wronged and therefore bitter miser is redeemed, reborn, and restored to human fellowship through unselfish love.

In Silas Marner, George Eliot achieved some of her most successful symbolic narrative, a method that has been compared to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s definition of “romance” with reference to this story. In this novel, Eliot’s pervasive theme of spiritual renewal through the influence of human love and communal fellowship is embodied, as elsewhere, in realistic events, drama, and dialogue, with currents of symbolic meanings that suggest a mythic structure of concrete universals. Eliot called the story a “legendary tale” with a “realistic treatment.”

The theme of spiritual rebirth is announced in chapter 1 by reference to Marner as “a dead man come to life again” and to his “inward life” as a “metamorphosis.” The resolution is foreshadowed in the description of his catalepsy as “a mysterious rigidity and suspension of consciousness” that his former religious community has “mistaken for death.” The rigidity of despair has driven him from his former home in a northern industrial city, the dimly lit Lantern Yard, where members of his “narrow religious sect” have believed him guilty of stealing church funds in the keeping of a dying man. Marner has been so stunned at being framed by the man he thought was his best friend, at being renounced by his fiancé, who soon married the guilty man, and at being believed guilty by his community, that he could only flee. Because he had believed that God would defend his innocence, he has felt utterly abandoned in his faith and has declared “there is no just God.”

He chances among strangers in the isolated village of Raveloe and for fifteen years remains an alien at its fringes, immersed in his work as a linen weaver like “a spinning insect,” loving only the gold he earns and hoards, with ties to neither past nor present. When his gold is stolen as the Christmas season begins, Marner announces his loss at the Rainbow (promise of hope) Tavern and, like Job, begins to receive “comforters,” an interaction that slowly renews human feeling and consciousness of dependency. On New Year’s Eve, as Marner longs for the return of his gold, he finds on his hearth instead a sleeping, golden-haired toddler, a baby girl who has wandered in while Marner held his door open during one of his cataleptic trances, leaving her laudanum-stupefied mother unconscious in the snow-filled lane. Marner can only think that “the gold had turned into the child,” but then seeks the mother, goes for the authorities, and learns that the woman is dead.

Marner clings urgently to the child as his own and names her Eppie for his mother and sister, renewing his ties to his past. His conscientious fatherhood, under the good Dolly Winthrop’s tutelage, brings him firmly into the community, including its church, making the ways of Raveloe no longer alien to him. As in Adam Bede, Eliot contrasts the Church of England as a vehicle of tradition with evangelicalism as awakening more fervent, personal religious feelings for some. She is not an advocate of either set of beliefs, however, but approves a religious sense that cultivates “a loving nature” with a Wordsworthian piety expressed in charitable acts and fortified by a non-doctrinal awareness of “Unseen Love.” As Dinah the Methodist awakened this sense in Hetty, Dolly the Anglican awakens it in Marner, enabling him to ravel (weave or involve) himself into the “O”—to join the circle of fellowship. He is rewarded by Eppie’s filial loyalty when her blood father offers to adopt her into his home of luxury and rank.


First published: 1871-1872

Type of work: Novel

Personal destinies and vocational fulfillments are limited by chance, contingency, the social fabric, and inherited ideas, as well as flaws in the individual moral will.

Considered Eliot’s masterpiece, Middlemarch develops a complex web of relationships in a provincial community shortly before the 1832 Reform Bill. The author’s perspective from 1871 suggests that the hoped-for results from that legislation have not been achieved, just as the youthful hopes of her characters are not fully realized, perhaps for similar reasons lying with human limitations beyond correction by legislation.

Dorothea Brooke, a young heiress, is compared to Saint Theresa of Avila, whose “passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life” and found it in reforming a religious order. For Dorothea, however, a “later-born” Theresa, philanthropic aspirations are “helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul.” Limited by narrow experience and Calvinistic education, with generous but vague impulses to do something grand, she marries Edward Casaubon, rector of Lowick, a sterile and impotent pedant more than twice her age who needs a copyist to spare his eyes. Unable to see through his pretensions to scholarship or to suspect his poverty of soul, Dorothea believes she will grow by participating in his exalted research. Her ensuing joyless life, circumscribed by his fear that she will discover his fraudulent pose, as his young cousin Will Ladislaw has, is presented through imagery of entrapment in the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Eliot satirizes property-based attitudes that find the marriage “a good match.”

Tertius Lydgate, a young doctor aspiring to reform medical practice, is Dorothea’s visionary counterpart. He has selected Middlemarch as a place to practice up-to-date medicine and pursue his research into “minute processes which prepare human misery and joy,” but his intellectual ambition is weakened by irresolution and lack of self-knowledge. One of his weaknesses is his judgment concerning women, which brings him, after resolving to defer marriage, to propose to Rosamond Vincy, convinced that her “polished” and “docile” charm will be an adornment to his life. Once married, he does learn much of “human misery,” as her egoistic vanity and drive for social status beyond Middlemarch force him to abandon his aspirations for a practice among the wealthy. Whereas Dorothea escapes her Minotaur by his death, Lydgate dies young himself, having compared Rosamond to a basil plant that “flourished wonderfully on a murdered man’s brains.”

Totally successful in achieving her goals, Rosamond is opposed dramatically to Dorothea, whose moral ardor (opposed to Rosamond’s “neutrality”) is noble but ineffective for choosing a husband, because she shortsightedly mistakes Casaubon’s arid pedantry for spiritual breadth. As a product of Mrs. Lemon’s school, Rosamond has learned to win admiration for her appearance, her parlor music, her sketches, and other typical “feminine achievements,” such as getting out of a carriage gracefully. Eliot satirizes what passed for education to many Victorian ladies, leaving them with no higher aims than to marry well and please themselves in the stylish world. Rosamund is awakened to her own humanity and that of others only once, in response to Dorothea’s selfless act in her behalf when her indiscretion threatens her marriage.

Equally significant as obstacles to reform are the forces embodied in Casaubon and Nicholas Bulstrode, each representing a “religious” voice in England and each exposed as a pious fraud. Bulstrode’s hypocritical evangelical pretensions oppress others and salve his own conscience for his shady appropriation, years earlier, of another’s money. Eliot implies that the powerful use religion to maintain power and to thwart reforming efforts. Part of her artistic creed was to represent fully the medium in which her characters act. Therefore, voices of reform are frequently checked by a community afraid to set aside inherited customs and ideas. This point is most clearly made in the reference to Casaubon’s will, which limits Dorothea’s choices after his death as the “Dead Hand.” The phrase alludes to Edmund Burke’s claim that England would be saved from revolution by a mortmain, or dead hand, carrying a weight of tradition that innovation could not displace.

A contrast with overreaching ambition is Caleb Garth, a man of integrity who concentrates on excellent performance of his work as land agent. His daughter Mary, with neither Dorothea’s nor Rosamond’s form of egoism, is solidly grounded in domestic and interpersonal values and will marry Fred Vincy only if he renounces his family’s plan to place him in the Church, a step up in rank. Farebrother, a holdover from the older Low Church, demonstrates the religion of humanity that Eliot approves.

Will Ladislaw, who has sustained Dorothea as her respect for her husband turned to pity, brings light to the dark world of Lowick and a fresh, critical mind, educated on the Continent, to the stale parochialism of Middlemarch. His personal vitality restores Dorothea’s energy as his aesthetic sensitivity awakens her undeveloped sense for beauty, and their marriage, though frowned upon in class-conscious and xenophobic Middlemarch, brings her a long-awaited proper channel for her reforming spirit as a helpmate to Will, who becomes a member of Parliament on the reforming side.

Daniel Deronda

First published: 1876

Type of work: Novel

Egoistic cruelty and the will to power threaten far-reaching destruction, but compassion and a noble vocation energize conscience and the will to live worthily.

Daniel Deronda reaches beyond Eliot’s other work in both form and ideas. The plot develops in two separate lines, one concerning the English upper classes and the other portraying a Jewish family living in the humbler part of East London. These lines converge in the title character, who has matured as the ward (and believes he is the illegitimate son) of Sir Hugo Mallinger, but discovers that he has a distinguished Jewish mother and grandfather. His discovery resolves dilemmas of identity and vocation, favorite themes of Eliot.

Deronda’s alertness, compassion, and moral seriousness lead him to rescue two quite different maidens. One is Mirah, a despairing Jewess who tries to drown herself because she cannot find the mother and brother from whom she has become separated. As he aids her search, Deronda meets Mordecai, a visionary Jew who sees in Daniel one who will complete his dream of perpetuating the Jewish cultural past in a coherent national future. The theme of inherited vision thus counterpoints the theme of inherited wealth.

The other maiden Deronda rescues is Gwendolen Harleth, a talented but ego-driven dilettante of limited experience and education. Deronda restores to her a necklace she has pawned to replace gambling losses; more significant, he awakens her conscience by disapproving of her reckless behavior. Later, after she has married Henleigh Grandcourt for money and power and is racked by guilt for having knowingly taken him from the woman who has borne his illegitimate children, she becomes dependent on the sympathetic, insightful Daniel to be her moral guide.

Eliot counterpoints the purposeless, property-absorbed, and morally vacuous daily trivia of the wealthy English, suggested in the name Mallinger, with the significant vocations of Mordecai and another Jew, Klesmer, a Continental musician of excellent artistry. When Gwendolen suffers financial reverses and hopes to escape the humiliating oppression of a governess’s life by successful acting and singing, Klesmer points out that in her world she has “not been called upon to be anything but a charming young lady, whom it is an impoliteness to find fault with.” Lacking self-criticism or self-discipline, she is unprepared, he tells her, for “a life of arduous, unceasing work,” suitable only to “natures framed to love perfection and to labour for it” and dreams only of “donning [an artist’s] life as a livery,” whereas its “honour comes from the inward vocation and the hard-won achievement.” Klesmer’s words dimly veil Eliot’s judgment of the unproductive leisure class.

Again in this novel Eliot portrays marriage as bondage, but the unaware egoism of Rosamond and self-serving rationalizing of Casaubon, however deadly their effects, seem almost everyday evils compared with Grandcourt’s calculated will to mastery. Accustomed to deference and regard as her due, Gwendolen has been favorably impressed by Grandcourt’s polite but uninspired behavior and has found his lack of ardor pleasingly untroublesome. She marries him for money and power, driven by her own will to mastery and lacking the moral imagination to envision her life subjected to his unloving will. The torturous chemistry between them contrasts with the sympathetic meeting of souls in the marriages of Daniel and Mirah and of Klesmer and Catherine Arrowpoint. Eliot’s repeated satire against marriage as an arrangement for the suitable inheritance of property is nowhere so stinging as in the Reverend Mr. Gascoigne’s advice to Gwendolen that it is her “duty” to elevate her family by marrying rank, and in Mr. and Mrs. Arrowpoint’s insistence to Catherine that her “duty” as an heiress lies in marrying the proper manager of their estate. The author’s treatment of marital intimacy observes customary Victorian restraint but reveals evils of imposed brutality unusual in contemporary fiction. Her sensibility is represented in Klesmer’s plea to Catherine: “don’t give yourself for a meal to a minotaur.”

This novel develops Eliot’s most complex psychological explorations and moral implications of interpersonal action.

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George Eliot Long Fiction Analysis


Eliot, George (Poetry Criticism)