George Eliot

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Discuss George Eliot's portrayal as an agnostic novelist.

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George Eliot was brought up to be a devout Christian. However, in 1841, she read and was deeply impressed by Charles C. Hennell’s An Inquiry Concerning the Origin of Christianity, a skeptical work influenced by the German school of “Higher Criticism.” The purpose of this Higher Criticism was to subject the Bible to the same rigorous analysis as Latin and Greek literature, and the conclusions of the critics were often scathing. Hennell wrote of the Gospels:

Their authorship is far from certain; they were written from forty to seventy years after the events which they profess to record; the writers do not explain how they came by their information; two of them appear to have copied from the first; all the four contain notable discrepancies and manifest contradictions; they contain statements at variance with histories of acknowledged authority; some of them relate wonders which even many Christians are obliged to reject as fabulous.

Over the next few years, Eliot translated works of German Higher Criticism by David Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach, and arrived at the religious views that were to inform her novels: those of an agnostic atheist. There was, for Eliot, no conflict between agnosticism and atheism, since the former is an admission that the truth cannot be known, while the latter is a statement of belief or probability. Eliot, like Feuerbach, saw the best aspects of religion as a projection of human morality and spirituality into the heavens. She did not believe that any religious texts told literal truths, but thought that any text could aspire to moral truth and moral improvement. In "The Natural History of German Life," she argues:

The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalisations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment.

In her novels, Eliot displays considerable certainty about how her characters ought to behave and how they fall short of their moral duties. In Daniel Deronda, for instance, she uses the authorial persona to scold Gwendolen and address the reader directly to excoriate her folly. However, she never hints at any supernatural or metaphysical rewards and punishments, and regards human agency as having replaced divine intervention in the modern world. As she wrote in Silas Marner:

In the old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s.

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