George Eliot

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What contributions did George Eliot make to the English novel?

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George Eliot, whose real name was Mary Ann Evans, began writing novels under the influence of Jane Austen. Eliot broadened and deepened the novel of manners popularized by Austen by examining the philosophy and motives of her characters in a compassionate, not merely satirical, way. Eliot likened herself to both a historian and a scientist. In her novels she attempted to study and reveal the ways that events and character intertwine to determine a given outcome. As such, she is compared to Gustave Flaubert and Leo Tolstoy, and she has been called the greatest English realist (Norton Anthology of English Literature, 9th ed., 1355).

Her insights on contemporary issues of her day, particularly on "The Woman Question," contributed to society's understanding of controversial subjects. Although in some ways she could be considered a feminist writer, she also put great stock in traditional values; her strong female characters often show a commitment to doing their duty, often at the expense of their own desires. Eliot claimed, "My function is that of the aesthetic not the doctrinal teacher." By entering into the deep psychological motivations of her characters, she was able to inspire her readers, not lecture them. 

One should not forget that Eliot's contribution to the English novel involves not only her own novels, but also her literary criticism. As an editor at the Westminster Review, a literary journal, she published incisive commentary about contemporary writers, notably "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists." In that essay, Eliot exposes with wit and wisdom the inferior attempts at novel writing that plagued the marketplace of her day. Reading the piece now, one is astounded at how true it rings today and at what excellent guidance it gives to both readers and writers regarding what constitutes quality fiction

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According to George Elliot's own statements, one of her contributions to the English novel was to depict common life with a sympathetic rendering, in the same vein as Dutch painters, written in a style of intellectual restraint, which might be contrasted to the earlier emotional  writing of such as Anne Radcliffe. She aimed, in sympathy with Wordsworth's earlier aims, to put herself on the level of her characters, to see and experience things, to talk just in the same way they would do.

Elliot's narratorial voice differs from previous writer's voices in that while she is present in the narrator's voice as an interested spectator, she attempts to keep herself distinct from her drama and from her characters. This can be contrasted, for example, to Jane Austen whose narratorial voice participates with her characters and their story, for instance, in the way she occasionally narrates their dialogue without benefit of quotation marks. It is said by Wilbur Lucius Cross that Elliot finished the work begun by Wordsworth: While Wordsworth captured the pathos of common people, Elliot mingled the pathos with the humor of common people.

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