(Short Story Criticism)

“The Lifted Veil” George Eliot

(Pseudonym of Mary Ann (or Marian) Evans) English novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, editor, and translator.

The following entry presents criticism of Eliot's short story “The Lifted Veil” (1859) from 1910 through 2003.

Regarded as a Gothic tale combined with elements of science fiction, “The Lifted Veil” chronicles the story of a doomed man endowed with extrasensory perception. Although he has foreseen his own murder, he is unable to change his fate. Initially rejected by Eliot's publisher, John Blackwood, “The Lifted Veil” was eventually published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine in 1859. Blackwood considered the story to be inferior to Eliot's novel Adam Bede, which was published five months earlier, and for that reason he convinced Eliot to publish the story anonymously. Overlooked at the time of its publication, in recent years “The Lifted Veil” has garnered increasing critical attention.

Plot and Major Characters

Told from a first-person perspective, “The Lifted Veil” begins as the narrator, Latimer, anticipates his death one month away, which he has seen in a vision. He reflects on his miserable childhood: his father's rejection, his brother Alfred's scorn, his pervasive loneliness, and his own unsuccessful creative attempts. Sent to Geneva to finish his education, Latimer forms a friendship with another outcast, a gifted boy named Meunier. When Latimer falls seriously ill, his father comes to take him home; it is at this point he has his first psychic experience—he has a vivid and accurate vision of the city of Prague, which he has never visited. From this point, he is afflicted with involuntary telepathic powers—able to hear the petty, cruel, and disturbing thoughts of the people around him—which leaves him afraid and increasingly isolated from human contact. The only person's mind that is impenetrable to him is that of Bertha, Alfred's beautiful fiancée. He is fascinated by her and jealous of his brother. When Alfred dies in a riding accident, Latimer inherits his money and property and marries Bertha. After several months of marriage, Latimer is finally able to read Bertha's mind, and he is shocked to learn that she hates him and wishes for his death. As a result, his telepathic power fades. His misery is alleviated for a brief time by a visit from his successful friend, Meunier. During the visit, Bertha's maid, Mrs. Archer, dies and is momentarily revived by Meunier—just long enough for her to confess Bertha's plans to poison Latimer. With this disclosure, his telepathic powers return and he separates from Bertha. As the story ends, he awaits his death on September 20, 1850.

Major Themes

Critics have often discussed autobiographical aspects of “The Lifted Veil,” viewing the story as a reflection of Eliot's own fears, alienation, doubts, and feelings of guilt. They note several similarities between Eliot and the protagonist of her story, Latimer; for instance, like her character, Eliot was estranged from her father, as well as her sister and brother. Moreover, commentators assert that Eliot's chief preoccupations show up in “The Lifted Veil,” particularly her interest in science, psychology, double consciousness, and extrasensory powers of perception. Others find a connection between Bertha's inscrutability and Eliot's use of anonymity and pseudonym, which she was considering ending around that time. Feminist critics perceive Latimer's extrasensory gifts and isolation as an extension of the woman's traditional role in the home, in which women often exhibit a honed intuitive sense and feel oppressed and trapped. In another feminist perspective, the malevolent character of Bertha has been interpreted as a symbol of female sexuality; because she considers her union with Latimer as soul-deadening, loveless, and without passion, Bertha's plot to murder Latimer has been regarded as an attempt to reclaim her vitality and sexuality. The story is also viewed as a symbolic expression of Eliot's struggle with the dynamics of the creative process. Some critics have approached the story from a scientific perspective, placing it in context with the medical, psychological, and scientific theories of Eliot's time, especially in relation to the Victorian views on knowledge. In fact, the limitations and danger of scientific knowledge is regarded as a major thematic concern in “The Lifted Veil.”

Critical Reception

”The Lifted Veil” was initially rejected by Eliot's publisher, John Blackwood, because of its gloomy subject matter and the revivifying scene near the end of the story. He considered the tale to be an aberration in Eliot's literary oeuvre and convinced her to publish the story anonymously. Subsequent critics received the story with little enthusiasm and it was largely disregarded in critical surveys of Eliot's fiction. In fact, it was omitted from the Chronology of George Eliot's Life and Works in the prestigious British Library centenary exhibition in the early 1980s. Yet around that time, critics began to rediscover “The Lifted Veil.” Commentators began to discuss the story as an essential part of Eliot's development as a philosophical novelist and evaluate the place of “The Lifted Veil” in her literary oeuvre. Critics have investigated the influence of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the tale and have assessed the story within the tradition of Gothic women's fiction. Today “The Lifted Veil” is recognized as a notable story that provides insight into Eliot's life and thematic concerns.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Scenes of Clerical Life 1858

The Life of Jesus [translator; as Marian Evans] (essay) 1846

The Essence of Christianity [translator; as Marian Evans] (essay) 1854

Adam Bede (novel) 1859

The Mill on the Floss (novel) 1860

Silas Marner, the Weaver of Raveloe (novel) 1861

Romola (novel) 1863

Felix Holt, the Radical (novel) 1866

The Spanish Gypsy: A Poem (poetry) 1868

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (novel) 1871-72

The Legend of Jubal, and Other Poems (poetry) 1874

Daniel Deronda (novel) 1876

Impressions of Theophrastus Such (essays) 1879

The George Eliot Letters. 9 vols. (letters) 1954-78

Collected Poems (poetry) 1990

Selected Essays, Poems, and Other Writings (essays and poems) 1990

Theodore Watts-Dunton (essay date 1910)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Watts-Dunton, Theodore. “Introduction: George Eliot as a Plot-Novelist.” In Silas Marner, The Lifted Veil, Brother Jacob, by George Eliot, pp. vii-xix. London: Oxford University Press, 1954.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1910, Watts-Dunton finds “The Lifted Veil” to be a remarkable story.]

As to the two short stories, “The Lifted Veil” and “Brother Jacob,” appended to this edition of Silas Marner, lack of space prevents my making any comment except upon the first of them. In many ways this is a remarkable story. It does not deal with the supernatural world, but rather with what may be called transcendental physics, or...

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U. C. Knoepflmacher (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Knoepflmacher, U. C. “Escape through Fantasy: ‘The Lifted Veil.’” In George Eliot's Early Novels: The Limits of Realism, pp. 128-61. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, Knoepflmacher investigates the origins of “The Lifted Veil” and considers the story essential to Eliot's development as a philosophical novelist.]

Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe
With colours idly spread,—behind, lurk Fear
And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave
Their shadows, o'er the chasm, sightless and drear.
I knew one who had lifted...

(The entire section is 11678 words.)

Ruby V. Redinger (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Redinger, Ruby V. “My Present Past.” In George Eliot: The Emergent Self, pp. 295-460. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.

[In the following excerpt, Redinger discusses the circumstances surrounding the publication of “The Lifted Veil” and addresses similarities between Eliot and the protagonist of the story, Latimer.]

By disentangling herself from the Liggins affair and relaxing her hold on anonymity, George Eliot only intensified her problems with the Blackwoods. Signs that her publishers would be wary over using her pseudonym whenever it was given an identity had been present ever since the middle of June, when they refused to agree to affix the name to...

(The entire section is 8633 words.)

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “Made Keen by Loss: George Eliot's Veiled Vision.” In The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, pp. 443-77. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1979.

[In the following essay, Gilbert and Gubar examine Eliot's place in Gothic female literary tradition, elucidate autobiographical aspects of “The Lifted Veil,” and provide a feminist perspective on the story.]

In Eden Females sleep the winter in soft silken veils
Woven by their own hands to hide them in the darksom grave.
But Males immortal live renewed by female deaths.

—William Blake


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Terry Eagleton (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Eagleton, Terry. “Power and Knowledge in ‘The Lifted Veil.’” Literature and History 9, no. 1 (spring 1983): pp. 52-61.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1980, Eagleton maintains that “The Lifted Veil” explores the limitations and dangers of scientific knowledge.]

It is always possible to undermine one kind of claim to ‘disinterested’ knowledge by asking why we should bother to find out anything in the first place. Since not much of our knowledge is directly relevant to physical survival—indeed ‘culture’ may be defined as all that is not—there must be some reasons, other than libidinal ones, for acquiring it....

(The entire section is 5296 words.)

Carroll Viera (essay date autumn 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Viera, Carroll. “‘The Lifted Veil’ and George Eliot's Early Aesthetic.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 24, no. 4 (autumn 1984): 749-67.

[In the following essay, Viera asserts that many of Eliot's aesthetic theories found in her early letters and essays are manifest in fictional form in “The Lifted Veil.”]

Richard Stang's observation that “George Eliot was perhaps unique in that she formulated her ideas about life and art before she started to write her first novel”1 has received unqualified acceptance. But despite their interest in George Eliot's early aesthetic,2 critics have neglected its links to her third work...

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Jennifer Uglow (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Uglow, Jennifer. “‘The Lifted Veil’: The Limits of Vision.” In George Eliot, pp. 114-22. London: Virago, 1987.

[In the following essay, Uglow argues that Eliot's troubled and lonely personal life pervade “The Lifted Veil.”]

Three weeks before Adam Bede was published in February 1859, Marian and Lewes were investigating the subject of floods, ‘looking into the Annual Register for cases of inundation’ and by the end of March she could promise Blackwood another long novel, ‘a sort of companion picture of provincial life’. This was to be The Mill on the Floss. But although Adam Bede was an instant, outstanding...

(The entire section is 3264 words.)

Susan Payne (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Payne, Susan. “George Eliot's ‘The Lifted Veil’: A Game of Hide and Seek.” In The Strange within the Real: The Function of Fantasy in Austen, Brontë, and Eliot, pp. 123-67. Rome: Bulzoni Editore, 1992.

[In the following essay, Payne provides a stylistic and thematic analysis of “The Lifted Veil” and discusses the reaction to the story from her publisher, critics, and readers.]


To link the name of George Eliot, who was as uncompromisingly and unselfconsciously sérieuse as we like to think only a Victorian intellectual could be, with the concept of play, seems, at the very...

(The entire section is 16654 words.)

Kate Flint (essay date March 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Flint, Kate. “Blood, Bodies, and ‘The Lifted Veil.’” Nineteenth-Century Literature 51, no. 4 (March 1997): 455-73.

[In the following essay, Flint examines “The Lifted Veil” in respect to Victorian views on medicine, science, and psychology.]

On 17 March 1878 Edith Simcox paid a visit to George Eliot and her companion, George Lewes. Simcox recorded their conversation in her Autobiography: “I asked about the Lifted Veil. Lewes … asked what I thought of it. I was embarrassed and said—as he did—that it was not at all like her other writings, wherefrom she differed; she said it was ‘schauderhaft’ [horrible, ghastly] was it, and I...

(The entire section is 6880 words.)

Ronald E. Sheasby (essay date March 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Sheasby, Ronald E. “The Black Veil Lifted: A Note on Eliot and Hawthorne.” CLA Journal 44, no. 3 (March 2001): 383-90.

[In the following essay, Sheasby suggests that Nathaniel Hawthorne's “The Minister's Black Veil” may have influenced “The Lifted Veil.”]

Many have found traces of Nathaniel Hawthorne in the works of George Eliot, but nobody as yet has suggested that “The Minister's Black Veil” influenced “The Lifted Veil.” While there is no hard evidence, there are echoes enough of a verbal, structural, thematic and symbolic nature to suggest that she had the black veil in mind as she wrote of the lifted one. This paper is offered as a brief...

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Neil Hertz (essay date 2003)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hertz, Neil. “Behind ‘The Lifted Veil’: Rousseau.” In Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics, edited by Werner Hamacher, pp. 42-62. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.

[In the following essay, Hertz determines the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau on “The Lifted Veil.”]

When her readers refer to someone called “George Eliot,” are they speaking of an author or of a narrator? That is, are they speaking of the person responsible for the plotting of the fiction they are reading, or are they referring to the voice they hear in their mind's ear, telling them the story? It is never hard to answer this question case by case: sometimes it's the one,...

(The entire section is 8368 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Argyros, Ellen. “Sympathy and Judgment, Knowledge and Mystery: The Limits of Human Understanding in The Mill on the Floss and “The Lifted Veil.”’ In “Without Any Check of Proud Reserve”: Sympathy and Its Limits in George Eliot's Novels, pp. 97-135. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.

Examines the theme of conflict between sympathy and judgment and between knowledge and mystery in “The Lifted Veil” and The Mill on the Floss.

Beer, Gillian. “Myth and the Single Consciousness: Middlemarch and ‘The Lifted Veil.’” In This Particular Web: Essays on Middlemarch, edited by Ian Adam, pp. 91-115. Toronto:...

(The entire section is 672 words.)