Key Passages – Middlemarch (1872)

But any one watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots, sees a slow preparation of effects from one life of another, which tells like a calculated irony on the indifferent or the frozen stare with which we look at our unintroduced neighbor. Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand.(122)

The Eliot-narrator is constantly drawing attention to the inability of actors to comprehend the temporal unfolding of events. But it serves to contain the contingency that seemingly results in novelistic resolution. She calls it “irony,” at it could very well apply to those less refined forms of temporal lag, etc. that define the narrative strategies of David Copperfield and Great Expectations. In those early works, the fiction of totality is still being toyed with, even if it is an accepted fiction.


We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Causabon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with the distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling — an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects — that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference. (243)

Dorothea’s emotional maturation converges here with Eliot’s continual refusal to let the reader entirely sympathize with or hate a single character. Even Causabon, for all his faults, has a kernel of humaness to inspire empathy. But overlaid is the discourse of thought and feeling–Dorothea must learn to treat others as self-conscious others to the degree that it is a sensory impression, a foundation for experience rather than a goal to which experience may lead. This is is a curious intervention into the discourse of sympathy, sensibility, etc.


One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea – but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? I protest against all interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble for these too will get faded, and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect. (312)

Just a moment of narratorial self-reflection that confounds the politics of identification informing most Victorian fiction from Austen onwards. The intervening authorial voice is familiar from Austen, Trollope and, later, James (but only in small doses, such as Maisie).


She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond, outside the entrance gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving – perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the beding sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide here eyes in selfish complaining. (chp 80)

A moment, not unlike those moments in Our Mutual Friend and in Hardy, in which life becomes objectified, existing outside the subject. See Gallagher’s work in Body Politic on how this gets construed into an ideology of bare-life: the equation of labor with biological sustenance and life itself.


Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending. Who can quit young lives after being long in company with them, and not desire to know what befell them in their after-years? For the fragment of life, however typical, is not the sample of an even web: promises may not be kept, and an ardent outset may be followed by declension; latent powers may find their long-awaited opportunity; a past error may urge a gran retrieval. (890)

This will link up with the opening bars of Daniel Deronda, in which the idea of a beginning is criticized. Here, Eliot satisfies the reader’s desire to treat these characters as individuals with offstage lives, but in Deronda that fiction will be left obviously unresolved. See Miller in Narrative and its Discontents.


Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of a young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. (896)

States succinctly a theme that runs throughout Victorian Literature, especially works like Vanity Fair, Bleak House, David Copperfield, all of Hardy, in which institutions (financial, industrial, ecclesiastical) become determinate. In Hardy, there will be an uncanny convergency of contingency, chance and fate as they gett connected to the time of industrial capital.

Also a good passage for talking about Gallagher’s reading of Eliot. She says that in Eliot (and 19th-century realist fiction more generally) characters should not be viewed within the simple binary of general and specific. Rather, the general should be seen as existing between the particularity of extra-diagetic reference and the particularity of fictional realization on the other. Thus we should not see realism as more real because of it level of referentiality, but rather as rooted in a tension between reference and realization. This reorients our understanding of desire–this is not so much that we see characters desiring to transcend their human status, go beyond themselves, etc, but that we see characters desiring to be real…to take on flesh. This is what Gallagher calls the “desire for realism.” Thus Gallagher argues that Eliot the ethical moralist (the ethics of particularity, eg) has been over-emphasized at the expense of certain erotics of realism. She says that Dorothea’s identity-revoltion entail a desire to take on flesh, to become specific and embodied, to lapse from the Saint Teresa typology and become human. Thus Eliot not only shows the ethics of particularity, she makes us want particularity.

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