Category Archives: Key Passages

George Gissing – New Grub Street (1891)

Jasper Milvain, great Darwinian survivor in the evolving literary market, has two sisters, Dora and Maud (whom he convinces to start writing children’s stories), to whom he constantly spouts out his cynical and frank views on what it takes to get ahead as a writer in the 1880s: ingenuity without integrity. In the country he meets the Yules: John Yule (a somewhat rich  businessman); Alred Yule (a struggling writer); Marian Yule (Alfred’s daughter and assistant, and later Jasper’s almost-wife). Eventually, the patriarch of this family will leave an inheritance to his family. Meanwhile, Edwin Reardon, married to Amy Yule (sister to John Yule), is struggling to keep up his repute as a promising author, but is failing to do because he is impractical, unable write down to the commercial demands of the marketplace. His friend, Harold Biffen, who calls his style “ignoble realism” (similar to Zola’s naturalism), is also a commercial failure. Reardon and Amy sink into poverty and eventually separate. Jasper keeps climbing the rungs, and becomes engaged to Marian after she inherits some money. Her father disapproves of the match because of Jasper’s relation to Fadge, an editor of a journal that consistently excoriates Alfred’s works. Amy also inherits money, but her and Reardon don’t get back together until Reardon is on his deathbed. Biffen almost loses his manuscript in a fire, but saves it in a dramatic scene reminiscent of the Gaskell scene in North and South. Jasper breaks off his engagement with Marian after her inheritance fails to come through. His sisters marry folks in the marketplace, and he marries Amy Yule, and soon after becomes editor of The Current, and thus achieving his dream. Biffen commits suicide after losing hope in both his literary future and his romantic future with Amy.

An important novel because of its depiction of the professional author’s position in a social world increasingly controlled by the forces of market capitalism. Indeed, one can think of this as a response to Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy: author’s may be the guardians of sweetness in light, but this guardianship is premised on a certain amount of material wealth–and more broadly on a system that has inherent class, race and gender disparities. Carlyle had already foreseen this problem in 1840 when  in Hero as Man of Letters he parsed out the double-nature of professional authorship.

The struggling idealists in the novel (Reardon and Biffen) have a complicated relationship to the Arnoldian ideal. Yes, they sight-translate from Homer, but they also aspire to be realistic in a way that is anything but a return to a golden age of Hellenic representation. Biffen calls it “an absolute realism in the sphere of the ignobly decent” (144). This is frequently contrasted to both Dickens and Zola: this first turns low class people into absurd tragic-comedic heros, the latter into tragic heroes. This is an emergence of a realism that will be peculiarly modern–and it is reflected by the form of the novel that contains it. Gissing constantly draws attention to the forces of production that allow or disallow the author “to produce,” as Benjamin would later say. This connects New Grub Street with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and with Jacob’s Room.

In borader ideological terms, the book can be read as intervention into the debate over culture’s relationship to society–a late intervention into the utilitarian debate that spans the century. Crucially, this novel (and the novels of Reardon and Biffen) are not mechanical mimetic organs, but rather aesthetic ideals that are worked for and persistently defended. Can relate this to Lukacs’ Theory of the Novel.

The Museum Reading, “the valley of the shadow of books,” is a crucial image that connects this book to both Jacob’s Room and A Room of One’s Own.  It represents a literature that is dead–fit for copying and recopying….

Key Passages:

Art must be practices as a trade, at all events in our time. This is the age of trade. Of course, if one refuses to be of one’s time, and yet hasn’t the means to live independently, what can result but breakdown and wretchedness? (51)

Connect this idea of untimeliness to Arnold’s idea of the untimely, penultimate critic. Gissing, again, giving material flesh to Arnold’s thoughts.

For months he had been living in this way; endless circling, perpetual beginning, followed by frustration. A sign of exhaustion, it of course made exhaustion more complete. At times he was on the border-land of imbecility; his mind looked into a cloudy chaos, a shapeless whirl of nothings.  (123)

Connect this to the opening of Daniel Deronda, where Eliot talks about the arbitrariness of making a beginning. Gissing gives on more turn to the problem of beginnings (use Copperfield as an example, and before that, Pride and Prejudice), by showing the physicality the process of writing. Reardon’s investment in his story backfires onto his psyche. New Grub Street, however, starts with ease–but with Jasper Milvain, cracking an egg as a man gets hung and bell tolls–the convergence of the political, personal, etc.–the fiction of freedom, the tightness of the ISA–is the condition of all beginnings. Also, the idea of “the abyss” is picked up by Forster in Howard’s End, when talking about Leonard Bast. That narrative similarly describes the precariousness of the petty-bourgeois existence.

You have to become famous before you can secure the attention that would give you fame. (385)

A motto coined by Jasper Milvain, which spell out clearly the Catch-22 structuring the lives of just about every author. Marks out the (now-legible) relationship between fiction and the critics as overdetermined.

It was an excellent piece of writing (see the Wayside, June 1884), and in places touched with true emotion. (462)

A bid on realism by way of extra-diagetic empirical verification.

 I would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated; that is to day, the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board schools, the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention…bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bit sof statistics, bits of foolery. Am I not right? Everything must be short, two inches at utmost; their attention can’t sustain itself beyond two inches. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat. (460)

This vision of bite-size prose comes toward the end of the novel, and has an obvious historical referent in Tit-Bits. An interesting commentary on the size of writing (contrast to the sheer bigness of the Victorian long poem), the time of reading (cf. I.A. Richards and Quiller-Couch), the fragment now reified as that best suited to the demands of industrialized consciousness: the quarter-educated.




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.

Thomas Carlyle – Heroes and Hero Worship (1840-41)

The theme of this lecture series is: “Universal History, the history of what man  has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.” Only a hero can resolve the tangled contradictions that belief in utilitarianism has led to.

The Hero is her who lives in the inward sphere of things, in the True, Divine and Eternal, which exists always, unseen to most, under the Temporary, Trivial: his being is in that; he declares that abroad, by act or speech as it may be, in declaring himself abroad. (236)

There is an expressive rather than communicative aspect to these men of letters., that can nevertheless tip over into the didactic:

Men of Letters are a perpetual Priesthood, from age to age, teaching all men that a God is still present in their life; that all ‘Appearance,’ whatsoever we see in the world, is but as a vesture for the ‘Divine Idea of the World,’ for ‘that which lies at the bottom of Appearance.’ (237)

Men of letters are not “the momentous one,” but they are individuals, “an infinitesimal fraction of the great body; they can struggle on, and live or else die, as they have been wont. But it deeply concerns the whole society, whether it will set its light on high places, to walk thereby; or trample it under foot, and scatter it in all the ways of wild waste (not without conflagration), as heretofore. Not only societal disuse poses a threat to men of letters, but the whole culture of skepticism that claims mechanism as the secret of the universe. Men of letters fight against this claim…this is their mission.


Thomas Carlyle – Signs of the Times (1829)

Can be read as prototypical critique of the acceptance of utilitarian values (anticipating both Ruskin’s Unto this Last and Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy). Focuses on the fact of transition: “All men are aware that the present is a crisis of this sort; and why it has become so…Those things that seemed fixed (like the church) and immovable; deep as the foundations of the world and lo, in a moment they have vanished, and their place knows them no more” (62)! Carlyle is intent, however, on giving a program for action, which entails a robust Understanding of the Present as the convergence of Past and Future:

The poorest Day that passes over us is te conflux of two Eternities; it is made up of currents that issue from the remotest Past, and flow onwards into the remotest Future. We were wise indeed, could we discern truly the signs of our time; and by knowledge of its wants and advantages, wisely adjust our own position in it. Let us, instead of gazing idly into the obscure distance, look calmly around us,  for a little, on the perplexed scene where we stand. Perhaps, on a more serious inspection, something of its perplexity will disappear, some of its distinctive characters and deeper tendencies more clearly reveal themselves; whereby our own relations to it, our own true aims and endeavors in it, may also becomes clear. (64)

He makes the argument that the “Soul-Politic” is being ignored while the “Body-Politic” is “more than ever worshipped” (71). This is the result of a focus on the mechanical rather than dynamical aspects of life. The dynamical refers to those spontaneous, unsolicited gifts of nature: art and science. the point here is that the logic of “Profit and Loss” has no place in the realm of art, since it is completely unable to either produce or regulate its movements. Via art and science, so does “man, in every age, vindicate, consciously or unconsciously, his celestial birthright” (75). Carlyle argues for a proper balance of the dynamic and the mechanic, and locates the process of this balancing act in the individual perfection of the self. That’s the conclusion: but he gets there by way astronomical predictions. (85)

Thomas Carlyle – Sartor Resartus (1833-4)


From the Introduction to the Oxford edition (2008):

The fundamental Carlylean doctrines are all articulated, or at least, adumbrated here: the horrors of Utilitarianism; the religious base of society; the pattern of conversion–from everlasting No, through the Center of indifference to the Everlasting Yea–which showed that, in the the words of Thomas Henry Huxley, ‘a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology’; the importance of vocation; the superiority of renunciation to the pursuit of happiness; the moral imperatives of work, duty, and reverence; the need for heroes; and the social vision that saw Britain divided into the two nations of rich and poor.

Anne Mellor presents Sartor  as a ‘self-consuming artifact’ that ‘does not preach the truth, but asks that its readers discover the truth for themselves.’ Sartor Resartus is a fictional work ‘designed to consume itself by revealing the limitations both of its own symbolic language and of language as such. It is intended not as a monument of truth but as a goad to action.’ (English Romantic Irony (1978)

Much depends on whether we share the doubts of the Editor or whether we read those doubts as the result of his miscomprehension of Teufelsdöckh’s system. That system is a paired down version of German Idealism, meant to counterpoint English utilitarianism. Teufelsdröckh distinguishes in Hegelian mode between Understanding (phenomenal, sensory experience) and Reason (noumenal, synthetic thought), which is able to somehow pierce through the mere facts of everyday an understand the Everlasting:

To the eye of vulgar logic,” syas he,” what is man? An omnivorous Biped that wears breeches. To the eye of Pure Reason what is he? A Soul, a Spirit, and a divine Apparition. Round his mysterious Me, there lies, under all those wool-rags, a Garment of Flesh (or of Senses), contextured in the Loom of Heaven; whereby he is revealed to his like, and dwells with them in Union and Division; and sees and fashions for himself a universe, with azure Starry Spaces, and long Thousands of Years. Deep-hidden is he under that strange Garment; amid Sounds and Colour and Forms, as it were, swathed in, and inextricably overshrouded: yet it is sky-woven, and worthy of God. (51)

Throughout, Carlyle is anxious about the soul converging with its digestive counterpart, the stomach. “if man’s soul is indeed…a kind of Stomach, what else is the true meaning of Spiritual Union but an Eating Together? Thus we, instead of Friends, are Dinner-guests; and here as elsewhere have cast away chimeras” (91). So this begins to mark  fine line between the daily requirements of the omnivorous biped and the insatiable consumption (and production) that conditions Industrial Capitlaism:

To me the universe was all void of Life, of Purpose, of Volition, even of Hostility: it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-Engine, rolling on, in its dead insignificance, to grind me limb from limb. (127)

Here the utilitarian outlook converges with nihilism in the section devoted to the Everlasting No. From here Teufelsdröckh undergoes his “Baphometic Fire-baptism”  which leads to him becoming a Man. The center of Indifference, strangely, takes up the subject of nascent democracy “in its birth pangs” and “Great Men.” This can be read as moment of historical transition condensed into psychological transformation. The Everlasting Yea is something very much like a full sublimation, wherein “contradiction is solved,” yet the process of completion is strictly negative: “the Fraction of Life can be increased in value not by increasing you Numerator, as by lessening you Denominator” (145). Further, this subtraction seems centered on the subject: “a black spot in our sunshine: the Shadow of Ourselves.” This the is a giving account of one’s investment (and position) in a world that is experiential from the start.

This will all conclude in the tour de force “Natural Supernaturalism” chapter that posits God’s in(ter)vention of Time and Space as natural clothing to all noumenal existence. Basically acknowledges limits as the very things that give us a capacity to experience the world at all (time, space, etc.)…interesting bridge to talking about Hegel and, later, Gadamer.

There is also a parallel between the editorial attempts to gather together Teufel’s papers and any attempt to reconstruct history:

History in authentic fragments lay mingled with Fabulous chimeras, wehre also was reality; and the whole not as dead stuff, but as living pabulum, tolerably nutritive for a mind as yet so poetic. (79)

Also refers to orphan as a loan that needs to be made good on (read as critique of hoe Victorian novels would end up treating the orphan as a means to an end of narrative denouement….

Secondary – Our Mutual Friend

Never over till it’s over, syllepsis opens minds as well as grammar, keeps things going and up for grabs. It gives us one syntactic timeline braided together with a syncopated grammatical strand. With closure resisted at the phrasal level, response is held not in check but in expectancy. . . . It keeps difference alive across iteration or ellipsis, implanting the null with surplus. Time and time again, syllepsis abruptly refocuses the other through the lens of the same.

Garret Stewart, “Ethical Tempo of Narrative Syntax: Sylleptic Recognitions in Our Mutual Friend,” 2010


These three vignettes obviously present a range of models for agency, from the abject powerlessness of the waterlogged corpse to the omnipotence of old Harmon’s attempt to enforce his intentions from beyond the grave. In fact, the problem of agency permeates Our Mutual Friend. By using a variety of cases to foreground concerns about the scope and powers of social systems—economic, legal, and educational, as well as classist, gendered, and normative—to control and condition individuals, the novel rehearses one of the pressing issues for mid-Victorian England debates about morality and responsibility, that is, how to disentangle individual motive from social conditioning. Rather than figuring these as mutually exclusive terms, Our Mutual Friend repeatedly emphasizes the impossibility of distinguishing between self- and social determination when it comes to agency.

Connect with JS Mill On Liberty: “A person whose desires and impulses are his own—are the expression of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture—is said to have a character. One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character”

Molly Anne Rothenberg, “Articulating Social Agency in Our Mutual Friend” (2004)



Key Passages – Daniel Deronda

Men can do nothing without the make believe of a beginning. Even Science, the strict measurer, is obliged to start with a make-believe unit, and must fix on a point in the stars’ unceasing journey when his sidereal clock shall pretend that time is Nought. His less accurate grandmother Poetry has always been understood to start in the middle; but on reflection it appears that her proceeding is not very different from his; since Science, too, reckons backwards as well as forwards, divides his unit into billions, and with his clock-finger at Nought really sets off in media res. No retrospect will take us to the true beginning; and whether our prologue be in heaven or on earth it is but a fraction of that all-presupposing fact which our story sets out.

This, the opening to the novel, proceeds the famous opening line: “Was she beautiful or not beautiful?” We do not know who asks this question and we do not know of whom it is asked. Thus the starting point is already displaced, the object coming before the subject that would produce it. Throughout the novel, the toggling between cause and effect is crucial (is Daniel determining his future according to liberal civic codes à la Mill or is he being determined by biological histories?) and here Eliot is making that ambiguity immanent to the very production of narrative. There is also a critique of Copperfield “Retrospects,” which make a bid on narrating origins. The passage also forcefully naturalizes traditional images of fate (stars) through the use of “sidereal,” which refers to the measurement of time by comparing the earth’s rotation with fixed stars. Also relatable to the mathematical sublime (the smallness of the unit becomes an object of wonder). And such problematic beginnings will look forward to the problematic ending, in which Eliot will unsatisfactorily attempt to suture her double-plot.


[Human life] should be well-rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth…a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, a kindly acquaintance with all neighbors, even to the dogs and donkeys may spread, not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as sweet habit of the blood

A rather curious importation of pre-cosmopolitan fantasies more appropriate to Mill on the Floss. By the time one gets to Deronda, these utopian visions are realized as unattainable. As opposed to earlier novels, Deronda is not about constructing a world, but showing how various characters navigate a larger society that is not conducive to their aims.



This claim, indeed, considered in what is called a rational way, might seem justifiably dismissed as illusory and even preposterous; but it was precisely what turned Mordecai’s hold on him from an appeal to his ready sympathy into a clutch on his struggling conscience.

Throughout the novel Eliot plays with the rational-emotional binary. Think of this as a way to bring the culture debate into the psychological realm. This is also an updated form of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility binary. Here, sensibility becomes the work of careful cultivation. To much sense would lead to a state literally without culture (critique of Bentham, etc.). There is also an engagement with the discourse of sympathy.


She was the first time feeling the pressure of a vast mysterious movement, for the first time being dislodged from her supremacy in her own world, and getting a sense that her horizon was but a dipping onward of an existence with which her own was revolving…[S]he could not spontaneously think of him as rightfully belonging to others more than to her. But here had come a shock which went deeper than personal jealousy—something spiritual and vaguely tremendous that thrust her away, and yet quelled all anger in self-humiliation.

The moment when the ethical force of the novel turns over the Gwendolen. Theorized in terms of receptivity to the other’s demands. Think of this within the terms of the heroine whose historical worth/validity/legibility is constantly in question. Here, the dialectic is turned: in order to become a full character in the narrative/story, she must be radically unseated from her presumed role in history. Contrawise, Daniel’s graduation into history effectively excises him from the novel.


Daniel, where a kenn personal interest was aroused, could not, more than the rest of us, continuously escape suffering from the pressure of that hard unaccomodating Actual, which has never consulted out taste and is entirely unselect…. Here undoubtedly lies the chief poetic energy:–in the force of imagination that pierces or exalts the solid fact, instead of floating among cloud-pictures.

Just one of many moments when Eliot compresses the plot-character dynamics with her artistic practice. But even here the Jewish-English binary is brought into play. Is it that English art is the best mode of representation, but Jewishness is the best object for art? Role of the author.