Tag Archives: discontent endings

Georg Lukács – The Theory of the Novel (1920, 2nd edition 1962)

The famous Preface begins with the anecdote concerning “individual, concreate acts of heroism,” which, in 1920, Lukács thought masked the violence of the total system of war. He asks, “Who will save us from Western Civilization?” Theory of the Novel was therefore written in a tone of despair, but also one of utopian hope. Indeed, Lukács claims that his early work was by no means conservative, but that its subversive nature was grounded on an entirely naive conception of utopia’s emergence form the rubble of capitalism. Such a view tips over into conformism, a conformism of which he directly accuses Adorno and others: they have taken up residence in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss,”

a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered. (22)

It should be noted that the grounds of accusation revolve around a certain relation to food, taste, and subtlety. Adorno has supposedly succumbed to the very dilettantism he accuses the vulgar philistine of.

He distinguishes integrated and problematic civilizations. The current civilization is problematic (appropriate to the novel), while the Greek civilization was integrated (appropriate to the epic). Similar to Bakhtin, the novel is given the burden of strictly miming the “ruptural totality” of contemporary worlds. The epic is the genre of childish immaturity while the novel is the genre of virile maturity (71)–that is, it is capable of soberly reviewing the homelessness of it factical position.

The novel, as an assertive, form-giving endeavor, runs a double risk: either it does not fulfill the minimally sufficient demands of the form, or it is too coherent, closing the circle of signification too soon or too tightly (72).

Indeed, the novel always risks the bad infinity of pure mimesis: it therefore must assert the form of biography, submitting the subject matter to confines of a life. [Connect this to Brooks argument about Freud’s master-plot, and also to the idea of Victorian literature marking out its historical contours according to the life of Queen Victoria.]

The mode of all novels is irony. It is the form of reflecting on itself. This need for reflection is the novel’s “deepest melancholy.” Put otherwise, “Te novel is the epic of a world abandoned by God.” Irony is able to negative render those spaces from which God has withdrawn. It is a negative mysticism. Irony is the highest freedom that can be attained in a world abandoned by God. (93).





Samuel Beckett – Waiting for Godot (1954)

Act 1

Vladimir and Estragon, two “friends” are waiting for Godot, who never shows up. The domineering Pozzo shows up with his slave, Lucky.  After much confusion and mistaken identity, it becomes somewhat clear that Pozzo owns the land on which Vladimir and Estragon are waiting. Estragon is invited to kick Lucky, but Lucky suddenly kicks him. Pozzo and Lucky (who has long monologue that is pretty much senseless) leave, and then a boy comes along who claims to have been sent by Godot with a message that he will come tomorrow.


Act 2

Starts off much the same as Act 1, but it appears that Estragon remembers nothing that happened the day before despite Vladimir’s attempts to reconstruct the day for him. They come up with various ways to pass the time, such as hurling insults at one another or engaging in an S-M fantasy. Pozzo and Lucky come along again, but Pozzo is now blind and in great pain. He remembers nothing of the day before. Vladimir and Estragon first try to help him and then beat him with little remorse. Eventually they all get up. Then Vladimir kicks Lucky and hurts his foot. Pozzo and Lucky eventually leave. Estragon falls asleep and the same boy comes, remembering nothing of the day before, and bearing the same message from Godot. Estragon wakes up and they decide to go, but before they move, the curtain drops.

Preliminary Notes:

Beckett claimed that ‘the early success of Waiting for Godot was based on a fundamental misunderstanding, that critics and public alike insisted on interpreting in allegorical or symbolic terms a play which was striving all the time to avoid definition’. This gets at the crucial difference between symbol and device which runs throughout twentieth-century literature, from Howard’s End to Godot. Godot is not a symbol with a meaning (he can mean many things of course), but is rather a device with a function. Similarly, the tree on stage, while symbolizing just about everything…also manages through this very polyemy to mean very little. Rather, its function is to dramatizes the resources of signification from which we draw meaning.

Godot was written right after Watt:

‘When I was working on Watt, I felt the need to create for a smaller space, one in which I had some control of where people stood or moved, above all, of a certain light. I wrote Waiting for Godot.’ (Beckett)

Ironically, this smaller space manages to become textually voluminous in its many reference: its sparseness of form, it textual silence, is the occasion for a quasi-Lacanian appearance of the Signified—that is, its absence is registered. So, while metonymy functions in the various repetitions, the occasional broken reference, silence, syntactical “tatter,” etc. become points de capitan—i.e. the emergence of metaphor. This play, between repetitive habit and the break in that habit, is central to Beckett’s dramatic “ontology”:

Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit. Breathing is habit. Life is habit. Or rather life is a succession of habits, since the individual is a succession of individuals. The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day. (Beckett)

In other words, Beckett fully accepts Freud’s notion of the death drive, but reverses its affective force by granting it creative power. The idea of an identity that constantly changes is potentially liberating, if chaotic. Elsewhere, Beckett writes, “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist.”



Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness (1899)

Unnamed narrator introduces Marlow. He tells a story on the Nellie, a ship floating on the Thames. The story begins: he can’t find a job, but eventually takes one that will involve traveling into the interior of the Congo as the captain of a ship, where he will help with the ivory trade. He says good-bye to his aunt and sets off. He arrives at the “Central Trading Station.” run by a dubious “Manager.” The boat sinks and Marlow suspects him of sabotage. Marlow keeps hearing about Kurtz. He eventually goes up stream with a small crew. They are attacked, but eventually arrive at Kurtz’s station. With his astounding “eloquence” he has convinced the natives to treat him like a god. He is deathly ill, so Marlow takes him on board. Just before he dies, he gives Marlow some papers, and pronounces “The horror! The horror!” Marlow returns to London where he seeks out Kurtz’s “Intended.” He cannot bear to tell her his final words. He lies by telling her that he last said her name.

Bureaucracy – The opening section is largely about the inefficient bureaucracy plaguing the Imperial project. The manger is the definition of Weber’s bad bureaucrat. Michael Levenson reads the tension between good and bad social forms (between crippling bureaucracy and Kurtz’s “charisma”) being supplanted by “a nightmarish choice between social venality and passionate license,” and “ends by offering the individual moral psyche as a slim third term between these weighty alternatives” (Norton, 403). Marlow is the one who seeks to cultivate this third term, which manifests itself in the style of the narrative itself:

Conrad longs to overcome the separation between fact and value; he longs to see value lodged securely in fact–“the redeeming facts of life”–so that the individual need not rely on the rickety apparatus of social ethics. (404)

Opposed to an ethics of the social, “Conrad” asserts the sensuous as the domain of judgment–which includes the second and third critique. 

This can be connected with the self-conscious attention to the “surface of things” in both Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, as well as in the Preface to the Nigger of Narcissus:

Fine sentiments be hanged! I had no time. I had to mess about with white-lead strips of woolen blanket helping to put bandages on those leaky steam-pipes–I tell you. I had to watch the steering and circumvent those snags and get the tin-pot along by hook or by crook. There was surface-truth enough in these things to save a wiser man. (38)

This falls more or less into Ian Watt’s reading of Heart of Darkness as an education in impressionistic narration. The closing bars of the novel portray the Thames with a vividness learned in the heart of darkness. Conrad, narrator, Marlow: the three join in the truth of cohesive artistic project.

But this reading does not account for the “lie” that Marlow tell to the Intended. The nameless fiancé stands in for the outer limit which a bourgeois  ideology fixes on Conrad’s art. The “horrible” truth must be suppressed in order to sustain the narrative overcoming of the fact-value distinction. In this sense, the act of narration participates in the violence of historical imperialism. What was at first “just a hole” (14), becomes “ostentatious holes to bury stuff in” (50), and then finally Kurtz’s unmarked grave: “the pilgrims buried something in a muddy hole” (69): sensory impression, empirical report, ideological concealment. Perhaps this also could be rounded out into a critique of intentionality (the Intended)  in general (cf. Levinas, M-P, ALF).

The problem of endings is  also a way to talk about Kurtz’s cry “the horror, the horror.” Marlow wonders: “Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge?” Marlow recalls, “It was as though a veil had been rent” (68). Talk about how this “rent” and glimpse into “complete knowledge” is withheld in Lord Jim. Also, compare Marlow’s question to the one asked by Yeats in “Leda and the Swan”: did she take on is knowledge. These are questions about history, about the violence of history. About the possibility or impossibility of narrating that violence. Connect this with Benjamin’s “The Storyteller” and also to Arendt’s comments on “Action” in The Human Condition.

Maps (page 11) – Marlow and Conrad are both obsessed with the colonial map–with the spread of the colonial flag, but also with the blank spaces that represent opportunities for the adventure that is writing itself. Connect this with Naipaul’s A Way in the World, with Moretti’s work on the bildungsroman, and with Peter Brook’s stuff on plotting and mapping in the novel.

Life as (Modern) Art: “that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose” (69).

The heart as a symbol and device  in Conrad, Yeats and Ford Maddox Ford.




An attempt on Conrad’s part to overcome the fact-value distinction. We have contrast between good and bad bureaucracy in the opening, that turns into a contrast, in the second half of the novel, between rigid social control and unrestrained passionated license. Between these two alternatives, Conrad tries to insert his impressionism. which would imbue sensuous judgment with moral judgment–a sort of compression of the second and third critiques. Curiously, for the novel to emerge into this aesthetic reality (so that Marlow can read the Thames as a “heart of darkness,” a social commentary in itself) Marlow needs to lie to the intended. He lies in order to conceal the violence that makes possible Kurtz’s knowledge into socially suitable form.

This connects to other books in which Imperial violence is forceful repressed, as in, for instance, Howard’s End and Mrs. Dalloway.

This connects in very interesting ways to some of Conrad’s non-fiction…he is constantly trying to bring the whole into the particular….every line must carry the full weight of the whole…first line of the Preface. But also, in his work on Henry James, we see Conrad trying to claim for the novelist the position of an historian: an historian of human experience. in this way, we can connect Conrad’s desire to merge fact and value to Yeats’ attempts to render history aesthetic in Easter 1916 and Leda and the Swan.


E.M. Forster – Howard’s End (1910)

Start off with letters written from Helen Schlegel to her sister Margaret about her  (Helen’s) stay with the Wilcoxes. She’s fallen in love with youngest son Paul, which sparks a minor scandal. Mrs. Wilcox, the elm-tree symbolizing everything old and passing in England, settles everything. Time passes. Helena and Meg, and their younger brother Tibby (figure for Forster), go to a Beethoven concert where they meet Leonard Bast because Helen accidentally took is umbrella. The Wilcoxes move to London and Meg and Mrs. Wilcox become friends. Meg almost goes to Howard’s End but Mrs. Wilcox dies (she leaves the house to Meg, but Henry burns the letter). Mr. Wilcox pursues and eventually marries Meg while the Schlegels are moving everything out of their childhood home. Meanwhile, Leonard, who had been advised by Henry Wilcox to change jobs, loses it all together and teeters on the abyss. Helen is upset with Wilcox, who dismisses the lower classes, whereas Helen has fairly naive notion of charitable efficacy. Meg and Henry go up North to one of his houses. Helen shows up with Bast and his wife, both of whom are basically homeless , and Helen sleeps with Bast, gets pregnant, and leaves the country. It turns out that Henry had slept with Mrs. bast while married to Mrs. Wilcox. Helen eventually returns, pregnant. Tibby accidentally tells Charles Wilcox that Leonard Bast is the father. Henry tires to take control of the situation from a moral high ground that Meg undercuts by drawing attention to their parallel situations. Charles rushes back to Howard’s End at the same time that Leonard has turned up to apologize. He hits him the dull edge of the family sword and a bunch of books fall on him. He dies from a heart attack and Charles goes to prison. Henry never recovers. Meg, Helen, Henry and Helen’s child all live at Howard’s End, while London continues to encroach.

Key Passages:

The mask fell off the city, and she [Margaret] saw it for what it really is—a caricature of infinity. The familiar barriers, the street along which she moved, the houses between which she had made her little journeys for so many years, became negligible suddenly. Helen seemed one with the grimy trees and the traffic and the slowly flowing slabs of mud. She had accomplished a hideous act of renunciation and returned to the One. Margaret’s own faith held firm. She knew the human soul will be merged, if it be merged at all, with the stars and the sea. Yet she felt her sister had been going amiss for some years. It was symbolic the catastrophe should come now, while rain fell slowly.

An instance of the “One” that does so much work in this novel: Forster is self-conscious about the position his characters and his narrator take up towards reality–the one is only as inclusive as it is exclusive. And connect this to the “bridge party” in Passage to India, where someone “needs” to be excluded if it is going to mean anything. The exclusion in Howard’s End is overt:

We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet. This story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk. (45)

Leonard Bast is constantly teetering on the borders of the narrative scope, “a goblin footfall” intimating the abrupt intrusion of the “unseen” on the “seen.” That these metaphysical categories, associated with the Schlegel “German” social idealism, map neatly onto the exclusionary politics of London society is exactly the point. In this way, it can be connected to “one of us” in Conrad’s Lord Jim, or the more overtly compromised “good people” in Ford’s The Good Soldier. Meg becomes conscious of the economic underpinnings that make possible the point of view assumed by the narrator: “islands of money” that cannot be shaken is what distinguishes her from Leonard, who always looks into the abyss. The concept of the abyss can be connected to New Grub Street‘s Reardon, who likens the process of writer’s block to walking near both a creative and economic abyss.

The concept of pastoral is also crucial: Howard’s End is slowing losing ground to the suburbs of London. Forster calls it the Age of Luggage, in which the English, no longer rooted to land, are reduced to nomads. Interesting in light of Marx’s stuff on the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism More locally, could be thought of in terms of Disareli’s “Two Englands.” that maintained a symbolic feudalism supposed to stem the cultural decline associated with capital flow.

Device vs. symbol: the wych-elm as organic symbol, the umbrella as a device that shed light on various social categories.

The ending is somehow too perfect. What is took to get to that ending: a couple deaths, an unwanted pregnancy,  and an arrest.

Also, in terms of ethics, Forster seems to be playing with the fine line between personal and systemic failures–how doe they differ and how do they converge. Can we think of personal failures as the realm of morals, and systemic failures (doing something that’s “right” but nevertheless “wrong”) as the realm of ethics? Meg finds herself negotiating these questions often.

Connect to Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, which is supposed to be a re-writing of Howard’s End. My question from Dori Hale’s class:

If a novel is meant to stand in a complicated mimetic relation to the raw material of a shared world, then what is at stake when the raw material becomes (at least in part) a shared text? The arena of critique—that convergence of text and world—becomes doubled by the convergence of text and text. Smith’s project, I want to suggest, dramatizes the non-coincidental agreement between these two convergences. The image of a rectangle (a semiotic rectangle?) presents itself. Each novel exists in horizontal relation to their perspective worlds (England 1900/America 2000) and these two relations are in vertical relation to one another.

So, concretely, the reader is asked to mediate this rectangle with questions that are always doubled: 1) Is Smith accurately representing the politics of a small liberal arts faculty? 2) Is Smith accurately translating Forster’s portrait of early 20th-century English class dynamics into the tangle of race/class dynamics of a 21st century New England college town? The doubled-question often requires a doubled, internally fractured answer: where answering affirmative to the first requires answering in the negative to second, and visa-versa. This does two things:

1) It makes a case for the strong relevance of an historical text to our cotemporary world, but qualifies this claim by enacting a creative appropriation (reading/writing) of the text as the pre-condition for relevance. Read this way, On Beauty is a long allegory for the practice of good reading. I’m thinking here of folks like Miller, Derrida, and Guillory, all of whom claim that (close) reading is the ethical practice par excellence. Wouldn’t mind talking about this claim in context of Smith.

2) According to the introduction to Thinking Allegory Otherwise, a recent collection of essays published by Stanford UP (don’t recall it, I’ll know it was you!), “The standard definition for “allegory” is to say one thing and mean another. Allegory has always demanded that we think otherwise” (7). What is this otherwise? In the case of On Beauty, I think it might be those spaces of non-coincidence, when the rectangle I described earlier fails to contain the doubled mimesis of text-world/text-text. So, this second point dramatizes the failure of the first, and the novel becomes a way of measuring these failures.

Where does this happen in the text? This is a question that needs asking, because Smith’s novel demands that we hear “Where does this happen in the world” each time we ask it. I’m not up to the task just now.


Henry James – The Wings of the Dove (1902)

Kate Croy, the child of a poor and socially scorned father, is given the choice to be brought up by her aunt or stay with her father. She stays with aunt, but her desire to be married to Merton Densher, a poor British journalist, is complicated by her Aunt Maud Lowden’s desire to marry her well (to Lord Mark). Merton and Kate declare an informal engagement before he leaves for the US on an assignment from his newspaper. While there, we learn that he has met Milly Theale, a fabulously rich but somewhat culturally naive American, and Susan Shepherd, her culturally savvy tag-along. They are traveling in Italy, but decide to go to London, where they fall in with the crowd at Lancaster Gate. Everyone likes everyone else, but everyone also “working” everyone else according to their “quantity” and ability to “give.” Milly confides in Kate that she has a terminal disease. Merton returns and Kate tries to convince him to marry Milly (with the secret intention of her dying and leaving her money to Merton so that she can then marry Merton and have Milly’s money). Milly goes to Venice and everyone follows. Merton is conflicted about what to do, and Lord Mark has suspicions: he suspects that Merton and Kate are engaged despite Milly’s insistence that Merton has declared his love for her. Lord Mark spills the beans and Milly dies. She leaves some money to Merton anyway, but he refuses to take the money and instead says that Kate can have the money (but she will lose him) or she can refuse the money and marry. Merton says, I will marry you in an hour “as we were,” but Milly responds, “We will never be as we were.”

Combines, in James terms, “the narrative and dramatic lock,” but the theatrical melodrama, of which there is a lot, takes place “offstage”: we do not see the betrayal of the conspiracy, its revelation to Milly, or the immediate effects on Milly.

Milly’s “gift” to Merton and Kate has a similar damaging effect as it does Ralph Touchet’s “gift” to Isobel Archer: she is given social freedom, but it destroys her by “grinding her into conventionality.” However, Milly’s gift is also the opportunity for these two individuals to separate and gain a certain amount of narrative freedom. But it is through a refusal that such freedom is gained. Talk about this in relation to James shift from omniscient narrator to the creator of the “Scenario.”

Figure of the Dove. Taken from Psalms: David wishes to be a dove so that he may avoid death, but God is also likened to a Dove that descends and protects. How is Milly both? And does this bird differ from, say, the eagle in Isaiah that soars on wings because of a trust in the Lord that grants a renewal of strength. The Dove is inherently weak. The wings are also tipped with gold (connect to Golden Bowl and all the other instances of Golden (Marius, Dorian Gray, Mill on the Floss, Tale of Two Cities)). Simply put, Milly in life plays the object of desire (a dove that can be petted) to the a subject of desire in death that literally envelops all the characters.

Quantity – People are often referred to as quantities. This successfully integrates characters into the perverted circuit of gifts that sustains the rampant exploitation of London society. Also, Aunt Maud is referred to as “large,” as if James is playing with the idea that enough of something, anything, can tip over into a quality in itself. This is what happens to Milly’s money in the end: does it convert into a love? Perhaps, but a love that makes an impossible demand if it is taken up.

Life – As in the Ambassadors, Milly is obsessed with “living.” She goes to London readying herself for the “assault of life.” The anxiety of living a full life runs throughout James work, finding its most refined expression in “The Beast in Jungle,” where Marcher confides to May that his one flaw (what  makes him unique) is his sense of perpetual anticipation. May dies knowing that what he has been waiting for has come: the terrible realization that he has wasted a life in waiting. Leo Bersani associates the indefinable “It” for which Marcher is waiting with the Freudian “Id” which contains the pure potentiality of unconscious desire. In James this expectancy and potentiality becomes constitutive of the subject itself: Can we read Densher’s final freedom (and his gift of freedom to Kate) as pure potentiality? Importantly, this must be routed through an indirect object: Kate’s gold.

Thingliness – Use Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology to talk about how emotions, states of consciousness, desire, relations, take on texture: “the sticky and slippery couch” on the first page, the sheer density of the perceptual field when Merton visits Aunt Maud for the first time is disarming, crowding out the ability to think lucidly. Aunt Maud treats Merton with a “softness…the quality of fin velvet, menat to fold thick, but stretched a little thin” (502).

Sickness – Compare to The Good Soldier, in which bourgeois Londoners are constantly afflicted with “heart problems” that do not in fact exist as a pretext for traveling to a spa, where they can carry on elicit affairs with one another. The one character that does die of a heart problem (Maisie Maiden swallowed by a suitcase) is the one persistently abused by everyone else, especially Edward.

Novel as mode of enquiry – how can we conceive of late James novels as modes of enquiry into the incalculable adjustments and comportments that lead to subject formation. Can we think about it in terms of the temporal limit of affect–not where affect ends but where it beings–where the concessions, intersubjective emotions, etc.make possible a subject but do not bind that subject at the other end? Wings of the Dove refuses to put a limit on the affectively possible: it is rendered (however negatively) as the pure potential of not exercising an exploitative power.

Elizabeth Barret Browning – Aurora Leigh (1856)

A Verse-Novel that strains to the condition of a modern epic. According to Browning, “The poem I am about will fill a volume when done. It is…written in blank verse, in the autobiographical form; the heroine, an artist woman–not a painter, mind. It is intensely modern, crammed from the times (not the ‘Times’ newspaper) as far as my strength will allow.” The narrative is simple: Aurora Leigh, born in Italy, becomes an orphan at a young age and is shipped back to England to be raised by her conventional aunt, who discourages her artistic endeavors. At the age of 21, her cousin Romney asks her to marry him and also to give up her poetic enterprise in order to fight contemporary social evils. Aurora declines, claiming equal importance for her art. At book 5, the narrative shifts to the theme of writing itself. Aurora eventually hears that Romney has decided to marry the indigent Marian Erle, but she stands him up on the wedding day. Aurora runs into her and hears her violent story, takes her and her child to Italy, where the now blind Romney eventually meets them. In the much more novelistic conclusion, Aurora and Romney marry.

Mixes all genres together, including lyric, epic and novel. Browning is self-conscious about the formlessness of the poem–“I’m writing like a poet, somewhat large” (Henry James would call it “muddy,” Woolf would call it absurd but exhilarating):

What form is best for poems? Let me think
Of forms less, and the external. Trust the spirit…
Inward evermore
To outward–so in life, and so in art
Which still is life. (v.223-228)

The closing bars of the poem are particularly novelistic, as if the novel becomes necessary for the consolidation of the lyric. Can talk about the end as a zone of poetic emergency, to use Agamben’s terms. Coincides with the conventional marriage (similar endings in David Copperfield (1850), Bleak House (1852), North and South (1854)). Do we consider this coda as extra-diagetic? How can we realte this mixing of genres to Bakhtin’s heteroglossia on the one hand, and Lukacs theory of epic on other other? One can at least ay that there is no simple one-to-one relationship between the subject and the world…rather, the soul is amalgamation of many experiences across a diachronic axis:

A palimpsest, a prophet’s holograph
Defiled, erased and covered by a monk’s–
The apocalypse, by a Longus! poring on
Which obscene text, we may discern perhaps
Some fair, fine trace of what was written once,
Some upstroke of an alpha and omega
Expressing the old scripture. (i.826-32)

That which has been overwritten and must be uncovered by more writing is precisely that element of life which the work of art is able to convey, create, or hold. The question this poem asks: how can a poem hold a charge of life? How can it represent without killing (perhaps in this posing an answer to the question of “The Kraken”). We can begin to talk of an ethics of NOT REDUCING. This entails a certain vitalism that detaches LIFE from any particular subject, and redistributes it to all the objects of the outside world. Life is in everything: “Life’s violent flood / Abolished bounds–and, which my neighbor’s field, / Which mine, what mattered?”

                                             Never flinch,
But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon the burning lava song
The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age:
That when the next shall come, the men of that
May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say
Behold–behold the paps we all have sucked!
This bosom seems to beat still, or at least
It sets our beating: this is living art,
Which thus presents and thus records true life.’ (v.216-221)

This is manages a convergence of lyric and epic–a brush so close with materiality that we forget we are looking at it…so now brute materiality brushes with infinity in the zone of maximal contact with the present.

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.