Tag Archives: George Eliot

George Eliot – Silas Marner (1861)

PLOT: Silas Marner, a weaver living in Lantern Yard, is excommunicated after he is framed for robbery by one of the religious elders in his town, who eventually marries the woman Silas had been intending to marry. He leaves and goes to Raveloe, where he weaves on the outskirts of town, amassing a fair amount of gold in the process. Meanwhile, Godfrey Cass (son of Squire Cass) is in a monetary pickle after leading to his dissolute brother Dunsten. To get out of the bind, he lets Dunsten try to sell his horse, but he manages to kill it in the process. Desperate, he robs Silas Marner and goes out into the night. Silas comes home and is stricken with loss–his gold having been his sole comfort and companion. He goes into town, but the thief cannot be found. Meanwhile Godfrey sets about wooing Nancy, the town belle. There’s a big New Year’s party that’s interrupted when Silas comes to announce that a woman has collapsed outside and that a baby has crawled into his house, etc. The woman turns out to be Molly, Godfrey’s first wife that he has tried to hide. He is relieved, and deos not claim his child, who has telling golden hair. Silas raises Eppie. Sixteen years pass. Godfrey has married (no children) and Eppie has grown up. Godfrey finds the skeleton of his brother in the Stone Pits outside Silas’ house. The money is returned. Godfrey confesses all to Nancy, tries to go reclaim Eppie but she refuses. She marries a rustic boy from town named Aaron after her and Silas visit Lantern Yard and see that it has been replaced with a grim factory.

Written between Mill on the Floss and Romola, but it shares, strangely, many of the the mythical preoccupations of the latter historical novel. It is a short, concentrated portrait of rustic life, that is deliberately a-historical (as opposed to Middlemarch)

Gold: the golden coins get replaced by Eppie’s golden hair. The coins allowed him to withdraw from society, whereas Eppie forces him back into social “circulation.”  Connect to the “golden” water at the end of Mill on the Floss: the pastoral can only be accessed through the protocols of the aesthetic: in Silas Marner, deployed as myth and myth-making.

Myth: Not located in a particular time or space. Employs the “sixteen years pass” trope, recognizable from The Winter’s Tale, etc.

History: It consists of the breaking of brown pots and their reconstruction as memorials–c’est tout–or can consist of artistic intervention, plotting, etc (the novel as such). The intrusion of historical time at the end of the novel (factory churning out workers) stands in stark contrast to the de-historicized world of craft and agriculture (Eppie wants to be a gardener). Compare to the ending of Mill on the Floss.

Work: Silas’ work, the act of weaving, has meaning-making capacity. Talk about in terms of craft: Ruskin, William Morris, etc.

Double-plot: a paired down version of a device that will be exploited more fully in Daniel Deronda.

Repeated image of the rivulet: Silas’ mind is likened to a rivulet, which contracts and expands throughout. As Eppie grows up, his mind begins to unfold into things like memory and the social.

Catalepsy: why does Eliot need Silas to be cataleptic? Discuss as plot device.

Short-sighted: Silas is also literally short-sighted. Why these physical disabilities?



“George Eliot,” by Jill L. Matus

Barbara Bodichon described Mary Ann Evans as having a “great big head and heart…[and] wise wide views.” Reviled for her aberrant conjugal situation, she emerged later in life, despite attempts to maintain anonymity, as a Victorian sage, asked for by Queen Victoria herself (they shared a birthday). Matus points out that Adam Bede hit the literary scene jsut as England was ready for an emergent novelist: all the Brontës were dead, Dickens had been established for a good while, Thackeray had just published Esmond and would die three years later. Eliot was conscious of her role as woman-author: she looked down on the frivolous nature of many “silly” women writers.

Eliot had an ethics of art: “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.” One thinks of her ability to render the rather obdurate otherness of Causabon in a sympathetic manner. She pits truthful representations of ordinary life against the sentimental and the euphemistic. But this realism is above all psychological, even if these psyches that go under the knife of Eliot’s incisive pen are historical and social products. They are caught up in a “web” that is never fully visible to the character…only to the Omniscient narrator.  Matus draws the analogy to Lydgate’s research in Middlemarch:

[TO] pierce the obscurity of those minute processes which prepare human misery and joy, those invisible thoroughfares which are the first lurking-places of anguish, mania, and crime, that delicate poise and transition that determine the growth of happy ir unhappy unconsciousness.

Crucially, the emotions are physical not mental processes. In Eliot, the body, soul and mind are inextricable linked together, and they are all in turn linked to society and history. Whereas Charlotte Brontë might access the interior of Jane via a sejour in the frist person; Eliot mediates the interior by way of an analytic, reflective, incisive narrator. Interesting to compare this narrator to the “intrusive” narrator of Thackeray and Trollope. She uses Bulstrode, not a particuarly reflective character, as an example of what Eliot’s method can do: thinking oneself into the place of an other even when the character is unable to fully articualte their subjective position:

Who can know how much of his most inmost life is made up of thoughts he believes other men to have about him, until that fabric of opinion is threatened with ruin?


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.

Mill on the Floss (1860)

Maggie and Tom, children of Bessy (Dodson) and Tom Tulliver are best friends: Tom is domineering and block-headed while Maggie is free-spirited, intelligent, but submissive to Tom’s wishes. Mr. Tulliver manages his finances poorly, which makes the Dodson sisters angry and judgmental of the Dodson line–they consign Maggie to that branch of the family. Tulliver goes into debt at some point in time (compounded by the fact that he has leant money to his sister Mrs. Moss and does not demand its repayment) and Mr. Wakem takes the Dorlcote Mill. Waken is Philip Wakem’s father, an effete schoolmate of Tom’s who loves Maggie. Maggie promises herself to Philip (a cripple from birth?), despite the fact that Tom will not allow for there to be any connection. Tulliver eventually dies, but not before Tom manages to earn enough money to pay all of his debts. This happens simultaneously. While Tom sets out to buy back the Mill (the dying wish of his father) Maggie goes into town to live with her cousin Lucy, who is being courted by Stephen Guest. Stephen falls in love with Maggie, but Maggie resists him for the sake of both Lucy and Philip (whom she has seen clandestinely many times, up until Tom caught them. However, Stephen manages to get her to go on a boat ride that carries them beyond the point of their intended meeting with Lucy. They stay out all night. Maggie still refuses to marry Stephen, despite the fact that this would effectively clear her name. Stephen goes abroad and Maggie moves in with the town priest, and begins working to rebuild her name. Tom eventually gets the mill back but one evening the flood comes. Maggie leaves her abode (staying with childhood admirer Bill and family) and canoes over to Tom. She saves him from the house, but they are taken under by the debris. Town life continues; nature repairs its wounds. Tom and Maggie are buried together.


Strange narration frame: the impossible anonymous narrator that opens the story does not return to close it.

Flood imagery: throughout water is associated with the dangerous overflow of sentiment: different only in degree from the violent flood that will wipe away the lives of Maggie, Tom, and the novel itself. Connect with discourse of passion and sensibility.

Pastoral: Tom and Maggie’s childhood is Wordsworthian to the hilt. Their transition to adulthood is premised on a move to the urban as well as a consciousness of capital flow and debt. The allegorical connection with England as a whole is unmistakeable.

Characters: As with Silas Marner and Adam Bede, this is a portrait of low people, with the intention of uncovering the tragic in the everyday. Works by apophasis when saying: these stories do not ever get recorded.

Ending: Violent means of solving many oft he tension that Eliot could not otherwise resolve–in particular, the elicit romance between Tom and Maggie. It also is aestheticized (cf. Koven), and thus the death of the characters presages and conditions the move to a mode of representation that can adequately sublimate violence, rather than merely convey or mime it.

Debt: The crucial plot-mover in the novel. Linked with death in that Tulliver can only die when the debt is payed. Link with notion of equilibrium, etc. (Freud, Brooks). It also establishes its own narrative arc that is superseded by the romance that its structure cannot contain. Thus a “normal novel” would end with Tom’s reclamation of the Mill, but this narrative overshoots itself by attempting to pick up the uncontainable energies of Maggie.

Education: Contrast Philip, Tom and Maggie in terms of educational success. A rustic vs. cosmopolitan education, etc.

History: read as an aestheticized historical novel, a eulogy to a time that now exceeds the bounds of representation. How does this history relate to the capacity remember…and how does this relate to the memorializing impulse?



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.

Secondary – Daniel Deronda

Terry Eagleton delvers a common verdict on Daniel Deronda when he argues that the utopianism of the Jewish plot, with its accompanying ideal of organic totality, disavows the unstable conditions of modernity so vividly depicted in the Gwendolen Harleth plot, with its countervailing emphasis on exchange value, amoralism, contingency, and sheer will to power.

At the most basic level, it is clear that she sought to insert the nineteenth century European Jew fully into the modern project of nation-building…Through the figure of Deronda, a nascent Jewish nationalism is projected as exemplary, along with the future state it heralds. By this reading Judaism does not obediently subordinate itself to the dictates of modernity, but rather makes good on modernity’s most important and defensible ideals: self-reflective affirmation of cultural heritage, individual and political self-determination, democratic will-formation, and recognition of cultural differences. And as Eliot’s portrayal of Deronda persistently implies, all of these ideals are only made possible through the careful cultivation of dialogic openness—to the individual other, to one’s own cultural heritage(s), and to other cultures.

Amanda Anderson, George Eliot and the Jewish Question [Read this as dialogue between Arnold’s conception of culture (eternal pregnancy) and Schiller’s utopian ideal of the merging of perception and creation…]



In her compelling “double-reading” of Deronda Cynthia Chase argues that this tension between the explanatory power of origin and the subversion of origin’s causal potency finds a larger expression in the tension between the two plots. She argues that the “English Part” works through irony and satire to undermine the “system of assumptions about teleological and representational structure” that characterize the “Jewish Part” and realist fiction more generally (216). “On the one hand,” Chase claims, “the narrator’s account emphatically affirms its [Deronda’s origin] causal character. On the other hand, the plot and overall strategy of the novel conspicuously call attention to its status as the effect of tactical requirements” (218).

Cynthia Chase, “The Decomposition of Elephants: Double-Reading Daniel Deronda.” [my paraphrase]


From the beginning, Daniel’s response is figured as a struggle between a conventional, rational dismissal of Mordecai’s plea and a stronger impulse to suspend judgment and open himself to other possibilities.

Rachel Hollander, “Daniel Deronda and the Ethics of Alterity”



George Eliot – Daniel Deronda (1876)

Begins with the English plot: Daniel sees Gwendolen at a roulette table (in Germany), finds her attractive, sees her pawn a necklace (which he buys back and returns to her). Flashback to when Gwendolen meets Henleigh Grandcourt, whom she almost marries until finding out that he has a separate family with Miss Glasher. She flees. Meanwhile, Daniel (who is being raised by Sir Hugo Mallinger) sees Mirah Lapidoth floating in the river. He saves her, and eventually gets mixed up with Mordecai Cohen, the consumptive Jewish mystic who dreams of Gemeinschaft and utopia. Meanwhile, Gwendolen tries to avoid marriage by becoming a singer but Klesmer tells her straight that she’s not an artist, only a dilettante. She eventually marries Grandcourt, thinking she can tame him, but she fails. They go to Italy on their honeymoon, where Grandcourt drowns (Gwendolen hesitates to save him and is then racked with guilt). Daniel is in the same town, where he meets his mother, Princess Halm Eberstein. She tells him that she was asked to raise him as an English gentleman with no knowledge of his Jewishness. He returns feeling better about his connection to Mirah, marries her. Gwendolen, in love with Daniel, is rejected by him, and instead she gets a little moral lesson by being good, etc. She eventually writes a litter on Daniel’s wedding day telling him she has been made better. Mordecai dies, and Dan and Mirah set off to the East to help the Jewish race.


The double plot. Relate to Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy. Different temporalities. Stultified English cultue vs. vibrant Jewish gemeinschaft. Different ethical systems. Read out of Hume and Smith, look forward to Levinas. Displacing, getting rid of the protagonist, the narratable exceeding the narrative (cf. Miller).

The thread, its relation to history

Insect metaphors (relate to Darwin)

Cynthia Chase argument “Double-reading”

Amanda Anderson on Jews and Deronda

Daniel as aimless type