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Lecture 4- George Eliot: Heroes Without Faith

Professor Neiman started her lecture with the question- ‘was she beautiful or not beautiful?’ Henry James commented that she was hideous but he was ‘literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking.’ Was this just a preoccupation of the male gaze?

Her voice and eyes were described as beautiful ‘positive light’, as if Eliot had an aura that would light up the room. Eliot was also concerned about her appearance, aware that she did not conform to conventional beauty standards. This might have been quite a stress when marriage was usually the only option for a woman’s career. Beauty, for Eliot, however went beyond the individual and she delighted in noticing the beauty of her ordinary surroundings gleamed from walks in the English countryside, she adored the simplicity of Dutch paintings. She also marvelled at the less ordinary views from the Swiss Alps and Italian lakes she was lucky enough to experience. Light, Eliot held, changes everything.

Are the true, the good and the beautiful connected? The 19th Century was more forthright is saying yes. Herbert Spencer, who denied Eliot’s affections (but they stayed friends) argued for a necessary relationship between ugly features and inferiority of intellect and character. The beautiful characters- Tito in Romola and Rosamund in Middlemarch do a lot of evil whilst the plain Mary Garth is the most sensible person in Middlemarch. The writer Mrs Gaskell ‘hoped against hope’ that Marian Evans was not the author of Adam Bede that she thought was so beautiful and noble. Evans decided to adopt a pen name to ensure that her books were read at all, so as to not let her personal situation of living with a married man (a Victorian scandal!) overshadow her work. Eliot did not dismiss this thinking, but reflected on it in her writing and defended Adam Bede for loving an empty-headed beautiful girl. Neiman also posed that this question of the relationship of beauty, truth and goodness is important today with the newer generation’s obsession with appearance.

Another question might be- was Eliot an artist or a philosopher? Neiman reminded the audience that the 19th century did not have the strict disciplinary barriers we put up today. Eliot’s common-law husband George Henry Lewes was known as a playwright, writer, historian and psychologist. The two philosophers she translated, Spinoza and Feuerbach, celebrated the unity of body and mind. Eliot was rigorously studious. She was fluent in multiple languages, read the classics, French and German philosophy and even anthropology and medicine and took private lessons after she finished High School. Eliot was critiqued for her novels being too concerned with morality or principles, or for Bloom, lacking in humour. The question of ‘how shall we live’ is clearly evident in Eliot’s works that, for Neiman, puts her mission in line with the philosophers.

Her rise to fame and recognition was not plain sailing. Mary Ann Evans scrimped to survive in London as a freelancer and was not publicly recognized (or well reimbursed) for the editorship of the quarterly Westminster Review, founded by Jeremy Bentham, but having that position showcases how her brilliance was admired. Her elopement to Germany with Mr Lewes, a married man with four children, lost her friends and supporters- even her brother shunned her. Because of this life choice she was denied being buried in the poets corner of Westminster Abbey. Their love however extended beyond the usual. Eliot would find sea urchins for Lewes’ marine biology study and he would spend hours in libraries forbidden for women researching for her. Lewes posed that Eliot should try writing fiction, and her success by her second book cast them free from social stigma. Already suffering with depression frequently, Lewes’ death was a huge blow for Eliot- she could not bring herself to attend his funeral. 18 months later she remarried but she died seven months after the wedding and was buried next to Lewes.

Neiman believes that what sets Eliot’s life apart from other female novelists of her time was her ability to challenge her conventional norms, especially those that restricted women.

Her work offers an analysis of modern heroism.  It shows us how intellectual virtues, above all a commitment to honesty, become moral ones, and both have to do with taste.  The true, the good and the beautiful are not identical, and their appearance may surprise you.  At their best, however, they resonate, and light each others’ ways.

Her departure from her childhood faith came with costs. Turning away from faith however did not result in her disliking religion, or reducing it as a source of relief such as Freud or an intoxicating substance such as Marx. Biblical criticism, geological studies and Darwin presented her with her struggle. Giving up providence was her biggest struggle. Mirroring Job she rejected the mysterious meaning of injustice in the world and instead dwelt with the question; why is there such a gap between the way the world is, and the way it ought to be?’ “No wonder beauty became so central, and so fraught. It might have little to do with reason, or even meaning, but it offered a whiff of beckoned consolation.” A reoccurring theme in her novels is finding the reasons to be glad you were born. She believed these could come only from other people.

Reflecting on Nietzsche’s thought that the death of G-d and the loss of belief in Providence undermined morality, Neiman shared that we are living in the shadows of Nietzsche’s prophecy where the absence of ‘clear foundations’ lead people to nihilism or fanaticism. Eliot criticized those who only behave morally from a fear of hell,

…if you feel no motive to

common morality but your fear of a criminal bar in heaven,

you are decidedly a man for the police on earth to keep their

eye on, since it is a matter of world-old experience that fear

of distant consequences is a very insufficient barrier against

the rush of immediate desire.”

Eliot wanted to show how individuals undertake moral education to develop from the animal root of our natures to the social ideal. Neiman illustrated this with the struggles of bringing up toddlers.

Eliot’s approach is hardly uniform- her novels like to show the complexity of humanity and also present ultimately good characters who also have flaws. “Each of her novels offers minute analyses of the struggles of many quite different people, showing how their paths toward, or away from moral heroism are composed of small and distinct decisions.” Her realistic analyses do not lend themselves to romantic modelling.

This realism extends to the common theme of marriage in her books. She focused on the post-fairytale wedding and although it may seem untasteful today for a woman to focus on romance, this was the most important decision (or journey) a woman could make in the Victorian era, and are still the most important life decisions men and women make today.  Middlemarch captures the different failures of Dorothea and Lydgate, one fantasizing an image of a man and the other’s short-slightness not realizing that the woman he is enchanted by will ruin his life, for they have nothing in common. Her narrative extends beyond the implications of marriage for women and she encourages men to think more carefully about their erotic choices.

She wrote to Charles Bray, all she wanted her books to achieve was that “those who read them should be better able to imagine and feel the pains and joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.” (Maddox, p. 103). Her novels, alongside sitting in the philosophical realm, also have pertinent political ramifications. The gentry were not treated well in her novels showing her heart for the working classes. She remarked on several occasions “if poverty and oppression produced happy, generous souls, there would be no reason to oppose poverty and oppression.” She believed in gradualism and had a lot of skepticism around violent political upheavals. Against much of the prejudices of her time, she advocated for education and cultural sharing with the working classes. Ignorance and poverty could be changed and transformed by the influence of remarkable people.

We do not have a clear vision of her political vision, though universalism is key. Neiman relayed that anti-racism is a continuous theme where she shows disgust towards Anti-Semitism, her drama The Spanish Gypsy sympathizes with Roma people and questions Spanish imperialism, she argues against prejudice to black and Irish people and even questions British colonialism in India. She had a strong belief in nationalism and people being united by a strong community.

If Plato’s central question was how to live?, Eliot’s is more focused:  how to live in a world without reason or meaning, a world that is only accidentally related to our needs, including the need for justice?

She aimed to present the possibility- and difficulty- of moral behaviour, and give reassurance that some people can actually achieve it and overcome the internal and external barriers. The words ‘light’ and ‘vitality’ are often found in her works. For Eliot, it seems her most dreaded state is that of a person, like Henleigh Grandcourt in Daniel Deronda, who has no interest in life itself. These are the signs of the death of the soul. Neiman praises the ‘luminous’ vitality of Eliot that she managed to capture and share through her writing. Her curiosity for the world naturally ‘elevated’ her conversation partner or reader to a higher sphere to search with her for truth.


Blog Response Rachel Zimmerman

Beginning with “was she beautiful or not beautiful?” Neiman invited us to consider a whole host of contradictions and complexities at the center of George Eliot’s life and work. Her comment that Eliot’s works have “mythological reverberations” while maintaining a realism antithetical to myth was particularly striking to me—it seems especially applicable to Middlemarch (which also happens to be my favorite nineteenth-century novel).

Middlemarch, which runs to just over one thousand pages in my edition, feels mythological in its breadth; and the characters and their associated imagery have a vividness which makes them linger long after in the mind of the reader. Casaubon is more than the cause of Dorothea’s marital unhappiness—the vivid imagery of him perpetually wandering among the winding and windowless passages of his own limited imagination embodies the fear of every academic who has questioned the value, meaning, and outcome of their own work. And the image of Dorothea, whose name is so often paired with “ardentness,” embodies the grandness and generosity of purpose at the heart not only of Middlemarch, but, as Neiman suggests, of Eliot’s whole body of work.

But for all the capacity of these images to grip us, Neiman is right to emphasize the realism of Eliot’s work—both the relentless realism which allows Dorothea a harrowing but narrow escape from an unhappy marriage, but which doesn’t allow the same prospect for Lydgate, and the psychological realism which thoroughly brings mixed motivations to the surface. Throughout Middlemarch, Eliot, via the narrator, insistently reminds us to consider the complexity of the whole person. We see Casaubon’s glaring flaws, but Eliot does not allow us to criticize him without first acknowledging two things: the misery at the heart of his egotism and the degree to which, if we are honest as readers, we can see ourselves in Casaubon. As Neiman has shown us, Eliot is skilled in revealing the mixture of motivations at the center of the human heart. To read Middlemarch is to have the humbling experience of empathizing with characters who are otherwise easy to critique.  Her realism encourages us not only to see the interior world of others more clearly, but to sympathize with them. And furthermore, as Neiman has told us, Eliot encourages us to find them interesting. As we become invested in Eliot’s characters, we are meant to look to the people populating our own worlds and become invested in them.

This is the moral heart of Middlemarch, and, as Neiman has articulated, of Eliot herself. And I think it could be said that in Middlemarch, the morality is inextricably bound up with Eliot as narrator. It is this narrator who carefully presents us with the flaws and strengths of the characters, who exposes the complex web of motivations, and who compels us with brief exclamations to sympathize with them (“Poor Lydgate! Poor Rosamond!”). The narrator of Middlemarch holds together a ruthless scrutiny of motives on the one hand with a constant measure of warmth and generosity. If Eliot does not grant her characters Providentially meaningful endings, she does provide a clear moral voice which weaves meaning into the motivations and desires of her characters. As Neiman has pointed out, she affirms Mary Garth’s honesty and Dorothea’s ardentness, while exposing Casaubon’s egotism and Bulstrode’s hypocrisy.

To step back from Middlemarch for a moment, I want to briefly connect Eliot to a writer who lived a century after her, but whose ideas form a striking parallel with Eliot’s. Eliot has something in common with Viktor Frankl, a mid-twentieth century Austrian psychologist who survived the Nazi concentration camps and went on to write Man’s Search for Meaning, a book part memoir, part theory. Frankl argues that a meaning, or purpose, is central to human life and flourishing, a theory which he articulates in full and grounds in personal experience. Frankl directly articulates the worldview which, as Neiman has demonstrated, belongs to Eliot. He addresses a world in which not only the sense of Divine providence, but guiding tradition, is gone: in this vacuum, where can human beings find a clear sense of meaning and purpose? For Frankl, the possibility is available to every individual—but the key is to look outside of oneself.  He writes,

. . . being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfil or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. (111)

I think this quotation of Frankl’s captures an essential aspect of Eliot’s aim across her work—especially in Middlemarch. Both Frankl and Eliot see the next step forward, for human beings afflicted with the sense of meaningless and uncertainty, is to look outward. Both Eliot and Frankl believe that human meaning and purpose is bound up in looking beyond the egotistic trap of the self to clearly seeing and embracing others. As Neiman has demonstrated, this is the experience of reading her work (e.g. Middlemarch)—gradually becoming acquainted with the interior worlds of characters beyond, and unlike, yourself, and seeing the possibilities through which you can participate in the world around you with generosity and mercy.

But perhaps an area where Eliot departs from Frankl is her moral imperative to look outward in a very specific kind of way. In Neiman’s words, from Middlemarch we learn “the fundamental steps to moral awakening: enlarging our sympathies to understand others’ perspectives, ruthlessly questioning our own motivations.” And should each individual do this, the potential for good is great. But I wonder about the degree to which this is possible for us as individuals who are so easily self-deceived. Middlemarch offers a glimpse of a world not ordinarily available to us, where motives are laid bare and individuals can be known in full—through the clear and balanced vision of a narrator. The glimpse Eliot offers us is both encouraging, as Neiman has shown, but also perhaps leaves us longing for such a narrator for our own everyday lives, to make clear the hidden motives in ourselves and in others.

1 reply to “Lecture 4- George Eliot: Heroes Without Faith”

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