First of the Great Psychological Novelists
George Eliot is one of the ‘founding-fathers’ of the modern psychological novel. As W.J. Long points out, “George Eliot sought to do in her novels what Browning attempted in his poetry; that is, to represent the inner struggle of a soul, and to reveal the motives, impulses and hereditary influences which govern human action. Browning generally stops when he tells his story and either lets you draw your own conclusion or else gives you his in a few striking lines. But George Eliot is not content until she has minutely explained the motives of her characters and the moral lesson to be learnt from them. Moreover, it is the development of a soul, the slow growth or decline of moral power, which chiefly interests her.Her heroes and heroines differ radically from those of Dickens and Thackeray in this respect that when we meet the men and women of the latter novelists, their characters are already formed, and we are reasonably sure what they will do under given circumstances. In George Eliot’s novels the characters develop gradually as we come to know them. They go from weakness to strength or from strength to weakness, according to the works they do and the thoughts that they cherish.”
Study of Mental Processes
A.E. Baker rightly points out, “George Eliot’s sphere was the inner man; she exposed the internal clockwork. Her characters are not simply passive, and they do not standstill, they are shown making their own history, continually changing and developing as their motives issue into acts, and the acts become part of the circumstances that condition, modify, and purify or demoralise the will.” According to David Cecil, “We get behind the clock face and see the works, locate the mainspring, discover how it makes the Wheels turn. We know just how a character will behave and why; we knew exactly what special mixture of common human ingredients makes him act differently from other people.”
Adam Bede: Writing from the Inside
George Eliot’s powers of Psycho-analysis, her understanding of mental-processes, the springs of human action, the motives which impel a character to act in a particular way, are shown to great advantage in Adam Bede. Indeed, parts of the novel which have been most highly admired are those in which she analyses and dissects the souls of her characters and lays them bare before the readers. This is so much so, the case that many critics have called Adam Bede “the first psychological novel”. What makes Adam Bede the fore-runner of the psychological novel, as later exemplified by Joyce and Woolf and countless others, is that the psychology of the main characters, Adam, Seth, Hetty, Dinah, Arthur, and the Poysers, is a major theme. Eliot has written this novel principally from the inside of her characters, not from the outside, as most of her contemporaries and predecessors had done.
Analysis of Causes and Motives
For example, in the chapter called A Journey in Hope, Eliot spends far more time in Hetty’s poor brain and heart than Hetty spends on the road in her unwise search for her runaway lover. This is psychology. And the chapters immediately before and after this similarly look deeply into Hetty, and Adam, too. Although there is sufficient activity to keep the story rolling, there is much more inner activity than outer. Each chapter is concerned with only a single major episode or action, or sometimes the several parts of one action, but the analyses of the causes of the actions go on throughout.
Eliot is very deft in her psychological approach. Sometimes she simply allows us to put an instrument into a character’s brain to let us see not only what is going on there, but often also to let us see what the character himself does not see, Shortly after the death of Thias Bede, his wife Lisbeth was in the Bede home, alone with the body. After an almost ritual cleansing and purification of the chamber where Thias lay, she slumped into a chair in the kitchen and contemplated her grief: At another time, Lisbeth’s first thought would have been, “Where is Adam?” but the sudden death of her husband had restored him in these hours to that first place in her affections that he had held six-and-twenty years ago: “she had forgotten his faults as we forget the sorrows of our departed childhood, and thought of nothing but the young husband’s kindness and the old man’s patience.” This sentence is remarkable not only for its brilliant psychological insights, but also for the skill and seeming ease with which Eliot handles a sentence of almost 70 words, and the little flash of knowledge it gives us about Eliot’s own unloved childhood.
When Eliot’s characters think, we share their thoughts, much as we would the thoughts of people in novels of the 1960’s. For example, when Adam accidentally comes upon Arthur and Hetty embracing in the woods, Hetty scurries away, and Arthur, with deliberate and elaborate carelessness, saunters forward to Adam. He thought, “After all, Adam was the best who could have happened to see him and Hetty together: he was a sensible fellow and would not bable about it to other people. Arthur felt confident that he could laugh the thing off, and explain it away.”
Grasp of Psychological Essentials: Arthur Donnithorne
George Eliot’s grip on psychological essentials enables her to draw complex characters much better than her predecessors. Writes David Cecil in this connection, “Drawing from the inside out, starting with the central principle of the character, she is able to show how it reveals itself in the most apparently inconsistent manifestations, can give to the most varied coloured surface of character that prevalent tone which marks it as the expression of one personality. Her characters always hang together, are of a piece, their defects are the defects of their virtues. We are not surprised that a man, so anxious for the good opinion of others as Arthur Donnithorne, should selfishly seduce Hetty, because we realise that the controlling force in his character is the desire for immediate enjoyment; so that his wish to sun himself in the pleasant warmth of other people’s liking goes alongwith his inability not to yield to the immediate pleasure of Hetty’s embraces. George Eliot can follow the windings of motive through the most tortuous labyrinths, for firmly grasped in her hand is always the central clue.”
Mixed States of Mind: Triumph of Temptation
Her power of describing mixed characters extends to mixed states of mind. Indeed, the field of her most characteristic triumphs is the moral battlefield. Her eagle eye can penetrate through all the shock and the smoke of struggle, to elucidate the position of the forces concerned, and reveal the trend of their action. We are shown exactly how the forces of temptation deploy themselves for the attack, how those of conscience rally to resistance, the ins and outs of their conflict, how inevitably, in the given circumstances one or the other triumphs. She is particularly good at showing how temptation triumphs. “No other English novelist has given as so vivid a picture of the process of moral defeat, as Donnithorne’s gradual yielding to his passion for Hetty. With an inexorable clearness she repeals how temptation insinuates itself into the mind, how it retreats at the first suspicious movement of conscience how it comes back disguised, and how, if once more vanquished, it will sham death only to arise suddenly and sweep its victim away on a single irresistible gust of desire when he is off his guard.”
Portrait of Moral Chaos
With equal insight she can portray the moral chaos that takes possession of the mind after wrong has been done. “She exposes all the complex writhings of a spirit striving to make itself at ease on the bed of a disturbed conscience, the desperate casuistry by which it attempts to justify itself, its inexhaustible ingenuity in blinding itself to unpleasant facts, the baseless hopes it conjures up for its comfort; she can distinguish precisely how different an act looks before it is done, shrouded in the softening darkness of the secret heart, and after, exposed in all its naked ugliness to the harsh daylight of other peoples judgment.” The guilt ridden conscience of Arthur Donnithorne is analysed in this way and we are shown the scorpions that sting him and prevent sleep, “With rare penetration and insight, George Eliot isolates and detects the various warring elements in Arthur’s mind, his genuine compunction, his horror of being disapproved, of his instinctive resentment at disapproval, however justifiable, his inextinguishable hope that things will come right in the end, his irrational conviction that with him, at least, things always must come right. One grows quite uncomfortable as one watches so merciless, so delicate an exposure of human weakness. The truth it embodies is universal. In exposing Arthur Donnithorne, she also exposes her reader.”
Arthur: Analysis of Semi-Conscious Motives
She lays bare the conscious as well as semi-conscious motives of Arthur. We see the workings of his innermost mind: He had been awake an hour, and could rest in bed no longer. In bed our yesterdays are too oppressive: if a man can only get up, though it be but to whistle or to smoke, he has a present which offers some resistance to the past, sensations which assert themselves against tyrannous memories. For with Arthur’s sensitiveness to opinion, the loss of Adam’s respect was a shock to his self-contentment which suffused his imagination with the sense that he had sunk in all eyes; as a sudden shock of fear from some real peril makes a nervous woman afraid even to step, because all her perceptions are suffused with a sense of danger……Arthur would so gladly have persuaded himself that he had done no harm. And if no one had told him the contrary, he would have persuaded himself so much better. “Nemesis can seldom forge a sword for herself out of our consciences—out of suffering we feel in the suffering we may have caused; there is rarely metal enough there to make an effective weapon. Our moral sense learns the manners of good society, and smiles when others smile: but when some rude person gives rough names to our actions, she is apt to take part against us: And so it was with Arthur. Adam’s judgment of him, his grating words, disturbed his self-soothing arguments.”
It is George Eliot’s psychological insight into the springs of human action, the subtle analysis of character and motive accompanying the external action, which gives her peculiar and individual place among the Victorian novelists. She is one of them and yet how very different and original. She is the first of the great modern novelists who have a high conception of their art, who regard the novel as a serious art form, and who are given to the probing of the human psyche, to the subtle analysis of the subconscious and even the unconscious.